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(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.)
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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...
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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 enlightened modern citizens subscribe, are met and tested in the story by the events at Gaze. In this castle a more medieval and feudal set of values prevails. Furthermore, a chain of events is in progress—variously referred to by Marian as a "story" or a "pattern" which seems like something out of a medieval romance. A princesse lointaine (as Effingham's devoted friend in the "real" world calls Hannah) is actually being held prisoner as if under a spell maintained by a distant magician. And all these doings are watched from Riders, where a philosopher (Max), a poet (Pip), and a gardener (Alice) live an apparently simple, classical life. Riders, dominated by Max's Platonic or Socratic vision, seems actually to represent a third perspective in the narrative: that of ancient wisdom. Thus we have something like these three basic matrices:
Marian and Effingham = modern "self-development" The Gaze household = feudal Christianity The Riders household = classical Platonism.
Deriving from these primary allegorical elements are various individual refinements manifested in the characters, and these refinements of ideation are complicated and qualified by the collisions and couplings of characters as the action proceeds.
At the center of the story is Hannah. The allegory turns mainly on the meaning of her life—the events in it and her reactions to them. Because she is at the center, she is the most remote from us. We see her mainly from the points of view of Marian and Effingham, the outsiders who enter the charmed circle of her love. Marian's perspective on Hannah is widened by Denis, with whom she discusses Hannah's situation. Denis, who serves Hannah with unquestioning feudal devotion, is a religious man, a believer. (pp. 116-19)
[Murdoch] presents Marian seeing herself as entering a "tale" which has materialized around her: a tale in which nothing happens at random. This is, of course, strictly true in an ironic way. Marian is a character in a tale by Iris Murdoch, who is certainly the God of this little fictional universe—a very careful God, who will let nothing happen at random. But the passage raises the further question of Marian's role in this tale she has entered. The tale of Hannah is believed to be reaching a crucial stage. And Marian's arrival, her entering the tale at this point, must be significant: "Something has happened. I have come." A few paragraphs later she decides to accept her role in the story. (p. 120)
The other direct perspective we have on Hannah is Effingham's. Like Marian, he tries to take a modern and enlightened view of things. He, too, is in love with Hannah. And just as Denis qualifies Marian's perspective with his feudal and religious view of Hannah, Max Lejour qualifies Effingham's perspective with his Platonic view. (p. 121)
From a philosopher named Lejour, surely, we are entitled to expect light. And Max provides some: the best and clearest we get in working our way through this dark conceit. But Effingham is a man of intelligence too, and his perceptions undercut some of Max's. Moreover, Max himself declares, "I wish I understood more." Final answers are not going to be provided for us in this book. It is a modern allegory.
Max and Effingham first clash over Effingham's attempt to draw a political allegory from his visit to Gaze: the police state of Gaze vs. the free society of Riders. (p. 122)
[Neither] Gaze nor Riders is free because they are both devoted to an ideal world: Gaze to a medieval mystery of suffering and obedience; Riders to the Socratic abstractions Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. For the reader, the values of Gaze, Riders, and the "real" world become clearer and clearer as he goes along. But the question of which set is "right" seems to become more and more elusive. Hannah seems to mean something different to everybody, and the reader who carries his mystery-story set of expectations over into the ideational complexities of The Unicorn longs for the dénouement. Gradually, one realizes that this is just what Iris Murdoch is not going to provide. The relativity of significance emanating from Hannah's suffering is in itself a major dimension of the book's meaning. This book is partly about the difficulty of settling on The Truth in the twentieth century. But if a Truth and a Meaning are elusive, meanings are not. In … [a] discussion between Max and Effingham, Iris Murdoch allows Max to make a number of choral statements which refine our understanding of the meanings attached to Hannah and her suffering. (pp. 122-23)
[Their discussion] emphasizes the medieval and allegorical quality of the whole work. Max's statement that the "unicorn is also the image of Christ" is a bit of medieval typology…. That Hannah, as the unicorn of the title, is some sort of Christ figure, seems borne out in her name, Crean-Smith, which is an anagram for Christ-name or Christ-mean. But her first name, which reads the same backwards as forwards, suggests a duplicity or ambiguity in the significance of her life which the connection with Christ does not resolve for modern audiences. This is precisely the point at which the modern allegory is to be distinguished from the medieval. The Hannah = Christ equation in a medieval work would function mainly in one direction, with the character Hannah acquiring an unearthly dignity by means of the allegory. But in this modern work that process, though it operates, is counterbalanced by a flow of ideation in the opposite direction. The ambiguity of Hannah's position works to undercut and make relative the Christian view of the cosmos. The equation of the modern allegory does not say that Hannah's suffering is significant because it is a type of Christ's. It says that Hannah's suffering and Christ's are equally significant, and the significance depends on what we believe about it. (pp. 123-24)
Like Denis and Marian, Max and Effingham have their final views of the matter. And we have our final views of them. Unlike Denis and Marian, Max and Effingham have kept clear of the final action. Effingham has had his metaphysical vision while sinking into the bog—surely an allegory of the absurdity of thought divorced from action. And Max has watched and thought. These two have not become involved in guilt. But they are responsible for their inactions. Max is Hannah's heir, as philosophy is the heir of theology…. (pp. 129-30)
Effingham and Marian, as they leave the world of spiritual fantasy and head toward the "familiar ordinary world" suggest two kinds of readers and two ways of encountering a book like The Unicorn, which is itself a "fantasy of the spiritual life": the reader who, like Marian, becomes engaged in the events and touches good and evil through imaginative experience; and the reader who, like Effingham, remains aloof "through egoism, through being in some sense too small." The Effinghamish reader will find only a fantasy in the The Unicorn. The Marianite will be touched and moved spiritually. The Effinghamish critic, in particular, will discourse glibly about such a book. He will be detached, amusing, skeptical. He will be more judicious than the Marianite, perhaps. But he will lack one thing: that experience of the story which can come only to the reader who commits himself to it imaginatively. Which is the right way? As in larger issues, Iris Murdoch leaves us to choose. (p. 132)
Robert Scholes, "Fabulation and Allegory," in his The Fabulators (copyright © 1963, 1966, 1967 by Robert Scholes; reprinted by permission of the author), Oxford University Press, New York, 1967, pp. 97-132.
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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 process of his education, follows the progress, almost classical in Iris Murdoch's fiction, from fantasy to an awareness of reality. At first, Barney is living almost completely in a fantasy world. He escapes from reality, its pains and its pressures, into the realm of his Memoir, where life is ordered, neat, and explicable. He has abandoned his history of the Irish saints for "the more interesting task of self-analysis" …—always a danger sign in these novels where the moral stress falls on perception of others rather than preoccupation with self. He has found that "the task he had undertaken was curiously consoling" …—a pejorative adjective in Miss Murdoch's vocabulary since it implies a retreat into romanticism away from the difficulties of real life. And, about the same time, "It became clear to him that he had an extreme destiny" …—something which entails a denial of contingency and, therefore, strikes Miss Murdoch as deplorable…. Eventually, though, through that process of shock-treatment which Miss Murdoch so loves to exercise upon self-obsessed men—Jake, Rainborough, Martin, Effingham, Edmund, Ducane—Barney's fantasy world is shattered. Kathleen, in words recalling those of Miss Murdoch's essays, voices what is wrong with him: "You're so sunk in yourself you hardly know that anybody else exists at all."… After his religious vigil in the chapel at Tenebrae, Barney undergoes a moral re-awakening. He admits to himself that he is "sunk in the muddle of his own life" …, that "His Memoir … which had proved such a consolation, was in the end simply a weapon against Kathleen."… Barney destroys this false record, tears up his fantasy life. (pp. 408-10)
It is a characteristic of Iris Murdoch's thought to insist that a writer, as well as a man in society, can fall prey to fantasy. The hall-marks of fantasy are a tendency to see people as consisting solely of certain fixed qualities and to think of life in terms of pattern and necessity. To these temptations an artist is particularly exposed. They can result in the production of works that are aesthetically very satisfying, intellectually very pleasing—though, morally, Miss Murdoch feels, they are less admirable, evading—no matter how attractively—reality, catering to a human appetite for shape and neatness that should be denied since it is a symptom of fantasy. However, she has also pointed out that: "If we leave theory and look about us all that seems certain is that art may break any rule"—and, in her own case, this is certainly true…. Stressing the desirability of a kind of fiction which displays the mystery and value of the individual human personality, which emphasizes contingency and the shapelessness of life, she herself, in the majority of her own novels, takes the opposite course. In most of her fiction, each character tends to be "merely part of his creator's mind," and contingency is almost completely absent, the novels being plotted with great care, elaboration, and artifice, the recognition of which is one of the chief pleasures in reading them.
That there should be such a dichotomy is to be explained, perhaps, by some basic division in Miss Murdoch's own nature. She is both author and philosopher, novelist and moral theorist. As an artist, she has a strong desire to make patterns, to organize shapeless reality into meaningful and beautiful designs. As a philosopher, however, and a philosopher much concerned with ethics, Miss Murdoch finds this substitution of necessity for contingency something to be distrusted. That the real world of loose ends, unfinished situations, and unpredictable, never fully-understood personalities should be replaced by a formal world peopled with tidily-summarized characters, is, she feels, to be regretted. She calls it fantasy; finds it dangerous when practised by an artist, and disastrous, if allowed to intrude into a person's real life. This is the road she sees as leading away from her aesthetic and moral ideals: yet the direction recommended in her critical and philosophical writings is not, in her fiction, the path she herself usually follows. This means that paradoxes occur. Not only is Miss Murdoch the severest critic of a way of writing she herself is most at home in, but also she is given to producing novels which proclaim contingency but are themselves highly formal, necessary structures: within the book, life is continuously said to be shapeless but shown to be rich in pattern and coincidence. There is another paradox, too: this time, with regard to Miss Murdoch's attitude to character. As a philosopher, she stresses the importance of the individual: people are to be respected and tolerated; they should not be "placed" or summed-up; a constant effort should be made, sympathetically, to understand them. In his fiction, a great novelist will follow this course, as a good man will follow it in his life. But Miss Murdoch's attitude towards her characters is usually the opposite of this. In most of her novels, they are important not so much as people but as symbols, representatives of some state of mind or ideology. They move according to the needs of the books' theses. And, even in the three more naturalistic novels she has attempted—The Sandcastle, The Bell, An Unofficial Rose—novels where she is primarily concerned with studying character and human relationships, where she aims at portraying real people rather than using symbolic figures, Miss Murdoch's tendencies as a novelist still hinder her from achieving what, as a philosopher, she feels is a literary ideal…. Few novelists have been so frank about their own work, have brought their ethical criteria to bear with quite such ferocity on their fiction; and there are few critics who would take so stern a view of Miss Murdoch's work as she herself does—at least, on these grounds. The patterning and symmetry in the books, the neatness and self-containedness, that she finds so treacherous, are usually singled out for praise. Adverse criticism of the Murdoch novels tends to take the form not of moral strictures because they are too carefully organized, but of aesthetic complaints because they are sometimes too carelessly written: and there is justice in this charge.
In Miss Murdoch's essays, the necessity of reflecting unromantically about morality and its problems is expressed clearly and succinctly…. Eloquence, she feels, is something that (like the full-length depiction of varied human personalities) is significantly absent from a great deal of modern fiction…. In her own novels, therefore, we find a continual striving after eloquence; but, although this is attained in isolated scenes, it is rarely sustained throughout an entire novel. Lapses occur. Sometimes, the prose degenerates into a hazy rhetoric…. Sometimes, there is a hectic heaping of adjective upon adjective…. In The Red and the Green, for instance, the image of the machine, a favorite metaphor of Miss Murdoch's, is used with a careless frequency … and, in The Time of the Angels, not merely phrases, but situations, are clumsily repeated…. Stylistic faults of this kind …, combined with her rapid output—twelve novels in fifteen years—suggest that Miss Murdoch is perhaps, writing too quickly. (pp. 410-14)
[In] her novels, the Romanticism which she is always trying to purge from her protagonists' outlooks can make its way back into her prose, giving rise to a vaguely emotive style (and an imagery of vampires and sybils, demons and unicorns, mermaids and sleeping beauties) which comes a little oddly from a novelist whose central preoccupation is with the need to recognize reality. She remains a considerable paradox: the writer of novels whose central figures fight against fantasy and win, and whose author tries to do so, too, and loses. (p. 415)
Peter Kemp, "The Fight against Fantasy: Iris Murdoch's 'The Red and the Green'," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1969 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Vol. XV, No. 3, Autumn, 1969, pp. 403-15.
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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.
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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 good gossip and a heart-to-heart talk about the eternal verities.
Like all her novels, Nuns and Soldiers is about love,… the love that Murdoch calls "the real, the indubitable and authoritative Eros: that unmistakable seismic shock, that total concentration of everything into one necessary being, mysterious, uncanny, unique."
Nuns and Soldiers also has a great deal about religion, which "is to do with the destruction of personality."… The religiosity is not at all [somber or pervasive]…. The bizarre and the outrageous burst through the homilies. God does not get between the sheets, though Murdoch's admirers, whose appreciation amounts to an addiction, will want to know that Jesus Christ and two angels make an appearance, in a sensational dream sequence…. (pp. 1-2)
Having cited the new novel's grand themes of love and religion, we may proceed swiftly to admire in it what Murdoch does best: the eruption of bohemian mayhem in the midst of a carefully set up bourgeois scene. Thus, as the novel opens, Guy Openshaw, scholarly civil servant, lies dying of cancer in his London flat. His distraught wife Gertrude, his friend the Count, a soulful Pole, and his relatives—the brilliant, successful, half-Jewish Openshaws—dutifully gather to mourn. Enter Anne Cavidge, Gertrude's best friend, who after 15 years has left a Catholic convent. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the scruffy artist Tim Reede is secretly pillaging the refrigerator, stuffing his pockets with leftovers so that he and his mistress, the blowsy, lovable Daisy, may feast later over drinks, in the Prince of Denmark pub. "Compared with sleek well-cared for Gertrude, Daisy was a shaggy ill-fed beast who wintered in the open."
Murdoch is the great chronicler of English art students, the Gulley Jimsons-to-be, the "wanderers, misfits, flotsam and jetsam, orphans of the storm, babes in the woods, mendicant artists, destitute hedonists, on a perpetual picnic." It is proposed in the Prince of Denmark that Tim marry someone rich, to support Daisy, for after all "Cash is real, cash is earnest." This is the hinge on which this compulsively readable novel turns….
Murdoch is off and running, and in no time the minuet of lovers begins: Tim and Daisy, the Count and Gertrude, Tim and Gertrude, the Count and Anne. Who will end up with whom and in whose bed? Declarations of love are made and, more significantly, not made, perhaps a form of moral dishonesty….
[Murdoch] exhibits an unflagging technical mastery and seems to have entered a mature phase, sounding ever deeper currents of the human condition. With Nuns and Soldiers and her 1978 novel, The Sea, The Sea, she has produced startlingly original and thoughtful works equal to and in many ways surpassing the earlier triumphs. (p. 2)
Reid Beddow, "The Cloister and the Heart," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), December 21, 1980, pp. 1-2.
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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)
Iris Murdoch has had a number of genuine, if modest, popular successes. I think I know why.
On the one hand, she writes Harlequin romances for high-brows…. Secular love is the efficient cause of what goes on in her novels, as when Paul loves Paula, who loves Paulo, who loves Pauline, who has a little something going with Saul, who falls into a sudden passion for his pretty nephew Apollo when, one portentous day ("a strange mystical light pervaded London"), he finds Pauline in the arms of Paulette. Apollo, meanwhile….
On the other hand, Iris Murdoch is a neo-Christian apologist. Her fictions, I mean, argue a Christianity that has become so much more interesting, don't you know, since God took a powder, a Christianity that substitutes a diffuse religiosity for a formulated religion, that approves your faith according to the rigor of your disbelief. The final cause of what happens in her novels is not the earthly Aphrodite, as at first you might think, but the heavenly Eros, obscurely apprehended….
The strange interlacings of [her] characters, then, their sudden twists and kinks, occur not to reveal the workings of unconscious forces—Iris Murdoch's novels are pre-psychological—but to illustrate a dogma, which boils down to this: "There was no God, but Christ lived." The heavenly Eros is Jesus, who plots our love, in, through, and for which He lives.
Iris Murdoch's novels, in sum, are primarily for people who can't take either their romance or their religion straight, who need the one to justify to themselves their indulgence in the other. The religion is shy, sly, elusive, oblique, as neo-Christians, I believe, find it in real life, and as well as they might. The intimations of Immanence allow you to take the romance allegorically…. Therefore we have the whole elaborate defense system of covert apologetics—the coy allusions, the pregnant names, the cute in-jokes, the cluttering symbolism, the cloying play on the language of devotion, secular and/or sacred, the name-dropping. (p. 14)
There are lots of symbols in this novel. There are symbolic rocks, rugs, birds, an orchestra of china monkeys, a patch of cliff that looks like "a head wearing a crown," its brow creepy with vines and its cheeks weepy from a hidden spring, things like that. When standing there before that face, even Tim feels "full of grace."
My favorite symbol is that of the dog. There's a dead one in the fast-rushing canal the first time Tim nearly drowns in it and a live one the second time, much later in the novel, when Tim and dog are swept through a symbolic tunnel and deposited miraculously on a stony beach…. The dead dog and the live one signify the disappearance and return of divinity because of what "dog" spells backward. (pp. 14, 16)
[I should also] mention the prose of "Nuns and Soldiers." Mostly it is nondescript. But when it dwells on the characters' transports of silent suffering or loquacious rapture …, when it dwells on the costumes of the women, then the prose is like that in the Nausikaa episode of "Ulysses," but without the irony….
I do not mean to imply that Iris Murdoch is a cynical exploiter of high-toned old Christian women, of all four sexes. Writing this bad cannot be faked; more likely it gushes straight from the unrelieved sincerity of an author who needs mostly to deceive herself. (p. 16)
George Stade, "A Romance for Highbrows," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 4, 1981, pp. 1, 14, 16.
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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 Gertrude serious? The London circle is appalled when the word gets out. And so indeed are we, the readers. The match can't possibly work. Tim and Gertrude are the most unlikely pair of all possible pairs in the novel. Yet after a series of trials and misunderstandings, Tim and Gertrude marry and find contentment. And it is Miss Murdoch's not inconsiderable accomplishment to have made their romance convincing and compelling.
But this leaves out all the puzzles, symbols and diagrams. It leaves out the three mysteries that Guy poses on his deathbed—the white swan, the ring "he shouldn't have sold," and "the upper side of the cube" he wishes he could see. It leaves out the role of religion in the novel. What does it signify that Guy is half-Jewish, that his family is composed of Christianized Jews, that Count's father was an anti-Semite, that Gertrude hates religion, and that Anne is a seeker after Jesus Christ?
It leaves out the symbols of dogs and water and drowning and stones and snow, each of which play insistent, mysterious roles throughout the novel. For instance, Gertrude and Tim encounter a drowned dog just before they fall in love. It is while trying to save a drowning dog that Tim overcomes the final obstacle to happiness with Gertrude. And at the end of the novel, a long-missing dog shows up at the pub where Jim and Daisy Barrett used to hang out. You go figure this out. While you're at it, figure out why the pub is called the Prince of Denmark. And why Count, insistently, has "snake-blue eyes." And who are the nuns and soldiers of the novel's title?
My suspicion is that there's a key to Miss Murdoch's incessant symbolizing. I have a feeling that Tim's and Gertrude's immersion in water before they fall in love has to do with baptism. I wonder if the Great Face in the woods that so intimidates Tim is the face of God. Could it be that "Nuns and Soldiers" is a Christian allegory, which examines various courses of conduct in a world where God (Guy?) is dead? Very likely dog is supposed to be god spelled backwards, so that in the three appearances of dogs, God is dead, God is struggling to survive, God is returned. Something tells me that at the heart of all these complexities lies the message "God is Love."
But I prefer to ignore all this symbol-mongering. I prefer Count's line of reasoning when he interprets Guy's deathbed allusion to the upper side of cube as a reference to what a tennis coach once told him about serving: "Imagine that the ball is a cube of which you are going to hit the upper side." ("Good heavens," says Gertrude, "I thought it was presocratic philosophy.") Reading it that way, "Nuns and Soldiers" amounts to a fairly entertaining love story. Reading it for all its symbols, on the other hand, it amounts to an arid and extremely pretentious collection of religious claptrap.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Books of 'The Times': 'Nuns and Soldiers'," in The New York Times (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 6, 1981, p. 20.
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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 possibilities. There is a great deal of questioning about the significance of religion; in fact, Jesus Christ makes a brief but dramatic appearance in Anne's kitchen. More general matters of morality are introduced; it is no coincidence that Gertrude's lover drinks in a pub called the Prince of Denmark, or that her husband's last ravings are drawn from The Merchant of Venice. Landscape has numinous powers beyond its aesthetic ones; so do the words of other people, however deeply rooted in deception. This is an exceptionally full book, packed with ideas, symbols, references, questionings, and with characters who, more than usually in Murdoch's novels, seem caught in the real web of life.
"Life & Letters: 'Nuns and Soldiers'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1981, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 247, No. 3, March, 1981, p. 90.
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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 another heroine is promptly in line for the same strenuous treatment…. The language is desperate, perhaps, because one of Miss Murdoch's central couples has been so firmly linked and married by the amorous alchemics of the novel that the case should have been rested, and the other couple, for all the verbal heat she breathes on the two unhappy souls, remains a pair of sticks—a nun and a soldier, too priggish and stiff and solitary to mate. By the final page (505) of the book, we have lost patience with all the characters, who if not stiff and sterile seem to be spoiled and selfish, and the connection at the plot's heart, the female friendship between Gertrude Openshaw and Anne Cavidge, no longer holds current and breaks off without a spark.
Hysterical love undoubtedly exists—indeed, it presidingly exists—and if what Miss Murdoch terms "the vast starry cosmos of the emotions" is to be accurately mapped, language cannot hang back timidly; perhaps it must dare to be loose and wild, though nothing like Miss Murdoch's adjectival torrents mars one's memory of such portraits of distraught love as "Wuthering Heights" and "Albertine Disparue." There is too much telling in "Nuns and Soldiers": with an omniscient circumstantiality, we are told the history of Poland as well as that of each major character, we are treated to panoramas of landscape as well as of interior turmoil, we are repeatedly informed that what we are witnessing is portentous. Miss Murdoch has taken it upon herself to revive the cozy, bossy voice of the intervening author…. We are not trusted to decipher the code of events ourselves and to lend it our own emotions. The plinth of descriptive preparation outweighs and dwarfs the inert statues upheld. There is much dramatizing but little dramatic action: one man dies, everybody else falls in love, and nobody can help anything. With her repeated images of near-drowning (Anne in heavy ocean waves, Tim in a swift-running canal), the author emphasizes her sense of universal helplessness, of Eros and Thanatos tossing individuals about like flecks of foam. What is important, Miss Murdoch seems to imply in her intense descriptions of water and rocks, is inhuman; and she is not alone, of course, in finding under the hood of the modern novel a kind of anti-engine, a disbelief in human decisiveness and free will. Tolstoy, too, declared human beings, even Napoleon, helpless on vast tides; but his own vigor and authority appeared, in artistic practice, not to be impaired. Miss Murdoch in the course of her copious and fluent dreaming seems to get carried away; "Nuns and Soldiers" gave this reader, at least, an impression of having drifted rather far from its initial intentions and indicated promises. (p. 148)
The lineages, professions, and—oddly, in agnostic old England—religious opinions of all are briskly given, and, as Guy dies and his widow embarks upon her mourning, we expect to see something of a group study. The mad thought even crossed the mind of this reader, noting that les cousins et les tantes number about twelve and that Guy's favorite among them is called Peter and the group's shadowy Jewishness mingles with an untoward number of religious allusions and with certain hints as to the departed Guy's uncanny rectitude and authority (he made notes toward a study of justice and punishment, which might figure as a sacred testament)—the mad thought, I say, crossed my mind that this all might develop into an allegory of the first bereft, confused Christian community in the wake of the Master's death. But nothing, or very little, along these lines happens, though some skeletal remains of the clan aspect of the plot surface late in the book, like fossils. (p. 150)
The will to describe, the willingness to be transported by details of the humble actual, is a novelist's requisite, and Miss Murdoch is so willing that one puzzles over the nagging sense of thinness, of some hollowing discrepancy, her fiction too frequently arouses. Her adeptness as a trained philosopher leads her, it may be, toward large issues from which her comedic sense of life instinctively retreats. "What can morality, what can philosophy achieve, against the volatile faithlessness of the human mind?" asks the Count, one of several characters who seem to be inviting judgment upon their own novel. Philosophy and theology can be vexed but not conclusively discussed in fiction; cosmic conclusions depend upon actual evidence no novel—no mere emblem of the world—can contain. Through all the romantic and religious flurry of "Nuns and Soldiers," one familiar hard truth emerges—the ancient truth, dear to the Greeks, of irrevocability. (p. 154)
John Updike, "Worlds and Worlds," in The New Yorker (© 1981 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVII, No. 5, March 23, 1981, pp. 150, 153-54.∗
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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 combination Odysseus-Shylock. Thus the ideal reader should know the Odyssey (Penelope and her suitors), The Merchant of Venice (a variation on the three caskets in the form of Guy's dying references to a swan, a cube, a ring) and Hamlet (the Prince of Denmark pub, the Oedipal artist, the regal but fleshy Gertrude). A knowledge of the New Testament would also be helpful, and a smattering of Latin would not hurt.
But is it worth it? The novel is too long for its simple message (love redeems death), and the plot is encumbered by wearisome exposition that is often broken by frantic parentheses. One appreciates what Murdoch has been doing in her last few novels: she is making her own tortured return to faith, converting the existential images of her early fiction into Christian symbols (water, fire and, notably, the stone that Christ holds in the exnun's dream to remind her of man's insignificance and to remind us of the stone in Sartre's Nausea, which has had considerable influence on the author). Yet Murdoch is still catering to a dual readership. The academics will justify spending time on Nuns and Soldiers because it is studded with allusions to the arts; the general reader will merely find it engrossing but implausible. And those of us who expect more of her will persevere in the hope that the next novel will obliterate the failures of the past. (pp. 472-73)
Bernard F. Dick, "English: 'Nuns and Soldiers'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1981 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 472-73.