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


(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 Affair at Gaze…. And even [a simple plot outline] … manages to suggest a significant difference between the worlds presented in the narrative. The world of Gaze and Riders is clearly differentiated from the "real" world outside. (p. 116)

This opposition, as I understand it, has much to do with our whole consideration of the uses of romance and fabulation; for Marian and Effingham come from the "real" world into Gaze, just as we readers come into a work of fiction. Just as we do, they make ethical choices and participate in events which leave them unscathed, though the fictional world is strewn with corpses as the curtain is drawn upon it. But they are not entirely unchanged, though they have escaped. Marian, now, will "dance at Geoffrey's wedding." The sorrow and heaviness which drove her into the world of fabulation have been removed by her vicarious existence at Gaze, and she can return rejoiced and refreshed to the confusion and ordinariness in which real people are obliged to exist. All this seems far from accidental. The Unicorn is, on its esthetic level, a fabulator's manifesto, in which the book itself is seen as fulfilling the purifying function of the traditional scapegoat, by providing a ritual purgation for those initiated into its mysteries.

Marian and Effingham, then, through whose eyes we view the events at Gaze, are representatives of our point of view. They come from the world of realism into a world of romance…. But in this narrative they also embody certain "modern" ideas and attitudes which collide, in the course of events, with the values prevailing in the world of Gaze and Riders. Marian and Effingham believe in a set of liberal, enlightened virtues: freedom, individual responsibility, personal choice…. These values, to which most...

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Peter Kemp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In her fiction, Iris Murdoch's usual technique is to set a group of characters around some abstract theme, generally of a rather philosophical nature. Semi-allegorical as these figures are, they serve, through their varying situations and relationships, to illustrate, elaborate, and expand the central concept. In The Red and the Green, there is a slight change, the characters being placed around an event rather than an idea. But, in other respects, whether of technique or subsidiary preoccupation—the patterning of relationships, the charting of bizarre entanglements, moments of melodrama, and the frequent use of symbolism—this work is in the same tradition as the majority of Miss Murdoch's fiction, though noticeably less complex….

Formally, [The Red and the Green] has great neatness. The characters are confined to the members of one large and elaborately inter-related Anglo-Irish family; the action restricted, in place, to Dublin and its outskirts, and in time, to the days from Palm Sunday to Easter Monday, Passiontide. The necessity of explaining what happened to everyone in, and after, the Rising does dictate a rather contrived Epilogue, but this, too, Miss Murdoch has tried to attach, through the use of echo and parallel, to the main body of the book. (p. 403)

In many ways, the Easter Rising is an appropriate subject for a writer of Miss Murdoch's propensities, the rebellion itself being already endowed with a considerable degree of symbolism. The last days of the suffering Ireland coincide with those when church liturgy is commemorating the suffering of Christ; the rising of Ireland, from the tomb of oppression, coincides with the celebration of the Resurrection. The Irish climate, too, serves its neat symbolic purpose. Throughout Passion Week, the week leading to the rebellion, rain falls like tears on "the dark wet island."… Especially prone to finding its way into the conclusion of Miss Murdoch's chapters … this weather creates an atmosphere of melancholy suited to the subject…. (p. 404)

The Anglo-Irish family also suits itself to Miss Murdoch's needs, being sufficiently widespread for her to include the attitudes of most ranks and sympathies towards the rebellion, and sufficiently tightly-knit for her to concentrate, as she likes to do, upon a small group of people trapped together under a web of emotion. Once again, the characters are few, but the love relationships are many. Once again, the degree of contact with the outside world is very limited: and, in a claustrophobic family atmosphere, incest flourishes and has flourished. A heavily-meshed cat's cradle of love and lust is used here to portray the very close connections of English and Irish, while family tensions and quarrels illustrate the forces which, on a larger scale, keep the countries apart: jealousies, temperamental antagonisms, religious intolerance…. The family acts as a kind of microcosm, the novel having a diagrammatic, the characters a schematic quality…. (pp. 404-05)

At the end of the novel, this impression of schematic figures re-enacting an historical event through diagrammatic fable is strengthened even further by the scene in which Andrew "saw over Cathal's shoulder Pat Dumay in full volunteer uniform and armed. At the same instant he grasped himself as a British officer in uniform and armed."… The characters, it seems, step out of their personal and into public roles, out of private life and into history.

The Red and the Green is concerned, then, not so much with people and their relationships, as with a central theme, the characters being chosen to illustrate this and their movements determined by its dictates. In place of contingency, necessity has been imposed. The shapelessness of life is here arranged into a pattern, and so fixed a pattern, one which leaves so little freedom for the characters caught up in it, that the book becomes at once a product and a symptom of what its author designates as "fantasy."

It is this topic—of "'fantasy' meaning 'bad imagining'"—that is central to all of Iris Murdoch's work. Always, in her writing, there is the insistence on morality as "a technique for discovering more about what is real"; always, the warning that, unless great care is taken: "we may fail to see the individual because we are completely enclosed in a fantasy world of our own into which we try to draw things from outside, not grasping their reality and independence, making them into dream objects of our own." To live morally and valuably, a man must, Miss Murdoch feels, be always on his guard against this state of fantasy,… he must respect the otherness of his fellows; and he must undertake what she once called "the constant quiet work of attention and imagination." This is the main lesson her writings aim to teach: and, in each of her novels, at least one character is made to learn it. In The Red and the Green, this pupil is Barney.

Attached to the main body of the novel by virtue of the fact that, here too, the imagery of Easter is relevant—Barney's also, being a story of suffering and degradation leading to resurrection and a new life—a sub-plot traces the...

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Rosemary Dinnage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading [Nuns and Soldiers] is a romp, it goes by in a flash; and we can be most seriously engaged by the ideas even while we are gasping like eleven-year-olds to know what will happen next. For the length of the story the thing just comes off, and I find a real reluctance in myself to take it apart and look at the mechanism.

Perhaps because there is so much mechanism; perhaps because the innards of Murdoch's novels turn out to be the same ones every time, in slightly different combinations; perhaps because the unity of each book is so fragile and splits so quickly in half, into ideas and narrative. An example of too much mechanism: the first word of Nuns and Soldiers is "'Wittgenstein—'"; and I am rather crossly aware that this must be an important clue that I could only follow up by reading Wittgenstein. (Or is the author having a bit of a self-parodying joke? Puzzles and contradictions again.) Then there is that appearance of sameness, of elements being recombined over and over again in different patterns. It may not matter very much, after all—the patterns are so ingenious, and we are too close to the whole sequence of novels to see the shape of it. The real trouble is in the lack of fit between theory and story, formality and naturalism, and a Murdoch novel stands or falls by the extent to which this is overcome….

These are the protests of a querulous addict of the Murdoch novels, who has enjoyed Nuns and Soldiers greatly, even though it is not one of the best of them. It has most of the familiar elements—a plot that contains arbitrariness within prefabricated neatness; florid tricks of suspense, and a dip into the supernatural; symbolic landscapes; a Shakespearian reference; a chorus; an underlying structure of moral debate, and characters who vary oddly in the extent to which they are given realistic life—but the elements are not always successfully fused this time.

Rosemary Dinnage, "Inside, Outside," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4040, September 5, 1980, p. 951.

Reid Beddow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Murdoch intimidates not because she is so good or so prolific a writer but because she is also a working philosopher. One feels there must be some metaphysical system that explains the adultery and musical beds, the overcharged emotional atmospheres and meticulously developed characters of the novels. It seems inconceivable that this interpreter of Plato and Sartre, apparently cloistered behind the walls of Oxford scholarship and respectability, could know so scandalously much about the lusts and passions of ordinary folk. Murdoch the philosopher writes about freedom and moral choice; Murdoch the novelist is a comic genius, a goat-footed enchantress beckoning the reader to a toot in the pubs of literature for some...

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George Stade

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Iris Murdoch's new novel, "Nuns and Soldiers," is an epitome and sum of its 19 predecessors. It provides us, therefore, with an opportunity to formulate some constants among this round score of fictions and to see what they add up to. The first of her novels, "Under the Net" (1954), won her immediate acclaim as one of the Angry Young Men—a confusion of sexes that anticipates a number of her characters. Since then, critics, as usual, have disagreed about what is good and what bad in her work. But they have agreed above all else to take Iris Murdoch seriously, to take her as among "the most accomplished British novelists to come to maturity since the close of World War II," to quote one of her critics. (p. 1)...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Before I get into the puzzles, symbols and patterns in Iris Murdoch's 20th novel, "Nuns and Soldiers," let me say that at its heart lies a fairly intriguing love story. This involves Gertrude Openshaw, a wealthy, handsome Scottish-English woman in her late 30's, whose husband, Guy, a father-figure to her and his large circle of relations, has just died of cancer. The question is posed by Guy's death: who will win Gertrude's heart once the mourning period is over?…

Astonishingly enough, it will be Tim Reede, a somewhat feckless young painter who had also seen Guy as a sort of father-figure and whose main interest in Gertrude has been as a possible source of money….

Are Tim and...

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The Atlantic Monthly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Iris Murdoch is the Houdini of modern novelists. Using props as ancient as the stars and plots as tangled as a botched Indian rope trick, she keeps our attention riveted on the larger questions of human behavior: whether it is possible to act wisely, to love honestly, to live purely. Now, in [Nuns and Soldiers], she has perfected her technique and pulled off the big one: a book that unwinds with all the sinuous inevitability of a contortionist to rise into the higher spheres of myth….

Naturally, this being a Murdoch novel, nothing is so simple as it might appear to be. While Nuns and Soldiers works wonderfully as an archetypal tale of love triumphant, it presents dozens of other...

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John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There comes a point in many an Iris Murdoch novel when the enchantment sours, or cloys, and the hitherto rapt reader succumbs to the suspicion that some justice lies in the customary criticisms with which her faithfully produced fictions are faithfully belabored; e.g., that her prose can be as careless as it is abundant, and that her worthy preoccupation with the metamorphoses worked by ubiquitous, tireless Eros leads her to overillustrate her thesis and to produce a mechanical, farcical effect. On page 296 of her most recent and in many ways marvellous novel, "Nuns and Soldiers" …, we are told, having persuasively experienced one heroine's typically Murdochian immersion in an unlikely but ineluctable passion, that...

(The entire section is 911 words.)

Bernard F. Dick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Unfortunately, Nuns and Soldiers is another disjointed performance that asks a question once raised by radio soap operas: Can a recent widow find happiness with a young artist although she is pursued by a bogus Polish count, attended by an ex-nun and scrutinized by her late husband's family? The answer is a qualified yes, but the price of happiness is high in Murdoch's world—in this case, trial by fire and water. One might do well to brush up on Mozart's The Magic Flute; Murdoch certainly has. The artist refers to himself and his delightfully obscene mistress as Pappageno and Pappagena.

This is a world situated between life and art. Guy Openshaw dies of cancer but as a...

(The entire section is 378 words.)