Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3682
Murdoch, Iris 1919–
Irish-born English novelist, author of The Severed Head, The Italian Girl, and The Red and the Green. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)
Although honest, intelligent, and well written, the novels of Iris Murdoch nevertheless lack clear definition. Hers seems to be a talent for humor, but she appears unable to sustain it for more than a scene or a temporary interchange…. Another danger that Miss Murdoch has not avoided is that of creating characters who are suitable only for the comic situations but for little else. When they must rise to a more serious response, their triteness precludes real change. This fault is especially true of the characters in The Flight from the Enchanter, a curious mixture of the frivolous and the serious….
This is not to gainsay Miss Murdoch's substantial qualities…. Verbal skill, incisive conception of some characters, ability to convey humor and sadness, awareness of the large world, a philosophical point of view—all these qualities are admirably present in Miss Murdoch's work. Nevertheless, through her first five novels, they have remained merely potential, or else only sporadically realized. Her themes take forms that yield less than her skill warrants, which suggests that she could do much more than she tries. The obvious fact that she does this well with her off-beat material indicates that her talent places her high above many of her contemporaries, several of whom have been more widely publicized and read. These five novels, with their mixed quality, seem to be preparation for the big work which will synthesize the comic and tragic tones in her fiction and establish her as a major novelist.
Frederick R. Karl, "Iris Murdoch," in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1962 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, pp. 260-65.
[Iris] Murdoch's fiction can be read or interpreted as a willingness or a desire on her part to loosen the claims for the formal, and to allow the contingent, the inexplicable, and the elusive to pass in review. Politically too, she is afraid that excesses of the orderly, the neat, the formal mean the destruction of the rich, the varied, the curious, the eccentric. Her own fiction is indebted to Sartre or at least presents a view of the human situation very like his. Man, a lonely creature in an absurd world, is impelled to make moral decisions, the consequences of which are uncertain. Unlike Sartre, however, Miss Murdoch can create living characters. Her talent is for evoking the concrete, a sense of mystery, the flow of events. And she has what Sartre lacks completely, a sense of humor….
Miss Murdoch is a kind of twentieth-century Congreve. Her characters are interesting puppets and interesting symbols, and she can make them dance or place them erect in an eerie green light. An intellectual game is going on. There is no sweat, no anguish, and no real love making. All of these are illusions. The real game is between Miss Murdoch and her reader, not between the reader and the characters. This is her strength and her limitation.
William Van O'Connor, "Iris Murdoch: The Formal and the Contingent" (© 1963 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in his The New University Wits and the End of Modernism ("Crosscurrents/Modern Critiques" Series), Southern Illinois University Press, 1963, pp. 54-74.
Iris Murdoch, a sometime Oxford lecturer in philosophy, is better known as a talented and original novelist. Starting in 1953 with a small but enlightening study of the French existentialist, Sartre, she launched into fiction with Under the Net (1954), a semi-ribald semi-picaresque account of masculine racketing in London, robust and vigorous, though with some incoherence of plot. Her second novel, The Flight from the Enchanter (1956), is more substantial, with a rich texture in striking contrast with the threadbare fabric of much contemporary fiction. It can be described as a tragi-comedy of obsessions and emotional entanglements, for each of the characters is caught in the net of one or other of these spiritually confining influences…. The latent dramatic quality in Iris Murdoch's books was brought out in J. B. Priestley's stage adaptation of her later book, A Severed Head (1961). In that novel, one of the characters remarked of another 'she certainly has power in her'. That can also be said of Iris Murdoch, in whose writing there is a compelling element of power, though there were signs in her later novels that it might become dissipated in a quaking bog of symbolism.
A. C. Ward, in his Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964, p. 80.
[Iris Murdoch's] gifts are such that, more than any other novelist of her generation, she seems to have it in her to become a great novelist, but her management of her gifts has been baffling…. Ultimately, one's view of her novels will depend on one's view of the place of symbolism in fiction. My own belief is that symbolism only works when it is integrated into the action, characters and tone of the novel.
Believing this, I am bound to think her best novel is The Bell (1958). For me, her other fiction, the later novels especially, consist of dazzling passages set in opacity, at any rate where meaning is concerned, since she is not in the normal sense a difficult writer….
Indeed, whenever I am moved by Iris Murdoch it is as by poetry. In The Bell, the poetry is as it were more completely integrated into the prose of fiction than elsewhere in her novels; and the rich, sensuous appreciation of nature, landscape and the seasons which is constant in this book is always in juxtaposition with her characters and so revelatory of them.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 282-84.
Iris Murdoch appears to be on the verge of achieving a major reputation in contemporary English fiction, and, as is so often the case today, hers is an achievement that does not depend upon any single work…. [But one] continues to expect a distinctly major work from her, and one is continually disappointed….
[She] leaves us … essentially unsatisfied, expecting something more, some synthesis of myth and contemporaneity that will do what great art alone can do, fuse past and present and future in a vital crystallization of our world. And it is in just this, that quest for reality toward which the novelist must bend his efforts, that her novels seem curiously lacking. Her novels contain the language of ideas, but what they lack is the reality of flesh touching flesh (and this despite the great deal of sexual busyness in her books, almost all of it sex without salt and gesture without touch).
To her credit, Miss Murdoch has brought the free play of intelligence to the task of the novelist; she has taken the chances a novelist must take with language and she has emerged with a clear, incisive, determined prose; she possesses a sense of craft and an obvious dedication to the demands that novel writing make upon one; and she has accepted a world complex enough to make even the absence of tragedy endurable. She possesses humor and broad human sympathies, but for all its turbulence and violence her world is surprisingly calm. What she lacks is rage …, and her novels impress one as containing order at the expense of rage. The world she creates is permeated with too much Victorian insularity; it is not our world.
Leonard Kriegel, "Iris Murdoch: Every-body Through the Looking-Glass" (© 1965 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in Contemporary British Novelists, edited by Charles Shapiro, Southern Illinois University Press, 1965, pp. 62-80.
After being initially confused with the Angry Young Men, Iris Murdoch has established a reputation as an eccentric, somewhat obscure, but totally compelling novelist. She was early recognized as one of the most provocative writers of her era; although she has attracted cultists, they do not constitute her primary—and certainly not her exclusive—audience.
Frank Baldanza, "Iris Murdoch," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 8, No. 3, 1967 (© 1967 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 454-58.
It would be easy to categorize Iris Murdoch as one of the 'new women', but it would also be dangerous. In A Severed Head (a novel that seemed to mark a turning-point in her career) there is, among other things, the motif of man's yielding to superior woman—woman armed with a samurai capable of severing more than heads. But her work is very various and has attempted many themes and techniques…. The Bell is probably the best of Miss Murdoch's novels, and, like all original works of art, it represents the end of a creative phase rather than a beginning. It is what the earlier novels were working towards—a synthesis of the traditional and the revolutionary. The story is thoroughly realistic yet at the same time loaded with symbols, the most potent of which is the bell of the title…. This is an intensely poetic novel and marvellously organized.
Miss Murdoch seemed to leave behind, when she came to the writing of A Severed Head, all that she had so far taught herself—except the ability to write taut English and to dredge that world of the strange and mysterious which had, so far, lain on the boundaries of the ordinary. In A Severed Head we never enter the house of the ordinary. The characters dress, talk, act like ourselves, but they are caught up in a purely intellectual pattern, a sort of contrived sexual dance in which partners are always changing. They seem to be incapable of free choice; they are totally in the puppeteering hands of their creatrix….
Miss Murdoch's great period seems to be over, though one would be only too thankful to be confuted—as may well be possible—by the appearance of another book as good as The Bell. But she cannot go back to her early style, and to go forward seems to mean becoming just another popular woman novelist. All this is profoundly worrying.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 124-27.
One of Miss Murdoch's greatest interests, in the class-room as well as in her philosophical articles, is ethics; and ethics is certainly the legitimate concern even of the non-philosophical novelist. Her fictional characters often find themselves in moral dilemmas, hard put to discover a solution because they are believers in faulty ideologies. These ideologies, which include the ethical aspects of most contemporary philosophical schools, are subjected to a more formal attack in Miss Murdoch's philosophical articles. This, then, is the most obvious link between the artistic and academic sides of her career. (p. 3)
The link between art and morality, for Miss Murdoch, is … subtle and metaphysical: a writer must love his characters and cause the reader to love and understand them too. A reader who has observed this process in a novel will then be able to cultivate an analogous apprehension of people in his daily life…. [Miss Murdoch] cites with approval Tolstoy's comment that art is the religious perception of the age. If religion can be defined as a rational set of principles which appeal in the end to metaphysical or transcendent ideas, then Iris Murdoch can be called a religious novelist in this sense as well as in Tolstoy's more metaphorical sense. As she said recently, the attempt to look compassionately at another human being gives one a sense of transcendence, a feeling that "there is more than this." This transcendent feeling must remain a tiny spark of insight, if it is not to be corrupted by "some sort of quasi-theological finality." The transcendent spark of insight is the same, she says, as the feeling we have when we stand before a great work of art. (pp. 22-3)
Miss Murdoch says that freedom consists in our ability to imagine the being of others. Freedom, then, is implied by love…. Her idea of freedom, says Miss Murdoch, is close to Kant's concept of Achtung. Another idea which derives from Kant is the Romantic concept of freedom: here the individual is solitary and all-important. The Romantic hero assumes that since the world is a place of solitary individuals he may as well cut superficial ties to others in his quest for freedom. This idea of freedom, which many modern novelists (especially existentialists) have taken up, is one which Iris Murdoch opposes. (p. 32)
As they fail to achieve love or freedom [her] characters … illustrate the strain in modern life and literature which Iris Murdoch calls neurotic: isolation from others, self-involvement, solipsism. The opposing and equally bad tendency … is what Miss Murdoch has named the conventional: a willingness to accept the opinions of others, to conform to social niceties, in lieu of a deeper moral code based on love. (p. 33)
Iris Murdoch is often a puzzling, even a mystifying, writer, and one of the reasons for the many unresolved questions in her novels is a simultaneous desire to include and yet hold back philosophical ideas. Because of her interest in ideas, especially moral ideas, and her conviction that the best fiction has a strong moral undercurrent, there is an impetus to include certain philosophical concepts. But the dangers of mythologizing, of didacticism, or of la littérature engagée check the impulse to include ideas. Miss Murdoch's compromise is to introduce the ideas in subtle forms, to provide alternatives for the ideas, to introduce her own ideas through a minor or unsympathetic character, and even to leave the reader with problems that cannot be solved rationally, a sort of mysticism in fiction. Very often this is an unsatisfactory compromise. The intelligent reader of Miss Murdoch's fiction who has not read her philosophical articles often finishes one of her novels with a puzzled feeling: an uncertainty about the moral positions represented in the novel or a feeling that somehow all of the significance of the action has not been grasped. (pp. 43-4)
As a novelist, despite the qualities that make her one of England's foremost writers, Iris Murdoch somehow misses being of the first rank. To some extent this can be attributed to her own modest ambitions; she does not seem to want to write the great novel which deals with universal themes, perhaps because she does not want to risk the great failure. In addition she is hindered by a number of other faults: the puzzling quality … which at times is more irritating than intriguing; a drabness which permeates some of her inferior novels, like The Sandcastle; and a desire to fool the reader with sudden and unexpected twists of plot, as in A Severed Head. This explains, perhaps, why Under the Net is such a good novel: though the reader is surprised and amused by the incidents in the book, fantastic incidents are presented for the sake of humor and not of plot; moreover, whether he understands the philosophical overtones of the novel or not, the reader feels at the end of the novel that Jake has somehow gone on to a better life, learned something and improved. The reader puts down the novel with a sense of satisfaction and not irritation. If Iris Murdoch is not in the first rank of novelists, however, she certainly belongs in the next. For her thoughtful characterizations, for her unpredictable inventiveness, and for her intelligent and compassionate ideas she deserves the reader's attention and respect. (p. 46)
Rubin Rabinovitz, in his Iris Murdoch ("Columbia Essays on Modern Writers," No. 34), Columbia University Press, 1968.
Iris Murdoch's novels have often seemed an exercise of will—not altogether the will doing the work of the imagination, perhaps, but of will coercing and at times defrauding the imagination. The will seems to invent those philosophical fables whose grotesque melodrama seldom supplies the intensity that the ideas seem to require. One feels that more trust in the ideas, more patience with their power to shape intractable material, more concern for the possibilities of the characters as persons rather than as problems—all of these might give the novels more weight.
Martin Price, in Yale Review (© 1969 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1969, p. 466.
Iris Murdoch is the most prolific of our recent novelists, and her books are, as one might expect, uneven in quality. Nonetheless, Bruno's Dream ranks, I think, with Iris Murdoch's best novels, with The Flight from the Enchanter, The Bell, The Unicorn, and The Time of the Angels. The ideas which she elaborates through character and situation in Bruno's Dream (as in her other novels) are sometimes commonplace, sometimes startling; it is her dramatizing of them that is unusual. Ordinarily, her characters do not exemplify set ideas; rather, the incidents and the relationships of her characters with each other provide illustrations of her ideas or variations upon them. As a result, her fiction is truly symbolical in its ramifications and only intermittently allegorical. In her best books we are engaged by her characters as human beings, sparing as she may be in her development of them and arbitrary as she may be in providing motivation for their thoughts and actions.
Frederick P. W. McDowell, in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1970 (© 1970 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), p. 421.
The range of her fiction and the intellectual power behind it certainly make Iris Murdoch one of the most impressive of the postwar novelists, and her work continues to give pleasure and command respect.
Paul Edward Gray, in Yale Review (© 1970 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1970, p. 103.
Iris Murdoch, the English novelist, is one of those permanently promising writers. After each of her books, great things are confidently expected—of the next one. And perversely, almost coyly, Miss Murdoch delivers a little bit less each time, until it is no longer quite clear what it is we are waiting for.
Her new book, The Red and the Green, not only establishes her one more time in the ranks of the promising, but may also help to explain what she has been up to these last few years…. In her recent books, Miss Murdoch seems to have been burrowing deeper and deeper into a private world where it is difficult to check her progress one way or the other. A Severed Head and The Italian Girl could be described as Freudian fantasies with a Plasticine base: the characters are so malleable, so little bent or hardened by actuality, that the author can manipulate them at will, to make any point she likes. She appears to be using them to satirize something—but what?
Wilfrid Sheed, "Iris Murdoch: The Red and the Green" (1965), in his The Morning After (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed; © 1968 by Postrib Corp.; foreword © 1971 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 296-98.
While reading Iris Murdoch, you sometimes forget that she's a philosopher. At times she sounds like a judo expert, a film technician, an antique dealer or a newly paroled nun. But occasionally, it's hard to remember that she's a novelist; many respond to her work as though it were a batch of Rorschach tests. She's had ardent fans, plus many poor reviews, and her fiction ignites quarrels (about sex), accusations (about lacking a sense of wonder) or downright insults (having no sense of humor). Those who like sex, jokes and surprises can become rather defensive about not reveling in Murdoch. They may also feel guilty—because her ideas and her plots are such good ones….
As her early novels appeared—[Under the Net, The Flight From the Enchanter, The Sandcastle, The Bell, A Severed Head, An Unofficial Rose] and [The Italian Girl]—some of her readers particularly praised her deliberate use of artificiality, coincidence and drawing-room-comedy techniques; they also liked her use of abstractions as characters. There was a sorcerer in almost every book—like "tawny-breasted Honor Klein" in [A Severed Head] or Emma in [An Unofficial Rose]—who revealed others to themselves. The sorcerer "plays the god in other people's destiny," while the apprentice hopes to become "a new person"—after inhaling "the truth" from his mentor. The experience may be agonizing, but it's a cure for the complaint that "I am not a continuous being."…
Like most of the earlier novels, [An Accidental Man] (Murdoch's 14th) is a study in humiliation. And the people, as always, are violently possessive of each other. But this novel is better written than many of its predecessors, and the focus has shifted. There are no all-powerful sorcerers; instead, there's an insistence on individuals trying (and often failing) to help or simply influence one another….
Perhaps Murdoch's best territory is contradictory emotions—showing one person loathing and loving another, or fearing but pursuing him, or merely acting in opposition to his feelings….
Nora Sayre, in New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 23, 1972, pp. 7, 10.
In Iris Murdoch's fictional world, doomed by an excess of magic and talk and the haphazard promiscuity of "loves," we must labor to untangle the complications of the past, try to make sense of the present, and tell ourselves, doubtfully, that the future will remain more or less like the present, so that the novel "makes sense"—comes to a conventional resolution. We are not convinced that the effort is without value; but, as each Murdoch novel appears, as each season brings us another "tragi-comedy" of identity, we grow somewhat less enchanted with the chase.
Joyce Carol Oates, "So Many People!," in Book World, January 23, 1972, p. 3.
[When Miss] Murdoch is good, she can be cogent, compelling, and very funny. Conversely, when she is only so-so, as in An Accidental Man, one wonders about her: Is she just playing clever games here, dipping into sensationalism and literary black magic to cloak her lack of creative focus?
Gina Mallet, in Saturday Review, January 29, 1972, p. 68.