Other literary forms
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.
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.
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,...
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