To describe “what happens” in this novel is to describe the attempts of the protagonist to avoid having anything happen at all, and the attempts on the part of the other characters to make something happen to Murphy. Murphy lives by the principle of least activity; his greatest ambition is to tie himself to his beloved teakwood rocker and rock himself into a state of blissful nonbeing, a retreat in which the body is vacated in order to free the mind for endless roamings in the actual and virtual. Taking his cue from Belaqua, the Dantean figure punished in Purgatory for indifferent procrastination, Murphy tries to do nothing but inevitably does something despite his best efforts: He dies.
Stated baldly, however, the “plot” is simple: Murphy, engaged to Miss Counihan, goes from Dublin to London, ostensibly to set himself up in a lucrative occupation. After too long an absence, Miss Counihan and her new lover, Neary (Murphy’s former tutor), hire the dull-witted Cooper to find Murphy, prove either his death or infidelity, and report back. Murphy has meanwhile fallen in love (if that is the word) with Celia, a sensitive and long-suffering prostitute who begs him to find honest work. Murphy’s avoidance of commitment carries the novel through half its length, before Murphy stumbles on a position at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, as a night attendant. Having finally found kindred spirits, “the race of people he had long since despaired of finding,” Murphy deserts Celia. When Cooper, Neary, and Miss Counihan, joined by yet another lover, Wylie, finally move in with Celia to wait for Murphy’s return, the novel moves to its absurd climax and ending, in which Murphy is accidentally burned to death when someone turns on the gas to his room instead of flushing the toilet. Cooper has only to get rid of the cremated remains of Murphy, which he does in a barroom brawl that leaves them spilled among “the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit.” The narration moves back and forth from chapter to chapter, between Murphy and his situation with Celia, and the Neary/Counihan/Cooper campaign to find him. The Murphy/Celia chapters are more internal, more analytic from moment to moment, while the “action” chapters are full of discourse, pithy sentences, and an economy of expression.