Iris Murdoch World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4902

In her essay “Against Dryness,” Murdoch writes:The connection between art and the moral life has languished because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself. . . . [W]hat we require is a renewed sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life...

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In her essay “Against Dryness,” Murdoch writes:The connection between art and the moral life has languished because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself. . . . [W]hat we require is a renewed sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life and the opacity of persons.

In novel after novel, Murdoch addresses the problems of living a moral life, as her characters strive painfully to seek the Good. In a series of Gifford lectures delivered in 1982, Murdoch speaks about Plato’s allegory of the cave and the sun. The soul, traveling through four stages of enlightenment, continues to discover that what it considered realities are only shadows of something else. Thus moral change may be considered a progressive discarding of the false “good,” of images and shadows that are eventually recognized as false.

Central to this concept of moral change is the idea of Eros, or love. Sexual love and transformed sexual energy are a major motif in Murdoch’s novels, particularly in A Severed Head (1961), The Italian Girl (1964), The Black Prince, and The Sea, the Sea. In novel after novel, love both blinds the characters and allows them a clearer vision of reality in a typical Murdoch dichotomy. Maturity is often achieved by falling “out of love.” No other writer does a better job of evoking the changed consciousness that love brings.

Yet for all of their philosophical underpinnings, her novels provide a brilliant and satisfying entertainment. Murdoch said that she sought to write in the realistic tradition of nineteenth century English and European fiction. Prominent features of her plots include such time-honored novelistic devices as unexpected meetings, lost or found letters, forgotten keys, coincidence, and accidents. All of them testify to the role of chance in human affairs.

Although critics have carped that her novels are “over plotted” and uneven, she has a gift for intricate double plots. This dual patterning is one of the characteristics of her fiction; the characters are frequently paired with one another symmetrically, such as the pairing of Martin and Antonia with Anderson and his half sister, Honor Klein, in A Severed Head. The action itself is often repeated with slight variations, as in The Bell (1958) and A Word Child (1975).

As to the characters themselves, Murdoch tends to create upper-middle-class worlds peopled with certain types who reappear from novel to novel. Young, cunning women who are fierce in their pursuit of older men are often present. The older men are usually self-centered charmers who are weak, self-indulgent, and skeptical. They are often found out as adulterers and practice petty deceptions as long as they can. Her male characters are not of the conventionally firm, masculine kind, but they usually change during the novel.

Some of the most interesting of Murdoch’s creations are power figures, whom Murdoch once called “alien gods.” These are frequently men (although Honor Klein, in A Severed Head, falls into this category), and they are mostly Middle European refugees—rootless, suffering types. Sometimes Jewish, these figures are often demonic in their effects on others; when they do not function this way, they are simply mute, passive sufferers. Murdoch always keeps such characters at a distance, and the reader is never afforded an inner view of their nature.

The women in her novels cannot be classified as easily, although the vague, artsy “mistress” type does appear often. Murdoch’s women are difficult to discuss because of their great variety. Although critics have remarked that her characters sometimes become subordinated to the plot of the story, at her best she lavishes a kind of love on the persons she depicts.

Murdoch had an intense, visual imagination and could describe people, places, houses, clothes, and even dogs with a luminous accuracy. London is a real presence in her novels; this tendency is most apparent in her first novel, Under the Net, in Bruno’s Dream (1969), and in A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970). Because of her precise depiction of the city, including almost daily reports of the weather, she is considered the most important heir to the tradition of Charles Dickens.

One of Murdoch’s most distinctive traits as a novelist might be called “transcendent realism.” Her novels open with all the accepted realistic conventions of character, setting, and plot. Then within a set scene something outrageous, quirky, or fantastic will happen that seems far removed from the premise of the novel. Much of the humor of her novels flows from her characters’ very British reserve in the face of the wildly fantastic. This intrusion of the unexpected is, for Murdoch, a testament to the richness of reality.

Murdoch’s intense descriptive powers are not limited to the visual. She also excels at evoking the inner world of fantasies, projections, demonic illusions, and altered consciousness. She resembles no other contemporary novelist, partly because she is a religious fabulist whose fables are submerged in the conventional techniques of the novel.

Under the Net

First published: 1954

Type of work: Novel

The protagonist, Jake Donaghue, is asked to leave his residence and sets out on a lonely and confused journey, seeking love as well as free digs among his old friends in London’s City district and Paris’s Left Bank.

Murdoch’s first novel and the only one that is clearly derivative, Under the Net was strongly influenced by French writer Raymond Queneau, to whom the book is dedicated, and author Samuel Beckett. The book is a combination of a picaresque novel and a philosophical enquiry. Although the work is not as tightly plotted and lacks the integration of her later novels, Under the Net exhibits many of the qualities that would become hallmarks of her style: a fast-moving story; precise, detailed descriptions of settings; strong use of contingency as a plot device; and philosophical deliberations about truth, love, and freedom.

Jake is a failed writer who earns money translating the works of a French writer. He is in love with Anna Quentin, a singer, and enormously influenced by Hugo Belfounder, a successful entrepreneur whom he meets at a clinic. There, they have serious dialogues about art and truth. When Jake is banished from his rooms, he tries to get in touch with Anna again. Through intricate and sometimes hilarious plot twists, he finds that Anna is in love with Hugo, and that Anna’s actress sister, Sadie, is in love with Jake. To complicate the plot further, Hugo is in love with Sadie.

This cast of main characters is rounded out by several minor characters who exhibit Murdoch’s remarkable inventiveness: Finn, Jake’s man Friday who eventually returns to Ireland; Lefty, a socialist organizer to whom Hugo donates a great deal of his wealth; Sammy Starfield, a self-made millionaire who used to be a bookie; and Mrs. Tinkham, the keeper of a dusty, dirty, corner newspaper shop where she sells ice cream, reads the merchandise, and offers a haven to drifters like Jake.

Jake starts out at the beginning of the book seeing everyone in relationship to himself. At the end, however, when he accepts that Anna will never be his, Anna exists for him as a separate being for the first time. He realizes that this, too, is a guise of love.

A Severed Head

First published: 1961

Type of work: Novel

A vain wine merchant’s wife leaves him for his best friend, after which he learns some hard truths about his own capacity for self-delusion.

A Severed Head, Murdoch’s fifth published novel, is considered the best of the comedies of manners that Murdoch was writing early in her career. The cast of characters is largely restricted to the wealthy bourgeoisie; the decadent atmosphere is evoked by careful descriptions of richly decorated rooms, heavy drinking, and romantic misconceptions. The characters suffer frequently from languor and fatigue. Yet the structure of A Severed Head is Murdoch’s own: A bumbling male protagonist lives through a series of events that destroy his complacency and teach him to recognize the separate reality of other people.

The protagonist, Martin Lynch-Gibbon, tells his own story. He is happily married to Antonia, a society beauty five years his senior. Martin’s easy complacency is shattered when Antonia declares she is going to leave him for her psychiatrist, Palmer Anderson, who is Martin’s close friend. Although Martin is repelled by Antonia’s suggestion that he remain rational about the affair, he allows Antonia to live with Palmer and remains friendly with them both.

Unknown to both Antonia and Palmer, Martin has long kept a mistress, a young teacher named Georgia Hands. Although Martin professes to love Georgia, he has denied her the trip to New York on which her heart was set and encouraged her to have an abortion. After Antonia’s revelation, Martin finds that he is extremely ambivalent toward his own mistress.

Events suddenly become more complicated when Antonia asks Martin to pick up Palmer’s half sister at Liverpool Station. In a scene both comic and portentous, Martin meets the dour Honor Klein on a rainy night that smells like “sulphur and brimstone.” As they drive toward Palmer’s house in dense fog, Martin almost collides with a truck. When Honor hangs her head out the window to see, Martin first apprehends her as a headless body.

Honor Klein falls into a category of the power figures that act as agents of change in many of Murdoch’s novels. Loved and feared like the gods they mimic, they engender complications that, when finally resolved, leave other characters in closer touch with reality. Yet Honor is no caricature; she is entirely individualized. She is Jewish and has dark, almost oriental eyes and a cap of shiny black hair. She has devoted her life to the study of anthropology. Other characters recognize that she has mystical knowledge, perhaps gained from breaking the taboo of incest. She is the “severed head” of the title, an object of awe and veneration.

Although Murdoch carefully forecasts Honor’s strange relationship with her half brother, Palmer, Martin is too preoccupied with his own entanglements to notice. Indeed, he notices so little about Honor that when he discovers he has fallen desperately in love with her, he imagines that she is free of other ties and may even be a virgin. When he arrives without warning at her house in Cambridge to declare his love, he finds her in bed with Palmer. At this crucial point in the book, Martin realizes that his perception of Honor has been based on his own fantasies and has nothing to do with the real person.

The balance of power now shifts to Martin, since he knows Palmer’s guilty secret. Antonia, sensing a change in Palmer, returns to Martin, who is still hopelessly in love with Honor. A short time later he is confronted with another confession: Antonia has had a long-standing love affair with Martin’s brother Alexander. This final revelation shakes Martin to the core. He now realizes that his whole adult life has been based on self-delusion and an inability to see the truth about anyone else. Although he suffers great emotional pain, he also feels more sure about himself. Martin has grown up.

The end of A Severed Head is a fine example of Murdoch’s device of pairing. In the last scene, Honor leaves Palmer and returns to Martin to accept his love or at least to take a chance on it. Georgia Hands, once Martin’s mistress, goes to the United States with Palmer Anderson; Antonia is traveling in Europe with Martin’s brother.

The theme of the novel is love, power, and the relationship between them. The plot resembles Restoration comedy not only for its series of appalling revelations but also in the way it reveals love as war and power play.

A Severed Head was adapted as a play produced in London in 1963, the script a collaboration between Murdoch and the popular British novelist and playwright J. B. Priestley. The play proved so popular that it was later made into a film in 1971.

The Nice and the Good

First published: 1968

Type of work: Novel

An investigation into a suicide at London’s Whitehall affects the life of a group of friends on the Dorset coast.

In an interview, Murdoch referred to The Nice and the Good as the most open novel she had yet written. This “openness” appears to refer to a looser plot structure and to more separate and free characters. The plot is really two equal subplots; one line follows John Ducane’s investigation of an apparent suicide in the government offices at Whitehall in London, while the other follows a group of friends on a Dorset estate named Trescombe as they struggle toward an ideal of love.

Connecting the London plot and the Dorset plot are Octavian Gray, John Ducane’s superior at Whitehall, who owns Trescombe and spends much of his time there with his wife Kate, and Ducane himself, who lives in London but is a frequent guest at Trescombe. Ducane is in love with Kate Gray, who encourages him yet confesses every secret kiss to Octavian.

In addition to Kate and Octavian, some of the characters at Trescombe are Mary Clothier, a widow; Mary’s fifteen-year-old son, Pierce; Paula Biranne, a divorcé and schoolteacher; Paula’s nine-year-old twins, who have “great souls”; Barbara, spoiled teenage daughter of Kate and Octavian; and Willie Kost, a refugee who has survived the Dachau concentration camp.

In his London life, Ducane is involved with Jessica Bird, his occasional mistress, and manipulated by Gavin Fivey, his manservant. In the course of his investigation, Ducane also becomes entangled with Richard Biranne, Paula’s former husband; Peter McGrath, office messenger and blackmailer; and McGrath’s wife Judy, a beautiful woman of dubious character.

Ducane, a legal adviser, is one of Murdoch’s flawed, culpable male protagonists, smart and successful but smug, who needs to think of himself as a good man. In addition to his investigation of the suicide and his quest for “the good,” Ducane acts as confessor and adviser to the large group of “free” characters who live at Trescombe as friends of the Grays.

Much of the book is seen through Ducane’s eyes. He is elevated to godlike status by many of those with whom he comes in contact, largely because of his ability to elicit confidence. Yet his predicament is complicated by a lack of personal decisiveness. He is appalled by his own muddled involvement with Jessica Bird and Kate Gray and is strongly attracted to Judy McGrath. Eventually, the surrounding characters come to perceive him as an ordinary mortal after all.

There are many motifs in the book, among them roundness. On the beach Ducane muses that “Everything in Dorset is round. . . . The little hills are round, these bricks are round . . . the crowns of the acacia, the pebbles on the beach. . . . Everything in Dorset is just the right size. This thought gave him immense satisfaction and sent out through the other layers and compartments of his mind a stream of warm and soothing particles.” Octavian is described as round, and the cat, which is a striped cube, has the singular talent of being able to make its hair stand on end and become a fluffy sphere. Roundness indicates contentment, fulfillment, and proper proportion.

The theme of the novel is the search for a perfect proportion of the nice and the good in order to attain a rounded life, “nice” representing the claims of the body and “good” representing the spirit. Each of the adult characters except Kate and Octavian have guilty pasts because of the harm they have done to others. In every case, the harm was done by a failure of love. Mary Clothier regrets the death of her husband, who rushed out of the house after a marital spat and was hit by a car. Paula Biranne wrestles with a broken marriage and a love affair that led to her husband’s mutilating her lover. Willy let two people die in Dachau through inattention.

Kate and Octavian live entirely in the flesh and are the hedonists of the group. Not only are they happy, but they make the people around them happy, too. This depiction does not diminish the distance between pleasure and virtue; it only suggests that life is not as simple as an allegory.

The ending of The Nice and the Good involves a carnival of reconciliation that resembles Shakespearean romantic comedy. When Ducane unravels the tangled causes of suicide and discovers that Richard Biranne was involved, he decides to dispense “private justice” and uses his knowledge to reconcile Biranne with his former wife, Paula. Ducane and Mary fall in love, teenaged Barbara returns Pierce’s affection, Jessica pursues Willy, and even the dog and cat finally share a basket. As John learns when he and Mary discover they are in love, “it is the nature of love to discern good, and the best love is, in some part at any rate, a love of what is good.”

The Black Prince

First published: 1973

Type of work: Novel

A fifty-eight-year-old author develops a ruinous obsession for the twenty-year-old daughter of his best friend and protégé.

In The Black Prince, Murdoch returns to her preoccupation with love, exposing the sometimes horrifying face of the love god, Eros. Although Bradley Pearson, a novelist and the narrator, describes this work as “a simple love story,” it is really his competitive friendship with successful writer Arnold Baffin that creates the tension at the core of the work.

What distinguishes Bradley from others in the novel is his sense of guilt and his prudishness. He insists that morality is a simple affair and is shown trying to live by these simplicities. Bradley is wrapped in self-righteousness, although it does not prevent him from acting badly. His friend Arnold, on the other hand, accepts life as it is and does not try to be perfect. He enjoys the self-satisfaction that Murdoch often uses as a second-best virtue.

The tension between the two men arises from their respective erotic entanglements and their different attitudes toward art. Aesthetically, Bradley believes in concentration and patience to achieve high art; he has published only three books. He believes that art is connected to the quest for a good life. Arnold writes prolifically, sells very well, and considers his work fun. Their erotic life echoes their professional rivalry. Bradley has a very brief liaison with Rachel, Arnold’s wife, then later becomes involved with Arnold’s daughter Julian. At the same time, Arnold is engaged in an affair with Christian, Bradley’s former wife. Yet both men are doomed. At the end of the novel, Arnold is murdered by his wife, and Bradley, who is wrongly convicted of the crime, dies of cancer in prison.

The erotic and aesthetic themes mesh in Bradley’s belief that a great love will induce him to produce a great book. His obsessive love for young Julian results in his writing The Black Prince, which he claims is the fruit of his passion. Readers must judge for themselves whether Eros has fertilized Bradley’s muse. This realistic love story, however, is not all the reader has to consider. There are two forewords and six afterwords added to the narration; four of the afterwords are by characters involved in the story who feel the need to vindicate themselves and correct Bradley’s narration. The enclosure of Bradley’s tale by forewords and afterwords forces the reader into a world of multiple, sometimes conflicting, points of view. The resulting irony is the primary literary device in the framed structure of The Black Prince, yet the multiple viewpoints reveal more than Bradley’s ironic delusion. Irony is used to expose the ultimate duality of the human condition—the highly developed comic sense alongside the inevitable pain of human existence.

The experience of a violent passion is described in great detail in The Black Prince—the various phases of the passion, the transformation of the lover in the eyes of his friends, the delusions caused by the passion, and the moral consequences of such obsession. Although these moral consequences are serious enough to cause a suicide and a violent murder, one of the richest ironies is that the passion does result in a work of literary art.

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603) provides a touchstone for Murdoch in The Black Prince, but it, too, is touched with irony. Bradley and Julian’s first innocent meeting is a discussion of the meaning of Hamlet. Quotations and allusions to the play run throughout the novel. Bradley’s erotic energies are suddenly focused on Julian when she mentions that she once played Hamlet, thus identifying herself with the play’s ambiguities. After several failures, Bradley manages to make love to Julian when she is fancifully dressed as Hamlet. Julian’s interest in the play forces Bradley to think it through again, and in so doing he understands the pain of tragedy for the first time. Later, on his deathbed, Bradley realizes that his affair with Julian was not tragic after all, but ironic.

The black prince of the novel’s title clearly refers to Hamlet and to Julian when she is dressed as Hamlet; “B. P.” are Bradley Pearson’s initials, as well. Yet there is evidence that the black Eros, a dark god who is constantly evoked in the book, is the real black prince. As Bradley sees it, the catalyst that the talented creator needs, the god whom he awaits, is the mythic Eros. Eros rules not only the erotic life of all human beings but also the creation of art. Bradley thinks that after he encounters this god he will create a great work. Yet as the plot progresses it becomes apparent that Bradley completely misunderstands this god.

Many of Murdoch’s readers consider The Black Prince her finest work. In the way it challenges its own conclusions in the afterwords and speculates on what fiction is, it is Murdoch’s greatest departure from the realistic nineteenth century novel.

A Word Child

First published: 1975

Type of work: Novel

Hilary Burde, the narrator, attempts to atone for a horrible mistake in his past but only repeats it.

A Word Child is a stylish novel in the gothic tradition of the nineteenth century that develops a brooding atmosphere of gloom and deals with aberrant psychological states. Murdoch’s use of gothic conventions is an exploration of the tensions between the interior world of the mind and the outer world of reality. The narrator of A Word Child, Hilary Burde, haunts himself with fantasies of power, possession, and betrayal. The narrative is divided into the days of a diary, reflecting Hilary’s rigid approach to life.

Hilary is a prostitute’s child who starts life as an illiterate orphan. After a schoolmaster discovers his linguistic gifts, he achieves a certain success at the University of Oxford under the patronage of don Gunnar Jopling and his wife, Anne, who also show unusual kindness to Hilary’s half sister, Crystal. Hilary is obsessed with Crystal and, although he loves her, wields absolute power over her life. She is indeed a Crystal Burde in a less than gilded cage.

The relationship between Hilary and Gunnar is central to the narrative. While teaching at Oxford, Hilary falls in love with Anne Jopling and tries to persuade her to leave Gunnar and her young son. Anne, panicked by her recent discovery that she is again pregnant, provokes Hilary to crash his car in an accident that proves fatal to her. The Oxford careers of both men are ruined, and after a year of debilitation Hilary goes on to a dull civil service job in London.

After twenty years of self-inflicted suffering (and inflicting a certain discomfort on all who know him), Hilary finds that Gunnar has just been installed as head of the government department in which Hilary works. An unexpected chance for expiation of guilt arrives when Gunnar’s second wife, Lady Kitty, approaches Hilary and tells him of Gunnar’s similar preoccupation with the past. She suggests the two men get together to resolve their obsessions. Hilary, again infatuated, continues to meet Lady Kitty secretly. Murdoch skillfully distinguishes here between Hilary’s fantasies about Lady Kitty’s goodness and the reader’s ability to see the foolishness of her behavior, particularly her suggestion that Hilary should provide her with a child. Gunnar surprises Hilary and Lady Kitty in the midst of a secret meeting, and in the scuffle that follows Lady Kitty is knocked off a jetty into the Thames River and dies of overexposure. Hilary’s struggle to atone for the death of Gunnar’s first wife, Anne, leads instead to a doubling of his guilt.

Yet Hilary, despite the fact that he has nothing to show for his ordeal, has a changed perception of his own role in the order of things. At the end of the novel he realizes that a large part of everyone’s life is ruled by chance. He is finally able to recognize that his involvement with the Joplings is not a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense, since tragedy imposes too great an importance on his own part in the universe. Chance, rather than will, rules people’s lives. With this realization comes a hint that Hilary will, perhaps sometime in the future, be able to forgive himself.

A Word Child is a fine example of Murdoch’s gift for intricate double plots, as well as an exploration of her concern with moral freedom.

The Sea, the Sea

First published: 1978

Type of work: Novel

Charles Arrowby, a famous director and playwright, has retired in his sixties to a remote seaside house where his goal is to enlarge his spirit in the pursuit of truth and goodness.

Told in the form of a diary/memoir, Charles first records his impressions of his new home and then reviews his past life largely through memories of a series of love affairs with various actresses. He also delineates his relationship with his one living relative, his cousin James, a soldier and a Buddhist, by whom Charles always felt overshadowed. Charles receives a friendly letter from James when he is ensconced in his new home, Shruff End, indicating James’s desire to get together. Yet more important than all of these affairs is a schoolboy romance he had with a girl named Mary Hartley Smith, which was unconsummated yet lives in his mind as the most important relationship he ever had. Before Charles was twenty, Hartley (as he calls her) disappeared from Charles’s life and married another man. Charles believes he has never married because Hartley was the only pure, true love he ever encountered.

Although Charles does not get along with the townspeople and in fact becomes a figure of fun to them, he is isolated for only a short time before he is deluged with a series of visits from former friends, rivals, and lovers, which lead to several dramatic scenes and mysterious phenomena. These tangled relationships, however, leave Charles indifferent once he discovers that Hartley, now called by her married name Mary Fitch, lives with her husband, Ben, in the nearby village. His initial encounter with Mary rekindles his desire for her, although Mary is now about sixty years old, wrinkled, and faded. Overwhelmed by what he considers his consecrated, holy love for Mary, he engages in a series of ploys and ambushes to win back her heart. He convinces himself she is unhappily married and, with the help of her adopted son, Titus, he kidnaps her and keeps her locked in an upstairs room in his house, thereby reducing her to a frightened, whimpering, helpless woman.

Charles’s assembled cousin, friends, and old lovers understand the absurdity of the situation while Charles cannot, and they convince Charles to let Mary return to her home and her husband. Yet this is not a return to reality for Charles, for he develops an intense hatred for Ben Fitch. Charles believes that Ben is trying to kill him by pushing him into a blowhole below his property, where the waves are lethal. To complicate the mystery, Charles is pulled from the blowhole in what seems to him a strange miracle. Although these plotlines are tied up by the end of the novel, Charles does not give up his fantasy of reuniting with Mary until, snooping around her house one day, he is surprised by a neighbor who shows him a happy postcard that Mary sent from Australia, where she and Ben have suddenly immigrated.

Told in the first person by Charles, the novel depends upon the quality of the narrative voice, and Charles writes grandly most of the time. Murdoch is a stylist who never disappoints, and she cleverly has Charles reveal himself as a supreme egotist, blinded by self-delusion, in his own voice. One of the central ironies of the novel is that although the reader and the characters surrounding Charles see through him, he is lacking in self-knowledge despite his endless self-examination. Another of the ironies is that of all the characters, only Mary and Charles’s cousin James are really “good” people, a goal Charles set for himself on the way to becoming a monster.

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