The Sandcastle Themes
by Iris Murdoch

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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Murdoch is, as well as being a novelist, a practicing philosopher. As a result, she often uses seemingly obvious social comedies not only to explore the problems of living in the real world but also to illustrate often arcane philosophic ideas. On the level of how one lives one’s life, this novel explores the dilemma of a man who has, suddenly, the chance for love and freedom that he could not have anticipated. Balanced against that is his love for his children and his responsibility to a wife whom once he loved. The choice is initially obvious to him but becomes less so when Bledyard presents him with the difficult idea of freedom as the opportunity not to suit himself but to understand and practice responsibility to others, not only to his family but also to Rain Carter, whom Bledyard sees as possibly damaged as an artist if she goes off with Bill Mor. Freedom is not license but responsible conduct freely chosen.

Symbolically, the wandering gypsy may stand for more than an aspect of Felicity’s mystical powers, and Iris Murdoch herself would like him to be recognized as an aspect of Rain Carter’s free, artistic life which attracts Mor. Indeed, Rain’s name may stand for the life-giving power which will cement Mor and Rain together in their sandcastle. Yet in the end, Bledyard’s plea, however marred by his stammer (which might be seen as an outward impedimental sign of his inability to create seriously as a painter), wins out and the compromise is accepted. Mor must do the ethical thing in the end, and Rain is probably right in seeing that he must live within the narrower sphere of family life and political career, that (as suggested in his reluctance to consummate their love) he is not capable of the imaginative leap that she, as an artist, will make.

It is possible to carry the search for symbolism further. Donald’s attempt to climb the school spire may be seen as a combination of two kinds of frustration in the boy. His parents have discouraged his attempts to involve himself in mountain climbing, and he is upset about his father’s determination to send him to the...

(The entire section is 579 words.)