Iris Murdoch Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1620 words.)

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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?