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


(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 "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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2898 words.)

Elizabeth Dipple

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1631 words.)

Nicholas Mosley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 736 words.)

Robert Taubman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1208 words.)

Robertson Davies

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 823 words.)

Richard Eder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 792 words.)

John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 1597 words.)

William H. Pritchard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 339 words.)