Iris Murdoch Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 22)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

(Jean) Iris Murdoch 1919–

British novelist and playwright.

Murdoch's 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 importance of others. 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, 15, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Robert Scholes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The contemporary allegorist is likely to be both arbitrary and tentative. His world will be idealized but unsystematic, full of meanings but devoid of meaning. The world of The Unicorn is this kind of world. (p. 107)

Since every scene, every character, and every event in The Unicorn contributes to the plot or the meaning—usually to both simultaneously—we must have a firm grip on the structure of character and events in order to deal with the allegorical dimensions of the tale. As I understand the reading process, we read any story by engaging in what Poe called ratiocination. As we start to read, we build up expectations in the form of cloudy and tentative structures, into which we try to fit the details of character and event as they are presented to us. We modify these tentative structures as we are forced to by elements that do not fit, and we seek to perfect them as we move toward the end of the story.

In a work with as much story in it as there is in The Unicorn we are given considerable exercise in ratiocination merely in keeping up with events. (pp. 107-08)

As the reading process continues, this reader's consciousness will be filing answers, dismissing apparent irrelevancies, framing new questions—developing a whole structure of intellectual and emotional expectations. Trying deliberately to make this process fully conscious—as it normally is not—we should be able to get some notion of how the opening of The Unicorn works on a responsive reader. (p. 109)

In The Unicorn Iris Murdoch shows her independence from the conventions of mystery fiction by gradually redirecting the alert reader from inferential activity on the level of who-dun-it and what'll-happen to a more abstract and philosophical level. She also toys with the conventions of comic pairing off of lovers and of tragic destruction of all the characters, and in doing so she transfers the reader's intellectual and emotional interest from the characters themselves to the ideas which have governed their actions. (p. 111)

The process by which Iris Murdoch encourages us to shift our interest from the fictional to the ideational elements in her narrative is gradual. At certain points we are aware of a greater proportion of commentary to event…. But these points are merely climaxes in a structure of ideas which is just as narrative, just as dynamic, as the structure of pure event. For Iris Murdoch is teaching us how to read allegorically in The Unicorn, teasing us into this lost way of reading by almost imperceptibly moving from conventional mysteries of motivation and responsibility to the ideational mysteries of philosophy. She starts us building a "Gothic" structure of expectations, and then, like a good guide, helps us to see that this fantastic edifice is not just another building with a pleasantly vertiginous view from the top, which gives us a delightful thrill. She allows us to discover that this work is "Gothic" like a cathedral in which every spire and every gargoyle is packed with meaningful allusions to an invisible world. (pp. 111-12)

The significance of the title cries out to be explored as it would not if the book had been called The Mysterious...

(The entire section is 8,190 words.)