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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 during the course of the novels, they seldom can carry through a deliberate plan or a conscious intention. The conscious construction is all, like the masks for the mimers in Anna's prop room in Under the Net, a form, a face, a pose that does not represent either a means of salvation or the essential feelings of the central figures in the novel.
Man's interest in structure is, in Miss Murdoch's novels, part of his interest in precision, in defining himself and his world. Almost all the characters in the novels seek some form of definition, some means of coherently explaining what they are….
All the novels include one or more God-images, characters of wisdom and insight to whom the other characters turn for advice…. But the God-figure never really works in the structure of the novel. The advice turns out wrong or the God-figure never meant at all what the character thought he meant or the God-figure himself is equally perplexed….
Iris Murdoch's images frequently place the formless against the precise, the fish or the woods against the architecturally devised or the man-made cage. And when the man-made image, the reflection of the human attempt to impose order on its world, is made into a generalization or a system, that system fails to operate for human beings, becomes a rational or emotional illusion. Man, in Iris Murdoch's world, is part creature, part rational and conscious being. He has a strong need for the definition, the precision, his conscious nature can provide. But he also needs to limit the definition, to recognize that elaborate definitions, generalizations, make splendid targets for the shafts of the creature, the separate and particular and often unconscious situations that make up human experience.
Throughout Miss Murdoch's first four novels, the creature is given form primarily through its opposition to other more precise, elaborate, or bizarre forms. The creature is often articulated by what it is not, by the nets or traps or enchantments it avoids….
In Miss Murdoch's first four novels the God-figure was set against the idea of the simple, spontaneous, unstructured creature. The God-figure, connected to all man's machinations to achieve some sort of structure and permanence, was mocked, was demolished comically as a futile though understandable fabrication. But the idea of the creature, the formless center of the human being, remained inviolate. A Severed Head makes even that possibility ludicrous. The God-figure, less systematic, crystallizes and implicitly satirizes the idea of the creature. The creature is, after all, the id, and Miss Murdoch, in inflating the id to a mock God-figure and endowing it with samurai swords, relentless force, and an excessive knowledge of human relationships, mocks the very faith in the creature that pervaded her earlier novels….
Miss Murdoch has, in this novel, added another dimension to her depiction of contemporary society. Her rich, imagistic, highly suggestive prose still mocks man's effort to formulate precise codes, man's ratiocinative pretense. But what was, in the earlier novels, simply value as antithesis is, in A Severed Head, given its own imagistic and bizarre presence, and mocked in turn.
James Gindin, "Images of Illusion in the Work of Iris Murdoch," in his Postwar British Fiction: New Accents and Attitudes (originally published by the University of California Press; reprinted by permission of The Regents of the University of California), University of California Press, 1962, pp. 178-95.
The Time of the Angele is, for me, a very welcome return to form of Iris Murdoch. Her recent books I have found more or less unreadable, with their arch whimsicalities and "Gothick" self-parodying; this new one has, in a sense, all the ingredients as before, but somehow or other the cooking has come right again. There are a crazy clergyman, his Negro maidservant and mistress, and his two daughters, also crazy (one of them believes herself to be his niece); they are all cooped up in the dark, bomb-damaged rectory of a London parish whose Wren-built church is also bomb-wrecked. Various would-be do-gooders fuss and manoeuvre outside the house, endeavouring in their ways to "save" the mad Rector and his mad girls. Incest is much to the fore; death, guilt and religion are heavily involved. It is no doubt a parable of sorts; it is saying, perhaps, that what is left of Christianity is either a ruined organization, a still potent but crazy superstition, or a ridiculously superficial philanthropy. But I may well be misinterpreting, and I don't think it matters. The imaginative creation holds firm, and the people, in the world Miss Murdoch has chosen to put them in, are entirely alive.
Patrick Cruttwell, in Hudson Review, Spring, 1967, p. 176.
Miss Murdoch is, in Waugh's phrase, a "good trier." (She would please some readers more if she were not always writing the novel she does not yet know how to write.) Her failures as much as her successes reflect a mind determined to find imaginative equivalents for a changing view of reality and wish…. The novel, in her words, gets its effect by blurring. While the abstract grounds for confidence in her as a first-class writer rest on an original play of forces blurred in behalf of "the absurd irreducible uniqueness of people and their relations to each other," what forces combined with what blurring has been her concrete problem….
G. S. Fraser has noted her skill at giving solidity to the normal. But normalcy is more than solid: it is the ultimate test of the unsupported will. Yet this norm, for which the personality is willing to fight so hard, seems in itself unattractive—amounts at bottom to an active, resentful, self-distrusting directionlessness. The characters who invoke this impulse against unconventional efforts to deal with defeat see in the attempted rebirths at best absurdity and at worst danger to sanity. The skill Miss Murdoch has developed in giving life to the struggle between these two claims is her own greatest claim to significance….
[The] ordinary miracle in Miss Murdoch's novels is how far she can get without characters. Creating memorable characters has usually depended in the past on looking at them from the outside, as completed objects, or looking at them so intensively from moment to moment that a sense of unity emerges. But Miss Murdoch's idea of the novel is primarily people-in-motion-toward-a-resolution. Dora alone in The Bell gives the sense of being a consciousness, a unit, and an actor. But consciousness and acting mingle so closely in her—she shares her creator's enthusiasm for having something happen—that she provides the dynamic for the novel….
One talent above all others has enabled Miss Murdoch to keep on growing. She distrusts her own fantasies. Whatever part continental thought and fiction may have played in suggesting first questions to ask, her later novels have grown directly from their predecessors. Once she has defined a problem and given her answer to it, she then asks, what is wrong with that answer? What new problems does it give rise to? As she has herself approached middle age—"young" novelists almost always are middle-aged by the time critics take them up—she has refused to harden into fixed positions for meeting all events. She has not tried to continue the angry surprise of youth at the way the world goes, to judge all adult experience by the willful hopes of adolescence, or to degrade actual life by quasi-religious ideals—though every one of these elements appears at some time or another in her work. Her novels move forward by questioning both her own hard-headedness and her contemporaries' softness….
For Miss Murdoch, energy's first choices always go wrong. They are too ignorantly egocentric, too unaware of other people and forces. Restlessness, unashamedly and unquestionably existing, strives simultaneously to fulfil itself and "to be kindlier than we are." It has trouble finding objectives that are wholly satisfying or wholly practical—yet in its nature asks nothing less. And no stopping place ever lasts. Miss Murdoch explores the tensions, disappointments, and pleasures of a search that cannot end and often does not want to go on. For her, more than the technique of the novel blurs the will.
James Hall, "Blurring the Will: Iris Murdoch," in his The Lunatic Giant in the Drawing Room: The British and American Novel Since 1930, Indiana University Press, 1968, pp. 181-212.
In addition to themes from Job and Plato, a central idea in ["A Fairly Honourable Defeat"] is taken from Simone Weil, a modern French philosopher who influenced a number of Miss Murdoch's earlier works. Evil, in Simone Weil's thought, spreads and flourishes in the world as it is passed on from victim to victim in the form of suffering. A victim of evil finds relief from his own suffering most easily by causing suffering in others; in this manner a single evil act may pass from person to person in an endless chain….
The chain of evil can be broken only by one who is willing to sacrifice himself in Christlike fashion, to absorb the evil and suffering into himself without yielding to the temptation of causing others to suffer….
The gloominess of the philosophical theme of the novel is offset by a multitude of comic incidents which here, as in her earlier fiction, give Miss Murdoch a chance to display her inventive skill….
["A Fairly Honourable Defeat"] is … not an unqualified success. Melodramatic incidents and transparent stratagems, useful as they are as indicators of the novel's philosophical aspects, strain the reader's belief. Miss Murdoch has sacrificed novelistic virtues to emphasize the philosophical theme, like a scribe who erases an earlier inscription on a palimpsest in favor of a seemingly more important text. The two levels of Miss Murdoch's book are not well integrated, and the personalities of her characters grow blurry as the ideas they represent come into focus. In the end, instead of being deeply moved by the book she has written, one is left with a feeling of admiration for the brilliance and complexity of Miss Murdoch's intellect.
Rubin Rabinovitz, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 8, 1970, pp. 1, 28.
In 'Against Dryness' Miss Murdoch insisted on the need to respect the 'opacity of persons', by which she means their impenetrability and unpredictability, their resistance to any form of appropriation, whether political or aesthetic. But the characters of her own fiction are opaque in ways that suggest primarily the limitations of their creator. Although Miss Murdoch has some striking literary gifts, she is largely lacking in the essential novelistic ones—in her own formulation—of insight, sympathy and true imagination (as opposed to an endlessly ramifying fancy). In the world, or worlds, of Miss Murdoch's novels, characters, often of considerable complexity, are presented to us and can, indeed, be made to look and sound very real; but they can relate to each other only by some form of arbitrary sexual encounter, or an act of violence, or by involvement in the complicated or dangerous physical activity that Miss Murdoch describes rather well…. It is in such extreme situations that Miss Murdoch seems most at home, rather than with the quieter but more central forms of human behaviour, about which she seems to know or care remarkably little.
Bernard Bergonzi, in his The Situation of the Novel (reprinted from The Situation of the Novel by Bernard Bergonzi by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press; © 1970 by the University of Pittsburgh Press), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, p. 48.
Miss Murdoch records rather than invents, chronicles rather than creates and writes not ecstatically nor even enthusiastically but with a sort of dutiful resolution. Her characters, ambiguous, horribly self-analytical but mostly grossly careless seem, strangely, exceptional only in their very ordinariness. I don't know if all her novels are peopled by such freakish wrecks but I can't help but suspect that they are and that the cumulative effect of these bizarre persons has been to prevent the author from seeing how ludicrous they are—if the novel [An Accidental Man] were funny all would be justified, but it's not. On the other hand it's not bad enough to be a laugh in spite of itself—how I yearn for the first-rate or the tenth-rate; this book falls easily into slot number four or five.
Jonathan Meades, "Iris Murdoch's Accident," in Books and Bookmen, January, 1972, p. 37.
The themes of love and freedom have dominated [Iris Murdoch's] novels since the first one, Under the Net (1954). Few present-day British novelists are more prolific than she, and none consistently writes with more exuberance of wit, style, and invention. Her novels are uniquely and quickly identifiable as her own. Her plots are enormously complicated but unfailingly patterned. "I care very much about pattern, and I want to have a beautiful shape, an apprehensible shape," she has stated. Yet this symmetry that structures the sexual, mythological, and psychological patterns of her novels paradoxically encompasses such intricacies of plot and character-relationships that, having finished one of those novels, the reader cannot later contain the whole in his mind. Virginia Woolf once described Meredith as "preeminently the master of great scenes," and it is precisely "the splendour of a scene" that the reader remembers of Iris Murdoch's as well as of Meredith's novels: they come back in flashes….
The Nice and the Good marks a recovery from the malaise that infested its four immediate predecessors, all splotched and none wholly successful. The sequential annual appearance of those four novels caused her admirers to wonder whether, in spite of her indubitably superior gifts, Miss Murdoch were not after all Hugh Walpole redivivus. Recovered, she is once again in euphoric condition. The Nice and the Good is her best novel since The Bell and A Severed Head. And they represent a very high standard indeed to be measured against.
E. C. Bufkin, in Georgia Review, Spring, 1972, pp. 103-05.
Iris Murdoch … changes more than she's given credit for, and continually augments her ambition and resources. At one time she seemed to be fighting against her love for very elaborate plots with occult overtones, but now she appears to have accepted it as part of the deal, and is making these plots bear extraordinary burdens. Contrary to what is often said, and in spite of social resemblances between one novel and another, she never goes twice over the same ground. She is wonderfully inventive and needs to be. This new book, An Accidental Man …, is perfectly readable as fun, as a plot game, as a virtuoso exposition (there are some really ingenious sequences of letters, and bitty unascribed party conversations, new and valuable acquisitions to the technical capability), and yet there is more. The curse of elaborate plotting is that it seems to call for finality in the close—otherwise the reader, trained to expect this of complex cluing, feels cheated. This can block off many perspectives—onto personality, onto the strangeness of the reality which the fiction suggests. In this book Miss Murdoch avoids what she has called "quasi-theological finality," just as she avoids, or ought to avoid, the imputation of self-indulgence in the plotting. Occasionally her feints and withdrawals make one think of Mrs. Spark; but they are essentially very different, the questing nonconformist and the disciplined Catholic. Miss Murdoch, though equipped with elaborate philosophical scenarios, is far readiér than Mrs. Spark to think with the story, to use its many-layered complexities as an instrument of discovery rather than as a subject for research. She is, to that extent, less of a metanovelist than Mrs. Spark, though her plots are more mysterious.
Frank Kermode, "The British Novel Lives," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1972 by the Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), July, 1972, pp. 85-8.