(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

A Severed Head, Murdoch’s fifth published novel, is considered the best of the comedies of manners that Murdoch was writing early in her career. The cast of characters is largely restricted to the wealthy bourgeoisie; the decadent atmosphere is evoked by careful descriptions of richly decorated rooms, heavy drinking, and romantic misconceptions. The characters suffer frequently from languor and fatigue. Yet the structure of A Severed Head is Murdoch’s own: A bumbling male protagonist lives through a series of events that destroy his complacency and teach him to recognize the separate reality of other people.

The protagonist, Martin Lynch-Gibbon, tells his own story. He is happily married to Antonia, a society beauty five years his senior. Martin’s easy complacency is shattered when Antonia declares she is going to leave him for her psychiatrist, Palmer Anderson, who is Martin’s close friend. Although Martin is repelled by Antonia’s suggestion that he remain rational about the affair, he allows Antonia to live with Palmer and remains friendly with them both.

Unknown to both Antonia and Palmer, Martin has long kept a mistress, a young teacher named Georgia Hands. Although Martin professes to love Georgia, he has denied her the trip to New York on which her heart was set and encouraged her to have an abortion. After Antonia’s revelation, Martin finds that he is extremely ambivalent toward his own mistress.

Events suddenly become more complicated when Antonia asks Martin to pick up Palmer’s half sister at Liverpool Station. In a scene both comic and portentous, Martin meets the dour Honor Klein on a rainy night that smells like “sulphur and brimstone.” As they drive toward Palmer’s house in dense fog, Martin almost collides with a truck. When Honor hangs her head out the window to see, Martin first apprehends her as a...

(The entire section is 773 words.)