Iris Murdoch Murdoch, Iris (Vol. 2)

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Murdoch, Iris (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Murdoch, Iris 1919–

An Irish-born English novelist, Miss Murdoch is the author of A Severed Head, The Bell, and Under the Net. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)

Each of Iris Murdoch's first four novels has, as its title, an image of the kind of illusion its characters face. The first novel, Under the Net (1954), tells the story of Jake Donaghue's wanderings about Bohemian London and Paris as he attempts to find or construct a satisfactory way of life. But planned ways of life are nets, traps, no matter how carefully or rationally the net is woven, and Jake discovers that none of these narrow paths really works. The nets in the novel range from logical-positivist philosophy and left-wing politics through miming theatricals to film scripts and sophisticated blackmail. In the second novel, The Flight from the Enchanter (1956), Miss Murdoch deals with a different sort of illusion. All the characters are under spells, enchantments, held in a kind of emotional captivity by another person or force. The principal agent of enchantment, an ephemeral cosmopolite named Mischa Fox, exercises a spell over a number of the other characters in the novel; yet he feels no responsibility for the effects of the spells he exercises and the spells provide no real meaning or satisfaction for the characters caught in them. Emotional enchantment works no better than the weaving of conscious and rational nets, and the characters are eventually forced, by their own natures, to flee enchantment as they must unravel nets. The third novel is called The Sandcastle (1957). The title is emblematic of the love affair a married, fortyish schoolteacher tries to build with a young artist named Rain. But the affair cannot last; it is a castle of sand…. The elements of the affair—the grains of sand and the moisture—exist, but the sand is either too dry or too wet. Human beings are unable to control the moisture, to build a lasting shape out of the illusory dream, and the castle either crumbles or is washed away.

In Miss Murdoch's fourth novel, The Bell (1958), a group of people in a lay religious community attempt to place a bell on the tower of a nearby abbey. The bell is a postulant, a means of entering the religious life for each of the people involved. But the bridge leading to the abbey has been tampered with and, in its journey, the bell topples into the lake. The bell itself, the effort of human beings to construct and particularize their own means of salvation, is undermined by human action, emotion, and behavior…. The tradition of the past is meaningful only for antiquarians, is removed from the central issues of experience, while the contemporary bell is another illusion, the image of another unsuccessful human attempt.

Most of the images in Miss Murdoch's titles are relative…. Only in The Sandcastle is the title an image for a single illusion or relationship. In the other novels, each of the characters fabricates himself into an illusion expressed in terms related to those of other illusions. But the illusions are really different for different people…. Each of the novels, however, does collect the various illusions under a general set of terms, terms that are somewhat different for each of the four novels. Each novel gives a symbolic identity to the characters' desire to manufacture form and direction out of their disparate experience. And, in each novel, this attempt on the part of the characters to manufacture form and direction is unsuccessful; the general structure suggested by the title cannot meaningfully operate in the fragmented, relative world….

[Detailed], structural description is by no means unusual in Miss Murdoch's novels. Man's plans to build, man's plans to achieve something are frequently given exhaustively thorough and precise treatment with all the engineering and the architecture involved fully described…. Human achievement, human construction, never really does what it has been designed to do. Although characters change...

(The entire section is 3,267 words.)