The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 594 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Hilary 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. Uninterested in what words mean, he seeks to learn the rules of grammar, which represent law to him. His fellowship at Oxford promises a decent life for him and his sister until he becomes obsessed with Anne, the wife of Gunnar Jopling, another don. Gunnar and Hilary both leave Oxford, the first to a successful career, the second to become a government clerk. In London, Hilary carefully limits his involvements. The rigid routine that mirrors his emotional state reserves an evening a week for each of his friends and two evenings for Crystal. Gunnar’s second wife asks Hilary to see her husband so that the past will no longer poison the present. Again, however, Hilary destroys both the woman he loves and Jopling’s happiness. Hilary realizes that he is not solely responsible; all are in some degree victims of chance. He ceases to identify guilt and despair with penitence, and his new understanding means escape from the past. The measure of Hilary’s growth is...

(The entire section is 574 words.)