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(Jean) Iris Murdoch 1919–

Irish-born English novelist, dramatist, poet, essayist, nonfiction writer, and scriptwriter.

In addition to producing a lengthy novel almost yearly, Murdoch, a former teacher of philosophy at Oxford, is also known for such scholarly works as Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953) and The Fire and the Sun (1977),...

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(Jean) Iris Murdoch 1919–

Irish-born English novelist, dramatist, poet, essayist, nonfiction writer, and scriptwriter.

In addition to producing a lengthy novel almost yearly, Murdoch, a former teacher of philosophy at Oxford, is also known for such scholarly works as Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953) and The Fire and the Sun (1977), a study of Plato's aesthetics. Her background in philosophy is evident in her fiction, which often deals with complex moral, religious, and ethical issues. Her novels are also noted for their wit, intricate plots, and precise descriptive detail. Murdoch won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Black Prince (1973) and the Booker McConnell Prize for The Sea, the Sea (1978).

Murdoch's first novel, Under the Net (1954), is regarded as one of her best and is characteristic of her career's work in its treatment of moral problems. The central character, a writer named Jake Donoghue, is initially concerned with establishing a pattern for his life and insulating himself from the impact of "contingency," random happenings which are not a part of his design. In the course of the novel, Jake comes to accept contingency as a part of life and particularly to accept the reality of other people and their influence on him, which frees him to love. The changes which Jake undergoes in Under the Net are representative of what critics have identified as some of Murdoch's recurring thematic concerns: the relationship between love and freedom; the conflict between contingency and design; and the necessity of looking beyond one's self to discover truth.

Some of Murdoch's novels have been categorized as bittersweet comedies and others as ironic tragedies. Her subject matter is usually the various conflicts involved in love relationships, and complicated love triangles often occur in the novels. While most of Murdoch's novels are set in modern times, elements of magic and mystery and sudden, bizarre twists of plot invite comparison with the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Gothic novels. Often a modern-day "enchanter" figure, such as Mischa Fox in The Flight from tthe Enchanter (1956), the psychologist in A Severed Head (1961), or the philosopher in The Philosopher's Pupil (1983), influences the behavior of other characters and manipulates events in Murdoch's novels. Her imagistic prose aids her creation of the fantastic, symbolic quality of her works. As she explained in an interview with Harold Hobson, "In real life the fantastic and the ordinary, the plain and the symbolic, are often indissolubly joined together, and I think the best novels explore and exhibit life without disjoining them." Murdoch's works have also been compared to those of the nineteenth-century Russian novelists whom she admires, particularly Fedor Dostoevski, for they are often voluminous texts which involve numerous characters in complex interrelationships, rather than focusing exclusively on the viewpoints of one or two central figures in the manner more common to contemporary Anglo-American fiction.

Critical assessment of Murdoch's importance in contemporary literature is divided. Critics say that in her best novels she maintains a delicate balance between artful storytelling and abstract moralizing without allowing either to dominate. One of her expressed fictional tenets is that characters should have a degree of freedom from their creator; she hopes that in her novels "a lot of people who are not me are going to come into existence in some wonderful way." However, her characters sometimes appear to be puppets, illustrating moral and ethical issues in her intricately machinated plots. Moreover, while the fantastic elements in her fiction add variety and narrative richness to her work, it has been suggested that Murdoch's use of symbolism and melodrama can become heavy-handed and that her adherence to the conventions of the English novel make her work predictable. Nevertheless, although some critics attribute her popularity to what George Stade called her "Harlequin romances for highbrows," many place her among the major English post-World Was II fiction writers.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 11, 15, 22; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 8; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 14.)

Steven Cohan

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Of her twenty novels, Iris Murdoch has written six in the first person, each one using a male narrator…. [One] cannot help wondering if her continual use of a male narrator amounts to another woman writer's surrendering her pen to the authority of the male novelist.

As far as Murdoch herself is concerned this would seem to be the case. While she has declared that she does not find "much difference between men and women," she also claims a male viewpoint for much the same reason that Marian Evans chose a male pseudonym:

I think perhaps I identify with men more than with women, because the ordinary human condition still seems to belong more to a man than to a woman.

                                           (p. 222)

Murdoch's preference "to be male" is in many ways central to her art. Her choice of male narrators allows for a playful act of male impersonation as an ironic commentary on the paradox of fiction writing. She uses the male voice to articulate a sense of lived experience unique to another self, while making sure that her narrators themselves remain bound to the limitations of their own identities. While she seems to be eliminating any signs of her own female personality, since she speaks through a voice that is obviously not hers, her narrators write their stories out of the conviction that no one else can possibly understand what they have felt, why they have acted. At one point in A Severed Head the narrator, Martin Lynch-Gibbon, exclaims to his mistress, "I can't expect you to understand all this. You'd have to be me." That Murdoch, a woman, can assume their voices to do exactly what Martin wants, becoming them, implies a position on her part at once objective and sympathetic to her narrators' experiences as men. (p. 223)

Always under the spell of some elusive woman, her narrators initially strike us as literate, intelligent men who use their narrations to examine their feelings with candor. Their own power over women is emphasized, in their minds, by their ability to tell their own stories; but such power ultimately proves illusory, for Murdoch undercuts their authority as narrators, sometimes rather chillingly, always for a satiric effect quite devastating to their self-esteem. In making these men the narrators of their own stories, Murdoch is merely giving them the opportunity to reveal in their own voices the surprising extent of their egoism and its potential for destruction, which their narrations try to explain, if not justify, as a celebration of love.

That this kind of ironic narration ends up working to satirize a male fantasy of woman, however, has only emerged as the explicit focus of Murdoch's irony in her most recent first-person novel, The Sea, the Sea, where Charles Arrowby's narration highlights a satiric indictment of the male's brutal manipulation of women. With this particular satire of the male in mind, the other narrators can all be seen pointing to the characterization of Charles, whose narration, in turn, can be read as a commentary on the earlier books. The Sea, the Sea is a significant novel in Murdoch's career because it puts into focus the psychological material of her other first-person novels to satirize its narrator, not as a representation of the human condition, but specifically as a male voice. If the male rules "the ordinary human condition" as Murdoch repeatedly sees it through her narrators, with The Sea, the Sea she brings to bear on this voice what has previously been only the indirect target of her irony: the aggression against woman that the male celebrates as love.

In all of her books what Murdoch finds most appealing—and comic—about her male characters, narrators or not, is that they do fall in love so wholeheartedly and so disastrously. Such emotional dunderheads appear as her protagonists in novel after novel because the tangled relations between men and women resonate the tensions Murdoch makes central to her ideological understanding of what it means to be emotionally and imaginatively alive. As anyone familiar with her novels quickly comes to realize, the typical Murdoch plot begins with three or four couples living in the environs of London, to turn on Jane Austen's own formula for a similar comedy of manners, but with this twist: each partner becomes somehow entangled in the sexual lives of all the others. The round-robin configurations formed by this network of marriages, affairs, and friendships call to mind the spellbound lovers in A Midsummer's Night Dream, Murdoch's favorite Shakespearean source. The conceit of love as a dream appears repeatedly in her work to underscore both the follies and the illusions that envelop lovers when they try to make out of a transient passion something absolute and timeless: romantic love. (pp. 223-24)

Like Austen, Murdoch has discovered from the start of her career a comic framework that serves her imagination well because it coordinates the dramatic activity of her plots with the themes that have not ceased to preoccupy her intellectually. Early in her career she wrote an essay prescribing directions for the future of the novel, and her comments have provided her readers with a valuable understanding of the intellectual frame she imposes on her own novels. In this essay ["Against Dryness: A Polemical Sketch"] she called for "a renewed sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life and the opacity of persons." As opposed to form, "which is an aspect of our desire for consolation" through fantasy or fiction making, she wanted "a respect for the contingent," which she associated with "the destructive power of the now so unfashionable naturalistic idea of character." To put the matter simply, she had in mind E. M. Forster's notion of round characters who are capable of surprising a reader to reveal their complexity and opacity, their essential mystery as an individuated self. By virtue of being able to surprise they challenge the principle of form, which fiction relies on, Murdoch's not excepted, but which is so imaginatively powerful that it works to seduce us into mistakenly imposing form onto life as well; this mistake Murdoch calls "fantasy." Her characters expose their "destructive power" by falling in love. Then they intrude upon each other's fantasies to force everyone to adjust his or her scripting of emotions to contingency. The value of this volatile confrontation, the germ of any Murdoch plot, is that it can lead to an awareness of the inherent instability and randomness of human action. (p. 225)

Of all her books, Murdoch's first-person novels offer the clearest illustration of the form/contingency frame. Composing his own story into a narrative is the male's most audacious and self-deceptive attempt to impose form onto contingent experience. The very act of narration demands that he find a principle of causality and structure for his story. But his story itself recounts how he, as much as he wants to, cannot be a director of events. In the story he is narrating, in other words, he tries to order events, but other people end up disrupting his sense of causality to reveal his own egoism. His egoism, too, has so befuddled his vision that it has not occurred to him, as an actor in his story, that other people are actually opaque, resistant to his understanding, antagonistic to his direction. (p. 226)

The opening episode of The Black Prince epitomizes this quandary for the narrator. Bradley is drawn into a marital rift between his best friends Rachel and Arnold, an action that ultimately leads into all of this book's complications. Yet Bradley discovers that even when literally invited into the bedroom of a married couple he cannot get more than a confusing glimpse of another's private self. As Rachel tells him toward the end of the novel, although her marriage has entangled him, even exploited him, it is finally always impervious to his understanding.

In narrating his story Bradley must therefore take into account his limitations both as an egoist and a fantasist…. Without the omniscience of a third-person narrator the characters other than Bradley remain "definite but hidden" personalities, which we as readers can penetrate no more fully than he can. In fact, to emphasize the inescapable subjectivity of Bradley's version of events, Murdoch ends The Black Prince with postscripts written by the other characters, each refuting what Bradley has had to say. The events themselves cannot be disputed…. What can vary, on the other hand, is the interpretation of events, the form placed over them. Rachel, for instance, assumes that Bradley has acted out of a passion for her, not Julian. Because she sees him as a self-deceived egoist, all she can conclude is that in his version, which makes up the novel proper, he "seems to be invincibly wrapped up in his own fantastic conceptions of what happened and of what he himself is like."… (pp. 226-27)

Taken on its own terms Rachel's suspicion of Bradley's egoism serves her own egoism. It also explains why Murdoch's narrators are male. First, as a narrator the male enacts the process of reconciling form (the act of narrating) with contingency (the lived experience he is narrating), a problem Murdoch indentifies with the male, since as a cultural figure he embodies the authority of form and yet, as a lover of women, he must either respond to the pressure of contingency—or lose his vitality. Second, as a narrator, the male cannot escape the egoism with which he tries to effect that compromise between form and contingency. "Wrapped up in his own fantastic conceptions" of what he is narrating, each narrator allows Murdoch to satirize how the male's egoism affects the way he perceives woman in order to place a symbolic value on her. Such a reading of woman in symbolic relation to the male's understanding of his experience is another manifestation of his need to find form in his emotional life, which woman has stimulated into chaos by disrupting the stability that seemed to exist prior to his falling in love with her. As a composer "of what happened and of what he himself is like," each narrator tries to impose a sense of form onto the muddle of emotions he feels for the female. (pp. 227-28)

Both A Severed Head and The Italian Girl, written early in her career, give an oedipal reading of their narrator's attraction to woman. As each narrator moves toward an acceptance of woman as the epitome of contingency, he still sees her figure in terms of his oedipal feelings, which therefore call into question his understanding of contingency. Since he is her narrator, the woman herself has no independent character of her own to resist his deeply rooted oedipal fantasy and help clarify Murdoch's attitude toward his point of view. And because Murdoch uses this fantasy in both novels to characterize her narrators psychologically, as well as to satirize the innocence with which they face contingency through their sexuality, she cannot easily keep the fantasy from obscuring the impact of what they are meant to learn about woman ideologically. (pp. 229-30)

[The later first-person novels] expand the form/contingency frame to begin focusing their irony more directly at the male's absorption of woman into his fantasy life. Though it contains the tension between Hilary's compulsion for order and his destructiveness in terms of the form/contingency frame, A Word Child begins to link the male's quest for form to his sexual fantasies, and with this connection made, to suggest the brutality that such fantasies manifest. The male in the later books lets fantasy, an expression of his need for form, stand between his self and the woman's, thus intensifying the volatile impact of contingency. Her identity as a woman remaining forever beyond the grasp of his understanding, he ends up trying to destroy her identity in order to keep his fantasy intact. (p. 231)

These men can love a woman to death! From A Severed Head to A Word Child, Murdoch's male narrators have been bringing closer to the surface of narration a satiric criticism of the fantasy of innocence that propels the male's preoccupation with love. This satire, however, has not been made the central focus of her fiction until The Sea, the Sea, which crystallizes into a dense and, for Murdoch, innovative narrative pattern what the psychologies of the earlier narrators have only implied as a subtext to the form/contingency frame.

The narrator of The Sea, the Sea is Charles Arrowby, a famous man of the theater—director, playwright, actor—who has retired to Shruff End, an antiquated house by the sea. Now into his sixties, Charles is "wifeless, childless, brotherless sisterless." Obsessed with order, particularly when it comes to the rituals of cooking and eating, he hates "mess"…. He has therefore chosen a solitary life at Shruff End determined "never [to] be anxious any more about personal relations; such anxiety is too often a form of vanity"….

Charles's retirement seems genuinely connected to his past, because he discovers living in the nearby village his childhood sweetheart, Hartley, who jilted him forty years before, disappearing from his life without a trace or an explanation. The Sea, the Sea recounts Charles's destructive attempt to rekindle this old love. Pursuing Hartley …, Charles only ends up revealing how brutally he has treated women, how egocentrically he has seen them. His obsessive love for Hartley … merely expresses a fantasy of woman's innocence which he uses to envision his own innocence. (p. 234)

More so than Murdoch's other first-person novels. The Sea, the Sea develops out of the form/contingency frame to show how the narrator's egocentric attempt to impose form onto experience through his fantasy of love actually manifests a predatory attack on woman. But what is it about this particular novel that allows Murdoch, finally, to examine her narrator as she has not quite done before, seeing him critically as a man whose fantasy of love works to undermine the very idea of woman that his love means to celebrate?

The explanation has to do with Murdoch's dense texturing of Charles's narration. Unlike her other first-person narrations, The Sea, the Sea is a novel of memory, with Charles using his internalized narration to sift through his impressions of the past for a glimpse of his lost "better self." (p. 236)

The more Charles concentrates on Hartley, the more obvious it becomes that there are actually two competing plots to his narration. The pursuit of Hartley, Charles treats as the primary plot of his "novelistic memoir," which seems natural, at first reading, because she focuses for Charles much of what happens to him at Shruff End. But as it turns out, if he sincerely hopes to connect his end with his beginning, then his narration has pursued a false scent, leading him away from the actual plot of his life's story. The Hartley plot is not a conclusion but an evasion. Though he records events in the present as they occur, he is merely trying to do with lived experience what he can easily do with narrated experience: turn contingency into form. To do this he has to dismiss the importance of forty years of his life, widening the disparity between the Hartley of his imagination and the woman of present reality. That important gap in time exposes the illusion behind his love for her to reveal, as well, why he so readily discounts everything in his life that does not concern Hartley. She allows him to orchestrate a fantasy memoir of his life, which he desperately tries to make real once he sees her again. (pp. 236-37)

Murdoch's accomplishment in The Sea, the Sea comes from her rich, complex texturing of Charles's narration. I have actually looked at only a portion of what she is doing. The displacing of plots, the use of other characters as critical voices, allow her to use Charles's voice as an articulation of fantasy, as a narrator of a dream text about woman. She thus achieves the objectivity of third-person narration without lessening the singularity of her narrator's vision. The layered plots of this novel, moreover, allow her to work the narrative out of the contingency/form tension so that it does frame, rather than obscure, the critical vision of men that has become progressively dominant in her fiction: a commentary on their unconscious "sickening casual brutality" passing under the name of love.

The Sea, the Sea, then, marks an important breakthrough for Murdoch. Where she is heading after this or how far she will go is not yet clear. Her current novel, Nuns and Soldiers (1980), shows a new interest in female consciousness, with its focus on two female protagonists surrounded by kind, gentle, timid men. Being a prolific writer, Murdoch cannot avoid repetition and even reversals in her books, but her yearly novels do allow us to watch her slowly working through the concerns at the center of her art, with one novel's success evolving out of an earlier novel's problems. It will therefore be revealing to see what she will next do with first-person narration, whether she will move beyond Charles's voice, perhaps to a female narrator, or fall back, as she has sometimes done in the past, to old familiar patterns. (p. 241)

Steven Cohan, "From Subtext to Dream Text: The Brutal Egoism of Iris Murdoch's Male Narrators," in Men by Women, edited by Janet Todd, Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1981, pp. 222-42.

Elizabeth Dipple

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Although Murdoch argues against Plato on several points, it is nevertheless clear that her sense of the integrity of art reflects his injunction that fantasy and sophist lies be avoided: the world Murdoch knows best is always her subject, and if this means a proliferation of civil servants and middle-class types, her uncanny achievement shows how little the contours of an original and varied series of novels are limited by such necessities.

A patient study of Murdoch's work reveals how deceptive the bourgeois surface in fact is, and how ironic her deployment of its materials. Although she operates structurally from situation and character, the process of her best books involves a subtle peeling-off of layers of bourgeois complacency and prejudice. Her primary tools are a devastating accuracy in the detail of human character and an enormous allusive frame which pushes the reader toward a willingness to see how large her intentions are. When the allusions fail, as they tend to in early novels like A Severed Head and The Italian Girl, the result is over-plotted, tricksy books where the profound laws of causality central to Murdoch's thought are lost in clever satire. When these allusions to mythology, art and religion are functioning at a high level of imaginative power, however, their syncretic force is such that they become images assisting the novel towards profound and unnerving ends. These ends are religious in impact, but the novels never succumb to the warm fuzziness of consoling or salvational piety. (pp. 2-3)

The fact that ultimate reality, even the cosmos itself, lies behind the drifting and often frenetic bourgeois surface is the vast secret of Murdoch's best fiction, and the sheer nerve and ambition required in the projection of such a stage on which to place traditional realism make her fictions risky in the extreme. There can be no doubt, for example, that it is correct to read A Fairly Honourable Defeat as an oblique commentary on the combat of good and evil and the defeat of the Christian Trinity, and yet its psychological verisimilitude deflects the allegorical loftiness of its conception. (p. 3)

Ostensibly a realist who has been criticized nervously by some British critics for continuing boringly in a bourgeois mode as opposed to following American, French and East European experimentalism, Murdoch has soldiered on through twenty novels from 1954 to 1980, the limit of this study. In the process of writing these twenty novels her style has changed and her authority grown. Her extensive achievement in radical thinking about the novel as a genre as well as in her use of it as a vehicle for those ideas has involved a participation in subtle and difficult ways with an oblique method of experimentation…. Murdoch palpably believes in texts and a novelistic tradition, and sees the form as she does all art as having art important function within human experience and knowledge. (p. 4)

In the novels, her artist characters are almost always negative and opposed by firm realists or spiritual beings whose hold on external reality is in sharp contrast to the vagaries and idealism of the artist, and her fictions constantly reflect on their own impossibility. One of the most frequently used, dangerous words in Murdoch is magic; she associates it not only with human misuse of theories, ideology and religious materials, but also with the chimerical delights of the surfaces of art. The novelist is bound to use magical devices to enchant the reader and produce form, and Murdoch is no mean practitioner, but for her this is all a subservience to the patina and not reflective of the deep uses of fiction. Her irony about her materials separates her from most of her British contemporaries but does not quite manage to align her with American experimentalists. In spite of her radical distance from them, her nearest relatives are Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer and, in a small way, British writers fundamentally interested in magic—John Fowles and Muriel Spark. The difference lies in the fact that for Murdoch, as for Singer, magic is a tool which must be used ironically and not believed in; the real area of significant fiction, and the one that relates to its primary task, is for Murdoch unmagical realism as it was practised by Shakespeare and the great nineteenth-century novelists, and towards them she aims.

Much has been written and conjectured about the contemporary British novel, where experimentalism is limited by strong realism and good storytelling, where in fact pure experimentalism is shunned. Murdoch would seem to be aligned with this current tendency, but her work does not reflect the same weariness within the tradition and failure of nerve which characterize her compatriots. She makes it clear that her realism reflects a conviction about the uses of art, and in opposing it to her necessary 'magical' materials—both technical and ideological—she forges a distinctive product which tries to steer clear of the mediocre art produced when devices are foremost as they are in most contemporary experimentalism and in some British realism.

Murdoch's strongest area of experiment lies in the fact that she is a writer with enormous content, and no one can read many novels without being haunted by the need to uncover that content. No simple tale-spinner, she plays the role of the invisible writer teasing her reader into thought and thereby engaging him in the deeper purposes of an all too often frivolous genre. The quality of thought in Murdoch has produced alienation in some readers, but it is the most tantalizingly serious aspect of her novels and must be examined as such. There is complete consistency of idea in Murdoch; once the thought patterns are worked out the reader can watch the technical expertise with which she plays them, yet each novel is entirely new and in a sense a continuation and elaboration of elements one thought one knew. Thus each novel presents a new milieu with new problems in depicting progress towards human consciousness and change. Denying the conventional solaces of the novel as a genre, Murdoch never presents the ideal end but concentrates rather on a real and stringent depiction of the errors and resultant causality which rule human affairs under the general aegis of chance. Inhibiting herself as much as possible from becoming the kind of realist that uses the novel as a forum for moral argument, she nevertheless makes it clear that art itself has a moral base and that its real function, apart from enjoyment, is truth-telling. (pp. 5-6)

One can gather from Murdoch's essays and novels that she is above all interested in the degree and sort of knowledge attainable by humankind, and that she believes the knowledge available must be treated as experience and not as abstract intellectualism. The experiential base of literary realism is therefore an ideal vehicle, not because it can include preaching which Murdoch abhors, but because it is centred on the particular and on detail. For Murdoch, knowledge is a process of particularizing, of making experience more and more explicit rather than abstracting it into theory. The particularity of description and event which the novel as a genre allows gives her the breadth she needs, and her work can be seen as a progressive illustration of a life the reader shares with his fellows and contemporaries. The natural mode for such particularization is expansion and amplification, and as Murdoch's style develops, this is certainly her direction…. The urge towards particularization also defines many of Murdoch's strengths, for in detail, allusion and moment-by-moment richness, her later style is unequalled by her contemporaries. Her concentration on the inner life and experience of her characters keeps her mature novels far from the utilitarian subservience to plot which characterizes some of the early ones, and the Murdoch of her serious twentieth-century reputation will be the Murdoch of these rich extended fictions.

Intrinsic to her study of the particular is the contrasting temptation so many of her characters have towards gnostic breakthroughs and towards the kind of knowledge that demands theories to explain it. This desire for knowledge is aligned to her persistent presentation of all characters in a state of metaxy and longing where they despairingly contrast their limited and all too particular present with various grand ideals towards which they aspire—innocence, romantic love, God. (p. 7)

All Murdoch's characters are world-immanent beings who, in spite of an inclination towards ideals and knowledge, are forced to concentrate on ordinary action in a realistic world where muddle reigns. It is evident that for Murdoch the transcendent is too easily deceptive and distracts human beings from focusing on the truth of the particular and immediate, the truth that is available without tricks or game-playing or magic and that is so well served by realism. However, realism as strict reportage is not what Murdoch is after…. Murdoch's characters are not allowed transcendence and their seeking of an ideal end is always brutally smashed, but they do know about virtue or holiness, and the best way of describing this is through the Platonic idea of the good. This religious apprehension lies at the core of Murdoch's work and removes it from simple realism into a more serious realm where an external other presents the reader with an idea against which the fiction can profitably be placed. Refusing manifestations of the divine, Murdoch nevertheless operates ironically within a limited idea of a theurgic universe where the idea of the good, which must be sought in a stringent way without hope of reward, is seen as the basic human access to the spiritual life…. [Murdoch] extends the novel form to include a teaching which is beyond the bounds of the genre as practised by her contemporaries. (p. 8)

Elizabeth Dipple, in her Iris Murdoch: Work for the Spirit, University of Chicago Press, 1982, 356 p.

Nicholas Mosley

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Iris Murdoch is a professional philosopher, and it has been interesting (though perhaps hitherto somewhat unprofitable) to speculate on what might be the relation between her philosophy and her brilliantly skilful though sometimes weirdly anarchic novelist's art. However in [The Philosopher's Pupil] … she has as her central character a renowned philosopher called Rozanov, and there are deliberate, though still enigmatic, connections made between philosophy and art.

Rozanov returns in his old age to his home town of Ennistone—a spa in the south of England noted for its hot water springs. Rozanov has lost his faith in the efficacy of philosophy, as a priest might have lost his belief in God. (There is in fact such a priest in the novel, Father Bernard, who ends up preaching to the birds about the non-existence of God.)…

Rozanov tries to organise the world around him by will: he has a hypnotic effect on people just because, perhaps, he believes there is nothing to be trusted except will. Around him circulate typical Iris Murdoch characters in various states of exaltation or despair: there are the McCaffrey family of a mother and three sons; their wives, servants and girlfriends; all are more or less under the guru-like spell of Rozanov. From their almost arbitrary circuits, like those of electrons, there from time to time appear emanations, or portents, such as also there often are in Iris Murdoch novels…. Citizens realise that the town is going through one of its 'funny times': it is as if Tunbridge Wells had been transported to the edge of an animistic rain-forest.

The various stories of passion and hopeless attempts at manipulation whirl fascinatingly enough, even if there is not quite the concentrated, gripping narrative of the same author's The Black Prince or A Word Child. At the beginning, George McCaffrey tries to murder his wife and at once dramatically rescues her; at the end he tries to find liberation by murdering Rozanov but Rozanov happens to be already dead…. Most of the characters end up in a trance-like state not very different from that in which they began. Father Bernard at least survives: Rozanov does not. But the chief interest of the novel remains in the question—what is a philosopher making of all this? (p. 19)

In The Philosopher's Pupil Rozanov says he agrees with Plato ('art is certainly the devil's work') but does not move on from this. He sees that 'the holy must try to know the demonic, must at some point frame the riddle and thirst for the answer'; but nevertheless, he decides that this 'longing is the perfect contradiction of the love of God'. Rozanov's God is a philosopher's god; it cannot live with contradictions.

At some stage in most Iris Murdoch novels there is apt to come to a reader the thought: 'But surely human beings are not like this: we do not really, do we, spend our time whirled around by such portent-laden passions imagining we find meanings where there are none?' But on the heels of this comes the feeling: 'Perhaps this is just what human beings are in fact like, and it is precisely our delusion to imagine that we are not.' But still there is the further question: 'What then is this luminously meaningful business of Iris Murdoch writing such intelligent novels, and ourselves getting such pleasure in being informed by them?'

The story of The Philosopher's Pupil is told by a mysterious narrator, N, who pops up every now and then like one of the portents such as the fox who sits in the front seat of Rolls-Royces. N describes himself as 'an observer, a student of human nature, a moralist, a man'; it is his 'role in life to listen to stories'. He adds: 'I also had the assistance of a certain lady.' The lady is, it seems, Iris Murdoch. As far as the business of making 'a formal utterance of a perceived truth' goes, it is the philosopher, Rozanov, who, striving for order on a rational and human level, fails; and it is the artist (the philosopher's pupil?) who, by making out of human disorderliness something orderly on what Father Bernard would call a religious level, succeeds. The artist's business is, paradoxically, through listening and observing, the framing of riddles. (pp. 19-20)

Nicholas Mosley, "The Philosopher Fails—The Artist Succeeds," in The Listener, Vol. 109, No. 2806, April 28, 1983, pp. 19-20.

Robert Taubman

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George [is the title character of The Philosopher's Pupil], and a somewhat hypothetical figure, a product of the ideas in the novel. He has a reputation for being 'beyond good and evil' and 'closer to awful aspects of the world' than other people. He is ambiguously involved in the near-drowning of his wife at the beginning, and in the attempted murder of the philosopher Rozanov at the end….

The need to try to explain George is widely felt in Ennistone. In his own voice, he comes on like Edgar on the heath, uttering snatches of quotations that are mostly nonsense but signify a soul in torment. Rozanov, the elderly philosopher who is the object of George's obsession, is for his part obsessed with his granddaughter's virginity. Rozanov is much the more believable character, though this involves believing in a very abstruse thinker at a time of crisis and despair. He has his own murderous impulses, which is doubtless what makes Althusser spring to mind. But Rozanov isn't mad; nor is he, like George, 'beyond good and evil'. What indeed makes him credible is simply that he is a puritan and a moralist. He is now 'tired of his mind' and tired of philosophy, in which 'everything went wrong since Aristotle.' But he is still a moralist, and what he fears most is 'to find out that morality is unreal'. Evidently (there's some guesswork to be done) this is what he does find out at the crisis of his relations with his granddaughter. He has already taken poison before George tips him into the bathwater.

It's hardly as effective as Dostoevsky—whose one image of eternity as a spider in a Russian bathhouse conveys more than all the Xanadu-like elaboration of Ennistone. The two principals are the less conspicuous for being surrounded by other strange creatures who might have stepped out of other Murdoch novels…. Lots of women—this is bafflingly typical of Iris Murdoch—are in love with George and Rozanov: as ever, the least attractive of her men get the most devotion. The supernatural has its usual place among the mere contingencies, of existence. Marvels and portents occur and are simply noted, as if by the unsurprised eyes of a child….

Power is a keyword: all the characters exercise powers over each other, which are less like natural powers than a kind of enchantment. And it would all be fun—our own English brand of magic realism—if it were neatly self-sufficient and the pattern of reversals quite harmonious. But not so. Far from being merely playful, The Philosopher's Pupil reaches out after meaning, and undertakes to deal with such issues as evil, innocence and salvation. So it borrows suggestively from literature: George is one of a trio of brothers with a family resemblance to the Karamazovs (the narrator with his talk of 'our town' and 'our citizens' also seems to be out of Dostoevsky). Another line of interpretation is offered: Rozanov as Prospero and George as Caliban. Interpretation isn't just a possible strategy for dealing with a Murdoch novel: it is imposed by the novel itself.

But it's also opposed from within the novel, for the great obstacle to interpretation is the ambiguity of the styles in which it is written. One can 'place' the narrator's style—and even guess his identity, though the novel doesn't disclose this. His is a 'cool' style, if quaintly mannered … and well-suited to the narrative function, though suspect as a mirror of the inner life. But readers of Iris Murdoch are already familiar with a 'hot' style which seems to come unbidden to her characters at important moments. It is one of Rozanov's ways of talking philosophy…. But mainly it's the language of emotional stress arising from 'spiritual devastation, inward wreck'—as in Rozanov's love-scenes with Hattie, or in George acting out his idea of redemption….

It remains a moot point, after many Murdoch novels, whether these moments of excess are meant to convince the reader or not. Some think so, like a hostile critic of her last novel, Nuns and Soldiers: 'Writing this bad cannot be faked.' But it's also possible that they're simply due to the use of a convention: a somewhat theatrical convention, and in doubtful taste, but just one of the possibilities of 'as if' that the novel deals in. Acting is what her characters often do, entering the novel as if it were a proscenium stage and giving a performance: and the staginess of it—not the authenticity—is of the essence.

But to admit the use of theatrical conventions doesn't get one far enough. Obviously they deter one from being too literal and serious-minded in pursuit of deeper meanings, and they don't explain why the presence of meaning and the need for interpretation are so coercively suggested at almost every moment. But we may accept them as theatrical conventions, and still find something wrong here. And the trouble isn't in the bizarre effects they achieve, but in what these are set against: the implied norms of natural behaviour. The oddities and excesses are what we notice, in character as well as in style.

Nearly everyone here is like George, 'significantly at odds with reality'…. Spiritual devastation, secret passions and symptoms of madness appear with all Iris Murdoch's usual profusion. But lurking in the bizarre, and largely contributing to its effect, are the novel's assumptions about normality: the accepted view of mistresses or of homosexuals, the sacrament of marriage, the philosophic life, the Church of England. It is to all this, and 'affection, happiness and wisdom', that the characters supposedly return in the coda of the novel. Yet reality is just what these norms lack: they are only another kind of convention, and mostly of a most vapid, stereotyped kind. It is the norms underlying the fantasy which, in their significant silence, produce that sinking feeling, the debilitating effect of reading Iris Murdoch.

What good anyway comes of this play of opposites, her great divide between the noumenal and the norm, or fantasy and reality? Without the tension between opposites her novel wouldn't exist: but does it do enough to justify the novel's existence? It often seems only to polarise what would be better left unpolarised. Here is sex, for instance, in some of its wilder manifestations: but nothing about it as a fully human experience. At one extreme, it vanishes into the noumenal, or gives rise to a fit of the horrors, as in Rozanov's passion for his grandchild ('Oh wicked, wicked, the pain of it'). On the other hand, sex in the ordinary course of events is dismissed with an indifference that goes to another extreme: 'She had some small messy love affairs …' 'After messing about with human sexual adventures …' 'After a few unpleasant little adventures he had decided to give up sex.' Either way, sex is devalued—like so much else in this apparently commodious novel. It's not a novel that values the experience it's made of. It will be objected, of course, that novels aren't made of experience but of words, and one grants Iris Murdoch a great deal of cleverness with words.

Robert Taubman, "Double Life," in London Review of Books, May 19 to June 1, 1983, p. 23.

Robertson Davies

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It is not easy for a reviewer to know where to catch hold of a novel by Iris Murdoch, when he has to make up his mind about it. [The Philosopher's Pupil] is the most difficult of all. Has it a story? Yes, A good one? Yes, but not one of your neat plots; wambling and discursive, like life itself, rather than smartly turned by a fabulist's invention. Is the style distinguished, then? There are several styles, and all are right for what they have to carry. Is it innovative? (This is the voice of eager youth.) Well, yes, you might say so. Is it a good read? (This is the voice of slippered age.) That depends on how alert you are to what is being said. What influences are apparent in it? (This is a professor, hot for the long chain of succession in what he calls The Art of the Novel.) Well, sometimes it reminds me of the 19th century novel in its leisurely pace and heaping-up of significant detail, and its pleasure in description of natural surroundings; but at other times it is a novel which could only be written now. Would you know it for a philosopher's novel? (This is someone who knows that at one time the author plied that demanding trade.) No, or at least not to the point where it hurts. Do you recommend it, then? Oh, indeed I do, but don't come whining to me if it is not your sort of book.

Not an easy book to write about, as you see. There were moments when I wished that it could be infinitely extended. There were other moments (such as the 4,000 words that intervened between a character reaching a door and crossing the threshold) when I found myself mentally shouting Get on with it! The author has a fine profusion of imagination, but her complexities do not always justify themselves; she delights in parentheses and conditions, so that if we are not always alert we may miss something important; she cares nothing about putting the reader at ease, and likes to tease us by calling a woman Alex and a man Emma. She assumes that her reader has a strong visual imagination, and delights in her power of painting with words….

She has many voices, and to me the most astonishing is the Dialogue Voice; the talk among her characters whips along rapidly, pushing the plot well beyond the speed limit, and giving us insights and illuminations that we must catch on the fly; a dramatist might envy her skill. She cannot wholly discard the Philosophical Voice, and once—just once—she allows herself to set up a clergyman as stooge for her philosopher, who wipes the floor with him in a fashion just a little too easy. (p. 1)

Her philosopher is her principal character, though perhaps she meant the pupil named in the title to have that place. It is difficult to make a philosopher credible in fiction, because to carry complete conviction he would have to talk sometimes in a way that would leave us nonphilosophers baffled. But John Robert Rozanov convinces us because he is clearly a man of powerful intellect, and at the same time a victim of that overwhelming silliness that may overcome a man who has lived most of his life in his mind, and does not know what to do with emotion when it tosses and gores him. (pp. 1-2)

All the people in her book are in muddles of one sort or another, but they are not the tedious muddles of stupid people of whose fate we soon weary. They are the muddles of people who, either because they think more than they feel, or feel more than they think, cannot gain any serenity, however fleeting. But they all possess some distinction that makes them worth caring about, and they all behave in ways that we believe, even if we do not fully understand. When the philosopher, supposedly a man of wisdom but really just a man of broad knowledge, gets into a fantod about an affront to his granddaughter, we know why he does it, and how truly angry he is, and we feel for him as we wish to shake him into a better frame of mind.

Indeed, this may well be the real power of the book, which has many sources of energy. The author does what old-fashioned novelists did when they could; she makes us gods, observing, weighing, rebuking, forgiving, and happy with our omniscience. To professors who talk about The Art of the Novel this has been abhorrent for many decades, but it is one of the most difficult and rewarding things a novelist can do for us. It is an age-old attribute of the real storyteller, and Iris Murdoch possesses it in high degree. (p. 2)

Robertson Davies, "Iris Murdoch's Crowded Canvas," in Book World—The Washington Post, June 26, 1983, pp. 1-2.

Richard Eder

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Iris Murdoch is a conjuring kind of novelist. Her characters are upper middle class, mostly, with a sprinkling of intellectuals, artists and assorted Bohemians. Their language, tastes and habits are at the very blunted edge of contemporary Western civility.

And they are infested with passion; unpredictable and primitive and with lashings of pagan magic. Under the leather brogues the feet are cloven; under the tweed jacket is a fell. The cultivated English countenances have their fundament in a mermaid's tail or a centaur's haunches; the countryside and country towns are haunted.

The ostensible form of the Murdoch novel—she has written 21 by now—is the comedy or tragicomedy of manners. Each detail is precise, each social nuance is just so. The pleasures, pursuits, meals, anguishes and silly walks of her assorted English intelligentsia could not be more engagingly and dryly set down.

All this is carriage work and scenery. The engine that makes her books go—high-powered, tricky and sometimes, as in ["The Philosopher's Pupil"], with a tendency to stall—is the whiff of supernatural force. Her characters press along with reasonable purposes, but they are like people making their way against a high and shifty wind; sometimes their purposes blow off or reverse. The Pan-like hauntings and acts of possession, without quite winning out, bring about sudden violence and sometimes an equally violent and arbitrary happiness.

At her best Murdoch has made a unique blend of the realistic novel and the magical tale. Not all conjuring conjures magic, though. It is always fun to see a water-diviner at work; it doesn't always produce water. "The Philosopher's Pupil" has been accused of unwieldy bulk and confused purposes. These are certainly there; on the other hand, there is quite a lot of fun in it. (p. 2)

There are many … characters, and the plot is [complex]…. There are events and pseudo-events, an attempted murder, a suicide, a town celebration that takes on hints of a pagan orgy. Above all there is pain, which is perhaps the book's main subject: Rozanov's pain at exhausting his philosophy and finding himself subject to his own grossness and decrepitude; George's Lucifer-like pain at being rejected by his god; and assorted pains for the book's galaxy of assorted personages.

Murdoch lets her characters go. There is excess in "The Philosopher's Pupil": too many characters are described too completely in all their baroque convolutions; and they all talk much too long. Even a pet dog is given his point of view. Each character has an exhaustive life-history, and each anguish produces rages approaching sheer ranting.

The confrontations are deliberately melodramatic, and the melodrama tires. Still, the author has her purpose, and it is a quite individual one. Her tone is fundamentally cool and ironic, though not truly detached; she is dealing with people's demons and to do so she lets them run and rage. And at her best she finds disconcerting lines of sense in the chaos of human feelings. Of George's long-suffering wife, who is also, in her passive way, a manipulator, she writes:

"People who thought that Stella lived in hell were not wrong; but like all those who do not, they failed to understand that hell is a large place wherein there are familiar refuges and corners."

The refuges and corners of hell are, increasingly, Murdoch's territory. She writes about them subtly and with a disconcerting gaiety. (pp. 2, 8)

Richard Eder, "The Conjuring Magic of Murdoch," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 3, 1983, pp. 2, 8.

Joyce Carol Oates

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In Iris Murdoch's ambitious, unique and ingeniously plotted novels—"The Philosopher's Pupil" is the 21st—men and women are blinded by the dance of illusions. They fall in love, often violently and senselessly; they fall under the spell of individuals who appear to be special or extraordinarily powerful. A representative Murdoch novel—this one, for instance—is so densely populated and its dazed characters kept in such frenetic motion that it is sometimes difficult to remember what has happened to whom and why, which is perhaps the author's intention. For most people, life is a matter of sequential enchantments, a harlequinade in which many seek salvation but few find it, because they are captivated by mere shadows and blind to the true source of light. (p. 1)

From the start of her writing career, Miss Murdoch has chosen to associate, often with a wonderfully savage wit, the dance of shadows with that congeries of emotion called romantic or erotic love. In novel after novel she has mercilessly anatomized the delusions of love, returning often to familiar combinations (overly cerebral male in pursuit of ordinary female, for instance) and insights: "A human being hardly ever thinks about other people," a character says in "Bruno's Dream." "He contemplates fantasms which resemble them and which he has decked out for his own purposes." Most of the action of "The Philosopher's Pupil" consists of chasing about after these "fantasms."…

For readers familiar with Miss Murdoch's other novels (consider simply the early titles "Under the Net" and "The Flight from the Enchanter"), Rozanov will provoke a sensation of déjà vu. He is one of Miss Murdoch's magicians, a wizard, an enchanter—an emperor without any clothes—lacking the power to save himself but possessing the power, even if accidentally, to manipulate other lives….

The difficulty here lies in the reader's willingness to suspend disbelief. Since Rozanov is rarely heard saying anything philosophical in a strict professional sense—since he is rarely heard saying anything original or profound, in fact—why do so many people flock around him and think obsessively of him? Even the faux mauvais George, the failure, the "dull dog" ("What made you bad at philosophy makes you bad at being bad," Rozanov says), has his circle of worshipful females, including the most beautiful woman in Ennistone. Can all this be seen in terms of human beings' endless capacity for delusion? Is life really to be so flippantly explained? "We would all be comic characters if we were in novels," the anonymous narrator of "The Philosopher's Pupil," N, casually observes.

Where Miss Murdoch's celebrated early novels were brisk, polished, sardonic and highly original, rather like Restoration comedies in prose fiction form, her recent novels—from approximately "A Fairly Honourable Defeat" onward—are far more whimsically structured, freer, chattier, by turns funnier and more ponderous. The early novels seem quintessentially English, the later self-consciously "Russian." Here the narrative voice is likely to be breathless, plunging, unedited…. And defiantly overwritten…. (p. 20)

Allusions to Dostoyevsky are explicit in "The Philosopher's Pupil," where the potential murderer George hallucinates a hammer-carrying double and insists on discussing with Rozanov such matters as good and evil, God and Satan, and whether there is a point beyond morality at which "everything is permitted." Where such passionate discussions spring to life in Dostoyevsky, especially in "The Brothers Karamazov," they strike a rather odd, dated note here. In any case, it is fully realized characters who debate in Dostoyevsky, not merely ideas. When George taunts Rozanov with the notion that they are both demons and that he is a caricature of Rozanov, hence Rozanov's hatred of him, he is purposely echoing Pyotr Verkhovensky's remarks to his idol, Nikolai Stavrogin, in "The Possessed"—but the echo, as well as other pointed parallels between the novels, only suggests the relative thinness, the willed quality, of "The Philosopher's Pupil."

Perhaps the very term novel of ideas is tautological, for what novel is barren of ideas, unshaped by ideas? One never thinks of D. H. Lawrence's "Women in Love" as a novel of ideas, for instance, because it is clearly so much more. As for Dostoyevsky's great novels and Thomas Mann's, ideas can assuredly be found in them and may in fact have generated them but are not finally equivalent to the rich narratives that sustain those ideas. Among Miss Murdoch's long novels, it is "A Word Child" and the splendid "Henry and Cato" that rise above the limitations of the novel of ideas. These are marvelous works, at once deeply moving and entertaining.

"The Philosopher's Pupil" is strongest, perhaps, when it does not labor to be gnomic and profound. (pp. 20-1)

Joyce Carol Oates, "Love and Other Illusions," in The New York Times Book Review, July 17, 1983, pp. 1, 20-1.

John Updike

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[If we] long for what James called "the palpable present intimate that throbs responsive," we can turn to no more reliable purveyor of intimacy than Iris Murdoch, whose latest novel, "The Philosopher's Pupil" …, is one of her biggest and best. It opens with a whirlwind of an argument between husband and wife, and its first paragraph is the best description of driving a car in the rain—a "palpable present" sensation par excellence—that I have ever read:…

The malignant rain rattled on the car like shot. Propelled in oblique flurries, it assaulted the windscreen, obliterating in a second the frenetic strivings of the windscreen wipers. Little demonic faces composed of racing raindrops appeared and vanished. The intermittent yellow light of the street lamps, illuminating the grey atoms of the storm, fractured in sudden stars upon the rain-swarmed glass. Bumping on cobbles the car hummed and drummed.

Let this evocation stand as typical of Miss Murdoch's magic when it works: the blunt successive sentences, with scarcely a dependent clause among them, yield up the superb "little demonic faces composed of racing raindrops" to remind us that not all is as simple and declarative and breathless as it seems—that a highly symbol-prone intelligence presides behind this hurrying actuality. In twenty-one unstinting novels now, this writer has mined her imagination and the world around her for philosopher's gold. With rare concern and knowing, she writes, in a post-religious age, about spiritual activity, as it sparks along that interface where human perception breeds demons out of raindrops.

The quarrelling couple is George and Stella McCaffrey…. [The McCaffrey family is at] the center of the saga, which has so many other characters they seem to constitute the entire population of Ennistone, the small English city, "not exceedingly far from London," where the action takes place in a busy period of about three months. The compressed time span, the device of a disappearing and reappearing first-person narrator who knows impossibly much, and the emphasis upon a certain family and a provincial community feel reminiscent of Dostoyevski's later novels. If Miss Murdoch has deliberately refreshed her reading of these, it is a happy move; the Russian's theatricality, wild humor, and troubled spiritual urgency are all up her alley. Like Dostoyevski, she is interested in people's influence over one another—their sway, the bogies we make in one another's minds, the gravitational permutations as spiritual bodies plunge on in their self-centered orbits. (pp. 197-98)

The peekaboo narrator calls himself N and names the town after himself—N's town, Ennistone. He is, we gradually learn, middle-aged, unmarried, something of a voyeur, and Jewish. Jewish also are Stella McCaffrey, Father Jacoby, and, one surmises, Steve Glatz. Enough plot, surely. There is plenty more of it, all sumptuously cloaked in Miss Murdoch's unfailing and seemingly effortless provision of faces and costumes and hairdos, of furnished rooms and architectural façades, of histories personal and local, of delightfully individual toads in botanically specific gardens. She is the happiest imaginer in the English-speaking world, fearless and fresh whether she displays a night of homosexual initiation or a music lesson, a Quaker meeting or a murderer's exalted frenzy, a dog's impression of a fox or an old woman's dream of dispossession.

This reviewer found "The Philosopher's Pupil" more involving and satisfying than the previous, equally energetic and knowledgeable novels by Miss Murdoch that he has read lately—"The Sacred and Profane Love Machine" and "Nuns and Soldiers." Why? For one thing, love has been given something of a vacation here, or at least romantic infatuation shares with other sorts of steam the propulsion of the characters. A certain friendly grit coats this little industrial town, with its "strong and longstanding puritan and non-conformist tradition." Away from the dreaming spires of Oxford and the verdant squares of London, Miss Murdoch shows a bracing grasp of plain unpleasantness. In George McCaffrey she has created a fascinatingly nasty man—conceited, disappointed, muddled, and outrageous and destructive with a smugness that perhaps only an Englishman could muster…. Unless we call love George's mad desire to impress Rozanov, or Stella's aloof loyalty to her cruel and slovenly mate, erotic passion scarcely enters the plot until halfway through, and then in the ironic form of a knightly quest openly allegorized. Until then, and throughout, we are in the grip of a type of murder mystery, in which the question is not "Whodunnit?" but "What did he do?" Did George try to kill Stella? And the psychological mystery the author has set herself to examine is not that of amorous affect but that of human destructiveness, bilious and incorrigible. Miss Murdoch, in short, has given her darker side some rein and her broad and shrewd perceptions of human nature some breathing space away from the doctrine of omnipotent Eros. "The Triumph of Aphrodite" is a masque rehearsed in the novel, but the reader is excused from seeing it performed.

Also, in the so thoroughly and affectionately constructed setting of Ennistone she has given her volatile spiritual dramas a solid stage. The town is distinguished by the presence of famous and ancient hot springs. The waters, dating back to Roman times and rumored to have medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities, are housed in a set of pools and Victorian structures called The Bath Institute. Almost all the citizens of Ennistone swim the year round, and the gatherings and encounters of the characters at this watery forum as they stand about in the near-nude like figures on one of Dante's penitential terraces make a recurrently resonant image—souls, and not bodies, seem to be assembled. Miss Murdoch, with her painterly eye and theatrical sense, is a deviser of tableaux, of meaningful environments…. The Ennistone baths, with their constant steam and rumble issuing from an unfathomable underground source—the earth's subconscious, as it were—afford the novel's vapors and machinations a hot center that yet is quaintly, sturdily actual…. Water has often figured in Miss Murdoch's work as the outward emblem of the amorous power that suffuses and overwhelms us; by enhousing it at the center of her city she has tamed and channelled and strengthened the symbol. Things fit; the novel's furniture is irradiated by feeling, and functions as thing and sign both. When, toward the end, a UFO swoops low and blinds a character, we are not put off as by whimsy; we know by now what is meant, and in what sense such things do happen. (pp. 199-200, 203)

Of course, fault can be found, as with any free and generous production. In a field of characters so immensely extended, not all ripen as perhaps was intended. Adam and his dog Zed rather fade away; Ennistone's crowd of "bright young things" do little more than swell the scene…. [Father Bernard is] flimsy, and a victim of the author's tendency to hit and run, to fling scarecrows into her gardens…. The novel's evident moral haphazardly falls to the priest to pronounce, in a letter penned from Greek exile: "Metaphysics and the human sciences are made impossible by the penetration of morality into the moment to moment conduct of ordinary life: the understanding of this fact is religion."

Miss Murdoch has long been trying to rescue religion from an intellectually embarrassing theism. A headless chicken may flap about for a while, but it does not lay eggs; a Godless Christianity is scarcely more feasible. Yet she continues to give us atheistic priests and nuns and patiently to record the subtle shades of disbelief and lapsedness—John Robert Rozanov is an unrepentedly lapsed Methodist, Diane Sedleigh a churchgoing but incredulous Anglican, Brian McCaffrey a Quaker in the same condition, and so on. There is something dilute and wavering and flirtatious in all this that has enraged stout post-Christian critics. But her rendering of these dim religious halftones is realistic, it seems to me…. (pp. 203-04)

"The Philosopher's Pupil" considerably resembles an early Murdoch novel, "The Flight from the Enchanter." There the philosopher is in the dedication (to Elias Canetti) rather than the title; but both deal with teen-age females awakening to love, and with the spell exerted upon a circle of characters by a charismatic shaman- or father-figure. The plots share small things in common: gypsies, carved netsukes, foxes—the Enchanter is named Mischa Fox, and Alexandra McCaffrey's grounds are haunted by a beautifully actualized family of foxes. Reading these two books, with their affinities, one is struck by the glittering edge possessed by the younger writer, a jaunty farcicalness reminding us that Miss Murdoch came of age in the day of Waugh and Huxley and Rose Macaulay and Nancy Mitford, that she cut her teeth on a novelistic style of savage brightness and heedless nihilistic romp. One misses, in the later Murdoch, that unbaggy feminine sharpness—feminist, indeed: "The Flight from the Enchanter" is really about female uprisings—and the nontheoretical, "palpable present" bite to the heroines' amours. Hattie Meynell, in "The Philosopher's Pupil," is vivid in quarrel but almost wordless in love, the inert object of a quest rather than a quester herself. Men have taken over the center of Miss Murdoch's novels—the opposite of what happened in the oeuvre of Henry James—and a certain stale scent of after-dinner cigars flavors the less dazzling pages. But, all in all, the earlier novel is greatly surpassed by the later, a book that seems as large as life, so large and various that no two people will read the same story in it. (pp. 204-05)

John Updike, "Baggy Monsters," in The New Yorker, Vol. LIX, No. 39, November 14, 1983, pp. 188-205.∗

William H. Pritchard

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[In The Philosopher's Pupil], as always with reading Iris Murdoch, there is much that is entertaining, things which—like the discussion of a Mallarmé poem between a homosexual priest and Rozanov's young female ward—would be beyond the abilities of most novelists. She has lost none of her ability to describe places and houses and the physics of things generally. But the human aspect of it all seems woefully absent, even as compared with A Severed Head, which in its focused concentration on the first-person narrator, Martin Lynch-Gibbon, had cumulative force even if it didn't go very deep. The Philosopher's Pupil has neither depth nor cumulative power; it diffuses itself rather, wandering among endlessly proliferating details. As just one instance of this, what does one do when, after 340 hefty pages have been traversed, we are taken on a picnic attended by the major characters at which the food and drink are described in detail—who brought what and what kind of Yugoslav Riesling or Double Gloucester cheese it was. All this information is presented in sentences which open in parallel manner: "The drinks before lunch had been as follows …" "The food at lunch had been as follows …" Why should we know these things, and why should they be enumerated to us by a faceless narrator who strives for no distinction of language in the rendering? The Murdoch operation, so hugely professional in one sense, is also (as the students now say) quite impossible to suspend disbelief in, and as the August days rolled by, with me still reading, troubled thoughts surfaced about the worth of it all. What, other than finishing the novel, was the purpose of continuing? For all her intelligence as a critic and theorist of fiction, this writer seems quite passive and unthoughtful about the accumulation of words, of novels—increasingly automatic and self-propelled—that is her literary career. A very strange case indeed. (pp. 748-49)

William H. Pritchard, in a review of "The Philosopher's Pupil," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1983–84, pp. 748-49.

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