A Word Child Summary
by Iris Murdoch

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A Word Child Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Hilary Burde has buried himself in a modest civil service job in expiation for having caused a terrible tragedy some twenty years earlier, which he has kept secret ever since. He lives a life of constant bitterness and recrimination, barely relieved by the love of his sister Crystal and the attention of a few friends who are prepared to put up with his constant, vituperative pessimism. Surprisingly, although not a handsome man, he is capable of eliciting deep affection, sometimes love, from others, while refusing to give much of anything back but constant abuse.

His deep melancholy is intensified by the fact that the tragedy caused by him not only killed the woman he loved but also destroyed his academic career and his ambition to take care of his sister and himself in dignity and comfort. Their mother died while they were young children, and Burde, a troublesome boy, spent most of his early life in an orphanage, separated from his sister. In his teens, his skill for languages was discovered, and he won a scholarship to Oxford and was asked to stay on as a fellow. It was at that time that the disaster occurred.

Some twenty years later, Burde learns that Gunnar Jopling is the new head of the government department in which Burde has a very minor appointment. It was Jopling’s wife, with whom Burde was having an affair, who was killed in the car driven by Burde. Her death caused both men to leave Oxford, after which Jopling became a distinguished civil servant, while Burde buried himself in a job far below his abilities. Now, he has to decide whether to stay on the job and confront the man who hates him, or leave.

Jopling’s second wife, Lady Kitty, encourages Burde to face her husband, telling him that Jopling has spent many miserable years thinking about the accident, so much so that he has required psychiatric help. She thinks Burde might help him and that he might, at the same time, help himself. Burde’s sister thinks that such a confrontation could be dangerous and reveals a long-held love for Jopling which complicates matters further. In a typically wild twist of Murdochian mischief, Burde falls in love with Lady Kitty.

Surrounding the principals are a small group of characters who are also involved emotionally with Hilary or his sister and who insist on being dealt with, despite the fact that Burde is hardly able to decide clearly what he should do about anything and is, much of the time, half of a mind simply to disappear. Lady Kitty, however, has considerable power over Burde, and he tries to deal with Jopling. The first meeting is a failure, yet eventually the two men come to something like a reconciliation; unfortunately, this delicate truce is ruined, in part by Jopling’s suspicion of the man who destroyed his early life and in part by Burde’s dangerous infatuation with Lady Kitty and her response to it. Talk descends to physical attack, and in the confusion, Lady Kitty dies. Burde, for all of his good intentions, has caused the death of a second Jopling wife.

Again, Burde and Jopling go out into the world: Jopling becomes a politician and a junior minister of the Crown, and Burde, who has learned that life must go on, gets another modest job but seems less self-engrossed and self-pitying than before. His sister gets married, and Burde’s old lover, Tommy, insists that sooner or later she will talk him into marriage.

Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

A Word Child is a stylish novel in the gothic tradition of the nineteenth century that develops a brooding atmosphere of gloom and deals with aberrant psychological states. Murdoch’s use of gothic conventions is an exploration of the tensions between the interior world of the mind and the outer world of reality. The narrator of A Word Child, Hilary Burde, haunts himself with fantasies of power, possession, and betrayal. The narrative is divided into the days of a diary, reflecting Hilary’s rigid approach to life.

Hilary is a prostitute’s child who starts life as an illiterate orphan. After a...

(The entire section is 1,210 words.)