Iris Murdoch Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 6)

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Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Murdoch, (Jean) Iris 1919–

Iris Murdoch is a British novelist, playwright, and lecturer in philosophy. As an artist and as a professional philosopher, Elmer Borklund has written, Miss Murdoch "accepts the definition of man as an accidental creature briefly adrift in a contingent universe." Her complex and intelligent fiction, then, is an essentially pessimistic examination of moral alternatives and the nature of ethical behavior. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

There is something reassuring about an Iris Murdoch novel. Each year one appears like a trusty perennial, adding to the author's oeuvre and often to her stature. Hers is a special kind of productivity—growth through repetition. Since her first novel, Under the Net (1954), Iris Murdoch's universe has remained stable, perhaps because it is governed by laws so ancient even she must obey them. Characters weave in and out of each other's lives and boudoirs, offering no explanation for their vagaries except a casual "I found the French windows unfastened." Enchanters set their traps for the guileless and in turn are caught in their own meshes; and those who wore the pentagram at the beginning wear the motley at the end.

Some novelists move cautiously toward their zenith, pausing occasionally at the crossroads to refresh themselves. Iris Murdoch careens around the curves of her art, ringing it with fictions that coil inside each other. Like most conical labyrinths the entrance to Miss Murdoch's world is less impressive than the interior. The threshold is so familiar with its cuckolds, mousy wives, and clamoring mistresses that it hardly seems worth crossing. Yet one must to reach the nether world and watch the archetypes at play.

A true Murdochian is always willing to make the infernal journey although he knows the terrain by heart. For there is one diversion that makes the trip worthwhile: the mating dance which can be a stately minuet or a danse macabre. It is impossible to predict either the tempo or the pairing off. The possibilities are even more varied in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, which begins on midsummer's eve with its concomitant madness. (pp. xc-xci)

The situation is so banal that it could crack from its own dryness, but Iris Murdoch, an enchantress in her own right, has always been able to tap the ground and conjure up a spring or at least a rivulet. (p. xci)

Anything cut from a cosmic pattern is bound to be a good fit, but there is still something wrong with the design. It is as if threads of different colors crossed so haphazardly that they obscured the figure they were to form…. The myths blend so indiscriminately that they combine in a world mythology, a sort of Robert Graves interleaved with the New Testament. (pp. xci-xcii)

The novel is myth-heavy, not lean and fine-grained like The Bell (1958) and A Severed Head (1961); yet it is typical Murdoch. All of her novels are fictions of comic existentialism where freedom can be nothing more than the ability to choose between a wife and a mistress, and where bad faith is the pit of self-deception into which those who cannot choose ultimately fall. Since The Bell she has been pushing existentialism to its furthest limit: a theology, partly fatalistic, partly redemptive, where the choice, however free, cannot be made without the spilling of innocent blood. (p. xcii)

Bernard F. Dick, "The Annual Murdoch," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Fall, 1974, pp. xc-xcii.

Iris Murdoch is a wizard. She plays games with good and evil. She pushes her characters across a metaphysical chessboard, moving them from square to square (or bed to bed) with what seems like capricious abandon, until she arrives, with a flourish and a clanging of moral symbols, at the meticulously calculated, predestined conclusion: her novels end, always, with the appearance of the adversary's king in moral checkmate. Her quirky game is a hard one to follow. Often we feel that...

(The entire section is 7,708 words.)