Iris Murdoch

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 2332 words.)

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in each book.Flight's psychological orientation compels the enchanted characters to enact their neurotic impulses as their counterparts in Severed Head also do but with one important difference. Whereas in Flight violence functions as a natural extension of the characters' unconscious feelings, in Severed Head it is the primitive intrusion upon a civilized drawing room milieu…. Here we find a society based upon unintelligible rules, so that numerous melodramatic acts occur with no discernible reason. In fact, violence is never motivated. (p. 352)

Miss Murdoch is probably infamous for her strategy of insinuation, which is the reverse of the direct assault and which may be roughly defined as a technique whereby she creates an atmosphere of the uncanny. The first three conveyors of this method, namely coincidence, riddles, and ironic reversals, are intended to produce the sense of entrapment. Coincidence generates what Freud calls the "factor of involuntary repetition." Translated into literary terms this means that the author repeatedly entangles her enchanted characters in unwieldy and inescapable situations, in recurrent interruptions, discoveries, pursuits and predestinations. To intensify the oppression of fate, she also scatters riddles without explanation. Moreover, she weaves her novels around central riddles which she never solves yet continually entices the reader into solving…. As for ironic reversals, these can be light, as the discovery that Annette has inadvertently taken milk of magnesia tablets instead of sleeping pills in an attempted suicide; or grave, as the realization that Rosa, who fancies herself "half lady of the manor and half social worker" is enslaved by the Polish brothers.

Miss Murdoch's fourth strategy of insinuation pertains to sexual perversions. She exploits these through cryptic but pointed remarks, intimate and knowing glances, and hesitating yet lingering caresses, all tokens of suppressed appetites and passions that consume enchanters and enchanted alike…. This erotica rarely becomes overt but rather signals psychological torment. That such hints remain covert is typical of Gothic fiction where implication is more dynamic than fact. (pp. 352-53)

Iris Murdoch transforms the clichés of the novelist's trade into her own unique genre, the metaphysical fantasy…. Gothic setting, flamboyant characterization and melodramatic plots give rise to ornate networks of intrigue. (p. 353)

Miss Murdoch's enthusiasm for nineteenth-century characters prompts her desire to give "a lot of people" an existence separate from herself and to permit them to roam freely and cheerfully through her pages. Unfortunately, she seems unable to do this, for in each successive novel there emerges a pattern of predictable and predetermined types. These include the enchanter or enchantress—occult, godly, foreign, ancient—who is torn between exhibitionism and introspection, egotism and generosity, cruelty and pity; the observer, trapped between love and fear of the enchanter, who thinks in terms of ghosts, spells, demons and destiny, and imparts an obfuscated view of life; and the accomplice, a peculiar mixture of diabolical intention and bemused charm, who has dealings with the enchanters and power over the observers…. All three groups—enchanters, observers and accomplices—make up a scheme symptomatic of the author's failure to break away from the tyranny of form. Though she produces many people, each is tightly controlled in a superimposed design, each rigidly cast in a classical Murdochian role. (pp. 353-54)

If Iris Murdoch is unable to give her characters a free and independent existence because they are cast in predetermined roles and are invested with intellectual concepts and associations, she also limits them through her ambivalent detachment. Ideally, this moral neutrality is calculated to create a distance between the author and her characters and, in so doing, establish an impartiality towards the ideas they embody…. Moral neutrality is … Miss Murdoch's means to resist using art as mere expression of self and her effort to become, like Shakespeare, invisible. (p. 355)

[Her] characters become tokens of an antirational argument about character itself…. As personifications of a theory, specifically accumulations of exotic detail, inexplicable motives, and weird fantasies, they are reduced to arbitrary and anomalous caricatures. Because the detached author permits them the freedom of thinking, doing and saying anything, they fly apart…. Miss Murdoch's characters suffer from too much potential, too much contingency, too much eccentricity. And, so, while she seeks that "enticing mystery of the unknown" that is found in a writer like Alain-Fournier, she fails to approximate his mysterious depths. Instead, we must settle for a surface of sensational and immediate effects, inventive to be sure, which provokes playful suspense.

Neither does her neutrality eventuate in charity and tolerance. On the contrary, it results in moral confusion…. [She] takes an almost voyeuristic delight in her Mephistophelian characters and their wicked impulses, in satanic Calvin Blick, impish Jamesie Evercreech, and sinister Gerald Scottow, not to mention those three disreputable enchanters. These people are equipped with superior intellect, wile and charm which qualifies them to manipulate the observers whom she deflates by jesting at their protests of innocence, premature boasting, flagrant illogic and incurable pedestrianism. Paradoxically, Miss Murdoch's surreptitious bias is balanced by a converse prejudice on behalf of her observers. "An odd sort of Anglo-Irish snobbery" emerges, as the critic, Gabriel Pearson, puts it, from her equation of the foreigner and supernaturalism on the one hand and the Englishman and pragmatism on the other…. In this way, she violates her own dictum of moral neutrality by being neither moral nor neutral and, in turn, undermines the human aspect of her fiction.

Besides being damaged by predetermined roles and ambivalent detachment, her characters are additionally dehumanized by the mechanical parts they are forced to play in the labyrinths of intrigue. Here again the private personality is sacrificed to the overall pattern. Miss Murdoch's Gothic and fairy tale people are designed not to break out of the fantastic into the concrete world beyond but are ordained to remain within her dream-prisons. Were she really interested in dramatizing the flight from enchantment, she would have focused upon the struggle against illusion. Instead, however, it is enchantment itself that fascinates her, and consequently she prefers to entangle rather than to disentangle her characters. (pp. 355-57)

Miss Murdoch's excessive intrigue necessitates inflexible superstructures, and these superstructures are another token of the dominance of form. Flight's structure is circular. At the end of the novel, Rosa Keepe's panic is assuaged when Peter Saward shows her a picture of Mischa's birthplace: "Here is the old market square and here is the famous bronze fountain, and here is the mediaeval bridge across the river…." By pacifying Rosa with a romantic escape from reality, the novel ends nearly where it began, with another exploitation of Mischa as a mythic or storybook character. Although The Unicorn concludes with various melodramatic events, its structure is also circular in the sense that the characters have not progressed beyond their initial benighted outlooks. (p. 357)

Unfortunately, this kind of structure falsifies both novels. Flight becomes a grotesque joke contrived by an author with a flare for sensationalism. So does The Unicorn, though the joke is even more outrageous because the later book promises so much more at its inception…. [In] both Flight and The Unicorn, the observers' final ignorance furnishes no insight in reverse into the enchanters' true identities even though such information is warranted in view of all the hints and traces which have been previously planted.

While Miss Murdoch employs a circular structure when she wants a grim ending, she uses a vertical one for optimistic finales. Both are equally random since they are not outgrowths of character but superimpositions. The promising confrontation between Honor Klein and Martin Lynch-Gibbon, which serves as the climax to the vertical plot of Severed Head, is ludicrous. However self-consciously ironic the author tries to make them sound, their sentiments are absurd…. (pp. 357-58)

Whether Miss Murdoch uses the circular or the vertical design, her provocative method of alternating between violence and shock on the one hand and of insinuating supernaturalism and eroticism on the other raises expectations which she does not fulfill. Therefore, the reader feels cheated as if by one of Honor's dark gods. It has all been a sham …; the riddles do not amount to the crucial questions about metaphysical ambiguity but to teasers planted at regular intervals to seduce the reader further; the ironic reversals do not signify twists of fate that render people absurdly impotent but to clever tricks that build up tension and suspense for their own sake; and, the sexual perversions do not expose sinister ambivalences in human relationships but erotic dabbling. (pp. 358-59)

Measured by her own standards, The Flight from the Enchanter, A Severed Head and The Unicorn fail because each sacrifices free and independent characters in carefully contrived forms…. [She] reduces her people to predetermined and predictable roles and submerges them in weighty and unrealized philosophical concepts and mythic-literary allusions. Also, she mistranslates moral neutrality into cold, ambivalent and sometimes immoral detachment. And even her designs suffer because she indulges in playful excursions, sensational effects and fanciful setting for their own sake.

Iris Murdoch is a paradox indeed: typically modern insofar as she arranges her characters contrapuntally to illuminate the universal predicament and curiously old-fashioned to the extent that she employs traditional Gothic and narrative devices. Consequently, she appears to be irreconcilably divided between a contemporary proclivity towards novels of ideas and a nostalgic commitment to novels of character. As a philosopher, she naturally inclines towards the first, causing her to create people who either have ideas to articulate or who are idiosyncratic enough to voice her own ideas…. Miss Murdoch states in her literary essays that she wishes to write fiction entirely free from rationalism. In attempting to do so, she deliberately sabotages any ideas that might bear the imprint of "insight," by embracing ideas not her own, and, especially, by appropriating literary devices from conventional fiction. (p. 359)

[Being] a perceptive critic, she is profoundly conscious that she has not succeeded in conveying the unique and precious qualities of the human person. Yet, however brilliantly she articulates the dilemma in her essays, it is doubtful that her thinking about fictive form has been at all radical. her nostalgia for traditional but outmoded techniques makes her position obsolete. Like Sir Walter Scott who lived in Old Abbey because he fancied a bygone era, Miss Murdoch's great betrayal of character is partially the onus of an anachronistic literary theory. By opting for nineteenth-century characterization, she avoids radical solutions to issues that cannot be satisfied through orthodox means since modern novelists no longer create people like Anna and Vronsky, Dorothea and Causaubon….

The disappointing thing about Iris Murdoch is that she continues at the rate of almost one per year to write novels according to the dictates of an obsolete standard and within the context of tired patterns…. Which makes one wonder: why does so astute and reputable a moral philosopher dedicated to art continue to produce the kind of novels that make some critics suggest that her real province is either detective or science fiction? One may only hope that she will reassess her faith in traditional forms. (p. 360)

Linda Kuehl, "Iris Murdoch: The Novelist as Magician/The Magician as Artist," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1969 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Vol. XV, No. 3, Autumn, 1969, pp. 347-60.

Howard German

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[Miss Murdoch's] novels are copiously endowed with details; however, these details are not selected solely to satisfy the demands of realism…. [Her] fiction is rich in details that serve as allusions: incorporated in each of her works is a background of material selected from earlier literary classics, myths, biographies, and so forth. Since her novels seldom display an extended parallel with an earlier work, her practice is perhaps closer to that of Eliot in The Waste Land than to that of Joyce in Ulysses. (p. 361)

The narrator of Under The Net, Jake Donaghue, states that his acquaintance with Hugo Belfounder is "the central theme" of the book: consequently, he spends considerable time in the novel describing Hugo's background, personality and ideas…. While interested in theories about everything, Hugo has a great distrust of generalities and of language, in particular of the use of language to describe one's emotions: for him, "the whole language is a machine for making falsehoods."… Readers of Norman Malcolm's Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir … will find that many details of Wittgenstein's life and personality are quite similar to those of Hugo described above…. The similarities in their ideas are also obvious. Wittgenstein … was constantly striving for precision in language: his attitude can be summarized by a frequently quoted statement …: "What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must consign to silence."

Clearly, Under The Net is not a roman a clef which provides intimate details about one of the twentieth century's most influential philosophers. The correspondence between Hugo and Wittgenstein is far from exact…. The justification for the allusions to Wittgenstein's life and ideas lies in their thematic appropriateness in a novel which is greatly concerned with the way in which life is inevitably distorted when reduced to a formula, when it is placed "under the net." (pp. 361-62)

Another source of allusion for Under The Net is the Aeneid…. That episodes in the novel are considerably modified from the originals in the Aeneid can be seen by examining the story of the Trojan horse [in comparison with Jake's hidden ride in a van]. (p. 363)

[The] distance between the Aeneid and this novel … makes clear that the value of the allusions does not lie in detecting specific parallels…. Perhaps one of Miss Murdoch's reasons for using an archetype is heuristic; the search for modern equivalents may help to provide her with the mass of detail which she believes gives the novel its special merit. For the reader the value in this particular set of allusions lies in recognizing the parallel between Jake and Aeneas…. Jake, like Aeneas, is guided by an idea of fate, of inevitable acts and destiny; a romantic, he is always "expecting something," finding patterns in his life and declaring that events are written in heaven…. Although disagreeing with Vergil's emphasis upon a grand design for an individual, Miss Murdoch seems to have found the Aeneid an appropriate source for allusions.

For The Flight From The Enchanter Miss Murdoch draws upon various sources for patterns of detail and imagery: Through The Looking Glass, fairy tales by Grimm and Andersen, and myths and tales from the mid-Eastern, Slavic and Scandinavian countries. The allusions from the works of Lewis Carroll vary from explicit remarks … to less obvious details from Through The Looking Glass, most of which relate to Annette and John Rainborough. Annette is frequently described as "looking into the glass,"… as having "walked through the looking glass,"… as being unable to "break the spell and cross the barrier into what seemed to her at such moments to be her own world."… (pp. 363-64)

The world of fable and fairy tale, which is evoked in various ways, is used primarily in presenting Mischa Fox and Annette…. Mischa Fox is described as sitting "like a tailor in a fairy story,"… and their conversation recalls Grimm's Hansel and Gretel as they speak metaphorically of being "lost in a forest," of "the woodcutter's cottage" and of "the enchanter's house." Other fables are suggested in the novel, but Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" is the one drawn upon most heavily…. Several times Annette is likened to a mermaid: Rosa and she agree that she is "like a little fish … [and] should have been a mermaid."… Well intoxicated at the party, she makes for the mantlepiece "like a shipwrecked man striking out for a raft"; in her torn gown she is described as rising "like a mermaid out of the sea-green sheath of her dress."… When she is recovering from her sprained ankle, Annette, like Andersen's mermaid, finds walking painful. (pp. 365-66)

Mythology and tales from the Middle East also provide a background for The Flight From the Enchanter. The reader is encouraged to look for such allusions by descriptions…. Upon examination, several of the characters reveal similarities to deities of the Mid-East; correspondences can be noted between Mischa and Re, between Calvin Blick and Thout, Peter Saward and Osiris, and Rosa and Isis. (p. 366)

Some of the details of [The Flight From The Enchanter] are derived from European mythology. For example, both Germanic and Slavic peoples have tales of the Mora (or Mahr), a spirit which places a spell upon individuals and attacks and often kills sleeping people. The Mora may enter a bedroom through a keyhole or a knothole [assuming the shape of a mouse, cat or snake, and after choking the sleeping victim, suck his blood]…. These beliefs explain some of the elements in the description of Hunter's illness: his feeling that the skin of his face is being drawn toward a hole in his brow, the reference to a dead mouse and cat, Marcia's remark about a spell being placed on Hunter, Mrs. Wingfield's repeated references to "no blood," and Marcia's comment about a vacation in Dalmatia. (p. 367)

Norse mythology also accounts for much detail in the novel; it provides elements, for example, that link Calvin Blick and Thor. Among Thor's attributes are a magic girdle, an irresistible hammer and an unusual goat-drawn chariot. Calvin Blick, as Hunter notes with annoyance, wears pants with an elastic band; Calvin easily overpowers Hunter in their scuffle by bringing "his hand down like a hammer" upon Hunter's back…. With Mrs. Wingfield's fondness for opera and her singing "in the twi-twi-twilight" (cf. The Twilight of the Gods), the reader's attention is directed toward these Norse myths by one of the works in which they have been incorporated, namely Wagner's Ring. (pp. 367-68)

Judging by the events in the novel, ordinary life abounds with magic; most of the characters are the victims of self-induced spells or fantasies which they weave…. Motivated partly by irrational, unconscious forces—guilt, desire for freedom, power, love—the characters constantly create and pursue illusions that promise happiness. It is this preoccupation with individual illusion in the novel that provides the essential justification for the wealth of material drawn from fairy tale and myth—universally recognized expressions of man's yearning for a dream world.

The Sandcastle is concerned with two major themes—art and love—and these themes determine some of the background detail in the novel. Because of Rain Carter's assignment to paint a portrait of Demoyte, the relationship between a portrait and its subject is frequently discussed in the book. Since biography also raises the question of the extent to which the artist should interpret and judge his subject, Miss Murdoch may have been led to draw details from Boswell's Life of Johnson…. In any case, she uses details from Boswell's picture of Johnson in order to describe Bledyard's appearance and mannerisms…. Miss Murdoch has also drawn upon Johnson's associates in the Life: Mor, with his love and veneration of Demoyte and his obsequiousness toward him, suggests Boswell. Timothy Burke is a jeweller and goldsmith who combines Edmund Burke's political interests with Oliver Goldsmith's ineptitude in public. Often when Timothy Burke is present, Miss Murdoch's prose becomes extremely elaborate with considerable alliteration and balancing of phrases…. (pp. 368-69)

A concern with romantic love is also responsible for allusions in [The Sandcastle]. It contributes…. brief phrases and acts which evoke nineteenth century poetry: Mor's brief vigil outside Rain's window recalls Keats' "Nightingale," and the description of Mor and Rain driving along the bridle path in the Riley has echoes of Browning's "The Last Ride Together" and "Two in a Gondola." (pp. 369-70)

By the treatment of its main themes, The Sandcastle argues that both art and love must avoid the same temptation, namely the impulse to ignore the reality of another individual…. The concern with romantic love in the novel explains the allusions to those works and figures who have helped to establish the concept. The references to Dr. Johnson and his world are relevant … because of the aesthetic problems involved in writing biography, and perhaps because of the antiromantic values associated with the eighteenth century.

The Bell seems to be the novel of Miss Murdoch's that makes the least use of external sources; apparently it draws upon only one work, Dante's Inferno, and the allusions are few and tenuous. However, the topography of Imber with its four rivers and the lake, the ferry, and the causeway with one damaged section (like that in Dante's Eighth Circle) seem modelled upon Dante's Hell—perhaps Miss Murdoch, aware of Dante's fondness for puns, is indulging in word play when James describes the lake as shaped "like and L" and Imber Court as lying "in the crook of the L."… (p. 372)

The Bell displays the dangers of crudely judging and placing people. While making no claim for moral anarchy, the book implies that mankind is too diverse to be judged by one set of exact decrees…. This failure to respect the individuality of others (i.e. to love) makes appropriate Miss Murdoch's allusions to that part of the Divine Comedy which ignores love and epitomizes the desire to judge and place individuals.

The background for A Severed Head seems taken primarily from Oriental mythology and literature. The reader is surely encouraged to look for such allusions by the nature of many of the objects, references, bits of dialogue, acts and beliefs in the novel…. (p. 373)

At least three works of Oriental literature are drawn upon for allusion: Dream of the Red Chamber, The Tale of Genji, and The Love Suicides at Amijima. Some of the characteristics of Antonia and Georgie seem quite similar to those of the two heroines of Dream of the Red Chamber, Black Jade and Precious Virtue, who are regarded as two prototypes of female beauty according to Chinese standards. (p. 375)

A Severed Head depicts a culture in which good manners "have assumed the air of a major virtue." Individuals are encouraged to be civilized and rational; they are praised for behaving well when others impose upon them. Behavior is defined by roles and judged, if at all, by the rather flexible rules of society. This emphasis upon manners is extremely convenient: offenders are not subject to any judgment if the victim behaves "reasonably"; moreover, a wrongdoer can delude himself into thinking himself virtuous if he satisfies the external requirements of his role. Somewhat paradoxically, this society is striving at the same time for a spiritual unity, a community of souls to be achieved, theoretically, by concealing nothing, discussing everything and striving to understand other people's actions. In actuality, anything really embarrassing is concealed, and the discussions lead to pleasant feelings of freedom for the talker and of power for the listener. The superficial rationalism of the discussions leads to feelings that one's own inner life is of inordinate significance and that everything is both possible and permitted. In a society which is thus organized to ignore the irrational in man, to prevent self-knowledge and to discourage really considering other people, the individual's morality, a mode of apprehending reality, is bound to be somewhat "rusty." These characteristics of this society are probably not derived from the East, even though the novel does stress the Oriental experiences of Palmer and Honor. In any case the society reflects qualities which are similar to two powerful complementary forces in Oriental life, Confucianism and Buddhism…. The allusions to the Orient in the novel are relevant, then, even though the novel reveals only debased versions of the Eastern philosophies. (pp. 376-77)

Since most readers consider the creation of a realistic world as one of the novel's chief functions, The Bell is regarded by most readers of Miss Murdoch's work as her best novel thus far. In a work like The Flight From the Enchanter the pattern of allusions is dense and, I believe, influences the characterization so that the behavior of the characters often becomes somewhat arbitrary and unreal. Their enigmatic qualities cannot be satisfactorily explained on realistic grounds such as Miss Murdoch's respect for contingency or her belief in the opacity of human beings. However, for some readers this loss of realism may be offset by a recognition of the patterns of allusion and the greater thematic richness of the work. (p. 377)

Howard German, "Allusions in the Early Novels of Iris Murdoch," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1969 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Vol. XV, No. 3, Autumn, 1969, pp. 361-77.

Steven G. Kellman

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The self-begetting novel is a major sub-genre of this century. Its paradigm is Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, at the same time an account of its own birth and of the rebirth of its principal protagonist as novelist…. Notable examples of self-begetting novels since Proust's have been Jean-Paul Sartre's La Nausée, Michel Butor's La Modification, and Claude Mauriac's La Marquise sortit à cinq heures. Iris Murdoch's Under the Net (1954) is a remarkable instance of this French tradition transposed to British soil. (p. 43)

On the very first page of Murdoch's very first novel [Under the Net], published soon after her study of Sartre [Sartre: Romantic Rationalist], the narrator [Jake Donaghue] presents himself as, perhaps like his creator, arriving in England 'with the smell of France still fresh in my nostrils'…. His suitcases are heavy with French books.

Jake Donaghue never relinquishes the center of attention in this narrative, which is consistently related to us from his first-person perspective. Although he admits 'I can't bear being alone for long' … and 'I hate solitude' …, Jake is in effect 'a connoisseur of solitude'…. Jake declares: 'The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself and to turn it into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction'…. However, his introspective narrative will prove to be self-creative precisely through its recognition of the dense contingency of the external world. (p. 45)

Jake delights in 'the sort of dreamy unlucrative reflection which is what I enjoy more than anything in the world'…. His tendency to examine the self, the world, fiction, and the relationships among the three is one of the marks of the self-begetting novel….

Like any sovereign self-begetting novel, Under the Net has its own cast of artist figures…. But the most important artist within this work of art is, of course, Jake Donaghue, who conceives of himself as sovereign of his narrative realm. At least in the beginning of the novel, everyone, especially Jake's submissive foil Finn, exists as an extension of his creative self….

Like Marcel [protagonist/narrator of A la recherche du temps perdu] or Roquentin [of La Nausée] Jake is a writer. He has composed an epic poem entitled 'And Mr. Oppenheim Shall Inherit the Earth', but he is able to earn money by translating best-selling but mediocre contemporary novels by [the fictitious] Jean Pierre Breteuil. One of them, Le Rossignol de bois (in the Donaghue translation, The Wooden Nightingale) is itself about the relationship between reflection and creation. (p. 46)

Jake's development as a novelist is inseparable from his growth as an individual. Both produce Under the Net. With his literary hack work as mere translator of second-rate fiction, Jake consciously restricts his originality. But his friendship with Hugo, who seves as a kind of Quietist prophet for him, makes him aware that: 'The whole language is a machine for making falsehoods'…. All literature, even his more serious efforts in The Silencer, thereby becomes fraud, if indeed 'it is in silence that the human spirit touches the divine'…. (pp. 46-7)

One of the major factors in shaping Jake's new identity as novelist is the transformation of Jean Pierre Breteuil, the French author. With the publication of Nous les vainqueurs, Breteuil himself undergoes a reincarnation from mercenary to genuine artist….

Breteuil's artistic birth forces Jake to question his own neatly formulated conceptions of reality. In the process, it inspires him to attempt to rival the Frenchman by producing his own novel. (p. 47)

[With] his novel awaiting birth, he is now a new man.

It was the first day of the world. I was full of that strength which is better than happiness, better than the weak wish for happiness which women can awaken in a man to rot his fibres. It was the morning of the first day….

A self has been begotten by the narrator in imagery which consciously evokes the Creation. Jake is to be both father and artificer…. (pp. 47-8)

At the end of Under the Net, Jake returns to Mrs. Tinckham's cat-congested newspaper shop, which he has visited in Chapter One. Now, in a scene remarkably parallel to the one in which Roquentin listens to a recording of the English song 'Some of These Days' in the Rendez-Vous des Cheminots café (and which itself owes much to use of the Vinteuil sonata in A la recherche), he hears Anna Quentin singing on the radio.

Like a sea wave curling over me came Anna's voice. She was singing an old French love song. The words came slowly, gilded by her utterance. They turned over in the air slowly and then fell; and the splendour of the husky gold filled the shop, transforming the cats into leopards and Mrs. Tinckham into an aged Circe….

It is a stunning illustration of the potential power of art. (p. 48)

The sense of rebirth, rededication, and liberation at the conclusion of Undo the Net derives from the promise of a work which will succeed in understanding the contingent world and thereby uttering what is 'unutterably particular'.

Early in the novel, the as yet unredeemed Jake declares: 'I hate contingency. I want everything in my life to have a sufficient reason'…. Iris Murdoch the critic indicts Jean-Paul Sartre for possessing what she considers the same heretical beliefs…. Murdoch's reading of Sartre suggests a view of French fiction as aseptic. She regards it as her British, and human, duty to introduce micro-organisms, 'the stuff of human life' into the Petri dish furnished by her teachers on the Continent.

Because of what she sees as this distaste for the contigent, individuated world, despite graphic images of the viscosity of existence, Murdoch considers Roquentin's a 'rather dubious salvation'. Her own Jake Donaghue, on the other hand, is portrayed as overcoming that orientation 'which is fatal to a novelist proper'. His career in Under the Net is framed by his visits to Mrs. Tinckham's, appropriately 'a dusty, dirty, nasty-looking corner shop'…. And, having developed an understanding of and fondness for this reality, Jake is presumably about to become 'a novelist proper', if not a proper novelist, at the conclusion of Under the Net. (pp. 48-9)

[Murdoch's] narrator commits himself to accepting life within the British Isles. Artistic rebirth paradoxically becomes a process of entering rather than departing, immersing yourself in the hair of the dog that bit you. Theorizing is the enemy, and 'All theorizing is flight'. (p. 49)

Begetting itself and a new self for Jake, Under the Net avoids flight. It returns for a candid assessment of itself and the world in which it is enmeshed. (p. 50)

Steven G. Kellman, "Raising the Net: Iris Murdoch and the Tradition of the Self-Begetting Novel," in English Studies (© 1976 by Swets & Zeitlinger B.V.) Vol. 57, No. 1, February, 1976, pp. 43-50.

Ann Gossman

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"Can one have relations with a severed head?" Iris Murdoch herself raises this most provocative question in her novel [A Severed Head]. Obligingly, Murdoch also supplies both the myth and at least several of the meanings of her central symbol: the head of the Gorgon Medusa, the Freudian reading of such a head as the female genitals both feared and desired, and the drastic segregating of the individual from a whole nexus of relationships…. Her characters include a psychiatrist, a sculptor, and an anthropologist. Every major character in the novel is in some sense a head-hunter, with the exception of the chief victim, Georgie Hands—and when Georgie realizes to what extent she has been a victim of two brothers in turn, she cuts off her hair as prelude to a more literal attempted suicide.

Yet a secondary sequence of images belongs to a different order: art, specifically religious art….

"If you asked Francesca to describe her soul," Saki asserts in The Unbearable Bassington, "she would probably have described her livingroom." So it is with the characters in A Severed Head (for instance, "The room was Antonia")—all except the naive Georgie, who lacks, not a soul, but an established nexus for her identity. The narrator, Martin, and Antonia, his wife, are always placing objects carefully "in the rich and highly integrated mosaic of [their] surroundings,"… while Georgie [Martin's mistress] is "destined not to possess things." (p. 92)

[The menages depicting Martin and his wife and Martin and his mistress], both significantly lighted with firelight and candles, [are] a version of [Plato's] Cave. In each, Martin makes icons of shadow-deities: himself and the woman…. Martin perceives Antonia, with her greying gold hair and her great tawny eyes, as being "like some rich gilded object,"… which he is fortunate to possess.

Gold, symbolic of the firelight and candlelight, also symbolic of idolatrous worship, is used pervasively throughout the first half of the novel. The half-light of the Cave provides a golden glamor only gradually dispelled…. (p. 93)

[In the novel] Murdoch seems to be affirming her own artistic creed; yet in A Severed Head schematized symbols and caricature abound. Ironically, Martin protests on behalf of organic wholeness. Alexander has done a gold-bronze head of Antonia—just the sort of icon one would expect Martin to want. Though he concedes that "The best thing about being God would be making the heads," he mistrusts Alexander's playing God and denying the body, and he also mistrusts beauty abstracted inhumanly from "the warm muddle of my wife."… A further irony is that Alexander has always been a "head-hunter": he has stolen girls from Martin in the past;… he will be revealed later as Antonia's lover long before her adultrous affair with Palmer. (p. 94)

In The Sovereignty of Good Murdoch rewrites Plato's parable of the Cave, in which the prisoners are in a firelit cave where they mistake shadows on the back wall for reality; one prisoner, type of the philosopher, escapes and painfully adjusts to look upon the sun. The allegory presupposes both the existence of the sun (the Good) and the capacity in the soul of man to perceive it. Murdoch merely asserts "We see the world in the light of the Good" … and "if we look outside the self what we see are scattered intimations of the Good."… Furthermore, she postulates not just two conditions, worshipping the shadows and perceiving the reality of the sun-lit world, but three: worshipping the shadows, turning from them to worship the fire, and emerging to accept the light of the sun. For her, the prisoners who see shadows are worshipping by "blind selfish instinct."… In the second stage "they see the flames which threw the shadows which they used to think were real," and "what is more likely than that they should settle down beside the fire?" The fire is the psyche, mistaken for the sun…. She concedes that the "virtuous peasant" may possibly escape without even noticing the fire. Most, however, go through the second stage, where "false love moves to false good. False love embraces false death." Instincts of the self are very strong; few transcend them except in special areas; true goodness is … the hardest of phenomena for the artist to describe successfully. (pp. 96-7)

Very few of Murdoch's characters succeed in being good, except perhaps in "specialized areas."… In A Severed Head Georgie, the most sacrificial character, goes off with Palmer, who seems affectionate but who may (as Martin believes) enslave her…. [Martin's] chances of survival seem slight, and his chances of becoming good or moving to the sun seem almost non-existent. Possibly, in terms of Kierkegaard's Either/Or, which Murdoch greatly admires, he has abandoned the aesthetic man for the role of the ethical man; if so, he goes, like the moth to the flame, to his own sacrifice. (p. 97)

Ann Gossman, "Icons and Idols in Murdoch's 'A Severed Head'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1977), Vol. XVIII, No. 3, 1977, pp. 92-7.

Margaret Scanlan

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A fifty-year vogue for "experimental" novels notwithstanding, Iris Murdoch continues, to all outward appearances, to write nineteenth century fiction. But if she avoids wordplay, unstructured plots, even the stream-of-consciousness, her novels are still experimental, but in Zola's sense, not Joyce's. Like her French predecessor, Murdoch believes that the novel can evaluate ideas; for her literature is "the most essential and fundamental aspect of culture … an education in how to picture and understand human situations." Thus, although she has written a number of philosophical essays, Murdoch seems uncomfortable with abstract pronouncements and repeatedly returns to the novel, where ideas about moral behavior can be acted out in recognizable psychologies and situations. To a great extent, the success of her novels depends on the rigor of the experiment; at best, they criticize, complicate, or even contradict her preconceptions, while at their worst, they serve as vehicles for expounding ideas they fail to dramatize. This link between successfully developed ideas and successful fiction can be seen if we look, for example, at Murdoch's critique of romantic suffering—and, by extension, of romantic love….

In The Sovereignty of Good [a collection of essays published in 1970], Murdoch argued against the ideas about suffering we have inherited from the romantics. Romantic suffering, as we know, is primarily psychological and attributable to ruined love: Werther, René, Heathcliff and Cathy. The sufferer is a hero because he is more sensitive, more conscious than other people; his suffering teaches him profound lessons. (p. 69)

The basis for Murdoch's critique of romantic suffering is her conviction that goodness begins in humility, "a selfless respect for reality."… In his natural state, a human being is continuously absorbed in his own fantasy mechanisms, which give him a false sense of his importance and protect him from the knowedge of his own death…. Romanticism … contemplates suffering and tends to "transform the idea of death into the idea of suffering."… If one contemplates suffering, rather than death, he becomes caught up in his own sensations, acquiring a disproportionate sense of their permanence and, thereby, of his own importance. The idea of purgatory, "to buy back evil by suffering," has always been attractive, says Murdoch, presumably because it allows us to behave badly and be redeemed by our own painful guilt (p. 70)

Such, summarily stated, [is] Iris Murdoch's principle [contention] about the relationship between suffering and moral behavior. [It is] explored at length in An Accidental Man, a novel which is, essentially, the history of a moral choice. Its hero, Ludwig Leferrier, is a young American strongly opposed to the Vietnamese war. A literal accident of birth makes it possible for him to claim British citizenship and remain in England, where he has been offered a position at Oxford and where, Gracie, his fiancée, has just come into a large inheritance. To choose to go home means giving up marriage, wealth, and a promising intellectual career for a prison term, and seems like a deliberate decision to suffer for the sake of suffering. For a long time Ludwig hesitates, believing that "it was not his task to martyr himself," but in the end he returns to America. His decision is conditioned by his observations about the people who surround him in London, and what they have in common is chiefly their suffering…. Can we learn from suffering? What is its value as an object of contemplation? Initially at least, the most important question is the relationship between suffering and pleasure. (pp. 70-1)

Gratification at other people's suffering certainly indicates selfishness, and Iris Murdoch argues, with Freud, the ruthlessness of the ego. But what do our own sufferings teach us? Nothing, she says, for they are, like all sensation, impermanent…. (p. 71)

In a section [of the novel] called "The Idea of Perfection," Murdoch traces the relationship between a sense of personal history and a belief in the individual's privacy and moral perfectability, arguing that linguistic analysis and existentialism, which look to the public aspects of behavior—action and ordinary language—fail to account for continuous processes of moral improvement. Strict morality, for Murdoch, requires attention, not only to what one says and does, but to the private, interior processes that make up the history of behavior; a good person strives for perfection not only of speech and action, but of motive and attitudes as well. (p. 74)

For Murdoch,… the superiority of the novel to the essay lies in its ability to mirror the unstable, confusing world in which we struggle to act from principle; the novelist's temptation is to simplify the world in order to represent the principles. The accidents which fill [An Accidental Man] clearly indicate Murdoch's desire to avoid simplifying…. Furthermore, there are the chance meetings and coincidences: two otherwise unrelated characters meet in a suicide ward; one character passes another in the street and his failure to stop contributes to her "accidental" death; people fall in and out of love in dizzying succession: witness the romantic peregrinations of a minor character like Richard Pargeter. "Unrealistic" in one sense, they are also "accidental" in the Aristotelian sense, and ought to remain peripheral to moral choices. We can make decent moral choices even in the face of accidents, which limit our freedom, but, says Murdoch, we can choose well only if we refuse to be conditioned by the incidental consequences our actions will have. Thus the novel finally argues, in arguing that a great love is not the measure of all things, that Ludwig should not choose to marry Gracie because she represents pleasure any more than he should choose to return to America because he will suffer there. Unfortunately, we are not likely to be convinced. (pp. 75-6)

[What] Ludwig and Gracie's romance proves is only that a strong physical passion, in the absence of "moral kinship," provides no measure for behavior. The romance does not answer the question of whether a great love is possible or whether, if it were, it would be "a place of vision." In order to dismiss the role of love, Murdoch presents a love that is easily dismissed; as practitioner of le roman experimental, she has failed to prove an important point because she has made the test too easy. As a result, related questions remain unasked. Is man's nature such that he can only acquire selfless goodness by rejecting sexuality? Is monasticism … the ideal? Could pleasure ever become "accidental" to love itself, in the sense that suffering becomes "accidental" to Ludwig's return to America? Or does the passionate side of love destroy its power to act as a moral guide?

We come to the end of the novel … with a sense that the writer has been ambitious, but not entirely successful. Her critique of romantic suffering … is highly effective; the reader moves from initial sympathy to revulsion as layers of egoism, fantasy, and deception are gradually revealed. On the other hand, the novel fails in its attempt to show the moral value of contemplating death…. Novelistically, the mystery seems a flaw; we see the suffering Ludwig sees, but we are not sufficiently involved in his mind to perceive the gradual enlargement of vision that impells the return home. That mystery, coupled with the failure to convince us that Ludwig, in renouncing Gracie, actually renounces happiness, makes the decision, which is the novel's climactic moment, unsatisfactory. We don't see why Ludwig returns to America; we are told why; the narrator summarizes the long hours of talk with Matthew, after the fact. Sheerly from the philosophical point of view, Murdoch loads the dice and fails to test all of the implications of her ideas; from the point of view of novelistic form, she often fails to dramatize, leaves too many loose ends, fails to "use up the material in form."

In … The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, Murdoch returns to romantic suffering and romantic love. Ludwig, in An Accidental Man, had a choice between pleasure and pain, but in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, no one has such a choice. For each of these people, "the crime had been committed … long ago," and, for each, the question is how to act in the face of suffering that can no longer be avoided…. [The] result is a more interesting and better dramatized novel that at the same time also better illustrates the ambiguities of Murdoch's conceptions. The Sacred and Profane Love Machine is particularly concerned with the relationship between love, suffering, and moral action; portraying a love triangle [involving Blaise, his wife Harriet, and his lover Emily], the novel re-examines the question of whether a great love can be the measure of all things, this time from the perspective specifically of the suffering it causes. And, far more exhaustively than An Accidental Man, this … book asks what we become if we do not suffer. (pp. 76-8)

As in The Sovereignty of Good and An Accidental Man, Murdoch links a failure of attention to moral failure; Blaise represses his fantasies, tunes out his children, walls off his two lives, and so eliminates the possibility of just, considered action. (p. 80)

Believing that he can only cope with one version of himself at a time leads not only to deception and unintentional cruelty; it also conditions Blaise's decision to leave Harriet…. [To] choose properly, in Murdoch's terms, requires having a clear vision of one's situation, and this is what Blaise manifestly lacks…. [We] saw Murdoch's rejection of moments of desperate choice in An Accidental Man, but we were not sufficiently in Ludwig's mind to see, dramatically, the slow, half-conscious processes of awareness she prefers. But in Blaise's case, the psychology is accesible: we know that Blaise can't choose, this way, and will go to the end of the novel vacillating and lying. (p. 81)

Harriet confirms the original Murdoch thesis that suffering promotes absorption in the "dazzling" ego, but she also modifies that basic tenet. As Mrs. Placid, she had managed to avoid suffering by ignoring hints of Blaise's affair and, of course, by shutting herself into a narrow, comfortable domesticity which wished to know nothing of the horrors in other people's lives. Murdoch believes that to be good we must look outward, and through Harriet suggests that we can avoid suffering only if we shut our eyes. Thus, deliberate blindness proves ultimately as destructive as romanticism. (p. 83)

[There] are many hints that Murdoch would have liked to dramatize her ideas, more or less as they appear in expository form in The Sovereignty of Good. In An Accidental Man, exposition began to turn into experiment, though in several instances we detected a tendency to gloss over contradictions or make the test too simple. In The Sacred and Profane Love Machine we sense a writer more profoundly concerned with experiment, more willing to dramatize all of the problems her views entail. This [later] novel is far from comforting, either to Murdoch or to ourselves, but it confirms at least the negative vision of The Sovereignty of Good, in which Murdoch wrote that "Almost anything that consoles us is a fake."… If she has not yet achieved the "austere … beauty" … of great art, still the genuineness of psychology and the rigor of thought in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine augur well for the philosophical novel in our time. (p. 85)

Margaret Scanlan, "The Machinery of Pain: Romantic Suffering in Three Works of Iris Murdoch," in Renascence (© copyright, 1977, Marquette University Press), Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Winter, 1977, pp. 69-85.


Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 11)


Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 22)