Iris Murdoch tends to be very conservative in the manner in which she develops characters. She eschews subtle ways of providing information in favor of full-faced histories of her major figures, outlining their background, education, gifts, liabilities, desires, and failures in rather barefaced passages of exposition, usually as early in the novel as she can. Her characters are thus, in a sense, fully known from the beginning; then she quickly begins the business of testing them in action.
Bill Mor is the central figure, and the third-person narration sticks close to him. In the main, it is his point of view which prevails, a technique which works, since the novel is primarily about him, and he is relatively uncomplicated, sensible, and keenly sensitive not only to his own problems but also to those of others. Occasionally, the point of view will shift, if only for short periods. Nan’s reaction to this sudden change in her husband is generously explored as she tries to deal with it (and with the concomitant realization that Bill’s best friend, Tim Burke, is willing to take her on if Bill abandons her). Murdoch, however, pulls away from her before she has fully worked out her plan to fight back, perhaps because Murdoch (and this is not unusual for her) is determined to keep an aspect of the plot a secret until she can use it dramatically. In short, occasionally in Murdoch’s work, depth of characterization must give way to plot. There is some intimation of high dramatic interest with Felicity in her unhappiness over her father’s affair, and her ceremony of exorcism is lovingly detailed, but again it is only a fleeting connection.
The other characters are teasingly sketched in; there is only a dim sense of Rain Carter, perhaps sufficient to understand why Mor is attracted to her and her life of artistic creation and freedom from social and financial obligation. Yet how she feels, what she is really thinking, particularly at the end, is not worked out. Three other characters are quite three-dimensional in potential but are only used as foils in Bill Mor’s dilemma: Demoyte has all the force and power of an older man who knows more than he cares to say; Tim Burke, the jeweler friend and manipulator of Mor’s political life, a sensitive artisan in his elegant, intriguing shop, suffering his hopeless, honorable love for Nan, is teasingly interesting, and Bledyard, who carries the ethic of the novel, has dramatic weight which is very rarely exhibited. Yet Murdoch often peoples her novels with characters who in themselves are larger than their function. In other novels, less modestly confined, she gives these secondary characters much more to do and is usually obsessively concerned with one character.
William Mor, a teacher and housemaster at St. Bride’s. He is the husband of Nan, father of Felicity and Donald, and friend of Demoyte and Tim Burke. William is submissive to his wife, estranged from his son and daughter, and at a standstill in his work. As an agnostic, he is unable to succeed Demoyte as headmaster. He wishes to enter politics, but Nan opposes this. William falls in love with Rain Carter. Nan discovers the affair, but William decides to leave her and writes to tell her so. When his son disappears, he postpones his departure and loses Rain. William believes that goodness cannot exist where there is tyranny but that freedom is not an end in itself. His story, his indecisiveness, his loss of love, and his adherence to duty illustrate this statement. The Mor family members are together at the end of the novel, and William, Felicity, and Donald are all embarking on work that they wish to do.
Nan Mor, the wife of William and mother of Felicity and Donald, a determined, complacent, limited, and limiting woman. Nan lacks the imagination to see any point of view but her own and systematically defeats her husband’s desires. Shaken by the prospect of losing him, genuinely concerned about her son, and jealous...
(The entire section is 1,089 words.)