Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

Iris Murdoch produced twenty-six novels in forty years. The last of these, Jackson's Dilemma, was published in 1995, four years before her death. Murdoch's interest in moral problems inclined her towards what could be seen as an unusual view of human character and human life, leading her to create bizarre situations and offer unsettling solutions which frequently challenge and intrigue the reader.

This essential introduction to one of Britain's best-known writers guides the reader through the full range of Murdoch's fictional output, tracing basic patterns which run throughout Murdoch's work and showing how the novels help to elucidate one another. The revised, updated and expanded new edition takes into account certain details which have emerged following Murdoch's death in 1999, incorporates the latest scholarship and offers fuller treatment of a number of novels.

The second edition also gives more weight to the development of the moral discourse which is predominant in Murdoch's work. From the mid-sixties onwards, Murdoch was intensely concerned with the problems of Good and Evil in a godless world. In the later novels, particularly those of the eighties and nineties, she posited the possibility of mystic personalities who influence others from a position beyond the normal parameters of our world. Hilda D. Spear examines these mystic, and mysterious, fictions in the later chapters of her study, and argues that Jackson's Dilemma should be viewed as Murdoch's 'unfinished novel'.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Abstract
Jackson’s Dilemma,1 Iris Murdoch’s last novel, was published in 1995, four years before her death. It was the final contribution to a novel-writing career which had begun over forty years previously. Twenty-six novels in all were published, using various narrative modes and embracing various degrees of complexity. In general Murdoch avoided what she saw as ‘the obvious danger for a writer’, that of writing autobiographical novels. Many of the settings, however, reflect backgrounds familiar to her, and the civil servants, university dons, Irish characters and many others belonged to the milieu of her own life, though the narratives, the plots, the bizarre relationships were mainly creations of her own lively imagination. We should not expect to find accounts of her own life in her novels and she herself is on record as asserting that she believed that she, as author, should not be in her books. To that extent, then, she followed the dictates of modernism.
Hilda D. Spear

2. The Early Novels

Abstract
In a Book Trust pamphlet published about her in 1988,1 Iris Murdoch wrote:
Novels are individuals, about individuals, essentially comic, essentially sad, telling of the secret travail which ordinary life conceals, and formulating deep truths about human society and the human soul. They are also works of art.
Hilda D. Spear

3. The Romantic Phase

Abstract
The novels of the 1950s followed each other fairly rapidly, but after The Bell there was a three-year gap in publication, the longest gap throughout Murdoch’s writing career until the gap between her twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth novels, which was filled by the publication of her massive philosophical work, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals.
Hilda D. Spear

4. Conflicts of Good and Evil

Abstract
The Time of the Angels (1966), the novel which follows The Red and the Green, sets a more sombre tone than most of its predecessors, with the possible exception of The Unicorn. The group of novels which it introduces —The Nice and the Good (1968), Bruno’s Dream (1969), A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970) and An Accidental Man (1971) — though still funny, often farcical, are deeply concerned with the problems of Good and Evil. At times they are infused with a palpable, almost demonic evil, coupled with a negation of the existence of God. ‘If one does not believe in a personal God there is no problem of evil, but there is the almost insuperable difficulty of looking properly at evil and human suffering,’ Murdoch commented in 1969, in the essay ‘On “God” and “Good”’.1
Hilda D. Spear

5. Metaphors for Life

Abstract
The four novels to be discussed in this chapter were published at roughly yearly intervals: The Black Prince (1973), The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974), A Word Child (1975) and Henry and Cato (1976). Following the novels of the late 1960s with their deliberate exploration into the demonic, their third-person narration and their carefully structured form which, except for An Accidental Man (which we may perhaps see as a ‘bridging novel’), divides them into accessible chapters, these of the early 1970s break out of the more overt formal restraints. They are generally longer, they have dispensed with the containment of chapter divisions as a formal structural device and their philosophical viewpoint is far more complex. Yet, despite the apparent formlessness of such works, there is a consuming interest in the art of novel-writing and in the general philosophy of art, The Black Prince particularly devoting considerable discussion to it. Though there are no chapters as such, there is an overriding formal structure, breaking the novels into parts and smaller segments and, in the case of A Word Child, into daily diary entries. They may also, as a group, be seen as some of the easiest of all Murdoch’s novels for the general reader to come to terms with.
Hilda D. Spear

6. The Mystic Novels

Abstract
In the next six novels, from The Sea, The Sea (1978) to The Message to the Planet (1989), Murdoch appears to have moved on to a different plane of thought. These novels are deeply philosophical, deeply religious, full of mysticism and imbued with the mystery of personality to a much greater extent than earlier novels. Intrigue, treachery, death are still present but the degree of physical violence is less obtrusive; psychological domination is, however, very apparent. All the books are long, as though their author’s thoughts cannot easily be contained but must spill over into greater and greater length. All, too, are concerned to some extent with God or with religion, not necessarily with the questions of Good without God or of reconciliation and forgiveness without God which vexed earlier novels but, following on from the discussion of Christianity in Henry and Cato, with explicit discussion of religious thought and ideas.
Hilda D. Spear

7. Myth, Magic and Mystery

Abstract
Between the publication of The Message to the Planet (1989) and The Green Knight (1993) Murdoch published the most extensive of all her philosophical works, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992). For the reader of her novels it is not compulsory reading but it is a fascinating expansion of, and reflection on, many of the themes she dealt with in fiction, particularly in the later books. We can see, too, how the novels themselves reflect her philosophical ideas:
We fear plurality, diffusion, senseless accident, chaos, we want to transform what we cannot dominate or understand into something reassuring and familiar, into ordinary being, into history, art, religion, science (MGM, pp. 1–2)
or, we might add, into novels which are able to reinstate the old mythologies whilst simultaneously exploring the contemporary problems of morality that we have been faced with ever since Nietzsche declared the death of God.
Hilda D. Spear

8. Conclusion

Abstract
It is scarcely surprising that a major novelist who wrote twenty-six novels over a span of forty years did not always win critical approval and Iris Murdoch’s reputation has certainly seesawed since the publication of her first novel in 1954. By that time she had already made her mark as a philosopher, offering papers at learned societies, giving talks on the BBC Third Programme and writing reviews. In writing Under the Net she was merely extending her activities and making a different use of her work in philosophy. One problem is that she defies classification: she was not a Modernist; she was not a Post-Modernist; she was not, like many of her female contemporaries, a feminist writer; yet, despite the fact that she employed many Victorian devices in her novels, no serious reader of her fiction could place her among the traditionalists. She was a thinker, a novelist of ideas, a philosopher who dared to introduce philosophic discussion into her novels; at the same time she was a myth-maker, a weaver of stories, interested in patterns, interested in form, interested in language, interested above all in establishing a raison d’être for truth, goodness and love in a world that has dispensed with God.
Hilda D. Spear
Additional information