Nuns and Soldiers

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Iris Murdoch is one of the foremost novelists in the English-speaking world today. She also is popular with a wide range of readers. Originally achieving prominence in 1954 with Under the Net, she was one of two female writers to be grouped at that time with several male writers under the collective banner of Great Britain’s “Angry Young Men,” the other was Doris Lessing. While most of the writers in that group—including John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, John Wain, and John Brain—have continued to produce important works of literature, perhaps none of them has so consistently maintained both output and quality as these two women. At this point, it would be difficult to determine whether Lessing or Murdoch has achieved the preeminent position in the literary world today, but there can be no question that Iris Murdoch’s body of work is of a size and a stature which invites comparison with the great Victorian novelists. She may well loom in twentieth century literary history as George Eliot and William Makepeace Thackeray stand among the peaks in the landscape of nineteenth century literature.

The popularity of Iris Murdoch’s long and often intricately plotted novels remains all the more significant when their intellectually demanding philosophical framework is considered. Although Murdoch is a gifted stylist and a creator of vividly realized characters, it must not be forgotten that she began her career as a philosopher, writing about Jean-Paul Sartre and the French existential movement. Choice, which is the basis of all freedom, is one of the sacred precepts of the existential point of view. In her novels, Murdoch repeatedly confronts her characters with existential choices, exposing not only their own weaknesses and fears in the process, but also revealing the central existential crises of our society. The aware moral life is the basis of all of Murdoch’s fiction.

Fiction which has such a strong philosophical underpinning can emerge as ponderous and boring if not in the hands of a master—even the novels of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are at times heavy going—but readers have been turning the pages of Murdoch’s novels, which now number more than a dozen, for nearly three decades because they care about her characters and want to know what eventually happens to them. Iris Murdoch is an artist as well as a philosopher.

Nuns and Soldiers is one of Murdoch’s most successful and enjoyable novels. On one level, it is an elegant comedy of manners involving the intricate movements of a large cast of characters; it is also a vivid portrayal of a society that, if not precisely declining, certainly is experiencing the painful spasms of dramatic change. The well-drawn characters linger in the reader’s mind, as if they are individuals that one has met and gradually become acquainted with in one’s own life. The episodes which compose the story, arresting in themselves, follow a relentless inner logic of development. Yet, underlying all of the very real art in Nuns and Soldiers is an intellectual framework which gives the novel that resonance and depth which must stand as the basis of any first rate work of literature.

In a fiction scene which tends to be dominated by academic writers who produce small, finely wrought explorations of their own inner-psyches and pop writers who compulsively analyze their own sensational success, Iris Murdoch’s solid, architecturally structured novels stand tall. With an objectivity rare today, as well as with a deep sense of compassion, she allows her characters to move, grow, and develop as human beings, recording their progress in precise, graceful, and vigorous prose. In Nuns and Soldiers, the struggle between individual will and destiny is highlighted by an honest and sympathetic awareness of the pain the individual suffers when battling against unyielding fate. The question which has been at the center of most of Murdoch’s fictional works—how much free will does a human being actually possess?—never has been put to the test as vividly, or as touchingly, as in Nuns and Soldiers.

The book begins with a death, a death which propels the large cast of characters into a complex sequence of events. In a sense, the death of Guy Openshaw represents an awakening for his wife Gertrude and a number of his friends. In death, the intellectual and noble Guy becomes a catalyst, freeing the others from the conventions and fears which have been holding them back from exploring their own human possibilities. In Nuns and Soldiers, Murdoch analyzes more completely than ever before the quest of human beings to discover their own capacities and to achieve their human potential. Gertrude Openshaw, Guy’s widow, had lived in his shadow, secure and content, and until his death never had dared to take risks with her life. Her good friend, Anne Cavidge, returning to Gertrude after years in the security of a nunnery and struggling with her own belief and doubt, also discovers in the sequence of events which follow Guy’s death a new sense of her own personality and individual worth. Each of them finds, in the conflicts inherent in human relationships such as theirs, the values which mean the most to her, the rock upon which, ultimately, her reason for living must stand or fall. Only when free of husband or church doctrine was either able to acquire this knowledge.

For the characters in Nuns and Soldiers—as for most people in actual life—self-knowledge...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Ebury Street flat

Ebury Street flat. Home of Gertrude Openshaw and her husband, Guy, an administrator in the British Home Office. Located on London’s fashionable Ebury Street, the tastefully decorated flat has a drawing room that is elegant and warmly furnished, complete with three tall windows overlooking the street, and a fireplace. A picture of Guy’s paternal grandmother hangs over the mantel; other pictures depict powerful men, dogs, and expensive houses. The room reflects the accomplished, wealthy, Openshaw family, whose present-day descendants gather in the flat to comfort Gertrude while her husband, Guy, lies dying in the bedroom. The guest room, where Gertrude’s friend, Anne, stays when she comes to help, is also elegantly furnished, with china knickknacks on the mantel and Victorian family silhouettes on the wall.

In this orderly and spotless flat, Gertrude is not her own person. She is dominated by Guy’s extended family and a few others who gather regularly. Peter Szczepanski, who is known as the “Count, is not a real count but a disappointed Polish emigre; he is a good friend of Guy’s and has been accepted in the Openshaw circle. His role in the London flat is that of Guy’s admirer and pupil, although they are of the same generation. He is painfully formal in all his relationships. Guy dies in the flat, and together with Anne, Gertrude changes the pictures and ornaments which have not been moved for years.


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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Nuns and Soldiers, set in London and the south of France in the twelve months before the summer of 1978, tells the story of an upper-middle-class English family. The novel’s title refers to Iris Murdoch’s themes: withdrawal from the world and soldiering on through life despite disappointments. The nun is Anne Cavidge, a former nun who comes to live with Gertrude Openshaw; the soldier is Peter Szczepanski, from a Polish émigré family. The two are similar in their aloneness, their awkwardness, and their simplicity; they share the desire to do good. Murdoch claims to be interested in people, not merely women or men, and has expressed her concern that antimale feminism “ghettoizes” women. Nuns and Soldiers gives voice to these views. In addition, the novel hints that “women’s liberationism,” which she seems to see as different from feminism, is an American import alien to British culture.

Anne, who had been at university with Gertrude, emerges from fifteen years in a convent to stay with Gertrude until she can find a job. Gertrude’s husband, Guy Openshaw, is dying of cancer; every day their house is filled with friends and relations who bring Gertrude condolence and support. Before he dies, Guy urges Gertrude to remarry after his death and indeed recommends Peter, nicknamed “the Count” for his Eastern European mannerisms, who had loved Gertrude from afar: “Her servant, with joyful brooding pain, he saw himself eternally destined to be.”...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Anne Cavidge is one of Murdoch’s most assertive female characters of good. She does not let the abbess influence her into remaining in the convent, once she decides that she is in the wrong place. After some initial diffidence when she moves into the Openshaw home, she takes charge of the operation of the household and even substitutes for Gertrude in learning about financial matters after Guy Openshaw dies. That Murdoch pairs her with the Count, also a figure of good, and indeed makes her fall in love with him, suggests that men and women are complementary. In the end, however, having Anne go to America to join the Poor Clares is to have her flee from problems, no matter how much the flight is tricked out in the rhetoric of...

(The entire section is 437 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Bove, Cheryl Browning. A Character Index and Guide to the Fiction of Iris Murdoch. New York: Garland, 1986. Describes characters, places, and references from each of Murdoch’s novels (and her two plays) from 1954 to 1985, including Nuns and Soldiers.

Bove, Cheryl Browning. Understanding Iris Murdoch. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. Overviews of Murdoch’s life and philosophical writings introduce brief summaries of her major works from 1954 to 1989, her plays, and her minor novels. Includes an annotated bibliography.

Byatt, A. S. Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris...

(The entire section is 465 words.)