Iris Murdoch

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 1522 words.)

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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:

He took off his macintosh and propped his streaming umbrella in a corner, whence a rivulet proceeded across the floor making pools in the cracked tiles and disturbing a gathering of the semi-transparent beetles who were now shameless inhabitants of the kitchen.

The dim light showed, immediately outside the door, the steep stairs which Cato now mounted to the room above where he once more checked the window which had been partially boarded up and more recently covered by a blanket hung from two nails…. There was a chest of drawers with the drawers standing open and empty, a divan bed with a dirty flimsy green coverlet drawn up over disorderly bedclothes, and a small metal crucifix nailed to the wall above…. There were two upright chairs and a number of overflowing ashtrays. The room smelt of damp and tobacco and the lavatory next door.

This loving inventory brings out just how cumbered you can be when you have, in theory, nothing; decorum reigns here too, with 'semi-transparent beetles' instead of larks, and 'overflowing ashtrays' instead of 'big Italian vases'. The scene has a pictorial quiet and stasis that places Cato and articulates his identity, especially his unfreedom.

Not surprisingly for a book so visually conceived, Henry and Cato imagines hell as sensory deprivation. Conned by Joe into thinking he has been kidnapped by a gang, Cato finds himself locked in total darkness in what turns out to be an old air-raid shelter, and there, truly stripped of possessions, he falls apart—'it was not exactly like going mad, it was more like a gentle disintegration of a tentacular thought stuff … which now floated quietly away into the dark'…. Moral existence is a matter of detailed images, without those illusory points of reference people die. The Nice and the Good, another novel full of pictorial detail, also used deep shelters under London (and a tide-filled cave) to demonstrate the fragility of mental space unsupported by the colours and perspectives of the art of material life. In Iris Murdoch's world it is spiritual arrogance of the most dangerous kind to suppose that you can become cultureless; she is not much troubled by the snobbish imperative of placing the quality of one kind of life over another, but she refuses to imagine a life that is 'free' of cultural patterns.

Which brings one back to the question of the peculiar kind of illusion her novels are after. She has, at least since The Nice and the Good in 1968, settled into a confident formula which stresses both the richness of detail and its disposability ('metaphors … used briefly and then thrown away'). Presumably it works so well because it feeds the moral curiosity about 'otherness' without subjecting any one set of characters to the kind of intense scrutiny that might merge them with the author. She no longer seems (if she ever did) interested in building a symbolic system or making a myth: her basic procedure is a loose form of allegory (or allegorising, to emphasise that it's a continuous process) and her mythological figures are deliberately attached to particular pieces of canvas, as though she is insisting on their being human creations. She has depth, but like the depth of her favourite paintings it is limited, and illusory (in the sense that you're meant to accept it as an approximation). Her treatment of minor characters—those not directly necessary to the action, who by their gratuitous presence seem especially to show 'that other people exist'—is interestingly similar to the arrangements of perspective in painting:

Henry … was in the National Gallery, examining the most important acquisition made during his absence, Titian's great Diana and Actaeon. The immortal goddess, with curving apple cheek, her bow uplifted, bounds with graceful ruthless indifference across the foreground, while further back, in an underworld of brooding light, the doll-like figure of Actaeon falls stiffly to the onslaught of the dogs. A stream flashes. A mysterious horseman passes. The woods, the air, are of a russet brown so intense and frightening as to persuade one that the tragedy is taking place in total silence.

Henry takes it rather smugly as a reminder of the dangerous forces that toy with human destinies, but his own happy ending will prove him wrong. The forces at work in his world, while no less mysterious, are thoroughly human. What he should have paid attention to was the eerie mutual ignorance of the figures in the painting—Diana in the foreground, Actaeon dying in his underworld, the horseman in the distance. It's this ignorance, this living in separate worlds, that seems to Iris Murdoch to pose the central problems in both art and morality. And while a painting, or a novel, can seem to face and overcome our blindness, they share in it too. The 'mysterious horseman'—the minor character—on the skyline has to stand in for the endless variety of other lives and possibilities that lie beyond. One way of taking an allegory is to see in it a universal image, on which individual dilemmas converge; Miss Murdoch seems to see it rather differently, as a way of expressing the provisional nature of one's world picture. Her minor characters are, in their stylised 'realism', a measure of the scepticism she permits herself about her fictional world. (pp. 64-6)

Lorna Sage, "The Pursuit of Imperfection," in Critical Quarterly (© Manchester University Press 1977), Summer, 1977, pp. 61-8.

Zohreh T. Sullivan

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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 still further into the final confines of madness and death in The Time of the Angels. While Flight focuses on several different levels of society and a variety of erotic relationships, The Unicorn focuses more narrowly on a few philosophical attitudes and relationships confined within two houses, and The Time of the Angels concentrates even more narrowly on the mostly incestuous relationships within only one isolated ingrown household—that of an atheist priest who lives in a bombed-out rectory. These novels, therefore, are dramatizing the consequences of solipsism: the psychological and sexual enslavement of oneself and others through fantasy, delusion, self-abnegation, and power….

Murdoch's society in these novels resembles Northrop Frye's description of a demonic human world, a society dichotomized between the ruthless, inscrutable tyrant on one hand and the sacrificed victim or pharmakos on the other, a community held together by "a kind of molecular tension of egos, a loyalty to the group or the leader which diminishes the individual." The setting in each novel also conforms to the requirements of both the demonic and Gothic traditions: the straight path and rich topography of what Frye calls the apocalyptic is contrasted in Murdoch against the labyrinth or wasteland of the demonic. (p. 561)

The Flight from the Enchanter may be read as an allegory of power, power willingly conferred by psychologically enslaved individuals upon those who seek to control them by force of their personal magnetism and ego. The plot centers on Mischa Fox's attempts to gain control of a small independent magazine, the Artemis, its owner's sister Rosa, and various other independent people he can't bear to see free from his control….

Each of the major characters in Flight is an orphan, an alien, or a refugee who attempts to compensate for his isolation by creating and controlling his own world, free from the accidents and threats of real life. Mischa Fox, the supreme enchanter of the novel, is both ruthless controller and passive innocent. His own self-image as melancholy lover of the world emerges in confessional talks with Peter Saward when he weepingly recalls incidents from his childhood in an East European village. But this strange region of sensibility within him contrasts drastically with his life as a sophisticated power-magnate who rescues refugees such as Nina, only to trap them into his deathly web, and who manipulates his alter-ego, henchman, and "minotaur" Calvin to carry out his evil designs. (p. 562)

In the Murdochian credo, love is incompatible with power; it never involves the need to change another individual, but consists instead of "the non-violent apprehension of difference" and the delightful perception of the inexhaustible otherness of the other. In this novel, Peter Saward, historian of pre-Babylonian empires, is the only person capable of Murdochian selfless love, "the lover who nothing himself, lets other things be through him." Unlike Mischa, who needs to "place" people in order to control them, and Rosa, who fears intimacy as a threat to her independence, Peter is seen to be totally vulnerable to others, "a personality without frontiers" who never needs to defend himself against the powers of others. (p. 563)

The Unicorn (1963) represents a significant development in Murdoch's handling of the closed Gothic novel—the novel of form, myth, and socio-religious philosophy rather than that of character. Reminiscent of Wuthering Heights, "The Lady of Shallot," and Mme. de LaFayette's La Princesse de Cleves, this story is about the self-imposed exile and imprisonment of a group of people at Gaze Castle who weave themselves into a web of enchantment designed in part by Hannah Crean-Smith and by Gerald Scottow, her demonic master-caretaker…. Part of the ambiguity of the novel lies in the nature of the bonds that imprison Hannah—ambiguous bonds that are variously interpreted by others as superstitious, pagan, Christian, spiritual, evil, or sexual. Hannah is believed to be either under a seven-year spell or undergoing a seven-year period of spiritual suffering as expiation for her adultery and her attempted murder of her husband Peter. (p. 564)

The communities in the novel … are composed not of singularly independent centers of significance, but of actors who find safety in a looking-glass world, whose eyes project on to Hannah their image of her, and who see in her the reflections of spiritual, platonic, or courtly ideals. She dies when their faith in her wanes along with their existence as mirror images of her reality…. Hannah's mirror is finally a metaphor for her dependence on the introspective, self-contemplative code of conduct that gradually leads her to utterly disregard all others as independent and complex beings to be known, understood, or loved.

If the ability of a community to create its demonic controllers is seen in Flight and The Unicorn, Murdoch's The Time of the Angels is about the power of the demon to contaminate himself and others. In all three novels the enchanter manipulates the fantasies of victims who need a dominating figure to provide metaphysical meaning and dynamic tension to their otherwise vague drifting lives. In Time the need for some reconstructed value system directs this enchanter figure towards mad Nietzschean fantasies of the self as a potential Deity in a nihilistic world. Particularly in her central figure, Carel Fisher, we understand Murdoch's perception of the demonic as the inevitable result of conceptual and imaginative inadequacy in an age that venerates power and solipsism. (pp. 565-66)

Carel is Murdoch's modern representation of a Faust, who like Thomas Mann's Leverkühn, signals the end of a humane intellectual and ethical tradition. The parallels between Leverkühn and Carel (their similar philosophical backgrounds, their pacts with the inhuman, their sexual enslavement of others) emphasize their author's concern with those nihilistic and irrational elements in modern existentialist thought that Mann had earlier seen as responsible for the inhumanity of the Germans during the Second World War….

If the central image of interiority in The Unicorn was the mirror, here it is the cocoon. Carel's effect on others takes the form of a kind of spell that imposes on them his special brand of immobility and dehumanization…. (p. 566)

Murdoch's choral use of Blake's "Introduction" to "The Songs of Experience" as part of Pattie's musings is intended to suggest a healthy Romantic norm, a positive Romanticism that emphasizes the regenerative power of wonder that accompanies the discovery of the external sensory world through goodness, love, and imagination. Murdoch's pursuit of true imagination as man's key to the discovery and love of others also recalls what Alfred Kazin calls the great theme of Blake's work—the search for imagination "that has been lost and will be found again through human vision." Seen within a framework of Romantic theories of perception, her sudden recognition scenes (such as Muriel's chilling keyhole vision of her father's naked body entwined with Elizabeth's) may be understood as devices intended to startle the self-deceptive mind into seeing the truth of others, and occasionally understanding, as Pattie does, the "face of evil as a human face." Carel's evil then is the result of man's intellectual errors that are created by his inadequate imagination—what Blake would call lost imagination, and Murdoch fantasy. (p. 568)

Her three Gothic novels are crucial to an understanding of her treatment of evil, the dangers of fantasy, and the problem of the discovery of others which is the only means to achieve human community. Within the Gothic form Murdoch has also found powerful images and a "new vocabulary of experience" that capture her sense of the moral and emotional failures of this age: the ruined church as an emblem of the failure of conventional religion to cure the sickness of the age, the incestuous family as a demonic extension of egoism and solipsism, and the enchanter or Faustian priest as a manifestation of modern existential man who defines his own values in a world bereft of the community of men and of God. The retreat of her characters into mental and spatial enclosures that admit neither contingency, humanity, nor love is most perfectly embodied in the progressively inward movements and the enclosed structure of Iris Murdoch's Gothic house of fiction. (pp. 568-69)

Zohreh T. Sullivan, "The Contracting Universe of Iris Murdoch's Gothic Novels" (a revision of a speech originally delivered to the Fourth Annual Conference on Twentieth Century Literature at the University of Louisville in February, 1976), in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1977, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Winter, 1977–78, pp. 557-69.

Gabriele Annan

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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

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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

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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….

Charles at once begins to plot to get Hartley back, deceiving himself that she must still love him, when in fact all she feels is guilt for the abruptness of her former abandonment of him far back in the past. Guilt is one of the two major themes of the book….

[Magic] is the other theme of the novel. By summoning up good demons to his aid, Charles also summons up the bad ones that cause misunderstanding, unhappiness and a series of deaths, most of them violent.

The narrator, Charles, describes his story as 'a novelistic memoir' and later declares 'I am writing my life as a novel'. The result is a book that has all the waywardness, the inconsequence and the untidiness of autobiography, rather than of fiction. There are some splendid digressions—for example, a tirade against Ireland and the Irish—and some no less splendid descriptions of the sea, of the sky at night and of the appearances of even peripheral characters of no importance whatever. (p. 16)

As always, Miss Murdoch produces passages that simply take the breath away; no other living English writer is capable of them. But they are not as numerous as in the best of her novels. For the last eighty pages or so one is too conscious of the novelist as a marathon runner, flagging and increasingly breathless, who is determined to reach the tape at the 500-page mark ahead of her, even though all the opposition has long since dropped out.

Those who are irritated by Miss Murdoch's faults will find ample cause for irritation here. One of her characters says 'Anyone can love anyone' and he might have added 'Anyone can do anything'. Motives are either, like stowaways, found too late or not found at all. There is far too much melodramatic dialogue in the manner of 'Vilify her, put the blame on her! How splendidly you give yourself away!' There is also some extremely clumsy plotting, with the hero at one point eavesdropping on Hartley and her husband under a window of their house and, miraculously, hearing every word.

But such defects, common in all her novels, always seem to me a price to be paid willingly for such richness of imagination and such grandeur of intellect. (pp. 16-17)

Francis King, "Love's Spell and Black Magic," in The Spectator (© 1978 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), August 26, 1978, pp. 15-17.

Joyce Carol Oates

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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 reads them as structures in which ideas compete, as in a debate, or, when they are most successful, as in Greek tragedy, in which near-symmetrical, balanced forces war with one another….

Murdoch's philosophical position is austere, classical, rigorously unromantic, and pessimistic. Not that pessimism precludes comedy: on the contrary, it is probably the basis of the comic spirit…. [There are] amusing Murdoch characters who realize that they are doomed to happiness and to the mediocrity that seems to imply, since the circumstances of their lives prevent them from continuing the quest for the nature of truth…. But suffering itself, in the context of pitiless self-examination, can masquerade as purification, and we are back where we've begun—no more enlightened than before….

There is something noble about a philosopher's quixotic assumption that he or she is the person to protect others from despair; or, indeed, that others require protection from despair. But Murdoch's sense of her mission is noble, and in an era when some of our most articulate spokesmen routinely denigrate their own efforts it is good to be told, I think plausibly, that literature provides an education in how to picture and comprehend the human situation….

To a Platonist ideas are real. Iris Murdoch is, perhaps, not a Platonist—not quite. And yet in her novels ideas are far more "real" than they are in other contemporary novels; there are not very many of them, and they are clearly, almost too clearly, set forth. The basic idea seems to be that centuries of humanism have nourished an unrealistic conception of the powers of the will: we have gradually lost the vision of a reality separate from ourselves, and we have no adequate conception of original sin. (p. 28)

Murdoch believes that the "inner" world is, in a sense, parasitic upon the "outer" world, and that love, far from being this redemptive, all-consuming force that sentimentalists consider it, is in fact the most dangerous of all delusions. It is bound up helplessly with egoism and personal fantasy, the "tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevent one from seeing what there is outside one."… Mankind is not free. There are few choices, few options, though daydreams and fantasies urge us to believe that there are many, and that the small, distorting window through which we view the world is not a fiction. It has been charged that Murdoch's characters are puppets and that they are jerked about from one improbable crisis to another, and perhaps in response to this Murdoch has had one of her most important spokesmen, Brendan, Cato's mentor in Henry and Cato, say that people are puppets—puppets in the hands of God. And what is God?… Perhaps God is simply another fiction, however, and the various metaphysical substitutes—Reason, Science, History, Society, "Progress"—are false deities. One is left, then, with…

One is left with silly inconsequential but deeply absorbing plots. Emotions that feel "genuine" and "existential" enough but are, of course, illusions, sheer phantasmagoria. One is left with other people who are, whether they acknowledge it or not, involved in the same fruitless, albeit highly engrossing, quest. Their "ideas" make war upon one another: their "visions" are always in conflict. (pp. 29-30)

The Sea, The Sea is intermittently brilliant, given life by those off-hand, gnomic, always provocative remarks—essays in miniature, really—that characterize Murdoch's novels, and give them their intelligence, their gravity, while the machinations of the plot threaten to dissipate all seriousness…. Scene follows scene, the movement is maddeningly sluggish, one comes to feel that Murdoch is not going to budge, and that the strategy of a first-person narrator (so effective in A Word Child) was simply an error in The Sea, The Sea. Curiously, the novel is not very dramatic. There are a few awkward gestures toward gothic melodrama—Charles is terrified when a mirror is broken in his house, and a vase smashed; he believes he has seen a sea-serpent, and a dim "ghost"—but the "supernatural" is set aside for hundreds of pages, and some of the acts rather perfunctorily explained, so that Charles can concentrate upon his quixotic, doomed "love" for poor Hartley…. But much of the novel is static, and Charles becomes unforgivably garrulous. He is a vain, self-important fool, and yet one resents being trapped inside his consciousness, however authentic it seems. And it is difficult not to think that the novel's conclusion … is not part of another novel, another extended vision.

There are too many sketchy characters in The Sea, The Sea, the "fable" is not adequately linked to the "theme," and Murdoch is coming to depend upon a certain category of personage … far too often, too glibly, in order to make her primary ideas explicit.

The employment of highly articulate characters is of course not an inevitable sign of a novel's failure; but in Murdoch these characters are used repeatedly; they are self-conscious gods-from-the-machine who "resolve" the protagonist's doubts by uttering certain gnomic observations, and then withdrawing. Murdoch makes an attempt to give them weight, to give some background—usually a "tragic" memory—but their essence is illusive and finally unreal because they are no more than the embodiment of ideas, and constitute, in a sense, the novelist's failure to communicate her theme on a deeper, less self-consciously verbal level; or perhaps it is an impatience with the formality of the novel itself. One has the typically dense Murdochian plot with its cast of highly idiosyncratic, colorful characters, and one has a kind of ongoing choral commentary on the plot and characters. When the story, the people, are convincingly imagined—as in Henry and Cato, surely one of the major achievements in fiction …—one is not distracted by the commentary; when the story and its people are sketchily imagined, too obviously clownish to be worthy of our serious attention, the thematic statements, the Olympian utterances, fail to work entirely….

Where ideas float about, inadequately embodied in narrative, they are often fascinating in themselves—and surely Murdoch is one of our most consistently intelligent, and rewarding, writers—but the danger is, of course, that they will come to seem increasingly perfunctory. (p. 30)

We are offered unanticipated moments of terrible, even tragic lucidity; we are purified by suffering; but our powerful revelations fade, our insights dissolve, and we are back in the world of appearances, of strife and desire and illusion. Given the opportunity to experience freedom we prefer to be, in the end, puppets of God. The work that is central to an understanding of Murdoch's oeuvre is Plato's allegory of the cave: I suggest that all of Murdoch's novels are commentaries on it. (p. 31)

Joyce Carol Oates, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 18, 1978.


Iris Murdoch World Literature Analysis


Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 15)