Iris Murdoch Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Murdoch, (Jean) Iris 1919–

Murdoch is a British novelist and playwright. Her training in philosophy plays an important part in her novels which have as a central concern the ethics and moral alternatives of the English middle class. A frequent theme is that love is rare and only possible when a person realizes that someone besides himself truly exists. Some critics complain, however, that the philosopher sometimes triumphs over the novelist, reducing her characters to puppets thrown into situations to make a point. Her novels are intricately plotted and often treat complex and fantastic situations in a melodramatic way. Critical reaction to her work is generally divided; some critics see her as a major contemporary novelist, others as a middle-brow romancer. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Lorna Sage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is difficult to chart Iris Murdoch's progress, if only because she has a gift for making the variety of possible plots and characters seem inexhaustible. The result of such plenty is that no new novel of hers is going to retain its air of finality for long: it joins the oeuvre, it confirms the appetite (in author and readers alike) for yet more novels. She herself would perhaps think this response appropriate, given her stress on art's capacity to strengthen our moral curiosity ('Virtue', she once wrote, 'is concerned with really apprehending that other people exist') but it has its problematic aspect, since it produces a nice confusion between quality and quantity. More does seem to mean better for her; imagination and curiosity are near akin, and curiosity can only be fed with particulars fresh-invented each time. Three years and three novels ago in The Black Prince she mocked her own reputation for prolixity in the person of popular novelist Arnold Baffin ('He lives in a sort of rosy haze with Jesus and Mary and Buddha and Shiva and the Fisher King all chasing round and round dressed up as people in Chelsea'), but for all that she gave him eloquent things to say in his defence—'the years pass and one has only one life. If one has a thing at all one must do it and keep on and on trying to do it better. And an aspect of this is that any artist has to decide how fast to work. I do not believe that I would improve if I wrote less. The only result of that would be that there would be less of whatever there is.' Arnold's besetting sin, of course, was curiosity.

So Henry and Cato offers a lot that's titillatingly different, and at the same time nothing exactly new. It doesn't have the self-consciousness about language of her last, A Word Child, but that doesn't imply that she has somehow moved on. For her such formal questions (even self-questionings) are merely local matters—connected with the tone of the particular novel—not the permanent 'issues' that they're assumed to be by many novel critics…. Henry and Cato is a visual book, dominated by pictures (Henry is an art historian of sorts) and concentrates on the problem of making people see (a word that often gets italicised with frustration). It's the work of a robust allegoriser—bold, confident and unfastidious. Which means that it displays equally frankly the richness of illusion Miss Murdoch has achieved and the imperfections she has settled for.

The plot extracts sharp moral humour from the multiple contrasts and overlaps of its two heroes' careers—a technique at which Miss Murdoch has become so carelessly expert that one soon loses sight of its crude binary origins. Here, the book's beginning finds the characters at very different phases: the great decision and battle of Cato's life—his conversion, his priesthood in the face of his rationalist father's blank loathing—has already taken place offstage; whereas Henry has only just (by virtue of a car accident, also offstage) become heir to the family estate…. The idea is that Cato seems to be losing his certainties as Henry acquires his…. (pp. 61-2)

The descriptive strength of Henry and Cato reaffirms the importance for [Miss Murdoch] of picturing the variousness of people's lives and landscapes. Lives that cannot be pictured hardly exist…. [In] Henry and Cato the most telling instance of a life-style is Cato's—he believes himself to have given up the world, but the descriptions of his condemned 'Mission' off the seedy end of Ladbroke Grove are just as suggestive of the tug of things as the tapestry-texture of Henry's estate:


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Zohreh T. Sullivan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Iris Murdoch's waifs, orphans, refugees, demons, and saints, all share a common isolation, a loss of community, and the absence of close relationship to "a rich and complicated" group from which as moral beings they should have much to learn. As a philosopher, Murdoch connects this loss of community to the inadequacies of existentialist and empirical thought that rely on self-centered standards of individual consciousness and sincerity, rather than on other-centered values of virtue, love, and imagination. As a novelist, she dramatizes her ethical concerns by increasingly demonizing the existentialist, solipsistic hero who rejects the "messy reality" of involvement with others in order to pursue what he perversely sees as freedom, abstraction, and romance…. By failing to see reality as worthy of loving exploration, Murdoch's benighted protagonist is compelled to rely exclusively on personal values as his sole guide to morality. The resulting psychological distortions to which such solipsism is liable cuts a man off completely from others and from society…. Murdoch's characters cannot see because they are enclosed in "a fantasy world of our own into which we try to draw things from the outside, not grasping their reality and independence, making them into dream objects of our own."… Her protagonists, therefore, can redeem themselves only by discovering new ways of seeing reality and by resisting the false consolations of form and of fantasy which Murdoch defines as "the enemy" of that true imagination which is "Love, an exercise of the imagination."… (pp. 557-58)

The response of Murdoch's characters to community is complicated by the paradox of their personalities: although her isolated characters long to be part of a familial, social, or national group, they are at the same time solipsists who rely chiefly on will, ego, and power in order to manipulate the behavior of others according to their own systems and beliefs. Where there is power, there can be no community. Murdoch's concept of community … is realized, therefore, only within a nexus of morality, imagination, selflessness, and love. (p. 558)

Murdoch's repudiation of the retreat from disorder has led to her creation of various images of man-made order as alternatives for isolation and as versions of community. Among these, the more important are such social patterns as work, erotic involvements, family entanglements, and the restricted inner spaces of houses within which relationships are explored and confined…. In the first instance, work substitutes for community in three ways that serve to illuminate both character and theme. First, the vocation to which an individual is drawn in some cases reflects his psychological inadequacy or reveals an abortive effort to give order and meaning to an otherwise vacuous life. Anna's work with the Miming Theater in Under the Net, for instance, suggests her need to fit herself into the theoretical world of Hugo Belfounder in order to win his approval and love…. Second, work might reflect a character's demonic need to control and exert power over others. Such an elusive and magical character as Mischa Fox, the newspaper magnate in [The Flight from the Enchanter], is supposed to have "at his disposal dozens of enslaved beings of all kinds whom he controlled at his convenience."… Third, work can also serve as a means for a protagonist to redeem himself and to work his way towards self-discovery: the changes in Rosa's jobs in Flight from factory worker to journalist and in Jake's jobs in Under the Net from hack-writer to hospital orderly to creative artist measure their movement towards selflessness, towards exorcism of their minds from the spells of fantasy and delusion, and towards becoming creative artists in their own right.

Not only work, but rooms and houses in [Murdoch's] novels function metaphorically to define and be defined by the relationships within them. The L-shaped room with its presiding blind and deaf mother, with its empty bed frame within which the Polish brothers make love to and enchant Rosa (Flight), Mischa's labyrinthian palazzo (Flight), Hannah's multi-mirrored rooms where she is imprisoned by the misperceptions and expectations of herself and others (The Unicorn) … [are] enclosures that reflect ailments of interiority as manifested in the character of their occupants and in the nature of their spell-bound, erotic, and frequently incestuous relationships.

[Although each of Murdoch's] novels experiments with a variety of communities, I have chosen to focus on … three Gothic novels, The Flight from the Enchanter, The Unicorn, and The Time of the Angels, because of their curious demonic inversions of community, in spite of which they also contain the recurring Murdochian theme of the struggle of love against the many guises of evil in everyday life. The elements of community in these works are Gothic extensions of similar concerns in her other novels. Here, the nets of fantasy are tighter, more difficult to escape, more terrifying, and cause more tragedy (disappearances, suicides, murders) than in her other novels. (pp. 559-60)

The fictional technique by which Murdoch pursues her ideas in these novels reveals a movement from an open to a closed structure. The already limited mental and physical spaces inhabited by narcissistic and Faustian characters in Flight and The Unicorn contract...

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Gabriele Annan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like most of Iris Murdoch's novels, [The Sea, The Sea] is a thriller and whodunit on two levels: factual and philosophical. It is not too difficult to do an exegesis of the philosophical content because she leaves so many clues around, not to speak of overt explanations in dialogues and interior monologues. But that does not make it any less exciting. It is action-packed, and the action is handled with her usual virtuosity: there seems to be nothing she cannot get her words round, and she treats the reader to several virtuoso set-pieces…. There are long, marvellously evocative descriptions of the landscape, seascape and weather—weather indoors, too, where a bead curtain clicks in the sea breeze, or else chill damp covers everything like a sinister slime, the perfect atmosphere for breeding demons. She has a spooky way with entrances and exits: characters materialise and disappear with hallucinatory suddenness. As for the characters themselves, they are mostly theatre people, so it is not unsuitable if some of them seem two-dimensional and overact a bit…. [The agonies of the main characters] are almost too much to bear—until Miss Murdoch redeploys their loves and attachments; and one begins to realise that what seemed to be a tragic novel with interludes of comic relief is really a comedy with portholes for looking out at the cosmos.

Gabriele Annan, "Murdoch Magic," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of Gabriele Annan), August 24, 1978, p. 250.

Malcolm Bradbury

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Sea, The Sea is clearly one of [Miss Murdoch's] 'mature' books—one of her longest, her richest, her most carefully paced. Love, again, is the kingdom in which everything occurs; it is past love projected and repeated in a mysterious and thoughtful present. This is one of her more magical novels, set in an economical landscape and seascape: somewhere in the north, in and around a gaunt Edwardian house, with a view across the sea, that 'image of an inaccessible freedom'…. (p. 246)

The Sea, The Sea is about the dark chill in loving, the conflict of sacrifice and egoism. It is, in fact, a merciless and painful book.

It is also an elegant one—a comic dance in the Murdoch manner. There is much contrivance. Miss Murdoch is an elaborate but also a very thrifty plotter, and the world she at first makes contingently she then goes on to spend as a pattern. This is part of the magic of invention…. [The] magic is there partly for its flamboyance, partly to take us beyond reality into a world of dream and re-shaped identities…. Miss Murdoch has written before of the late time in life when we pass between love and death, when old desires become present contemplations, and the 'secret vital busy inwardness' that drives our lives is forced to find meaning. Thus, from the patterns of the love game, and also the pattern of fiction, a kind of truth might emerge. That has always been Miss Murdoch's interest; but … because of the careful pace and balance of this book, it all comes out with a special exactness. She lets her novel slowly accumulate its form, acquire its mysteries, its magic, its pattern. Then she lets it dissolve again, slowly, into chatter and ordinariness. Magic does not shrink reality, and The Sea, The Sea is a kind of Tempest on its own account, a book that explores the art of the novel and of magic, and also the need to elicit from life's facts and fantasies a meaning, a sense of the things that matter. (p. 247)

Malcolm Bradbury, "The Semi-Isle," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 25, 1978, pp. 246-47.

Francis King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Magic and the supernatural run, two lurid threads, throughout a loosely woven book [The Sea, The Sea]. Miss Murdoch has always presented love as though it were some kind of spell unaccountable in its mysterious waxing and waning…. Her people are infected with love or infect others in the same way that colds are caught and given….

By one of those coincidences more common in novels than real life, Charles finds that living in the same village is the girl, Hartley, whom he loved in his adolescence and whom he has gone on loving ever since. Now middle-aged, frumpish and déclassée, she lives with her retired husband, a former commercial traveller, in a ghastly little bungalow….


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Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Though Iris Murdoch has defined the highest art as that which reveals and honors the minute, "random" detail of the world, and reveals it together with a sense of its integrity, its unity and form, her own ambitious, disturbing, and eerily eccentric novels are stichomythic structures in which ideas, not things, and certainly not human beings, flourish. (p. 27)

There is a dizzying profusion … of characters, incidents, settings, "endings," so much so that even admirers of Murdoch's fiction often complain that they cannot remember a novel only a few days after having read it….

Despite this multiplicity, this richness however, the novels are not really difficult, so long as one...

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