Iris Murdoch Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 31)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

(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...

(The entire section is 11,255 words.)