Iris Murdoch was one of the most influential British postwar novelists. A professional philosopher who taught at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, Murdoch also was respected as a literary theorist. Monographs, dissertations, and critical studies have been written about her, and although critics disagree about the strengths and weaknesses of her work, they agree the work is significant. Nuns and Soldiers, Murdoch’s twentieth novel, is a sum of the techniques and philosophical underpinnings of its predecessors.
Religion is one of Murdoch’s large themes. In Nuns and Soldiers, the opening word of the novel is “Wittgenstein,” the name of the philosopher who argued that one cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Murdoch’s novels teem with failed priests, Christ figures, nuns, Greek and Roman gods, and religious symbolism. In Nuns and Soldiers, there are hints that Guy Openshaw is a Christ figure. He is a father to the other characters. He dies on Christmas Eve, he is revered for his wisdom, and he is half-Jewish. Anne Cavidge, the former nun, believes she has a vision of the true Christ, from whom she demands answers, solutions, and salvation, only to receive his answer that she must find them in herself. Even Tim, the most openly sinful of the characters, seems to be touched with an ability to see beyond the physical to the miraculous. He sees the sacred quality in the French countryside as well as in the smallest leaves fallen from autumn trees.
The god that drives the plot, however, is the ancient Greek god of love, Eros, striking suddenly and causing endless romantic entanglements. In a typical Murdoch plot device, Tim and Gertrude, indifferent to each other for years, fall in love in seconds. Tim sees Gertrude as a sexual being only after Gertrude swims in a pool of crystal springs, and he undergoes his own ordeal by water when he survives his hazardous journey through a drainpipe. Water is...
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