Under the Net Analysis
by Iris Murdoch

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

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Philosophical and Literary Influences
Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (1889– 1951) influenced many writers and philosophers at the turn of the twentieth century. Some people believe that he was possessed by the concept of moral and philosophical perfection. His most famous work is Tractatus (1921), which he himself later referred to as meaningless. In 1953 he totally rejected the concepts he had originally published in Tractatus. As a matter of fact, he eventually stated that what most philosophers have to say about life is nonsense, because language always imposes limitations on thought. What is most purely true cannot be put into words. He also suggested that the philosopher’s role is to express what is possible, not what is conceivable. His philosophy is said to have affected Murdoch’s attempts to put particulars into words, avoiding references to abstractions. Murdoch also believed, through Wittgenstein’s influence, that life can only be shown, not explained.

Raymond Queneau (1903–1976) was a French author and precursor of the literary theory of postmodernism. His works are said to have been a link between the surrealists and the existentialists. He was very interested in language, and some of his novels were written phonetically rather than with proper spelling. Murdoch tried to translate one of his novels into English, but his use of colloquial language presented a challenge that she could not proficiently surmount. Some critics believe that Queneau’s Pierrot Mon Ami (1942) was an inspiration for Murdoch’s Under the Net. It is Queneau’s book that Murdoch’s narrator Jake takes with him when he must vacate his apartment at the opening of Under the Net. Under the Net is also dedicated to Queneau.

Jake is often referred to as a Sartre hero, in reference to France’s philosopher and author Jean- Paul Sartre (1905–1980). Sartre was a proponent of existentialism, which stresses concrete individual experience as the source of all knowledge. This philosophy emphasizes the loneliness and isolation felt by individuals in a world of absurdities, a world in which there is no proof that a spiritual world exists beyond this one reality. Sartre’s play No Exit is one of his most anthologized works. It tells the story of three people trapped in hell, and its message is that life can be controlled by a person’s choices, a theme that Murdoch’s narrator Jake plays out.

Another comparison that is made to Jake is the protagonist in Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, a story about an alienated young man who cannot hold down a job except for a temporary position as a male nurse in a mental hospital. Like Jake, Murphy also has trouble involving himself in personal relationships. Samuel Beckett (1906–1989) is probably best known for his play Waiting for Godot (1953). Language in Beckett’s work is somewhat useless, as most of his characters try in vain to express what is inexpressible, reminiscent of the thoughts of Wittgenstein. This concept is expressed throughout Murdoch’s work.

Youths in Postwar Britain
Before World War II, Britain was a major world power, having gained riches from its policy of colonization. World War II, however, left the British government bankrupt. Shortly after the war, Winston Churchill lost his bid to remain prime minister, as the Labor Party gained strength. Harold MacMillan became the new prime minister in 1957, and he believed in change, which was interpreted as a dismantling of the old British Empire. Some historians believe that by changing the focus from an international one to a domestic one he appeased much of the population that was busy fending for themselves, recuperating from the war, and trying to create new definitions of themselves.

British youths in the 1950s were not as free as their counterparts in the United States. The war had left them with very few pleasures or dreams. They listened to music from the States, which spoke more directly to them than the music being produced in Britain. They could...

(The entire section is 2,460 words.)