Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Events contradict the story that Martin tells in A Severed Head, while the plot’s old fashioned comic turns have him stumbling from one revelation to another. Martin not only mistakes the motives of the people dear to him but also mistakes his own. His love of wife and mistress that he parades so proudly at the start of the novel is eventually exposed as love for mother and child substitutes. As his assumptions are shattered, Martin gradually loses control of himself; he drinks more and more, becoming violent, sick, and irrational. Yet he begins to listen to his submerged psyche, which leads him to have a different perception of the world. The fact that Martin cannot understand the women he loves gives the novel a distinctive feminist twist. Feminist critics have observed that authors often use male narrators to give their narratives a sense of authority. Martin’s authority, however, is in question from the second chapter on, and this irony exposes some stock cultural assumptions about women and erotic experience as he loses first Antonia, and then Georgie.

Stylistically, the novel is pure Murdoch, involving a realistic and detailed attention to appearances, clothes, weather, and interiors, combined with characters who seem to be driven by dark forces beyond their control. At the beginning of the novel, Martin, full of smug self-satisfaction, returns home from a visit to his mistress, Georgie Hands. His wife soon returns from what he thought was a “session” with psychiatrist Palmer Anderson to announce that she wants a divorce so that she can marry Palmer. She and Palmer, however, want an understanding with Martin so...

(The entire section is 673 words.)

The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A Severed Head is a play in three acts, the first two of which contain seven scenes each; the shorter third act contains four scenes. The play opens in late December in Georgie Hands’s untidy bed-sitting-room near Covent Garden and moves back and forth between there, the sitting room of the Lynch-Gibbons’ house in Hereford Square, and Palmer Anderson’s house in Chester Square. The play is about the passionate entanglements between the Lynch-Gibbon family and Palmer and his half sister Honor Klein. Georgie is involved with both families.

Georgie’s room is a candlelit nest where Georgie and Martin lie half-entwined in front of the fire. The dialogue begins with Georgie’s anxious questions about Martin’s wife, and her fear of being dropped if Antonia discovers the affair. The relationship between Martin and Georgie is much more important to her than it is to him.

The second scene occurs in Martin’s elegant, lavishly decorated home after he leaves Georgie. Antonia returns from a visit with Palmer Anderson, her therapist, and announces that she is desperately in love with him and wants her freedom. Martin, incredulous, tries to talk her out of it, then lets her lead him to Palmer’s house. Palmer tries to convince Martin that he and Antonia will continue to care for Martin in a loving way.

Martin’s sister, Rosemary, and his brother, Alexander, visit him at home to try to cheer him. Martin writes to Georgie about his marital problems, imploring her to be patient. The next day Martin and Honor converse, and Honor berates Martin for giving in so readily to Palmer and Antonia’s demands....

(The entire section is 671 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Iris Murdoch’s novels have not attracted much attention from female critics, perhaps because she has never written about areas of women’s experience that do not overlap with men’s. A fictional masculine perspective permeates all of her novels, but in the case of first-person narrators such as Martin, it is always the perspective of a corrupted male psyche who wields words with power but does not truly grasp reality. Goodness, another major theme in Murdoch’s works, then becomes linked with femaleness. Murdoch’s typical male protagonists are also usually childless, professional, failed in their major enthusiasms (history, in Martin’s case), and involved in careers that parody their intellectual needs.

It remains to the women in her fiction to play the role of undermining these unreliable narrators. Many of her male narrators use misogynist generalizations in order to score points, but it is women who force the heroes to perceive the truth. Murdoch is clearly preoccupied by the unequal power relationships that exist between men and women and the way in which power is wielded in words. Part of the reason Murdoch’s male narrators fail to see truth is that they talk too much. This suggests that the connections between the male hero, articulateness, and power are presented with considerable deliberate irony on the author’s part.

A Severed Head was adapted successfully as a stage play in a collaboration between Murdoch and J. B. Priestley. The play had a tryout in Bristol, England, in 1963, ran successfully for two and a half years in London, and was released as a movie by Columbia Pictures in 1971. The novel was cut for the stage and screen version, and Georgie’s abortion and ensuing despair were omitted. The theme of childless sterility, which is important in the book as a symbol of the characters’ sterile lives, is significantly altered.

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Most of the characters in the play are introduced in the first scene of the first act through Martin and Georgie’s conversation. The audience learns much about Antonia, who is the main topic of the conversation, and by extension, about Palmer and Honor. The audience learns that Georgie met Palmer and Honor at a party in Cambridge once. Martin remarks about Palmer, “I feel he has real power in him,” and by saying so, forecasts the plot of the play, which involves a power struggle. Georgie describes Honor as somewhat formidable: “Well, she’s spent a lot of time in weird places—living with tribes. . . . My God—she used to terrify me,” a comment that provides a context for the strange emotions Honor evokes in Martin later in the play.

The action takes place in three interiors, and each of them is a reflection of the people who inhabit them. Georgie’s bed-sitting-room is untidy, cluttered, and ripe with cigarette, wine, and presumably lovemaking scents. By contrast, Martin’s drawing room is lavish, elegantly paneled, and finely furnished, with a cheery fire in the grate and Christmas cards on the piano. Yet, as Martin’s life unravels during the first act, his home also deteriorates. By the last scene the audience finds his drawing room dusty, bleak, and uninhabited, with a cold hearth. Palmer Anderson’s home is different: His study is bright, hygienic, and modernly furnished, decorated with Asian objects. His bedroom, where part of the action takes place, contains a huge, golden, double bed.

There is a great deal of rushing back and forth between residences, which lends a certain comic effect to the shifting allegiances between characters. The rushing back and forth is not as obvious in the novel from which the play was adapted, but the required cutting for stage presentation emphasizes it.

Irony is the device that provides the play with dramatic tension and excitement. The audience is as uninformed as Martin about the alliances of the characters, but since new revelations are foreshadowed in previous acts, when they do occur they seem both inevitable and shocking. For example, Martin is surprised to discover that Antonia has notified Alexander of the breakup of her marriage by letter, yet later, when Martin discovers that Antonia has had a previous affair with Alexander, the audience realizes that the letter was a clue.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Baldanza, Frank. Iris Murdoch. New York: Twayne, 1974. Baldanza’s book remains a standard in Murdoch studies. It offers an overview of her first fifteen novels, focusing attention on Murdoch’s development as an artist and changing thematic emphasis. A brief biography citing formative events in the novelist’s life is included. The chapter on A Severed Head is a careful, detailed analysis that illuminates the novel.

Bove, Cheryl K. Understanding Iris Murdoch. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. This volume, part of the series Understanding Contemporary British Literature, is intended as a guide for students and advanced nonacademic readers, to help clarify the special demands that influential contemporary literature makes. The book provides instruction in how to read Murdoch, explaining material, themes, language, point of view, structure, and symbolism.

Conradi, Peter J. Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. This book is an important discussion of Murdoch’s work in the form of an extended essay. Conradi groups the novels chronologically into three distinct periods of Murdoch’s development. There is an excellent chapter entitled “Eros in A Severed Head and Bruno’s Dream.”

Johnson, Deborah. Iris Murdoch. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. The series Key Women Writers looks at women who have established positions in the mainstream of literary tradition and explores the ways in which such writers can mesh with feminist theory. Johnson’s book succeeds in finding much that speaks to feminists in Murdoch’s novels, especially in the depiction of power struggles that make up life in a competitive society. The world as Murdoch shows it is one in which the old social and ethical systems no longer work, which view lends itself to feminist analysis.

Sage, Lorna. Women in the House of Fiction: Post-War Women Novelists. New York: Routledge, 1992. This is a close examination of the ways in which women writers deal with realism and literary modernism. Sage, like Iris Murdoch, does not believe in a special kind of “feminine” writing; she believes that women writers have reinvented realism in a kind of “matriarchal realism.” She considers Murdoch a writer who has co-opted realism for her own purposes, particularly the concept of traditional marriage, which Murdoch has sabotaged.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Baldanza, Frank. Iris Murdoch. New York: Twayne, 1974.

Bove, Cheryl K. Understanding Iris Murdoch. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Conradi, Peter J. Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.

Johnson, Deborah. Iris Murdoch. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Sage, Lorna. Women in the House of Fiction: Post-war Women Novelists. New York: Routledge, 1992.