(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Nuns and Soldiers, in common with many of Murdoch’s other novels, is concerned with the philosophical questions of how humans can know virtue, what is good and what is not. For Murdoch, the traditional source of ethical principles, divine revelation, no longer answers the problems of the Western World, which is in her view a post-Christian society. She believes that one can know and do good by imitating Christ and Christ’s love. Christ’s love, Murdoch argues, is a love that focuses on the real situation, on the condition of others, while the great distractor to Christ’s love is love of self and self-pity. For many years a teacher of ethics at the University of Oxford, Murdoch has written on these themes in her philosophical works and also gives voice to them in her fiction.

In the case of this novel, Murdoch illustrates the model of selfless love through the characters of the Count and Anne Cavidge. The Count’s type of love is a “this-worldly” love , a selfless love that dedicates itself to Gertrude without hope, or even desire, of consummation in marriage. Although there is no evidence that Murdoch had in mind Dobbin, the faithful lover in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848), one is reminded of him. Murdoch holds up the Count as an example of keeping true to one’s ideas, to soldiering on despite life’s difficulties. He is a figure of heroism, not a comedic figure, in Murdoch’s hands.

Anne, however, represents a higher kind of goodness, a better kind of love. She leaves the convent in part because the answers of traditional religion are no longer valid for her. She believes that she needs to make a new faith, her own private faith, now that the old faith of the institutional church does not serve, and for that she needs to be in the world. Yet once in the world, she encounters the distractions and turmoil of Gertrude’s circle of friends and relations,...

(The entire section is 792 words.)