Last Updated on July 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7708
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 we have reached the end—or that we have begun, at least, to understand her logical use of means—only to realize that we have been watching her, as it were, through a series of trick mirrors she has set up. For her amusement? For our amusement?
She seduces us into accepting one set of moral conclusions, only to lead us into a new moral maze, to ripen our readiness for the many more moves yet to be played. Do we watch her game through the veils of our own ignorance, simplicities, or moral preconceptions? Or is she purposefully obfuscating? Is she laughing at us or instructing us? We blunder; her ideas of morality are (or seem to be) so complex, her virtuosity so dazzling, that it is not, usually, until the last page that this sorceress sets us straight and identifies the sin, or the sinner. And, even then, it is often difficult to ascertain with accuracy the nature of the sin or to understand what rewards or punishments accrue to the sinner.
After a while we wonder if we have been had: has Murdoch been playing both sides of the board all the while? Who is the adversary's king? Are we the victims of a trick, or are we moral innocents wandering in a moral labyrinth? Or are we merely entertainees? And does it, after all, matter? (p. 24)
That The Sacred and Profane Love Machine is Murdoch's sixteenth novel is a fact worth commenting upon, not merely to belabor the obvious, which is that her output is prodigious, but also to raise a question that is central to an understanding of her work: how many Murdochian characters, how many named people, resonate in the mind, memorable as unique, created beings, returning to trouble or amuse or nourish us? Few. Perhaps none. Does anyone remember the names of the characters in A Severed Head or The Bell or even so recent and highly praised a novel as The Black Prince? Murdoch does not create characters. She creates symbols. The symbols have names, but no one remembers the names.
Several years ago, a reviewer of no mean intelligence querulously remarked, in regard to one of Murdoch's novels, that if one is going to deal in symbols, then the symbols must symbolize something. If that something is so elusive as to defeat all attempts at interpretation, then we are indeed left with a conjurer's bag of tricks; we have been entertained, but we have also been had.
Everything I have said, of course, is the petulance of someone who does not really "love" Murdoch but who is unable to resist her. It's odd: I would not miss a single one of her novels. And I always feel, when I'm reading them, as if I'm learning something of great value. But afterwards I can never remember exactly what it was that I learned. The insights that seemed so piercing and absolute on the page drift and melt away almost as soon as the book is closed; what has seemed like an essential key, a clue, even an answer, is, in the end, ephemeral. That is irritating; it makes me feel as if I'd been had by a charming con artist. It's embarrassing to be gulled like that, particularly when one has no one to blame but oneself. Lately, I've been turning first to the last page of Murdoch's novels, to see who winds up in whose embrace, so as not to feel that I've been gulled. Then I can relax and start at the beginning.
If, then, we bring less energy to bear on Murdoch's novels, we are obliged to expect less of her.
But perhaps there is another way of looking at Murdoch's novels. Let us say that her characters are not symbols but points—pawns, if you will—in relationships. Let us say that she is writing, not about (absolute) good or (absolute) evil, but about love—erotic love, controlling love, love that is messy, muddled, violent, sometimes transcendent, frequently dangerous, always imperfect. If we view Murdoch, not as a moral arbiter, but as a chronicler of the permutations of human love, then we no longer require of her that she sharply delineate for us what is good and what is evil. (Where love is concerned, there is never a "final solution.") We say that she is a magician dealing, not in symbols or in carnival sleight of hand, but in transformations. Love is a transformation.
The Sacred and Profane Love Machine is the story of a man who "needs" two loves—one sacred and connubial, the other profane and adulterous—to sustain his image of himself, to support his happiness. (pp. 24-5)
This is the bloodiest, most violent of Murdoch's novels. Whose blood is shed? Who wins? Ah, read the last page! With whom do we sympathize? It is a constant juggling act. Murdoch allows us to see all sides of every question.
Is the punishment of death, so brutally meted out to one of Murdoch's protagonists, an arbitrary plot contrivance? Or does it make a moral point? We return again to the central question: is it all morally meaningful? Well, certainly moral questions are raised. As usual, Murdoch allows her secondary characters to raise them. The minor characters … observe, act, and morally declaim. The main protagonists work in the dark toward their destinies. (And everybody, needless to say, falls in love, at sometime or another, with everybody else.)…
[There] are interesting questions [raised]. But not so interesting, and not so cogently put, I'm afraid, that I won't forget them next week. And I still do not understand whether I am being invited to explore the nature of morality or the nature of love. Nor am I sure whether Murdoch considers them to be the same thing. I am not sure that they are the same thing, and I wish somebody would tell me.
I must end on another note of petulance: one Murdochian message sounds loud and clear in all her work. It is the existentialist message sugarcoated. Struggle to stay alive, existentialists say, because something may happen next. (It's a comforting message, isn't it?) Stay alive, Murdoch says, because something will happen next: a psychic revolution, a new love affair, unexpected and spectacular sex, revelations found in strange places—something wonderful, or terrible and illuminating, lurks around every corner; only wait. Well, I don't believe it. I think, ultimately, it's a cruel hoax: life is no more a game of sexual musical chairs with divine harmonies echoing in the wings—no more a perpetual psychic-phallic happening—than I am the Queen of Romania.
But I am an entertainee. [The Sacred and Profane Love Machine], though it lacks the coarse salt of recklessness and wit that distinguished some of its predecessors, is enthralling. (p. 26)
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, "Moral Checkmate," in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 5, 1974, pp. 24-6.
I have long rated Iris Murdoch one of the most original of contemporary English novelists, especially for her ability to engage the reader in a domestic situation which is about to burst. Her people may be predominantly happy, as in her charming, summery novel, The Nice and the Good, or they may be, as in [The Sacred and Profane Love Machine], poised on the verge of strife and anguish; but they live, their talk is fresh and vivid, and their behavior so unpredictable that I keep pressing forward. (p. 120)
Edward Weeks, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1974 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), November, 1974.
Murdoch and Spark—how weary they must be of being bracketed and reviewed together! Yet they constitute a class by themselves—both so intelligent and fluent, so quizzical and knowing, both such resourceful mixes of feminine clairvoyance and masculine generalship, both such makers. Miss Murdoch, true, is copious and explanatory where Mrs. Spark is curt and oblique; she can hardly turn around in fewer than a hundred thousand words where the other can't bring herself to exceed novella length; she is wistfully theistic rather than flatly so, and concerned with goodness instead of with faith. The two of them together reappropriate for their generation Shakespeare's legacy of dark comedy, of deceptions and enchantments, of shuddering contrivance, of deep personal forces held trembling in a skein of sociable truces.
Of the Murdochs this reviewer has read, "The Sacred and Profane Love Machine" seems the best since "A Severed Head," the novel that discovered and presented her great theme with the solidity, economy, and vivacity of a classic. Her theme is, as the present book states it, "erotic love is never still." In some of her novels the shifts of allegiance and attraction wrought by the inexhaustible, tempestuous force of erotic love approach the mechanical and unintentionally comic; a kind of square dance passingly links every character to every other. And, as in a mystery novel the murderer can be spotted because he is the least likely candidate, so the Murdochian hero or heroine can be counted upon to love, at last, and truly, the most repulsive figure of the opposite sex—Honor Klein in "A Severed Head," the bloated, dying Bruno of "Bruno's Dream." In the new novel, the violence generated by Miss Murdoch's obsession with affective volatility is moderated; the flippant title aside, she seems determined to grasp her reality more firmly, to present her argument, like the philosopher she is, with unarguable closeness. Her sensitive, declarative prose seems less impulsive and rushed than usual. Though the novel is long, it is rather sparsely populated, by no more than ten significant characters; the triangulations are few, the fringe eccentrics severely rationed, the copulations rare, until the end. Always circumstantial, with her phenomenal gift for image-spinning, Miss Murdoch devotes more than customary attention to the physical, earthy world, detailing the flora and atmospheric nuances of her suburban acreage on the Buckinghamshire edge of London, giving abundantly of the furniture and history of the two adjacent houses that concern her, distinguishably characterizing (an especially tender tour de force) each dog of a pack of seven, touching the canvas of her vision everywhere with sharp, bright dabs of the recognizably actual. The endless vapors of emotion and conversation that steam and blow from her characters take drama from the contrasting silhouetted treetops and chimney pots of a mundane, midsummer London…. What an incorrigible, irresistible conjurer-up this woman is! With what an eager, effortless multiplication of adjectives does she throw a character onto the page…. Let it be asked now: What other living novelist in the language is the peer of Iris Murdoch at inventing characters and moving them fascinatingly, at least as long as the book is in our hands? Whatever reservations or puzzles it leaves us with, "The Sacred and Profane Love Machine" reads like a breeze, a whirlwind of deepening surprise, a provocation to the intellect and an invitation to the heart with its exacerbating dialogues, its compelling interior monologues, its pirouette points of aphorism, its expansive landscape, its insatiable exploration of what used to be called people's "souls," its revelation of the exalting, degrading, terrifying adventures love makes possible within our middle-class domestic world of work and nurturing. (pp. 78-9)
[The novel's] resolution … has been criticized as abrupt and arbitrary, breaking into the hothouse situation from the outside like a rock thrown by a vandal. But this event is conjured with a nice coolness, a brief waking nightmare to go with all the dreams the narrative contains, and just before it arrives the victim has annihilated herself in her own mind. (p. 80)
A juster criticism might be that the plot's resolution leaves us with no characters we much like…. And it is disturbing that few of the book's incidents, so vivid and impressive as they passed into at least this reader's consciousness, linger in the mind a week afterward. Though she has endowed them with all the substance her remarkable powers of imagination and introspection could fabricate, their motions are not weighted by the persuasive inertia of nineteenth-century characters. They are, like atoms, discontinuous; we remember flares of their energy…. Yet the heat, the light do not last, in the character's lives or in the reader's. Miss Murdoch is less Shakespeare than Prospero, holding us enchanted as long as we stay on her island; then the insubstantial pageant fades, leaving embers and a sad impression, not of life's surging power but of the evanescence of its heat in the vacuum that even a passionate creatrix cannot fill…. Without "deep sense in things," the world of fictional imitation will be dreamlike, fantastic; and so Miss Murdoch's is. Though her title evokes a machine, a machine's grinding causality is just what her plots lack. The sociopsychological engines of Balzac and Flaubert might well, the reader feels, grab and destroy him as well as Père Goriot and Madame Bovary, but the midsummer-night's dreams of "The Sacred and Profane Love Machine" glimmer and are gone. The author so effortlessly invents interior monologues that we do not doubt she could illuminate and justify behavior totally other than what appears on the page. She bores so deep she goes right through bedrock. And however ravaged her characters are, we remain comfortable, reminded of our solid armchair by helpful literary flourishes from these same characters. (pp. 80-1)
Her books abound in gestures toward faith, and aborted versions of it. In this novel, Monty practices meditation, Harriet is an Anglican, David is haunted by Jesus. Emily is a militant atheist, Blaise is so wimbly-wimbly he cannot be said to believe or disbelieve anything. The author, one gathers, believes in sex and Oxford. But it takes a culture, not an individual literary will, to banish the dreamlike inconsequence of the world; we can choose to place credence in Oxford or Rome, but as long as the choice is felt as a choice it can be unmade, and remains precariously ours. (p. 81)
John Updike, in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 6, 1975.
I suspect that Murdoch enthusiasts (and I would count myself as one) do not really expect to be startled by novelty. We take comfort in Miss Murdoch's professionalism, in her sustained wit and intelligence, and we try to ignore the very obvious fact that her methods and concern have become terribly predictable. The Black Prince … was pretty much of a standard Murdoch product, but it did possess a certain verbal energy and vitality that much of her recent work has lacked. Told in the first person, instead of in the typical, godlike Murdoch third, the novel also seemed to cut deeper and affect us a bit more than usual. By comparison, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, for all its fine moments, comes across as a static, mechanical, and, finally, petty affair.
Once again we find ourselves in that familiar little Murdochian world in which characters are brought together to explore the absurdities of love, commitment, and freedom…. As usual, Miss Murdoch includes a number of secondary characters who confuse matters even more—advising the central characters, manipulating or falling in love with them, seducing or battling each other, experiencing for themselves the crises that arise from emotional participation or retreat. Once more Miss Murdoch demonstrates, by easily coupling the most unlikely partners, that love and human nature are completely unpredictable.
To be sure, there is much in this novel to admire. Miss Murdoch has always had the knack of making incredible events seem fairly plausible….
But despite its virtues, the novel fails to impress us. Part of the trouble lies in the writing itself, which tends to be plodding and unimaginative. Miss Murdoch's fondness for adjectives sometimes turns into an obsession in this novel ("Harriet … patted her very long intertwined, coiled-up golden-tinged dark brown hair"). Obviously the author is anxious to get on with her plot, but she does so at the expense of sacrificing stylistic invention. Since there is little in her technique genuinely to interest us, we must be drawn to her characters and their predicaments. While the situations have some potential, the characters are not given enough shading or complexity. Miss Murdoch grants them long passages of self-analysis, but these only tend to inflate the obvious. That a character like Blaise, for example, seems too dull and unimportant to warrant such inflation is another problem.
Miss Murdoch has often worked with very uningratiating characters, but at least their eccentricities managed to amuse us. Here she focuses too long and with too much seriousness on an unremarkable and tedious group, with the result that her philosophical points are trivialized by the trivial cast used to convey them.
Ronald De Feo, "Mechanical Murdoch," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), March 28, 1975, p. 356.
For Iris Murdoch life is absurd and mostly comic. In her fiction the multiplicity and discordance of human experience are never elevated to the intense and heroic proportions of tragedy. Instead they are the basis for her fine achievements of comedy and fantasy—of sophisticated wordplay, bedroom farce and extended projections of bizarre images. In Miss Murdoch's latest novel, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, comedy seems to have failed her, and what we have is just absurd misery. The uniqueness and mysteriousness of human personality and the play of forces in human life are reduced to dull mechanical alternation. The machine as an image of human experience replaces the more fanciful images that provide the titles and episodes for Miss Murdoch's earlier novels, such as Under the Net, The Flight from the Enchanter, The Sandcastle, The Bell, A Severed Head, The Unicorn. The tedious, labored banality of The Sacred and Profane Love Machine suggests that Iris Murdoch may have reached a stage of crisis in her development of ideological patterns for human life, may herself feel the enterprise rather a bore.
In her quest for patterns in human life, Iris Murdoch's imagination is repeatedly drawn to the psychosexual rhythms of fascinating and repellent Oedipal love and its taboo equivalents. One of her problems has been the imposition of her knowledge of psychoanalytic formulas upon the consciousness and vocabulary of her fictional characters. In The Sacred and Profane Love Machine she seeks to solve this problem by rendering these Oedipal themes dramatically in dreams and by making the central character a lay analyst (a Murdochian pun) so that the language of psychoanalysis will not seem so factitiously intrusive. All of the characters in this novel are haunted by dreams filled with Freudian images and situations; the detailed presentation of these dreams signals breaks in the narrative and shifts in point of view, and thus emphasizes the Oedipal origins of the characters' obsessive passions and limits their midsummer night dream encounters to the simplest mechanics of psychoanalytic theory.
Miss Murdoch's treatment of the analyst, Blaise Gavender, reveals an uneasy ambivalence about such a reductive view of life…. He is another of Miss Murdoch's "accidental men" whose lives seem to be made up of disparate willed acts that appear a good idea at the time, but that now have assumed the unexpected rigidity of enforced pattern. (p. 377)
Miss Murdoch emphasizes the lack of perception and sensitivity involved in applying formulas to the behavior of human beings. But at the same time she orders the lives of her characters and their relations according to these formulas that seem, once thus perceived, "mechanical." The language, dream content and method of this novel are psychoanalytical, and yet the book seems to want to deny this "machinery" for understanding human life….
Iris Murdoch the novelist provides the easy, arbitrary act of violence that has nothing to do with the hostilities among the characters and that takes the place of therapy in this book…. The novel remains static, without a real conclusion, only an end. All that emerges … is Iris Murdoch's insistence that people ought not to suffer in excess. Miss Murdoch has never admired suffering; she admires most those who refuse to suffer, who can dispossess the dead, who know that personal relationships change, who go on however they can. (p. 378)
Iris Murdoch is fascinated by refusals and denials of life, especially when they seem not pathetic but godly; her books almost always include a character who is intelligent, dispassionate and powerful in his imperious will to manipulate others. Monty is this character in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine….
What distinguishes Monty, the "king of cynics," the "dreaming god, making things happen in a sort of a trance," from the sinister gods in Miss Murdoch's other works is that in this novel she reveals the desperate human suffering underlying Monty's denial of life, and therefore she seems to credit his imperiousness as a legitimate response to suffering. To avoid passing his pain on to others, as Blaise does, Monty seeks to remove himself from his fellow beings, cruelly rejecting the possibilities offered by love. In contrast to Blaise's "dreary old historical self," Monty, the author within the fiction, makes himself into a God whose delight at his own superiority is revealed in a contemptuous irony, which he says is the "concealment of an author's glee."
Iris Murdoch the novelist is somewhat like Monty in her attitude toward her characters in this novel. As the ultimate deus ex machina, she has detached herself from the anguished entanglements of human love by reducing them to the automatic responses of the most banal psychoanalytic theory. But her irony is not gleeful, and this suggests that she is not self-satisfied—her ironic intelligence is too skeptical for that. This gives hope that she may return in future novels to her early comic ideal of "the apprehension of the absurd irreducible uniqueness of people and of their relations with each other." (p. 379)
Edwin J. Kenney, Jr., "Psychoanalyst, Heal Thyself!," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), March 29, 1975, pp. 377-79.
Iris Murdoch's novels ordinarily describe a psychological process that begins in fantasy and matures into an imaginative and objective response to experience. For Murdoch, "Fantasy, the enemy of art, is the enemy of true imagination: Love [is] an exercise of the imagination" ("The Sublime and the Good" [Chicago Review, Autumn, 1959]). Fantasy is inimical to love and truth because it is an indulgence in false images of others rather than a delight in their independence and truth. It feeds on such devices as bad-faith and elusion which the individual designs to protect himself from direct confrontation with confusing reality. Fantasy therefore is itself the enchanter: to flee is to run into the arms of truthful love; to love it, as R. D. Laing has said, is "to suffocate to death." Because those who are enchanted need to see others as embodiments of myths and emotional patterns that elude their own lives, Iris Murdoch's major characters must undergo a severe disenchantment, often painful, such as that provoked by a figure like Honor Klein, to awaken them out of their self-deluding spell. (pp. 276-77)
What Murdoch finds lacking in the modern age is a clear perception of external reality as independent, unique, and worthy of loving exploration. If the sickness of the age, as Murdoch contends, is solipsism, lovelessness, neurosis, a fear of history,… she would hold that its manifestation in philosophy and art, for example, could be cured by a therapy of perception, a rebirth of imagination…. [The] need to perceive the unique particularity of the other is for Murdoch a measure not only of virtue and love, but of the creative imagination. The contrary tendency to evade involvement and confrontation with others by fleeing toward abstract forms is the basis in Murdoch's view, not only of the inadequacies of contemporary philosophy, but also of a theory of the demonic. Like the heroes of existentialism (her prime example of inadequate modern philosophy), Murdoch's demonic figures begin as rebels desiring to be "free" from contingency, then evolve into solipsistic isolated figures who pursue that unreal totality of form denied them in the "real" world of others. (p. 277)
In those of Murdoch's novels which treat this subject, her casual early interest in enchantment progressively deepens into an obsession with the demonic. (p. 278)
The function of enchanters and demons in her novels should be explored simultaneously on the levels of psychology, social commentary and myth, not merely on one level at the expense of another. The danger of reading The Flight from the Enchanter in purely psychological terms (as a few critics do) is that the clues seemingly add up to seeing Mischa as a nice but misunderstood boy whose evil is merely an illusion created by other inadequate characters in order to satisfy their need for vicarious adventure and enchantment. Such an analysis, however, would immediately lead to questioning one of Murdoch's basic premises—the existential reality of evil as a necessary consequence of power. On a psychological level, the characters of The Flight from the Enchanter reveal such devices of fantasy as elusion, bad-faith, and the schizoid tendency to split the individual into disembodied mind and deanimate body. The enchanter here is fantasy itself, that power of mind that perverts reality into an illusory, fragmented realm that can be responded to according to the momentary whims of one's deluded perception. As social commentary, the novel may be seen as an allegory of power, power conferred upon those who surround themselves with mystery and romance; more importantly, however, it is about demonic energy that emanates from a central figure who embodies the will to power. On a mythic level, the world of Flight can readily be seen as a type of Northrop Frye's "demonic human world," which is described as a society held together by loyalty and subservience of sacrificed victims or pharmakoi who need to be occasionally killed to strengthen their tyrant leader who is "inscrutable, ruthless, melancholy and with an insatiable will" [Foye, in The Anatomy of Criticism]. (pp. 278-79)
If an abstract proposition is being tested in The Flight from the Enchanter, it is probably Murdoch's theory of the demonic reverberations that result from imposing restricting patterns, fantasies and myths on objective reality. Evidence of man's capacity to impose such restrictions is seen in his gods and leaders, in the ineffective organizations and human establishments he creates and in the machines upon which he relies. (pp. 279-80)
Zohreh Tawakuli Sullivan, "Enchantment and the Demonic in Iris Murdoch: 'The Flight from the Enchanter'," in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1975, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), Spring, 1975, pp. 276-97.
Less directly than others, Iris Murdoch responds to our era's depression. Her fiction continues to deal with the subjects that have always preoccupied novelists—love, sex, the opportunities and perversities of relationship. Yet she writes as though she existed at a great remove from those subjects, assumes an authorial stance not as observer of or participant in the human condition but as manipulator of characters who embody carefully preconceived possibilities. Everything in [The Sacred and Profane Love Machine] works out as it must; the characters fail always to understand this fact, but the author's control never lapses. The book deliberately avoids emotional commitment. Such avoidance—a retreat, in this case, into structural rather than verbal mechanisms—implicitly acknowledges that emotional reality may be too much to handle. Iris Murdoch does what she undertakes to do superbly for three quarters of the novel; what she will not undertake, and the arbitrariness with which she finally disposes her characters, suggest in her the same extreme sense of limitation that in other novelists provides the cause for admitted depression. Whether as subject or as technique, the sense of emptiness has come to be assumed, indeed to supply the authenticity which novels of other periods found in the exuberance of life-involving action and organic form….
The Sacred and Profane Love Machine [is] intimately concerned with problems of causality. Causality exists, the narrative argues; its laws control our fates. But rarely can we fathom or predict the operations of those laws. The rigid order of events may feel precisely like chaos. People find private joys, partly through their private interpretations of what happens to them. But the novel induces a faint sense of condescension toward those so naive as to believe themselves happy. (pp. 590-92)
Patricia Meyer Spacks, in The Yale Review (© 1975 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1975.
The best answer to the charge that Iris Murdoch cannot create individual characters may be that she rejects the notion of the individual's primacy. All the people who collide and hurt one another throughout [A Word Child] scratch out small, partial fragments of the world's whole truth. In this rich, allusive, elusive romance—one of the best novels she has ever written—Iris Murdoch shows how the individual's inward concentration on himself is stultifying and death-producing; more important, she is demonstrating how the worship of the individual sensibility is a trap for the creative writer and a dangerous betrayal of the truth the best writers keep looking for. (pp. 40-1)
Bruce Allen, "Fragments of Truth," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 9, 1975, pp. 40-1.
Anything [Iris Murdoch] sets her hand to seems distinctive: you could not possibly confuse her with any other novelist. But take all the separate volumes, set them alongside each other, and they do not look strikingly individual. Tricks, characters, whole turns of the plot may be carried over from one book to the next. One begins to worry about this magical disposition of elements.
How many Murdoch novels have the enchanting, even saintly, miserable and somehow mysterious homosexual, who is bent on suicide? The ritual baptism or purgation by near-drowning? The scene of incest, implied or actual? The argument over a work of art ("Hamlet," "Peter Pan") in which eager disputants reveal everything about themselves? Miss Murdoch has written about the art of fiction as profoundly as anyone living: notably in two uncollected essays, "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited" and "Against Dryness." Yet her own fictional practice often feels curiously constricted; to a surprising extent even for a modern artist, she undoes the shock of her originality by a ceaseless imitation of herself; her attitude to experience occasionally seems, to use a word she once applied to Sartre's novels, predigested.
Miss Murdoch's pervasive theme has been the quest for a passion beyond any center of self. What her characters seek may go by the name of Love or God or the Good: mere physical love is the perilous and always tempting idol that can become a destroyer. Throughout her work artists are important figures, because they're trying daily, by their disinterestedness, to create a world wholly outside themselves. (p. 21)
[Emphasis] on ritual … is characteristic of Miss Murdoch, who shows a marked predilection for describing the tiny, formal gestures by which her characters achieve clarity and isolation. She discards the religious content but preserves the essential shape of all those benedictions performed by people who extract from our common world a peculiar and private imagined one. Such a belief in the isolated moral, the private imagination, may account for Miss Murdoch's attraction to a thinker like Simone Weil; it certainly lies at the heart of her difficulty—in both senses—as a novelist; and it was in the course of a general attack on the critical cliché about writers who "create their own world" that she was described by her least forgiving reader: "Her novels," wrote P. N. Furbank, "tend to begin very substantially, with figures solidly placed in a background and standing in the light of day, with human possibilities and perspectives stretching round them as far as the eye can see. Then the shutters come down, the theater-exits are closed, and the characters fall into their dance; the thing becomes a ballet of bloodless essences, in which characters act out their feelings over-literally—choreographically as it were…. A kind of falsity has set in as soon as the novel turns into 'a world of its own.'" In guarding against this falsity, "A Word Child" is less obviously resourceful than its Murdochian predecessor in first-person narrative, "The Black Prince."
Yet it has to be admitted she is among the very few contemporary novelists who go on troubling one's thoughts when the last page is done. Her ear for colloquial speech, her immediately vivid sense of character, her lucid and discriminating prose cannot be called incidental gifts in a novelist. By her standards as an admirer of Tolstoy and George Eliot and very little else, Miss Murdoch seems to have settled for a rather compromised success in fiction. But there are passages in "A Word Child," as in all her books, which grip the reader as only art can, when it is competing with life on its own terms and fearing nothing. And a critic ought to take some humility from the thought that her writing is after all variations on a theme, where each installment contributes to a whole structure that is not yet known. You are seeing a gem turned ever so slightly in the sun to collect each new refraction. (p. 22)
David Bromwich, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 24, 1975.
If there are roots in [Murdoch's] fiction, the main ones seem to be English, although the recurrence of Irish characters in [her] novels and the extensive treatment of the Easter Rising in The Red and the Green make explicit a persistent consciousness of Ireland as a force in her fictional world…. (p. 13)
Murdoch's novelistic structures are, by and large, traditional, her characters middle- or upper-middle class, their interactions largely polite, even when outrageous, their conversations often cerebral—even when the activity of a novel may be the bedding of all the characters in almost all possible combinations, as in A Severed Head.
Yet despite the familiar and traditional surfaces of Murdoch's fiction, the persistent use of which in the modern novel is its own kind of affront, her novels deal with the irrational in its various manifestations. The terrors of existence—which are, within Murdoch's traditional framework and under her objective, novelist's eye, rendered comic, pathetic, and ridiculous all at once—are delineated within the limits of her characters' apprehensions and reactions, whose own limitations necessarily circumscribe their range. That is to say, although some of Murdoch's ideas may be formally philosophical in origin, she is not primarily a philosophical novelist. Nor are her novels merely experimental formulations of her critical hypotheses, as some critics seem to expect them to be, although the novels do show a certain consonance with her ideas about what a novel ought to be like…. (p. 15)
Murdoch's novels are, at their best, disturbing visions of a disturbed world, visions that are rendered disturbing, in part, by the very formulations by which her characters seek to hold the world at a distance, to come to terms with it in some way. These structures often remain within the realm of conventional manners or consist of artificially imposed but societally acceptable schemes (as in the religious communities of The Bell), but, if the desperation or eccentricities are great enough, the conventional may be inverted to invoke the darkness itself (as in, among others, The Flight from the Enchanter, The Time of the Angels, The Italian Girl, or The Nice and the Good). The world that Murdoch envisions is full of the fundamental absurdity that other contemporary novelists have found at the center of their universes, but the ways in which Murdoch has chosen to render her fictional universe have been the source of misunderstanding…. (p. 16)
Murdoch's essay, "Against Dryness: A Polemical Sketch" (Encounter) [January 1961]), is one of the most concise statements of her thinking about modern fiction, although her ideas are scattered throughout her essays and fiction—ideas which, beginning with the study of Sartre, have engaged her attention before and since the publication of her first novel…. (p. 17)
The reasons that Murdoch prefers the nineteenth-century novel to the novel of the twentieth century, which she sees as resembling that of the eighteenth, which was also an "era of rationalistic allegories and moral tales, the era when the idea of human nature was unitary and single," are that in the nineteenth century the structure of society was alive and complex and the novel was "not concerned with 'the human condition,' it was concerned with real various individuals struggling in society."… (p. 18)
It is clear, given Murdoch's ideas about the novel and her admiration for the achievement of the nineteenth-century novel, why character is the most important component of her novels, but this emphasis on density of character ought to be taken within the context of the novelist's possibilities. The world out of which and in which Murdoch writes is what the twentieth century has made of it and thus it is a mistake to try to judge Murdoch's novels as if they were mere demonstrations of her critical theories and preferences. She has worked toward the idea of using more characters in the full opacity and density of their being, creating characters that could withstand the tendency of plot or myth (the influence of the crystalline) to take over at the expense of character. To write novels achieving that ideal toward which her work moves would be to falsify with a facile and dishonest idea of twentieth-century realities…. Murdoch's novelistic intention seems to be to try to reclaim certain possibilities for human life within the twentieth-century context, and the result of this attempt has often been the awkwardness, the mixing of elements, the warring of parts that so discomfits Murdoch's readers. A result of this intention has been as many partial failures as partial successes, but whatever judgment is finally brought to bear on Murdoch's achievement, it must acknowledge that at no point does she opt for the easy way out of what, given her view of things, has to be a dilemma which fiction cannot solve, only explore…. (pp. 23-4)
Murdoch has herself acknowledged in several interviews her inability to prevent her characters from being overwhelmed by myth. Contingency, it would seem, is a factor even in the creation of novels about contingency, and given the background of determinism, behaviorism, and the Welfare State, against which her characters must move, the struggle to create character is an uneven and uphill battle…. (p. 25)
The central problem by which Murdoch casts her characters into meaningful situations is love. In her essay on "The Sublime and the Good" [Chicago Review, Autumn, 1959], the importance of love for the whole issue at stake in relation to character is made clear…. Fantasy, in "The Sublime and the Good" is recognized as the enemy of art and of true imagination. Love, on the contrary, is an exercise of the imagination, for it involves the freeing of self from convention and fantasy, the courage to defy the tyranny of the solitary ego. "The enemies of art and of morals, the enemies, that is, of love are the same: social convention and neurosis."
The mind of man, of all things in nature, is the most particular and individual, and the fantasy world of the ego may prevent individuals from granting others their own reality apart from the constructed and enclosed dream world of the perceiver…. "… Love is the imaginative recognition of … [and] respect for, this otherness."… (pp. 27-8)
The artistic pleasures of rendering consciousness, of approximating through art the process of perception, which by definition brings the external world into the interior frame of the perceiver and thereby posits value in the art of perception itself are not sufficient for Murdoch, for there exists an implied scale of value in her view of things, for which consciousness becomes an instrument but not an absolute nor an end in itself. Thus in another context, in "The Darkness of Practical Reason," an essay reviewing the ideas in Stuart Hampshire's Freedom of the Individual, Murdoch insists that the mediocre man "who achieves what he intends is not the ideal of a free man," thereby implying once again the existence of a scale of values in perception and in the ability to conceive.
The action of Murdoch's novels often revolves around the inability to conceive possibilities, so that the apparent action of a given novel is only that conceivable to the mediocre sensibility. The Sandcastle (1957) is one of the clearest early examples of this kind of novel…. (pp. 28-9)
The Italian Girl and The Time of the Angels are the two weakest novels in the Murdoch canon, novels in which Murdoch's characters and moral points of view are overwhelmed by the machinery of darkness…. (p. 44)
In Bruno's Dream Murdoch comes closer to finding a more successful balance for her novel, although Bruno's Dream has troubled her critics more than any of her other major novels, in part because their instinct to consider it a serious work appears to be countered by the novelist's playfulness in its conclusion, in part because of the mixed moods involved, and in part because Murdoch seems perversely to have given her most cherished moral ideas to the most troublesome of the characters. She has, in short, forced the readers of this novel to perform that difficult action she asks of her characters who are to progress; she asks that her readers accept a contingency within the fictional convention that challenges their expectations…. (pp. 45-6)
Murdoch has, in Bruno's Dream, come close to a successful joining of domestic comedy and macabre elements and, at the same time, to the successful creation of a novel in which characters could develop without being overwhelmed by the machinery necessary to realign the reader's apprehension of the world…. (p. 49)
At this stage of assessing Murdoch's achievement as a novelist, the appropriate question is not whether the new novel, The Black Prince, or any of its successors will be failures or successes but whether or not her courage and ingenuity can survive the difficulties attendant upon writing with her preoccupations in a world bent quite otherwise and bring a sufficient audience of readers to that state of "loving attention" which is the only possible way to apprehend the world. (pp. 49-50)
Donna Gerstenberger, in her Iris Murdoch (© 1975 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Bucknell University Press, 1975, pp. 13-50.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support