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


(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 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)


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Howard German

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Steven G. Kellman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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:...

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Ann Gossman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

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Margaret Scanlan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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