Under the Net was Iris Murdoch’s debut as a novelist. Her philosophical concerns are apparent in this earliest novel, as is the humor for which she became well known. As in her later works, much of the humor in Under the Net is derived from its complex plot centered on a few midsummer weeks in the life of protagonist Jake Donaghue, a loner with a nose for trouble. Jake speaks dismissively about his relationship with the people closest to him, Madge and Finn in particular. Meanwhile, he has totally unrealistic fantasies about those he has lost touch with through his own neglect: Hugo and Anna. The goal of the novel is to transform Jake from the shallow person he is to the artist he has the potential to be.
Dave Gellman, the philosopher, is the one character who sees through Jake. Jake dislikes Dave’s honesty; however, he relies on Dave, who takes care of Finn, Mister Mars, and Jake’s mail without demanding compensation for these services. Dave tells Jake at the outset of the novel, “Society should take you by the neck and shake you and make you do a sensible job. Then in your evenings you would have the possibility to write a great book.” In the end, this is just what Jake decides he must do.
In this moral fable, Jake has the potential to be an artist but has been misusing this potential to write a bad novel, The Silencer, and to translate bad fiction—the novels of Jean Pierre—from French to English. He refuses to believe that he is capable of achieving his own redemption. Because of this, Jake chases after illusory relationships, only to find that they are not at all what he had imagined. Though Jake cannot see it clearly, most of the people he knows seem to be avoiding him.
When Jake is finally able to confront Hugo, the veil of self-deception is lifted from his eyes. Their conversation and subsequent escape provides the novel’s climax. As Jake says, “He wanted to be rid of me. I wanted to be rid of him.” Hugo, the saint, has provided Jake, the artist, with the ability to finally see reality and do as Dave suggested he do: work during the day and write a real novel at night. At least this is what Jake tells Mrs. Tinckham—the unbiased collector of everyone’s tales—to whom he has gone to restart his life. That he is unwilling to tell her what he does not really understand about the genetics of her kittens is a sign that he is ready for the real world.
Though Jake is an unreliable narrator, and doubts linger about his ability to follow through with his plan, the success of novelist Jean Pierre suggests that Jake might be able to succeed, too. Furthermore, the inventiveness Jake has shown in imagining the unreality of his own life shows his creative potential.
Murdoch has loosely used elements of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1600) in Under the Net. The action takes place entirely during July—at midsummer. In a letter from Lefty Todd that Jake opens at Mrs. Tinckham’s shop at the novel’s close, this reference is made directly. Lefty hopes he was not the ass of the play. However, Jake was meant to be Bottom, under enchantment throughout the novel but freed from that enchantment at the end.
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