Iris Murdoch

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Iris Murdoch (MUR-dok) produced a considerable amount of work in areas other than fiction, particularly in literary criticism, drama, and, most important, philosophy. Her first book, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953), was a critique of Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy as it appears in his novels. She wrote three plays for the theater and adapted several of her novels for the stage. The Servants and the Snow was first performed at the Greenwich Theatre in 1970, and The Three Arrows at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge, in 1972; the two plays were published together in 1973. Another play, Art and Eros, was performed at the National Theatre in 1980. Murdoch collaborated with J. B. Priestley to adapt her novel A Severed Head for the stage (pr. 1963) and with James Saunders to adapt The Italian Girl (pr. 1967). The Black Prince was also adapted for the stage, first performed at the Aldwych Theatre in 1989.

Murdoch also produced books on the subject of philosophy: The Sovereignty of Good (1970), which consists of three essays on moral philosophy, “The Idea of Perfection,” “On ’God’ and ’Good,’” and “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts”; and The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists (1977), a study of Plato’s objections to art and artists. Murdoch added to her work on Plato in the form of two “platonic dialogues” titled “Art and Eros: A Dialogue about Art” and “Above the Gods: A Dialogue about Religion,” which she combined in a book titled Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues, published in 1986. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals appeared in 1992, and a collection of essays titled Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature was published in 1997. Murdoch also published several philosophical papers in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society and other important articles on philosophy and aesthetics, including “The Sublime and the Good” (Chicago Review) and “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited” (Yale Review). Her best-known essay, “Against Dryness: A Polemical Sketch,” which appeared in the January, 1961, issue of Encounter, is a work of literary criticism that urges a return to the capacious realism of the great nineteenth century novelists.


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Universally acknowledged as one of the most important novelists of postwar Britain, Iris Murdoch combined a prolific output with a consistently high level of fictional achievement. From the beginning of her career as a novelist, she was a critical and popular success in both Great Britain and the United States. In general, Murdoch is thought of as a "philosophical novelist," and despite her objections to this description, she attempted a fusion of aesthetic and philosophical ideas in her fiction. Including her first novel, Under the Net, published in 1954, she published twenty-six novels and received a variety of literary awards and honors. In 1973, she was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction for The Black Prince, and in 1974 she received the Whitbread Literary Award for Fiction for The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. The Sea, the Sea won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1978. Murdoch became a member of the Irish Academy in 1970 and an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1975; she was awarded the honorary title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1976. She was made a Dame of the Order of the British Empire in 1987, and in 1990 she received the Medal of Honor for Literature from the National Arts Club in New York.


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The novels, essays, and even the poems of Iris Murdoch invariably consider what it means to lead a good life and how power can corrupt goodness. This overwhelming question emerges whether her works are set against the chaos of twentieth century...

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Britain, as panegyrics or self-studies, or as theoretical inquiries. If one reads Peter J. Conradi’s Iris Murdoch: A Life with this in mind, every element of its subject’s productive life has had its logical place. Liberal, freethinking parents produced an uninhibited child who even in her early schooling had largely rejected Plato’s philosopher-king, even as she enthusiastically embraced Communism as antidote to the emerging Fascism of the 1930’s. It took thirty years after World War II to become clear to her that Joseph Stalin was no philosopher, but a tyrant whose excesses were comparable to the German enemy. In essence, perhaps not even realizing it until after it had happened, Murdoch finally recognized the principle of moderation inherent in Platonism and Greek literature and began to incorporate it into her own life. Her midlife marriage to John Bayley is the major external indication of this change.

How appropriate, then, was Murdoch’s early admiration of Aeschylus’Agamemnon, a play that describes the murder of a filicidal, hubristic king by a power-hungry, nymphomaniac wife and her vengeful but essentially weak lover. Ironically, the Oxford professor who inspired her and what she came to call the “Agamamnon Class” of 1939 was the brilliant but tyrannical classicist Eduard Fraenkel. Academic tyrants of nineteenth century German classical scholarship, such as Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff and Theodor Mommsen, had formulated Fraenkel, and he was largely their equal in ability to inspire, terrorize, and seduce.

Perhaps Murdoch’s own period of formulation, that of World War II, combined with her Anglo-Irish background, caused her to be less dogmatic than she might otherwise have been. It is certainly true that she filled her novels with an extraordinary variety of characters. All of them attempt to answer in their own words what it means to be a good person living in the modern world or whether anything better than a seriously defective character is even possible.

Conradi follows Murdoch through this lifetime quest with considerable insight. He emphasizes her early adherence to Communism to explain the bohemian tone of her student life at Somerville College, Oxford, in the years immediately preceding World War II. It was at Oxford that Murdoch converted Frank Thompson to Communism. He would be the love of her life, though his early death in the war prevented their marriage from ever taking place. Thompson was executed as a spy while serving with British Special Forces in Bulgaria. From the evidence Conradi gathers, it appears that Thompson, and for that matter Murdoch, favored internationalism and individual freedom rather than Stalinist party line, even at this relatively early period. By any standards, however, Thompson’s was a heroic life distinguished by a brilliant academic career, bravery in the North African campaign, and special courage as volunteer for covert activities to aid the partisans in Eastern Europe.

After the war Murdoch found herself working with the resettlement and repatriation projects administered by the United Nations in France and Austria. The details Conradi provides indicate that these tasks were not always as straightforward as one might imagine. Though nominally a Communist, Murdoch frequently found herself opposing the efforts of the new communist regimes in Eastern Europe to repatriate their unwilling nationals. The consistent element in her philosophic outlook, the need to allow independent action, prevails over the bureaucratic impulse to obey those in authority. Unlike Ayn Rand, Murdoch recognized the need for intervention when individual will alone did not suffice. It grieved her that she was not always able to save those she knew would face persecution or death if returned to their countries of birth. Even so, Murdoch does not attribute the post-war reprisal murders she and other intellectuals suspected were taking place to Stalinist policy. She believed that they were essentially examples of the brutalities that attend all wars.

If nothing else, Murdoch was an individualist. Her personal philosophic outlook following the war questioned the degree to which one makes decisions as a singular entity or automatically as part of a group. This led to her period of infatuation with French Existentialism and the cult that had gathered round Jean-Paul Sartre. Murdoch was never personally close to Sartre. She did not actively participate in the famous salons over which he presided, though she admired Sartre’s mistress Simone de Beauvoir, perhaps more as the liberated woman Murdoch herself wanted to be than as a philosopher. Murdoch was personally and philosophically far closer to the man who would become her lover, the French novelist Raymond Queneau. He was for her a “metaphysical novelist,” presumably a writer of fiction for whom philosophical inquiry remains central. This is precisely the kind of artist Murdoch herself would become.

Immediately after the war, Murdoch won a scholarship to continue her studies at Vassar College in New York State, but her membership in the Communist Party prevented her from obtaining a United States visa. The denial of a visa resulted from her affirmative response to the routine question whether she ever had held membership in the Communist Party. Murdoch could easily have lied, and because her involvement had been so peripheral it is unlikely anyone would have been the wiser. Truth, however, was absolutely central to her role as philosopher. Murdoch’s active involvement in the Communist Party had lasted no more than three years of her undergraduate career at Oxford. Even so, it continued to influence the way she thought until she was well into middle age. In the event, denial of her visa was fortunate since it led to her application for study at Newham College, Cambridge, and to her acquaintance with the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Conradi traces these events in considerable detail. He shows that Murdoch incorporated her unconventional way of living with the unconventional personalities of Oxbridge in endless permutations. Anyone familiar with Murdoch’s novels knows that she regularly assembles a series of characters with widely differing perspectives and places them in unusual pairings and triplets. Few of these individuals are malevolent, but in some way all emerge as defective. This groping for what it means to lead a good life is the enduring question of her novels and of the modern world itself.

To a large extent this has led to what admirers and critics of Murdoch alike either praise or find as a defect of her work: the lack of a readily identifiable philosophic point of view. It is what led Sir Isaiah Berlin, an old Murdoch antagonist, to privately declare her “a lady not known for the clarity of her views.” Nevertheless, it is clear that Murdoch’s later novels place conservatism in a considerably more sympathetic light. It is logical to believe that the Depression and World War II combined with a disposition to freethinking led Murdoch to a surprising number of love affairs.

Some of these love affairs were casual to the point of promiscuity; others were much more carefully considered relationships with individuals for whom she really cared. All except her eventual marriage to John Bayley show Murdoch’s desperate desire to be loved and her own reluctance to commit herself to love. At Oxford, Murdoch involved herself to one degree or another with Frank Thompson, M. R. D Foot, James Henderson Scott, David Hicks, and Thomas Ballogh. She traveled with them in a thrown-together troop of buskers in the late 1930’s, breaking convention even as she did so.

Czech émigré Franz Baermann Steiner was a special love of Murdoch after the war. He and others, such as novelist Elias Canetti and classicist Arnoldo Momigliano, show the consistent regard Murdoch had for Jewish intellectuals. At least one sympathetically drawn Jewish intellectual inevitably appears in every Murdoch novel. It is logical that these close relationships in the postwar years influenced her fictional portraits. Murdoch’s intended marriage with Thompson, prevented by his death, and her relationship with Steiner were particularly serious.

This is hardly the end of it. Even from her first weeks at Oxford Murdoch felt attracted to her undergraduate tutor, David MacKinnon. The possibility of a love affair (though this never materialized) caused MacKinnon’s wife such apprehension that he accepted a far less attractive academic post at Aberdeen University in Scotland in order to remove himself from Murdoch’s attentions. Conradi resists sensationalism in describing these and other of Murdoch’s love relationships, including several homosexual attachments. They remain, however, a central part of his study since they provide the inspiration for so many of Murdoch’s plots and the combinations of personality upon which so many of her novels depend.

All contrast with the mature love Murdoch ultimately found in 1956 with John Bayley, the man who became her husband and biographer and with whom she lived until her death. What is particularly striking in reading of these love involvements is the degree to which Murdoch’s life begins to seem like her art, the interwoven intricacies that characterize the combinations of her novels. Little was taboo for her during her youth, and though she was not free of regret, Murdoch reached her last days with a certain resolute calm. In one sense it is the kind of irony Murdoch herself would have relished that her malady in advanced age was Alzheimer’s disease, a condition that attacks the mind. She was blessed, however, to have a husband so completely devoted to her in her final years.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 98 (September 1, 2001): 42.

Library Journal 126 (September 1, 2001): 177.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (November 11, 2001): 12.

The New Yorker 77 (October 1, 2001): 106.

Discussion Topics

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Why are Iris Murdoch’s novels often called realistic?

What are the various symbols the sea suggests in The Nice and the Good and The Sea, the Sea?

How does Murdoch’s training in philosophy influence her novels?

What use does Murdoch make of the subconscious in her novels?

One of Murdoch’s hallmarks is the detailed description of food, clothes, and room interiors. What function do these descriptions serve in her novels?


Critical Essays