The Nice and the Good Summary
by Iris Murdoch

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The Nice and the Good Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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In an interview, Murdoch referred to The Nice and the Good as the most open novel she had yet written. This “openness” appears to refer to a looser plot structure and to more separate and free characters. The plot is really two equal subplots; one line follows John Ducane’s investigation of an apparent suicide in the government offices at Whitehall in London, while the other follows a group of friends on a Dorset estate named Trescombe as they struggle toward an ideal of love.

Connecting the London plot and the Dorset plot are Octavian Gray, John Ducane’s superior at Whitehall, who owns Trescombe and spends much of his time there with his wife Kate, and Ducane himself, who lives in London but is a frequent guest at Trescombe. Ducane is in love with Kate Gray, who encourages him yet confesses every secret kiss to Octavian.

In addition to Kate and Octavian, some of the characters at Trescombe are Mary Clothier, a widow; Mary’s fifteen-year-old son, Pierce; Paula Biranne, a divorcé and schoolteacher; Paula’s nine-year-old twins, who have “great souls”; Barbara, spoiled teenage daughter of Kate and Octavian; and Willie Kost, a refugee who has survived the Dachau concentration camp.

In his London life, Ducane is involved with Jessica Bird, his occasional mistress, and manipulated by Gavin Fivey, his manservant. In the course of his investigation, Ducane also becomes entangled with Richard Biranne, Paula’s former husband; Peter McGrath, office messenger and blackmailer; and McGrath’s wife Judy, a beautiful woman of dubious character.

Ducane, a legal adviser, is one of Murdoch’s flawed, culpable male protagonists, smart and successful but smug, who needs to think of himself as a good man. In addition to his investigation of the suicide and his quest for “the good,” Ducane acts as confessor and adviser to the large group of “free” characters who live at Trescombe as friends of the Grays.

Much of the book is seen through Ducane’s eyes. He is elevated to godlike status by many of those with whom he comes in contact, largely because of his ability to elicit confidence. Yet his predicament is complicated by a lack of personal decisiveness. He is appalled by his own muddled involvement with Jessica Bird and Kate Gray and is strongly attracted to Judy McGrath. Eventually, the surrounding characters come to perceive him as an ordinary mortal after all.

There are many motifs in the book, among them roundness. On the beach Ducane muses that “Everything in Dorset is round. . . . The little hills are round, these bricks are round . . . the crowns of the acacia, the pebbles on the beach. . . . Everything in Dorset is just the right size. This thought gave him immense satisfaction and sent out through the other layers and compartments of his mind a stream of warm and soothing particles.” Octavian is described as round, and the cat, which is a striped cube, has the singular talent of being able to make its hair stand on end and become a fluffy sphere. Roundness indicates contentment, fulfillment, and proper proportion.

The theme of the novel is the search for a perfect proportion of the nice and the good in order to attain a rounded life, “nice” representing the claims of the body and “good” representing the spirit. Each of the adult characters except Kate and Octavian have guilty pasts because of the harm they have done to others. In every case, the harm was done by a failure of love. Mary Clothier regrets the death of her husband, who rushed out of the house after a marital spat and was hit by a car. Paula Biranne wrestles with a broken marriage and a love affair that led to her husband’s mutilating her lover. Willy let two people die in Dachau through inattention.

Kate and Octavian live entirely in the flesh and are the hedonists of the group. Not only are they happy, but they make the people around them happy, too. This depiction does not diminish the distance between pleasure and virtue; it only suggests that life is not as simple as an allegory.

The ending of The Nice and the Good involves a carnival of reconciliation that resembles Shakespearean romantic comedy. When Ducane unravels the tangled causes of suicide and discovers that Richard Biranne was involved, he decides to dispense “private justice” and uses his knowledge to reconcile Biranne with his former wife, Paula. Ducane and Mary fall in love, teenaged Barbara returns Pierce’s affection, Jessica pursues Willy, and even the dog and cat finally share a basket. As John learns when he and Mary discover they are in love, “it is the nature of love to discern good, and the best love is, in some part at any rate, a love of what is good.”


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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