Nuns and Soldiers
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...
(The entire section is 2255 words.)