Iris Murdoch Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 15)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Murdoch, (Jean) Iris 1919–

Murdoch is a British novelist and playwright. Her education in philosophy is evident 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, indeed, possible only when an individual recognizes the existence of someone other than himself. Some critics complain that the philosopher sometimes triumphs over the novelist, reducing characters to puppets thrown into situations to make a point. Murdoch's novels are intricately plotted and often treat complex and fantastic situations rather melodramatically. 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, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Linda Kuehl

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Form, Iris Murdoch warns, is the artist's consolation and his temptation: he is tempted to sacrifice the eccentric, contingent individual while he consoles himself with the secure boundaries of structure. As she sees it, this constitutes a crisis since the contemporary novelist tends to produce fiction in the shape of tiny, self-contained, crystal-like objects. Diagnosing the tyranny of form as an ill that must be cured, she postulates a return to the novel of character as it is manifested in the works of Scott, Jane Austen, George Eliot and Tolstoy, for these nineteenth-century writers were so capable of charity that they gave their people an independent existence in an external world….

Surely few modern writers are as concerned as [Murdoch] is with the plight of the novel. Few have contributed so many dazzling, not to say intelligent, essays on the subject. And few have worked within forms as inventive as her own original metaphysical fantasy. (p. 347)

[Does] Miss Murdoch's nostalgia for nineteenth-century characterization satisfy the twentieth-century dilemma between fictive form and the human person?

The Flight from the Enchanter, A Severed Head and The Unicorn, all invoke eerie, twilight regions, netherlands where characters act out their fantasies remote from the daylight world of everyday human affairs. To heighten the nightmare, the author relies upon haunting settings and emotionally charged atmospheres, such as Victorian mansions, Gothic castles, weird landscapes and interiors. (pp. 347-48)

These settings provide environments for tales of enchantment which involve two groups of characters, those who enchant and those who are enchanted, in an intricate network of flight and pursuit. The enchanters are mysterious, magical figures who represent the forces at work in an ambiguous universe, while the enchanted suffer from ignorance and impotence and so regard these powerful beings with fascination and loathing. The mansion or castle in which much of the action transpires is a metaphor for the universe and its atmosphere an emblem of a limbo closer to hell than heaven. The enchanters and their subjects are engaged in a futile symbolic struggle between knowledge and illusion. (p. 348)

The observer's obscure internal terror is indicated by a prevailing notion of being spellbound. Futile attempts are made to break the spell that would enable one to awaken from the numbing paralysis and cross into one's own verifiable world. But lethargy is inescapable, an automatic response to higher powers, and the enchanted feel trapped into enacting dramas which they neither understand nor control. Like sleepwalkers, they move along predestined paths, bewildered by the arbitrary and incomprehensible game, with the self-righteous irresponsibility of a victim. (p. 349)

Her direct assault upon the reader's nerves is obvious in Flight, Severed Head and The Unicorn which together contain six attempted and actual suicides, three murders, numerous physical attacks, imprisonments, banishments, desertions, abductions, rescues and escapes. Of course, the treatment varies in each book. Flight 's psychological orientation compels...

(The entire section is 8,513 words.)