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.)