Iris Murdoch’s usual desire to be everywhere and control everything in her novels, via an omniscient authorial voice, is restrained in A Word Child. It is Hilary Burde, as first-person narrator, who tells the story in a rather loose form of a journal, titling the chapter divisions by the days of the week. This is fitting since Burde is not only the book’s major character but also the self-obsessed center of all the action in the novel. He is not, however, so concerned about himself that he fails to see his own limitations, and he reveals considerable understanding of the other characters as well. Moreover, Burde is clearly aware of the fact that he is writing a story, and, as a result, he indulges himself in that richness of detail and background which is a mark of Murdoch’s own style of character exposition.
The manner in which Burde is involved with the other characters is helpful not only in revealing them fully but also in exploring closely their relation to Burde. As much as he possibly can, Burde sequesters his acquaintances, seeing them one at a time on specific days of the week. However rudimentary this may seem out of context, it works surprisingly well as a natural inclination of Burde’s strange personality. He likes to think of himself as antipathetic to human associations, but he is oddly gregarious, if mainly on a one-to-one basis.
The use of the first-person narrator allows for considerable rumination, and much of the novel is taken up with the subject of the self-condemned man who is determined to wallow in his misery while constantly protesting against the injustice of it all. Burde’s constant, tedious whining tends to make him unsympathetic, even when he protests his concern for others, particularly his sister Crystal, but the intrusion of so many interesting characters (including a onetime recording star with spiritual ambitions) alleviates the sense that Burde leads a boring life. For example, two minor characters, a strange pair at the office, Witcher and Farbottom, are a comic bonus seemingly right out of a Harold Pinter play, with their comic turns of inane badinage and their game of musical desks.
It remains, however, to question the credibility of Murdoch’s characters. Often, while they have been well drawn, rounded, believable, their actions take a sudden turn for the unlikely—especially if the scene involves sex. Burde, for example, has been devastatingly caustic about love, when he simply falls into it suddenly and makes a fool of himself in a way that is inconsistent with what is known about him thus far. Other abrupt, arbitrary love affairs in Burde’s life are quite as common, and his dalliance with Lady Kitty’s maid, Biscuit, begun before he met Kitty but continued after, hardly makes sense in the light of his infatuation with Biscuit’s mistress. At times, Murdoch seems unable to take her characters seriously, and sex always has a carte blanche to carry them into unreality.
As a result, her characters are situated half in reality and half in romance, and a reading of their conduct by the usual standards of credibility will often not work, for it is not meant to work. The dramatic tension between Burde and Jopling, however, shows how true-to-life Murdoch can be, when it suits her purposes. Murdoch is also technically deft in ways which may not be noticed: An examination of the use of letters to reveal character is fruitful; Tommy, in particular, is richly revealed in her correspondence with Burde.
Hilary Burde, a linguist, former don, and minor bureaucrat, the brother of Crystal and lover of Thomasina. A big, hairy, dark man, Hilary, now guarded and remorseful, irresistibly attracts the three women on whom the plot turns. He is an angry, unloved orphan who was separated from his younger sister, Crystal, who represents goodness to him. Hilary escapes delinquency and despair only because of his talent for languages: He is a “word child,” created by language, not love....
(The entire section is 1,168 words.)