The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In Nuns and Soldiers, as is often the case in Iris Murdoch novels, a number of characters appear early, complete with the obvious surface details which make them immediately interesting. The extended Openshaw family with its connections to politics, finance, science, and the arts is not the center of this novel, however, as it might have been in earlier works.

Iris Murdoch extends this novel into long, fastidious explorations of four major characters, following them through a wide range of interconnected personal problems. Two of the characters, the Count and Anne, are naturally isolated. The other two, Gertrude and Tim, are forced into periods of isolation. In all cases, their separateness is used with considerable sensitivity to reveal character.

The Count is developed in terms of his haunted sense of being Polish. He is a product of history, and it explains much about him, since he lives life as a survivor of the nightmare of failed Polish aspirations in the twentieth century. It explains, in part, why he is such a reluctant and ultimately unsuccessful suitor, tied as he is to a world of honorable failure.

Anne also suffers failure, but hers is religious failure and is partially relieved halfway through the novel by the sudden appearance of Jesus, who suggests with offhand callousness that the spiritual world is still available, within Anne herself. Her character is exposed in the battle between the spiritual and the...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Guy Openshaw

Guy Openshaw, a senior official in the Home Office; he is wealthy, intellectual, highly competent, and dying of cancer. He is a helper of Tim Reede and a friend to the Count. Although they lost their only child, Guy and his wife, Gertrude, have had a successful marriage. Although he is terminally ill, Guy renounces painkillers long enough to tell Gertrude lucidly that he wishes her to be happy again. He has wandering, philosophical conversations with the Count and discusses vice and virtue with Anne Cavidge, a former nun. Guy believes that his own virtue is accuracy and that justice is not a virtue but a calculation. Guy believes in consequences; he seeks truth and finds Purgatory a hopeful idea. The book is devoted to those who must reorder their lives because of Guy’s death, to the need for truth, and to the unavoidable consequences of action and inaction—all ideas the reader meets first in Guy’s conversations. His death establishes the premise of the novel, and he brings together the other characters.

Gertrude Openshaw

Gertrude Openshaw, Guy’s thirty-eight-year-old, attractive wife and eventually his wealthy but grief-stricken widow. During Guy’s last days and after his death, Gertrude turns to Anne Cavidge, her friend from Cambridge days, for support and companionship. She sees the former nun sharing her comfortable life. When Tim Reede, Guy’s protégé, a penniless painter, appeals to her, she generously offers him the job of caretaker in her French house. Falling in love with him there comes unexpectedly. Tim is equally in love, and the two are married. Guy’s family is naturally opposed, as are Anne Cavidge and the Count, who has loved Gertrude for years. When it comes to their notice that Tim has a longtime mistress of whose existence Gertrude is ignorant, both are eager to act in Gertrude’s interest, not their own. They decide that she must be told....

(The entire section is 792 words.)