BORN: 1919, Dublin, Ireland
DIED: 1999, Oxford, England
GENRE: Novels, essays, poems, plays
Under the Net (1954)
The Sandcastle (1957)
A Severed Head (1961)
The Black Prince (1973)
The Sea, the Sea (1978)
Iris Murdoch. Murdoch, Iris, 1966, photograph. Horst Tappe / Hulton Archive / Getty Images.
One of the most prolific writers of the second half of the twentieth century, Iris Murdoch wrote well-crafted fiction containing rich characters and complex plots woven together with elements from philosophy and psychology. In addition to more than two dozen novels, her body of work includes several plays and an assortment of critical studies. She was nominated for Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize six times and eventually won the honor for The Sea, the Sea in 1978. Murdoch’s achievements in philosophy have often been overshadowed by her reputation as a novelist and dramatist. Her philosophical and literary works are closely interrelated: Her novels and plays can be read as meditations on the problems about freedom, consciousness, and the nature of the good that she addresses in her philosophical writings. Murdoch herself, in a 1978 interview with Bryan Magee, stressed the unity of her philosophical and literary work when she remarked that ‘‘philosophy and literature are both truthseeking and truth-revealing activities.’’
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Academics and Existentialism. Jean Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin on July 15, 1919, to Wills John Hughes Murdoch, a civil servant, and Irene Alice Richardson Murdoch. A few years later, the family moved to London, where Murdoch began her education at the Froebel Institute; she was a boarding student at Badminton School in Bristol from age twelve to eighteen. In 1938, she won a scholarship for three years at Somerville College of the University of Oxford. There she became engaged to a classmate, Frank Thompson, who was killed early in World War II. Extremely left-wing politically, Murdoch was briefly a member of the British Communist Party. She graduated with first-class honors in ‘‘Greats’’ (ancient history, classics, and philosophy) in 1942. She was an assistant principal in the British Treasury from 1942 to 1944. Between 1944 and 1946 she was an administrative officer with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in London, Belgium, and Austria. This experience had a profound effect on her as a philosopher and as a novelist. During this time she read the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, and she later met Sartre in Brussels.
In 1947, Murdoch received a Sarah Smithson Studentship to study philosophy at Newnham College of the University of Cambridge. That same year she was elected to the Aristotelian Society. Her early philosophical influences included Sartre; the Austrian linguist and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom she met at Cambridge; and Wittgenstein’s student—and later, translator, editor, and literary executor—G. E. M. Anscombe, with whom she formed a lifelong friendship. Denied a visa to enter the United States (where she had been offered a scholarship) because of her previous membership in the Communist Party, Murdoch in 1948 became a tutor in philosophy and a fellow of St. Anne’s College of the University of Oxford. Murdoch published several philosophical studies during the early 1950s, including one of Sartre, a philosopher with whom she has often been compared. In 1956, Murdoch married John Bayley, a novelist and lecturer.
Turning to Fiction. Murdoch wrote more than fifty novels. The first was Under the Net (1954), about a man who fails in his personal relationships because he sees the world as a hostile place. Her second novel, The Flight from the Enchanter (1956), is about a rich and powerful protagonist who sees all human relationships as power struggles and uses his power to draw the other characters into his grasp. Murdoch’s third novel, The Sandcastle (1957), deals with an individual who attempts to free himself from what he considers the death of him: his marriage. The Bell (1958), has a similar theme, except that a young woman decides not to go back to her mate so that she may find herself.
Many of Murdoch’s later novels contain themes that are rewritten from her earlier works. For example, A Severed Head (1961) examines the extent to which human relationships—in this case, sexual ones—are damaged when they are used to overpower others, a theme also explored in Flight from the Enchanter. An Unofficial Rose (1962), like The Sandcastle, features a hero who feels enslaved by his marriage. Murdoch often wrote novels that involved the fantasy of freedom versus conventional responsibility and the difficulty of establishing relationships. Also characteristic of much of her late work is the brooding, dreamlike landscapes and the bizarre turns of plot that prompted many critics to refer to her as a Gothic novelist.
In her later years, Murdoch continued to write rather lengthy, complex novels. Her later titles were Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1982), The Good Apprentice (1986), and The Green Knight (1993). Murdoch died on February 8, 1999, in Oxford, England, after a five- year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Murdoch's famous contemporaries include:
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980): French existentialist philosopher and novelist.
Simone Weil (1909-1943): French philosopher and political activist.
Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000): Novelist and essayist who won the Booker Prize the year after Murdoch did.
Anthony Burgess (1917-1993): Prolific British novelist famous for the dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange (1962).
Fidel Castro (1928-): Cuban revolutionary leader and president of communist Cuba from 1959 until 2008.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Murdoch's literature centers around her philosophical interests; her characters often confront ethical issues and have relationship struggles that come about as a result of their beliefs. Here are some other works in which characters wrestle with ethical issues:
The Scarlet Letter (1850), a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In this American classic set in a seventeenth- century Puritan community, heroine Hester Prynne gives birth out of wedlock, refuses to name the child's father, and suffers the consequences for her "crime" alone.
Crime and Punishment (1866), a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In this tale, a Russian student named Raskolnikov murders a pawnbroker and then becomes increasingly paranoid.
The Stranger (1942), a novel by Albert Camus. This classic work is a philosophical novel in which the main character kills a man for no reason and must deal with the ethical consequences.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), a film directed by Luis Burnuel. This French surrealistic film concerns a group of friends and their dreams.
Works in Literary Context
Master and Servant. Murdoch relied heavily on philosophy and politics to give substance to her depictions of human relationships. Several of Murdoch’s works revolve around a manipulative character who achieves power and control over the lives of others. For example, her first novel, Under the Net, focuses on Jake Donoghue, who attempts to establish a pattern for his life in order to insulate himself from the impact of random happenings, which are not part of his design. The lives of most of the characters in The Flight from the Enchanter are determined by how they respond to a charismatic and domineering ‘‘enchanter’’ who preys upon their personal obsessions. Murdoch introduces supernatural elements into this work that illuminate her examination of myth and reality. The Black Prince (1973) blends a murder mystery with ruminations on creativity by centering on an aged writer who attempts to impose his fantasies on others. Several critics have noted parallels between this work and such Shakespeare plays as Hamlet and The Tempest.; in fact, many of Murdoch’s works involve characters whose relationships resemble that of the domineering Prospero and the servile Caliban in The Tempest.
Unhealthy Love and Loss of Faith. Murdoch explores various forms of love throughout her fiction, generally in bleak depictions of relationships. A Severed Head addresses such topics as promiscuity, self-deception, and the unpredictable actions of individuals in love by detailing the interactions of three groups of characters who share progressive attitudes toward sex. The Sea, the Sea depicts a man who sustains an obsessive love for a girl he knew during childhood. When they meet again years later, the man uses his expertise as a magician and theater director to interfere in her happy marriage. In addition to her exploration of themes relating to love, Murdoch frequently examines spiritual issues. The Bell (1958), for example, is set in a religious community and involves conflicts among characters with diverse personalities, and a central character in Henry and Cato (1976) is a Catholic priest who gradually loses his faith.
Art and Philosophy. Murdoch’s complementary interests in philosophy and art are also evidenced in her nonfiction writings. For example, her Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953) examines the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre by focusing on his use of the novel as a means of developing and exploring philosophical ideas, a recurring trait in Murdoch’s novels as well. Among her other theoretical works, The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists (1977) expounds upon Plato’s views of art, while Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues (1986) involves several characters who discuss the role of art in human life.
Works in Critical Context
Murdoch never read any of her reviews. Her books, though often controversial, generally enjoyed positive critical reception. Nicholas Spice has stated: ‘‘Like Henry James’s, Iris Murdoch’s style is high, in the sense that she writes about lofty matters—the nature of morality, the reasons for existence, how we should live and love, how we should die.’’ The complexities of her plots and the interrelationships she develops among characters have led critics to compare Murdoch’s novels with those of such nineteenth-century writers as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Charles Dickens. While Murdoch writes primarily in the realist mode, many of her works describe supernatural events that lend allegorical and symbolic implications to her themes. Murdoch has explained: ‘‘In real life the fantastic and the ordinary, the plain and the symbolic, are often indissolubly joined together, and I think the best novels explore and exhibit life without disjoining them.’’
Early Works. Between 1954 and 1987, Murdoch published twenty-three novels that explore various types of love, the relationship between imagination and reality, the role of art, and moral issues and dilemmas pertaining to questions of good and evil. By developing diverse scenarios and characters and presenting fantasies and supernatural events, Murdoch examines abstract ideas within the context of human drama. Michael Levenson has commented: ‘‘Murdoch, a philosophic novelist, spurns the idea of the philosophic novel. This is because she believes that fiction should shiver like the quicksilver of life. She wants a fiction that can engage with urgencies and accidents.’’
A critic has commented about one book: ‘‘Naturally, this being a Murdoch novel, nothing is so simple as it might appear to be. While Nuns and Soldiers works wonderfully as an archetypal tale of love triumphant, it presents dozens of other possibilities.... This is an exceptionally full book, packed with ideas, symbols, references, questionings, and with characters who, more than usually in Murdoch’s novels, seem caught in the real web of life.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about the philosophical and literary movement known as existentialism. Are Murdoch’s works existentialist? If so, how so? If not, how not?
2. Read The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists. What roles does Murdoch think the artist has in society? Do these roles of the artist exist today? Has the artist’s role diminished? Is the artist no longer an archetypical figure? Write an essay detailing your position.
3. In The Bell, the characters struggle with the problems that arise when their human desires conflict with their moral beliefs. Pick a few scenes in the novel in which characters choose to favor one or the other— to follow their hearts, or to stick to their moral absolutes. Do you agree with these choices? Why or why not?
Antonaccio, Maria, and William Schweiker, eds. Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Bayley, John. Elegy for Iris. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998.
________. Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire. New York: Norton, 1999.
Byatt, A. S. Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965.
Dooley, Gillian, ed. From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.
Gordon, David J. Iris Murdoch’s Fables of Unselfing. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.
Todd, Richard. Iris Murdoch: The Shakespearean Interest. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979.
Wolff, Peter. The Disciplined Heart: Iris Murdoch and Her Novels. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1966.