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Iris Murdoch:

A Reassessment

Edited by
Anne Rowe
Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment
Also by Anne Rowe
Iris Murdoch:
A Reassessment
Edited by

Anne Rowe
Senior Lecturer in English Literature, Kingston University
Editorial matter, Selection, Introduction and Chapter 12 in Part 4.
© Anne Rowe 2007
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Iris Murdoch–A Reassessment / edited by Anne Rowe.

Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-230-00344-3 (cloth)
1. Murdoch, Iris–Criticism and Interpretation. I. Rowe, Anne, 1952-

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Acknowledgements ix
Notes on Contributors x
Notes on References and Abbreviations xiii
Preface xiv
Introduction: ‘A Large Hall of Reflection’
Anne Rowe 1

Part I Reinstating Theology 13

1 Reconsidering Iris Murdoch’s Moral Philosophy
and Theology
Maria Antonaccio 15
2 ‘All the World Must be “Religious”’:
Iris Murdoch’s Ontological Arguments
Stephen Mulhall 23
3 Iris Murdoch’s Deconstructive Theology
Suguna Ramanathan 35

Part II Reconsidering Moral Philosophy 45

4 Murdoch on the Impossibility of Moral Scepticism
Edith Brugmans 47
5 The Ethics of Self-Concern
Samantha Vice 60
6 Attention, Self and The Sovereignty of Good
Christopher Mole 72

Part III Revisiting The Saint and the Artist 85

7 The Ascetic Impulse in Iris Murdoch’s Thought
Maria Antonaccio 87
8 The Curse of The Bell: The Ethics and Aesthetics
of Narrative
Bran Nicol 100

viii Contents

Part IV Rereading Literature 113

9 Saint Iris? Murdoch’s Place in the Modern Canon
Nick Turner 115
10 Houses of Fiction: Iris Murdoch and Henry James
Priscilla Martin 124
11 A Literary Foremother: Iris Murdoch and
Carol Shields
Alex Ramon 136
12 ‘Policemen in a Search Team’: Iris Murdoch’s
The Black Prince and Ian McEwan’s Atonement
Anne Rowe 148

Part V Renegotiating Gender, Sexuality and Feminism 161

13 Plato, Foucault and Beyond: Ethics, Beauty and
Bisexuality in The Good Apprentice
Tammy Grimshaw 163
14 Reassessing Iris Murdoch in the Light of Feminist
Philosophy: Michèle Le Doeuff and the
Philosophical Imaginary
Marije Altorf 175

Part VI Reinvestigating Negative Capability 187

15 Oedipus, Peter Pan and Negative Capability: On
Writing Iris Murdoch’s Life
Peter J. Conradi 189
16 Alzheimer’s Amyloid Analogy: Disease Depicted
through A Word Child
Rivka Isaacson 204

Index 214

I would like to thank Frances White and Daphne Turner for their help
with editing and proof-reading. Maria Antonaccio gave generously of
her time for consultation and advice, and Peter Conradi also provided
the most valuable practical advice. I should also like to acknowledge the
help of my colleagues at Kingston University, Avril Horner, Meg Jensen
and David Rogers for reading material and commenting. Martin Corner,
John Ibbett, Stephen White and Stephen Mulhall have also kindly
helped with specific queries.
Extracts from Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and
Literature, and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals by Iris Murdoch, pub-
lished by Chatto & Windus, are reprinted by permission of The Random
House Group. US rights to use extracts from these titles were granted
by Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Extracts from
The Sovereignty of Good are reproduced by permission of Taylor Francis
Books UK.
Professor John Bayley kindly provided the cover photograph of Iris
Murdoch, and although every effort has been made to trace and acknowl-
edge the copyright-holder, I have been unable to do so. I would be grate-
ful for information which would enable me to rectify the omission in
future editions.

Notes on Contributors

Marije Altorf is Lecturer in Philosophy at St Mary’s College, Strawberry

Hill. She has published on Murdoch, imagination and feminist philoso-
phy, and she co-translated Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good into Dutch
(Over God en het Goede, Amsterdam: Boom, 2003).

Maria Antonaccio is Associate Professor of Religion at Bucknell

University. She is author of Picturing the Human: The Moral Thought of Iris
Murdoch (2000), and co-author, with William Schweiker, of Iris Murdoch
and The Search for Human Goodness (1996). She has also published sev-
eral articles on Murdoch’s moral thought and has written for the Iris
Murdoch Society News Letter.

Edith Brugmans (1956) is Professor of Philosophy at Leiden

University and Associate Professor of Philosophy of Law at Radboud
University in the Netherlands. In 1989 she published a monograph on
the moral philosophy of Adam Smith. Recently she published articles
on the philosophy of Iris Murdoch and a book on moral scepticism (in

Peter J. Conradi has been since 1997 Emeritus Professor of English at

Kingston University and Honorary Research Fellow at University
College, London. He is author of The Saint and the Artist: A Study of the
Fiction of Iris Murdoch (1986) which was published in its third edition in
2001, and editor of Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and
Literature (by Iris Murdoch). He is the author of Iris Murdoch: A Life, the
authorized biography of Iris Murdoch, published in 2001. He is advisor
to the Iris Murdoch Society News Letter to which he contributes articles
and reviews. He has also written books on John Fowles, Angus Wilson
and Dostoevsky.

Tammy Grimshaw is the author of Sexuality, Gender and Power in Iris

Murdoch’s Fiction (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2005). She
recently completed Ph.D. studies at the University of Leeds, where
she wrote her thesis on gender and sexuality in Iris Murdoch’s writing.
She was the recipient of the Overseas Research Scholarship and the
University of Leeds Tetley and Luton Scholarship. She is currently

Notes on Contributors xi

conducting research on the performativity of gender in British fiction of

the 1990s and twenty-first century.

Rivka Isaacson obtained her Ph.D. in biophysics from Cambridge

University in 2000 under the supervision of Professor Sir Alan Fersht. As
recipient of a Wellcome Trust Prize Travelling Fellowship, she performed
research at Harvard Medical School for two years before returning to the
UK to continue her post-doctoral investigations of intracellular protein
recycling at Imperial College, London. She is involved in several inter-
disciplinary projects to promote public engagement with science.

Priscilla Martin teaches English and Classics at St Edmund Hall,

Oxford. She has also taught at the Universities of Edinburgh, London,
California Colorado, Hawaii and Washington, Seattle. Her publications
include Piers Plowman: The Field and the Tower, and Chaucer’s Women:
Nuns, Wives and Amazons. She regularly reviews for the Iris Murdoch
News Letter and contributed the article on Iris Murdoch for the
Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English.

Christopher Mole is a post-doctoral Fellow in the Philosophy/

Neuroscience/Psychology Programme at Washington University in St
Louis and has worked on a number of topics in the philosophy of cog-
nitive science. His current research is focussed on attention, both as a
topic in cognitive psychology and as a topic in Iris Murdoch’s moral

Stephen Mulhall is Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at New College,

Oxford. His research presently centres around Wittgenstein, Heidegger
and Kierkegaard. He has published a number of articles on the relation
of the work of Iris Murdoch to questions about ethics, religion and the
nature of philosophy.

Bran Nicol is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of

Portsmouth. He has published extensively on Iris Murdoch and con-
temporary fiction and is author of Iris Murdoch: The Retrospective Fiction
which was published in its second edition by Palgrave in 2004.

Suguna Ramanathan retired as Head, English Department and Dean of

the Arts Faculty, St Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad, India in 2002. Her
publications include Iris Murdoch Figures of Good (1990) and The Novels
of C.P. Snow: A Critical Introduction (1978), both of which were published
xii Notes on Contributors

in the UK by the Macmillan Press. She is one of the editors of The Silken
Swing: The Cultural Universe of Dalit Women (2000) and one of the
authors of Journeys to Freedom: Dalit Narratives (2004) and has translated
in collaboration, Modern Gujarati Poetry: A Selection (1998). Her first
novel The Evening Game was published by Penguin in New Delhi in
2001. She has published articles of theological interest in journals in the
UK, such as The Heythrop Journal and The Way.

Alex Ramon is a part-time lecturer at the University of Reading where

he is undertaking Ph.D. work on the fiction of Carol Shields under the
supervision of Professor Coral Ann Howells. He is also planning to edit
a collection of Shield’s non-fiction.

Anne Rowe is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Director of The

Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies at Kingston University. She is a Director
of the Iris Murdoch Society and European editor of the Iris Murdoch
Society News Letter where she contributes articles and reviews. She is
author of The Visual Arts and the Novels of Iris Murdoch published in 2002.
Currently she is working with Cheryl Bove on Sacred Space, Beloved City:
Iris Murdoch’s London, a book of essays, walks and drawings that cele-
brates Murdoch’s love for London and explores the variety of ways in
which the City inhabits her novels.

Nick Turner is Teaching Fellow at the University of Manchester. He read

Modern Languages at St Peter’s College, Oxford, and is undertaking a
Ph.D. which is ‘An Investigation of Canonicity in the Work of Post-War
British Women Novelists’: the subjects are Iris Murdoch, Anita
Brookner, Emma Tennant, Ruth Rendell and Penelope Fitzgerald. He has
published articles on Jane Austen and A.S. Byatt, and reviews of books
on Popular Fiction and on A.S. Byatt.

Samantha Vice is Lecturer in Philosophy at Rhodes University in South

Africa. She is co-author, with Ward E. Jones, of Ethics in Film, forthcom-
ing for Oxford University Press, and has written articles on the self,
goodness, immortality and autonomy. Her work is much influenced by
the thought of Iris Murdoch. In ‘Literature and the Narrative Self’
(Philosophy, 78, 2003) she uses Murdoch to critique the currently popu-
lar notion of the narrative self; and in ‘On the Tedium of the Good’
(Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 8, 4, 2005), Murdoch is the inspiration
for her argument that we need more adequate and attractive represen-
tations of goodness.
Notes on References and
References to the following texts refer to the editions indicated and are
abbreviated as follows:

Peter J. Conradi, Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and

Literature (London: Chatto & Windus, 1997): EM.

Peter J. Conradi, The Saint and the Artist: A Study of the Fiction of Iris
Murdoch, 3rd Edition (London: HarperCollins, 2001): SA.

Peter J. Conradi, Iris Murdoch: A Life (London: HarperCollins, 2001):


Gillian Dooley, From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations

with Iris Murdoch (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003):

Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (London: Chatto &

Windus, 1992): MGM.

Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge, 1970): SG.

Bran Nicol, Iris Murdoch: The Retrospective Fiction 2nd Edition (London:
Palgrave, 2004): IM:TRF.

The Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies at Kingston University is abbrevi-

ated as CIMS.

Unless otherwise stated, references to the novels of Iris Murdoch are to

the Penguin editions (Harmonsdworth, UK). The date of the edition is
provided in the first reference within each essay; subsequent references
give page numbers only. All publications by Chatto & Windus (London)
are abbreviated to ‘Chatto’.


Mid-way through his great 1939 essay on Dickens, Orwell remarks: ‘By
this time anyone who is a lover of Dickens, and who has read as far as
this , will probably be angry with me’.1 Orwell has just spent many pages
detailing Dickens’s frailties and limitations: Dickens had a narrow social
range, and wrote confidently only of the London commercial bour-
geoisie and their hangers-on. He had no contact with industry, agricul-
ture or the governing classes. He wrote little or nothing about work.
Work always happens off-stage. Not merely does he have no ideal of
work, but he idealizes leisure instead. He has no profound criticism to
make of domestic service, and his ideal master–servant relation is feudal.
Moreover, Orwell tells us, Dickens’s absurd and melodramatic plots
are the last thing anyone can recall, or even wish to. Sexual love is out-
side his scope. His critique of society is exclusively moral: he wants to
change the individual human heart, not a corrupt social system as such.
He has radical views about education in childhood, yet sent his sons to
Eton. His radicalism, like Iris Murdoch’s, softened in some respects as he
aged. His characters constantly verge towards caricature and are two-
dimensional, in the grip of their author’s private need for them.
Many of these criticisms, mutatis mutandis, can be levelled against Iris
Murdoch: the narrow social range; the absence of much discussion of
work; the obsession with the moral and the under-playing of the polit-
ical; the privileging of education as a panacea for society’s ills; the for-
gettable plots (unless you are a critic, and obliged to learn them); the
sense that the characters are automata or slaves of their author’s plot and
puppeteering; the stock types and, sometimes, stock situations. Her last
novels, moreover, are too long, and remote from ordinary life.
Dickens, too, is remote from certain aspects of his epoch. He lived
through an age in which almost every aspect of working life was revo-
lutionized, and left no record of, for example, the electric telegraph, the
breech-loading gun, India-rubber, coal gas, or wood-pulp paper. Orwell
omits to mention Dickens’s palpable fascination with the novelty of the
railway, which after all does feature importantly in his fiction, and unti-
dies Orwell’s case. Murdoch, like Dickens, lived through an age of
extraordinarily rapid changes. In her case, curiously, new technologies
are not entirely neglected. Yet the way that they are included amounts
to their being put into quotation marks, and found exceptional.

Preface xv

True, she hated and feared computers, and there is no instance where
one occurs in her novels. But the invention of the fax machine makes
possible Joan Blackett’s marriage in The Green Knight; jet travel enables
Peter’s sudden appearances in different parts of the world in The Unicorn;
her unpublished and failed 1959 novel, Jerusalem, oddly invents and pre-
dicts the answer phone; the telephone, which her parents’ family home
did not possess until after the first twenty-seven years of married life
together – ‘the devil’s instrument’ as Murdoch once called it to her
St Anne’s colleague Barbara Mitchell – features importantly and spookily
in An Unofficial Rose, and a tape-recorder plays an uncanny role in The
Sacred and Profane Love Machine, as does the waste-disposal unit that swal-
lows Kate’s glove in The Nice and the Good. These are surreal machines to
Murdoch, and their presence startles us exactly because her world is a
world of romance, not of scientific realism. We remember the telephone
kiosk in A Severed Head because she poetically and aptly compares it to a
wayfarer’s shrine.
Orwell’s wonderful essay, near the end, contains the remark, already
cited, ‘By this time anyone who is a lover of Dickens, and who has read
as far as this, will probably be angry with me’. He goes on in the essay’s
final moments to suggest why Dickens, for all his limitations, is also
great: once Dickens describes something, you see it for ever; no other
writer combines such purposelessness with such vitality; what he created
is less a series of novels, more an entire world; although his imagination
overwhelmed everything, like a kind of weed, his genius is to create ‘the
unnecessary detail’ that you do not forget; Dickens has the face of a
man who is ‘generously angry’.2
For just these reasons, many of us longed for the newest Murdoch
novel and sat up half the night unable to put it down. We might be
said to recall those crowds on 42nd Street in New York City awaiting
the packet boats bringing the latest instalment of Nicholas Nickleby or
David Copperfield. We have been bereft for ten years of such moral
treats. And Orwell’s view of Dickens helps us understand our loss and
hunger alike. Dickens and Murdoch were both serious yet popular;
both had phenomenal energy; both were poets. Each of their first nov-
els was picaresque: Dickens’s picaresque in Pickwick Papers came out of
Smollett; Murdoch’s in Under the Net out of Raymond Queneau. Both,
too, are utterly unlike their contemporaries; they are sui generis, one
of a kind, with, in a sense, no real contemporaries. They were ‘free
spirits’. Dickens stood above what Orwell terms the ‘smelly little ortho-
doxies which are contending for our souls’,3 by which, since he cham-
pions Dickens’s liberalism and radicalism, he probably meant political
xvi Preface

orthodoxies: the lies of Stalinism absorbed by the Popular Front; the

lies of Fascism absorbed by sections of the Establishment.
Murdoch, too, was a spirit free from fashionable credos. In Charles
Taylor’s words, she ‘jumped the box’ of Oxford analytic philosophy.4
She showed others the way out. She bore considerable opprobrium for
doing so, and was marginalized.5 She showed the inadequacies of pop-
existentialism, and never bought into the loonier wings of feminism or
structuralism. She too, in our time, showed us how to go beyond the
‘smelly little orthodoxies that are contending for our souls’.
Murdoch, like Dickens, created a whole world that recalls our own and
yet is different, like yet unlike. Her novelistic world has real power and
magic in it. Although you later forgot the plot, it is weird and fascinat-
ing to remember that exactly the same story gripped you as you read,
and you needed to know how things would turn out. She told com-
pelling tales: Under the Net, The Flight from the Enchanter, The Sandcastle,
The Bell, A Severed Head: five different debuts, an astonishing Goethean
facility. Then in the 1960s came the experiments with Neoplatonism,
followed by the great Shakespearean romances of the1970s which are
her best work. Even when she is at her most romance-like, she nonethe-
less conveys something of what it has been like to inhabit the post-war
English world in general, and London in particular. William Golding
recorded his envy of The Black Prince, a novel that, for him, evoked its
place and time in a way he felt was hard for him to achieve in his own
work.6 Her details stay with you even when the plots are forgotten. Her
novels are funny, moving and wise; her moral philosophy accessible. As
with Dickens, the details you recall are often details of London city life.
London is the setting or part setting for twenty-four novels – all but the
Irish pair (The Unicorn and The Red and the Green). After her plots fade,
the London setting often remains: from Under the Net we remember Earl’s
Court, the City pub-crawl, the Hammersmith theatre, the Mayfair hair-
dressers, Sadie’s Marylebone flat; from The Flight from the Enchanter
Mischa’s South Kensington Palazzo and Rosa’s Camden Hill connections;
from The Time of the Angels the fog-bound Rectory in the East End that
is shaken by underground trains; Fulham and Battersea in Bruno’s Dream;
South Kensington and Julius’s Brook Street flat in A Fairly Honourable
Defeat; James’s Pimlico flat in The Sea, the Sea; the Brook Green ‘aviary’
in The Green Knight. Her London resembles Dostoevsky’s fantastical, and
essentially religious, imagining of St Petersburg, as much as it does
Dickens’s love-hate for London.
One of the charming and startling moments in Orwell’s essay comes
when he suggests that the whole of literary criticism is a huge network
Preface xvii

of humbug, entirely corrupted as it is by non-aesthetic motives. For

many of us, of course, non-aesthetic motives enter into our admiration
of Murdoch. As to the question of precisely what these non-aesthetic
motives are, we may of course each have our own, different answers. For
me, it might be the way she sees and describes our spiritual condition
today as resembling the act of – as she expressed it in an unpublished
radio interview in the 1970s – ‘staring into dark space’. Or it might have
to do with how her own ‘anger with the way things are’ which also con-
tains much generosity. The question of this generosity – or this love – is
touched upon in many places. For example, in The Nice and the Good,
when Ducane asks Willy:

‘Is your edition of Propertius going to be a great work of scholarship?’

‘Is it necessary to the human race?’
‘[. . .] Why do you do it?’
Willy reflected for a moment.
He said, ‘It expresses my love for Propertius and my love for Latin.
Love needs to be expressed, it needs to do work [. . .]’7

The note recurs. She had the courage not to shirk the question of the
place of love in the moral life. It was there in her first published book,
when she criticized Sartre for being unable to conceive of human love
except as the ‘battle of two hypnotists in a closed room’.8 She wished
always to learn, and to know and to understand, how love can go
beyond power. She wanted to see how the alternation of voluntarism
and determinism might be transcended. Canetti’s dismissal of such
ideas carries, for me, little weight:9 those pages within Canetti’s book
Crowds and Power concerned with national stereotypes would look at
home in The Reader’s Digest. Marcel Reich-Ranicki, much feared doyen
of German literary reviewers and broadcasters, writes of Canetti in his
autobiography The Author of Himself in a chapter entitled ‘Canetti,
Adorno, Bernhard and Others’.10 Reich-Ranicki argues that it was never
enough for Canetti to be a notable writer. It was Canetti’s ambition to
be the only writer in the world. All other writers were his enemies. Against
Canetti one might posit John Updike, who wrote in an unpublished
letter, ‘To me she was a marvelously creative spirit, a comfort and a stim-
ulant, both [. . .] And such a vote, really, for the human race’.11
The question of love touches on what is magical in her work. It is to
me extraordinary that Murdoch wrote (in 1963) that ‘the pattern of
xviii Preface

English life [. . .] can be something rather dull [. . .] [making] little

appeal to the imagination’.12 A surprising dictum. What is startling
about the pronouncement is how strangely it sits with her fiction,
which shows English life to be anything but dull, which indeed always
involves some transfiguration of the imagination, some redemption of
particulars, some change. It is as if she transmits to us her own aston-
ishment at ordinariness.
If we ask ourselves which phenomena have this power, when closely
enquired into by Murdoch, to effect such poetic changes of perspective,
then it seems to me that we could each come up with a list. This list
might include power, morality and the spiritual quest; but, above all, the
transfigurations caused by love and by falling-in-love alike. She has the
lover’s gift of feeling, and then the writer’s gift of conveying, the sheer
poetry of objects, cars, dogs, changes in the weather, parts of London.
At the end of Bruno’s Dream, Diana, holding the hand of the dying
Bruno, reflects that love still exists, and is the only thing that exists. The
war between love and power links Murdoch’s fiction, her moral philoso-
phy and her life. She loved her characters and was omnipresent within
her work. And if she bullies her characters a little, her best characters
fight back. ‘Let them tell you what to do’, she would advise would-be
novelist-friends. Such a struggle between writer and character touches on
the question of negative capability, which recurs in my own essay later
in this collection.13 I argue, following Coleridge, that she is paradoxically
both absent and also omnipresent within her fiction, like Shakespeare.
It is exactly this omnipresence whose loss we mourn: the sense that,
whether we knew her or not, we lost, in 1999, someone who under-
stood us. This is what Dickens’s readership and friends felt in 1870 also.
The critical absorption and digestion of Dickens’s work has taken more
than a century. That of Murdoch’s work has only just begun. An anthol-
ogy such as this, which brings together the work of scholars, philoso-
phers, post-graduates and literary critics from many countries, is in itself
a celebration of the love that Iris Murdoch’s life and work exemplified.
Love needs to be expressed; it needs to do work. The essays that com-
prise this volume are both expressions of work, and expressions of love.

Peter J. Conradi

1. Orwell, ‘Charles Dickens’, (1939) collected in Inside the Whale (London:
Gollancz, 1940). Online http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/Orwell-F.htm, p. 18
<accessed 24 January 2006>.
Preface xix

2. Ibid., pp. 24–5.

3. Ibid., p. 25.
4. See IMAL, p. 303. The email correspondence is in the Conradi Archive at
5. On the freedom of the artist she wrote interestingly in her Encounter article-
review of Stuart Hampshire’s Freedom of the Individual, ‘The Darkness of
Practical Reason’, Encounter (27 July 1966), 46–50.
6. See: John Haffenden, Novelists in Interview (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 119:
‘I’m slightly envious of people who are so firmly rooted in the twentieth cen-
tury that they can write about it in great detail [. . .] I’m thinking of Iris
Murdoch: The Black Prince is a very fine piece of work’.
7. The Nice and the Good, p. 126.
8. Murdoch, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (London: Chatto, 1987).
9. See Elias Canetti, Party in the Blitz (London: Hutchinson, 2005).
10. Marcel Reich-Ranicki, The Author of Himself: The Life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 312–26.
11. Letter to the author, 2002. In the Conradi Archive CIMS.
12. See Y. Muroya and P. Hullah, Occasional Essays by Iris Murdoch (Okayama:
University Education Press, 1998), p. 29.
13. See ‘Oedipus, Peter Pan and Negative Capability: On Writing Iris Murdoch’s
Life’ in Part 6 of this volume.
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Introduction: ‘A Large Hall of
Anne Rowe

‘A great work of art’, said Iris Murdoch, ‘gives one a sense of space as if
one has been invited into a large hall of reflection’.1 This interdiscipli-
nary anthology of writing is broadly divided into theology, philosophy
and fiction, and invites readers into just such a ‘hall of reflection’ which
reassesses Murdoch’s engagement with each of these disciplines. There
are two other introductory essays: Maria Antonaccio’s ‘Reconsidering Iris
Murdoch’s Moral Philosophy and Theology’ follows this introduction
and provides a framework for the philosophical and theological sections,
while Nick Turner’s candid assessment of Murdoch’s position in the
modern literary canon prefaces Part 4, which focusses on literature. My
own introduction will provide a map of the various reassessments being
made in this volume and suggest reasons why some seemingly unholy
alliances are forged between Murdoch and poststructuralist and feminist
theorists whose ideas her own work contested (Derrida, Barthes,
Baudrillard, Butler, Foucault, to name a few). It will also suggest a ration-
ale for merging what Murdoch herself often described as separate ways
of seeing the world and explore why, in practice, as many of these essays
demonstrate, her work flouts the distinctions she advocated.
Murdoch’s interdisciplinary practices facilitate the diversity of current
research represented in the six parts that comprise this volume: Theology;
Philosophy; The Saint and the Artist; Literature; Gender, Sexuality and
Feminism; and Negative Capability. Contributions represent ongoing
research in the UK, Europe, India, South Africa and the USA, and the
essays are ordered in such a way that those at the beginning inform
those that come later, and thus construct an internal dialogue. This
structure, of course, embodies its own blurring of boundaries and defies
the neat categorizations it pretends to, as theology and philosophy
inform interpretation of the novels, and the novels illustrate, test and

2 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

contest philosophical positions. The striking feature of this volume is

the tensions it finds not only between Murdoch’s philosophy and fic-
tion but also between her resistance to the theory-centred approach to
textual analysis and the relative ease with which a number of essays in
this volume find her novels or philosophy invite it. The theories of
which she was most suspicious emerged in the 1960s via the work of
philosophers and critics such as Barthes and Derrida and were at their
most influential in the 1980s and 1990s. Her views alienated her from
radically theorist academics and were partly responsible for a lessening
of scholarly interest in her novels at that time. Indeed, one of the key
features of this book is its reassessment of Murdoch’s ambivalent rela-
tionship with theory.
Murdoch understood structuralism and deconstructionism to be an
attack on traditional art forms and thought Derrida’s account of lan-
guage represented a form of ‘technological determinism’ which weakens
our faith in morality and our ability to discern truth (MGM, p. 194). She
feared that these theories would foster a reductive approach to literary
study because their ‘atmosphere and terminology [are] too constricting’
(EM, p. 23), and wanted texts to be evaluated by ‘the calm, open, judging
mind of the intelligent experienced critic, unmisted as far as possible by
theory’ (EM, p. 454). But, as early as 1992, Terry Eagleton famously sug-
gested that Murdoch’s opposition to Derrida was ‘embarrassment at her
own vision of things pushed to an embarrassingly radical extreme’,2 and
poststructuralism, as he pointed out, values all the things that Murdoch
herself values: contingency, muddle and incompleteness against all that
would seek to systematize it. Murdoch criticism, therefore, progressed
from the early direct equations between her philosophy and her novels
in the 1960s and 1970s, to criticism influenced by Conradi’s view of her
as moral psychologist in the 1970s and 1980s, to the most recent post-
modern phase of criticism that sidelines Murdoch’s objections to theory:
in 1999 Barbara Heusel considered how Murdoch related to Bakhtin’s
poetics and in 2001 Bran Nicol expanded such discussion to include
Murdoch’s relation to postmodernism, poststructuralism and psycho-
analysis.3 Both Nicol and Eagleton point to the fact that Murdoch fails
to see how far her own values, such as otherness and difference, are
respectfully preserved in Derrida’s work, and such ambivalences are fur-
ther explored in this volume (Suguna Ramanathan suggests, for exam-
ple, that only some of Murdoch’s pronouncements unambiguously
reject Derrida, while others ‘sound suspiciously like [him]’).
Murdoch, it seems, was attempting to uphold divisions that could
not be sustained in practice; she appeared to be emotionally denying
Anne Rowe 3

positions to which she was subscribing intellectually. She resisted them

perhaps because they brought too close to home her own fear that
morality ‘may turn out to be meaningless’ (EM, p. 71). She feared, too,
that these theories might come to be understood as the only truths that
art can tell, which would destroy any sense of its inherent value. Any
kind of monocular vision or reductionism is anathema to Murdoch, and
her denials are part of a quest to create precisely the multiplicity of per-
spectives that this volume offers. Yet critics here are careful to acknowl-
edge the limitations of their approaches when it comes to ‘placing’
Murdoch. Ultimately, the hallmarks of her work – ambiguity, paradox
and mystification – create ‘spaces [. . .] we can explore and enjoy’ (EM,
p. 35). In fact, it is this ambiguity that allows for the diverse, often con-
tradictory, interpretations that characterize this volume, and for the
approaches to the novels that variously take structuralist, formalist,
feminist and liberal humanist positions. Post-theory, the plurality of
these critical approaches gives equal legitimacy to what has come to be
seen as contesting ways of reading texts.
Dovetailing Murdoch’s philosophical and literary practices requires
justification because she herself insists that they make a dangerous mix,
and perceives them as ‘totally different’ disciplines, ‘modes of thought’
and ‘ways of writing’ (Dooley, p. 36). While philosophy should ‘clarify
and explain’, literature ‘is for fun’ and ‘leaves a space to play in’, but
‘the philosopher must not leave any space’; philosophy has ‘plainness
and hardness’ while literature ‘is full of tricks and magic and deliberate
mystification’ (EM, pp. 4–6). Murdoch’s reluctance to fuse the two may
also reflect a desire to preserve the status of both her fiction and her phi-
losophy: she was horrified at the thought that her novels might be read
as didactic enactments of her philosophy, and thought that any attempt
to draw direct equations between the two forms meant that the deeper
meanings of her fiction would be obscured (‘art goes deeper than phi-
losophy’ [EM, p. 21]). Conversely, she seemed equally concerned to pre-
serve the separateness and integrity of her philosophy in the light of the
‘plainness and hardness’ of the English philosophical tradition.
Yet much of the work in this volume is generated by links, tensions
and equations between the philosophy and literature, which suggest
ways in which they also blend. And ‘certain philosophical ideas [. . .]
must somehow find expression in my novels’, Murdoch frequently
conceded (Dooley, p. 36). She reiterates one crucial way in which she
understands literature and philosophy to be identical: ‘[they] are both
truth-seeking and truth-revealing activities’ (EM, p. 11). And if, as
she suggests, good art expresses truth by manifesting ‘deep conceptual
4 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

connections’ because ‘any serious pursuit and expression of truth moves

toward fundamental questions’ (MGM, p. 351), then such ‘fundamental
questions’ must unite the philosophy and the fiction. These questions
deal with freedom, love, truth, goodness and how, in a godless society,
morality can be preserved. In this sense, Murdoch’s marrying of fiction
and philosophy consolidates her claim that the novel has become the
most important form of moral discourse in a secular society and, as
such, takes over the role of philosophy and religion.4 She also says that
a moral philosophy must be inhabited, and the novels are its practical
illustration, so that their ideas are philosophical even though the lan-
guage in which she debates them does not embody the ‘hard’ sparsity
of philosophical discourse, but the magical, metaphorical discourse of
literature. Her fiction mystifies rather than provides solutions to philo-
sophical problems, and the merging of the two is more likely, as this
volume illustrates, to produce questions than provide answers.5 But
these tensions, as Maria Antonaccio acknowledges, are precisely what
energise discussion of Murdoch’s work.
If philosophy and literature, then, are never quite distinct, Murdoch’s
‘Godless theology’ is also ubiquitous. Her desire is that literature will
provide the moral forum once supplied by religion: ‘Everything I have
ever written is concerned with holiness’, she has said.6 The ‘mysterious
interconnectedness’ between fundamental branches of knowledge that
she attempts is therefore both deliberate – to do with the way she per-
ceives the novel as functioning within society – and intuitive: ‘there is
artistry’, she says, in ‘the sorting, separating and connecting movement
of the mind’ (MGM, p. 351). This volume sorts, separates and connects
in equal measure, and, despite Murdoch’s cautionary remarks, in
endorsing and celebrating such connections she pre-empts the disman-
tling of boundaries between what were once perceived as distinct ways
of seeing the world that is now an acknowledged development of post-
structuralism. This volume does not so much demonstrate the trans-
gression of boundaries as illustrate that, in practice, they do not exist.
Peter Conradi’s Preface has set a celebratory tone with its meditation
on how Orwell’s famous description of Dickens as a free spirit who
refuses to subscribe to ‘the smelly little orthodoxies’ of his time could
equally be applied to Murdoch. The volume itself begins by bringing
the discussion of theology to the fore after its disappearance from the
intellectual preoccupations of postmodernism and, in so doing, legit-
imizes and explores what Stephen Mulhall identifies as an ‘intermediate
zone between philosophy, secular morality and religious belief’ that
‘many philosophers [. . .] [find] hard to take seriously’. Maria Antonaccio’s
Anne Rowe 5

introduction to the theology and philosophy sections is followed by

two contentious discussions of Murdoch’s ‘Godless theology’, in partic-
ular her attempts to demythologize Christianity. Mulhall’s essay on
Murdoch’s ontological arguments offers an analysis from within the
Western tradition, while Suguna Ramanathan’s assessment of ‘Iris
Murdoch’s Deconstructive Theology’ offers a reading from within the
Eastern tradition. Mulhall believes that Murdoch’s objection to the con-
ception of God as a powerful consoling fantasy is not a position that she
needs to step out of the Christian tradition to make, while Ramanathan
finds that Murdoch borrows much from Hinduism and Buddhism, both
of which admit contradictory ideas. In common with many of her gen-
eration, Murdoch’s understanding of Christianity did not provide her
with the resources to support her critique of the self, and Ramanathan
reflects this in her essay, while Mulhall draws on a broader understand-
ing of the Christian tradition which allows him to find within it that
which Murdoch had not.
Part 2 reconsiders Murdoch’s moral philosophy and begins with Edith
Brugmans’s essay on the impossibility of moral scepticism, a concept
that also derives from Murdoch’s engagement with the ontological
proof. Brugmans treats the characters and situations of Murdoch’s 1971
novel, An Accidental Man, as answers to a philosophical question and
raises an important question: if Murdoch makes claims for the ‘ubiquity
of value’ by suggesting that all perception is moral perception, can she
entertain the possibility of moral scepticism? Brugmans suggests that An
Accidental Man offers a variety of arguments for moral scepticism but
refutes them, and suggests that Murdoch’s denial that we can ‘think
away’ morality may betray her worst fear that it might turn out, after all,
to be meaningless. Samantha Vice’s ‘The Ethics of Self-Concern’ is the
first of three essays that focus specifically on the idea of ‘unselfing’. All
three find difficulty in reconciling Murdoch’s contention that to live
ethically we must turn away from the demands of the inner self (which
she considers falsifying – the ‘enemy of the moral life’), with her insis-
tence that we must attempt to become morally better (which seems nec-
essarily to require some kind of self-scrutiny). Vice suggests that the pro-
hibition on attention to the inner life is neither plausible nor warranted
by Murdoch’s position and argues that The Sovereignty of Good allows a
place for it. Christopher Mole also finds Murdoch’s position to be incom-
patible with some kind of self-directed attention, but his approach is to
suggest that we can keep the strong prohibition on attention to the inner
but must reject the idea that morally important states of mind are inner
states and think of them instead as being ‘world involving’.
6 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

Next, what has become a standard Murdochian interpretative trope,

the struggle between the Saint and the Artist, is applied afresh to
Murdoch’s philosophy and fiction to expand the boundaries of its appli-
cation. Maria Antonaccio agrees that Murdoch does not unambiguous-
ly support the saintly idea of unselfing, and expands the paradigm of
the struggle between the saint and the artist that Conradi identifies in
the novels to find a similar ‘doubleness’ in Murdoch’s philosophy. In
Antonaccio’s view, Murdoch never completely separated the aesthetic
(hedonistic) from the ascetic (puritan), and she identifies metaphors of
creativity and aesthetic perception that run as counter-currents in The
Sovereignty of Good to work against the idea of unselfing. Antonaccio
suggests that these inner contradictions, which all three of these essays
identify, energize the philosophy as much as the novels.
Like Antonaccio, Bran Nicol renegotiates the familiar territory of the
saint and the artist, and these two essays together constitute Part 3.
Nicol builds the concept into an argument about narrative and links
the ‘artist’ figures in Murdoch’s fiction – the characters who create per-
sonal fables rather than recognize randomness and chance (as saints
do) – to Murdoch’s own role as a story-teller with a similar desire to
construct pattern and, by extension, to the reader, who interprets the
clues that the writer provides. Nicol illustrates his theory by reference
to The Bell, where the dichotomy between saint and artist suggests that
resistance to the force of narrative and surrender to it work against each
other. Applying the idea to narrative enables us to see how Murdoch’s
fiction is, in fact, symptomatic of the changed attitude to narrative that
marks the ‘postmodern’, as defined by Lyotard’s ‘incredulity toward
Nick Turner introduces Part 4 by considering Murdoch’s uncertain
place in the English canon and suggests that A.S. Byatt’s recently less
fulsome praise for Murdoch may represent a more general falling off
in appreciation. Turner suggests that Murdoch once spanned both the
‘academic’ and ‘popular’ canon, particularly in the 1980s, but that The
Book and the Brotherhood marked a distinct shift in reception. Other
complications came with the ‘media hullabaloo’ that surrounded the
publication of Conradi’s biography, John Bayley’s memoirs and the
screening of Richard Eyre’s film Iris. Ultimately, Turner suggests, by her
continual presence in contemporary critical discourse, Murdoch
remains alive, and that if, as Bloom suggests, one of the things that
makes a writer canonical is the ongoing influence (whether benign or
otherwise) of their work on their literary descendents, then two follow-
ing essays in this section argue for Murdoch’s growing canonical stature.
Anne Rowe 7

Each of the three essays that follow argues for a literary ‘duet’: Priscilla
Martin suggests a link between Murdoch and Henry James, Alex Ramon
between Murdoch and Carol Shields and my own essay connects
Murdoch and Ian McEwan. An alliance between Murdoch and James is
one that has not attracted any sustained critical attention despite obvi-
ous associations (both writers’ habitual use of the visual arts and simi-
larities in character and themes), but Martin pursues such associations
to illustrate flashes of Jamesian psychology in Murdoch (or even
Murdochian psychology in James), similarities in motivations of char-
acter and shared moral concerns. They differ in that formal perfection
for James is a major value while for Murdoch it is a temptation to falsi-
ty, but what most securely binds Murdoch and James, nevertheless, is a
faith in the truth of art, which both affirm as something like religious
faith – a ‘sacred office’.
Yet Murdoch’s liberal humanist heritage cohabits with an ambivalent
postmodernism making her an important link in a chain of associa-
tion that stretches to the latter half of the twentieth century and
beyond. Dominic Head has suggested that Murdoch’s ‘scrupulous
thinking about the role of the novel and the novelist, in advance of an
ethical world view, suggests a fruitful way in which the vision of many
novelists can be appreciated in their struggle with form’,7 and Alex
Ramon and I each reveal how both Murdoch’s ethics and aesthetics are
perpetuated in the work of Carol Shields and Ian McEwan respectively:
Ramon suggests that Shields’s own work reflects an appreciation of
Murdoch, and that her novels rest on just such an admiration that
Murdoch had for James. He identifies how Shields’s work echoes
Murdochian ideas about the relationship between self and other; how
her characters are confronted by an ‘unfinalizability’ that is central to
Murdoch’s conception of the human personality. Shields’s experimen-
tation with the novel form echoes Murdoch’s similar experiments,
Ramon suggests, and he further explores the contradiction that both
writers share between postmodern elements and a humanist focus on
daily reality and the internal consciousness of their characters. The
‘median’ position between postmodernism and realism for which
Shields searches, he argues, is precisely that middle ground incarnated in
Murdoch. My own essay on Murdoch’s The Black Prince and McEwan’s
Atonement suggests another middle ground where Murdoch is unable to
divorce herself from postmodernism and where McEwan owes a con-
scious debt to liberal humanism. Both novels share a central paradox –
they announce their fictionality and acknowledge that the novel form
is compromised, at the same time as they construct possibilities for
8 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

secure meaning and authorial communication. McEwan is preoccupied

with just such aesthetic and philosophical issues about the nature of
truth, authorship and morality that Murdoch had considered thirty
years earlier. This reassessment of Murdoch’s fiction testifies to her
place in the tradition of literature as a ‘sacred office’ that links her back
to liberal humanism, but also suggests that this ‘sacred office’ has
evolved with the demands of the postmodern world. It sees Murdoch
as a crucial link in the evolutionary chain of the English novel that
stretches forward to the current century.
A consideration of Murdoch’s uneasy relationship with gender, sexu-
ality and feminism forms the focus of Part 5. Such issues have been side-
lined in Murdoch studies largely as a result of her refusal to concern
herself with feminism, but newer Murdoch scholars are not deterred
by this reluctance on Murdoch’s part and thus both these essays break
the mould of negative feminist attitudes to Murdoch’s work. Tammy
Grimshaw argues that Murdoch demonstrates an enduring interest in
gender issues, and links her to Adrienne Rich, Judith Butler and Michael
Foucault. She suggests that the sexual identities Murdoch constructs
present new possibilities that challenge traditional perceptions of gen-
der; by using Foucault as a key to reading the ‘bisexual’ character of
Stuart Cuno in The Good Apprentice Grimshaw finds that, like Foucault,
Murdoch understands that the constraints of compulsory sexuality
should be loosened so that bisexual and homosexual possibilities can
emerge and artificial constructs be overthrown. Grimshaw is careful to
acknowledge that such views do not automatically align Murdoch with
feminism, and Marije Altorf picks up this point in the following essay
that uses the feminist philosophy of Michèle Le Doeuff to cast a new
light on Murdoch’s own philosophy. Altorf notes a similar reluctance to
explore feminist implications in Murdoch’s philosophy as in her fiction,
and illustrates ways in which Murdoch’s suspicion of feminism is shared
with a generation of female philosophers, such as Anscombe, Foot and
Warnock, who all believe that philosophy should be gender-neutral.
But, Altorf distances Murdoch from her contemporaries by relating her
to the work of Linda Alcoff and Le Doeuff, and suggests that her work
has an unconscious sympathy with feminism by analysing some
imagery in her philosophical writing.8
Murdoch’s suspicion of psychoanalytic criticism and her commitment
to ‘negative capability’ has tended to deflect psychoanalytic approaches
to the novels. The first of the two essays that comprise Part 6, however,
rethinks this position as Peter Conradi explains the dangers of reduc-
tiveness faced by the biographer when ‘life-myths’ militate against the
Anne Rowe 9

individuality of the person one seeks to disclose. But he also reveals that
they became evident when he was writing Murdoch’s biography, and
suggests that they are manifest in the Oedipal conflict that informs the
erotic symmetry of her plots, and in the theme of incest that ‘famously
recurs’ in her fiction. Also, the fact that the ‘sinister boy’, Peter Pan,
haunts her novels may suggest that, like Peter, she was self-sufficient yet
lonely, and unable to commit herself fully or grow up. Conradi reveals
that Murdoch’s disapproval of psychoanalysis stemmed partly from a
fear that it might resolve an artist’s conflicts, without which she could
not write. He suggests that her gift of negative capability might imply
that the writer is not, as is commonly thought, religiously absent, but
mysteriously omnipresent in her work. This important essay candidly
illustrates the competing tasks of the biographer: to acknowledge justly
the links between life and art; to honour the contingent, and, ultimately,
to respect human mystery.
The final interdisciplinary link is between literature and science, and
the last essay is by Rivka Isaacson, a scientist from Imperial College,
London. Isaacson illustrates the protein proliferation that characterizes
Alzheimer’s disease by reference to Murdoch’s 1987 novel A Word Child,
and after explaining the concepts of ‘entropy’ and ‘enthalpy’, she envis-
ages the plot of this book as an analogy of the Alzheimer’s disease mech-
anism which enables readers to see how this degenerative condition
ravages the brain. Isaacson offers scientists and literary scholars a new
framework for understanding each other’s disciplines and her contention
that the repetitive structure of A Word Child mirrors the progression
of Alzheimer’s suggests ways in which Murdoch’s novels may continue
to inform scientific research. If, as Isaacson tells us, the effects of
Alzheimer’s may be present up to twenty years before symptoms appear,
this kind of work is the logical extension of links being pursued by sci-
entists at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College,
London, who are currently analysing the syntax and lexical diversity of
Murdoch’s early and late work to ascertain how early the onset of
Alzheimer’s may manifest itself in language.
The variety of approaches employed in this volume necessitates not
only ‘tactful’ close readings that give autonomy to Murdoch’s fiction
and philosophy, but also demands theoretically informed perspectives
that allow them to be responsive to positions about which she voiced
suspicion. Head notes that the critical attempt to establish schools or
categories has been an imperfect, but necessary, process of explication,9
and Valentine Cunningham advocates ‘readerly tact’ that respects the
integrity of literary texts but ‘listens to what theorists really say as
10 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

well’.10 These positions sound remarkably close to Murdoch’s desire

for the ‘relaxed polymath’ with the ‘calm, open, judging mind’ who
‘approaches the literary work in an open-minded manner and is inter-
ested in all sorts of ways [. . . which are] unmisted as far as possible by
theory’ (EM, p. 25), though not, perhaps, uninformed by it.11 It is diffi-
cult, of course, perhaps impossible, to find the detached, objective crit-
ic able to withhold his or her own framework of understanding and
privilege the text’s individual qualities.12 But this volume, with its mul-
tiple authors and variety of discourses, is perhaps the next best thing.
The essays that follow reposition marginalized fields of knowledge and
textual discourses; highlight the reassessments made possible by relaxed
interdisciplinary cross-fertilization; allow internal contradictions to
energize rather than close down debate; and take theory to texts and
texts to theory, thereby blurring distinctions between conflicting ways
of reading. It thus facilitates new approaches unhindered by what where
once considered barriers to Murdoch’s work: ‘I know who are great writ-
ers in the past’, Murdoch said, ‘and I will not surrender them to theory
but rather consider the theory in their light’ (EM, p. 25).
Murdochian ethics – the study of human beings in the process of
moral transformation – is the point where all these approaches neces-
sarily converge. Dominic Head has noted that Murdoch fashions a
moral philosophy that is in tune with the ethical project of Levinas,
where ‘ethics’ combines the desire for convergence with a studied irres-
olution, which, he suggests, is ‘very much in the spirit of what Murdoch
means by morals’.13 Murdoch’s desire for convergence draws her back to
the ‘fundamental questions’ that preserve her links with the best of lib-
eral humanism, while her ‘studied irresolution’ roots her firmly within
postmodern ethics. Eagleton has suggested that the new millennium is
indeed an awkward moment in history to find oneself without some-
thing to say about ‘fundamental questions’,14 and in his Preface to this
volume Conradi suggests that Murdoch’s insistence on the place of love
in the moral life and her courage not to shirk that question is what seals
her greatness. Valentine Cunningham notes that it is astonishing that
theory both refused to notice what Murdoch had to say about the
ethical force of literature and blotted out the assumption that literature
was about human behaviour.15 And if, as Eagleton also suggests, cultural
theory has ‘been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embar-
rassed about love [. . .] religions [. . .] dogmatic about essences, univer-
sals and foundations, and superficial about truth and objectivity’,16
then Murdoch’s loving preservation of these aspects of human existence
repositions her novels as valid objects of investigation in the age of the
Anne Rowe 11

ethical turn, and the new eclecticism that now characterizes literary
criticism. Murdoch’s legacy, perhaps, is to facilitate new negotiations
between contesting disciplines, between text and theory, between the
past and the present and between art and life: ‘We have so many kinds
of relation to a work of art’ she rightly said, and such energizing diver-
sity is clearly evident in the ‘large hall of reflection’ that follows.17

1. EM, p. 28.
2. Review of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Guardian (20 October 1992),
G2, p. 8.
3. See Barbara Stevens Heusel, Patterned Aimlessness: Iris Murdoch’s Novels of the
1970s and 1980s (Athens University of Georgia Press, 1995) and Iris Murdoch’s
Paradoxical Novels: Thirty Years of Critical Reception (Suffolk: Camden House,
2001). Also Nicol, ‘Philosophy’s Dangerous Pupil’, Modern Fiction Studies (Iris
Murdoch Special Issue), Fall 2001 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, pp. 580–601) and IMRF.
4. See Dominic Head, The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction 1950–
2001 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 251–59.
5. Ibid., p. 255.
6. ‘Questioning Krishnamurti’, Iris Murdoch News Letter, 9 (1996).
7. Head, p. 258.
8. Other scholars are working along similar lines: Liz Tomazic has reinterpreted
the image of the labyrinth and constructed a feminist rewriting of Plato’s
myth of the cave. ‘Ariadne’s Thread: Women and Labyrinths in the Fiction
of A.S. Byatt and Iris Murdoch’ (Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Australian
Catholic University, Melbourne, Australia, 2005).
9. See Head, p. 256.
10. See Valentine Cunningham, Reading after Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002),
p. 86.
11. My italics.
12. As noted by Head, p. 257.
13. Ibid., p. 257.
14. See Reading after Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).
15. Cunningham, p. 149.
16. Ibid., p. 42.
17. EM, p. 24.
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Part I Reinstating Theology
This page intentionally left blank
Reconsidering Iris Murdoch’s
Moral Philosophy and Theology
Maria Antonaccio

It has often been said that Iris Murdoch’s moral philosophy defies easy
categorization, and one does not have to look far to see why. Trained in
the analytic tradition at Oxford, she nevertheless challenged many of its
central premises. A leading figure in the recovery of virtue ethics, she
broke from her contemporaries by looking to Plato rather than Aristotle
for inspiration. A self-declared atheist, she persisted in defending the
importance of religion against the reductive views of her analytic col-
leagues and proposed that moral philosophy might become a kind of
‘Godless theology’.1 And despite her contention that art and ethics are
allies more than rivals, she still insisted that philosophy and literature
are importantly different human activities, and she exemplified that dif-
ference in her own writing.
Given the highly original nature of Murdoch’s philosophical vision
and the variety of the themes with which she was concerned, any
attempt to assess her thought in the context of current philosophical
trends will have to limit itself to the particular demands of the moment.
My task in this essay, accordingly, is not to provide a comprehensive
reading of Murdoch’s philosophical legacy, but to show how certain
aspects of that legacy find expression in several of the essays in this
volume.2 Although accounts of Murdoch’s influence differ, most com-
mentators agree that she played a crucial role in shaping at least three
important developments in moral philosophy in the past half-century:
(1) the expansion of the domain of ethics beyond the confines of oblig-
atory action; (2) the importance of the inner life and the role of vision
and imagination in moral reasoning; and (3) the attempt to retain the
idea of a moral absolute at the centre of human existence.
These features of Murdoch’s thought have been noted by others, but
in my view they add up to something greater than the sum of their

16 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

parts. They provide a model of what morality and moral agency are like
that continues to provoke reflection and to generate new insights today,
as I hope to show.

Broadening the domain of ethics

One of most far-reaching of Murdoch’s contributions to contemporary

ethics was her attempt to broaden the domain of ethics and the scope
of moral deliberation beyond the concern with obligatory action that
had dominated twentieth-century ethics. Long before thinkers like
Bernard Williams directed critical attention to ‘the morality system’ as
a ‘particular development of the ethical’ which emphasized certain con-
cepts (for example, obligation, autonomy and duty) over others,
Murdoch sought to extend the domain of the ethical beyond a con-
stricted focus on ‘what it is right to do’, in order to encompass ideas of
‘what it is good to be’.3
If one considers the essays collected here, one could almost say that
the entire volume exemplifies this first theme. In treating both the
philosophical and the literary sides of Murdoch’s work, the essays show
that some of the same themes that recur in her fiction find their way
into her philosophy in conceptual form: the importance of states of
mind for morality; the abiding significance of religion for ethics; the
meaning of virtue and the role of self-regard (and its limits) in ethics;
and other topics that would have been seen as irrelevant by many of her
contemporaries. Such themes have become so entrenched in current
ethics that it may be difficult to remember a time when questions of
moral character and moral being were marginalized by the dominance
of theories of right action. Yet as Charles Taylor notes, Murdoch ‘was
criticizing the narrowness of moral philosophy well before the present
counterwave’ of neo-Aristotelians and neo-Nietzscheans.4
In her justly famous essay ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’,5 for example,
Murdoch offered an expanded definition of the phenomena that should
be included in the study of ethics. Rather than restrict ethical inquiry to
those operations of moral rationality related to choice and action, ethics
should also consider what Murdoch called the ‘texture’ of a person’s
being or the nature of their ‘personal vision’. These are displayed not only
in people’s explicit choices and behaviour, but also ‘in their mode of
speech or silence, their choice of words, their assessments of others, their
conception of their own lives, what they think attractive or praise-
worthy, what they think funny: in short, the configurations of their
thought which show continually in their reactions and conversation’.6
Maria Antonaccio 17

It is not surprising, perhaps, that a philosopher who was also a nov-

elist should have been the one to make this point so persuasively. As
Martha Nussbaum notes, Murdoch was a distinctive presence on the
philosophical scene for precisely this reason. As a novelist, she was able
to help Anglo-American moral philosophy to achieve ‘a broader con-
ception of its subject matter’ by attending to certain topics that had
been rejected as a legitimate part of moral philosophy, such as ‘the
virtues and the vices, the nature of imagination and attention, the vicis-
situdes of passion’. The explanatory brilliance of the famous example of
M and D from ‘The Idea of Perfection’ made available a very different
conception of virtue than the ‘muscular choice-is-all school of moral
philosophy’ propounded at the time by thinkers as different as R.M. Hare
and Jean-Paul Sartre. In this context, Murdoch’s assertion that ‘how we
see and describe the world is morals too’ (EM, p. 73) must indeed have
appeared revolutionary.
A final aspect of Murdoch’s expansion of the domain of ethics, already
hinted at above, is that her work was instrumental in encouraging the
turn to literature and other forms of narrative as forms of moral peda-
gogy that may teach us more than philosophy can about the complexi-
ties of moral character and the often tragic nature of human choices.7
Although the so-called literary turn in ethics reached its high point in
the 1990s, a more wide-ranging rapprochement between ethics and aes-
thetics has just begun. Recent work on the ethical dimensions of visual
art, for example – a medium that Murdoch regarded as a paradigm case
of the exercise of moral vision – suggests that there are further insights
to be gleaned from her thought in this area.

The inner life and the recovery of consciousness in ethics

Murdoch’s role in expanding the domain of ethics is closely related to a

second aspect of her influence: her emphasis on moral psychology and
the inner life. As Charles Mathewes has observed, Murdoch’s call for a
‘working philosophical psychology’ (EM, p. 337) was part of a larger
‘movement of return’ in post-World War II philosophical ethics, as
thinkers like Elizabeth Anscombe sought to fashion a thicker, more con-
crete description of moral agency and practical reasoning through the
recovery of Aristotle and ancient ethics generally.8 Although Murdoch
did not turn to Aristotle but to Plato in her quest for a working philo-
sophical psychology, The Sovereignty of Good had a transformative
impact on the discipline of philosophy, encouraging younger scholars
to consider the importance of mental states in ethics. As a result, moral
18 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

psychology and also virtue ethics has become one of the significant
areas of ethical inquiry, thanks to the efforts of Murdoch, Anscombe
and others.
An important effect of Murdoch’s emphasis on moral psychology was
to encourage new philosophical attention to human capacities previ-
ously neglected in modern moral philosophy, such as vision and imag-
ination, and to see these as integral components of what it means to
choose and to reason ethically. Owing in part to the enormous impact
of the M and D example in showing how much of our moral delibera-
tion occurs before the moment of choice or apart from any overt action
(that is, in our interpretive grasp of a situation, and in how we picture
it or imagine it to ourselves), Murdoch has sometimes been accused of
denying that action is important to ethics. This was never her intention,
of course, but the fact that her work could be read in such a way indi-
cates how radical (and perhaps unsettling) many readers still find
Murdoch’s suggestion that we are responsible not only for our actions,
but for the quality of our own thoughts and states of mind. Even every-
day conversation ‘is not necessarily a morally neutral activity and cer-
tain ways of describing people can be corrupting and wrong’.9
Several essays in this volume bear out the importance of the M and D
example for Murdoch’s views on the inner life. Christopher Mole,
Samantha Vice and myself all use it in different ways to show that
Murdoch’s famous ethic of ‘unselfing’, which is meant to counteract the
pervasively distorting effects of egotism on moral vision and action, is
actually far more complex than it first appears. A crucial question raised
by all three is whether Murdoch’s critique of the self and its desires is at
odds with her emphasis on the inner life and the role of self-reflection
in morality. Edith Brugman’s essay, too, discusses the importance of the
inner work of imagination as a moral activity as well as the techniques
of unselfing that Murdoch developed to cultivate a vision of the Good.
All of these essays suggest that, no matter how readily one may think
Murdoch’s ethics can be captured in arresting phrases about ‘the fat
relentless ego’, her depiction of the inner life and the process of unself-
ing contains tensions and perplexities that continue to merit serious

Religion and the absolute demand of morality

Murdoch’s interest in religion is a corollary of her retrieval of the inner

life and has always been a distinctive feature of her philosophy. Not
only did it represent a direct challenge to her analytic colleagues, many
Maria Antonaccio 19

of whom regarded religion as simply another instance of bogus meta-

physics; it also sets her apart from many modern critics of theism.
Though Murdoch joined these critics in rejecting the concept of God,
she did not believe that this necessarily entailed a rejection of the idea
of a moral absolute. Through her re-reading of the ontological proof,
she argued that although we may lose the symbol ‘God’, we cannot do
without what the old God symbolized, namely, the idea of the Good as
the source of an absolute moral claim on human life. For Murdoch, the
ontological proof supports a conception of religion that is defined not
as belief in a supernatural or personal God, but rather as ‘a mode of
belief in the unique sovereign place of goodness or virtue in human life’
(MGM, p. 426).
Precisely because Murdoch’s thought moves in ‘the intermediate zone
between philosophy, secular morality and religious belief’ (as Stephen
Mulhall notes in his essay), the legacy of her thought on religion may
be more difficult to discern than her legacy in the two other areas I have
noted. Some theological commentators have treated Murdoch’s aver-
sion to theism as a kind of puzzling blind spot in an otherwise com-
pelling ethical position, suggesting that her Godless theology cannot
provide answers to the human dilemma that her moral theory so elo-
quently poses.10 Others, by contrast, have found Murdoch’s champi-
oning of an impersonal Good over a personal God, her suspicion of the
ego-consolations and ‘cosy sentiments’ of traditional religion and the
demythologizing impulse of her ‘Platonized Buddhism’ a welcome (if
austere) tonic for the excesses of Christian orthodoxy and God-talk.11
Both of these kinds of critical reception, as well as other insights, find
expression in this volume. Suguna Ramanathan’s essay examines the
demythologizing and deconstructive potential of Murdoch’s moral imag-
ination, focussing in particular on the highly overdetermined character
of her treatment of religious themes in the novels and the notable appro-
priation of insights from non-theistic traditions such as Hinduism and
Buddhism. Ramanathan argues that even though Murdoch distanced
herself from deconstruction in her philosophical writings, the novels
come close to a ‘deconstructive position’ in that they often communicate
a pervasive sense of uncertainty, doubt and undecidability. Nevertheless,
in both of the genres in which Murdoch wrote, purification of con-
sciousness lies at the heart of the religious disposition.
Stephen Mulhall’s essay focuses on Murdoch’s revision of the ontolog-
ical proof while also seeking to account for her ambivalence towards
Christianity. While Mulhall appreciates Murdoch’s originality in finding
moral and metaphysical insights in the proof that earlier interpreters
20 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

have missed, he nevertheless finds her rejection of a personal God (the

object of the traditional proof) puzzling. Indeed, Mulhall sees no small
irony in the fact that Murdoch felt she had to reject Christianity in order
to make a point that is in fact endemic to Christian reflection: the pro-
hibition against idolatry and literalism when it comes to symbolizing
God. The strength of Murdoch’s worry about the dangers of false conso-
lation prevented her, in Mulhall’s view, from further exploring the ways
in which Christianity ‘might actually support the mode of moral perfec-
tionism so central to Murdoch’s own thinking’.
Whatever else one might say about Murdoch’s relation to Christianity,
her moral philosophy continues to resonate with those who experience
religion as something that cannot be fully captured in particular dog-
mas, institutions or traditions. By interpreting the idea of moral value as
omnipresent, covering ‘the whole of our mode of living and the quality
of our relations with the world’ (SG, p. 97), Murdoch implicitly rejected
the idea that those who inhabit a community of faith can claim a unique
or exclusive hold on moral insight. At the same time, however, her work
challenges those who seek to flee the claims of morality by rejecting reli-
gion altogether. As Murdoch saw it, the claim of goodness on human life
pervades even the farthest reaches of the disenchanted secular world:
‘[E]ven if all ‘religions’ were to blow away like mist, the necessity of
virtue and the reality of the good would remain’ (MGM, p. 428).
In concluding this essay, I want to build on this last point in order to
suggest at least one area in which Murdoch’s philosophy continues to
generate insights: the call for a renewal of humanism in contemporary
thought.12 In doing so, the importance of the three features of her
legacy outlined above will be apparent.

Conclusion: Murdoch and humanism

Murdoch possessed an uncanny talent for identifying the underlying

presuppositions of the reigning philosophical conceptions of her day.
To the existential hero of Sartrean ethics, freely choosing his values in
an inauthentic world, she contrasted the so-called mystical hero or
saint, who relies not on will but on ‘genuine intuitions of an authorita-
tive good’ (EM, p. 227). To the ‘Kantian man-God’, who uses his reason
to survey the facts and then chooses, Murdoch contrasted the figure of
the artist, whose perception of the world is not strictly ‘factual’, but
mediated through the agent’s moral imagination. Murdoch’s use of such
figures helped to expose the deficiencies in prevailing views and to cap-
ture features of moral experience that had been neglected or unnoticed.
Maria Antonaccio 21

In that same spirit, I want to suggest that Murdoch’s thought chal-

lenges yet another image that is pervasive in ethics today. Its moral out-
look is dominant in secular democratic societies such as our own: a form
of secular humanism whose central feature is its adherence to a norm of
human flourishing that is resolutely secular and this-worldly in temper.
Its highest goal is to affirm the value of ordinary life and to diminish
human suffering, as well as to encourage intrahuman goods such as jus-
tice and tolerance. From the perspective of this outlook, any view that
endorses the notion of a good that ‘cannot be entirely or exhaustively
explained in terms of its contributing to a fuller, better, richer, more sat-
isfying human life’ (IM, p. 5) is seen as incredible and perhaps morally
dangerous as well.
By developing a form of thinking that is neither exclusively secular
nor traditionally religious, Murdoch occupies a distinctive position in
contemporary ethics. Although she shared the secular humanist’s insis-
tence on the unequivocal good of human life and the need to relieve
human suffering wherever it may occur, her philosophy also offers
something more: a further extension of the domain of ethics to encom-
pass a more expansive conception of the good (IM, p. 5). Beyond the
exclusive concern with obligatory action that I noted earlier, and
beyond even the shift to the emphasis on virtue and the inner life that
her work did so much to promote, Murdoch’s philosophy also leads
us to consider the possibility of a good that drives the idea of human
flourishing to a new level of aspiration, indeed towards an ideal of
In an age of resurgent religious absolutism and terrorism, the embrace
of an ideal of perfection cannot help but give any humanist pause,
given the murderous ends to which such ideals may be and have been
put. Yet the wholesale rejection of transcendent ideals poses its own
problems as well. Restricting the range of human aspiration solely to the
achievement of ‘a fuller, better, richer, more satisfying human life’ may
hamper our ability to recognize those goods that only come into view
through the renunciation or purification of self. Such renunciations
may bring about the fulfillment of a higher good than one had been
seeking, a good that enhances the value of human life precisely by
going beyond conventional notions of fulfillment.
Murdoch’s work has kept the vision of such a good constantly before
our minds. On the one hand, she offered a built-in corrective to the
potential hubris of every spiritual path in her relentless exposure of the
ego’s tendency to use even its own renunciations to fuel the fires of con-
solation and self-gratification. In this sense, demythologization was for
22 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

her both a spiritual discipline and a moral imperative. At the same time,
Murdoch argued that religion has a role to play in defining the proper
scope of human aspiration by challenging the narrowness of our moral
vision and the mediocrity of our ideals. In thus providing an alternative
both to religious fanaticism and to the secular rejection of a transcen-
dent good, her work remains poised between the ideals of the saint and
the artist, and thus provides a fitting image for the struggle to define a
humanism for our time.13

1. See MGM and also my essay, ‘Imagining the Good: Iris Murdoch’s Godless
Theology’, Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, 16 (1996), 233–42.
2. For a more extended account of Murdoch’s legacy, see my essay ‘The Virtues
of Metaphysics: A Review of Iris Murdoch’s Philosophical Writings’, Journal
of Religious Ethics, 29, 2 (Summer 2001), 309–35 and forthcoming in Iris
Murdoch, Philosopher (ed.) Justin Braockes (Oxford University Press (UK),
3. See Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1985).
4. See Taylor, ‘Iris Murdoch and Moral Philosophy’ in Iris Murdoch and the
Search for Human Goodness, (ed.) Maria Antonaccio and William Schweiker
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 5 – hereafter IM.
5. See: EM, pp. 76–98.
6. EM, pp. 80–1.
7. See Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990).
8. See Mathewes, ‘Agency, Nature, Transcendence, and Moralism: A Review of
Recent Work in Moral Psychology’, Journal of Religious Ethics, 28.2 (Summer
2000), p. 298.
9. The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), pp. 32–3 –
hereafter SG.
10. For several theological assessments of Murdoch’s thought, see Iris Murdoch
and the Search for Human Goodness, (ed.) Maria Antonaccio and William
Schweiker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) – hereafter SHG.
11. See David Tracy, ‘The Many Faces of Platonism’ in SHG, pp. 54–75.
12. See, for example, the essays collected in the special issue of Literature and
Theology, 19, 3 (September 2004).
13. For a recent statement on humanism, see William Schweiker, Theological
Ethics and Global Dynamics (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004), esp. Chapter 10.
‘All the World Must Be
“Religious”’: Iris Murdoch’s
Ontological Arguments
Stephen Mulhall

Perhaps because it appears at a relatively late stage in the progress of

Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, the long chapter that Murdoch devotes
to the ontological argument for the existence of God seems to me to
draw together many of its central themes, and hence of Murdoch’s work
as a whole, as it explores the intermediate zone between philosophy,
secular morality and religious belief. Of course, to many philosophers,
the idea that there is such a zone – let alone the idea that the ontologi-
cal argument might serve to delineate its boundaries and structure –
would be hard to take seriously. For myself, the inability to take such
ideas seriously is rather a criterion for having lost touch with the kinds
of interests and motives that bring us to philosophy in the first place,
and that first made a place of honour for philosophy in human culture.
Such differences between conceptions of the subject may ultimately
be beyond the reach of argument; but they are surely not beyond eval-
uation. And anyway, as Murdoch herself puts it, ‘in philosophy we go
where the honey is. Some thinkers are, for us, live and life-giving, oth-
ers are dead [. . .] Anyone in the philosophical trade seeks in other
philosophers for ideas which they can profitably understand, whether or
not they also make them their own’.1
Murdoch’s approach to the ontological argument immediately distin-
guishes itself from that of the mainstream of analytical philosophers by
putting in question the received view that Kant’s hugely famous critique
of that argument is wholly successful. The ontological argument is orig-
inally presented by Anselm as a response to the Fool of the fourteenth
Psalm, who says in his heart that there is no God. Anselm points out
that the very idea of God that the Fool’s atheistic assertion purports to
deploy, the idea of God that is central to the Christian tradition, is that of
a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Since, however, we

24 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

could conceive of a being greater than one which existed (as the Fool
thinks God exists) solely in the human understanding – namely one
which also existed outside it – then the Fool’s denial is not so much wrong
as misdirected; for he misconceives the nature of the being whose exis-
tence is asserted by the believer. To think of God as a being whose non-
existence is even a possibility, let alone a fact, is precisely to fail to think
of the God of Christianity; it is to miss the purported target of one’s
atheistic thought. The Christian God is the embodiment of all perfec-
tions, and the only mode or kind of existence that might intelligibly be
thought of as belonging to a perfect being – the kind of existence than
which nothing greater could be conceived – is necessary existence.
Hence, to understand what unbelievers and believers alike are really
talking about when they contend over God’s existence is to understand
that His non-existence is inconceivable.
Entirely unsurprisingly, most philosophers have been deeply suspi-
cious of Anselm’s claim. For it seems to license a conclusion about the
real existence of a certain kind of entity simply by inspecting our con-
cept or idea of that entity; and this sounds like a particularly egregious
instance of supposing that thinking can make something so. Kant
expresses the worry in the following way:

‘Being’ is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of

something which could be added to the concept of a thing. It is
merely the positing of a thing, or of certain determinations, as exist-
ing in themselves [. . .] If, now, we take the subject (God) with all its
predicates [. . .] and say ‘God is’ or ‘There is a God’, we attach no new
predicate to the concept of God, but only posit the subject in itself
with all its predicates, and indeed, posit it as being an object that
stands in relation to my concept [. . .] Whatever, therefore, and how-
ever much, our concept of an object may contain, we must go out-
side it, if we are to ascribe existence to the object.2

‘Is omnipotent’, ‘is omniscient’ and ‘has a long white beard’ are real
predicates, according to this way of thinking; they serve to determine
our concept of God, specifying properties or features that anything
answering to that concept must have. But when we assert that God
exists, we are not recalling or specifying another such property or fea-
ture, and thereby introducing a new articulation into our concept of
God; we are rather claiming that there is something in the world which
answers to that concept (with all its defining predicates). Judgements
about existence apply our concepts to reality, and thereby add to or
Stephen Mulhall 25

otherwise modify our list of the furniture of the universe. Hence, they
can only be justified by exploring that reality to see whether it contains
anything that answers to the relevant concept, not by simply exploring
the content of that concept.
Kant’s point may seem hard to gainsay; but in fact, as Murdoch
(following Malcolm and Hartshorne) demonstrates, his argument sim-
ply repeats the original error of the Fool, as Anselm understands it. For
Kant plainly presupposes that the kind of existence that is in question
with respect to God is that possessed by physical objects. About such
existence-claims, everything Kant asserts is true. But such existence-
claims, if true, are contingently true; every physical object that does
exist might not have existed, and it is precisely because of this that we
must go outside our concept of such objects to determine whether or
not anything in reality corresponds to them. That is just what it means
to treat the truth or falsity of the relevant claim as contingent. But the
nerve of the ontological argument is found in its reminder that the
Christian conception of God is of a being whose existence is necessary;
to think that God might conceivably not have existed is to fail to under-
stand the kind of being God is, and hence to fail to understand what
belief in God amounts to.
To this the Kantian might respond by offering this summary of the
believer’s claim: if God exists, then he exists necessarily. But this for-
mulation takes away with its antecedent clause what it appears to give
in its consequent clause. One might say: if God’s existence is necessary,
then there is and can be no ‘if’ about it. The antecedent clause treats
God’s existence as a possibility rather than a necessity, which is the very
thing its consequent clause denies. What should follow immediately
from the reminder that God’s existence is necessary is the recognition
that belief in God is not and could not be belief in the existence of a
spatio-temporal entity. What the ontological argument therefore makes
manifest is that God is not an object or being at all – in Kantian terms,
he is not a possible object of experience.
However, even if we can be sure that Kant’s critique of the ontologi-
cal argument misses its target, what are we then in a position to say
about the status of the argument itself? What exactly, on this reading of
their significance, do Anselm’s reflections establish? On the face of it,
the appropriate conclusion is now purely negative; the ontological argu-
ment tells us that God is not an entity – that nothing whatever that
might be encountered in the field of possible experience, no thing,
could conceivably be God. To say that God’s existence is necessary is not
to say that God’s existence can be established as a matter of logic; it is
26 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

rather to say what kind of existence God’s existence necessarily is not.

Courting paradox, then, we might say: the argument shows that God is
nothing, that God is non-existent. As proofs of God’s existence go, this
one not only does not seem to go far enough; it seems, if anything, to
go as far as possible in the wrong direction.
In fact, a multitude of paths open out from this ontological insight.
One would take us in the direction of a negative theology – that tradi-
tion of religious understanding which claims that not just this, but
rather every, aspect of our concept of God must be understood as spec-
ifying what God is not. To say that God’s existence is necessary is sim-
ply to say that God is no thing; likewise, to say that God is the Prime
Mover, the self-causing cause, is not to assert that God stands in a pecu-
liar or unique causal relationship to himself, but rather to deny that
God can be understood as the effect of any cause. The forms of words
we employ in characterizing God are ways of warding off mischaracter-
izations, ways of holding open a space that can only be negatively
defined, not ways of filling in that space.
Cora Diamond, for example, exploring a track that branches off from
this path, thinks of Anselm’s talk of ‘that than which nothing greater
can be conceived’ as akin to a phrase in a riddle, rather like the phrase
‘come neither clothed nor naked’ in the fairy tale; we know what we
will not be prepared to count as fitting such characterizations, without
necessarily having any idea what will.3 And whereas the point of the
fairy tale is to provide a solution to the riddle (when the princess comes
dressed in a fishing net), and thereby to praise the human drive and
ingenuity involved, Anselm’s phrase rather wards off false solutions,
and further suggests that what is of the essence here is not human inge-
nuity but a certain kind of resistance to it. For what is needed is not a
solution to the riddle, but a willingness to acknowledge its reality – to
regard this mysterious articulation as the articulation of something really
and essentially mysterious, and not as a puzzle or a problem or a con-
fusion, to which solutions or resolutions or dissolutions might be an
apt, or even a possible, response.
Another path, of more explicitly Wittgensteinian bent, is followed by
Norman Malcolm, who suggests that two conclusions follow from a
proper grasp of Anselm’s purpose.4 First, if God’s existence could not
conceivably be a contingent matter of fact, then either God exists nec-
essarily, or he necessarily does not exist; since God’s existence cannot be
an open question, the only way to deny it is to demonstrate that God
could not possibly exist. In other words, the sole substantial way of
establishing the general truth of atheism on rational grounds would be
Stephen Mulhall 27

to show that God’s existence is impossible – which means showing that

the very concept of God is incoherent. This is a familiar project in ana-
lytic philosophy of religion, which has often tended to assume that the
major intellectual threat to belief in God is the difficulty of rendering
mutually coherent His traditional attributes of omniscience, omnipo-
tence and benevolence. Against the thrust of this enterprise, Malcolm
simply asserts, without arguing the matter in any detail, that such crit-
icisms fail. Since the concept of God has a place (or a variety of related
places) in human life, then it has a coherent and systematic pattern of
use, and so is patently meaningful. If we conclude otherwise, this is
most likely because we have attempted to pin down what it must mean
in abstraction from its role in a form of life, when precisely that abstrac-
tive act deprives us of the context within which its true significance is
evident, and without which it has none.
Pressing further along this path, Malcolm then asks: what kinds of
consideration might lead us to adopt a form of living in which the con-
cept of God has its place? Certainly not an intellectual proof, which any-
way only articulates an aspect of the concept the point or value of whose
employment is precisely at issue. Malcolm rather invokes Wittgenstein’s
suggestion that life can force the concept of God on us; and he exem-
plifies this process by invoking an overwhelming feeling of guilt, a guilt
greater than which cannot be conceived, for which is required an equally
measureless power to forgive. As Murdoch puts it: ‘I am forced, in a sit-
uation which strips me of consolation and compels deep thought, to
think in this way and the fact that I am thinking in this way proves that
that which I am thinking points to a reality’ (MGM, p. 417).5 One might
say: what connects the logical grammar, the meaning, of the concept of
‘God’ to our lives is a certain kind of experience.
Murdoch is dissatisfied with this approach. To begin with, she thinks
that any attempt to understand religious concepts in general, and the
ontological proof in particular, by invoking ‘Lebensformen, or “language-
game”, contextual argument, is [. . .] a wrong turning. It ushers in
the “soft” idea, already at large in both theology and ethics, that there
is something called “religious language” which is “expressive” not
“descriptive”. This path favours structuralism, existentialism, and a
renewed life for emotive theories of ethics. Religion is thereby put in a
corner, as one possible mode of proceeding’ (p. 413). For Murdoch, the
later Wittgenstein’s philosophical method either positively requires, or
at least strongly encourages, a commitment to the distinction between
fact and value, and to the consequent relegation of religious and ethical
speech and thought from the realm of genuine discourse, in which
28 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

contact might be made with the real, to that of simply letting off emo-
tional steam. Malcolm’s invocation of feelings of overwhelming guilt as
one possible root of religious concept-use appears to confirm this suspi-
cion; and it further raises the spectre of the following challenges. ‘[This]
existentialist line of thought [. . .] implies that people who lead quiet
orderly lives are less spiritual than those who are errant and tormented.
And may it not be said that per contra great guilt arouses a great desire
for forgiveness and with it the illusion that it must be available’ (p. 417).
Murdoch sees in both Malcolm and Wittgenstein a view of salvation by
extremes; and she takes such a view to risk not only denigrating the
very everyday or ordinary realm for which such philosophers claim to
speak, but also to overlook the very real spiritual danger of mistaking a
consoling illusion for a glimpse of moral reality.
I would argue that these criticisms at best identify risks attendant
upon certain versions of Wittgensteinian thinking rather than necessary
features of any such approach. One can acknowledge that the kinds of
uses to which words are put in religious discourse are distinctive without
regarding religious belief as a (set of ) self-sufficient and self-founding
language-games; and the suggestion that any attempt to grasp the
meanings of words by situating them in the context of human forms of
life with language will open the way to purely expressive treatments of
religious discourse, and hence to emotivism, seems unduly impover-
ished in its assumptions about how various non-literal uses of language
can be. Be that as it may, however, Murdoch’s preferred path from her
favoured reading of Anselm’s proof can be very accurately deduced from
these critical remarks, simply by imagining how one might avoid the
specific risks they highlight. ‘If there is any sort of proof from experi-
ence via meaning, should not the relevant phenomena be, not esoteric,
but of great generality? What sort of experience can provide a strong
enough meaning? If the meaning of “God” can be learnt from experi-
ence might we not expect the lesson to be everywhere visible? In an
obvious sense there are religious “worlds”, groups or communities with
shared words and feelings; but in another sense all the world must be
“religious”’ (p. 417).
Murdoch takes her bearings for this third path from Anselm himself –
more specifically from her citation of his response to the monk Gaunilo,
his earliest critic, when he challenges Anselm’s assumption that he, or
anyone, can frame an idea of God. ‘I do not know that reality itself
which God is, nor can I frame a conjecture of that reality from some
other reality. For you yourself assert that there can be nothing else like
it’. Here Gaunilo leaps upon the apparent absoluteness with which the
Stephen Mulhall 29

ontological proof, on Murdoch’s reading of it, excludes God from the

range of possible human experience, and thereby uproots the idea of
perfection in general, and so moral perfection in particular, from the
human grasp. But Anselm’s reply suggests a way of supplementing the
proof which overcomes what one might call the threat of purely nega-
tive theology. ‘Everything that is less good, in so far as it is good, is like
the greater good. It is therefore evident to any rational mind that by
ascending from the less good to the greater we can form a considerable
notion of a being than which a greater is inconceivable’.
Murdoch calls this a metaphysical argument which is also an appeal
to experience; and she notes that her assumption that this supplemen-
tation is vital to Anselm’s sense of how the ontological proof is sup-
posed to work is supported by the fact that, in the Meditations, Descartes
combines his own version of the ontological argument with another
proof of God’s existence which turns upon the thought that our sense
of ourselves as imperfect necessarily engenders in us a concept of per-
fection. However that may be, Murdoch summarizes her own version of
this necessary supplement as follows:

God is something necessary not contingent, he is not an empirical

object in the world. How do we know about him, then, and whence
do we derive the unique idea of good which can be extended into a
concept of perfection? [. . .] God, who is invisible and not an object
in the world, can be seen and clearly seen everywhere in the visible
things of the world, which are his creatures and shadows [. . . ] We
‘see’ God through the morally good things of the world, through our
(moral) perception of what is beautiful and holy, through our ability
to distinguish good and evil, and through our just God-fearing
understanding of what is not good [. . .] the definition of God as non-
contingent is given body by our most general perceptions and expe-
rience of the fundamental and omnipresent (uniquely necessary)
nature of moral value, thought of in a Christian context as God. This
is essentially an argument from morality not from design [. . .] [It]
claims [. . .] some uniquely necessary status for moral value as some-
thing (uniquely) impossible to be thought away from human experi-
ence, and as in a special sense, if conceived of, known as real
(pp. 395–6).

Three central themes in Murdoch’s thinking, which I can only mention

in the present context, are here brought to bear.6 For her, our everyday
experience of reality reveals moral value to be ubiquitous, ineliminable
30 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

and hierarchical; and it is these inter-related truths about the Good of

which the Ontological Proof of God is such a valuable symbol. Anselm’s
sense of God’s existence as necessary reflects Murdoch’s sense of value
as less dispensable even than our idea of a material object, and of moral
perfection as necessarily lying outside our experience, although implic-
itly indicated by our experience of degrees or levels of goodness, and
as endlessly drawing us up through those levels, attracting us to the
next unattained level which always comes into view as each new level
is attained. One might say: to fail to see that and how the ontological
proof proper is and must be supported by this metaphysical argument
from experience is to forget that the necessity of God’s existence is
inseparable from his absolute goodness. It is to forget that all His per-
fections hang together.
It should, then, be clear that Murdoch’s way with the ontological
argument detects and aims to recover far more of metaphysical and
moral value from it than most philosophers. Nevertheless, there is a
vital point at which she withdraws her assent from its implications – or
perhaps more accurately, from traditional theological ways of under-
standing those implications. As she puts it in this chapter, ‘I have been
talking as a neo-Christian or Buddhist Christian or Christian fellow-
traveller’ (p. 419); and the key issue over which she parts ways with the
tradition of religious thought within which Anselm and Descartes stand
is over Christianity’s commitment to the idea of a personal God, and
thus to the idea that it is of such a God that the ontological proof is a
proof. Murdoch plainly and forcefully rejects both aspects of that com-
mitment as it finds expression in Christianity – with respect to God the
Father and with respect to God the Son.

‘God’ is the name of a supernatural person [. . .] the really existing

elsewhere, father figure. It makes a difference whether we believe in
such a person, as it makes a difference whether Christ rose from the
dead [. . .] Perhaps (I believe) Christianity can continue without a
personal God or a risen Christ, without beliefs in supernatural places
and happenings, such as heaven and life after death, but retaining
the mystical figure of Christ occupying a place analogous to that of
Buddha – a Christ who can console and save, but who is to be found
as a living force within each human soul and not in some supernat-
ural elsewhere [. . .] [T]he attractive figure of Christ [. . .] appears in
Christianity as a mediator, but might in some sense be regarded as an
idol or barrier
(pp. 419–21).
Stephen Mulhall 31

Murdoch’s Platonic substitution of the Good for God is here presented

as part of an attempt to depersonalize or demythologize traditional
Christianity. One might say: the problem with God the Father is that,
since He is divine, He is too much like a person, whereas the problem
with God the Son is that, since He is a person, He is too much like a
With respect to Christianity’s personal conception of God the Father,
the danger Murdoch sees is certainly a real one. For a religious believer
to think of God as just like a human parent, only incomparably more
powerful, knowledgeable and loving, certainly would amount to the pro-
jection of a consoling human fantasy; with respect to such a projection,
Freud’s caustic scepticism would be entirely justified, and the threat of
moral infantilization – so antithetical to Murdoch’s conception of the
human moral pilgrimage towards perfection – all-but-unavoidable. But
she concludes that the only way of avoiding the threat is to dispense
altogether with this aspect of the traditional Christian language for char-
acterizing God. And yet, she draws this conclusion in the midst of an
attempt to emphasize that the key moral of the ontological argument for
God’s existence is its warning that God is not in any way to be grasped
in the terms appropriate to entities within the world of our experience.
In other words, any Christian who takes that argument to heart will
herself regard attempts to regard God’s fatherhood as an infinitely mag-
nified version of human parenthood as essentially idolatrous, a variation
on the golden calf.
This suggests two conclusions. First, Murdoch’s critique of the tradi-
tional conception of God the Father is not in fact one which she must
step outside that tradition in order to make; on the contrary, it is one
which any believer must acknowledge as specifying an essentially blas-
phemous possibility that she must avoid. And second, it suggests that
there may be another way of understanding the use of such language
about God, from within the tradition, one that avoids this possibility.
Suppose, for example, that the concept of God’s fatherhood is meant to
bring into play the idea of our being God’s children, and hence of our
existence as being akin to a gift, hence an expression of love, itself
understood as a kind of kenosis or self-emptying – God’s making way for
us, His coming to find the point of His own existence as lying outside
Him; then Christianity would be asking us to view our very nature as
calling us to express such loving self-abnegation in our own mode of
life, and thus might actually support the mode of moral perfectionism
so central to Murdoch’s own thinking. One might say: here perhaps
Murdoch’s own imagination – her capacity to see how the imagery of
32 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

Christianity might invoke a distinctive moral vision while avoiding cer-

tain encouragements to regression, her capacity to imagine the life of
these words otherwise – failed her.
What of her hesitations about the Christian doctrine of the
Incarnation, with its decisive claim that Jesus was both fully human and
fully divine? Once again, her sense of the risk inherent in any such con-
ception is entirely accurate. If one’s sense of Christ’s fully divine
humanity finds expression in the conviction that moral perfection has
already been fully attained, and hence one imagines that maintaining a
relation to Christ guarantees one’s participation in such achieved per-
fection, then the danger of human complacency fed by a fantasy of
effortless moral achievement is very real, and the essentially transcen-
dent dimension of absolute goodness has been eclipsed. But is this what
the figure of Christ necessarily represents in Christianity?
One might, of course, argue that the doctrine of the Incarnation actu-
ally makes it clear (however inadvertently) that the achievement of
human perfection is only possible for a fully divine being, and hence
underlines an essential human distance from the good that Murdoch
fears is under threat. But this is rather too external an interpretation of
the doctrine; it does not articulate its point for those who endorse it.
And from that perspective, what matters primarily about the
Incarnation is what it tells us about God. For the idea that God might
become fully human without any loss to His divinity is, before anything
else, a way of articulating the conviction that not only human reality
but reality as such is not essentially distant from that of God; it says not
only that God loves His creation but that His creation – flesh and blood,
time and history, birth and death – is essentially consonant with, even
expressive of, His own nature. And by denying that material creation
is separated from the absolutely good by any abyss of essence, the
Incarnation amounts to an endorsement of the realm of reality, a
conviction of its essential value or goodness, that seems more thor-
oughgoing and wholehearted than would be possible if Christianity
maintained – as its heretical familiars such as Manicheanism and certain
forms of Platonism certainly do – that the fulfilment of humanity lay
necessarily beyond the realm of experience.
One might even wonder, therefore, whether Christianity is rather
more consistent or thoroughgoing in its praise of particularity and the
material, in its willingness to say ‘Yes’ to every aspect of the real as it is
in itself, than Murdoch herself. One could put the question the follow-
ing way: does the assertion that goodness is ubiquitous and necessary to
any human experience of reality truly manage to compensate for the
Stephen Mulhall 33

equally fervent assertion that perfection essentially transcends our expe-

rience? For where Murdoch talks of the idea of perfection as haunting
our activities, quite as if it hovers like a ghost over the machine of con-
tingency, Christianity talks of perfection as having become fully real,
and imagines the Spirit as a dove hovering over its human embodiment.
From this perspective, a Christian might say that Murdoch’s
Platonism is insufficiently incarnational – that the goodness with which
she claims that reality is pervaded is insufficiently substantial. But from
another point of view, one might say that her sense of the ubiquity of
goodness is insufficiently earned – or more exactly, that her sense of the
true reach of goodness within reality is rather more limited than it
might appear. This is a danger of which Murdoch is aware; for in the
architecture of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, she deliberately raises
this challenge to her own perspective at the end of her long investiga-
tions, in the chapter, ‘The Void’.
Once again drawing upon Weil, Murdoch here draws attention to
experiences of absolute affliction, of pain and evil which occasion des-
olation: ‘black misery, bereavement, remorse, frustrated talent, loneli-
ness, humiliation, depression, secret woe’ (pp. 498–9). And she asks,
‘can we go on talking about a spiritual source and an absolute good if a
majority of human kind is debarred from it?’ (p. 499). The challenge is
clear: if human beings can be placed in situations which strip or shatter
the personality, which denude them of all energy and motivation, and
render the world utterly charmless and without attraction, then it seems
that it simply cannot be true that Good is always and everywhere mag-
netic, that loving attention to the world will attract us to a clearer image
of reality, that our transformative energies are never entirely in
Murdoch is naturally hesitant in her treatment of this fundamental
counter-example to her moral vision. She reminds us that such episodes
pass: but the key question here is not their permanence or frequency,
but what they reveal about the nature of the real. She also points out
that, according to Weil herself, the void can give spiritual succour, inso-
far as it teaches us that we are absolutely nothing, that we can lose
everything that we have and are; but she does not emphasize that Weil’s
ability to draw succour from such a teaching depends entirely upon her
ability to locate the void within an essentially Christian framework of
understanding. For she sees Christ’s ultimate cry of despair on the Cross –
‘My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?’ – as at once an expres-
sion of affliction and a moment in the internal dialogue of God with
God. In other words, the essentially Trinitarian spiritual economy of
34 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

Christianity allows for God incarnate to suffer God-forsakenness; it

incorporates the ultimate human experience of reality’s resistance to
meaning and value within the life of God, and thereby recuperates even
this most extreme crucifixion of the human self for the work of spiritual
Of course, to suggest that a moral vision has limits is not to suggest
that it lacks value or depth. It suggests at most that it may require mod-
ification and refinement. And with respect to the limits I have been dis-
cussing, those refinements might be thought of as invitations to push
further along a path of thinking on which Murdoch herself was excep-
tionally far advanced – that of testing the extent to which our ability to
keep faith with any essentially perfectionist conception of the human
self and the reality it inhabits is itself dependent upon our capacity to
find contemporary edification in the teachings of Christianity, which
ultimately means in the person of Christ. As Murdoch herself put it, at
a very late stage in her philosophical pilgrimage: ‘Christ the man, as we
know and love him, is the enlivening image of perfect goodness [. . .]
we can relate to him, as Buddhists do to the historic Buddha; only dif-
ferently, because he is, if we belong to Christianity, ours, our nearest, our
dearest’ (H, p. 51).

1. Murdoch, Heidegger: The Pursuit of Being (unpublished manuscript in the
Conradi Archive in CIMS, hereafter H), pp. 127–37.
2. Emanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (trans.), N. Kemp-Smith (London:
Macmillan, 1929), A599-601/B627-9.
3. Cora Diamond, ‘Riddles and Anselm’s Riddles’ in The Realistic Spirit
(Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1991).
4. Norman Malcolm, ‘Anselm’s Ontological Arguments’, Philosophical Review,
69 (January 1960), 41–62.
5. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations by Murdoch are from MGM.
6. The following account of these themes is drawn from my ‘Constructing a
Hall of Reflection: Perfectionist Edification in Metaphysics as a Guide to
Morals’, Philosophy, 72, 280 (April 1997).
Iris Murdoch’s Deconstructive
Suguna Ramanathan

Placing Murdoch

Deconstruction’s refusal of a centre, leading inevitably to postmodernist

heterogeneity, is roundly trounced in Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as
a Guide to Morals. She says disapprovingly that the concept of language
as a deep metaphysical system removes truth altogether and substitutes
‘play’1 (and argues for a fundamental starting point by quoting
Kierkegaard: ‘philosophy is like sewing, you must knot the thread’,
p. 186). This position is a clear rejection of Derrida’s arguments against
some central logos to which Western thought has been in thrall.2 And
yet she admits, ‘Everything is relative, incomplete, not yet fully real, not
yet fully true, dialectic is a continual reformulation’ (p. 488). This, it
seems to me, sounds suspiciously like Derrida’s ‘differance’; difference
and endless deferral cannot take a centre seriously. And in the theology
of the later novels undecidability finds a more complete expression.
I suggest in this essay that Iris Murdoch’s philosophy says one thing and
her fiction another; while her philosophy denounces deconstruction,
the later novels deliberately offer, in the process of exploring and dis-
mantling Christian theology, an ambivalence antithetical to a centre.
To a moral philosopher like Murdoch, an interest in theology with
its authoritative elaboration of the nature of the Good came naturally.
The possibility that there may be nothing good at the bottom of things,
that a heap of decaying bones and feathers is all there may be in the
cupboard, is one that she intellectually refuses, but the later fiction sug-
gests that nothing certain can be said about transcendental principles.
In these works, non-transcendence is not just accounted for and set
aside as in, for instance, Acastos, but given equal weight. These novels
speak with certainty of only one thing – a change of consciousness,

36 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

a purification of mind and desire, which of course guarantees nothing

outside itself. Such an approach, which is comfortable with not know-
ing, which declares the impossibility and the possibility of knowing at
one and the same moment, has a Far Eastern colouring. It is also a
deconstructive position in as much as it recognizes having to leave the
foundation in the domain of the unthinkable. This essay, then, attempts
to show how close Murdoch comes to a deconstructive position as she
explores Christianity, and to indicate that her understanding of religion
borrowed something from Far Eastern religions, specifically Hinduism
and Buddhism. Hinduism has no theology, only metaphysics and myth;
it admits that contradictory things may be predicated of the same thing
at the same time, and that the beauty of religious worship is merely an
aid to a prized, freeing state of consciousness. To such a metaphysics,
deconstruction offers nothing new and Derrida did not set the cat
among the pigeons there as he seems to have done in this country, at
least when he first became known.
Murdoch took theology seriously at a time when few intellectuals and
artists did, not by affirming the power of faith in the manner of Roman
Catholic writers like Graham Greene, but by examining it. Unlike Greene
and Evelyn Waugh, she was no convert, but religion interested her, and
its theology, by virtue of its apparent reasoning processes and claims to
speak about morality with authority, even more. Once the grandest of all
meta-narratives, it disappeared altogether in the postmodernist heyday
from the intellectual preoccupations of the West, except for a handful of
people in divinity schools. But by dismantling its ancient claims and tak-
ing it apart with respect and interest, Murdoch gave it a new lease of life.3
The fifties and sixties were a time of demythologizing when the stands
taken by theologians like Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich were influ-
ential; Gadamer spoke of the non-definitiveness of the horizon. But
Murdoch went farther than these. She demythologizes, certainly, but she
also de-deifies. Not only is Christ not God, God may not be there at all.
Believers (even some academic theologians) would find this untenable.
They might agree to the defeat of good, even to a ‘powerless’ God (pow-
erlessness being an essential ingredient if the whole package is not to
turn into magic), but they would stop short of the final giving up of God.
Murdoch, unwilling as she is to abandon her philosophic core, lets the
theological core drift directionless.
One may begin by noting that the trajectory from origin to telos so
self-evident to the Western world comes from both its Greek as well as
its Judaeo-Christian inheritance. The naturalistic and materialistic expla-
nation of reality propounded by the pre-Socratics was marginalized by
Suguna Ramanathan 37

Parmenides’s concept of a permanent absolute. Greek philosophy there-

after settled for a grounding principle of this kind. Plato and Aristotle set
the seal on such a vision with their notions of, respectively, unchanging
forms and the primum mobile. To this was added, with the Christianizing
of Europe, the potent mix of the Old and New Testaments, with their
story of origin and end – Eden and the New Jerusalem; a linear move-
ment from a point of origin became the overwhelmingly dominant pic-
ture; the concepts of Alpha and Omega run deep. It is a commonplace
that, despite his dismissal of religion, Marx’s scientific explanation of
society’s evolution is messianic.
Murdoch is within that tradition inasmuch as she does not let go of a
magnetic sovereign principle that she calls ‘Good’. Her replacement of
God with the concept of the Good does not go all the way either, but it
transforms a theological reality into a philosophical one, and with that,
theology loses its central ground – the divinity and redemptive role of
Christ. The imagery surrounding Christ is seen for what it is, a shadow-
ing of the love of the Good.4 For her the background is goodness, our
connection to something other than the material is our connection
with the Good, and the end to which we travel is out of the cave
towards the light of the Good. The link between theology and this
philosophical concept is natural, given that theology offers a rich
canopy under which the Good may be discovered, and one sees why she
uses theology and religion to elaborate that magnetic ground. But here
one is up against an obstacle. Theology in some sense works against
itself; its freezing, fixing tendency changes that of which it speaks,5 and
Murdoch is compelled to examine whether the central ground it stands
on is indeed her central ground. The result in the fiction is a disman-
tling unacceptable to traditional Christian theology. And something
happens in the fiction that does not happen in the philosophical
writing: while the critiques she directs at her own position in her
philosophical writing are taken account of by her, so that they may be
laid aside, they turn in the fiction into positions with equal weight. Art,
by offering multiple positions, undercuts a central stand and openly
declares the rhetorical status of any and all of its linguistic units. She
cannot argue her case here, and philosophical honesty puts into the
mouths of her characters opposing stands that dismantle her avowed
position, leaving all possibilities wide open. This is not to say that the
fiction carries an unintended effect, but simply to say that fiction is not
philosophy. In Murdoch’s novels the Good lingers only as a haunting
and beautiful possibility, largely through the symbolic evocation of a
religious figure such as Christ, who is brought in as an aid. In presenting
38 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

Christ in the novels she discards important Christian doctrine and

retains the evocative power of Christian imagery. Her intellect requires
a clarification of the Good, but her imagination cannot let go of the
beauty shadowing it. The imagination then leads her to theology so as
to release the core which is her preoccupation.
But how does one speak of a core and of deconstruction in the same
breath? Here is where she takes the help of Eastern religions. For
Murdoch, religious claims were unacceptable; religion’s examples were
irresistible: she could neither live with religion nor without it, and she
had had to fashion her own version of its truth. The example, Christ,
comes from her own Christian background; the interpretation of his
significance from her interest in Far Eastern religions. I do not believe
that Christian theology would accept the Buddhist light that Murdoch
casts on Christ, for Buddhism is comfortable with atheism; no strict
belief is required; on all questions regarding the transcendent, the
Buddha maintained ‘a noble silence’. After all, Buddhism, though it
began as a reaction to brahminical power, is rooted in a Hindu ethos,
and Hinduism requires no actual belief in a transcendent personal God,
no fixed centre or unmoved mover; at the same time it proffers God, a
multitude of gods, to those in need. To allow that in a theological sys-
tem, as Murdoch did, is to engage in a deconstructive theology.
She starts with a demythologizing of religious beliefs, stripping the
core of encrustations. This is a halfway house to deconstruction, which
involves a critical dismantling of texts and symbols to pinpoint their
rhetorical nature, refuses a master theory and is alert to the element of
undecidability in all systems of communication. Her dilemma is one of
engaging in the dismantling process but retaining a pure component
necessary to her sense of a centre. Traditional theology, in its anxiety
to sustain belief, does not let go sufficiently. Murdoch is anxious,
not to sustain religious belief, but to preserve a desire for a moral uni-
verse. While the usual Christian consolation of redemption through a
Saviour is not acceptable, Christ is the most effective way available to
her in her novels of communicating the change of consciousness that
she regards as significant. The dilemma is resolved by keeping Christ by
her side in novel after novel, retaining and discarding simultaneously,
making theology rise from its own ashes, a process derived ultimately
from Eastern religions. This idea of connection with Good, a purifica-
tion of consciousness, is borrowed from the non-Semitic religion she
knew best, Buddhism. Buddhism, without revelation, without a
Saviour, invites the pilgrim to try out the way, even suggests its own
rejection, but offers a path. Positing no personal God, it does posit the
Suguna Ramanathan 39

transcendent experience, available once the Buddha nature is awak-

ened. Its emphasis on three dispositions of the mind – ‘first that of the
will, to be gentle and peaceful; second, that of prayer and meditation;
and finally, that of universal good will, maitri’ – comes very close to
Murdoch’s stand.6
Murdoch was more familiar with Buddhism than with Hinduism but
in one of her last novels she borrows, as I hope to show, a Hindu per-
spective. What Western theology finds most puzzling is that neither
Hinduism nor Buddhism requires belief in God, or in a god, any god.
Hinduism, as I observed earlier, has no organized church, no theology,
no central book. It has, however, metaphysics of a sophisticated kind.
The ultimate reality (not quite God in the usual sense of the term) is
called Brahman, and the goal of the seeker is to be united with this real-
ity. There is no real difference between the Brahman and the individual
atman (or soul). The seeker may say that he is indeed that Brahman; the
difference between divine and human is minimal (cidananada rupa shiv-
oham shivoham). There are various theories to explain that the soul is in
bondage, but equally that it is, with a focused inwardness, entirely
capable of growing and attaining Brahman. If the seeker needs help on
the way, a multiplicity of gods is available. The figures and the myths
that enchant the imagination may at some point be discarded (but not
necessarily) as the consciousness approaches the ultimate state. The idea
of the human moving up towards godhead, so heretical in a Christian
context, is a very familiar one in Hinduism and Buddhism. An avatar,
or incarnation, is both divinity descended to human form and the
human absorbed into the divine, the latter being the ultimate and legit-
imate end in Hindu philosophical and religious thought. The Buddha,
for instance, is one such avatar, and has his place in the Hindu list of
the ten avataras.
The Buddha, who was bred in this tradition, reacted against the social
arrangements (caste) of this culture, recognized the suffering in human
life and the transience of all human attachment which causes suffering
and showed a way out – the eightfold path – towards nirvana (a desired
state because it is nothingness, whereas birth and existence are full of
suffering). That eightfold path through discipline and meditation calls
for the extinction of the ego, an enlightenment of the kind the Buddha
himself experienced. This very simplistic account will serve to indicate
that faith is not a requirement: salvation must be worked out by one-
self; there is no Saviour.
The following section attempts to illustrate the light these traditions
shed upon the Christ figure in Murdoch’s later novels, a Christ figure
40 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

who is not the Christ of Christian theology. I shall first sketch the
demythologizing of Christ in Henry and Cato, Nuns and Soldiers, The Good
Apprentice, The Book and the Brotherhood and The Message to the Planet,
and then indicate that this Christ (utterly Christian in terms of his
ethics) is a Christ who is neither redeemer nor Saviour.

Demythologizing Christ

That the demythologizing process leads to radical uncertainty can be

seen not only through characters assuming opposing stands, but also
through textual disruptions that allow doubt in at every point. These
techniques take away all possibility of what she would call false conso-
lation (‘We are what we seem to be, transient mortal creatures subject to
necessity and chance’).7 She remarks in the dialogue on religion in
Acastos, that it is as if truth has been cast into a particular form, but that
the truth itself requires criticism of that form, the seeing of it as only
provisional and only one of many ways.8 Hence Christ is stripped of
mythopoetic wrappings, passing from the Jesus of Henry and Cato
through Anne’s understanding that he is not her Saviour in Nuns and
Soldiers, and the near invisibility of William Eastcote in The Philosopher’s
Pupil whose ‘blood washes away sins’, through Stuart Cuno in The Good
Apprentice who goes about doing good as commanded by the Gospel, to
the marginalized figure of Jenkin Riderhood in The Book and the
Brotherhood, completely secularized, living quite without doctrine and
dying entirely by accident, of whom many of the characters say or
think, ‘He died for me’. But while the rhetorical linguistic units sup-
porting the meaning of unselfish goodness coincide with, for example,
Jenkin Riderhood, the text itself releases a disruptive ‘ludic’ denial of
them through the picture of his unplanned existence and accidental
death. This deliberate transgression is Murdoch’s pre-emptive way of
questioning the moral base of her assumption that the Good exists, its
genuineness, its possible falseness, its inevitable inefficacy in the world
and its exhaustion.
With Marcus Vallar in The Message to the Planet, the picture changes
yet again. What sort of a Christ figure is this? The hints are obvious
enough. Jewish by birth, he has a multitude of believers wanting to see
him and a disciple who wants to write the gospel of his life; he raises a
dying man to life; women come and gaze in silence and make offerings
of stones if not ointment from an alabaster box and he dies with his
head near a gas stove, meditating on the Holocaust that exterminated
Suguna Ramanathan 41

six million of his co-religionists. But his daughter is acid about his needs
(breakfast in time, adoration from multitudes, recognition of his godlike
qualities, the desire to ‘enact the spiritual or something destiny of the
human soul’).9 Is he the Son of God or the son of man? It is as if he is
the son of man who desperately wants to be the Son of God instead of
the other way around. Ordinary recognizable morality, he tells Ludens,
is not enough; being driven into the godhead is the final end. In this
astonishing novel, Murdoch examines the relationship of the charis-
matic holy person to power and his movement towards godhead
(entirely Hindu or Buddhist), and suggests that the only answer is willed
death through identification with those who suffer (entirely Christian).
I submit that Murdoch understood that the language-using ego makes
‘Christ be’, and that all is a tissue of illusion, even the opposition
between the divine and human, ideas in the making long before the
creation of Marcus Vallar.
Buddhism was more accessible to Murdoch, as indeed to the West in
general, than Hinduism with its formless multiplicity. James Arrowby in
The Sea, the Sea may be the single Buddhist figure in the Murdoch canon,
but already with Brendan in Henry and Cato the interpretation of Christ
bears a distinct Eastern religious colouring. Brendan has no clear answer
to Cato’s question whether he believes in God or not and, when asked
what happens to his Christology in that case, answers, ‘I let Christ look
after my Christology’.10 Here God is not an anthropomorphic Almighty
out there, but neither is he only an event in the soul; he is both name-
less and named; contradictory attributes may be predicated of him. His
articulation of Christ as the principle of self-transforming change, as the
death of the ego (‘there is no one there’) is not that of traditional
Christianity where the person is very much there, the subject (or object?)
of salvation.11 The Christ of this silence and dying comes from Eastern
religions which assert that what seems real is an illusion to which the self
must die. This is both Hindu and Buddhist. The Upanishads describe the
reality that Brendan points to as ‘neti, neti’ (not this, not this), and affirm
that this reality is without qualities (nirguna Brahman) and also with
qualities (saguna Brahman). Brendan, in going to Calcutta, moves nearer
that illumination he fears rather than away from it as he intends.
James Arrowby in The Sea, the Sea incarnates this death to the self; the
Indian doctor who certifies his death says, ‘Believe me, Sir, he was an
enlightened one’ (p. 479), a description laden with resonances of the
Buddha. Anyone can be a Buddha. When Christ tells Anne in Nuns and
Soldiers, ‘The work of salvation is yours’ (p. 297), he is rejecting his usual
42 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

role, but he is saying something close to the Buddha’s utterance to his

closest disciple Ananda, in the Maha-Parinirvana Sutta:

O Ananda, take the Self as a lamp, take the Self as a refuge. Betake to
yourselves no external refuge. Look not for refuge to anyone beside
yourselves. Work out your own salvation with salvation.12

In the novels that followed, Murdoch’s figuring of a de-mythologised

Christ stayed within the traditional Christian picture and dominant
ethic: pure heartedness as in William Eastcote; going about doing good
as with Stuart Cuno and Jenkin Riderhood. But with Marcus Vallar, ele-
ments from Far Eastern religions are back. Here is a charismatic Jewish
figure who has Christ-like powers and who meditates on the Holocaust,
gives darshan (showing) to his followers in the manner of Hindu holy
men and wants to be, act, thinks his way into the foundation of things.
When Ludens asks this thinker–mathematician–philosopher where he
has been all these years, what he has been thinking, what it is like,
Marcus replies:

I suppose it’s about what makes human consciousness possible, or

rather what human consciousness is, which is to say what, and how,
the world is, how anything is
(p. 163).

The exchanges throughout The Message to the Planet, full as they are of
Christian allusions, emphasize the search for the unity underlying all
plurality, the beginning before the beginning, the search of the Vedic
seers. Raimundo Pannikar, commenting on the questions posed by the
Vedic seers regarding the foundation of all things, mentions their
expression of ‘a deep-rooted inextirpable uncertainty for which no reply
is vouchsafed’.13 The Rg Veda verses have this to say:

Who really knows? Who can presume to tell it?

Whence was it born? Whence issued this creation?
Even the Gods came after its emergence.
Then who can tell from whence it came to be?

That out of which creation has arisen

Whether it held it firm or not,
He who surveys it in the highest heaven
He surely knows – or maybe, He does not know!

(Nasadiya Sukta, RV X, 129)

Suguna Ramanathan 43

To return to Marcus and another concept derived from Hindu thought.

He says to Ludens in the course of the conversation about seeking to
know how anything is: ‘At a certain point, one is compelled to develop a
conception of insight, or pure thinking, which is not recognizably moral,
something which simulates, or is, the rising up of man into the divine,
as if one were being driven into godhead’ (p. 164). This notion of mov-
ing towards godhead (aham brahmasmi: I am the Brahman) is a notion as
acceptable in a Hindu context as it is heretical in a Christian one.
Of Marcus, who had earlier said he could not love, Ludens says, ‘he
was certainly able to love’ (p. 244). Marcus offers a blend of Buddhist,
Hindu and Christian spirituality. To put it very simply, Marcus strains
towards karuna, that is compassion, suffering with. This requires total
emptying of the self so that it may be filled with the suffering of the
other, an abnegation that is complete; this is Buddhist. By exerting
karuna to the fullest extent, he dies; this is Christian. But the message
does not yield a single reading. Meaning slips and shifts continuously
through the critiques of Marcus given by the other characters in a chap-
ter of letters. Even Ludens and Gildas, impressed as they have been, do
not set the seal on the mystery of the powerful holy person. Who is he
really? The final exchange, going to and fro between Gildas and Ludens
debating whether it was all accidental, whether he died in despair,
whether he was Christ-like, offers a decentring, a state of knowing and
not-knowing that can exist simultaneously. Accepting contingency in a
creator God is to say that there is no God. Yet the Vedic experience indi-
cates that accepting contingency is not to deny; affirmation and denial
are both possible at one and the same moment, for the position taken is
outside the principle of non-contradiction. (‘At first was neither Being
nor Nonbeing’, RV X, 129.) This uncertainty puts sources and origins
into the category of the unthinkable.
This two-way conversation between Christianity and Eastern religions
in Murdoch’s later novels helped her to say the unsayable, to affirm and
deny at one and the same moment. This paper has attempted to say that
Murdoch’s later fiction casts lights upon Christ from non-Christian con-
texts that have no theology, in which God exists if you need him, and
disappears if you do not, but which recognize that the human con-
sciousness can transform itself through effort and seeing clearly. Finally,
in making the Good peripheral and central simultaneously, in having it
both ways, as the angles of a room sometimes seem to change even
while remaining exactly the same, Iris Murdoch, saying yea and nay at
one and the same moment, engages in a dissolving of boundaries that
Derrida would understand.14
44 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

1. MGM, p. 193.
2. See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, (trans.) Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
(First published Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976; first Indian
edition, Delhi: Motilal Banarasi Das, 1994).
3. The Christian views I refer to are not necessarily those of the professional
theologian but ideas which are common currency among the majority of the
4. She asks, ‘Should we let (the word God) dwindle and go?’ See ‘Ethics and the
Imagination’, The Irish Theological Quarterly, 52 (1986), 81–95.
5. For an elaboration of this see F. Franco and Suguna Ramanathan, ‘The
Recovery of Religious Meaning’, Textual Practice, 5 (1991), 183–93.
6. D. Dubarle, ‘Buddhist Spirituality and the Christian Understanding of God’,
Concilium,116 (1979), 68.
7. The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 79.
8. See ‘Ethics and the Imagination’ The Irish Theological Quarterly, 52 (1986),
9. The Message to the Planet (Chatto, 1989), p. 212. All subsequent references to
this edition.
10. Henry and Cato (Chatto, 1976), p. 372.
11. It has been brought to my notice by Martin Corner that St. Paul speaks of
dying to Christ (‘I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who
live, but it is Christ who lives in me’, Galatians 2:19–20); but Christian belief
cherishes the soul in whom Christ lives, the soul that is cherished by Christ
himself. This is very different from the death of the self in Hindu–Buddhist
12. Cited in Christmas Humphreys, Buddhism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1951),
p. 93. A comparison may be drawn with Paul who also encourages Christians
to work out their own salvation (Philippians 2:12), but the accompanying ele-
ment of faith in Christ as redeemer distinguishes it from the command of the
Buddha where works can by themselves bring salvation; faith is not a require-
ment. By contrast, the faith–works debate within the church does not dispense
with faith in this manner, however much the Roman Catholic and Protestant
churches may disagree about the stress to be laid on the one or the other.
13. Raimundo Pannikar, Mantramanjari: The Vedic Experience: Mantramanjari
(Pondicherry: All India Books, 1983), p. 57.
14. Additional references:
Christopher Humphreys, Buddhism (Penguin, 1951).
Murdoch, ‘A Discussion: Dialogue with J. Krishnamurti’, Bulletin:
Krishnamurti Foundation (March 1988), 2–20.
Raimundo Pannikar, The Vedic Experience: Mantramanjari. (Pondicherry: All
India Books, 1977).
Suguna Ramanathan, Iris Murdoch: Figures of Good (London: Macmillan,
D.S. Sarma, The Upanishads: An Anthology (Bombay: Bharativa Vidya Bhavan,
The Teaching of Buddha. no editor named. (Tokyo: Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai:
Buddhist Promoting Foundation, 1978).
Part II Reconsidering Moral
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Murdoch on the Impossibility of
Moral Scepticism
Edith Brugmans

Murdoch argued that moral philosophy should reflect on the sover-

eignty of Good and developed a Platonic position in her philosophy
and her novels. Once, this position set her apart from mainstream
academic philosophy, yet today, to a younger generation of philoso-
phers, it makes her work all the more interesting, and her argu-
ments inspire important contributions to contemporary discussions
of virtue ethics.1 Moreover, her novels, in particular her 1971 novel
An Accidental Man, provide rich material for understanding how
Platonism could be an ‘inhabited’ philosophy in our (post)modern
The impossibility of moral scepticism is crucial to Murdoch’s
Platonism, and her essay ‘The Ontological Proof’ may serve as a suit-
able starting point to describe this position. In this essay, Murdoch
gives an account of Norman Malcolm’s comparison of the concepts of
God and of material objects. For Murdoch, Malcolm’s comparison is
insufficient: ‘[t]he material object example does not help much. We
can imagine human life without objects [. . .] A more relevant question
might be: what about human life without values, without morals, with-
out good and evil?’ (MGM, p. 414). Murdoch’s response to this question
is robust: ‘[m]orality is unavoidable’ for we ‘can “think away” material
objects from human existence, but not the concepts of good, true, and
real’.3 Thus here, as elsewhere in her writing, Murdoch claims that
human life without morality is absolutely impossible. She substantiates
this claim in many different ways, but three theses are fundamental in
her philosophy. These concern the role of the imagination and the
ubiquity of value; the unavoidability of the idea of the Good; and
moral realism.

48 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

Imagination and the ubiquity of value

Contrary to the behaviourist account of morality that prevailed in the

1960s, Murdoch argues that leading a moral life is a progressive process
of imagining the being of the other. It is a process that finds its ideal
limit in truthful and loving respect for the other.4 Not reason, nor sense
perception, but the imagination is singled out as the faculty by which
we acquire and develop moral knowledge. For Murdoch, the imagina-
tion combines some of the activities of reason and the senses, but it dif-
fers from these faculties because it is essentially a moral consciousness,
and is oriented towards concrete things and persons. Murdoch puts it
quite clearly: imagination is consciousness as the ‘fundamental mode or
form’ of moral being.5
Murdoch claims that this imagistic conception of morality is true to
life. This becomes clear once we realize that we see things as this or that,
that we talk about things always in an evaluative sense, that we repre-
sent objects, people, times and places in a moral light. The metaphors,
images and pictures we use when we think or talk about something or
someone signify this imagistic moral perspective (MGM, pp. 305–6).
Because our perception is always a mode of evaluation, our conscious-
ness of something is a moral activity where the imagination operates.
Thus, we see value everywhere (MGM, pp. 39, 56).
According to Murdoch then, it is not possible for us to see things in a
neutral, amoral or non-moral way. Of course, this is not to say that
we automatically see things justly. On the contrary, in her view, we
naturally are selfish beings or ‘fantasy-ridden animals’.6 Against this
background Murdoch poses this moral task: how can we overcome our
selfish fantasies, how can we progress towards a just vision of the other
as real? This progress or process that Murdoch terms ‘making ourselves
morally better’7 is an endless task in which we as conscious imaginative
beings are involved inescapably: there is, in Murdoch’s view, no time off
from being moral and no place where one could be free from morality
(MGM, pp. 404–5). The inevitability of morality is central to Murdoch’s
philosophy and is further developed by her arguments on the nature of
the Good.

The unavoidability of the idea of the good

Murdoch’s imagistic conception of morality is all-encompassing: if con-

sciousness is always moral consciousness, and if anything and everyone
are perceived morally, then there can be no limit to morality. A brief
Edith Brugmans 49

look at Murdoch’s interpretation of common human activities will

demonstrate what she implies by this position. She suggests that the
question of how we can make ourselves morally better, for example, is
not difficult to answer. She reminds us of the techniques Plato men-
tions: craftsmanship, scientific work, thinking, painting, and refers to
religious techniques such as prayer, worship and meditation. Practising
these techniques, she suggests, triggers complex moral experiences.
First, while praying or painting or studying, the notions of ‘better and
worse’ arise and with these notions the idea or ideal of perfection pres-
ents itself. Actually, this ideal finds its limit in the concrete work which
results from our actions. Second, while practising these techniques we
tend to forget ourselves, we concentrate on the work at hand and thus
our self-centredness vanishes. Does this loss of egotism make us morally
good? Murdoch admits that the question itself is embarrassing. As she
argues, being a good painter and being, for instance, a good and help-
ful friend is not the same thing: the goodness of Gauguin and of Christ
differ in crucial ways.
Nevertheless, though Murdoch notes these differences, she prefers to
emphasize the similarities of the cases. The painter, in her view, loses his
selfishness while concentrating on the object of the painting; so does
the benefactor lose his selfishness in attending to the needs of others.
What matters for her is the inner experience of developing a moral
imagination. And this experience, she claims, is common to all activi-
ties, to all kinds of work. Indeed, for Murdoch, even the process of
thinking about the necessity of Good is part of this experience. She sug-
gests just this notion in her interpretation of the ontological argument
in which she equates Anselm’s argument regarding the degrees of good-
ness with ‘Plato’s examples from work, politics, intellectual studies,
human relations’ (MGM, pp. 404–5). As she compares these different
activities, Murdoch finds among these differences a common moral
element: the idea of the Good. As Murdoch implies, since the idea of
perfection comes to us in everything we do, the idea of the Good is

Moral realism

The idea of the Good is thus the main pillar of Murdoch’s house of
morals, and the third thesis fundamental to her philosophy concerns
the existence of the Good. Murdoch’s equation of artistic work, crafts,
religious practices, scientific and philosophical thinking, even politics,
indicates that ‘good’ is a general concept, or in logical terms, a universal.
50 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

Like other universals, ‘good’ is defined more precisely only when relat-
ed to particular cases. This relation may be expressed in logical terms of
abstraction and concretization or, in terms reminiscent of Christian
metaphysics, as transcendence and incarnation. I think that this implies
that the universal ‘good’ is, in itself, indefinite. In other words, ‘good’
in itself is a non-discriminating universal. A discriminating or distinc-
tive meaning of ‘good’ arises only when the concept of ‘good’ is con-
nected with particulars.
In addition to emphasizing the universality of the Good, Murdoch
suggests that it should be interpreted in a realist sense as well. For
Murdoch, that is, the Good has to be understood ontologically as
the defining principle of reality so that our world is a moral world:
the Good defines our lives so that our lives are works of the moral
The status of this principle can be clarified, I think, by referring to the
suggestion that logically speaking the universal ‘good’ in itself is non-
discriminating. At the ontological level this must mean that the Good
does not function as the criterion by which the moral world can be
distinguished from a possibly amoral or morally neutral world. In
Murdoch’s philosophy, then, since ‘good’ in itself is not a discriminat-
ing criterion, and since the Good is the principal value of our moral
world, the Good is the very principle by which our world exists neces-
sarily as a moral world. As Murdoch would be quick to note, this is
not to say that our world is a good world in which everything is right
and each and everyone is virtuous. Instead, her philosophy accounts for
her view that our world absolutely cannot be an amoral world. For
Murdoch, moreover, epistemologically speaking, the Good is the tran-
scendental of moral knowledge and moral experience.
This, I think, is what Murdoch refers to in ‘The Ontological Proof’
when she suggests that ‘we cannot think away the concepts of good,
true, and real’. There, she concludes her long discussion of Anselm’s
argument as follows:

The human scene is one of moral failure combined with the remark-
able continued return to an idea of goodness as unique and absolute.
What can be compared with this? If space visitors tell us that there
is no value on their planet, this is not like saying there are no mate-
rial objects. We would ceaselessly look for value in their society,
wondering if they were lying, had different values, had misunder-
stood. At the level of ‘no pattern’, ‘no experience’, ‘no consciousness’
Edith Brugmans 51

things really break down, but then we cannot set up the example
(MGM, p. 427).

It is not too extreme to suspect that Murdoch’s categorical denial of the

conceivability of a non-moral world betrays perhaps her fear that our
own world might be just such a place: a world without values.8

The question of moral scepticism

Murdoch presents the Platonic position on the sovereignty of the Good

as a convincing model, indeed, as the only position possible in morality
and moral philosophy. But is it true that we cannot live without good
and evil, that ‘beyond good and evil’ (Nietzsche’s Jenseits) really is
beyond our being? It seems, however, impossible to address this ques-
tion: if Murdoch is right in claiming that we cannot set up the example
of a non-moral world, then we will never reach a point from where we
can judge that it is better to be moral than amoral.
Several contemporary philosophers have also raised this issue: Stanley
Cavell discusses it in The Claim of Reason, Thomas Nagel and Bernard
Williams address it in their work, as does, from a different angle, Peter
Strawson in Freedom and Resentment. In that work Strawson discusses the
question of whether belief in metaphysical determinism undermines
our moral reactions and feelings and argues that the natural human
commitment to ordinary moral practices defies the notion that morality
is rationally justified only if metaphysical determinism is proven to be
false.9 Cavell, on the other hand, opts for an analogy with epistemolo-
gy. He applies the arguments for ‘scepticism with respect to material
objects’ to ‘scepticism with regard to other minds’, and shows that the
latter is a lived scepticism whereas the former is merely speculative. For
Cavell, the lived form of scepticism is a mode of being moral, since
being sceptical with regard to others turns out to be ‘between avoidance
and acknowledgement’ of the other.10
But a decade before Cavell wrote his intriguing book and some years
after Strawson published his milestone essay, Murdoch found a different
way to play with the thought that morality might turn out to be mean-
ingless. She wrote An Accidental Man.11 As the title suggests, the novel
explores the moral implications of accident, luck and contingency, thus
representing Murdoch’s objections to the idea that moral responsibility
depends on free will, choice and intention.12 At a deeper level, An
52 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

Accidental Man highlights her views on moral scepticism by illustrating

her certainty that the human world cannot be an amoral world.

A test case: An Accidental Man

An Accidental Man is the story of Austin Gibson Grey, the accidental

man of the title. Austin blames Matthew, his older brother, for an orig-
inal evil deed (his hand is stiff since he fell down a quarry – a fall caused
by Matthew, so Austin believes) and for all the negative things that have
befallen him since: his first wife was drowned; he loses his job; he acci-
dentally kills a girl while driving Matthew’s car; he hits the father of that
little girl so badly that the man is brain-damaged and his second wife
accidentally electrocutes herself in a bathtub after she witnessed him
making love to another woman. The absurdity of the plot here is a typ-
ical Murdochian device for drawing attention to the underlying serious
question concerning the limits of morality.
An Accidental Man is a complex and not altogether successful novel in
its overplotting and surfeit of characters who become less interesting as
the plot develops. Nevertheless it is most illuminating on the question
of whether human life without morality is conceivable. The plot and
characters, the dialogues, the style and form, all work together to dis-
close the necessity of morality, and offer a wealth of opportunities for
discussing Murdoch’s views on moral scepticism as, in this text,
Murdoch engages with differing accounts of the problems besetting a
moral universe: freedom and determinism; accidents and fatalism; con-
vention and solipsism; and finally, mortality.

Freedom and determinism

The first perspective from which the question of moral scepticism is

approached is more or less straightforwardly philosophical and concerns
the argument from determinism. In its simplest form, this argument
states that the belief that moral responsibility is justified presupposes a
belief in free will, which in turn, implies the belief that determinism is
false. Formulated conversely, the argument states that if determinism is
true, then belief in moral responsibility is not justified.
Ludwig, who is a conscientious young man and rather high-minded
about moral responsibility, particularly his own, is deeply worried by
this argument. He busies himself with thinking and talking about deter-
minism and free will, and is preoccupied by the moral choice he
believes he has to make. This self-absorption makes him blind to the
Edith Brugmans 53

real needs of others: he ignores Dorina, who is in extremis. Ludwig’s self-

consciousness is therefore demonstrated by Murdoch to be a form of
fantasy that prevents him from responding morally in the real world.
A more sophisticated form of the argument from determinism pro-
poses a compatibility between determinism and moral responsibility.
The compatibility argument is based on a sharp distinction between
theory and practice: seen theoretically or scientifically, everything is
causally determined so that freedom and its concomitant, moral
responsibility, have no place in the objective world. But when it comes
to understanding human actions, it is rational to assume that free will
exists. Therefore, morality is rationally justified from a practical point of
view. This argument is defended by Kant in his critical philosophy.
Kantian dualism definitely offers a way out of moral scepticism.
According to Murdoch, however, the Kantian solution is merely a par-
tial way out of it, since the compatibility of determinism and morality
rests upon the dichotomy of theory and practice. In that respect, the
Kantian position differs widely from the Socratic view that virtue and
knowledge are intimately connected. Moreover, Murdoch disagrees
with Kant’s notion of commanded practical love and states that ‘patho-
logical love can be commanded too’, even must be commanded ‘if love
is a purification of the imagination’ (EM, pp. 219–20).
In An Accidental Man, Garth is representative of the Kantian position.
When he gives up studying philosophy and enjoins himself to practical
love, to dutiful beneficence, he is not yet a virtuous man. He thinks that
‘virtue is just a necessary illusion’ (p. 113) and sets out to do good. Some
of the good he does, however, is the result of luck rather than intention,
and this makes him doubt the truth of Kantian moral philosophy.
Gradually, he overcomes the Kantian dualism that has characterized his
life and starts to feel love, by which time he is ready for literature and
The characters of Ludwig and Garth thus suggest that metaphysical
arguments about determinism and free will are irrelevant to true moral-
ity; therefore the argument from determinism cannot serve as an argu-
ment for moral scepticism. As Murdoch puts it elsewhere, morality is a
matter of vision, not of choice.13

Accident and fatalism

A second perspective from which the question of moral scepticism is

approached in the text is suggested by the religious elements that colour
the rivalry between the brothers, Matthew and Austin. Murdoch uses
54 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

Buddhist and Christian doctrines to draw attention to an ‘argument

from accident’ as an argument for moral scepticism. Put crudely, the
argument from accident would be that moral judgements are meaning-
less if human actions are not the outcome of moral intentions and
motives, but are instead the products of chance and contingency. If we
believe, as we usually do, that we can never be absolutely certain that
chance played no role in our actions, then we have to admit that our
moral judgements of actions can never be absolutely justified. Moral
scepticism, or at least a suspension of moral judgements, seems to be
justified by the view that human actions are (partly) accidental.
Matthew interprets some of the Buddhist teachings he picked up dur-
ing his years in the East, along the lines of this ‘argument from acci-
dent’. True Buddhism consists of learning to accept calmly and lovingly
whatever happens and whatever people do, whether intentional or
accidental. Buddhist enlightenment, in this sense, amounts to a wise
fatalism. But Matthew never succeeds in attaining Buddhist enlighten-
ment. He ‘could only have played at the contemplative life’ (p. 127),
partly because he never stopped blaming Austin for what he (himself)
did to his brother. Indeed, on the surface, it looks as if Matthew con-
stantly excuses Austin from moral blame and legal punishment by refer-
ring to the accidental nature of Austin’s acts. Deep down, however,
Matthew resents Austin, and this resentment constitutes the true moral
problem Matthew has to face: is he capable of forgiving his brother and
of loving him?
Apart from the implication that Buddhism is about perfect love,
Murdoch suggests here that the crucial question is not whether the acts
were accidents, which would mean that the actor may be excused from
moral responsibility. The crucial question is whether one understands
the moral meaning of the act. Acts should be judged by what they
reveal about one’s love for the other and not by their intentionality or
accidentalness. For Murdoch, the argument of accident, then, simply
misses the moral point.
This conclusion sheds some light on the moral identity of Austin,
who causes accidents to happen, refuses to take moral and legal respon-
sibility for his actions, behaves badly – and gets away with it. In the eyes
of some, he plays at being the victim, as he constantly attempts to jus-
tify his immoral behaviour by arguing that he is not to blame for his
actions since they were accidental. Yet, at some point, Austin confesses
that he does not see himself as an accidental man at all, but thinks
of his accidents as the punishments he deserves for his original sin
(pp. 386–7). He knowingly and willingly hurt and mocked Matthew,
Edith Brugmans 55

and by that original evil deed he predisposed himself to further evil, or

so he believes. Murdoch seems to suggest here that the Christian dogma
of original sin may lead to a degenerate form of practical fatalism, a
form of moral scepticism even. This pseudo-Christian belief is opposed
in the novel to true Christian morality, represented by Mavis, who can-
not ‘stop being saintly’ (p. 428). She cures Austin’s hand and takes care
of him lovingly. Perhaps Murdoch also uses Mavis’s love to illustrate
that Austin will continue to selfishly take advantage of others. The com-
plexity of the characters and the plot make it impossible to arrive at a
clear understanding of Austin’s moral identity and, although such
inability to account for Austin might well be part of Murdoch’s inten-
tions, I wonder if just too much is left in the dark.
Either way, there is no doubt about Murdoch’s objection to the argu-
ment from accident as an argument for moral scepticism. Murdoch
makes it quite clear that the moral meaning of an act does not depend
on its accidental or non-accidental nature. What matters morally is
whether or not we respect the other involved, whether we see justly and
lovingly while we do what we do.

Convention and solipsism

Stylistic elements of An Accidental Man offer clues that are easier to inter-
pret than its view of fatalism. The novel moves between chapters com-
prising party talk and chapters composed of letters. Both formats reveal
the difficulties of addressing the real other, of understanding the other
and of making ourselves understood.
The chapters containing party talk suggest the idea that morality is
meaningless since everything is determined by convention. This struc-
ture highlights the possibility that moral scepticism is justified by the
fact that convention determines good and evil, right and wrong.
Evidently Murdoch does not find this argument convincing, since such
parties consist of persons who can bring in their personal views and
thereby change conventions. Murdoch’s construction thus makes clear
that the argument that we are determined by conventions is false,
because we are also creative individuals. Just as Gracie and Garth
arrange the cushions on the floor instead of on the sofa at their first
party, so too are all of us able to effect changes in the world.
The use of letters is another stylistic device used in the novel, and
indeed in most of Murdoch’s novels. This epistolary framework allows
direct conversation and confrontation to be avoided. In this sense, the
writing of letters is relevant to moral scepticism, as it indicates the
56 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

solipsistic argument. After all, when one corresponds, one addresses

one’s mental image of the other. The other is present as the image of
the self only; he or she is not really present. But, so the sceptic argues,
this is always the case. The self can never see beyond its image of the
other; even when the other is really present, the self accesses only an
impression or an image of the other. Murdoch’s use of the epistolary
structure here and elsewhere in her novels often seems to present the
sceptical view that it is impossible to arrive at true knowledge of the
Murdoch’s reply to this scepticism clearly reveals her moral view.
She insists that we should not overstretch the truth of phenomenalism
and turn it into the solipsistic argument for scepticism. Logically
speaking, the argument is inconsistent because it implicitly pre-
supposes objective knowledge of the other as a point of reference or
term of comparison, while it explicitly argues that this knowledge is
not attainable. But this logical inconsistency is not what interests
Murdoch most. Nor does she care much for a Wittgensteinian episte-
mological analysis of the matter. For the truly interesting question
concerning the solipsistic claim that it is impossible for the self to see
beyond its image of the other, is a moral one. Once more Murdoch
‘changes gear’ and argues that the right question to ask is whether
one’s images are selfish fantasies or just perception of the other. This
is a moral distinction and it requires imagination as a moral discipline
to make it. Murdoch exemplifies this in Ludwig’s farewell letter to
Gracie: this letter expresses, in a high-flown style, his examination of
his conscience and concludes by urging Gracie not to come and see
him. Here, Murdoch represents how Ludwig lacks the imagination to
realize that his apparently conscientious letter is, in fact, proof of his


The most radical argument regarding moral scepticism challenges the

thesis that it is easy to make ourselves morally better. We have seen that,
according to Murdoch, all kinds of activities are opportunities for let-
ting go of the self and progressing towards virtue. But what if one gives
up, what if one stops working, praying, looking, eating? What if some-
one wants to stop living altogether and faces his own death? Such a per-
son would have sunk into moral scepticism.
Murdoch explores this situation in An Accidental Man when she
describes Charlotte’s misery. Charlotte feels unloved and unwanted by
Edith Brugmans 57

those she expects to love her and wonders whether she would prefer to
be dead:

She lay on the wretched lumpy bed in the twilight, behind the filthy
gauze curtains, lying awkwardly, without even the will to make her-
self comfortable, and she thought about death and whether it made
sense to desire it. No, it made no sense. She was far beyond the truth
and its sharp dividings of the world. Whether or not she would kill
herself, whether it would seriously matter to anyone or anything if
she did, was a question which had no answer, which could not even
be properly framed
(p. 310).

Here, Murdoch implies that the strongest argument for moral scepti-
cism fails. This argument states that the thought of one’s own death is
the most radical reason for being morally sceptical: why care about
one’s morality, about good and evil, when one is to die? The prospect of
one’s death annihilates one’s morality. But the argument is invalid, ‘not
properly framed’, since it contains a contradiction. The thought of the
self as dead is contradicted by the activity of thinking, since this activity
necessitates that the self is very much alive. We cannot, therefore, set up
the example of the situation in which moral scepticism would be ulti-
mately justified without contradicting ourselves. The point is not that
there is no hereafter; the point is that one cannot use one’s non-being
as a reason for moral scepticism since one’s thinking self is undeniably
present while thinking about oneself as gone forever.
Here, Murdoch uses the Cartesian proof to argue that the most radi-
cal argument for moral scepticism fails. But again she explains that the
real difficulty has nothing to do with logic but with moral experience.
She does so by demonstrating in her later description of Charlotte how
the logical rebuttal of the argument is of no avail. Charlotte knows per-
fectly well that the question of whether it would matter if she were dead
is self-defeating. Yet she takes the fifty sleeping tablets and wishes ‘to go
to sleep forever’. Logic does not help, because she suffers not from a lack
of logical insight but from a lack of moral faith. What she needs is some-
thing or someone who revives her hope, someone who helps her to
become morally better.14
In this way Murdoch illustrates how moral scepticism differs from
despair. In her sensitive picture of Charlotte’s terrible unhappiness, she
clarifies the argument that while moral scepticism is impossible, it is not
impossible to experience the void. Nevertheless, as Charlotte’s misery
58 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

exemplifies, to be thus afflicted is still to be in a moral state, in which

something may occur to achieve a re-orientation towards the Good.


In this analysis of An Accidental Man I have argued that the novel sug-
gests a number of different arguments for moral scepticism and, most
importantly, refutes them. Taken together, they make a strong case
against the possibility of moral scepticism. What appears to be an argu-
ment for moral scepticism is in fact a sign of selfishness or despair. For
Murdoch, moral experiences belong to the world where human beings
experience failure and success in their endless task of becoming morally
better. The apparently sceptical standpoint turns out to be a moral one
after all, thereby proving Murdoch’s belief that moral scepticism is an
Halfway through the novel, Murdoch paraphrases Kant’s famous dic-
tum about the good will (Kant is not mentioned explicitly, of course)
and ends on a very Murdochian note: ‘There is nothing either in the
world or out of it which is good without qualification, except a good
will. Bosh, thought Garth, eating baked beans on toast in a Lyons tea
shop in the Tottenham Court Road. Nothing was good without qualifi-
cation’ (p. 165). Here Murdoch, as throughout her works, in arguing
that nothing is good without qualification, implies that everything is
good in some degree. Murdoch, typically, brings Kant’s lofty idea of the
good will back to the human scene. The human world may not be per-
fect, but it certainly is a moral world where Good is sovereign. This
world, as Murdoch would argue, has no place for moral scepticism.15

1. See Antonaccio, Picturing the Human: The Moral Thought of Iris Murdoch,
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
2. See Conradi, SA.
3. MGM, pp. 418, 425. Strawson argues against the claim that we can think
away material objects from human existence. See P.F. Strawson, Individuals:
An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (London: Routledge, 1959).
4. For a discussion of the self-concern that is involved in the progress towards
respect for the other, see the contributions of Samantha Vice and
Christopher Mole in this volume.
5. EM, p. 316. Cf. MGM, pp. 171, 215, 265, 271, 278–81.
6. In her essay ‘Imagination’ and elsewhere, Murdoch distinguishes between
selfish fantasy and imagination as a moral discipline of the mind. See MGM,
pp. 321–23.
Edith Brugmans 59

7. MGM, p. 342; EM, p. 215.

8. Conradi refers to this fear: ‘The Sovereignty of Good attempted to exorcise her
fear that ‘morality might turn out to be meaningless’. See IMAL, p. 547.
9. P.F. Strawson, Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays (London: Methuen,
1974), pp. 1–25.
10. Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).
See also: Stephen Mulhall, ‘Misplacing Freedom, Displacing the Imagination:
Cavell and Murdoch on the Fact/Value Distinction’, Philosophy. The Good, the
True and the Beautiful, Philosophy, Supplement 47 (2000), 255–77.
11. An Accidental Man (London: Penguin, 1973). See also Conradi’s helpful dis-
cussion of the novel in SA, pp. 78–84.
12. Cf. EM, pp. 299–306 where Murdoch criticizes Stuart Hampshire’s rationalis-
tic conception of morality.
13. See in particular ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’, EM, pp. 76–98.
14. Cf. MGM, p. 503.
15. I would like to thank Maria Antonaccio and Marije Altorf for their comments
on an earlier version of this article.
The Ethics of Self-Concern1
Samantha Vice

Murdoch’s contribution towards rehabilitating the value of the inner

life is well documented. However, her suspicion of the self is equally
well known, and central to her moral vision is the claim that ethics
requires self-forgetfulness rather than self-concern. It is this apparent
tension that I wish to explore for, after all, self-directed activities like
self-reflection and the attempt to reach self-knowledge seem a crucial
dimension of the inner life – and I label them ‘activities’ intentionally,
to align them with one of Murdoch’s central aims in The Sovereignty of
Good, that of arguing that interior ‘work’ is a moral activity. Because
the essays in The Sovereignty of Good were influential precisely as a
defence of the inner life against the behaviourist tendencies of mod-
ern moral philosophy, and given that one of their aims is expressly
this kind of rehabilitation of the inner world, the tension I am inter-
ested in is all the more apparent and troubling in these essays, and
I therefore concentrate on them. I hope to show that Murdoch’s own
commitment to the importance of quality of consciousness and the
task of self-perfection requires and indeed presupposes some degree of

The enemy of the moral life

For ease of reference I will use the term ‘self-concern’ to capture, firstly,
our conception and experience of self and, secondly, self-reflection,
self-knowledge and their intended fruits in practical conversion. By
‘self-reflection’ is meant an intentional activity directed towards the
ends of self-knowledge and self-improvement; neither aimless activities,
nor those directed towards ends other than these are relevant here.
The notion of self-concern is already normative, as it relates to one’s

Samantha Vice 61

self-conception, both actual and ideal, and is essentially concerned with

moral and personal progression.
There are, of course, well-documented dangers to incorporating even
a normative notion of self-concern into ethics, the most obvious being
that of self-absorption: what prevents self-concern from becoming mere
‘fingerings of the self’, to use Montaigne’s nice phrase?3 Even if our
reflections aim at self-knowledge, there is no guarantee that we can
retain the necessary self-detachment to achieve it. While Murdoch sets
herself apart from much modern philosophy, with much of this, at
least, she agrees. She writes, ‘The self, the place where we live, is a place
of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself’,
so self-knowledge, ‘except at a fairly simple level, [is] usually a delusion’
(pp. 93, 67).4 Coming from Murdoch this conclusion has particular
force because she has persuasively argued that ignoring the reality of
inner activity is tantamount to ignoring morality. The moral life, she
argues, is ‘something that goes on continually, not something that is
switched off in between the occurrence of explicit moral choices’ (p. 37).
Murdoch’s worry, then, is that, by paying attention to the needy self,
vision and knowledge of reality are obstructed. Because the attempt to
see accurately is the moral quest, morality demands ‘unselfing’ rather
than self-concern.
Underlying Murdoch’s view are a number of related claims: the first is
that the self is to a significant extent selfish and deluded; the second is
that virtuous consciousness is only achieved through self-forgetfulness.
A third, rather more elusive claim – that self-knowledge should be
understood as a ‘scrutiny of [a] mechanism’ (p. 67) – will become impor-
tant later, but I will begin by looking at the first two claims. Murdoch’s
distrust of self-concern, we can already see, depends on a particular view
of the self that is both agent and object of such attention.
Murdoch requires from moral philosophy a starting-point in a realis-
tic picture of human psychology. The crucial question for moral philos-
ophy, ‘how can we make ourselves better?’ must be answered against
such a framework, and much of her argument is directed against the
prevalent behaviourist-inclined picture. As an alternative starting-point
to behaviourism and in lieu of religion, Murdoch accepts Freud’s secu-
larized picture of our fallen nature: the ‘fat relentless ego’ is the ‘enemy
of the moral life’ (p. 52). At times Murdoch seems to think that this ego
exhausts what we would call the self, a view to which I will return later,
but for now we can work with her frequent characterizations of the self as
‘ego’ or ‘fantasy mechanism’. The self is a site of illusion, often divided
against itself when it attempts to act morally, adept at constructing
62 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

a falsifying and consoling veil over the world. The greatest obstacle in
the path of moral excellence is personal fantasy, ‘the tissue of self-
aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from
seeing what is there outside one’ (p. 59). This view of the self has both
epistemological and moral consequences, because Murdoch’s view is
that reality is inescapably normative. If we do not see the world through
virtuous consciousness, we will not know the world as it really is.5
It is beyond the scope of this paper to assess Murdoch’s metaphysics.
For my purposes, what is relevant is the following argument: the moral
quest requires correct vision, but the fallen, fantasy-ridden self obscures
our vision by interposing itself between the consciousness that sees the
world and the world itself. The best way to see correctly is therefore to
‘unself’, to turn our attention away from its exigent demands and to
concentrate on seeing justly what is not the self. In short, because the self
is inherently false and falsifying, we must disregard it in order to see and
act correctly. The call to disregard the self then has the consequence that
self-concern, while not impossible, becomes unimportant in the quest to
be good. It is not, she writes, a ‘scrutiny of the mechanism itself, that lib-
erates’ (p. 67). The self is as difficult to see justly as anything else, and
what is revealed may be merely ambivalent and tawdry motive, some-
thing less worthy, ‘smaller’, than other objects. Any self-knowledge we
achieve is therefore not worth much. There is also a more positive dan-
ger to self-scrutiny: ‘self is such a dazzling object that if one looks there
one may see nothing else’ (p. 31). One becomes fascinated by one’s own
unworthiness, a particularly refined form of self-indulgence.
What is clear so far is that Murdoch’s self is not identical to con-
sciousness, and that it is the quality of consciousness that matters for
morality. The self is indirectly important insofar as it affects conscious-
ness, but concern for the latter requires that we disregard the self, rather
than attempt to purify it directly. Despite the fact that the self affects
quality of consciousness, only self-forgetfulness can refine them both.
Murdoch’s self is thus not directly redeemable, it seems, by the kind of
just and loving attention that she recommends we turn on the world.
The result is that the inner moral activity that she wishes to return
to ethics does not include self-concern as an essential or even helpful
However, Murdoch’s exploration of inner activity implicitly under-
mines this picture of the self. It shows that, contrary to the first claim,
self cannot be only or significantly ego. There is far more to our experi-
ence of being a self than self-interest or neurosis. And regarding the sec-
ond claim, we should remember that consciousness is the subjectivity
Samantha Vice 63

and quality of the self – as her work itself presupposes. The self is, in
Murdoch’s words, the place where we live,6 but like travellers we carry
our homes with us and what we see of the world is through the win-
dows of ourselves. If this is true, then, to use another metaphor (famil-
iar to the ancient philosophers),7 if the quality of the self infects our
consciousness of the world, it is not clear how turning away from the
source of the infection will cure consciousness. A purge of the infecting
material is required, and one way to do this is through self-reflection.
I am thus proposing that, like prayer, art and study, self-concern be
taken as one of the ‘techniques for purification’ that Murdoch argues
can help us to become better. In fact, if we now examine Murdoch’s
own exploration of moral activity we see this view working implicitly.

The progressing self: Moral activity and self-concern

It will be helpful to recall the example of inner moral activity that

Murdoch spends some time on – the well-known case in ‘The Idea of
Perfection’ of the mother-in-law, M. Her discussion here reveals a richer
conception of self and its relation to virtuous consciousness than the
one she explicitly makes, and it shows the centrality of self-reflection
for moral improvement. It becomes clear that M’s ‘endless task’ (p. 28)
of seeing her daughter-in-law, D, justly requires that she, M, comes to
knowledge of herself. In fact, the very impulse to ‘look again’ (p. 17) at
D presupposes that M has already achieved a measure of self-knowledge
that she has come to think there is reason to distrust her previous
appraisal. Knowing that she is prone to snobbishness or jealousy, she
knows too that these traits will invariably influence her vision. At the
same time, she must recognize in this struggle for accurate self-perception
an impetus to self-improvement. Murdoch is clear that M is active – this
indeed is the immediate point of the example.8 M’s activity is also ‘pecu-
liarly her own’, she writes (p. 23), so understanding M’s activity, from
both her own and an observer’s perspective, requires knowledge of that
personality. Furthermore, self-knowedge is presupposed by the ideas of
perfection and improvement that are so central to Murdoch’s ethics,
because we improve from a certain position and from the recognition
that we are not perfect. We must recognize our shortcomings, or at least
suspect which parts of ourselves require moral work, before we can con-
sciously undertake the journey.9
Of course Murdoch sees M as focussed not on herself but on another,
and as aiming to see this other person in all her particularity: ‘M looks
at D, she attends to D, she focuses her attention’ (p. 22). While this is
64 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

certainly the telos of M’s activity, the self-knowledge presupposed by

M’s inner activity is only possible if M reflects upon the kind of person
she is, how she wants to improve and what standard she measures her-
self against. In cases like these, reflection on, and knowledge of, the self
is required for any just or loving vision of another individual precisely
because of the self’s propensity towards falsification. While it is cer-
tainly morally pernicious to become enthralled by one’s self, idly
enraptured by the self’s imperfections or virtues, nevertheless the jour-
ney towards clear vision of the external world must go within first. The
ancient philosophers saw the ethical journey in this way, as one that
carried the enquirer within and achieved knowledge of external reality
only through self-knowledge. While admittedly more developed in
Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals than in The Sovereignty of Good,
Murdoch’s reliance on a version of the ontological argument to estab-
lish the necessity of the concept of Good, requires a similar turn with-
in to reflection upon one’s own, subjective experience.10 The point is
simply that there is a rich tradition that takes self-concern to be, cer-
tainly not the telos of moral inquiry, but a necessary constituent of a
journey towards ethical self-improvement.11 And as I have argued,
Murdoch’s own example of M recognizes and requires a similar inward
turn to self-concern.
Murdoch of course insists that ‘the unexamined life can be virtuous’
(p. 1), that uneducated or unreflective people can be good and this cer-
tainly must be admitted as a possibility. But it seems to me that such
naturally pure vision and thought is rare, that it is, in her terms, an
instance of grace. The ordinary cases are rather those of obscured per-
ception and, if we are lucky, tentative gropings towards a just vision of
the world, and given this starting-point self-concern will generally be
required. In any case, self-knowledge need not be conscious or articu-
lated in highly educated terms; it may be revealed in one’s steadiness of
thought and action and effort, but again, for most of us, even this
integrity requires some conscious work. The moral life is, as Murdoch
herself insists, a ‘discipline’, a ‘task’ (pp. 38, 91).
Given this discussion so far, we can conclude that attending to the
self is a means towards self-improvement and purified consciousness,
contrary to the second claim. While not strictly necessary, for most of
us this technique of self-purification will be required before we are able
to progress, especially if the self is as active in its delusion and selfish-
ness as Murdoch suggests: ‘Our minds are continually active, fabricating
an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially
conceals the world’ (p. 84). Whatever the explanation for this perversely
Samantha Vice 65

self-defeating and world-obscuring activity, a reasonable antidote is to

oppose it with a potentially clarifying activity like self-reflection.
Furthermore, selfish and contorted as the self undoubtedly is, it is still
there as a phenomenon of the world, and one responsible for our vision
of the world.12 Attending with a loving gaze upon reality without ever
turning to the self is both to ignore a part of the world that we strive to
know and to disregard the very instrument, as it were, with which we
gain knowledge. In fact, once we see that the self is part of the ‘data’ of
ethics, part of ethical reality, focussing on it moves beyond the
inner/outer dichotomy that characterizes so much ancient and modern
thought in this area. Our direction of focus should be on seeing what is
there and seeing it as it is, whether within or without.
In ‘On “God” and “Good”’, Murdoch notes in parentheses that it is
‘always a significant question to ask about any philosopher: what is he
afraid of?’ (p. 72). Part of Murdoch’s fear, I suspect, is that morality and
the glimmers of redemption we can sometimes detect in ourselves will
prove powerless before the allure of ego. What Murdoch fears is that
morality will not stand up to the challenge posed by the darker needs of
the self, and this leads her to envision as a normative ideal of perfection,
a self that is pure vision. The danger, though, is that she will substitute
for the empty notion of the untrammelled will, which she consistently
argues is a psychologically inadequate account of the person, an equally
empty notion of the perfected self as pure vision. Neither ideal is attrac-
tive because, as will become clearer below, a far more complex notion of
the self is required for capturing the very phenomenology of moral expe-
rience that so concerns her.
While her ideal of the self may be problematic, in returning us to a
realistic picture of our actual, fallen state, Murdoch reminds us that we
do indeed need to take seriously the threat posed by the self. There is no
doubt that much of the evil in the world is the result of the illusions and
grasping absorption of self. However, Murdoch’s own work shows that
this cannot be all there is to say on the matter. Contrary to the first
claim I noted above, the self, on her own terms, cannot be understood
purely or even largely in terms of ego, and, if this is the case, the fear
of the self’s malign power is exaggerated. The important point to note
is that, if the self were only a ‘fantasy mechanism’, moral exploration
and the very attempt to be better could never get off the ground. A self
that can recognize its own shortcomings and doubt its vision, and that
can be attracted by perfection, cannot be without any redeeming
resources. The opening for self-improvement, in turn, allows in a more
generous conception of selfhood. The moral life, then, becomes not so
66 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

much a matter of ignoring the self, but of educating it: of teaching it to

love and desire worthy objects and, by coming to know itself, to realize
the very shortcomings that obscure its vision. To use the metaphor so
central to Plato, the soul must be turned around so it can gaze at reality,
but for this metanoia a direct purification and education of the soul itself
is required.13
Now this more generous notion of the self is implicit in Murdoch’s
discussions and becomes more apparent when she switches to using the
term ‘soul’. She says, for example, that ‘the liberation of the soul from
fantasy’ consists in ‘the capacity to love, that is to see’ (p. 66). And later
she writes that we need a conception of the soul ‘as a substantial and
continually developing mechanism of attachments, the purification
and reorientation of which must be the task of morals’ (p. 71). Ignoring
for the moment the troubling notion of a ‘mechanism’, this suggests
that the entire person, for want of a better word, is more than a prod-
uct of fantasy. So perhaps ‘self’ captures that aspect of the complete per-
son entangled in fantasy, while ‘soul’ refers to the aspect receptive to
conversion and grace.
This may very well be the case, but I think there is more at issue than
mere stipulation of terms, given that the fate of self-concern depends on
how ‘self’ is understood. Because Murdoch considers the self to be so
deeply fantasy-ridden, she assumes that self-concern cannot be part of
the moral quest. And even if ‘self’ is only a part of the complete per-
sonality, the necessity of self-concern would still be clear, against her
explicit views. Furthermore, although I cannot adequately argue for this
here, if any concept is central to secular morality, and indeed required
in order to account for moral experience, it is the concept of the self.
‘Soul’ is too laden with the affectionately rejected religion; ‘personality’
too empirical a notion to capture the perfection-seeking, progressive
elements of our being; ‘individual’ too empty a notion, unless given
normative content better suited to ‘self’. I would argue that ‘self’ is best
taken to capture two aspects of being: firstly, the complex, contentless
subjectivity or background ‘hum’ of existence – what Murdoch, I think,
calls ‘consciousness’; and secondly, the particular identity or substan-
tive content that individuates persons – our identity, not in the formal
sense common to discussions of personal identity over time, but in the
sense, relevant to ethics, of who we take ourselves most fundamentally
to be. Knowing ourselves in this way requires knowing what is impor-
tant to us, knowing what moves us and what we stand for.14 Both these
aspects are central to Murdoch’s vision of moral progress, and her
project cannot do without a richer conception of self. None of this,
Samantha Vice 67

however, disagrees with Murdoch’s pessimism regarding our actual state –

a casual glance at self and world is all the evidence required.
Another explanation for Murdoch’s reluctance to give full weight to
self-concern may lie in her conception of self-knowledge, and here
I explore the third claim mentioned earlier. Murdoch writes, in terms
reminiscent of Stuart Hampshire,15 of self-knowledge as ‘a minute
understanding of one’s own machinery’, a ‘scrutiny of the fantasy
mechanism’ (p. 67). By ‘machinery’ and ‘mechanism’ she presumably
means the beliefs, desires and commitments that make up one’s char-
acter and that partly constitute the substantive self. ‘Understanding the
machinery’, then, seems to mean understanding the causes of one’s
mental states, their relations to other states, and their effect on one’s
behaviour and outlook as a whole. But it is only because she presup-
poses the problematic view of the self as fantasy that she can conclude
that it is ‘attachment to what lies outside the fantasy mechanism, and
not a scrutiny of the mechanism itself, that liberates’ (p. 67). The
mechanical metaphor is, however, inappropriate, both for the self and
for self-knowledge. What motivates people in the moral domain cannot
be only some sub-intentional, non-personal system of self-centred
energy. Ordinary self-reflection and attempts to improve would make
no sense and, more importantly here, neither would the ongoing effort
to progress in the light of the Good. Murdoch correctly reminds us that
what moves us may not always be explicit or articulable, but this must
be distinct from an impersonal mechanism if it is to be responsive to the
techniques of purification that Murdoch advocates. The progressive,
vision-refining knowledge of self and others that we see in the example
of M would otherwise be rendered incoherent.
In the light of the alternative view of the self for which I have argued,
a more adequate conception of the self-knowledge relevant to ethics
becomes available. The self-knowledge required for living morally
includes a deepening understanding of the significance of one’s com-
mitments, desires and beliefs for one’s normative vision of self and
world. Without this understanding, improving oneself in relation to
an ideal of perfection would, without immense moral luck, be very dif-
ficult indeed. It is difficult to progress without knowing what it is one
wishes to achieve and without understanding how and why one’s self-
conception is implicated in the achievement. If my earlier suggestion is
correct, one’s substantive identity is constituted largely by what one
cares about and values. This conception of self-knowledge is central to the
ancient philosophers, for whom the imperative ‘gnothi seauton’ – ‘know
thyself’ – is the first principle in the quest to live a better life. In this
68 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

sense, the reason-responsive, intentional objects of self-understanding,

as well as the process of understanding them, are not compatible with
viewing the self as a mechanism.
This argument can be strengthened further by noting that a better
account of the reflective process towards achieving self-knowledge will
tell equally against the mechanistic metaphor. On the one hand, self-
reflection is concerned with revealing previously unknown or only
obscurely grasped elements of the self – the aspect I shall call ‘self-
discovery’. On the other hand, the results and phenomenology of self-
reflection often reveal a creative ‘constituting’ activity, as if our very
reflections form their objects. In fact, Murdoch’s representative antago-
nist in The Sovereignty of Good, Hampshire, discusses this perceptively,
arguing that intentional states ‘are not independent objects, which
remain unchanged by the subject’s changing views of their nature’, and
that reflection is a typical way of ‘forming, or bringing into existence,
the state of mind’.16 While someone can be wrong about his state of
mind, this error is part of the phenomenon to be explained. If we apply
this view to the issue relevant here, the complex intentional states that
shape moral identity will be at least partly constituted by our reflections
upon them. And in that case, reflection will be a necessary part of
discriminating and understanding the inchoate background ‘fabric of
being’ that so concerns Murdoch. That they take on their character
through a process of reflection makes these states responsive to the
considerations, desires and character one brings to the reflective process.
They are not, in short, non-responsive neutral existents obeying a sub-
intentional logic.
We can in fact broaden the point beyond Hampshire’s claim about
the logic of intentional states and in doing so further bring out the inad-
equacy of the mechanistic conception of the self. The deeper aspects
of self-knowledge in the ancient tradition just mentioned – understand-
ing what is important to one, how one wishes to live and be guided in
the effort – even more certainly arise through, and are constituted by,
the very activity of self-reflection. It is implausible to think that such
aspects of the self are already there, awaiting patient excavation. One
learns about these aspects through the process of reflecting upon one’s
character and needs, and on the values that one adopts to form and
guide them. One does not create values and significance, but that cer-
tain things take on a personally charged significance for us and become
part of our substantive identity – become part of who we, most essen-
tially, are – is settled at least partly through reflection on just these
issues.17 In order to be a mode of self-knowledge, however, self-concern
Samantha Vice 69

cannot be independent of facts about oneself and what is really of

value. That one can go wrong in both these respects, and that living eth-
ically requires that we strive to be right, shows that the creative process
is at the least truth-responsive and open to normative and epistemic
assessment. Self-creation is thus still under an obligation to truth, even
if this obligation is not necessarily always steady. Here Murdoch is cor-
rect: it is precisely when self-concern strays into fantasy that knowledge
becomes unattainable.18
In short, the best accounts of self-knowledge, the objects of self-
knowledge and the reflective process towards achieving it, are not com-
fortably accommodated within a mechanistic picture of the self. The
creative aspect of self-knowledge does carry with it the danger of
choosing comforting fiction over fact, but it also importantly reminds
us of the progressive, seeking nature of the self, and its active role in
self-knowledge. Mechanisms are not reason-responsive and actively
self-constituting, and they do not undertake journeys to perfection.
Once we realize that a complex self is part of the world we must learn
to see justly and with love; once we have a better understanding of
self-reflection and self-knowledge, then we shall see that self-concern
cannot be ignored in the ethical quest. And in fact, if we ally this alter-
native picture to Murdoch’s own pessimism about our failings and her
worries regarding the allure of false unity, its role as a clarifying,
redemptive activity becomes even more clearly important. Briefly con-
sidering the notion of unity will help to draw together the threads of
the discussion.
Throughout her work, Murdoch worries that our desire for consola-
tion and order will falsify experience and hamper progression to the real
unity of the Good. The very experiences that can assist can also mislead.
Bad art offers false consolation and patterns; the experience of progres-
sion in the moral sphere can lead us to metaphysical systems that posit
a false order and foundation.19 Part of Murdoch’s worries regarding self-
concern can also be understood in this light. The self’s desire to be in
the right while also fulfilling its cherished desires can lead to judge-
ments that rationalize and unify all experiences and needs around the
self-perpetuating fantasy of the ego. We have the tendency to create
a picture of the self that satisfies our desires and already existing self-
conception. In terms of the discussion so far, the creative aspect of self-
reflection becomes corrupt, with little response to truth. Ironically
enough, Murdoch’s comment elsewhere that ‘[m]an is a creature who
makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble the picture’ takes
on a more ominous ring in this light.20
70 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

These are indeed real dangers. But Murdoch’s tendency to reduce the
self to ego is another instance of a false, if hardly consoling unity and, as
I suggested, the self is far more complex than this view allows. With a
more adequate account of self-concern and the self in place, we can see
that the need for self-concern is easily accommodated within her ethical
project. Without spending some time reflecting upon self, it will
undoubtedly remain tangled in fantasy, and vision and action will remain
clouded. ‘And if quality of consciousness matters’, as Murdoch writes,
‘then anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfish-
ness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue’ (p. 84).

1. Work on this paper was partly undertaken while the author an Andrew
Mellon Fellow at Rhodes University. Thanks to Christopher Mole and mem-
bers of my 2004 graduate class for helpful discussions.
2. For an alternative, though on the whole compatible account of this issue,
see Christopher Mole’s contribution to this collection, also in Part 2 of this
3. Montaigne, ‘On Practice’, in The Complete Essays (trans. and ed.), M.A.
Screech (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), II.6, p. 426.
4. All page references, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Sovereignty of
5. See, for example, SG, pp. 37–8, 42, 59, 65.
6. SG, p. 93; cf. Murdoch, MGM, p. 260.
7. On the medical analogy and the nature of ancient philosophy, see Martha
Nussbaum’s fine study, The Therapy of Desire (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1994).
8. The larger aim of the example is to demonstrate the inadequacy of ‘genetic
analyses’ of moral concepts, which have the result of rendering inner activ-
ity either non-existent or meaningless.
9. The qualification ‘consciously’ is meant to allow for those who are naturally
virtuous, without having ever consciously attempted to perfect themselves.
I return to this below.
10. For example, see MGM, pp. 391–430. Also see Antonaccio on Murdoch’s
‘reflexive realism’, in Picturing the Human (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2000), pp. 61–84.
11. On the history of this ‘turn within’, see Charles Taylor, The Sources of the Self
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
12. I mean to be ontologically neutral on the status of the self. All that is
required for my point is that we have an experience of being a self.
13. For example, Plato, The Republic, 518c-e.
14. See Harry Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1988); Charles Taylor, ‘The Concept of a
Person’, in Human Agency and Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1985).
Samantha Vice 71

15. For example, see Stuart Hampshire’s ‘Freedom of Mind’, in Freedom of Mind
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).
16. Stuart Hampshire, ‘Sincerity and Single-Mindedness’, in Freedom of Mind,
pp. 236, 244. Also see Charles Taylor, ‘The Concept of a Person’, and Richard
Moran, for example, in Authority and Estrangement (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2001).
17. I do not mean that what makes something a value is a matter of our choice.
Some values, from an array which we recognize as having an independent
normative force, have a more personal resonance for us and become the ones
which guide our lives.
18. I have explored these dangers in relation to the notion of the narrative self
in ‘Literature and the Narrative Self’, Philosophy, 78 (2003), 93–108.
19. The tension between the need for unity and the chancy incompleteness of
the world is discussed by Antonaccio: ‘Form and Contingency in Iris
Murdoch’s Ethics’, in Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness, (ed.)
Antonaccio and Schweiker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
20. EM, p. 75.
Attention, Self and The Sovereignty
of Good
Christopher Mole

In 1958, Elizabeth Anscombe’s ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’1 forcefully

launched the idea that character traits and states of mind are morally
important in ways that could not be seen from the point of view of
the contemporary moral psychology. ‘[M]oral philosophy’, she wrote,
‘should be laid aside [. . .] until we have an adequate philosophy of
psychology, in which we are conspicuously lacking’ (p. 1). This idea
influenced many ethicists in Iris Murdoch’s Oxford, and provides one of
the motives for Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good, and in particular, for
Murdoch’s attempt to establish that states of mind (construed broadly,
so as to include character traits) are morally important for their own sake:
that their moral importance is not exhausted by the importance they
derive from the actions they might lead one to perform or the states of
affairs that they might help to bring about.2
Murdoch’s ideas about the moral importance of states of mind are
closely related to her views about how one ought to think of oneself.
Attention to oneself, she thinks, is a widespread source of moral failure:
‘Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself’;3 ‘In the
moral life the enemy is the fat relentless ego’ (p. 51). These two aspects
of Murdoch’s thought seem to be incompatible. It is natural to think
that the states of mind whose moral importance Murdoch establishes
are inner occurrences taking place on the private stage of consciousness.
But this leads to the following problem. Trying to become good involves
giving attention to things of moral importance, and so, if we under-
stand the morally important states of mind to be private inner occur-
rences, it involves giving attention to private inner states. But this is a
form of self-directed intellectual activity, and self-directed intellectual
activity is the very thing that Murdoch wants to characterize as a source
of moral failure.

Christopher Mole 73

There are at least two strategies for avoiding this problem. The first
strategy avoids the problem by taking Murdoch’s view of the self to
entail something less than a complete prohibition on attention to the
self. Perhaps self-directed attention comes in different forms, only some
of which are prohibited, or perhaps the prohibition on self-directed
attention only applies in certain circumstances. Samantha Vice employs
this strategy in her contribution to this volume. The present paper pur-
sues a different strategy. It avoids the problem by understanding the
morally important states of mind as something other than inner occur-
rences taking place on the private stage of consciousness. Vice’s view is
that the strong prohibition on attention to the inner life is neither plau-
sible, nor warranted by Murdoch’s position. My view is that we can keep
the strong prohibition on attention to the inner, but must reject the
idea that the morally important states of mind and character are inner
states, and think of them instead as being world involving.

The moral importance of the mind

The claim that the moral importance of states of mind is not exhausted
by the importance of their effects can be interpreted in two ways: one
strong and one weak. The strong position is that (independently of their
effects) states of mind and character often have a crucial role in deter-
mining whether a person is doing well or badly, morally speaking. The
weak position is that states of mind and character carry some weight,
but vastly less than is carried by the moral importance of acts and states
of affairs. Murdoch endorses the strong position. The parable of the
mother-in-law, which is prominent in her discussion of this point,
establishes only the weak position.
Murdoch asks us to imagine a mother-in-law who, by a process of reflec-
tion, comes to a positive view of the daughter-in-law whom previously
she had regarded as vulgar and noisy (pp. 16–23). It is specified that the
mother-in-law’s new opinion is not accompanied by any change in out-
ward behaviour (the daughter-in-law is dead or abroad). Murdoch thinks,
and expects us to think, that there is something morally good about this
change in the mother-in-law. Since, ex hypothesi, the only changes that
take place are changes in states of mind, it must be these states of mind
that make the moral difference, and so it must be that moral importance
attaches to states of mind in a way that does not depend on their effects.
This argument for the moral importance of states of mind depends on
the fact that the case of the mother-in-law is one in which action is out
of the question. But, for that very reason, the example cannot establish
74 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

that states of mind are morally important when the possibility of action
is in question. The parable of the mother-in-law shows, in the very
special case of entirely mental conduct, that the question of whether
the conduct is good or bad must be answered by reference to states of
mind or character. It does not show that states of mind are morally
important in general, only that moral importance attaches to inner
states when nothing else is at stake.
There is another argument, however, that does support the strong posi-
tion, according to which states of mind often have a crucial role in deter-
mining the morality of a person’s conduct. Murdoch does not develop
this argument in any detail, but we can reconstruct it in terms borrowed
from the virtue-based approach to ethics that her work helped to revive.
The virtue ethicist takes the proper starting point for ethical theory to be
the fact that we should do what the virtuous agent would do were he in
our circumstances. We act as we should only if we act as the virtuous
agent would. The virtue-ethicist then claims that there is not usually any
description of an act given in purely behavioural terms that allows us to set-
tle the question of whether that act is one that the virtuous agent would
do. The virtuous agent might lie if the circumstances called for it, but
he would not lie callously. He might hurt others, but he would not hurt
others brutally. ‘It is all very well to say that “to copy a right action is to
act rightly”’, says Murdoch, quoting Stuart Hampshire’s ‘Logic and
Appreciation’,4 ‘but what is the form I am supposed to copy?’ (p. 29). It
cannot be the form of behaviour, considered independently of its moti-
vation. In order to determine whether or not an action is one that the
virtuous agent would perform, we need a description of the action that
tells us more than is implied by a purely behavioural description. We
need a description that tells us about the states of mind and character
that the behaviour expresses. These states are important for determining
the morality or immorality of a course of action, not because, as in the
case of the mother-in-law, we can take away the possibility of action and
retain a morally significant inner state – but because the descriptions of
action under which we consider actions morally are already laden with
commitments to the agent’s being in a certain state of mind, or having
certain character traits. Actions lose a crucial part of their moral charac-
ter if we attempt to divorce them from these commitments.

Attention to the self

The argument we have just explored does, as the parable of the mother-
in-law cannot, provide Murdoch with a reason to believe that states of
Christopher Mole 75

mind have an important role to play in our moral thinking. It shows

that it is not merely when nothing else is at stake that these states are
morally important. But the argument also seems to show that Murdoch
is committed to the very un-Murdochian view that the attempt to
become good essentially involves attention to oneself.
The problem arises in the following way. In order to know whether we
are acting as the virtuous agent would we need to know which aspects
of our character we are exercising. It is not enough to know that we are
hurting others, or that we are benefiting them. We need also to know
whether we are being callous or manipulative. To know these things we
must, it seems, pay close attention to ourselves. And that is precisely
what Murdoch has told us we must not do.

The prima facie innocence of self-directed attention

What we have just seen is that Murdoch’s best argument for the moral
importance of states of mind entails a commitment to self-directed
attention. This does not pose a problem by itself. The problem arises
when this commitment is combined with Murdoch’s view that self-
directed attention is a source of moral failure. No problem would arise
if we were to reject that view of self-directed attention, and it is tempt-
ing simply to do so. Self-directed attention does not seem to be a moral
failing. The forms of self-directed attention that we find ourselves com-
mitted to by the arguments of the previous section seem particularly
innocuous when we consider their role in the moral reasoning at work
in the following example: a man is wondering whether he should tell
his wife about a minor indiscretion in his past. He recognizes that keep-
ing the secret is a way of being untrustworthy and so he resolves to tell
the truth. What moves him is the realization that he does not want to
be the kind of person who would continue to lie. The distinctive feature
of this form of moral reasoning is that the terms of evaluation it
employs indict the agent rather than the act.
Self-indicting formulations often sound more natural than the alter-
natives from which all reference to the self has been removed, and they
are not merely verbal variants on them. The belief that my wife ought
to be told the truth rationally motivates me to tell her the truth if I have
the desire that things be as they ought. To be motivated to act by the
belief that ‘I ought to tell her’, I need only desire that I do what I ought.
The self-directed attention required for this form of moral reasoning
does not seem to be objectionable. It may be clear that the agent who
employs this sort of reasoning is not among the best of moral reasoners.
76 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

In our best moral thinking our reasons for acting are not provided by
concerns about our own goodness. But this does not lead us to think
that there is anything wrong with deliberately undertaking the task of
acting well, or with being motivated by judgements about whether one
is succeeding in that task: the self-directed attention that is required in
the making of those judgements does not, on the face of it, rule them
out of the attempt to become good, especially when, as in the example
above, the judgements are negative ones.
Our argument for the moral importance of states of mind and char-
acter carries an apparent commitment to self-directed attention only to
the degree that self-directed attention figures in the rather benign sort
of reasoning sketched above. Murdoch herself seems to realize that self-
directed attention can have a role in the attempt to become good. Her
own telling of the parable of the mother-in-law, in fact, seems to
involve self-directed attention:

The M of the example [the mother-in-law] is an intelligent and

well-intentioned person, capable of self-criticism, capable of giving
careful and just attention to an object which confronts her. M tells
herself: “I am old-fashioned and conventional. I may be prejudiced
and narrow-minded. I may be snobbish. I am certainly jealous. Let
me look again”
(p. 17, emphasis Murdoch’s).

The mother-in-law’s praiseworthy change of opinion is clearly pre-

cipitated by self-directed attention of the sort that we met above. It is
by attending to herself that M is in a position to know that she is old-
fashioned, conventional and so on. In this passage Murdoch seems to
recognize, even to endorse, the mother-in-law’s self-directed attention
as having a role in her moral progress. Why, then, does Murdoch also
seem to think that self-directed attention is a source of moral failing?
We have not yet seen any reason to think of self-directed attention in
this way. It is neither selfish nor self-aggrandizing, and, moreover, it
seems to figure in our everyday attempts to act well.

The rejection of self-directed attention

The self-directed attention involved in the sorts of reasoning discussed

above is prima facie innocent. It even seems to figure in Murdoch’s
account of the mother-in-law’s praiseworthy change of opinion. It is
tempting, therefore, to say that self-directed attention is not always
Christopher Mole 77

a source of moral failure, and that it is morally permitted in the service

of an attempt to become good. This temptation should be resisted. For
Murdoch the struggle to be good is a struggle to keep attention away
from the self: ‘Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself’
(p. 91).
It is important to be clear that Murdoch does not merely think that
self-directed attention has no role in the fully good life. There would be
no problem with thinking that the fully virtuous agent does not think of
himself, while thinking that we should think of ourselves in order to
become good. (Just as there is no contradiction in thinking that a good
tennis player gives no attention to his ball-toss when serving, but that
we need to attend to our ball-toss rather carefully in order to become good
tennis players.) Murdoch’s claim is that self-directed attention is absent
from the pursuit of goodness, and not merely from the life in which
goodness has been achieved. We see this most clearly in the concluding
pages of ‘The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts’ in the claim
that ‘although [the humble man] is not by definition the good man per-
haps he is the kind of man most likely of all to become good (p. 101).
The thoroughgoing rejection of self-directed attention is also prominent
elsewhere: ‘In the moral life the enemy is the fat relentless ego’ (p. 51).
Murdoch’s thoroughgoing opposition to self-directed attention is
clear throughout The Sovereignty of Good, but why does she oppose it so?
The following two passages provide some clues:

The difficulty is to keep attention fixed upon the real situation and
to prevent it returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of
self-pity, resentment, fantasy and despair
(p. 89).

We are anxiety ridden animals. Our minds are continually active,

fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil
which partially conceals the world. Our states of consciousness differ
in quality, our fantasies and reveries are not trivial and unimportant,
they are profoundly connected with our energies and our ability to
choose and act. And if quality of consciousness matters then any-
thing which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness,
objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue
(p. 82).

The prohibition on self-directed attention, then, is connected to the

moral importance of accurately perceiving things as they really are. The
78 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

accurate perception of things is central to Murdoch’s conception of the

good life, and of the movement towards it, both because it is good in
itself, and because it enables us to make the right decisions about how
to act: ‘The love that brings the right answer [. . .] is an exercise of justice
and realism, and really looking’ (p. 89). We shall see, in the next section,
that the connection between this imperative to accurate perception and
the prohibition on self-directed attention is not an entirely straightfor-
ward one. But notice, for now, that attempts to perceive the self are pro-
hibited, and that this is, in part, because they are attempts at a sort of
perception that is particularly unlikely to be accurate, and that is likely
to impair accuracy when it comes to perceiving things other than the
self. The situation we are in is this: we have seen that a role for self-
directed attention in the attempt to become good seems to be entailed
by Murdoch’s emphasis on the moral importance of states of mind, and
that the existence of such a role is incompatible with a strong prohibi-
tion on self-directed attention. We have also seen that, although it may
be tempting to reject the strong prohibition, Murdoch does not reject
it. The problem that we face is one that Murdoch is vividly aware of. It
is a source of much of the moral drama that animates The Nice and the
Good, published in 1968 (two years before the appearance of The
Sovereignty of Good, but two years after the delivery of the lectures that
the book of that title collects). The Nice and the Good gives an explicit
statement of our problem as a ‘great paradox of morality’ experienced
by the book’s protagonist, John Ducane:

What Ducane was experiencing, in this form peculiar to him of imag-

ining himself as a judge, was, though this was not entirely clear in
his mind, one of the great paradoxes of morality, namely, that in
order to become good it may be necessary to imagine oneself good,
and yet such imagining may also be the very thing which renders
improvement impossible, either because of surreptitious complacency
or because of some deeper blasphemous infection which is set up
when goodness is thought about in the wrong way. To become good
it may be necessary to think about virtue, although unreflective sim-
ple people may achieve a thoughtless excellence. Ducane was in any
case highly reflective and had from childhood quite explicitly set
before himself the aim of becoming a good man.5

The problem that the authorial voice expresses here is the very problem
that we have found in Murdoch’s philosophical work. If being good is
thought of as involving virtue, then a deliberate attempt to become
Christopher Mole 79

good (like Ducane’s ‘explicitly set[ting] before himself the aim of

becoming a good man’) seems to involve self-directed attention, which
‘renders improvement impossible’.
One way to deal with this problem is not to try to eradicate it, but
simply to embrace the conclusion that it is not possible to become good
by trying. Ducane is sometimes tempted by that view, but Murdoch has
no sympathy with it and thinks that we must account for deliberate
intellectual attempts to pursue goodness and account for the simple
achievement of goodness. ‘[I]t must be possible to do justice to both
Socrates and the virtuous peasant. In such “musts” as these lie the deep-
est springs and motives of philosophy’ (p. 2).

A bad argument against self-directed attention

The escape from our problem is seen by looking more carefully at the
way in which the emphasis on ‘realism and really looking’ provides the
foundations for the prohibition on self-directed attention.
It is the imperative to ‘realism and really looking’ that leads Murdoch
to prohibit self-directed attention, but it is not that Murdoch prohibits
self-directed attention simply because the self is particularly difficult to
really, realistically, look at. We should not interpret Murdoch in this
way because if we were to do so we would have to credit her with the
following patently invalid argument:

1. Accurate perception of the self is difficult.

2. We are morally required to perceive things accurately.

Conclusion: We are morally required not to attempt accurate per-

ception of the self.

This argument is clearly not valid. If the first premise only cites the
difficulty of accurate self-perception then all that follows is the entirely
unremarkable conclusion that, when it comes to the perception of the
self, the moral requirement of accurate perception is a difficult require-
ment to meet. That does nothing to justify the vilification of self-
directed attention. The struggle to become good is, after all, a difficult
There is a temptation to strengthen the argument by beefing up the
first premise. Murdoch sometimes seems to use an argument that is a
version of the one above, but one that is less obviously invalid because
the first premise has been strengthened so as to say that accurate
80 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

self-perception is not merely difficult but impossible, and that the self
prevents the accurate perception of other things:

That human beings are naturally selfish seems true on the evidence,
whenever and wherever we look at them, in spite of a very small
number of exceptions. About the quality of this selfishness modern
psychology has had something to tell us. The psyche is a historically
determined individual relentlessly looking after itself. [. . .] One of its
main pastimes is daydreaming. It is reluctant to face unpleasant real-
ities. Its consciousness is not normally a transparent glass through
which it sees the world but a cloud of more or less fantastic reverie
designed to protect the psyche from pain. It constantly seeks conso-
lation, either through imagined inflation of self or through fictions
of a theological nature
(p. 76).

The ‘modern psychology’ that Murdoch understands as revealing this

picture of the self is Freudian psychology, and one who thinks that
Freudian psychology is wrong-headed will be unmoved by Murdoch’s
argument here. But even if we were to grant this picture of the self as a
source of fictions, we would still not have a premise capable of patching
the hole in the argument sketched above. Even if we believe that the self
is a source of fictions we still lack a reason for not trying to perceive it
rightly. (A Freudian would say that we should try to perceive it rightly.)
The premise that is needed to establish an absolute prohibition on self-
directed attention is not just that the self is a deceiver and that accurate
self-perception is impossible. The needed premise is that the self is a
deceiver, and that its deceptions are made worse by the attempt to perceive
it correctly. This is a much harder premise to establish. It is not a premise
that can be established on the basis of introspection, for to believe it on
the basis of introspection is to undermine one’s own basis for believing it.
Nor is it a claim that is made obvious on the basis of our observations of
others. When we observe others we do, perhaps, find them to be some-
what deceived about the way things are, but the matter of whether they
would be any less deceived had they not tried to perceive themselves is
not a matter that our normal encounters with people, however carefully
conducted, enable us to decide. This claim is too strong to feature as an
unsupported premise in the argument against self-directed attention.
There are no plausible strengthenings of the first premise that make
the argument given above into a compelling one and so we should not
understand Murdoch’s prohibition on self-directed attention to be
Christopher Mole 81

motivated by this argument, or by a version of it in which the first

premise is strengthened. We get a more satisfactory interpretation of
Murdoch’s reasons for prohibiting self-directed attention by getting a
better understanding of the strength of the second premise – the prem-
ise concerning the imperative to perceive the world correctly.

Realism and really looking

To understand the importance of really looking we must turn once

again to the parable of the mother-in-law. The mother-in-law’s morally
praiseworthy change of opinion involved her seeing that her daughter-
in-law is ‘not vulgar, but refreshingly simple, not undignified but spon-
taneous, not noisy but gay, not tiresomely juvenile but delightfully
youthful’ (p. 17). Such changes are said to result from ‘realism and really
looking’ or, as Murdoch says elsewhere, from a ‘just and loving gaze
directed on an individual reality’ (p. 33). Murdoch specifies that the
case is one in which the mother-in-law is not deluding herself. The
mother-in-law’s vision is more accurate once she has revised her opin-
ion upwards. But it must be a contingent fact that in this particular case
the higher opinion is the more accurate one. Some daughters-in-law
really are undignified, noisy and tiresomely juvenile, and the result of
realistically looking at them would, presumably, be to see them as
undignified, noisy and tiresomely juvenile.
Murdoch herself has given us the verdict from her realism and really
looking: ‘That human beings are naturally selfish seems true whenever
and wherever we look at them’ (p. 77). If ‘really looking’ is valuable for
itself then it is valuable whether or not it shows us things in a good light.
In being told to really look we are not being invited to optimistically mis-
perceive the world; we are being asked to perceive it as it really is. ‘Really
looking’ with ‘a just and loving attention’ is valuable whatever it is that
one is doing justice to. It may be a daughter-in-law that one had under-
estimated, or the extent of human altruism that one had overestimated.
The emphasis on resisting fantasy shows us that it is respect for the
real which is the achtung impelling Murdoch to act well: ‘The authority
of morals is the authority of truth, that is of reality’ (p. 88). This is not
an emotional reaction to the world as known, but the recognition of the
world as something one must come to know (and thereby come to
understand and respect):

The value concepts are here [in the case of imaginative art and the
practice of a skilled craft] patently tied onto the world, they are
82 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

stretched as it were between the truth seeking mind and the world,
they are not moving about on their own as adjuncts to the personal
will [. . .]. [W]e see it as natural to the particular kind of creatures we
are that love should be inseparable from justice and clear vision from
respect for the real
(p. 88f).

The world-involving nature of the morally important

states of mind

The emphasis on the moral importance of character and of states of

mind should be understood as an emphasis on the importance of modes
of attention. The value that we pursue in developing craftsmanship,
and in our engagement with the arts, is ‘stretched between the truth
seeking mind and the world’ (p. 88) because it is value that inheres in
attention. (There is a play on etymology here. ‘Attention’ comes from
the Old French ad tendere: being stretched out.) Being loving and just,
and possessing the other virtuous character traits, is not a matter of
being in a particular sort of private, inner state. It depends on our mode
of engagement with the world. The facets of our character take on the
status of virtues only insofar as they involve particular faculties of atten-
tion that bring us into a virtuous relationship with the world.
Virtuous character traits involve particular propensities for varieties of
valuable attention, while vices are tendencies towards inattention.
Loving is (or at least, it essentially involves) an astute focus on the par-
ticularity of others. Kindness starts with an awareness of their needs.
Pity pays heed to the origins of another’s misfortune. Courage is the
trait required for attention to produce action unimpeded. The angry
man, the lazy man and the disrespectful man are all, in their various
ways, negligent, careless, thoughtless, impulsive, tactless or rash, as is
shown by the frequency with which the harm and offence they cause is
inadvertent (tendencies Murdoch explored in her 1971 novel, An
Accidental Man). The impatient man is the first to look away.
Possession of a character trait is not a kind of bias in the way that
events are depicted in one’s internal monologue. There is no distinctive
profile to the inner phenomenology of acting from some particular
character trait. What is distinctive about acting from a particular char-
acter trait is one’s form of engagement with the world. It is the world
that sets the standards. In trying to act well we must ask (as my argu-
ment in the first section demonstrated) questions about our character,
but this does not commit us to problematically self-directed attention
Christopher Mole 83

because these are not questions that can be answered by directing atten-
tion onto oneself. To know whether one’s character is virtuous is to
know one’s mode of attentive engagement with the world, and this
cannot be known by looking inwards.
The question, ‘Is this act loving?’ is not a question about whether the
behaviour is accompanied by a particular phenomenological twinge in
the subject, but a question about (among other things) whether the act
does its object any good and whether it is motivated by a proper recog-
nition of what would do the object good. That is why ‘Love needs to be
expressed, it needs to do work’.6
Really looking does not get its value by revealing purposefulness and
pre-existing value out there in the world: ‘If there is any kind of sense
or unity in human life, and the dream of this does not cease to haunt
us, it [. . .] must be sought within a human experience which has noth-
ing outside it’ (p. 77). Nor does it involve an illusory projection of value
from the self. Looking at the world is itself a bearer of value. Knowledge
of the nature of one’s character may be indispensable for the more or
less reflective thinker’s deliberate progressing towards becoming good,
but this knowledge of character is not attained through the worthless
unstretched-out attention involved in introspection. Even when intro-
spection succeeds in being honest and astute, the features of ourselves
that we learn about through introspection are features that are morally
salient only on account of their relationships to things outside the self.
Introspective meditations do not bring us into a proper relationship
with the world, and they do not tell us whether we are in a proper rela-
tionship with the world. It is careful understanding of the world that
reveals our failures of virtue as failures. If one takes our moral character
to be partially constituted by the ways in which we attentively interact
with the world, then one can hold that character traits are primary bear-
ers of intrinsic value without thereby making one’s own properties a
focus of concern in one’s pursuit of goodness. Insofar as the struggle to
become good requires knowledge of one’s own moral character it pro-
vides a further impetus for patient and careful attention to the world.

1. Anscombe, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ in Philosophy, XXXI (1958), 1–19.
2. Most of this work was completed while the author held the William
Alexander Fleet fellowship at Princeton University. An enormous debt of
gratitude is owed to Miss Julia Fleet, whose death, while the work was being
prepared for publication, is an occasion of great sadness. Thanks for useful
discussions are owing to David Sussman and Philip Pettit, to Jessica Boyd
84 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

and, especially, to Arudra Burra, who read several earlier drafts. Discussions
with Samantha Vice and others at the Iris Murdoch Conference at Kingston
University in 2004 have also been a great help.
3. All page references are to The Sovereignty of Good.
4. Stuart Hampshire, ‘Logic and Appreciation’, in Language and Aesthetics (ed.)
W. Elton (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1954).
5. The Nice and the Good (New York: Viking Press, 1968), p. 77.
6. The phrase is given to Willy Kost (p. 132). Murdoch probably endorses the
view, although only with the additional observation that ‘Love can’t always
do work’ (p. 222).
Part III Revisiting The Saint and
the Artist
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The Ascetic Impulse in Iris
Murdoch’s Thought
Maria Antonaccio

Introduction: The Saint and the Artist

In his classic study of Murdoch’s fiction, The Saint and the Artist, Peter
Conradi uses a recurring theme of Murdoch’s interviews and essays –
‘the peculiarly distressing struggle between the artist and the saint’ – to
structure his reading of her novels (p. 88). On the one hand, the novels
display an essentially religious or Platonic ideal of ‘unselfing’, repre-
sented by characters who aspire to a saintly or otherworldly mode of
existence and, on the other, a more cheerful and ego-affirming worldli-
ness represented by characters whose embrace of ordinary life and its
pleasures mark them as aesthetes or hedonists. Although the contrast
between the two ideals is not absolute, the tension ‘between a spiritual
and a secular or worldly view of the moral agent’, Conradi writes,
‘animates [Murdoch’s] work from the beginning’ (p. xiv).
Conradi is not alone in his perception of this pervasive ‘doubleness’
in Murdoch’s fiction. Other critics have also acknowledged that the
implied morality of the novels can at times appear stringently moralis-
tic, at other times more generously humane and aesthetic. Yet what is
most unique and helpful about Conradi’s reading is that, although he
acknowledges the deeply ascetic or puritanical impulse in Murdoch’s
writings, he rightly insists that her moral passion ‘does not emerge in
her fiction in a simple-minded way’ (SA, pp. 92–3). Conradi notes how
consistently if painfully funny the novels are even at their darkest
moments, how contrary to ‘a solemn and self-dramatising moral inten-
sity’ (SA, p. 91). In fact, the characters who are most severely punished
are precisely those would-be saints or false ascetics whose perfectionism
usually leads them towards moral hubris and eventual self-destruction,
rather than to a true askesis. This is why, as Conradi suggests, Murdoch

88 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

cannot simply be characterized as a puritan moralist, but is rather an

anti-puritan puritan, who warns against the dangers of moral or spiri-
tual hubris inherent in the pursuit of high-minded ideals (SA, p. 90).
The novels, in short, express ‘a dynamic and cheerful philosophy of the
Middle Way’, which ‘mocks moral excess at the same time that it invites
it’ (SA, pp. 90, 127).
Although devotees of Murdoch’s novels will find Conradi’s work to be
invaluable in identifying what makes them so unique (and, for many
readers, so addictive), readers of Murdoch’s philosophical writings might
be struck by the fact that the ‘doubleness’ that is so widely recognized as
a central feature of the novels seems to be largely missing from her moral
philosophy. For example, many readers and critics have discerned in the
philosophical voice of The Sovereignty of Good chiefly the voice of the
Platonic moralist urging us towards the saintly ideal of unselfing, rather
than the voice of the worldly or pleasure-seeking artist. Such readings
seem to share the assumption that, whatever the considerable pleasures
and moral subtleties of the novels, Murdoch’s philosophical centre of
gravity remains that of an ascetic moralist who advocates the defeat
of egoism and adherence to an absolute standard of the Good. For this
reason, her philosophy is often judged to be less subtle and internally
complex than her novels, and more preoccupied with pursuing a uni-
tary, mystical path to the Good.
As an example of this view, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has
suggested that Murdoch’s severity about moral ideals encourages an
intolerance of human variety and difference that is not only at odds
with her fiction, but perhaps even morally dangerous as well. Nussbaum
argues that a ‘neglect of the worldly was part of [Murdoch’s] exacting
idea of virtue’.1 She faults Murdoch as a philosopher for allowing her
Platonism to lead her to embrace a unitary abstraction called ‘The
Good’, while her artistic instincts tended in a more Aristotelian direc-
tion – towards an affirmation of what Nussbaum calls ‘the variegated
world of surprising humanity’ (WG, p. 32). Nussbaum in effect recasts
the struggle between the saint and the artist in Murdoch’s work as a
wrestling match between Plato and Aristotle, which Plato (unfortunately,
in Nussbaum’s judgement) wins. Nussbaum implies that Murdoch
would have been a much better philosopher if she had followed the
impulse towards ‘Aristotelian many-sidedness’ that marks her best
novels, instead of the ‘Platonic mysticism’ that her moral philosophy
misguidedly favours (WG, p. 32).
Nussbaum’s work exemplifies a consistent worry that ‘otherworldly’
or ‘transcendent’ values may lead to a devaluation of our embodied
Maria Antonaccio 89

humanity. As such, her criticism of Murdoch is emblematic of a concern

that has become increasingly common in contemporary ethics: the con-
cern that any morality that aspires to high or perfectionist ideals is
suspect because it devalues persons in their particularity and imperfec-
tion and may encourage intolerance and even cruelty when adopted as
social ideals. Insofar as Murdoch’s Platonism seems to lead in that direc-
tion, Nussbaum parts philosophical company with her. Against this
background, my aim in this paper is to offer a corrective to overly
monolithic readings of Murdoch’s moral philosophy vis-à-vis her fiction
by challenging narrowly ascetic interpretations of her philosophical
position. I hope, in doing so, to engage the more general problem of the
status of ideals in human life.
My contention is that Murdoch’s moral theory does not unambigu-
ously support the saintly ideal of unselfing, as many have assumed; it
also makes room for a conception of the moral agent as creative ‘artist’.
In this respect, the characteristic ‘doubleness’ that pervades Murdoch’s
fiction, typified in the contrast between saint and artist, is not missing
from her philosophy. The philosophical stance of her ethics is neither
purely the stance of the ascetic moralist, nor that of the anti-puritan
aesthete, but the more dynamic, self-critical posture of the ‘anti-puritan
In order to show this, I first present the theoretical contours of the
relation between art and ethics in The Sovereignty of Good as a way to
explore the possible structural parallels with the saint–artist theme in the
novels. In the second part, I show that Murdoch’s recognition of the
limits or paradoxes of an ethic of unselfing find expression in her
account of the reflexive structure of moral consciousness. This represents
the theoretical corollary to the anti-puritan puritanism of the novels. In
the conclusion of the paper, I briefly note the potential contribution of
my reading of Murdoch’s ethics to the current debate over the status of
moral ideals.

Art and ethics in Murdoch’s moral theory

Art as spiritual exercise

It is little wonder that Murdoch’s account of the problem of egoism and
its cure in The Sovereignty of Good has been interpreted as the work of an
ascetic moralist who judges human conduct by an otherworldly ideal of
perfection. As is well known, the moral psychology presented in this
text is intended to challenge what she regarded as the ‘unambitious
optimism’3 of much modern ethics – its lack of aspiration and rigour
90 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

in formulating moral ideals – and to articulate a rival psychology or

‘soul-picture’ which represents morality as a disciplined achievement
of purified vision. To counteract the overly sanguine assumption of
existentialists and others that ‘an authentic mode of existence [. . .][is]
attainable by intelligence and force of will’, Murdoch appealed to ‘the
vanishing images of Christian theology which represented goodness as
almost impossibly difficult, and sin as almost insuperable and certainly
as a universal condition’ (SG, pp. 50, 51).
Yet Murdoch did not fully align herself with a Christian diagnosis of
the human moral fault or its correction. The human problem is not (as
in Augustinian Christianity) the result of the perversity of a will unable
to will the good. Rather, as David Gordon has noted, ‘the fundamental
evil for [Murdoch] is always human vanity, not human will’.4 If there is
a notion of original sin in Murdoch, it is that ‘objectivity and unselfish-
ness are not natural to human beings’ (SG, p. 51). ‘Our minds are
continually active fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often
falsifying veil which partially conceals the world’ (SG, p. 84). Drawing on
the work of both Plato and Freud, Murdoch described human beings as
compelled by their desires and inclinations, tenacious in their attach-
ments, and obsessed by consoling fantasies and illusions designed to
protect the psyche from the pain of reality. Images and fantasies provide
the focal point around which undifferentiated psychic energies are
organized. The cure for egoism is therefore not simply a matter of redi-
recting one’s vision, but of reorienting one’s psychic energies and desires.
In this light, we can see why Murdoch believed that art and morals
are ‘aspects of a single struggle’ (SG, p. 41). Because of the connection
between vision and desire, the quality of the images and objects to
which we attend is ‘profoundly connected with our energies and our
ability to choose and act’ (SG, p. 41). Accordingly, the cure for egoism
involves cultivating forms of vision or attention that break the hold of
ego-centred fantasy and reorient the energies of consciousness ‘in the
direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism’ (SG, p. 41). Ordinary
human experience furnishes multiple occasions for such a reorienta-
tion: the appreciation of beauty in art or nature, the discipline of
concentrated intellectual study and, especially, serious attention to the
existence of other people and their claims (SG, pp. 83–97). Such experi-
ences refocus psychic energies on a moral source that lies outside of the
illusions and desires of the ego.
The famous example of M and D is often cited as the pre-eminent
example of the kind of moral discipline that is required for unselfing.
The example recounts the situation of a mother (M) struggling to come
Maria Antonaccio 91

to terms with her son’s choice of a spouse, her daughter-in-law (D). In

undertaking a sincere effort at self-criticism, M attempts to re-describe
D’s more irritating qualities with a new set of evaluative terms. D is no
longer seen as ‘vulgar’, but ‘refreshingly simple’; not ‘undignified’, but
‘spontaneous’; not ‘tiresomely juvenile’ but ‘delightfully youthful’, and
so forth (SG, pp. 18–9). When understood in the light of the text’s pre-
occupation with unselfing, the story of M’s progressing knowledge of D
can be read as Murdoch’s recasting of the Platonic allegory of the cave.
Like the prisoners in the cave, M is engaged in a pilgrimage from shad-
owy perception towards truthful vision. Through a disciplined effort of
moral attention, she progresses from a perception of D distorted by jeal-
ousy and egoism to a more just appreciation of D’s personality.
Artistic activity is described as a similar sort of pilgrimage. It requires
the same disciplined exercise of attention, the same decentring away
from selfish preoccupation that was required of M in her reassessment
of D. Murdoch considers art one of several techniques or practices for
‘the purification of states of mind’ (SG, p. 83). In fact, compared to
human relations, where ‘selfishness operates in a much more devious
and frenzied manner’, Murdoch holds that art ‘presents the most com-
prehensible example of the almost irresistible human tendency to seek
consolation in fantasy and also of the effort to resist this and the vision
of reality which comes with success’ (SG, p. 64). In this respect, art is
exemplary for morality. It is ‘the most educational of all human activi-
ties and a place in which the nature of morality can be seen’ (SG,
pp. 87–8). Despite her deep affinities with Plato, then, Murdoch sees the
deceptive potential of art – its tendency ‘to seek consolation in fantasy’ –
as useful to morality rather than merely harmful. Art engages the
human temptation to impose form on reality and to coerce reality to
the ego’s purposes, but it also exercises our capacity to overcome or
resist that temptation.
As an exercise in unselfing, moreover, art provides an occasion for
moral discipline both in its creation and in its consumption or enjoy-
ment. It requires the artist to put aside ‘personal fantasy: the tissue of self-
aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from
seeing what is there outside one’ (SG, p. 59). The consumer of art has an
analogous task: ‘to be disciplined enough to see as much reality in the
work as the artist has succeeded in putting into it, and not to ‘use it as
magic’ (SG, p. 64). In a famous passage, Murdoch characterizes truthful
moral vision as follows: ‘Rilke said of Cézanne that he did not paint
“I like it”, he painted “There it is”’ (SG, p. 63). The sharp distinction
drawn here between the artist’s personal or subjective desire (‘I like it’)
92 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

and the clear vision he struggles to achieve (‘There it is’), suggests that art,
as a discipline of unselfing, requires a total withdrawal or renunciation of
subjectivity: ‘the greatest art is “impersonal”’ (SG, p. 65). The same fea-
ture is apparent in the M and D example: M can only see D ‘as she really
is’ if she ceases to focus on her own selfish reasons for disliking D. In
another passage, Murdoch describes unselfing as a form of ‘detachment’,
the distancing of the self from its own desires. ‘It is obvious here what is
the role, for the artist or spectator, of exactness and good vision: unsen-
timental, detached, unselfish, objective attention. It is also clear that in
moral situations a similar exactness is called for’ (SG, pp. 65–66).
As these passages demonstrate, Murdoch’s characterization of the
similarity between art and morality alternates between the language of
analogy and the (rather stronger) language of instance. That is, art is not
only an excellent analogy of morals – ‘a place where the nature of moral-
ity can be truly seen’; it may even be a case (or instance) of morals’ (SG,
p. 59). In one passage, for example, Murdoch notes that the apprecia-
tion of beauty (whether in art or in nature) is not only ‘the easiest avail-
able spiritual exercise; it is also a completely adequate entry into (and
not just analogy of) the good life, since it is the checking of selfishness
in the interest of seeing the real’ (SG, p. 65). In such passages, the dis-
tinction between art and ethics seems to collapse altogether. Good art is
not simply like virtuous conduct; it is itself a form or end product of vir-
tuous conduct. Similarly, mediocre or bad art is not simply like mediocre
conduct; rather, bad art and bad conduct result from a failure of unself-
ing, and both display precisely the opposite features that good art or
virtuous behaviour display: ‘the intrusion of fantasy, the assertion of
self, the dimming of any reflection of the real world’ (SG, p. 59). Such
passages suggest that art is itself an instance of moral conduct: ‘Virtue is
au fond the same in the artist as in the good man’ (SG, p. 41).
Although this view seems to veer uncomfortably close to a didactic
view of art, where good art is good only insofar as it is ‘good for us’ (that
is, insofar as it serves a moral purpose), Murdoch consistently rejected
such a view in her writings and interviews. Accordingly, these passages
should not be taken to mean that in promoting the ethical project of
unselfing, art is serving a purpose outside itself. Rather, the claim is that,
insofar as the aim of art is realistic (that is to ‘delineate nature with a
clear eye’), the discipline of unselfing is integral to the practice of good
art. Without this discipline, what the artist will produce is not a vision
of reality, but her own fantasy.
Given this virtual identification between art and ethics as forms of real-
istic or purified vision, it is not difficult to see why the tension between
Maria Antonaccio 93

saint and artist seems to be missing from Murdoch’s moral theory. In The
Sovereignty of Good, she portrays the artist not as a ‘worldly hedonist’ but
as a moral pilgrim, treading the same path of self-abnegation as the saint
on the way to a vision of the real. Art is itself a technique of unselfing
and an instance of what Murdoch means by ‘goodness’ or ‘virtue’. If our
discussion were to end here, those who interpret Murdoch primarily as
an ascetic philosopher whose moral theory lacks the internal tension and
dynamism of the novels would have a point.
But this is not the end of the story: an aesthetic countercurrent runs
through Murdoch’s account of unselfing in The Sovereignty of Good. As
we will see, metaphors of creativity and aesthetic perception play a role
in Murdoch’s ethics that work against the idea of a total unselfing.

Morality as an exercise of imagination

In order to grasp this point, I want to return briefly to the example of
M and D. A closer reading reveals that truthful moral perception may
not, in fact, involve a complete renunciation of self, but rather depends
on the creative imagination and personality of the individual agent.
These aesthetic elements put pressure on the ascetic ideal which other-
wise dominates the text and open the possibility for a more nuanced
reading of the dynamics of unselfing.
There are at least three ways in which art (or activities associated with
art) emerges in the M and D example to resist the ascetic or saintly ideal.
The first is the role of imagination in the process of acquiring truthful
vision. As Murdoch notes, M’s transformed perspective on D suggests
that ‘clear vision is a result of moral imagination and moral effort’ (SG,
p. 37). It is not, therefore, simply a passive apprehension or contempla-
tion of reality. In other writings, Murdoch describes the imagination as
an active moral faculty, even a form of willing. ‘The world which we
confront is not just a world of “facts” but a world upon which our imag-
ination has, at any given moment, already worked; and although such
working may often be “fantasy” and may constitute a barrier to our see-
ing “what is really there”, this is not necessarily so’.5 Murdoch describes
the difference between the two activities in Metaphysics as a Guide to
Morals as follows: while fantasy ‘mechanically generat[es] narrowly
banal false pictures (the ego as all-powerful)’, imagination ‘freely and
creatively explor[es] the world, moving toward the expression and elu-
cidation [. . .] of what is true and deep’.6 From this perspective, M’s
effort to set aside her negative impressions of D is an effort to overcome
her fantasies, while her creative re-description of D’s qualities in more
generous terms represents the use of her imagination.
94 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

Much more needs to be said about the distinction between fantasy

and imagination in Murdoch’s work,7 but the important point for our
purposes is that the process of unselfing does not simply banish all
images from consciousness. Rather, it involves a deeply creative engage-
ment with reality that generates images of its own. As Murdoch puts it,
‘we use our imagination not to escape the world but to join it’ (SG,
pp. 90–1). The idea that the imagination plays an active role in moral
perception suggests that the vision of reality that results from the prac-
tice of unselfing is not a vision that is uninflected by subjectivity, but a
vision that has been actively constructed by a perceiving subject.
The second important feature of the M and D example is closely related
to the first. The process of unselfing does not involve a total extinction
of M’s personality; quite the contrary. M’s re-description of D (as
‘refreshingly simple’ rather than ‘vulgar’, ‘spontaneous’ rather than
‘undignified’, etc.) (SG, pp. 18–9) is something she does with the
resources of her own unique moral temperament. Yet these personal or
‘subjective’ aspects do not prevent her from achieving a clear vision
of D; they are the necessary condition for it. M is able to see D apart
from the distorting lens of her earlier jealousy and elitism not by negat-
ing or renouncing her own individuality; rather, the effort she makes in
the struggle to perceive D more justly elicits her unique capacities.
The final point I wish to make about the example of M and D
concerns the nature of the moral vision that M achieves. The quality of
M’s perception of D seems nothing like the seemingly neutral or imper-
sonal detachment described in the passage about Rilke and Cezanne.
Murdoch uses the term ‘attention’ ‘to express the idea of a just and lov-
ing gaze directed upon an individual reality’ (SG, p. 34). Attention is a
type of vision that does not merely seek neutral ‘accuracy’ or ‘photo-
graphic realism’ in relation to its object. Rather, ‘what M is ex hypothesi
attempting to do is not just to see D accurately but to see her justly or
lovingly’ (SG, p. 34). Good vision is not ‘neutral’, like the eye of a cam-
era; it is human vision that has been purified of selfish desire.
Taken together, the passages that I have just noted seem to warn
against the idea that the self that has undergone the discipline of unself-
ing has been extinguished along with its desires. That is, they warn
against precisely the idea of a radical askesis that is often taken to be
Murdoch’s central moral imperative. Instead, what is suggested is that
truthful moral vision may have its own drive or eros – not the narrowly
self-serving drive of the fantasy-producing ego to judge reality by its
own self-centred standards, but the creative drive towards a loving
tolerance and acceptance of the reality of another being. The vision
Maria Antonaccio 95

achieved by unselfing is not a vision utterly devoid of self, but a sub-

jectivity purified of selfishness – a consciousness, that is, in which imag-
ination has triumphed over fantasy.
The alternation between these two perspectives in Murdoch’s
philosophy – one suggesting the ‘putative identity’ (SA, p. 365) between
art and ethics in the project of unselfing, and the other suggesting an
aesthetic resistance to a total unselfing – supports my larger claim in
this paper that Murdoch’s moral theory is marked by some of the same
internal tensions as the novels, and is not as monolithically committed
to a strenuously ascetic ideal as some have suggested. In the next part
of the paper, I want to suggest that a similar tension is present within
Murdoch’s account of consciousness. To this extent, the competing
ideals of saint and artist become an internal structural feature of her
account of moral consciousness.

Paradoxes of askesis and the reflexive structure of


Murdoch was keenly aware of the compensatory mechanisms of human

egoism – its capacity to generate new fantasies when the old ones have
been exposed, thus allowing the ego to reassert itself at the first avail-
able opportunity. While this regenerative capacity can be life saving, it
also represents the potential weakness in any ethic of unselfing. The
danger is that the attempt to overcome one’s ego may itself be a form of
egoism in another guise. Conradi has convincingly shown that this
is precisely the danger that Murdoch often exposed in her fiction,
usually with devastating wit and at the expense of her most pompous
characters. The question for this paper, however, is whether these dan-
gers are acknowledged, accounted for and guarded against in Murdoch’s
At first glance, the answer seems to be a resounding ‘No’. Given the
scathing critique launched in The Sovereignty of Good against the medi-
ocrity and unambitiousness of modern ethics, Murdoch seemed intent
on defending high-minded ideals from degeneration, rather than pok-
ing fun at them as she does in the novels. Yet I believe that Murdoch
did recognize the dangers of her own philosophy’s high-mindedness
from the inside, as it were, and that this is evident in her account of
consciousness. Although I cannot develop this point in adequate detail
here, my contention is that what Murdoch’s philosophy calls for is not
simply the renunciation of the ego, but a form of consciousness that
guards against every false consolation – including the consolation of
96 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

believing that one has overcome one’s ego (or that one has achieved a
vision of the good). This reflexive posture allows Murdoch to retain
both an aspiration towards high ideals and a suspicion of such ideals
insofar as they often lead to self-deception, hubris or cruelty.
In order to show that Murdoch was aware of the self-refuting para-
doxes that attend ideals of renunciation, I want to return briefly to her
account of human egoism. Earlier, we saw that moral change involves
not only a redirection of vision, but a reorientation of psychic energy.
What deserves further emphasis, however, is that the direction of our
vision, the quality of our attention and desires, have already been so
deeply habituated and conditioned by the ego’s tendency to protect
itself that they are almost mechanistic in their tenacity. On the Freudian
view that Murdoch explicitly endorses, the psyche is ‘an egocentric
system of quasi-mechanical energy, largely determined by its own indi-
vidual history, whose natural attachments are sexual, ambiguous, and
hard for the subject to understand or control. Introspection reveals only
the deep tissue of ambivalent motive, and fantasy is a stronger force
than reason’ (SG, p. 51). The relentlessly ‘machine-like’ nature of the
psyche actually makes self-scrutiny dangerous because the psyche is
‘programmed’, so to speak, to look after itself. So relentless is this
machinery that even a negative judgement of oneself may perpetuate a
consoling self-absorption. The reflexive nature of self-scrutiny allows
the psyche to double back on itself and produce ‘plausible imitations of
what is good’ under the guise of sado-masochism.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Murdoch sought a source of
psychic transformation outside the naturally selfish consciousness. She
recognized that the perverse reflexivity of human egoism infects con-
sciousness in such a way that looking inward may only heighten the
psyche’s tendency to console and deceive itself. This is why Murdoch
often conceived the cure for human egoism in terms of a radical unself-
ing that seems to demand the death of the ego, the extinction of per-
sonality, the stripping of images and fantasies. But she also understood
that even these radical strategies of circumvention remain flawed and
vulnerable. There is no guarantee that even the most well-intentioned
effort to escape selfish fantasy will not get drawn ineluctably back into
the powerfully self-regarding machinery of the psyche. Even the most
radical renunciations (perhaps especially the most radical renunciations)
will be accompanied by new compensations that threaten to ensnare
the ego all over again.
Readers of the novels know how many would-be saints and moral pil-
grims in the novels receive their comeuppance through precisely this
Maria Antonaccio 97

mechanism. But I believe that Murdoch’s philosophy also responded to

this potential of even the most radical unselfing to double back on
itself. She tried, in effect, to inoculate her ethics against the ego’s con-
stant tendency to reassert itself by admitting rather than denying the
self-refuting nature of most of our attempts to be ‘selfless’ or ‘good’. For
Murdoch, the successful askesis can never be simply renunciatory.
Rather, the cure for egoism must be reflexive enough to use the very
form of the problem in its solution. This is why unselfing requires a con-
stant process of purification that enlists rather than simply negates the
contents and dynamics of consciousness in their own self-correction.
In this respect, Murdoch’s account of consciousness is structurally
homologous to her understanding of art. Although art is deceptive and
fantasy mongering, caught up in the ego’s search for self-protective con-
solation, it can also tell the truth about human life. Precisely because of
its ‘doubleness’, art can teach us more about the difference between
appearance and reality, and about the movement from one to the other,
if we engage with it in its complexity than if we try to avoid it or ban-
ish it from the moral life. For the same reason, and despite the language
of unselfing that she so frequently associated with truthful vision,
Murdoch also acknowledged the role of the agent’s personality in moral
perception, the way in which egoistic fantasy can be purified through a
creative use of moral attention and imagination. Truthful vision and
moral virtue are not impossible for human beings; but they are only
achieved in and through the self-reflexive dynamics of consciousness.
As an ‘anti-puritan puritan’, Murdoch embedded a critique of the
dangers of unselfing and of the pitfalls of moral striving within her the-
ory of consciousness and of art alike. In doing so, her philosophy, as
Conradi noted of her fiction, ‘mocks moral excess at the same time that
it invites it’.

Conclusion: Murdoch’s contribution to contemporary ethics

In this paper, I have tried to suggest certain thematic continuities

between the characteristic doubleness of Murdoch’s fiction and aspects
of her moral philosophy. I have tried to show that there is a tension in
The Sovereignty of Good between the saintly project of unselfing, which
seems to demand ‘nothing less than the death of the ego’ (FU, p. 10),
and an aesthetic countercurrent to this imperative, which celebrates the
imagination and allows for the expression of personality in the grasp of
the real. The question I would like to address in concluding is whether
an ethic such as Murdoch’s, which affirms both the height of human
98 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

moral aspiration and the depth of our moral failures, can be sustained
in the face of positions like Nussbaum’s, which are suspicious of high
In her Gifford Lectures, Upheavals of Thought, Nussbaum argues that
there is a temptation in all ideals ‘to despise what is merely human and
every day’.8 The danger of high ideals, such as Plato’s ascent to the Good,
is that ‘by lifting us above ourselves, they risk the orgy of disgust when
we discover our daily reality’ (UT, p. 712). To avoid this potential of
ideals to evoke both ‘self hatred and the hatred of others’ (UT, p. 709),
Nussbaum favours the anti-Platonism of James Joyce, the artist she con-
siders the clearest anti-type to Murdoch. Joyce reverses the direction
of the Platonic ascent in order to ‘say yes to humanity’, and to allow
people to be themselves (UT, p. 704). The proper response to the danger
of high ideals, on this view, is to plunge more deeply into the human
world, since whatever transcendence is available to us can be found only
there. By invoking Joyce, Nussbaum takes the part of an anti-puritan to
what she regards as Murdoch’s puritanism and otherworldly asceticism.
Yet if my argument in this paper is at all convincing, Murdoch’s posi-
tion may have the resources to absorb Nussbaum’s critique. While
Nussbaum feels compelled to abandon the Platonic quest for the Good
for fear that it will turn us against our own flawed humanity in disgust,
Murdoch insists that we need to preserve the tension between the high-
est and the destructive ways we fail to reach it, as an internal feature of
our idealism. Instead of fleeing such ideals, Murdoch builds the con-
sciousness of imperfection and failure into her account of egoism and
the paradoxes of askesis. She combines an aspiration towards the high-
est with the risks and dangers of it. In this respect, her anti-puritan
puritanism resists, but also celebrates, even the consolations afforded by
that tolerant and humane worldliness that her own work does so much
to promote.

1. See ‘When She Was Good’, a review of the Conradi biography, The New
Republic (December 2003), p. 31 – hereafter WG.
2. For an earlier attempt to relate Murdoch’s fiction to her philosophy, see my
‘Form and Contingency in Iris Murdoch’s Ethics’ in Iris Murdoch and the
Search for Human Goodness (eds.), Maria Antonaccio and William Schweiker
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 110–37.
3. The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge, 1970), p. 50 – hereafter SG.
4. David J. Gordon, Iris Murdoch’s Fables of Unselfing (Columbia: University of
Missouri Press, 1995), p. 68 – hereafter FU.
Maria Antonaccio 99

5. ‘The Darkness of Practical Reason’ in EM, p. 199.

6. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (New York: Viking/Penguin Press, 1993),
p. 321.
7. See my Picturing the Human: The Moral Thought of Iris Murdoch (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2000) and also ‘Imagining the Good: Iris Murdoch’s
Godless Theology’, Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, 16 (1996), 233–42.
8. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2001), p. 713 – hereafter UT.
The Curse of The Bell: The Ethics
and Aesthetics of Narrative
Bran Nicol

‘The story is a natural unit which we all use every day.

We are all story-tellers and in this sense we are all
literary artists’.
—‘Art is the Imitation of Nature’ (1978) 1

Literature and philosophy

A common critical procedure in examining Murdoch’s writing has been

to measure her novels against her philosophy, to consider (for example)
whether the behaviour of her characters and the events depicted in her
plots exemplify or compromise her ethical principles. This is under-
standable given the remarkable clarity and consistency of her moral
philosophy over four decades, the similarity between the scenarios
repeatedly presented in her novels and the issues dealt with in her non-
fiction, and perhaps also because of an implicit hierarchy which prevails
in contemporary critical practice whereby theoretical pronouncements
are privileged over fictional practice.
Yet I think there is a value in turning this relationship between
Murdoch’s philosophy and literature around, and recognizing that
certain of her key philosophical concerns might usefully be regarded
as fundamentally literary problems. At the very least, we need to
acknowledge that her philosophical concerns run along similar lines
to the questions explored by literary theorists. This is the starting
point for this essay, which will concentrate on the significance of one
particular ‘literary’ question in Murdoch’s fiction and philosophy:
narrative form.
In her philosophical writing, from the outset, Murdoch explored the
significance of narrative in our lives, specifically in relation to morality.

Bran Nicol 101

‘Vision and Choice in Morality’ (1956) examines the role in determining

our actions played by what she terms ‘personal fables’. The ‘personal
fable’ is a ‘meditation upon the conception of [one’s] own life, with its
selective and dramatic emphases and implications of direction’. A per-
son regards his or her life ‘as having a certain meaning and a certain
kind of movement’. It may cause someone to consider themselves ‘as set
apart from others, by a superiority which brings special responsibilities,
or by a curse, or some other unique destiny’.2 In a later essay, ‘Art is the
Imitation of Nature’ this theme has developed into a much more confi-
dent and universal assertion that:

[w]e are all story-tellers and we tell stories about people, and we tell
these stories not only to other people but also to ourselves. We have
in our activity as story-tellers a way of judging, a way of evaluating
the world that surrounds us, and this gives us in return a sense of our
own identity, our separateness, our own self-being
(AIN, p. 253).

It is not an exaggeration to say that this statement summarizes

Murdoch’s chief preoccupation throughout her writing career, which
dominated both her moral philosophy and her fiction. Essays such as
these are concerned with the process of moral reasoning (in relation to
established universal rules of morality) or the value of art and literature
to moral judgement. We might argue that because of the centrality of
this theme to her philosophy, it is not surprising that her fiction should
constantly portray characters who, in different ways and for different
reasons – and with varying degrees of success – impose narratives on
their lives. As numerous novels show (A Severed Head, The Black Prince,
The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, The Sea, the Sea) this is the distinc-
tive strategy of the ‘artist-figure’ in Murdoch’s novels (the polar oppo-
site to the figure of ‘the saint’), by which he interprets his own life and
maintains power over others.
But the ubiquity of this motif in Murdoch’s fiction is not the result of
the author ‘trying out’ philosophical experiments in her writing.
Murdoch’s discomfort with the label ‘philosophical novelist’, which
implied that her fiction was simply another form for her philosophical
inquiry (as in the case of Sartre), is well documented.3 Rather, it seems
sensible to assume that Murdoch’s interest in narrative is due to her
own fascination with the practice of writing fiction. Central to her the-
ory of fiction was the need to check the desire to create a narrative pat-
tern in order to facilitate the presentation of believable characters.
102 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

Undoubtedly this is because her own ability to create narrative was

considerable – perhaps her major strength as a novelist. In fact, this abil-
ity needs to be taken into account when assessing Murdoch’s achieve-
ment among novelists in the late twentieth century, even though it
could be easily overlooked (given her reputation as a serious author, and
the fact she tended to downplay the importance of narrative in her lit-
erary theory). Murdoch’s status as supreme story-teller is at the heart of
responses to her novels. Those who dislike her fiction object to a kind
of excess – of which narrative excess is one of the most central features.
Those who enjoy it are gripped by precisely this glorying in the constant
twists and turns of plot.
The production of narrative, then, is not just something that
Murdoch was interested in as philosophical or literary theme, but
something she did continually throughout her life. This essay, rather
than dwelling upon her ability to produce compelling narratives, or
trying to reverse the implicit privileging of the ‘philosophical’ over the
‘literary’ in approaches to Murdoch, will consider one of the key
effects of the fact that Murdoch did not just write about narrative, but
was an exponent of it. Because narrative is both the subject of her
fiction and the form through which this subject is treated, it means
that one of the most striking features of Murdoch’s fiction is the way
it implicates the reader in precisely the same dilemma as the charac-
ters: we ‘feel’ Murdoch’s philosophy, and this makes it all the more

Chance and design

To define narrative at any great length is probably unnecessary here.

Suffice to say that the established structuralist definition of narrative
holds true: it is divided into three parts: the story (a set of events),
recounted in a discourse (a process of narration), where the events are
selected and arranged in a particular order (the plot).4 But this formal
definition only hints at what we might regard as the more philosophical
or ethical definition of narrative, which is the one most relevant to
Murdoch. What is the purpose or function or effect of narrative? The
answer is that it is a way of imposing order on contingent events, a way
of making sense of experience, present or past, that provides us with a
coherent sense of self. In Murdoch’s own words, narrative is, ‘a way of
judging, a way of evaluating the world that surrounds us, and this gives
us in return a sense of our own identity, our separateness, our own self-
being’ (VCM, p. 253).
Bran Nicol 103

In literary narrative there are two specific dimensions to this process:

the writer shapes events into a particular order, and so does the reader.
The logic is most obviously illustrated in the detective story, where the
writer tells ‘what really happened’ – though not in a straightforward
way, but by using artifice to disguise or omit crucial details, conversa-
tions and events. The fundamental rule of the detective novel is that the
truth must be concealed, but that it must also be present in disguised
form, so the reader will not feel cheated.5 The author of the detective
story must therefore engage in a number of techniques of concealment
and distraction in order to put up a smokescreen. The reader’s job is to
‘recuperate’ the tantalizing fragments of the story, to piece it all together.
This is why, in his essay, ‘The Typology of Detective Fiction’, Tzvetan
Todorov (drawing on an old article by the detective writer S.S. Van Dine)
posits a homology that aligns the author with the criminal rather than
the detective: ‘author:reader = criminal:detective’.6
But analysing how detective fiction works underlines the fact that
reading all fiction is a process akin to detection. It reminds us that all
narrative constantly involves artifice: telling a story is not an innocent
act, involving a natural sequence of events which can simply be some-
how ‘extracted’ and represented in prose or on screen. Rather narrative
involves selection, organization, interpretation, on the part of the narra-
tor. Similarly, reading is not a simple matter of receiving a narrative pas-
sively, but requires a certain degree of activity: for example, we respond
to repetitive elements in the text, such as repeated events and symbols.
And, as Murdoch herself says, the language of narrative is ‘evaluative’ –
the story is fundamentally, ‘concerned with the communication of
emotion’ (AIN, p. 252).
The moral dilemmas which feature in Murdoch’s fiction revolve
around the subjective, aesthetic nature of narrative. More precisely the
complexity arises from the apparent ‘reversibility’ (if I may borrow a
term from the enigmatic lexicon of Baudrillard) of ‘chance’ and ‘design’.
Reversibility is when the possibility of distinguishing satisfactorily
between separate entities, of marking the boundaries between things
and concepts, becomes eroded. It would be hard to imagine a more dif-
ferent philosopher from Baudrillard than Murdoch, but central to her
fiction is the human predisposition to regard chance and design as
‘reversible’. The moral imperative behind her thought is that chance
events be accepted for what they are, as accidents. Recognizing this is a
crucial step on the way to other, more profound, aspects of moral
enlightenment such as recognizing the fundamentally godless nature of
the universe and the absurd (that is pointless, accidental) nature of our
104 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

existence in it. But, as her novels show, human beings are naturally
predisposed to make connections between things, to put events in nar-
rative sequence. And this means that we have a natural tendency to
regard chance events as part of a pattern. Her fiction demonstrates how
tempting it is – even for those not bent on falsifying or dramatizing
reality – to build up a narrative around one’s life, to connect together
disparate features into an explanatory whole.
This natural tendency towards ‘narrativization’ means that we apply
the logic of art to life. 7 As Murdoch says in ‘Art is the Imitation of
Nature’: ‘[w]e are all story-tellers and in this sense we are all literary
artists’ (AIN, p. 252). In a work of art, no element is insignificant. This
logic applies especially to narrative, as Roland Barthes makes clear in his
famous 1966 essay, ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of
Narratives’. There he insists that, ‘everything, down to the slightest
detail, [has] a meaning [. . .]. Even were a detail to appear irretrievably
insignificant, resistant to all functionality, it would nonetheless end up
with precisely the meaning of absurdity or uselessness: everything has a
meaning, or nothing has’. 8
Nor does the total ‘functionality’ of narrative apply simply to the
details in a narrative, but also to the sequence of events. ‘The main-
spring of narrative’, Barthes argues, is the confusion between ‘consecu-
tion and consequence’, where ‘what comes after’, in a temporal sense, is
interpreted by the reader as being ‘what is caused by’ (Barthes, 1977,
p. 94). This can be illustrated by the formula known as ‘Chekhov’s Gun’,
the principle that (as the dramatist Chekhov said on several occasions)
if a rifle is placed on the stage at the beginning of a drama, then sooner
or later, it must go off. 9 The Murdochian version of this, we might say,
is that if there is water, then someone will drown in it (think of Nick in
The Bell or Titus in The Sea, the Sea).
In adhering to their own ‘personal fable’, Murdoch’s artist-figures
tend repeatedly to mistake chance for design. A person suddenly enters
or re-enters their life (as in The Black Prince or The Sea, the Sea), a dread-
ful accident occurs (as in The Good Apprentice), an event is repeated
(A Word Child). These are chance events, but on each occasion chance is
mistaken for evidence of Destiny. The world of characters like Bradley
Pearson, Charles Arrowby, Edward Baltram and Hilary Burde resembles
the ‘significance world’ of primitive people Freud writes about in Totem
and Taboo. Freud’s conviction is that art is one of the aspects of modern
life where an ancient animistic sensibility prevails – in which there is no
distinction between the real world and the world of the mind. This
means that, in the mind of the artist, as in the neurotic’s, psychotic’s or
Bran Nicol 105

child’s mind, accidental events can appear as part of a pattern. A symp-

tom of this is what Freud calls ‘the omnipotence of thought’, where one
regards as an external magical force something which in fact originates
in one’s own mind.10 Murdoch was aware of this capacity of art, too, for
all her appreciation of its value as conveyer of truth: she insists in ‘Art
is the Imitation of Nature’ that, ‘it would be impossible to over-estimate
the magical nature of art’ (AIN, p. 251).
As they are naturally inclined towards neurosis, Murdoch’s everyday
artists exhibit this state of mind, but in doing so they remind us that a
similar state of mind is demanded by the work of art. For the paradox is
that the chance events they misinterpret as significant actually have a
double status in relation to the question of narrative. While, on the one
hand, they are to be seen – at the level of the story – as non-narrative
elements falsely gathered up into a character’s ‘personal fable’, on the
other hand, precisely because this is a meaning conveyed within the
story, and as Barthes says, ‘what is noted is by definition notable’ in nar-
rative (p. 89), they figure as functional elements in the prose narrative in
which they appear (i.e., the Iris Murdoch novel). This doubleness
implicitly reminds the reader of Murdoch’s fiction of the similarity
between the interpretive endeavours of the characters they read about
and their own task as decoders of her narratives.

The rational and the irrational: The Bell

To illustrate how this works in practice, we can turn to Murdoch’s 1958

novel The Bell. Its hero, Michael Meade, is someone who exemplifies the
dangers of living according to the logic of the ‘personal fable’. Like more
obviously neurotic heroes who come later in her fiction, like Bradley
Pearson or Hilary Burde, Michael’s way of responding to troublesome
situations is to interpret them in terms of a narrative imposed as if by
some external force – a ‘personal fable’ – and then to act in a way which
conforms to its apparent logic. Michael is a religious man, and its func-
tion as generator of explanatory narratives explains the appeal of reli-
gion to him. As the narrator of The Bell says, ‘it was an aspect of
Michael’s belief in God, and one which although he knew it to be dan-
gerous he could never altogether reject, that he expected the emergence
in his life of patterns and signs. He had always felt himself to be a man
with a definite destiny, a man waiting for a call’ (p. 82).11
The tendency to impose a dramatic narrative on chance events is
exhibited as he tries to make sense of troublesome events in his life. The
scandal involving his relationship with Nick Fawley which destroyed
106 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

his school-teaching career is rationalized by him as something ‘designed

to humble him’ (p. 108). When Nick then unexpectedly shows up at
Imber, the religious community Michael presides over, Michael feels
that his appearance is ‘no accident’ (p. 114). Finally, when the initial
scandal repeats itself after Michael cannot stop himself from kissing
another schoolboy, Toby, and is swiftly followed by Nick’s death,
Michael immediately assumes both occurrences are part of a plot by
Nick to exact a fitting revenge.
But because The Bell is a narrative itself, and not just about narrative,
we do not simply ‘watch’ Michael’s narrativization of his life, but
become aware that we are engaged in a similar activity. To understand
how this works we need to consider in detail the complex dualistic
structure of the novel, which is chiefly what guides the reader through
his or her interpretation of the text. A dualistic structure is not unusual
in a work by Murdoch, for she was a remarkably dualistic thinker and
writer. But there is something remarkable about the way aspects of this
novel run parallel to and dovetail with one another.
The story and intellectual content of the novel is founded upon an
overall opposition between the rational and the irrational. The life of
the lay community at Imber, where the story is set, is a rationalistic one,
sustained chiefly via the organizing vision and guidance of Michael and
his co-leader James Tayper Pace. Against this, though, must be set the
legend of the old bell which lies at the bottom of the lake and which is
the source of many uncanny elements of the story. According to a leg-
end uncovered by Paul Greenfield, the self-appointed historian of the
Abbey, it lies there as a result of a curse issued by one of the medieval
bishops following a scandalous affair between a nun and a man from
outside. Paul tells Dora that ‘there is a story about the bell ringing some-
times in the bottom of the lake, and [. . .] if you hear it, it portends a
death’ (p. 43).
The opposition between the rational and the irrational universe in
the novel is paralleled on a generic level. On the one hand, The Bell is
the first successful example of Murdoch’s distinctive aim to re-imagine
nineteenth-century classic realism for the late twentieth century: that is
it contains a number of characters whom we can imagine living a life
outside the work in which they are contained. Yet the novel’s realism is
offset by features of the gothic romance. This is suggested most obvi-
ously by the novel’s ‘geography’ which plays on gothic conventions –
isolated ancient buildings surrounding a deep lake. One of the features
of the literary gothic is the way it favours settings which evoke a dark
past out of which something emerges (such as a secret) that comes to
Bran Nicol 107

haunt the characters.12 This is how the lake and the bell function in The
Bell where the characters (Michael, Toby and especially Dora) often look
out at the lake and experience an indistinct sense of foreboding.
Both the rational and irrational, the realist and gothic, dimensions of
The Bell are underscored by a structure of repetition. First, the realist
dimension is serviced by the dialogue about goodness conducted
throughout its pages, which turns on the two sermons given by James
and then Michael. Each opens with the line, ‘The chief requirement of
the good life’ (pp. 131, 200), each considers the question of innocence,
and each uses the image of a bell to reinforce what they have to say.
Both debate the kind of ideas about universal and personal rules of
morality explored in ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’, the essay
Murdoch was writing while planning the novel. Second, a similar pat-
tern of repetition functions in the gothic dimension of the book, and
this serves to puncture the sense of dialogic rationality conveyed by the
two sermons. Twice, in episodes that are described identically in their
initial lines, Michael is awakened from his sleep, ‘by a strange hollow
booming sound which seemed to come from the direction of the lake’
(pp. 78, 223). The first turns out to be another example of a recurring
dream Michael has, where he watches some nuns drag a corpse out of
the lake and wonders whose it might be. On the second occasion
Michael is really awakened by the sounding of the old bell after Toby
and Dora have pulled it out of the water.
Just like the plot, then (which revolves around the disastrous repeti-
tion of Michael’s desire for a young man) the symbolic and philosoph-
ical texture of this novel works according to the logic of repetition
too. The repeated sermon episodes signify the rhythms of a community
sustained by a rational, traditional ideology. But these are counter-
pointed by the disorienting effect of Michael’s hearing the booming of
a distant bell. The old bell is the marker of an original time of trauma.
At the same time, it heralds, portentously, an event in the future. It is a
reminder of a story of inappropriate love which leads to tragedy, and as
such cannot be forgotten until a similar story is played out again.
As the novel approaches its conclusion it seems that its logic – as we
might expect from the resolutely rationalist character of Murdoch’s
philosophy – is to insist that the rational approach to our lives should
win out over the irrational. Michael is finally able to resist the temp-
tation to account for chance events by wrapping them up in a self-
aggrandizing narrative. He is able to acknowledge that, ‘[t]he pattern
which he had seen in his life had existed only in his own romantic
imagination. At the human level there was no pattern’ (p. 308). This
108 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

suggests that his decision to return to school teaching may prove a

healthier kind of repetition.
Yet where Michael’s rational side appears to have triumphed over his
earlier determination to see his predicament as the result of fate or des-
tiny, in fact the relationship between the narrative which unfolds in the
novel and the myth of the old bell itself means that a sense of irra-
tionality is not so easily dispelled. And it is here that we must acknowl-
edge the role of the reader in responding to Murdoch’s narrative. Just
like Michael, the reader too has been engaging in a process of ‘narra-
tivization’ throughout the novel. We have been decoding devices such
as repetition and symbolism, making links between different aspects of
the text and organizing elements of the plot into story.
Because ‘what is noted is by definition notable’ (Barthes, p. 89) in nar-
rative, it means that as soon as Paul has recounted the legend of the old
bell, we are on the look out for parallels with Murdoch’s story as it
unfolds. And sure enough we find plenty. Toby climbs the high wall of
the Abbey, like the nun’s lover. Catherine, the faithless, lovesick nun,
runs into the lake to drown herself. Knowing the sound of the old bell
means death, where Michael hears booming sounds, the reader expects
a death to occur. This anticipation increases once Dora and Toby have
rescued the bell and accidentally caused it to ring – as a result of their
own illicit flirtation. The question, of course, as so often in Murdoch
(for example, The Book and the Brotherhood), is whose death will it be?
And given the number of illicit or inappropriate affairs in the story,
there is no shortage of potential candidates, such as Toby, Michael or
Catherine (a postulant who has been secretly in love with Michael for
years, and who eventually tries to drown herself in the lake). But of
course the casualty is Nick, disillusioned and perhaps jealous at
Michael’s passion for Toby. His suicide recasts Michael’s kiss as a smaller-
scale version of the illicit affair of the legend but with equally serious
The point here is that Nick’s suicide effectively asks the reader to
choose between the ‘rational’ and the ‘irrational’ positions in the text.
Because the legend promises a death and a death occurs, the implication
is that this means the old curse – as improbable as it seems – has come
true. Or are we to see this a simply a coincidence? Are we to resist this
particular narrative which is so strongly implied by the text? In this way
we become actively implicated in The Bell’s logic ourselves rather than
simply, passively, ‘watching’ the characters grappling with it. We are
confronted in other words with the dilemma surrounding narrative
which is at the heart of Murdoch’s writing, the apparent ‘reversibility’
Bran Nicol 109

between chance and design: life is a random chaotic flux but we are pre-
disposed to regard it as patterned.
But deciding finally between superstition and rationalism is not the
point. Instead, the very process of dealing with the ambiguity is really
what the novel is ‘about’, for it mirrors the dilemma which the central
characters face in relation to their own pasts. What can they learn from
it? Are sequences of events to be regarded purely as coincidental and
unrelated, or are they a kind of narrative from which the characters
should learn?

The Saint and the artist

The Bell is not simply about the hazards of imposing a narrative upon
one’s life. It also powerfully suggests the benefits. Michael Levenson has
argued that the novel can be read in terms of Murdoch’s conviction
about the value of narrative in making sense of moral experience
explored in ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’.13 Indeed, by the end, each
of the main characters has chosen a personal fable which has sufficient
objectivity to reinforce universal moral principles, such as understand-
ing one’s self and assessing how one’s behaviour impacts upon other
people. Michael comes to understand that ‘[t]he pattern which he had
seen in his life had existed only in his own romantic imagination. At
the human level there was no pattern’ (p. 308). Toby, in a letter to
Michael, acknowledges that now, ‘[h]e was in a new and wonderful
world, and already Imber had become a story’ (p. 305), while the last
line of the novel – ‘Tonight she would be telling the whole story to
Sally’ (p. 316) – indicates that Dora, too, has learned something from
the past which enables her to have a happy future.
The novel demonstrates the fact that reading is associated powerfully
with morals in Murdoch’s work. Her narrative is not just about the aes-
thetics of narrative, but about the ethics of narrative. It is about reading
carefully and correctly and choosing the correct personal fable. The cen-
tral characters of The Bell eventually do this – but many of her novels
(for example, A Severed Head or A Word Child) feature characters who are
unable to. Narrativization is not something we can do without, but we
must recognize how dangerously seductive it is.
The significance of narrative in Murdoch gives us another way of con-
ceptualizing the fundamental dichotomy in her writing between saint
and artist. We might tentatively suggest – in the spirit of reassessing
Murdoch’s work – that the saint and the artist theme, commonly
regarded as the foundation of her fiction is, in fact, part of a more
110 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

fundamental theme still which concerns the ethics and aesthetics of

narrative. Peter Conradi has shown in his book Iris Murdoch: The Saint
and the Artist that the struggle between saint and artist is more than
just a theme in Murdoch’s fiction, but informs its structure as well.
Murdoch’s fiction shifts between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ forms.14 A further
refinement of this theory might be to argue that the saint and the artist
as they operate in Murdoch’s fiction embody two different attitudes
towards narrative, which also work against each other in her own prac-
tice of composing fiction. The ‘saintly’ is a resistance to the force of nar-
rative and its Barthesian logic that everything always signifies, while the
‘artistic’ is a surrender to it.
What is worthwhile about this shift of emphasis in assessing
Murdoch’s writing is that it enables us to see how she relates to wider
currents of late twentieth-century fiction. A concern with the nature of
‘saint’ and ‘artist’ is unique to Murdoch’s work. Yet a concern with nar-
rative is not, and is shared by many other late twentieth- and twenty-first
century novelists. We might see her work in this respect as symptomatic
of the changed attitude to narrative which marks ‘postmodern’ culture.
This is suggested most notably by Jean-François Lyotard’s account of
postmodernity as the result of a pervasive ‘incredulity towards meta-
narratives’. Just like narratives in literature, metanarratives provide a
form into which a series of unrelated elements can be ordered, thereby
legitimizing scientific, religious, political and philosophical discourses,
and maintaining power. But our faith in these, Lyotard contends, is on
the wane.15
Murdoch’s fiction, we might argue, presents us with a world in which
the Christian metanarrative is in serious decline. The breakdown might
explain the wrong-headed approach to narrative adopted by Murdoch’s
‘artist-figures’, their immersion in an animistic ‘significance-world’. Her
work, in this respect, might plausibly be regarded as providing another
way of presenting the problem explored by postmodern novelists such
as Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo: that a condition or effect of the
breakdown in the credulity in metanarratives is a paranoid or neurotic
subjectivity. But a novel like The Bell also suggests a more rational
response to the decline in Christianity, by focusing directly on a com-
munity which has set itself the task of exploring how to determine spir-
itual meaning in an increasingly postreligious world. Faced with a
widespread disbelief in the Christian metanarrative, the inhabitants of
Imber have constructed their own ‘small’ narrative (‘un petit récit’, in
Lyotard’s terms, that which counters or replaces the metanarrative in
the postmodern imagination) about their past. This is clear from the
Bran Nicol 111

emphasis placed upon the central characters’ reflections on the lessons

they have learned from the story they have been involved in at the end
of the novel.

1. Murdoch, ‘Art is the Imitation of Nature’, in EM, pp. 243–57 – hereafter AIN.
2. Murdoch, ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’, in EM, pp. 76–89, 85–6 – here-
after VCM.
3. See, for example, her comment in the interview with Malcolm Bradbury
that, ‘there’s just a sort of atmosphere and, as it were, tension and direction
which is sometimes given by a philosophical interest, but not anything very
explicit’. Murdoch, interview with Malcolm Bradbury in ‘Iris Murdoch in
Conversation with Malcolm Bradbury’. British Council Literature Study Aids
Recorded Interview RS2001 (London, 27 February 1976).
4. The exact terminology for these three aspects varies, but there is a general
agreement as to their significance. See, for example, Seymour Chatman, Story
and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca and London:
Cornell University Press, 1978); Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay
on Method (trans.) Jane E. Lewin (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980); Shlomith Rimmon-
Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (London: Routledge, 1983).
5. Pierre Bayard, Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? (London: Fourth Estate, 2000).
6. Tzvetan Todorov, ‘The Typology of Detective Fiction’ in The Poetics of Prose
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1977), p. 49.
7. We might see Murdoch’s distrust of this procedure as another dimension of
what I have previously referred to as her ‘anti-modernism’ (See IM:TRF,
pp. 4–5, 146–7). Where the modernist novel typically glorifies the epiphanic
moment where mundane life seemingly opens up to reveal a powerful
aesthetic pattern, Murdoch’s fiction cautions against this impulse.
8. Roland Barthes, Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives: Image –
Music – Text (trans.), Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), p. 89.
9. See, for example, Chekhov’s letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev, 1
November 1889: ‘One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is
thinking of firing it’, or the report in Gurlyand’s Reminiscences of A.P.
Chekhov: ‘If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the
following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there’, in Teatr i
iskusstvo, 28 (July 1904), 521.
10. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (1913) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987),
pp. 143–4.
11. The Bell (1958) (London: Vintage, 1999). All references are to this edition.
12. Jerrold Hogle, ‘Introduction: The Gothic in Western Culture’, in The
Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (ed.), Jerrold Hogle (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 3.
13. Michael Levenson, ‘Iris Murdoch: The Philosophic Fifties and The Bell’,
Modern Fiction Studies, 47, 3 (2001), 576.
14. See Conradi, Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist.
15. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984).
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Part IV Rereading Literature
This page intentionally left blank
Saint Iris? Murdoch’s Place in the
Modern Canon
Nick Turner

For much of her career A.S. Byatt lauded Iris Murdoch, describing her as
a ‘literary mother’; on Murdoch’s death, Byatt said, ‘something in my
life, that was the most important thing in my literary life, has ended
[. . .] I think she was the most important novelist writing in my time’.1
Yet Byatt appears to have withdrawn her enthusiasm. Speaking more
recently, in 2003, she said:

I get a sense at the moment that Murdoch is at that stage where the
initial revelation/enthusiasm has worn off and people are wonder-
ing whether they overvalued her. I know a surprising number of real
Murdoch-lovers who say they can no longer read her [. . .] No,
I don’t think she is being read, and I think there is a hostile tone in
the general references. A guess I have is that the ‘charm’ of her world
has worn off and people are not always prepared to consider her
tougher thinking. Of all the writers who are in my own canon in my
head Murdoch has the shakiest position, I think because she was too
close in time – she was a way out of Kingsley Amis and boring joki-
ness for me.2

Given Byatt’s original estimation of Murdoch, and her role in the mak-
ing of Murdoch’s academic reputation, this sentiment is surprising. But
it is not out of kilter with other things that have been, and are being,
said about Murdoch at the moment.
I would like to characterize the modern canon – within the realm of
British literature – as post-war, taking us further back than the purely
contemporary, and avoiding the possible alliance of ‘modern’ with
‘modernist’. Before we even begin to interrogate Murdoch’s work, how-
ever, we have the tricky and now dangerous concept of ‘canon’. What

116 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

is a canon, precisely? What connections does it have with hegemony

and oppression? Do we still need a literary canon in the twenty-first
century? These questions have been thoroughly debated, chiefly by
American critics.3 As Frank Kermode points out, a canon is a list that
has always been open to change, just as biblical texts were, in the anal-
ogous Church’s canon. We also need to remember the views of Alistair
Fowler and Wendell V. Harris, who suggest that multiple canons exist,
such as the critical, official and pedagogical canon, as well as personal
canons of individual readers.4 Harold Bloom defines the canon as a
body of works by which writers are influenced; alongside lies
Kermode’s view that a work is canonical by being modern, that is, still
being alive and interpreted.5 Kermode feels, further, that works can slip
both into and out of the canon (an example being Botticelli), a point
with which Byatt agrees.6 Our nearness to Murdoch’s oeuvre – the fact
that, for many critics, she has been a contemporary novelist – involves
additionally the question of reputation. An acclaimed or – dare we
say – fashionable novelist who achieves a high contemporary visibility
might be seen as belonging to what Harris calls the ‘nonce’ canon
(Harris, 1991, p. 11). I propose that this ‘nonce’ canon involves critical
acclaim that is both ‘academic’ (critical, scholarly and pedagogical) and
‘popular’ (a wider reading public). Murdoch, most unusually in her era,
spanned both.
Murdoch entered the ‘academic’ canon in several ways. It began, of
course, with the fortuitous success of Under the Net in 1954, at one of
the many times when the novel was allegedly dead. This success was
artificially consolidated by the mistaken identification of Murdoch as
an ‘Angry Young Man’, and the placing of the novel as a product of
the ‘New University Wits’. Similarly, it was the product of a novelist–
philosopher who had, the previous year, introduced Sartre to Britain
with her pioneering study, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist. Thus began the
twin careers of philosopher and novelist, unusual for a British writer,
and quarry for investigation; despite Murdoch’s claims to the contrary,
scholars were willing and able to find matter for philosophical investi-
gation within the fiction. The essays ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful
Revisited’ and ‘Against Dryness’ involved Murdoch in debates about lit-
erature in the same way. These were serious novels that embodied ‘intel-
lectual weight’ then. After being read in terms of Murdoch’s statements
on literature, and her philosophical writings, later they would be
scanned for their allusions – the Shakespearean intertextuality, the ref-
erences to art and music. The novels also participate in debates on
ethics and theology.
Nick Turner 117

Byatt is quite right to acknowledge that her Degrees of Freedom con-

solidated something in canonizing Murdoch.7 What is particularly
interesting is a reason she gives for setting out on the book:

I began with a very simple, nagging curiosity to know exactly what

Miss Murdoch was talking about, what sort of moral statement she
was making, what were the ideas behind her novels. They presented
themselves, it seemed to me, like puzzles out of which a plan of ideas,
a scheme of references could be extracted for examination, with
some effort.8

Given this view, it is no surprise that one of Murdoch’s most impen-

etrable novels, The Unicorn (1963), is the sole subject of two books, one
of which appeared as early as 1969.9 A recognition of an academic mar-
ket for a book which concentrates on one novel is paralleled by the
many essays which grapple with The Black Prince. The mystifying nature
of some of the fiction, then, has actually solidified Murdoch’s position
within the academic canon.
Byatt feels that Murdoch was ‘canonised’ by the early essays of
Malcolm Bradbury, Lorna Sage and Frank Kermode.10 Bradbury and
Sage’s involvement with the Creative Writing programme at the
University of East Anglia shows them as critics working with Murdoch’s
fiction in an environment where new authors were germinating
(including Ian McEwan, who is the subject of another essay in this vol-
ume). This literary parenthood proves Bloom right: both he and Byatt
feel that the canon is the body of writers whom a new generation either
works from, or reacts against; Peter Conradi, in his biography, lists a suc-
cession of novelists (including Candia McWilliam, Alan Hollinghurst,
A.N. Wilson and Marina Warner) who are seen to be Murdoch’s heirs.
And one member of this list is Byatt herself.11
Degrees of Freedom started a critical ball rolling: other scholars would
join in the discussion, keeping Murdoch’s serious reputation high, a
form of ‘shadow’ around the ‘substance’ of her actual work.12 By the
1970s, Murdoch’s ‘canonicity’ was illustrated by frequent doctoral dis-
sertations, more monographs and, in 1978, a conference at Caen, the
first devoted solely to Murdoch. This was of course the year The Sea, the
Sea won the Booker – after Murdoch had won several other prizes in
the decade – and in the era before the prize’s esteem was as commercial
as it is now.
1986 and 1987 saw Murdoch’s critical and scholarly reputation at,
perhaps, its peak. The number of published articles on her work per year
118 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

was at its highest; Peter Conradi’s major study The Saint and the Artist
appeared, as did Harold Bloom’s collection of essays in Modern Critical
Views, in which he described Murdoch as the greatest contemporary
British writer, and identified The Good Apprentice as the nearest to a great
novel she had produced. An article by John J. Burke also appeared in
1987 entitled ‘Canonizing Iris Murdoch’, which found, in studies from
Elizabeth Dipple’s 1982 Work for the Spirit onwards, ‘the newly settled
conviction that she is a living writer whose work will almost certainly
last’ and ‘a strong probability she will be thought of as one of the most
important writers in English of the last part of the twentieth century’.13
At this time The Bell was the first Murdoch novel to become an A-level
set text; several others have followed including, surprisingly, The Green
Knight, one of Murdoch’s longest and most puzzling novels. An author’s
place in the ‘academic’ canon is solidified, as we see them being studied
prior to higher education: Shakespeare is read at school, as is William
Golding, often called the greatest of the post-war novelists; not far
behind lies Murdoch, now being introduced to many students taking
English at A-level.
It is impossible, of course, to completely separate the two fields of
‘popular’ and ‘academic’. By 1987 Murdoch had been nominated for the
Booker Prize six times and been made a Dame of the British Empire; her
work had appeared on stage, screen and television. She was – however
dangerous the word might be today– something of a celebrity. The nov-
els were being frequently republished under various labels; she was most
definitely a bestseller. The foregrounding of narrative links the academic
and popular fields: for example, the Graham Greene-like violence of
Henry and Cato has both a moral point, and a drive which involves
the reader at a surface level. This popular appeal is illustrated by the
passenger seen relaxing with a Murdoch novel in the British Rail adver-
tisement of the time. It is possible to place Murdoch’s novels within the
genres of mystery, thriller and fantasy, if one desires. This wide popu-
larity alongside intense scholarly interest helped the Iris Murdoch
Society to be born, and her work has long been available in translation
all over the world. Up to 1987, then, Murdoch belonged to what has
been called a ‘nonce’ canon, both scholarly and popular: visible, dis-
cussed, contemporary work, which has not yet had the opportunity to
pass into what Harris calls the ‘diachronic’ canon: a core which is
‘glacially changing’, and into which only a miniscule part of the ‘nonce’
canon actually passes (Harris, 1991, p. 113). Things changed, however.
With The Message to the Planet, Murdoch’s general reading public, it
seemed, began to tire of her, although the process had already begun
Nick Turner 119

with The Book and the Brotherhood, or even earlier. Certainly, although
The Message to the Planet had its fans, many of her readership seemed
exasperated; one of the most revelatory reviews was that of Jan Morris
in the Independent, a Murdoch lover who, like Byatt, felt that her time-
less world was beginning to seem dated.14 It is interesting, also, that
1989 also saw Anita Brookner and Margaret Drabble fare badly: the crit-
ics seemed to turn against the older ladies. Perhaps, after ten years of
Thatcherite government, Murdoch’s own politics was beginning to
cause annoyance in a left-wing intellectual climate. As the Young British
Artists were emerging, and the new, post-Granta novelists of the 1980s
had taken hold, was Murdoch being seen as both a literary and political
reactionary, upholding tradition and the world of the middle classes in
an unpalatable way? A similar problem arose with The Green Knight:
mixed reviews saw the author’s failure to write about the ‘real world’ as
a defect. Nicholas Spice, in the London Review of Books, for example,
complained that although allegedly set in the present ‘the world of The
Green Knight bears about as much relation to contemporary Britain as
the ‘lanthorn’ to the moon in Pyramus and Thisbe’.15
The changing intellectual fashions of the time need to be considered:
by the end of the 1980s, scholarly work was becoming increasingly
politicized and theorized, increasingly drawn to feminist studies, for
example, and this could not but damage Murdoch’s place in a ‘peda-
gogical’ canon. Byatt, talking of her book Imagining Characters: Six
Conversations on Women Writers with Ignes Sodre – reports that her pub-
lishers would have been happier with Doris Lessing or Angela Carter,
rather than the chapter on An Unofficial Rose.16 It is to the credit of
Murdoch’s work that there have been noble and successful attempts
to read her as a feminist, or to see the work in a post-modern, post-
structural and Bakhtinian light; but these are the exceptions rather than
the norm.
Murdoch’s place in the canon is complicated by the high level of vis-
ibility of her work during her lifetime, and the attention surrounding
her decline into Alzheimer’s. Writing in 2003, D.J. Taylor felt that ‘what
might be called the legend of Iris Murdoch has been up and running for
a good half-decade’.17 He felt that the biographies by John Bayley merely
added to a process that had already begun, and that Conradi’s biogra-
phy was ‘testimony to the eagerness with which predominantly non-
religious people will use religious language to describe someone or
something that inspires in them feelings of reverence and awe’.18
Commenting on the Murdoch ‘iconography’, like Peter Conradi in this
volume, Taylor links her to George Orwell: both are individuals who
120 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

would deplore this focus on themselves. Murdoch’s depiction of the

dubious attention given to Marcus Vallar in The Message to the Planet
and Peter Mir in The Green Knight has proved prophetic; in Murdoch’s
case, the media have made her an ‘Alzheimer’s poster-girl’. Perhaps this,
and the lapping up of the revelations about life in the Bayley house-
hold, say more about a general public interest in illness, unusual rela-
tionships and private lives, explored through biography.19
Certainly, if Murdoch has been canonized in a literal sense, according
to Taylor, A.N. Wilson’s Iris Murdoch – As I Knew Her attempts to demol-
ish the holiness and bring the image of Murdoch crashing back to earth.
The reaction against his work suggests that he is a Judas figure. The
curious thing is that Wilson does appear concerned about Murdoch’s lit-
erary reputation, which he wants to salvage from the image given out
by the Bayley books and the film, although he is accused of a mercenary
contribution to the Murdoch ‘industry’.20
Among such media hullabaloo – the film Iris, and several television
documentaries in 2002 – the novels appeared to be taking a backseat.
Philip Hensher, the previous year, had felt that ‘her serious reputation
is at a low point, and the flaws and longeurs of her work are all too evi-
dent’; later, it was said, ‘she seems to belong to another era, and the
protestations of Lorna Sage and Malcolm Bradbury that her work would
survive seem premature’.21 It is tempting to say that the attention to
Murdoch the personality caused this backlash, as a kind of reaction
against the popular; but Murdoch’s novels have always had their detrac-
tors, and this is nothing new. Murdoch, for many younger critics and
writers, will symbolize their parents’ generation, and something they
may want to escape. She is also a victim of her own reputation as a pop-
ular writer. Margaret Drabble – ironically, given the trajectory of her
own career – finds of Arnold Bennett that ‘in literary terms it was almost
inevitable that his reputation should decline. He had been a popular
writer; his popularity was certain to turn against him’; Bel Mooney cites
this and applies it to Murdoch.22
Although Vintage, from 2001, have reissued almost all Murdoch’s
novels, and they are said to be selling steadily and well, in our ratings-
obsessed culture, Murdoch did not feature in the top two hundred
books in the ‘Big Read’ of 2003; neither did she make a high rating in
the Orange survey of the best books by women writers. Her first editions
are not worth gold, and on Amazon’s Internet listings, only The Sea, the
Sea has a sales rank above 5000. Such figures should be treated with cau-
tion, yet the evidence together confirms that Murdoch has slipped out
of the ‘popular’ canon and become unfashionable. On the academic
Nick Turner 121

side, there are original and insightful essays in this volume that place
Murdoch within cultural materialism and feminist studies; regrettably,
this is an exception in scholarship, and Dominic Head’s use of
Murdoch’s ideas as his summary to The Cambridge Introduction to Modern
British Fiction 1950–2000 would appear unusual to many. Arguing
against the foregrounding of theoretical readings, the historical novel,
fantasy and magic realism, Head proposes that Murdoch’s moral phi-
losophy of fiction influences several significant post-war novelists, and
that her conviction about the novel parallels his central thesis: ‘that
narrative fiction plays a crucial role in assisting our comprehension of
public life, our understanding of cultural forms, and our recognition of
diverse personal identities’.23 Head admits, however, that his arguments
are currently unfashionable (p. 2).
It is, perhaps, too early to be able to say whether Murdoch’s work will
survive, despite A.N. Wilson’s assertion that it will: ‘At the moment
her reputation is low. It will rise’.24 Two successful International
Conferences on Murdoch at St Anne’s, Oxford and Kingston University
respectively, alongside the opening of The Centre for Iris Murdoch
Studies at Kingston University in 2004, is a definite, ‘Kermodean’ form
of attention to Murdoch, and a sign of the scholarly interest that con-
tinues to thrive.25 Reviewers still claim that novelists like Colm Toibin
and Patrick Gale demonstrate the influence of her work, and Alex
Ramon, in his essay in this volume, highlights Carol Shields’s acknowl-
edged debt to Murdoch. Zadie Smith has produced work with strong
‘Murdochian’ elements, as has Ian McEwan, which Anne Rowe illus-
trates in her essay, also in this volume.
Zadie Smith’s star may be waning, but she is nonetheless one of
Granta’s Best of British Young Writers, from 2003. Will White Teeth or
Monica Ali’s sensation of 2003, Brick Lane, become classics? I think they
are too critically fashionable, too immersed in the culture and politics
of their time, to last. It is interesting that Anita Brookner – whose work
could not be more different from theirs – has been seen as one of the
few contemporary writers whose work is likely to survive, since she
writes about the ‘universal’ themes of love, death and loneliness.26 This
bodes well for Murdoch. Ultimately, however, power lies with the pub-
lishing houses, for Murdoch needs to be in print, to be available for
study and reading in the future; canon-membership might be said to be
controlled by economic factors. Yet a recent article revealed that
Waterstone’s had sold 7000 copies of The Sea, the Sea in the past year, ‘a
rate of continuing popularity which almost all of today’s authors would
give their eye teeth to equal’.27 Perhaps Murdoch is not so unpopular
122 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

after all, and the existence of this volume itself is a testament to an

enduring academic interest in her work. And if Bloom is right, and
influence demonstrates canonicity, then the essays that follow suggest
that Murdoch’s place is indeed being secured.

1. The Guardian (9th February 1999), p. 3. Michael Levenson calls Murdoch
Byatt’s ‘literary mother’: ‘The Religion of Fiction’. Amanda Craig, in ‘When
Ideas Get in the Way of Fiction’, describes Byatt as the ‘self-appointed heir’
of Murdoch, The Times (28 August 2002), Features, p. 20.
2. Private email, 27 October 2003.
3. See, for example: Annette Kolodny, ‘The Integrity of Memory: Creating a
New Literary History of the United States’, American Literature, 57 (1985),
291–307; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Loose Canons (New York & Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1992).
4. Alistair Fowler, ‘Genre and the Literary Canon’, New Literary History, 11
(1979), 97–119; Fowler, Kinds of Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1982); Wendell V. Harris, ‘Canonicity’, Publications of the Modern
Language Association of America, 106, 1 (1991), 110–21.
5. Harold Bloom, The Western Canon (London: Macmillan, 1995); Frank
Kermode, Forms of Attention (London & Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1985); Frank Kermode, ‘The Future of the English Literary Canon’,
(ed.) Robert Clark, English Studies in Transition: Papers from the ESSE Inaugural
Conference (London: Routledge, 1993).
6. Private email, 27 October 2003.
7. Private email, 27 October 2003.
8. Byatt, Degrees of Freedom, (London: Vintage, 2004), p. 206.
9. Guy Backus, Iris Murdoch: The Novelist as Philosopher and the Philosopher as
Novelist; “The Unicorn” as a Philosophical Novel (European University Studies
160) (Berne: Peter Lang, 1986); Robert Detweiler, Iris Murdoch’s The Unicorn
(intro.) Alan Bass (New York: Seabury Press, 1969).
10. Private email, 27 October 2003.
11. IMAL, p. 595. Conradi is quoting the suggestions of Sage.
12. The analogy is Kermode’s. See Forms of Attention, p. 95.
13. John J. Burke, Jr., ‘Canonizing Iris Murdoch’, Studies in the Novel, 19, 4,
(1987), 486–94.
14. ‘Alas, for me it is also a world whose arcane and philosophical undertones,
which have fascinated us for so long through so many opacities of the
Murdochian vision, have lost their power to compel. I feel impertinent
saying it about a truly great artist [. . .] but I think it is time that Iris Murdoch
declared this particular genre closed.’ The Independent (30 September
1989), p. 34.
15. London Review of Books (4 November 1993), pp. 25–6.
16. A.S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre, Imagining Characters (Chatto, 1995).
17. D.J. Taylor, The Guardian (26 August 2003), p. 18.
18. D.J. Taylor, ‘The Baffling Beatification of Saint Iris’, The Independent (18
September 2001), p. 7.
Nick Turner 123

19. ‘It says something about the gross sentimentality of our culture that these
repellent volumes could ever have been read as a love story.’ Joan Smith in
The Times (6 September 2003, Review), p. 12.
20. ‘Having been gazumped by Peter Conradi, it is hard to see his contribution
to an industry, which seems set to rival that of the Bloomsbury set or Sylvia
Plath, as other than mercenary.’ Alan Taylor in Sunday Herald, (7 September
2003), p. 12.
21. Sunday Herald (20 January 2002), p. 10.
22. Bel Mooney, ‘The fleeting favour of fickle fame’, The Times (20 December
2001), Features.
23. Dominic Head, The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction
1950–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
24. A.N. Wilson, Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her (London: Hutchinson, 2003), p. 11.
25. The Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies houses Murdoch’s heavily annotated
library from her Oxford home, and Peter Conradi’s working archive amassed
during the writing of his biography of Murdoch. It also contains a number
of smaller letter-runs, memoirs and essays, which complement an extensive
collection of primary and secondary sources on Murdoch. Together these
resources offer first-class research facilities for Murdoch scholars. For more
information see the Kingston University website or contact Dr Anne Rowe at
Kingston University (a.rowe@kingston.ac.uk).
26. Blake Morrison, Interview with Anita Brookner, The Independent (19 June
1994), p. 12.
27. The Guardian (21 October 2004), p. 11.
Houses of Fiction: Iris Murdoch
and Henry James
Priscilla Martin

Murdoch said in various interviews that Henry James was a major, or the
major, influence on her fiction. Malcolm Bradbury, in a 1962 article on
Under the Net, remarked that she had a Jamesian style but ‘very
unJamesian subject matter’.1 But An Unofficial Rose, published in the
same year, is strikingly Jamesian in subject matter. Indeed, the Jamesian
influence can be perceived earlier, both in themes – what are Rowland
Mallett and Roderick Hudson but the saint and the artist? – and allu-
sions. Roderick’s mother, abroad for the first time in Rome, wishes that
her doorknocker in New England shone like St Peter’s toe. She would
admire the door of Millie’s Dublin house in The Red and the Green with
‘its brass knocker, shaped like a fish, polished as softly bright and
smooth as Saint Peter’s toe’ (p. 58).2 Anne Rowe has pointed out that the
portrait in The Sandcastle is literally the figure in the carpet.3 Murdoch
shares or imitates some of James’s idiosyncrasies: in Bruno’s Dream,
Bruno’s age and the nature of his fatal illness are never stated just as we
never know exactly how old Maisie is or what malady kills Ralph
Touchett and Millie Theale. Both writers are deeply absorbed in London:
in Under the Net Jake buries his head in ‘dear London’ (p. 7) and James
describes it as ‘the dreadful, delightful city’4 or ‘this town which I
Both are intent analysts of the personal life and many of their char-
acters seem to think of little else. Indeed, their characters, usually very
intelligent, think – and both James and Murdoch firmly defend thought
as action. In the Preface to The Portrait of a Lady James insists that
Isabel’s ‘meditative vigil [. . .] throws the action further forward than
twenty ‘incidents’ might have done’;6 in ‘The Idea of Perfection’,
Murdoch defends as moral action the effort of the mother-in-law who
teaches herself to like and value her very different daughter-in-law.

Priscilla Martin 125

Some types of character recur in the work of both: the artist, the con-
noisseur, the hostess, the loser, the expatriate, the enchanter. Though
their personal lives were very different, their professional lives have ele-
ments in common: the unusual fluency, productivity and dedication;
the interest in French literature and culture; the increasing density and
difficulty of the later fiction. Both wrote a little for the theatre without
much success but novels by both have been successfully adapted for
film, television and radio.
The Jamesian subject matter of An Unofficial Rose is obvious: the rela-
tionships between love, art, freedom and money, and between frustra-
tion and vicarious living. Many years before the novel opened Hugh
was in love with Emma Sands, decided not to leave his wife for her and
has regretted it ever since. Now his son Randall wants to leave his wife,
Ann, for Lindsay, Emma’s companion, whose smile is ‘the other side of
a turning screw’ (p. 102), and who will consent only if he can become
much better off. ‘No dough, no go’ (p. 125), she stipulates. Kate Croy
would not put it so vulgarly but the premise is similar. Money can buy
you love. To finance the liaison Randall wants Hugh to sell his beloved
Tintoretto and give him the proceeds. Hugh’s first reaction to this
bombshell is incredulity and horror but he does it. And his sacrifice is
not disinterested. He calculates that Lindsay’s departure will make a gap
in Emma’s life which he can now fill. And, as importantly, he experi-
ences huge excitement at the idea of Randall doing what he did not do
himself. Randall can do it for him. This motivation is as powerful as in
Henry James: in Roderick Hudson, Rowland finances Roderick to produce
the works of art he has no talent to produce himself; in The Portrait of a
Lady, the dying Ralph Touchett finances the questing Isabel to live for
him. There is an exchange of vitality in An Unofficial Rose such as the
narrator of The Sacred Fount obsessively perceives in all the couples
around him: Hugh feels revivified by his recently dead wife: ‘Already he
felt, from her death, obscurely more alive. She fed him’ (p. 49). On
receiving the money Randall ‘felt as if he had killed his father. The sen-
sation was not unsatisfactory. He was himself the more increased’
(p. 168). In Roderick Hudson and The Portrait of a Lady the freedom con-
ferred by the benefactor proves disastrous; in The Wings of the Dove
Merton and Kate are morally unable to benefit from the money left
them by Millie. And in An Unofficial Rose, neither of the relationships
enabled in theory by the sale of the Tintoretto works out. Like Edward
Rosier’s collection in The Portrait of a Lady, the work of art has been sold
for nothing: Emma no longer desires Hugh and briskly employs another
young female companion, and it is clear that Randall will soon tire of
126 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

the mercenary and ill-educated Lindsay. The Jamesian postulated equa-

tion money = freedom = love, again fails to add up. And were the char-
acters free anyway? Isabel discovers that her choice was manipulated by
Madame Merle; Hugh and Randall have been manipulated by Emma,
the writer of detective stories. Randall finds his unselfish wife, Ann, pas-
sive and boring – she fails to satisfy the claims of his imagination and
makes a virtue of not imagining. She tries not to react to his infidelities,
tries even not to know of them. Ann has an analogy in James’s work,
though Hugh is an even more Jamesian character. Ann’s forbearance
from engaging with a ‘situation’ parallels Maggie’s in The Golden Bowl
and Murdoch quotes and praises James’s image of the situation as pagoda
in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (p. 261). We may also think of John
Bayley’s very sympathetic account of Maggie in the chapter on ‘Love
and Knowledge’ in The Characters of Love, published in 1960 and
reprinted in 1962, the year that An Unofficial Rose came out. Murdoch
probably read this chapter and perhaps re-read James’s novel while
working on her own. Bayley defends Maggie’s refusal to ‘glory in any of
the emotions; her lack of [. . .] immediacy and spontaneity is the cause
of her repelling so many readers [. . .] she rejects both her immediate
impulses and the desire for knowledge, and finds in the refuge of con-
vention and deliberate “ignorance”, salvation [. . .]’ (pp. 237–39). Ann
repels her husband for similar reasons and bases her behaviour largely
on the conventions of her Christian faith.7
Randall, who ‘had never, he felt, really seen Ann when he loved her’
(p. 60), recalls the Prince’s words to Maggie ‘I see nothing but you’.8 The
verb seems more insistently Jamesian in Ann’s last conversation with
Felix: ‘“I don’t in a way see myself. I see him. It’s not that I’m being
unselfish. He just too much is.” “Don’t you see me?” “Ah,” she said,
“You. That’s the trouble.” “You mean,” he tried to read her face rather
than her words, “that I’ve become – with you – invisible? You can’t see
me because I’m – simply something that you want?” He feared to put it
too clearly’ (p. 249). I described Ann earlier as unselfish, though she
here denies it. But, whether her self-deprecation is justified or not, it is
an example of how Murdoch employs a moral vocabulary far more than
James does. And Randall’s more Jamesian thought about the problem
indicates how Murdoch is suspicious of an aestheticizing of morality:
‘He could always, and after his own beautiful fashion, return to Ann’
(p. 263).
Both Murdoch and James wrote a good deal about art and about the
novel. Murdoch’s discussions are more theoretical and she was fairly
reticent about her own novels. James lovingly recalls the composition
Priscilla Martin 127

of stories and novels in the Prefaces to the New York editions, discusses
contemporary novelists in reviews and considers the novel as a genre in
various essays. Both also explore aesthetic questions through the repre-
sentation of artists in their own fictions. Although these include plenty
of writers – in Under the Net, The Black Prince, The Sacred and Profane Love
Machine, The Book and the Brotherhood and ‘The Lesson of the Master’,
‘The Private Life’, ‘The Middle Years’, to name but a few – their novels
are also inhabited by artists, from Roderick Hudson on, and from Rain
Carter on. Both were deeply interested in the visual arts and had done
some painting themselves. Murdoch taught part-time at the Royal
College of Art in the sixties. Both see close analogies between visual and
literary representation. Titles such as The Portrait of a Lady and The
Sacred and Profane Love Machine allude to this analogy. James repeatedly
describes the writer as ‘the painter of life’. ‘I think’, wrote Murdoch,
‘that painting often serves as a kind of explanatory metaphor for the
other arts’.9 For James, the novel attempts ‘to represent life [. . .]
the same attempt that we see on the canvas of the painter [. . .] and the
analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so
far as I am able to see, complete’.10 To represent life is, of course, no easy
business and the lesson learned by the illustrator in ‘The Real Thing’,
that reality cannot simply be transposed into art, applies equally to the
novelist. Murdoch also uses examples from painting to emphasize the
opposite, that fantasy cannot per se be transformed into great art:

When Burne-Jones is reported as saying, ‘I mean by a picture a beau-

tiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be – in
a light better than any light that ever shone – in a land no one can
define or remember, only desire – and the forms divinely beautiful’,
we are embarrassed, not least because this does indeed seem to
describe many of his pictures in an aspect which marks them as
delightful or marvellous but not exactly great. One would not think
of applying such language to the work of (for instance) Seurat or
Cezanne, or to remoter and apparently “fanciful” art, such as mytho-
logical subjects treated by Botticelli or Titian. When Artemis speeds
by as Actaeon falls, the revelation remains mysterious but somehow
true, and with the “hardness” of truth’
(p. 88).

This idea comes from The Fire and the Sun, in which Murdoch engages
with Plato’s objections to art. The painting she describes is Titian’s
Diana and Actaeon in the National Gallery. In Henry and Cato the
128 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

contemplation of this picture moves Henry to a Platonic anti-Platonic

assertion: ‘Surely these forces were real, the human mind a mere
shadow [. . .]’ (p. 96). As for Plato, this world seems a mere shadow but
for Henry the greatest art and its representation of fictional gods is no
shadow of a shadow (or shadow of a shadow of a shadow) but real. This
is one of several scenes Murdoch places in art galleries of which Dora’s
epiphany in the National Gallery in The Bell is the most direct and par-
adigmatic. Others of Murdoch’s characters experience opposite negative
symptomatic visions: Tim in Nuns and Soldiers ‘no longer dreamed at
night that the National Gallery was dim and senseless. The dream had
become true, he experienced it walking in broad daylight. The pictures
were all dull and stupid, trivial, incoherent, mean’ (pp. 378–9). In A
Fairly Honourable Defeat, Morgan, who observed of the late Turners in
the Tate Gallery, ‘How calm great pictures make one feel’ (p. 228), is cor-
rupted morally, imaginatively and aesthetically by Julius: ‘She looked
round upon the Turners. She could see now how limited and amateur-
ish they really were’ (p. 235). James, too, places characters in the
National Gallery, but his can be more resistant to edification and he is
more permissive to their aesthetic inadequacies. Millie in The Wings of
a Dove finds that ‘something within her was after all too weak for the
Turners and Titians [. . .] She gave herself up at last and it was a con-
summation like another: what she should have come to the National
Gallery for today would be to watch the copyists and reckon the
Baedekers’.11 And when she hears some other Americans remark, ‘hand-
some [. . .] in the English style’ (pp. 189–90), the object of their quali-
fied praise proves not to be a painting but Merton Densher.
The faith in the truth of art which both Murdoch and James affirm is
something like religious faith. Neither belonged to any church. But
both use religious language to describe the experience of art and of the
artist. In The Bell the National Gallery is full of ‘shrines at which [Dora]
had worshipped so often before’ (p. 190), and a secular painting inspires
her as a vision of perfection and reality and to virtuous action. In The
Fire and the Sun Murdoch described the highest art as powered by ‘divine
fury’ (EM, p. 455). In ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited’ she
affirms, ‘one’s theory must account for the fact that experience of art is
spiritual experience [. . .] experience of the art of the novel is spiritual
experience’ (EM, p. 282). For James the writing of novels is ‘a sacred
office’ (HF, p. 26), and he commends Flaubert’s ‘virtually monastic cell’
and compositional ‘faith sincere, active and inspiring’ (ibid., p. 191).
Both writers felt a particular reverence for the novel as a genre and for
similar reasons. James praises ‘its large free character of an immense and
Priscilla Martin 129

exquisite correspondence with life’ (ibid., p. 41). For Murdoch the

‘whole mystery of human individuality is involved here – how different
we are from each other, and why it is that we love one person, we
dislike another person and we are indifferent to a third person; and
nothing in a way could be more important than this fact about us’ (EM,
p. 254).
With so much consonance in taste, style, subjects, view of the novel,
there is a vital difference between James and Murdoch. It is in what
Murdoch usually terms ‘contingency’, though other terms are associated
with it: muddle, oddness, accident. In her view novels and novelists
should be hospitable to the contingent as an irreducible element in our
experience. The unproductive writer who narrates The Black Prince is
repelled by the ‘foul contingency of life’ (p. 66). Jake in Under the Net
fears contingency. He would not want a contingent address, such as
Goldhawk Road where his philosopher friend Dave Gellman lives, and
it is a stage in his moral and creative development when he recovers
from a breakdown in Dave’s flat, takes a job in the nearby hospital and
at last is able to talk to Hugo. A respect for contingency goes with a sus-
picion of formal perfection. Near the end of Under the Net there is a
denial of endings: each empty dawn ‘will make mock of our contrived
finalities’ (p. 239). After the deaths and dramas, The Sea, the Sea has a
very discontinuous last section and the novel ends ‘What next, I won-
der?’ (p. 502), gesturing beyond its own formal conclusion. Murdoch
also gestures towards the independence of minor characters, each cen-
tres of their own formally peripheral lives. By contrast James sounds
rather apologetic about his ficelles, such as Henrietta Stackpole in The
Portrait of a Lady, characters who may be fun but are incidental to the
design. (In my view, Henrietta contributes a vital incongruity to James’s
design: she smells of the future and raises the question, never confront-
ed in Isabel’s destiny, as to whether an intelligent young woman could
support herself in a profession and not marry. At least Isabel finds it
‘unoriginal’ of Henrietta when she does.) To return to Murdoch’s minor
characters, An Accidental Man (its title a recognition of contingency) is
punctuated by choric conversations between minimal characters, as
absorbed in their own lives as those at the centre.
Some minor characters, however, even recognize their choric role. In
Nuns and Soldiers one of les cousins et les tantes who are so difficult to sort
out and remember remarks ‘Gertrude needs us as a chorus’. At the end
of The Time of the Angels a minor character who has rather comically
been trying to get into the vicarage and into the action all through the
novel is revealed to have played a major role in the lives of some of the
130 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

central characters before the novel opened. ‘Fancy old Anthea turning
up like that [. . .] Well, it was odd, it was all confoundedly odd’ (p. 252).
In Nuns and Soldiers, Tim keeps painting studies of people he calls ‘spec-
tators at a crucifixion’ (p. 86). Tim is a mediocre, derivative and unsuc-
cessful painter with no style or subject-matter of his own and these
pictures have no centre. Tim’s name for them seems an attempt to dig-
nify them with a meaning they do not embody. Or perhaps, more gen-
erally, they exemplify the absent there-ness of Christianity in a modern
godless world, like the light shape of the cross on darkening wallpaper
where a crucifix used to hang. And yet, whatever the quality of Tim’s
paintings, there is something striking about this idea, just as a detail of
a painting may compose into a form of its own and compel fresh atten-
tion to its content.
Murdoch respects these loose ends and imbalances as art’s debt to life.
To use her distinction between the crystalline and the journalistic, the
crystalline is formally satisfying but veridically limited. Perhaps a for-
mally perfect work of art would have to be imperfectly truthful. An
excellent essay on Murdoch by Lorna Sage is entitled ‘The Pursuit of
Imperfection’.12 James, by contrast, sides with art against life, as artist,
at any rate. He represents some of his artists as choosing, consciously or
unconsciously, between art and life. In ‘The Lesson of the Master’ the
old novelist tells the younger that his art and his family have been
incompatible, though of course he may be trying to get rid of the young
man so that he himself can marry his young lady. But James himself,
speaking to a young writer, the ‘disgustingly and, if I may be allowed to
say so, nauseatingly young’ Logan Pearsall Smith, insisted: ‘There is one
word – let me impress upon you – which you must inscribe upon your
banner, and [. . .] that word is Loneliness’.13 The novelist in ‘The Private
Life’ is literally two people, simultaneously his rather boring social self
in public and the artist working in solitude and silence at his desk in pri-
vate. Love is the death of Roderick Hudson. By contrast Bradley Pearson
in The Black Prince is a blocked and costive writer, blocked partly by his
pursuit of perfection, and is finally enabled to write a powerful book by
falling inconveniently in love. At one point he tells the reader, ‘This is
art, but I was out there in life’ (p. 205), but the life he was out there in
produced the art. In Nuns and Soldiers Tim begins to paint better after he
is happily married to Gertrude.
Life is also for James the enemy of art in a different way. In his Preface
to The Spoils of Poynton he makes this distinction: ‘Life being all inclu-
sion and confusion and art being all discrimination and selection [. . .]
life has no direct sense whatever for the subject and is capable, luckily
Priscilla Martin 131

for us, of nothing but splendid waste [. . .]’ (AN, pp. 120–21) and he
reminisces revealingly about the genesis of the novel during a conver-
sation at a dinner party. The lady sitting next to him began to relate an
anecdote about acquaintances of hers and James immediately ‘in but
ten words’ saw the germ of the novel. But as the lady continued the
story she spoiled it or, rather, life spoiled it. ‘I saw clumsy Life again at
her stupid work. For the action taken, and on which my friend, as
I knew she would, had already begun all complacently and benightedly
to report, I had absolutely, and could have, no scrap of use’ (ibid.,
p. 121). What really happened was not nearly as good as what the artist
could make of it. James could continue the story better than life did.
Similarly an anecdote about a divorced couple sharing the custody of a
child was the germ of What Maisie Knew. One of the parents had remar-
ried but James saw that he could improve on the actual situation: ‘the
light in which the vision so readily grew to a wholeness was that of a
second marriage on both sides [. . .] for the case to begin [. . .] to stand
beautifully on its feet’ (AN, p. 142). The impulse given to the idea of The
Aspern Papers was the discovery that Byron’s lover Claire Clairmont
(James calls her Jane Clairmont) had recently died at a great age and was
actually still resident in Florence when James had previously been there
himself. He could have met her but did not and was quite relieved not
to have had the choice:

Had I happened to hear of her but a little sooner I might have met
her in the flesh. The question of whether I should have wished to do
so was another matter – the question of whether I shouldn’t have
preferred to keep her preciously unseen, to run no risk, in other
words, by too rude a choice, of depreciating the romance-value
which, as I say, it was instantly inevitable to attach [. . .] to her long
survival. I had luckily not to deal with that difficult option; difficult
in such a case by reason of that odd law which somehow always
makes the minimum of valid suggestion serve the man of imagina-
tion better than the maximum
(AN, p. 161).

A controlled experiment can take place within the confines of the novel
or story which ‘clumsy Life’ could not conduct. I use a scientific metaphor.
In the Preface to Roderick Hudson James uses a mathematical one: ‘Really,
universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the
artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle in
which they shall happily appear to do so’ (AN, p. 5).
132 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

This contrast between James and Murdoch is visible in their reading

as well as their writing. For Murdoch, Tolstoy is the greatest of novelists
and George Eliot ‘at a level at times almost equal to that of Tolstoy, dis-
plays that godlike capacity for so respecting and loving her characters as
to make them exist as free and separate beings’ (EM, p. 276). In ‘Against
Dryness’ she writes: ‘Real people are destructive of myth, contingency is
destructive of fantasy and opens the way for imagination. Think of the
Russians, those great masters of the contingent. Too much contingency
of course may turn art into journalism. But since reality is incomplete,
art must not be too much afraid of incompleteness’ (EM, pp. 294–5).
James, however, has mixed feelings about these giants and his discom-
fort articulates itself over the very qualities which Murdoch most
reveres in them: their inclusiveness, their verisimilitude, their tolerance
of the contingent. For James ‘Middlemarch is a treasure-house of detail,
but it is an indifferent whole’ and it provokes the question, ‘If we write
novels so, how shall we write History?’ (HF, pp. 259, 267). The Russians
perplex him even more: ‘[. . .] what do such large loose baggy monsters,
with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically
mean? We have heard it maintained, we will remember, that such things
are “superior to art”; but we understand least of all what that may mean,
and we look in vain for the artist, the divine explanatory genius, who
will come to our aid and tell us’ (AN, p. 84). For one reader Tolstoy dis-
plays ‘godlike capacity’; the other looks ‘in vain for [. . .] the divine
explanatory genius’ (ibid., p. 84). James is particularly vexed by the
inclusion of ‘the accidental and the arbitrary’, so valorized by Murdoch,
and she would understand the phrase ‘superior to art’, which reduces the
great aesthete to (rather complacent) incomprehension.
Although the contrast manifests itself most obviously in different
views of form, it is not only a formal contrast. Both artists defend their
views of form as commitment to truth. John Bayley observes of James,
‘For him the two [form and meaning] were not divisible but closely
dependent on each other, and the incalculability of life was an effect
which in art should only be secured inside a strict adherence to form.
He would not have admitted a dangling ending, in which one of the
threads was led off at a tangent instead of being tucked into the com-
plete pattern’.14 For James his donnée has a logic which must lead to an
ineluctable conclusion. For Murdoch respect for contingency is a moral,
even a spiritual duty, which art should express but often evades: ‘Much
art and religious myth has the effect, and the intended effect, of con-
cealing the fact of death and the absolute contingency of existence
which is an aspect of that fact’ (MGM, p. 139). The sublime finality of
Priscilla Martin 133

the perfect work of art can act as consolation for the inescapable unfin-
ished finality of life.
I would like to end by briefly considering the ways in which their con-
trasting views of form signify contrasting views of human experience,
the contrast between a vision more tragic and a vision more comic. Of
course, James’s novels are full of comedy and Murdoch’s of tragedy.
James is a very witty writer with an eye for the odd and eccentric and
an acute ear for the unconsciously comic. An irony seems to play over
the obliquities of his style. Murdoch engages with World War Two, con-
centration camps, refugees, resistance to totalitarianism, the Easter
Rising, terrorism. But James’s vision is finally more tragic, a vision of
absolute losses, renunciations, impossible choices in which what you
most want costs what you cannot do. Murdoch affirms the comic. She
finds Plato’s dismissal of the absurd ‘one of his more shocking posi-
tions’, and sympathizes with ‘his Zen colleagues who take the funny as
central to the human pilgrimage’ (EM, p. 450). She questions the final-
ity of the tragic view of life. Life is every bit as terrible as the tragic writ-
ers paint it, but it is not only terrible and it goes on and makes ‘mock
of our contrived finalities’ (Under the Net, p. 239). Murdoch’s most
overtly Jamesian novel is Nuns and Soldiers, a reworking of the story of
The Wings of the Dove. In Nuns and Soldiers, as in The Wings of the Dove,
a penniless couple float the idea that he should save the situation by
marrying a rich woman. But it is only a joke, although its discovery
nearly destroys the marriage, which was undertaken for love and not
with that motive and does finally survive. The last words of James’s
novel, ‘We shall never be again as we were!’ (p. 457), re-echo through
Murdoch’s but her characters are graced with a capacity for forgiveness
and renewal reminiscent of Shakespeare’s last plays. There is even a
renewing near-death by drowning. James’s characters are not thus let off
their ‘thematic appointed dooms’ (AN, p. 277).
An Unofficial Rose with its losses and disappointments is far more
Jamesian in feeling. Nonetheless, at the end of An Unofficial Rose Hugh,
who has lost both his Tintoretto and the relationship with Emma which
it might have enabled, does not sit down with his sewing for life. He is
finding some consolation with Mildred. ‘Human beings’, as Julius says
in A Fairly Honourable Defeat, ‘are essentially finders of substitutes’
(p. 233). Hence the loose ends, the accidents, the contingencies have a
touch of necessity. And of comic continuity. In James, however, the
finding of substitutes can look shabby. Lord Warburton fancies Pansy
because, though she is not the rose, she is near the rose. He has been in
love with a major character and should not substitute a minor one. And,
134 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

in James, minor characters should know their place and they are not
allowed as a rule to marry major characters. In the Preface to The
Ambassadors, he cuts Maria Gostrey down to size: ‘such an agent as Miss
Gostrey, pre-engaged at a high salary, but waits in the draughty wing
with her shawl and her smelling-salts’ (AN, p. 323). But in The Black
Prince the very off-stage Hartbourne marries Christian.
Substitution is, of course, bound up with repetition. Murdoch’s novels
are full of repetition. Characters leave their partners, return to them, leave
again, return again. Substitution can be repetition. Jake, who loves Anna,
looks likely to turn to her sister Sadie. Michael Meade replays his disas-
trous affection for Nick with Toby. Alexander has taken his brother
Martin’s girl yet again. Substitution and repetition are so similar and yet
can have opposite formal implications. Substitution suggests the linear,
contingency, loose ends, open endings, no sense of an ending. Repetition
suggests the circular, necessity, the patterned, the determined termina-
tion. If it convinces, it satisfies. If it fails to convince, it annoys. The plot
of A Word Child throws Valentine Cunningham into Lady Bracknell
mode: ‘To lose your lover, your colleague’s wife, in a car smash as you
speed down the motorway from Oxford to London is an unhappy acci-
dent; to lose your next one, the same colleague’s second wife, this time in
the muddy waters of the Thames, is an Iris Murdoch novel’.15 Yes, it is
excessive, it is preposterous. But it has a Freudian logic. For Freud there
were no accidents. It is an Aristotelian probable impossibility. Or, to look
at it in James’s way, clumsy life would not do anything so intelligent.

1. Malcolm Bradbury, ‘Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net’, Critical Quarterly, 4 (Spring,
1962), 53.
2. All page numbers to Murdoch’s novels refer to the following Penguin edi-
tions: The Red and the Green (1965), Under the Net (1960), An Unofficial Rose
(1964), The Bell (1962), The Black Prince (1975), A Fairly Honourable Defeat
(1972), Nuns and Soldiers (1981), Henry and Cato (1987), The Time of the Angels
(1973). Edition of The Sea, the Sea quoted is (London: Vintage, 1999).
3. Anne Rowe, The Visual Arts and the Novels of Iris Murdoch (Lampeter: Edwin
Mellen Press, 2002), p. 33.
4. English Hours (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1989), p. 14.
5. James in conversation with E.S. Nadal in S. Nowell-Smith, The Legend of the
Master (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 67.
6. The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces by Henry James (New York: Charles
Scribner’s Sons, 1934), p. 57 – hereafter AN.
7. This comparison is also made by Byatt in Degrees of Freedom (London: Vintage
1994), pp. 149–53.
Priscilla Martin 135

8. The Golden Bowl (1904) (Penguin, 1966), p. 547.

9. ‘Art is the Imitation of Nature’, in EM, p. 243.
10. The House of Fiction: Essays on the Novel (ed.) Leon Edel (London: Mercury
Books, 1962), p. 25 – hereafter HF.
11. The Wings of the Dove (1902) (Penguin, 1965), p. 88.
12. See ‘The Pursuit of Imperfection’, Critical Quarterly, XIX, 2 (Summer 1977),
pp. 57–87.
13. See Nowell-Smith, p. 154.
14. John Bayley, The Characters of Love (London: Constable, 1960), p. 259.
15. Valentine Cunningham, ‘Shaping Modern English Fiction’, in On Modern
British Fiction (ed.) Zachary Leader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002),
pp. 149–80.
A Literary Foremother: Iris
Murdoch and Carol Shields
Alex Ramon

In this volume, Nick Turner notes the infrequency with which contem-
porary novelists have cited Murdoch as an influence upon their fiction,
despite the indication of ‘Murdochian elements’ in their work. Carol
Shields’s remark in a 1998 interview that she ‘read everything that Iris
Murdoch wrote as it was published’,1 may not constitute a direct admis-
sion of influence, but it is, nonetheless, a comment worthy of investi-
gation, given some intriguing, and hitherto unexamined, connections
between her and Murdoch’s fiction. In contrast with Jane Austen,
Virginia Woolf and Alice Munro, women writers who figured frequently
in Shields’s list of literary influences, the cited interview is the only one
in which Shields alluded to Murdoch directly. Yet there is further evi-
dence which reveals her engagement with Murdoch’s writing.
Most significantly, direct references to Murdoch ‘bookend’ Shields’s
corpus, appearing in her first novel, Small Ceremonies (1976), and her
last, Unless (2002). In Small Ceremonies, an unspecified ‘new Iris Murdoch
novel’ is brought to the narrator, Judith Gill, during a period of illness:
‘expensively hard-covered and just exactly what I had yearned for’, as
Judith describes it.2 In Unless, the narrator, Reta Winters, preoccupied by
what she perceives as the abiding ‘lack of curiosity about great women’s
minds’, is dismayed by a prominent male writer’s failure to include any
female authors in his list of literary influences.3 Murdoch’s name, along
with those of Woolf, Munro, Joyce Carol Oates and others, features in
Reta’s canon of major twentieth century female writers and thinkers
(p. 100). In the first of these citations, then, Murdoch’s fiction is evoked
in ‘personal’ terms, as the source of a character’s private reading pleas-
ure. The second reference, however, places Murdoch within a wider con-
text, nominating her as one of the twentieth century’s ‘great minds’ and
involving her in Unless’s critique of continuing male dominance in

Alex Ramon 137

literary culture as well as its inquiry into goodness. (Unless also makes
reference to the Julian of Norwich quotation which is often cited in
Murdoch’s fiction: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all man-
ner of things shall be well’ [p. 218])4. Taking these allusions as a starting
point, this essay proposes that Murdoch should be recognized as one of
Shields’s literary ‘foremothers’ and that her work should be acknowl-
edged as a major influence upon several significant elements of Shields’s
Critics’ failure to note these connections may be due to the writers’
perceived differences. (Only Tim Adams, reviewing Unless for the
Observer, vaguely detects ‘Iris Murdoch at the back of this book some-
where’.)5 Certainly, there are some thematic and stylistic disparities
between their work, but I would suggest that any such differences are
far outweighed by their affinities. Indeed, there are many potential
areas for comparative study here. Discussion could focus upon the
(often self-reflexive) portrayal of writer characters in their novels, or
their shared concern with the purging of authorial personality from fic-
tion.6 A tension between pattern and randomness underpins the work
of both, reflected in their fascination with lists as signifiers of both
order and multiplicity, and their insistence upon the role of accident in
human experience. Their close attention to the details of the quotidi-
an bears examination, as does their merging of those details with magic
realism, the miraculous and transcendent. The translucent aeroplane
witnessed by a boy in Shields’s story ‘Home’ strongly recalls the flying
saucer observed by the twins at the end of The Nice and the Good, both
episodes functioning as assertions of the limits of rational explanation
and as challenges to the ‘realist’ framework of the texts themselves.
Elsewhere, Sarah Maloney’s brief epiphany by painting in Swann evokes
the many such episodes in Murdoch’s fiction,7 while Barker Flett’s close
contemplation of the lady’s-slipper in The Stone Diaries similarly exem-
plifies the deep ‘looking’ she advocates: ‘the intensity of his gaze on
this single living thing’.8
These are just some of many parallel incidents in which Murdoch’s
work can be identified as inspiration or intertext for Shields’s. There is
also some congruence in their personal and professional lives (long mar-
riages, relatively late starts in fiction writing), and in critical responses
which have lavishly praised their work but also accused it of similar
faults: equivocal feminism, narrowness of social scope. Both maintain a
reputation as ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ novelists. This essay isolates only
three aspects of the similarities between these writers for discussion: it
examines how reference to Murdoch can illuminate one of Shields’s
138 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

major themes: the relationship between ‘self’ and ‘other’; it identifies

some significant aspects of her stylistic debt to Murdoch in her devel-
opment of the use of epistolary sections and extended conversational
and anonymous voices; and it explores finally, the relationship of both
authors to postmodernist discourses, suggesting that reflection on
Murdoch’s ambivalent relationship to postmodernism can help to clar-
ify Shield’s own equivocal relationship to it. It attempts, throughout, to
place the work of these writers ‘in dialogue’.

The impossibility of ‘total image’: A Murdochian ‘ethics of


The centrality of the relationship between ‘self’ and ‘other’ to

Murdoch’s fiction and philosophy has been widely noted. If in her
ethical writings Murdoch develops a moral philosophy that defines love
as the perception of the individual, which rebukes solipsism and the
egoistic desire for control, and advocates a close attention to the reality
outside the self, then her fiction criticizes what Peter Conradi terms ‘a
self-serving world-view in which other people figure merely as sub-
sidiary characters’.9 ‘I have in mind’, Murdoch writes, ‘moral attitudes
which emphasize the inexhaustible detail of the world, the endlessness
of the task of understanding, the importance of not assuming that one
has got individuals and situations “taped”.’10 Conradi’s contention is
that ‘[a]ll Murdoch’s narrators suffer into a state which may conceivably
augur slightly better for their chances of deepening their sense of the
otherness and separateness of other people’ (p. 101), and that moments
in which characters ‘come to see their perception of others as having
been lazy’ are frequently depicted in her fiction (p. 375). Emphasizing
human difference and mysteriousness, Murdoch’s work recognizes
‘[o]ther people’ as ‘the most interesting features of our world and [. . .]
the most poignantly and mysteriously alien’.11
Similar concerns are evident in Shields’s fiction, which also explores
the partial and deceptive nature of perception and the human tendency
to dismiss and diminish others. ‘How well or how poorly can we connect
with another human consciousness?’ Shields asked in a 1996 lecture,12
and in her fiction the question is examined in two ways. The most
frequently discussed scenario is the domestic sphere, by means of inter-
actions between family members. Her first four novels are ‘companion
texts’ narrated from the often contradictory perspectives of two sisters
and a husband and wife, and each charts an awakening to the mysteri-
ousness and unpredictability of others which is distinctly Murdochian.
Alex Ramon 139

Discovering a pile of her husband Martin’s cryptic lecture notes and

messages, Judith in Small Ceremonies is reminded, painfully, ‘that
[Martin] possessed an existence of his own to which I did not belong,
which I did not understand’ (p. 95). Such episodes might have been
drawn directly from Murdoch, recalling particularly the scene in A Fairly
Honourable Defeat in which Hilda is shocked into a sense of her sepa-
ration from her husband Rupert, to whom she has been married for
twenty years, intuiting a ‘whole dimension of otherness, Rupert’s oth-
erness. He had needs and impulses of which she knew nothing’.13
Similarly, the ‘disbelief in the otherness of people’s lives’ expressed by
Judith’s sister Charleen in Shields’s second novel The Box Garden is
figured in unmistakably Murdochian terms: as both a symptom of a
‘raging ego’ and a ‘perceptual failure’.14 Charleen, horrified by the aber-
rant fact of her mother’s re-marriage, is unable to ‘conceive of [other
people] functioning out of [her] sight’ (p. 117), a tendency which links
her to many of Murdoch’s solipsistic narrators. Yet Berkeley’s notion of
the non-existence of an unperceived reality is not endorsed by Shields
any more than it is by Murdoch. Rather, in her early novels, a sustained
testing of a self-focussed character’s assumptions urges him towards a
refinement of perception and a move, albeit partial and provisional, in
the direction of a more accepting response to human mystery. Such a
journey is painful, comic and, of course, endless. In The Box Garden
Charleen’s effort to ‘correct’ her distorted perception and ‘see’ her mother
more lovingly is presented as positive moral action. Throughout, close
daily observation works to challenge Charleen’s preconceptions, and the
tentative suggestion of an improved relationship between the characters
is signalled by her withdrawal from anxious speculation about what her
mother’s new life will be ‘like’ to a humbler recognition of her ultimate
mystery. The novel ends with an affirmative recognition of human sep-
arateness, proposing that ‘the proper response’ to otherness may not be
‘comprehension [. . .] but amazement and acceptance’ (p. 199).
However, in Shields’s work, the limitations of human ‘knowability’
are also explored in relation to biography, and what is striking is how
directly her fascination with the problems of this genre engages with
Murdoch’s ideas regarding the difficulty and necessity of accepting ‘oth-
erness’. For Shields, the writing of biography offers an analogue for the
complicated partial processes by which human beings become ‘known’
to one another and for the problems of providing any adequate summa-
tions of an individual or of a human life. Accordingly, the anxious epis-
temophilia which afflicts many of her protagonists is experienced with
particular intensity by her biographer characters. In Small Ceremonies, for
140 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

example, Judith’s incremental awareness that aspects of her family

members will always elude her desire for knowledge and understanding
is paralleled by her researching of a biography of the Canadian pioneer
Susanna Moodie, and by her frustrated confrontations with the ‘voids’
and ‘silences’ which punctuate Moodie’s life. Judith initially believes in
her ability to fix a ‘total image’ of Moodie from the ‘data’ that she has
collated; she believes that ‘the real Susanna’ is accessible to her (p. 7).
Small Ceremonies charts the fracturing of that belief and its replacement
with a different one: ‘other people must be preserved with their mys-
teries intact’ (p. 174).
‘How can one describe a human being “justly”?’15 The question
posed by Bradley Pearson in The Black Prince is precisely the one around
which Shields’s critique of biography revolves. In her fiction, the biog-
raphical project is characterized less by loving attention to another
human being than by diminishment, and by the biographer’s attempt
to explain, possess and ‘tape’ the individual, ‘to classify and systemize’
the ‘rich and random’ nature of lived experience, as Swann terms it
(p. 81). Swann also explores the hostility which can underpin biography,
the frequency with which it can become ‘an act of contempt’ (p. 83). In
the novel, for example, the biographer Morton Jimroy’s solipsism is
signalled by the tendency of his biographies to turn their subjects into
versions of Jimroy himself: ‘Once again he seemed to be looking in a
mirror’ (p. 85). Repeatedly, then, what Shields’s biographer characters
are confronted with in relation to their subjects is the ‘unfinalizability’
which Elizabeth Dipple sees as central to Murdoch’s conception of
human personality and existence: ‘the sense that the last word about
our lives cannot be written nor the final analysis achieved’.16
The moral work undertaken by these characters is, therefore,
Murdochian: it involves a move from a belief that ‘total image’ or ‘final
analysis’ is possible to a more modest acknowledgment that any
recounting of a life must, at best, be a partial and subjective impression.
‘It’s unwise’, comments Judith towards the end of Small Ceremonies, ‘to
do more than suggest’ (p. 152). In this novel in particular, the renunci-
ation of the biographer’s desire for ‘total image’ evolves into a wider
philosophy which stresses the value of ‘embracing others along with
their mysteries’ (p. 179). ‘[T]he framework’ of connections linking
human beings must be reconciled, it is suggested, with the ‘separate and
private energy’ which divides them (p. 179). Like Charleen’s, then,
Judith’s journey towards a somewhat more tolerant attitude to human
mystery in both her life and her art recalls that of many of Murdoch’s
narrators, particularly Jake Donoghue in Under The Net, a novel to
Alex Ramon 141

which Small Ceremonies bears further resemblance.17 The proximity of

Shields’s perspective to Murdoch’s cannot be over-emphasized here,
with even the reference to ‘separate and private energy’ evoking a spe-
cific sentence in The Italian Girl where Edmund is described as learning
to perceive Maggie ‘as a separate and private and unpredictable being’.18
Furthermore, the centrality of these issues to both writers makes it dif-
ficult not to read their work in the context of the biographical material
latterly produced on Murdoch herself, and the range of approaches,
laudatory and hostile, that such writing has engendered. All I would
suggest here, however, is that what Elizabeth Raimer has termed
Shields’s ‘ethics of biography’ can be usefully supplemented by refer-
ence to Murdoch’s ideas.19

Stylistic influence

In Work for the Spirit, Dipple praises Murdoch’s ‘use of letters or

sequences of letters to develop the characters’, drawing attention to ‘the
great batches of them’ which constitute entire chapters in An Accidental
Man (p. 198). Dipple associates this device with another that Murdoch
develops in this novel: the incorporation of long stretches of conversa-
tion by anonymous voices overheard at parties. These choric speakers
offer a gossipy commentary on the novel’s events, and, for Dipple, serve
the function of ‘attach[ing] the reader’s attention to the extended world
Murdoch is interested in depicting’ (pp. 198–9):

‘Gracie, it’s so lovely to partake in your happiness’.

‘I say, look at Austin’.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Look at his right hand’.
‘He’s holding his glass’.
‘He can move his fingers’.
‘I was telling Gracie it was so lovely to partake in her
‘Yes, lovely’.
‘A privilege’.
‘I say, look at the time, we must be off’.
‘So must we’.
‘So must we’.
‘Our revels now are ended’.
‘Goodnight, darling’.
‘Goodnight, darling’.
142 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment


Both of the devices identified by Dipple influence Shields’s own

experimentation: extended epistolary sections punctuate her novels
from Swann; the ‘Work’ chapter of The Stone Diaries is completely com-
prised of letters, and, in 1991, she co-authored the epistolary novel A
Celibate Season. Like Murdoch, an avid correspondent in life, Shields
was drawn to the letter-writer’s creation of personae, the dual ten-
dency towards self-revelation and self-protection, and exploited these
elements frequently in her fiction. Her use of lengthy dialogue passages
without authorial comment or description is even more pervasive.
While Murdoch abandons this device after An Accidental Man, or at
least employs it less self-consciously, Shields develops it, to the extent
that increasingly extended dialogued party scenes, with unidentified
speakers, become one of the most distinctive features of her fiction.
The wedding reception which concludes The Box Garden is presented

‘You must have been scared getting kidnapped like that’.

‘I mean, did you think she was going to try for a ransom . . .’
‘[I]t wasn’t like that. It was . . . kind of fun, the whole thing’.
‘May I propose a toast . . .’
‘Good idea’.
‘I’ve never had champagne before’.
‘Neither have I’.
‘Like ginger ale, only sour’.
‘Ah, look at the bubbles rising’.
‘You’re supposed to sip it, Richard’.
‘Here, have another glass, Judith’.
‘If you’re sure there’s enough . . .’
‘Tea is plenty good enough for me’.
‘Here’s to marriage’.
‘Here’s to the bride and groom’.
‘Here’s to the future’.
‘Happy days’.
Alex Ramon 143

‘I love you, Eugene’.

‘Charleen, Charleen’. (pp. 211–2)

With its mixture of digression and repetition, the banal and the cryp-
tic, the section mimics the Accidental Man passages and their presentation
of the comic incongruity of ‘party talk’. In Shields’s fiction, such dialogue-
based episodes evolve from the relatively short party scenes of her early
novels to the more extended conference sections of Happenstance and
Swann, and culminate spectacularly in the near-chapter length gather-
ing which concludes Larry’s Party (1997). Unlike the arch formality of
Ivy Compton-Burnett’s dialogue, in which, as David Lodge notes, no
attempt is made to create ‘the illusion of actual speech’,21 these sections
resemble those of Murdoch’s novel in their attempt to duplicate more
authentically the rhythms of verbal communication and to convey
both the seriousness and the comedy of social interaction. It is perhaps
unsurprising that both Murdoch and Shields were drawn to playwriting;
the conversational mode of An Accidental Man follows Murdoch’s exper-
iments with writing for theatre in the late 1960s. In the case of both,
however, dramaturgical techniques were put more successfully to use in
their novels, which seek to give equal emphasis to what Lodge terms
‘the stream of consciousness’ and ‘the stream of talk’ (p. 81). Conradi
notes how, in An Accidental Man, the story of Austin is ‘circumscribed by
many others, which radiate outwards and give the illusion of a marvel-
lous depth of field’ (p. 82). This assertion of the impossibility of writing
a life ‘independently’ from others is central to Shields’s multi-voiced
‘auto/biografictions’, The Stone Diaries and Larry’s Party, in which the
experiences of many ‘secondary’ characters share space with those of
the ostensible protagonist. Echoing Murdoch’s critique of the spurious
seclusion of the ‘existentialist hero’, ‘the lonely brave man [. . .] trying
to impose or assert or find himself’, ‘the man of power [. . .] struggling
on bravely, sincerely and alone’,22 Shields also expresses concern about
the ‘unreal isolation’ in which contemporary characters were, in her
view, too frequently situated.23 In its place, her fiction constructs, like
Murdoch’s, a network of voices and relationships, demonstrating that
any human life is located in an extended social world, a world full of
other people, other voices, other views. The extensive use of letters, dia-
logue and other multi-vocal devices24 results in what Deborah Johnson,
describing Murdoch’s work, has termed an ‘aesthetically rendered plu-
rality of vision’,25 and suggests that Shields may have learned much
from Murdoch about exploiting the novel’s potential for polyphony
and dialogism.
144 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

‘A step beyond postmodernism’: Murdoch and Shields’s

‘self-conscious realism’

Reference to Murdoch’s fiction can also help to clarify Shields’s highly

equivocal relationship to postmodernism. Ian Gregson has identified
recently a ‘shared resistance’ to the ‘more extreme forms’ of postmod-
ernist theory in ‘the critical and theoretical writings of [contemporary]
poets and novelists’.26 Murdoch and Shields were no exceptions to this,
both expressing concern about, and indeed hostility towards, the impli-
cations of postmodern thought. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals is, of
course, a sustained critique of the ‘threat to accepted conceptions of
truth, value, individual’ which, for Murdoch, was posed by structural-
ism and its descendants.27 ‘[L]anguage itself is a moral medium’,
Murdoch maintained. ‘Life is soaked in the moral, literature is soaked in
the moral’.28 For Shields, postmodernism was ‘a synthetic discourse
unanimated by personal concerns’ and one that often sanctioned ‘bad
writing’.29 Echoing Murdoch directly, she also proposed that it is not
‘language games’ but ‘the making of moral choices that lends power to
However, the perspective of both writers is more ambivalent than
these rather stern statements suggest. Terry Eagleton’s review of
Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals noted the extent to which Murdoch’s
fiction ‘values’ what poststructuralism ‘values’: ‘the sheer contingency
of human life, its tragic-comic muddle and incompleteness against all
that would seek to systematize it’.31 The paradox had, however, been
identified in the early 1980s by Dipple, who acknowledged the ‘contra-
diction’ between Murdoch’s ‘practice of a firm defensible realism’ and
the ‘games, tricks and ironies’ which permeate her fiction (p. 5).
Conradi also notes Murdoch’s suspicion of metanarratives and totaliz-
ing theories: ‘[she] is wholly of our time in her insistence that ‘truth’
cannot be secured. There are short glimpses of clarity and insight, but
the single Big Truth is always illusory’ (p. 372).
Comparable contradictions are evident in Shields’s writing. Susan
Billingham terms her fiction ‘deceptively difficult to categorize accord-
ing to any single label’, contrasting the ‘postmodern elements’ evident
in her work with its ‘humanist focus upon the internal consciousness
and daily lives of [. . .] characters’.32 In Swann and The Stone Diaries these
‘postmodern elements’ are analogous to those in Murdoch’s novels,
including ‘play’ with other texts and genres; self-reflexivity and metafic-
tional commentary; a view of the self as multiple and relational; and the
commitment to plurality and indeterminacy already identified. Perhaps
Alex Ramon 145

the problem here is simply that any experimental writing has been
labelled, however glibly, as ‘postmodernist’ and that philosophical
and ontological questions associated with postmodernism predate the
existence of the term itself. However, an alternative view is possible.
Proposing that postmodern narrative strategies could offer writers ‘a pre-
cious oxygen of permission’, Shields advocated the development of a
‘double’ form which reconciles an inadequate postmodernist approach
with a realism which has equally ‘failed us’ by seldom proving ‘real

Some postmodernists think there can be no point beyond the lan-

guage game, but I think there can be – and I don’t know why we have
to talk about these two forms of fiction. Why can’t we have some-
thing in the middle – which is, I suppose, what I’m trying to do.
Because postmodernist ideas do allow you to do things that you can’t
do as a naturalist.33

This concern with what postmodernist theory might productively ‘do’

for the realist novel – liberating it from the conventions of form and
genre and allowing for greater stylistic experimentation – becomes a
central topic of Shields’s critical writing, but I would suggest that it is in
the fiction of a writer such as Murdoch that Shields finds incarnated the
‘double’ form that she advocates here. For Billingham, the term ‘self-
conscious realism’ (p. 276) best defines the hybrid approach developed
in Shields’s later work but it is an approach which, I think, owes a great
deal to the precedent set by Murdoch. Both writers practise formal
experimentation while retaining a commitment to realism and firm
‘humanist focus’. Conradi modifies his sense of Murdoch as ‘a playful
writer, playing with pattern, playing with the reader’ with the comment
that her ‘play is somehow serious as well as playful’ (SA, p. 372). This
notion of making narrative ‘play’ at once ‘playful’ and ‘serious’ res-
onates strongly with Shields’s fiction: ‘games and tricks’ such as the con-
cluding film script in Swann or the family tree and photos in The Stone
Diaries do not preclude humanist, moral engagement yet ensure multi-
ple opportunities for readerly ‘play’. Thus Murdoch can be identified as
one of the authors who points the way towards Shields’s particular
brand of ‘self-conscious realism’.
Of course such a merging of styles does not make Shields and Murdoch
unique. Gregson identifies ‘postmodernist and anti-postmodernist’
elements in the work of Byatt and Toni Morrison among many others
(pp. 32, 135–6). Yet a recent critical volume has placed Shields at the
146 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

vanguard of such a ‘doubled’ approach to literary art. In Carol Shields,

Narrative Hunger, and the Possibilities of Fiction, Edward Eden argues that
her work takes ‘a step beyond postmodernism by suggesting that we can
transcend the limitations of its epistemology’ (p. 6). In Eden’s view, ‘by
affirming the ties that bind reader and writer, world and text’, Shields’s
fiction challenges ‘what Patricia Waugh has termed “the generally apoc-
alyptic vision of much postmodernist thought”’:

By combining the concerns of the traditional realist novel with the

formal experimentation currently associated with postmodernism,
Shields makes a distinctive contribution to world literature [. . .]
opening [the realist novel] up to new forms of narrative play and new
opportunities to construct stories of moral consequence
(p. 11).

However, the ‘contribution to world literature’ for which Eden praises

Shields can only be properly contexualized by reference to her engage-
ment with the fiction of Iris Murdoch.

1. Alex O’ Connell, ‘Fresh Orange: Interview with Carol Shields and Ann
Patchett’, The Times, 23 May 1998.
2. Shields, Small Ceremonies [1976], (London: Fourth Estate, 1995), p. 100. All
subsequent references are to this edition.
3. Shields, Unless (London: Fourth Estate, 2002), pp. 137, 99. All subsequent
references are to this edition.
4. Most notably Catherine Fawley in The Bell, 1958.
5. Tim Adams, review of Unless, The Observer (12 May 2002). <http://
[accessed 3/3/2003].
6. Shields’s playful story ‘Absence’, in which a writer, due to a faulty computer
keyboard, must construct a story without recourse to the letter ‘I’, is the ulti-
mate exercise in ‘negative capability’. Shields, Collected Stories (London:
Harper Perennial, 1999), pp. 482–5.
7. Shields, Swann [1987], (London: Fourth Estate, 2000), p. 29. All subsequent
references are to this edition.
8. Shields, The Stone Diaries (London: Fourth Estate, 1993), p. 46.
9. Conradi, SA, p. 19.
10. EM, p. 87.
11. EM, p. 257.
12. Shields, ‘Narrative Hunger and the Overflowing Cupboard’ in Carol Shields,
Narrative Hunger, and the Possibilities of Fiction (ed.) E. Eden and D. Goertz
(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), p. 33.
13. A Fairly Honourable Defeat (London: Vintage, 2001), p. 343.
Alex Ramon 147

14. Shields, The Box Garden [1977] (London: Fourth Estate, 1995), p. 117. All sub-
sequent references to this edition.
15. The Black Prince (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 81.
16. Elizabeth Dipple, Iris Murdoch: Work for the Spirit (London: Methuen, 1982),
p. 168.
17. The relationship between the two novels would reward closer scrutiny. Aside
from the shared concern with otherness, both texts have writers as their
(unreliable) narrators and both revolve around acts of literary ‘theft’ and
18. The Italian Girl (London: Vintage, 2001) p. 132.
19. Raimer used this phrase in a paper entitled ‘“Festivals of Inconclusiveness”:
Carol Shields’s Ethics of Biography’. The paper was given at the ‘Carol
Shields and the Extra-ordinary’ conference at the Sorbonne, 21–22 March
20. An Accidental Man (London: Triad Granada, 1979), pp. 428–9.
21. David Lodge, After Bakhtin: Essays on Fiction and Criticism (London:
Routledge, 1990), p. 83.
22. EM, pp. 225, 227.
23. Shields, Jane Austen (London: Phoenix, 2001), p. 158.
24. In particular the chapter arrangement of Swann, with its four subjective
accounts of the title character, seems to draw directly upon Murdoch’s device
of the ‘post-scripts’ in The Black Prince. Both texts construct a multiplicity of
viewpoints for the reader to negotiate.
25. Deborah Johnson, Iris Murdoch (Brighton: Harvester, 1987), p. 24.
26. Ian Gregson, Postmodern Literature (London: Arnold, 2004), p. 33.
27. MGM., p.215.
28. EM, p.27.
29. Shields, ‘Narrative Hunger and the Overflowing Cupboard’, p.34; Watchel,
‘An Interview with Carol Shields’, Room of One’s Own 13.1/2 (1989), 44.
30. Shields, ‘Lush Words: Review of Angela Carter’s Artificial Fire’, Globe and Mail,
7 March 1988.
31. Terry Eagleton, ‘Review of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals’, The Guardian, 20
October 1992.
32. Susan E. Billingham, ‘Fragile Tissue: The Fiction of Carol Shields’, British
Journal of Canadian Studies 13.2 (1998), 276.
33. Shields, interview with Watchel, p.21.
‘Policemen in a Search Team’: Iris
Murdoch’s The Black Prince and Ian
McEwan’s Atonement
Anne Rowe

Like policemen in a search team, we go on hands and

knees and crawl our way towards the truth
(Atonement, p. 359).

When Murdoch published The Black Prince in 1973, liberal humanism

was being challenged by High Theory. When McEwan wrote Atonement
in 2001, High Theory was itself being challenged and calls for a new
eclecticism that restores authority to the text were being voiced.1 These
novels, both written at transitional periods in literary criticism, self-
referentially engage with contemporary debates about authorship and
the value of literature: each novel enacts a rigorous evaluation of its
own status. Although McEwan has said that when he began writing he
could find ‘no way in’ through the fiction of writers like Iris Murdoch,
distinct parallels are evident between his mature work, Atonement and
Murdoch’s The Black Prince.2 Despite being written by two generically
different writers hailing from different generations and class (one com-
mitted to the tradition of English Realism, the other a macabre writer of
a literature of shock), both pose similar paradoxes as they apparently
subscribe to positions that undermine the stability of the literary text,
while simultaneously subscribing to the moral tradition of the novel.
Indeed, these novels could be said to perform a literary ‘duet’.
Both novels are metafictions, self-conscious studies of the aesthetic
and moral considerations of story-telling. Both narrators are established
authors and both texts comprise their autobiographical stories. Briony
Tallis’s story is told in the third person, then mutates into the first
person to expose much of her story as a lie, while Bradley Pearson’s is
told in the first person until the final four postscripts which also cast
doubt on the validity of the preceding narrative. Both narratives create

Anne Rowe 149

a dialogue between two distinct voices: one tells the story as events took
place; the other is the voice of an older, wiser narrator who questions
the younger narrator’s perception, hints at future events, philosophizes
on morality and ponders on the nature of art, and the voices of the
naïve narrators have a distinctly different tone from their older selves.
Though unknown to readers, both narrators face a death sentence:
Murdoch’s Bradley develops ‘a quick growing cancer’ and dies in prison
(p. 412); McEwan’s Briony has been diagnosed with a ‘neural disorder’
that means her mind will close down until she ‘will have lost the abil-
ity to comprehend anything at all’ (p. 354). And both novels play out
the history of the novel in their forms: part one of Bradley’s story is the
realist depiction of his life up to his cataclysmic falling in love with
Julian Baffin, while the first section of Atonement, set in the traditional
English country estate, depicts Briony’s childhood in the realist tradi-
tion. Part Two of Bradley’s story describes his falling in love and displays
a modernist concern with consciousness and perspective, as does the
middle section of Atonement that describes Robbie’s war experiences.
Both novels end with a flourish that exposes their fictionality.
Such startling parallels pose a literary puzzle. Why should a paid-up
postmodernist and a committed realist construct such similar texts? As
a fledgling author, Murdoch was erroneously identified as a social real-
ist and, so it seems, McEwan’s early work was also misinterpreted.
Critics identified him as an ‘amoral’ enfant terrible, though recent criti-
cism suggests ‘his interest in the marginal and the perverse has always
aimed precisely at defining ethical limits’.3 McEwan and Murdoch may
never have been as polarized as they initially appear and, certainly since
9/11, McEwan has expressed remarkably ‘Murdochian’ views: ‘imagin-
ing yourself into the minds of other people is, I think, a fundamental
human act of empathy, which lies at the base of all our moral under-
standing. Now I’m an atheist. I really don’t believe [. . .] our moral sense
comes from a God [. . .] [it’s] human, universal, it’s being able to think
our way into the minds of others’.4 The denial of God and the idea of
‘Otherness’ echo the heart of Murdoch’s moral philosophy: her borrow-
ing of the idea of ‘attention’ from Simone Weil to describe the individ-
ual’s constantly renewed attempt to see individuals as they are, and not
as they exist in the fantasy-ridden psyche.5 Both writers thus suggest
sustained meditation on the Other as a way to moral goodness and the
artist’s imaginative construction of character as exemplifying such
meditation. McEwan’s view of the novel is thus inherently as moral
as Murdoch’s: ‘fiction is a deeply moral form in that it is the perfect
medium for entering the mind of another’.6 Murdoch, to the same end,
150 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

transposes Kant’s view of the sublime from nature to art, which pro-
duces ‘the moment of recognition of the separateness of another
human being’ when readers ‘infinitely extend [their] capacity to imag-
ine the being of others’ (MGM, p. 305). It is unsurprising, then, that
both The Black Prince and Atonement dramatize the epistemological
problems encountered by writers who share a commitment to the moral
function of literature yet write under the umbrella of postmodernism.7

A crisis of truth

Both novels acknowledge that there is no certain access to the real and
thus demonstrate suspicion of any absolute claim to the representation
of truth. Both writers understand the subjectivity of human perception
and the limitations of the novel form and consciously destabilize autho-
rial authority. But, paradoxically, both want readers to hold faith with
the truth-telling capacity of art – whether revealed through a postmod-
ernist’s celebration of fictionality, or a realist’s suspicion of it. Both
novels therefore, juxtapose detailed realism with devices that announce
their fictionality. At the beginning of The Black Prince, Bradley reveals
that he will ‘lodge [his] vision somehow inside the layered stuff of
ironic sensibility which if I were a fictitious character would be so
much denser and deeper’ (pp. 80–1), and at the end, Loxias, the editor,
remarks, ‘it has even been suggested that Bradley Pearson and myself are
both simply fictions, the invention of a minor novelist’ (p. 415). In
Atonement, Briony’s authorial volte-face reveals that her poignant
reunion with her sister, Cecelia, and Cecelia’s lover, Robbie, is a lie.
(Briony, at thirteen, had wrongly accused Robbie of raping her fifteen-
year-old cousin, Lola, a crime for which Robbie was imprisoned.) The
reunion and Briony’s promise of restitution is merely a fictional conso-
lation: ‘Robbie Turner died of septicaemia on Bray Dunes on 1st June
1941 [. . .] Cecelia was killed in September of the same year by the bomb
that destroyed Balham Underground station’ (p. 370).
Such destabilizing of textual authority shocks readers precisely
because their disbelief has been suspended by seductive realism. Bradley
may only hint cautiously at his fictional status, while Briony relishes
hers, and even invites readers to participate in her lie by imagining
Cecelia and Robbie at her birthday party, ‘still alive, still in love, sitting
side by side in the library’ (p. 372). At the rearguard of postmodernism,
McEwan seemingly destroys illusions of realism, almost punishing
readers for believing him. Murdoch, more fearful of any such loss of
control, and wishing to preserve her readers’ goodwill, shrinks from
Anne Rowe 151

such drastic exposure. McEwan rests confidently in this genre and

demands a sophisticated engagement with the fictionality of the novel:
‘how can a novelist achieve atonement when with her absolute power
of deciding outcomes she is also God?’ asks Briony (p. 371), and even
Bradley acknowledges that ‘all art lies’.
But ‘good art’, he goes on to observe, ‘lies its way to the truth’ (p. 381)
and if both writers want their novels to function on a moral level, some
negotiation with the truth on a practical level has to be possible. In each
case, in their fictional worlds, both narrators, blinded by self-centredness,
tragically misread reality and cause suffering: Bradley is accused of a
crime he did not commit; Briony accuses Robbie of a crime he did not
commit. ‘Literature’, Murdoch has said, ‘must tackle [this] problem
(often crudely simplified in philosophy) of “objective” and “subjective”
reality which is also the problem of truth’.8 McEwan has said that he had
often thought that he should build into his fiction ‘someone with imag-
ination to cause some havoc’.9 Both writers make the same demands of
themselves as they make of their narrators: the text must demonstrate
the narrators’ distorted perceptions yet establish sufficient epistemologi-
cal integrity to allow their version of events to have some truth or the
moral structure fractures.
Bradley certainly attempts to tell the truth about his affair with Julian
Baffin, the twenty-year-old daughter of his friend Arnold, about
Arnold’s murder and his innocence (of a crime for which he, like
Robbie, has been wrongfully imprisoned). But the most cursory reading
reveals Bradley’s paranoia, and in his dialogues about art he acknowl-
edges that truth is a relative concept: ‘even the statement “I am tall” is
only true in a certain context’ (p. 275). But the older, wiser Bradley is
able to indicate when he misread signs and could have altered the
course of events. A clear change in narrative tone distinguishes the
‘honest’ authorial voice from the deluded one. The passages where
Bradley recollects falling in love with Julian, for example, are master-
pieces of psychological construction. The deluded and honest voices
interweave within a single sentence to illustrate how Bradley’s erotic
fantasies are battling with his perception of the real: ‘When God said ‘let
there be light’ this love was made. It had no history. Yet, too, my awak-
ening consciousness of it had a history of bottomless fascination’
(p. 206). Bradley’s ‘honest’ voice gradually becomes distinct so that his
love for Julian and his innocence of the crime of killing her father
becomes clear to the reader by the end of the novel. Murdoch herself
has said that it should be evident ‘how you should interpret the wan-
derings and maunderings of a narrator, where you should believe him
152 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

and where you should not believe him’.10 Similarly, Briony’s quest is to
relate the past truthfully and reveal her culpability for Robbie’s wrong-
ful imprisonment. As Murdoch validates Bradley’s truthful voice so
McEwan validates Briony’s. Paul Marshall is revealed as Lola’s attacker
and sufficient clues are provided to his guilt; these clues were imper-
ceptible to a fantasy-ridden thirteen-year-old, but visible to the elderly
artist who can focus objectively on the psychology of a character in her
story more efficiently than she could evaluate subjectively in life. Only
then does Briony understand the significance of the scratches on Lola’s
arm spotted at the dinner table before the attack, and imagines how
after two gins Marshall might have awoken ‘uncomfortably aroused’,
trespassed into the children’s room and ‘saw the girl was almost a young
woman’ (p. 60). By remembering accurately, and making a sustained
attempt at imagining Marshall’s consciousness, Briony comes closer to
a rational understanding of what happened. The moral imagination
works in both novels as a vehicle for finding as much of the truth as is
Thus both novels lay bare the paradox at their centres: the impossi-
bility of a stable truth and the premise of the novel as a truth-revealing
form. The moral quest of both novels becomes the education of readers
in the sifting and reading of signs, and they make stringent demands,
because one-dimensional perception is the demon for both writers.
Both novels actively invite contradictory readings. (Bran Nicol argues
that in The Black Prince what the reader is most suspicious of is not the
narrator but ‘the very notion of truth itself’.11 He suggests that the
postscripts reveal inaccuracies in Bradley’s story and that such indeter-
minacy overrules the very notion of a coherent text. He is right, but
the indeterminacy of the text leaves the door open to conflicting, but
equally convincing, interpretations: Peter Conradi argues that the post-
scripts support as much as question Bradley’s version and ‘thus service
our sense of the plot more than they destabilise our grasp of it’.)12
Contradictory readings as a means of refining vision demand the per-
ception of multiple perspectives simultaneously. Seeing only one possi-
ble truth engenders fanaticism, about which each writer expresses
concern (in the 1970s fanaticism was manifesting itself in the Irish
Troubles which were a source of concern for Murdoch; McEwan has
written passionately about the fanaticism that generated the attacks on
9/11). Murdoch had illustrated the evils of one-dimensional vision in
characters such as Carel Fisher in The Time of the Angels, who believed
that ‘only evil is real [. . .] there is only power and the marvel of power,
there is only chance and the power of chance’.13 Carel’s perspective is
Anne Rowe 153

true, but his assumption that his is the only truth is dangerous. And art
must provide an antidote.
These novels can function morally only if the narrator’s positions are
viable. Having established this, both can go on to explore how far moral
action can be willed. Bradley comes to understand that the moment
where subjective and objective reality meet is a slender space that offers
a flash of moral opportunity before desire transforms reality: ‘in art as
in morality great things go by the board because at the crucial moment
we blink our eyes. When is the crucial moment? Greatness is to recog-
nise it and be able to hold it and extend it’ (p. 237). Briony experiences
a more childish, but no less profound, understanding as she meditates
on her finger: ‘did it have some little life of its own? [. . .] The mystery
was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not
moving and moving, when intention took effect. It was like a wave
breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she
might find the secret of herself, the part of her that was really in charge’
(p. 36). A quotation from Northanger Abbey prefaces Atonement: ‘Consult
your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own
observation of what is passing around you’, and McEwan has said,
‘I would like to write a novel in praise of rationalism, rationalism as
I understand it – mediated by emotional wisdom’.14 The place of ration-
ality is more equivocal in The Black Prince. Murdoch has less faith in it;
for her, clear perception facilitates moral action without any decision-
making process having to intrude.
Murdoch demonstrates that it is not in willing but in perceiving that
moral action lies by returning again and again to moments when
Bradley could, by understanding the motivation and emotions of oth-
ers instead of indulging his desires, have avoided tragedy. McEwan con-
tents himself with Briony’s one cataclysmic moral failure, but the
instant of time that separates moral from immoral action is warped by
precisely the same psychological failings in the thirteen-year-old girl as
in the fifty-eight-year-old man: both are acutely sensitive, and so self-
obsessed that they fail to see accurately and act morally on a personal
level. But they are so good at their craft as an artist that they can easily
expand these moments imaginatively as a moral example to their
readers. Like Bradley, Briony has little problem intellectually encom-
passing others: ‘was being Cecelia just as vivid an affair as being
Briony?’ (p. 36), and in creative mode she knows very well that ‘she
could write the scene three times over, from three points of view’
(p. 40). But neither can translate that objectivity into their own lives at
crucial moments of heightened emotion. She understands ‘how easy it
154 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

was to get everything wrong, completely wrong’ (p. 39) yet does not see
when she is actually doing it. Constructed as they are by narrators with
such moral blindness, these novels ask whether art has any role to play
in the attempt to perceive truth. If it does not, it has no business med-
dling in human affairs. Thus it is not only the narrators who stand trial
here; the novels themselves do too.

A crisis of authorship

Issues of authorship form one of the philosophical threads of both nov-

els15 as they blur the distinction between narrator and author, use the
novel as confessional, acknowledge the inevitable presence of their own
obsessions and defy those limitations by constructing works of dazzling
imaginative virtuosity that have incited critics to identify them as their
creators’ finest achievements. McEwan had habitually dealt in disturb-
ing material: sordid sexuality, abused children, castration and bestiality.
Murdoch’s novels have also depicted incest, evil children (Miranda in
An Unofficial Rose competes with the worst of McEwan’s depraved chil-
dren) and have never shirked from the violent and demonic situations
that extreme suffering or sexual obsession generates. But Murdoch’s
‘depravity’ is sanitized by the milieu of ‘the chattering classes’ and her
ambition was always one of ‘negative capability’, that the artist should
attempt to create art free of the unconscious despite her acknowledge-
ment that all ‘art comes out of the unconscious mind’. But, she adds,
‘the intellect comes in very much to prevent it’.16 All his narrators,
McEwan admits, ‘bear some relation to myself’, but he has also said that
‘imagination is linked to morality because imagining oneself as another
is at the core of compassion’.17 These novels wrestle with the problem
of how far the unconscious inevitably plays a part in the construction
of literary texts while suggesting that more important concerns govern
their production. They lie in their service of a larger, moral ambition to
refine readers’ perception by means of the artistic imagination devoid
as far as possible of the author’s fantasies. If all art can do is reveal its
narrator – then for Murdoch and McEwan it suffers from its own tunnel
vision, and fails in those larger moral ambitions. Both novels cross the
‘gender-barrier’ to write from male and female perspectives, respectively,
in response to the moral duty of the novelist to construct characters
who are ‘other’ than themselves.
However, the self-revelatory role of The Black Prince has been well
documented as Murdoch acknowledges her presence in this and by
implication all her novels. Bradley and Arnold respectively represent
Anne Rowe 155

the first-rate artist she aspires to be and the inevitably second best she
fears she is: Bradley is the perfectionist who never writes and Arnold is
an agent of self-mockery, ‘empty[ing] himself over the world like scented
bathwater’ (p. 186). Arnold’s self-defence is Murdoch’s own: ‘I do not
believe that I would improve if I wrote less’ (p. 375). Francis Marloe’s
postscript, which parodies Freudian literary criticism, embodies a plausi-
ble psychoanalytic picture of Bradley (and implies that The Black Prince
reveals the similar subliminal presence of Murdoch herself). Atonement is
equally McEwan’s self-revelation and atonement. His characters can also
be read as confessional mouthpieces: Briony knows that ‘self-exposure
was inevitable the moment she described a character’s weakness’ (p. 6)
and Briony’s moral failures mirror Bradley’s. As he is so absorbed in his
love affair with Julian that his sister commits suicide, Briony is so
absorbed in her play The Trials of Arabella that she ignores Lola’s plight:
she ‘did not regard [divorce] as a proper subject [for her art] and gave it
no thought’ (p. 6). And all Bradley’s and Briony’s acquaintances are cast
into roles in their own internal drama. Briony, like Bradley, is aware of
the ‘chasm that lay between an idea and its execution’ (p. 17). The con-
scious and unconscious failings of the artist inform both narratives.
If both novels acknowledge their authors’ unconscious presence they
also provide the opportunity for flights of artistic virtuosity that allow
them to transcend such limitations, and a meditation on suffering func-
tions in both novels as just such a vehicle. Murdoch tries to imagine the
experience of redemptive suffering; McEwan attempts to imagine the
horror of war; both sections offer an accumulation of detail so real that
it persuades the reader that these events really occurred and each writer
succeeds in momentarily creating a moment of sublime, where reader
and writer become so immersed in the imaginative detail that both
momentarily cease to exist. But both fictional and actual writers
acknowledge the transience of these moments and their limitations:
‘No-one would ever know what it was like to be there’, thinks Robbie
(p. 175) and Bradley understands ‘how little in fact any human being
understands the practice of art soon teaches one’ (p. 381).
As the novels’ and the novelists’ limitations are built into these nov-
els so are the limitations of literary criticism: in The Black Prince they are
expressed by means of Bradley’s review of Arnold’s latest novel; in
Atonement in C.C.’s (Cyril Connolly’s) criticism of an earlier draft of
the novel we have just read. Bradley’s review of Arnold’s latest book is
both a ruthless self-castigation on Murdoch’s part and an illustration of
the self-interested paranoia invested in any criticism; the letter from
Briony’s publisher in Atonement functions similarly, and points to
156 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

critical misreading and pedantry. While Bradley accuses Arnold of ‘con-

fusing Mahayana and Theravada’ (p. 146), Briony’s publisher comments
that ‘the Bernini you refer to is the one in the Piazza Barberini not the
Piazza Navona’ (p. 314) and gives the condescending advice that she
create more narrative pull, reinforce the moral of the story and not write
about the war. (Like McEwan’s early critics, C.C. failed to appreciate
the moral core of Briony’s tale). Briony does incorporate his suggestions
(the Piazza Barberini is changed to the Piazza Navona) but inserts her
war story into the text anyway. McEwan is kinder to critics than
Murdoch (Bradley does severe injustice to Arnold’s work) but McEwan
does assert a writer’s independence. So, both novels set out ideals for
writers and critics and explore how they can so easily be compromised:
both Bradley and Briony attempt the kind of art to which their creators
aspire, and both fail. Briony’s rationale for trying is both writers’ own:
‘It was always an impossible task’, she says, ‘and that was precisely the
point. The attempt was all’ (p. 371).

A crisis of love

Any anti-humanist challenge to the emphasis placed on love by classic

realist novelists troubles both writers, and both offer a love story as an
antidote to such tendencies. ‘What I am concerned about really is
love’,18 Murdoch has said repeatedly, and McEwan reveals, ‘I had this
thought as to whether it was possible, at the end of the twentieth cen-
tury, for the literary novel to explore the subject of love in quite the way
it was automatically a subject in the Nineteenth Century [. . .] have we
wrapped ourselves in so much irony and self-reference that we can no
longer tell a love story’?19 If, for Murdoch, love is the ultimate condition
that enables the kind of deep, objective seeing that generates morality,
then the same might be said for McEwan, who has said, ‘we must never
lose sight of the fabulous redemptive quality of our capacity for love’.20
Both novels are love stories: the subtitle of The Black Prince is
‘A Celebration of Love’, and it celebrates Bradley’s love for Julian, while
Atonement celebrates both Briony’s love for her sister and Cecelia and
Robbie’s love for each other. More importantly, the writing of these nov-
els is also an act of love: Jean Logan, a character in Enduring Love, the
novel that precedes Atonement is, like Bradley and Briony, guilty of a
damaging failure of perception when she wrongly assumes that her hus-
band died while on a picnic with another woman, and asks, ‘who’s
going to forgive me? The only person who can is dead’ (p. 230). Both
authors offer literature as an atonement, a vehicle for understanding
Anne Rowe 157

human frailty, for helping readers see the world more clearly than their
characters and, by illustrating how difficult it is, invite tolerance and
Murdoch persistently italicizes the word ‘see’ to emphasize the signif-
icance of clarity of vision in her moral philosophy: ‘art [. . .] is the place
in which the nature of morality can be seen’.21 Interestingly, the word is
also italicized in an interview with McEwan: ‘you’ve got to make your
reader see’.22 Empathy is impossible without just vision and Bradley’s
aphorism that ‘in art as in morality great things go by the board because
at the crucial moment we blink our eyes’ (p. 237), could govern both
novels because empathy is the moral key to the writing and reading of
both: in The Black Prince immorality is generated by a failure of empa-
thy; in Atonement morality is generated by means of it. Bradley fails to
see the damage he does to Rachel Baffin by his dallying with her affec-
tions then turning his attention to her daughter; his failure results in
Arnold’s murder and his own false imprisonment. The moral damage is
compounded by his revulsion from his broken-hearted sister, Priscilla,
who seeks his comfort after her marriage disintegrates. His lack of care
is instrumental, if not central, in her suicide. Bradley comes to see that
Priscilla’s death ‘was not inevitable’ (p. 389) and his failure to imagina-
tively perceive the suffering of both women is the moral pivot around
which the plot revolves. Robbie, on the other hand, does try, selflessly,
to understand Briony’s motives for her accusation: ‘He saw it clearly,
how it had happened’ (p. 139). But he meditates more deeply still, and
in a moment that practically illustrates Murdoch’s idea of ‘attention’,
remembers Briony’s childish declaration of love that would generate
jealousy. As a result, Robbie penetrates to a motive that would have
been inaccessible to the thirteen-year-old girl, and such empathy breeds
tolerance and a lack of self-pity that could otherwise turn into the mur-
derous anger that is seen in The Black Prince. To draw attention to such
moments both writers provide symbolic moral beacons to help the reader
see: in The Black Prince, the Post Office Tower symbolizes the needle-like
space between subjective and objective vision,23 and the cracked
Meissen vase in Atonement recurs to symbolize the irrevocable damage
done to lives by a moment’s imperception. The echo of James’s golden
bowl transforms it also into a symbol of art itself, flawed, but valuable.
Although both writers are keen to align themselves with the moral
tradition of the novel, McEwan has never acknowledged any particular
debt to Murdoch, although he has said that he ‘patrol[s] other people’s
territory’ and ‘absorbs things from other people without being aware of
it’.24 It is more probable that these similarities arise from two writers
158 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

meditating on the contemporary literary climate and negotiating what

they saw as threats to the moral integrity of literature. McEwan thinks
that ‘what we need in the world is more doubt, more scepticism’,25 and
Murdoch went on to demonstrate a similar sentiment in The Green
Knight (1993), where she poignantly questions herself as a role model
and aspects of her moral philosophy. Such concerns about the iconic
status of any writer account for some of the deliberate ambivalences and
complexities in The Black Prince and Atonement. Neither writer denies
the validity of positions that militate against the moral force of the
novel, such as the idea that the novel can be read as play on the impos-
sibility of any secure meaning; both complicate any distinct authorial
position and deliberately undermine any facile constructing of whole-
ness with mystification and irony; and both flaunt their unoriginality,
acknowledge an author’s unconscious presence and understand that
readers and critics construct the text independently of authorial inten-
tion; both admit a myriad textual presences and neither encourages
naive readings that edit out such complexities. However, both writers
demand from readers the same ability to perceive antithetical perspec-
tives to be simultaneously true as they do from their characters. And by
aligning themselves closely with their narrators, and speaking candidly
about their intentions, both writers also align themselves with the tra-
dition of liberal humanism and imply that intention can be a legitimate
part of textual interpretation, though it should not exhaust it.
What Murdoch and McEwan both say about their novels is that they
are about truth, morality and love, and both believe that these values
can be communicated. In subsequent novels, both unashamedly con-
struct poignant vignettes that illustrate the redemptive powers of liter-
ature. In Murdoch’s The Good Apprentice (1985), Edward Baltram, in
despair after causing the death of his friend, reads Proust’s À La
Recherche. Its ‘intimations of other places, of elsewhere, of freedom’ pre-
vents his guilt turning to murderous despair. In McEwan’s Saturday
(2005) Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach is read by Henry Perowne’s poet-
daughter when she is threatened with rape, and the words affect her
assailant, Baxter, so profoundly that he leaves her unharmed. Dover
Beach embodies the link that Murdoch and McEwan attempt to uphold
between literature past and present, and between writer and reader, and
even, perhaps, encapsulates the link between these two novels: ‘Ah
love, let us be true to one another’. Both writers take their ‘sacred office’
seriously, but both also understand that such a role can only be perpet-
uated by acknowledging the challenges of postmodernism. Success, of
course, relies on readers understanding that both positions are being
Anne Rowe 159

equally upheld; as Bradley reminds us, ‘all art lies, but good art lies its
way to the truth’ (p. 381).

1. See Valentine Cunningham, Reading After Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002)
and Terry Eagleton’s After Theory (London: Penguin, 2003).
2. Editions quoted are: The Black Prince (Penguin, 1986), Atonement (London:
Jonathan Cape, 2001).
3. This reassessment arrived with the publication of Atonement. See The Fiction
of Ian McEwan (ed.) Peter Childs (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2005), p. 6.
4. <http://ebc.chez.tiscali.fr/ebc81.html> [accessed 6 January 2006].
5. EM, p. 372.
6. <http://ebc.chez.tiscali.fr/ebc81.html> [accessed 6 January 2006].
7. These texts engage with contemporary trends in literary theory, but the
detail of this much larger analysis lies outside the boundaries of this essay.
My discussion is confined only to a close reading that finds strikingly simi-
lar moral psychology, themes and critical positions, though such a reading
necessarily feeds into a bigger theoretical picture.
8. MGM, p. 305.
9. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/faith/interviews/
mcewan.html> [accessed 6 January 2006].
10. Dooley, pp. 103–104.
11. Nicol, IM:TRF, p. 97.
12. See Conradi, SA, pp. 233–65 and Nicol, IMRF, pp. 95–107.
13. The Time of the Angels (Chatto, 1966), p. 184.
14. <http://ebc.chez.tiscali.fr/ebc81.html> [accessed 6 January 2006].
15. The Black Prince appeared only six years after Barthes had declared the author
to be dead and poststructuralism had identified the text as a site for plurali-
ty of meanings, replacing the author with a decentred system of language.
Two interpretative methods for analysing the texts came to prevail: decon-
struction facilitated attention to the surface of the texts while Foucault’s
locating of an omnipresent force in the space left by the absent author par-
adoxically opened the floodgates for the subjectivity, biography and psy-
chology of the writer to be identified by psychoanalytic discourse which
delved beneath that surface. This dialogue was brewing when Murdoch
wrote The Black Prince and by the time Atonement was written the identify-
ing of a complex intertextuality and/or covert authorial presence was central
to the way texts were being conceptualized or theorized.
16. Dooley, p. 115.
17. McEwan, ‘Only Love and then Oblivion. Love was All they had to Set against
their Murderers’. Special Report: Terrorism in the US. The Guardian
(15 September 2001).
18. Dooley, p. 25.
19. <http://www.barnesandnoble.com/writers/writerdetails.asp?=701882&
userid=51G1> [accessed 6 January 2006].
20. <http://ebc.chez.tiscali.fr/ebc81.html> [accessed 6 January 2006].
21. EM, p. 372.
160 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

22. Ian McEwan: The Essential Guide (ed.) Margaret Reynolds and Jonathan
Noakes (London: Vintage, 2002), pp. 22–3.
23. McEwan uses the post office tower similarly in his next novel Saturday
(London: Jonathan Cape, 2005) and it appears on the cover of the paperback
edition. It functions in the way Murdoch uses it in The Black Prince – as a
symbol of communication, only expanded here, perhaps, to include science
and technology.
24. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/faith/interviews/
mcewan.html [accessed 6 January 2006].
25. <http://www.pbs.org/pages/frontline/show/faith/interview/mcewan.html>
[accessed 6 January 2006].
Part V Renegotiating Gender,
Sexuality and Feminism
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Plato, Foucault and Beyond:
Ethics, Beauty and Bisexuality in
The Good Apprentice
Tammy Grimshaw

Iris Murdoch demonstrates a keen interest in the themes of gender and

sexuality throughout her fiction,1 but in order to understand her fic-
tional representations of gender and sexuality, one must fully consider
the author’s moral stance, especially the impact that Platonism had on
her views on sexuality and ethics. I hope to demonstrate that, in dis-
playing an interest in these themes, Murdoch’s work provides a forum
for a consideration of other contemporary thinkers, particularly Michel
Foucault, who also displayed a preoccupation with sexuality and ethics
in The History of Sexuality, Volume 2 (1982) and Volume 3 (1984).
A review of Murdoch’s fiction and interviews reveals how her views
on gender developed over many years. Her belief in androgyny first
appeared in The Bell (1958) as the narrator comments that ‘Toby was far
from the sophistication of holding that we all participate in both
sexes’.2 Albeit brief, this narrative remark reveals that Murdoch engaged
with the topic of gender even in her early writing. Later, in an interview
granted during 1976, Murdoch endorsed the ‘gender-bending’ trends of
the 1960s and 1970s, stating that ‘my own characters are often androg-
ynous [. . .] because I believe that most people are androgynous’.3
Yet, Murdoch soon became disenchanted with the way in which soci-
ocultural stereotypical notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ restricted
individual freedom. And since androgyny encouraged individuals to
strike a balance between their ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ characteristics,
Murdoch began to question whether all social constructions of gender,
including androgyny, were a way of categorizing human beings and
limiting their autonomy. At a conference on Virginia Woolf’s life and
works in 1984, Murdoch’s growing pique with gender categorizations
was patently obvious: ‘There’s an awful lot in her [Woolf’s] stories
which is to do with portraying a feminine sensibility in contrast to a

164 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

masculine intellect, [. . .] and I don’t think that I see the world quite in
those terms’.4 Murdoch reiterated these views in another interview three
years later, making a comment that simultaneously echoed and rejected
a view of androgyny similar to Coleridge’s: ‘People go on about how
every man has a female aspect, every woman has a male aspect. I don’t
know that this takes one very far: I mean, I think we are all individuals,
that scientific generalizations of this sort are not very valuable’.5
Murdoch’s increasing disaffection with sociocultural gender stereo-
types stemmed from her firm conviction that men and women do not
differ on an intellectual level. She once stated, ‘there is certainly no dif-
ference [between men and women] in terms of mental make-up [. . .].
There are not different kinds of minds’.6 Further, in her view, gender dif-
ferences were a fallacy not only on an intellectual level, but also on the
spiritual plane as she asserted that ‘at a higher level – a more spiritual
level – I think the difference [between men and women] vanishes’.7 In
her ultimate rejection of androgyny, as well as in her denial of the exis-
tence of gender on the intellectual and spiritual levels, then, Murdoch
asserts that gender classifications – like any form of categorization –
should be disregarded since they are limiting of human individuality
and personal autonomy.
Murdoch was also very interested in the effect that societal con-
straints had on the expression of one’s sexuality. Believing that these
restrictions were morally unjust, she vehemently spoke out against soci-
ety’s prejudice against homosexual love. In her 1964 article, ‘The Moral
Decision about Homosexuality’, she engages in an extended diatribe
against this form of prejudice: ‘It does not [. . .] seem to me that [. . .]
there is anything inherently immoral about being a homosexual; [. . .]
if there is an illness here it is our society at large that is ill, in the sense
of prejudiced and morally blind’.8 She expressed her staunch insistence
on homosexual rights throughout her lifetime, stating in a 1991 inter-
view, ‘I feel very strongly that there shouldn’t be any sort of prejudice
against homosexuals, or suggestions that homosexual love is unnatural
or bad. I hope such views are tending to disappear from society’.9
While Murdoch’s concern with gender and sexuality may appear to be
two separate preoccupations, much of contemporary gender theory rests
upon the view that society and culture conspire to conflate gender, sex
and sexuality. In her landmark essay, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and
Lesbian Existence’ (1980), Adrienne Rich makes a claim that informs
much of contemporary gender theory. Positing that society promotes
‘compulsory heterosexuality’, Rich suggests that the notion of separate
‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ genders for men and women fortifies societal
Tammy Grimshaw 165

constraints on sexuality because it reinforces the sociocultural

ideology that women possess an innate sexual attraction only to men.10
Challenges to this sociocultural paradigm accordingly serve to free
human beings to new experiences of both gender and sexuality. As Judith
Butler explains, it is only through the loosening of the constraints of
compulsory heterosexuality that ‘bisexual and homosexual possibilities’
can emerge and the artificial construct of gender can be overthrown.11
For Murdoch, too, gender and sexuality were inextricably linked.
Even though Murdoch would have quarrelled with Butler’s reliance
upon poststructuralism, she presents in her fiction new possibilities
for sexual identities that challenge the traditional order of gender –
representations that bear resemblance to Butler’s claim.12 For instance,
in The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), Tom McCaffrey cross-dresses before
having what could be described as a quasi-erotic encounter with his
male friend Emmanuel Scarlett-Taylor (pp. 217–18). In The Book and the
Brotherhood (1987) Gulliver Ashe, who challenges gender dress codes by
wearing makeup, is attractive to, and attracted to, both men and
women (p. 206). Similarly, Harvey Blacket, who is often described in a
feminine way in The Green Knight (1993), wishes that he could be a les-
bian before pondering what it would be like to be a gay male (p. 76).
Since Murdoch subscribed to the view that gender ceases to exist on
a ‘higher [. . .] spiritual level’, one has to evolve morally and spiritually
before the artificial constructs of gender can be overcome. In order to
illuminate her views on spirituality, Murdoch turned to Platonism,
which informs the ethical stance in her thought and art. Because of the
strong influence of Platonism on Murdoch’s work, this subject has, not
surprisingly, been the focus of much recent scholarship. While it is not
my intention to repeat the content of previous studies, I should briefly
mention here that the Platonic construct that was most important to
Murdoch was Eros, the concept that sexual love is part and parcel of
spiritual and ethical development. Murdoch makes this point clear in
her tome on moral philosophy, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals,
explaining that the ascent to ‘spiritualised sexuality’ is based on the
transformation of ‘base egoistic energy and vision (low Eros) into high
spiritual energy and vision (high Eros)’. Like Plato, Murdoch insists that
spiritual and ethical development, that is the ‘the approach to [. . .] the
Form of the Good’, can be achieved only ‘through a difficult disciplined
purification of intellect and passion, wherein passion (Eros) becomes a
spiritual force’.13 As individuals undergo this process of discipline and
purification, they begin to approach the higher, spiritual level where
Murdoch claims there are no genders.
166 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

The appreciation of beauty plays an important role in this process.

Murdoch emphasizes that ‘beauty [. . .] prompts the spirit’, meaning
that sexual love is an impetus for the ‘ascent from physical passion to a
vision of divine absolute beauty’. She explains that the desire for good-
ness can be based on the appreciation of, or desire for, beauty: the ‘per-
ception of beauty as unselfish attachment can bring about spiritual
change’. The purification of sexual desire which springs from the appre-
ciation of and desire for beauty was, for Murdoch, one of the most
important aspects of Eros because ‘we see and love beauty more readily
than we love good, it is the spiritual thing to which we are most imme-
diately and instinctively attracted’.14 Being allied with sexual love, Eros
is necessarily associated with various forms of sexuality. Since sexual
love is so intimately joined to the ethical life and spiritual ascent, one
wonders to what extent sexual love for persons of both sexes – what
we call bisexuality in the present day – might enable one’s spiritual
Michel Foucault explores bisexuality in his last two book-length vol-
umes, The History of Sexuality Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure and The
History of Sexuality Volume 3: The Care of the Self. Foucault’s work is
enabling for a reading of Murdoch’s fiction because both writers were
interested in the views on sexuality in Greek antiquity, especially those
of Plato. The similarity of Foucault to Murdoch in their readings of Plato
vis-à-vis bisexuality and beauty is evident in the following passage from
The History of Sexuality, Volume 2:

Were the Greeks bisexual, then? Yes, if we mean by this that a Greek
could, simultaneously or in turn, be enamored of a boy or a girl; that
a married man could have paidika [young boy lovers], that it was
common for a male to change to a preference for women after ‘boy-
loving’ inclinations in his youth. [. . .] We can talk about their ‘bisex-
uality,’ [. . .] but for them this option was not referred to a dual,
ambivalent, and ‘bisexual’ structure of desire. To their way of think-
ing what made it possible to desire a man or a woman was simply the
appetite that nature had implanted in man’s heart for ‘beautiful’
human beings, whatever their sex might be.15

Bearing resemblance to Foucault’s analysis of the classical model,

Murdoch’s fiction illustrates the manner in which an individual can
move freely between love and desire for persons of the same sex and the
opposite sex. As I will later argue, she also represents male characters
who have pseudo-pederastic relationships. In the same way that
Tammy Grimshaw 167

Foucault describes the natural appreciation for ‘“beautiful” human

beings, whatever their sex might be’, Murdoch believed that bisexuality
derived from an appreciation of beauty that was not contingent upon
the sex or gender of the object choice. In addition, Murdoch, like
Foucault, would have objected to the term ‘bisexuality’ to describe this
alternating pattern of desire, although not for the reason Foucault cites.
While Foucault was opposed to the use of the term on the grounds of
ahistoricism, Murdoch would have objected since she decried any soci-
ocultural regime that attempted to categorize individuals. For the sake
of brevity and rhetorical convenience, however, I shall use the terms
‘bisexual’ and ‘bisexuality’ in the analysis that follows to describe the
alternating pattern of desire that derives from an appreciation of the
Murdoch’s illustration of Platonic bisexuality is present throughout
her novels. For example, in An Unofficial Rose (1962), Emma Sands
divides her attentions between Hugh Peronett and Lindsay Rimmer.
Violet Evercreech in The Unicorn (1963) also experiences sexual love for
both female and male characters. Murdoch’s fiction of 1970s and 1980s
expands her representation of bisexual love to include the appreciation
of beauty that enables one’s moral growth. Simon Foster in A Fairly
Honourable Defeat (1970) has had a sexual relationship with Morgan
Browne, a female character, before settling down in a long-term rela-
tionship with a same-sex partner – a relationship that both challenges
and enables his ethical development. In The Black Prince (1973), Bradley
Pearson, while certainly not a role model for spiritual development dur-
ing most of the narrative, comes to appreciate the beauty in both Julian
Baffin, a female character, and in Arnold Baffin, her father. Similarly in
Henry and Cato (1976), Cato Forbes supports the moral growth of his
friend, the aptly named Beautiful Joe, in spite of having been attracted
to girls during his school years. Likewise, Tamar Hernshaw in The Book
and the Brotherhood (1987) experiences as sexual love an admiration of
the beauty of both Jean Kowitz and Duncan Cambus, a married couple.
The Good Apprentice (1985) also portrays bisexual characters. Although
he does not pursue beauty to approach the Good because of his sexual
greed and selfishness, the painter Jesse Baltram has had affairs with
numerous women, as well as having had a long-standing same-sex
relationship with fellow artist Max Pointe.16 Midge McCaskerville spec-
ulates that her husband, Thomas, has homosexual desires (p. 171).
Additionally, even though Edward Baltram later falls in love with his
step-sister, Ilona, others speculate that he may be more inclined towards
same-sex love (pp. 34, 299). However, it is Stuart Cuno, Edward’s
168 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

half-brother, who uses his bisexual desire to appreciate beauty and

pursue goodness. The remainder of this discussion will therefore focus
on Stuart, since he best exemplifies Murdoch’s views on bisexuality,
beauty and ethics.
In The Good Apprentice, Murdoch illustrates how an appreciation of
the beautiful can be used as a path to goodness. Peter Conradi, who con-
siders this one of Murdoch’s best novels, explains that ‘Stuart wants to
do good and stay unspotted by the world’; however, this character has
‘antagonised or baffled most reviewers, and is to distress many of the
characters in the novel too’.17 Elizabeth Dipple has noted that ‘when-
ever Murdoch chooses to depict a character with a commitment to the
rigors of the good [. . .], she presents him/her as an outsider whose par-
ticipation in life is marginal and often unhappy, and Stuart Cuno is no
exception’.18 Suguna Ramanathan has found that Murdoch’s ‘good’
characters may appear non-integral to the plot, yet the presence of these
characters is of central significance to their narratives.19 I would add
that Murdoch’s ‘good’ characters are often bisexual in that their appre-
ciation of beauty is not gender-specific and that this representation of
bisexuality is indeed central to the narratives since it vividly illustrates
Murdoch’s belief that all human beings encounter difficulties when
attempting to develop morally.
Murdoch sometimes depicts pseudo-pederastic relationships in her
fiction to explore the themes of moral development and sexuality. In
other words, even though Murdoch does not depict the sexual compo-
nent of pederasty in her fiction, she does illustrate the ethical obliga-
tions inhering in the love of an older man for his younger beloved.
Plato discusses the obligations associated with pederasty in many of his
writings, stating in the Phaedrus that the lover must give ‘counsel and
discipline to the boy’.20 In The History of Sexuality, Volume 2, Foucault
explains the moral dynamics of pederasty at length: ‘The Greeks [. . .]
believed that [. . .] desire called for a particular mode of behaviour [. . .]
in a relationship between two male individuals [i.e., a man and a boy].
[. . .] Such a relationship ought to be given an ethical form different
from the one that was required when it came to loving a woman’.21
The moral instruction and intellectual education of the youth were
the foundations of pederasty, and Murdoch portrays several characters
who engage in this aspect of pederastic relationships: Michael Meade
attends to Nick’s intellectual and educational needs in The Bell (1958).
Likewise, in The Nice and the Good (1968) Theodore Gray’s attraction is
to younger males, namely Pierce Clothier and the young boy who trag-
ically died in India. In An Unofficial Rose (1962) Humphrey Finch has a
Tammy Grimshaw 169

traditional heterosexual marriage, yet attends to the emotional and edu-

cational support of young Penn. Edgar Demarnay takes the younger
David Gavender under his wing in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine
(1974) to be his academic mentor and protector. Further, Cato hopes to
guide and direct Beautiful Joe in Henry and Cato (1976) by offering to
support the boy financially while he obtains vocational training.
According to the tenets of Platonism, ‘a person’s beauty naturally
prompts you to care, not just about their beauty, but about them’,
which means that the older lover gives his attention to the younger
beloved’s ‘character rather than his physical beauty’.22 In the same way,
Stuart Cuno’s relationship with Meredith McCaskerville in The Good
Apprentice revolves around the development of Meredith’s moral char-
acter and spirituality. This focus is apparent in the conversation in
which the two characters talk about goodness, sex, pornography and
art, particularly when Stuart entreats Meredith to look at objects that are
‘beautiful or elegant’, rather than engaging in ‘human vulgarity’ by
viewing ‘filthy pornographic videos’ (pp. 248–52).
Moreover, in attempting ‘to bring out what is best in his beloved, the
lover brings out what is best in himself’.23 Thus, as Stuart strives to guide
Meredith and improve his beloved’s moral life, he improves morally
himself, making the ‘unnerving discovery’ he too must shun his own
attraction to pornography and ‘bad’ art (pp. 250–51). A cursory review
of Foucault’s thoughts on ethics arguably bears some resemblance to
this depiction of the moral life since, for Foucault, moral action requires
an individual to ‘monitor, test, improve and transform himself’.24
Because certain aspects of his relationship with Meredith could be
described as pederastic, Stuart initially appears to be homosexual.
Murdoch sets up Stuart’s ostensible homosexuality by having other
characters muse about his sexual orientation. Harry Cuno, Stuart’s
father, exhorts his son to reconsider his sexual choices, warning that
others will view him as abnormal or a repressed homosexual (p. 38).
Later, Midge and Thomas McCaskerville speculate about the potential
homosexual element in Stuart’s affection for their son, Meredith
(p. 64). But although Stuart’s urge to guide and direct his younger same-
sex friend Meredith resembles homosexual pederasty in certain ways,
this character’s respect for and appreciation of beauty are hallmarks of
bisexuality – the appreciation of the beauty of others regardless of their
sex or gender.
In The Good Apprentice Murdoch draws on the Platonic notion that
beauty should be attended to with awe, reverence and temperance, and
her portrayal of Stuart’s struggle to transform his low Eros into high Eros
170 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

represents that described in the Phaedrus. Plato’s description of the soul

in this work is as a charioteer who has two horses. One of the horses
‘is good and the other is not’. The good horse is ‘honourable [. . .]
upright [. . .] temperate and modest’, but the bad horse consorts ‘with
wantonness [. . .] and [is] hard to control with whip and goad’.25 When
the charioteer sees Beauty ‘enthroned by the side of temperance upon
her holy seat [. . .] [he] is compelled to pull the reigns so violently that
he brings both steeds down on their haunches, the good one willing
and unresistant, but the wanton sore against his will’.26 As Foucault suc-
cinctly points out, the Phaedrus addresses the lover’s long struggle to
transform his own desire.27
Similarly, Stuart has given great thought to what kind of desires
should control his life. When he does experience desires of a sexual
nature, he is not alarmed, realizing that these impulses are an integral
part of Eros. Murdoch writes:

He loved Meredith. Stuart was not dismayed by his sexual feelings

about the boy. He had, or had had, more or less vague sexual feelings
about all sorts of things and people, school masters, girls seen in
trains, mathematical problems, holy objects, the idea of being good.
Sex seemed to be mixed into everything. [. . .] The desires character-
istic of his youthful age he dealt with himself, privately and without
guilt, easily blanking out any tendency to erotic fantasy
(p. 247).

Finding that his love for Meredith has a sexual component, Stuart
understands that this sexual desire is like a ‘holy object’ – something to
be regarded with awe and reverence. The large number and rather
unusual array of people and objects in which Stuart invests his sexual
desire show that he is attempting to situate this desire in its proper
moral place. As she brings up ‘the idea of being good’ as an integral part
of this passage, Murdoch continues to illustrate the Platonic view that
spiritual goodness and sexuality spring from the same life force. Since
Stuart is able to deal with his desires ‘privately and without guilt’, he
experiences Eros as a spiritualized sexuality which is disciplined and
temperate, like the ideal described in the Phaedrus. In addition, Stuart’s
avoidance of fantasy demonstrates that he wishes to leave behind the
Platonic state of eikasia – the illusions that the prisoners in Plato’s cave
parable experience. Significantly, because Stuart can see and appreciate
the beauty in persons of both genders, he displays a sexual love that is
bisexual in nature. And since sexuality is linked to gender under the
Tammy Grimshaw 171

framework of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, one could argue that

Murdoch subtly opens up opportunities for new expressions of gender
as she presents such new sexual possibilities in her fiction.
Nevertheless, it has been noted that Murdoch’s interest in sexuality
and in representing new sexual possibilities is often too subtle or even
oblique. In a recent article, Hampl asserts that Murdoch’s representa-
tions of same-sex love are ‘nonsensical’ since many of her characters
who experience same-sex desire are not ever depicted having sex.28
Unfortunately, though, Hampl makes no attempt to interpret the repre-
sentation of celibacy in Murdoch’s fiction in the light of the author’s
interest in Platonism. I would like to point out here that Murdoch
depicts sexual abstinence based on Platonism to illustrate that celibacy
can help one to achieve reverence, temperance and self-control. Foucault
provides a useful exegesis of this phenomenon, linking celibacy back to
bisexuality: ‘if one wanted to show that a man was self-controlled, it was
said of him [. . .] that he was able to abstain from relations with boys and
women alike’.29
Stuart in The Good Apprentice ‘detested sexual promiscuity, vulgar pub-
lic sex, the lack of privacy and reticence, the lack of restraint and
respect, the lack of reverence, the lack of inwardness’ (p. 53). The
restraint, respect and reverence mentioned in this passage echo the
virtues of temperance, modesty and awe put forward in the charioteer’s
myth in the Phaedrus, and Stuart wishes to remain celibate in order to
experience these virtues. Accordingly, he has ‘given up sex, or rather
never had it’ (p. 39).
While Stuart thus strives for the good, as Conradi rightly points out,
‘Stuart is by no means made only of love and light’, and his moral devel-
opment is not without its setbacks.30 Stuart particularly struggles with
the desire to use power for manipulative, unloving ends, and since this
type of power springs from the selfish impulses of low Eros, this char-
acter’s struggles illustrate the overwhelming power of low Eros over an
individual’s moral growth.
According to Foucault, moral growth and moral agency must focus on
‘the question of the self, of its dependence and independence, of its
universal form and of the connection it can and should establish with
others’. Even though Foucault seems to argue for a view of others in this
extract, it is the only direct acknowledgement in his writing that indi-
viduals other than the moral agent should be considered, and it is at this
point that Murdoch goes beyond Foucault. Indeed, Foucault’s primary
emphasis is on the self, which he expresses particularly clearly when
he insists that ‘self-knowledge occupies a considerable place’ in the
172 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

‘cultivation of the self’. He adds that if self-knowledge is achieved, the

individual moral agent can establish ‘a complete supremacy over itself’.31
Murdoch would have expressed great antipathy towards these claims
since she stated that ‘“self-knowledge”, in the sense of a minute under-
standing of one’s own machinery, seems to me, except at a very simple
level, usually a delusion’. Rather than focussing on the self, Murdoch’s
moral philosophy is based on the premise that one’s ‘attention’ should
be directed ‘outward, away from [the] self’, a view she borrowed from
Simone Weil.32 Ramanathan provides an excellent explanation of
Murdoch’s views on this topic, pointing out that even though the moral
agent may attempt to focus on others, relationships are often clouded
since the agent may believe that he or she is helping others to improve
morally, rather than seeing that his or her power is actually being used
to manipulate them.33
Stuart illustrates this moral dilemma as he becomes open to the
charge of using his power for manipulative purposes. When he encour-
ages Midge to end her clandestine affair with Harry Cuno, his father,
because of the damage it brings to her son, Meredith, Midge blurts out:
‘You think I’m corrupting Meredith – I think you are. You [. . .] want
him to be in your power, and you dress it up as morality, as if you were
a kind of moral teacher or example’ (p. 329). While the reader may wish
to discount Midge’s point of view because of the selfishness and other
manifestations of low Eros to which she has succumbed herself, other
characters also claim that Stuart has a problem with power. When Stuart
goes to see Mrs Wilsden in an attempt to help her come to terms with
her son’s death, she and her friend, Elspeth Macran, also charge him
with being cruel and harmful by holding others in his power (p. 387).
Illustrating that individuals are often not able to see and hence to
love others fully, Murdoch portrays characters who, like many human
beings, are not in touch with what really confronts them because they
live in a world of self-centred illusions. Although he has struggled with
similar shortcomings, Stuart nevertheless makes spiritual and moral
progress in this novel because of his innocence and respect for beauty.
Indeed, he undergoes the Platonic process of askesis at the close of the
narrative. Having gone through a large portion of the narrative attempt-
ing to inculcate his values in others by brute force, Stuart becomes an
unwelcome presence to many of them who see his attempts to help
them as being misguided and high-minded. Stuart, like the prisoners
who leave the cave to see the sun in Plato’s cave parable, ultimately
experiences askesis as he realizes that his proper role is to use language
in educating the young, who he implies might be more receptive to
Tammy Grimshaw 173

acquiring moral values (p. 520). Stuart’s bisexuality – his appreciation of

and respect for beauty – therefore supports his pursuit of goodness,
resulting in progress in his moral development and allowing him to
approach the higher spiritual level where genders cease to exist.
Although Murdoch thus displayed a great deal of interest in gender
and sexuality in the characterizations in her fiction, it must be noted
that one encounters several difficulties when attempting to categorize
her as a feminist writer. For instance, the similarities of Murdoch’s work
to Foucault’s could be subject to feminist reproach since Foucault is
often seen as a privileged white male whose theoretical stances epito-
mize and perpetuate androcentric models. Murdoch’s affinity with
Platonism could also be criticized from a feminist perspective because
much of Platonism addresses the experience and needs of men, rather
than those of women.34
Equally, while Foucault was by no means a feminist writer, some fem-
inists see value in his work because his theories on power and sexuality
can be interpreted to support feminist ideas about the subjugation of
women under patriarchal power. Feminist views on Platonism are also
divided, and it has been noted that Plato argues against gender
dichotomies in certain of his other writings, in particular the Laws and
the Meno.35 Hence, a consideration of Murdoch’s work in the context of
feminist thought is fraught with sometimes unexpected contradictions
and paradoxes. Altorf considers the relationship between Murdoch’s
work and feminism more deeply in the next chapter of this anthology.

1. For an analysis of Murdoch’s representations of gender and sexuality, see
Tammy Grimshaw, Sexuality, Gender and Power in Iris Murdoch’s Fiction
(Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2005).
2. The Bell (Chatto, 1958), p. 174.
3. Sheila Hale and A.S. Byatt, ‘Women Writers Now: Their Approach and
Apprenticeship’, Harpers and Queen (October 1976), 180.
4. Eric Warner, ‘Panel Discussion I’, in Virginia Woolf: A Centenary Perspective
(ed.) Eric Warner (New York: St. Martin’s, 1984), p. 127.
5. S.B. Sagare, ‘An Interview with Iris Murdoch’, Modern Fiction Studies, 47.3
(2001), 707.
6. Hale and Byatt, p. 180.
7. Dooley, pp. 70–96.
8. ‘The Moral Decision about Homosexuality’, Man and Society, 7 (1964), 5–6.
9. Dooley, pp. 218–34.
10. Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, in The
Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (ed.) Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale and
David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 228–29.
174 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

11. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 2nd edn
(London: Routledge, 1999), p. 95.
12. For Murdoch’s views on poststructuralism, see ‘Derrida and Structuralism’ in
MGM, Chapter 7, pp. 185–216.
13. MGM, pp. 241, 11.
14. Ibid., pp. 14, 16.
15. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure, (trans.)
Robert Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1985), p. 188.
16. The Good Apprentice (Chatto, 1985), p. 171.
17. SA, pp. 331, 337.
18. Elizabeth Dipple, The Unresolvable Plot: Reading Contemporary Fiction
(New York and London: Routledge, 1988), p. 203.
19. Suguna Ramanathan, Iris Murdoch: Figures of Good (London: Macmillan,
1990), p. 7.
20. Plato, Phaedrus, 253B.
21. Foucault, Vol. 2, p. 192.
22. G.R.F. Ferrari, Listening to the Cicadas: A Study of Plato’s Phaedrus (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 147.
23. Ibid., p. 147.
24. Foucault, Vol. 2, pp. 58, 28.
25. Plato, Phaedrus, 253D-E.
26. Ibid., 254B-C.
27. Foucault, Vol. 2, p. 39.
28. See W.S. Hampl, ‘Desires Deferred: Homosexual and Queer Representations
in the Novels of Iris Murdoch’, Modern Fiction Studies, 47.3 (2001), 657–73.
29. Foucault, Vol. 2, p. 188.
30. SA, p. 338.
31. Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 3: The Care of the Self, (trans.) Robert
Hurley (London: Allen Lane, 1986), pp. 58, 238–9.
32. ‘On “God” and “Good”’, in EM, pp. 354–5.
33. Ramanathan, p. 153.
34. Mary O’Brien, The Politics of Reproduction (London: Routledge, 1981), p. 18.
35. Plato, Laws 805; Plato, Meno 73b.
Reassessing Iris Murdoch in the
Light of Feminist Philosophy:
Michèle Le Doeuff and the
Philosophical Imaginary
Marije Altorf

In 1962, Harold Hobson interviewed Murdoch for The Times, in what

is described as ‘the comfortable Ladies’ Section of the Union Club’.
Murdoch asks if women are allowed to join the club, and Hobson is
astonished: ‘Good heavens, no. What an extraordinary idea’ (Dooley,
p. 1). The Ladies’ Section may have been comfortable, but the interview
cannot have been. Hobson proceeds to express some unpleasant views:
he slights Simone de Beauvoir, arguing that because she only taught in
secondary schools, she cannot be called a philosopher proper. Murdoch
retorts, ‘But she is a philosopher, a real one out of the Ecole Normale
Supérieure! I admire her very much indeed’ (Dooley, pp. 2–3). Hobson
makes an outrageous misreading of The Second Sex and asks Murdoch
whether she also accepts the superiority of the male: ‘It must be admit-
ted that the achievement of women in the arts is less than that of men’.
Murdoch replies with an emphatic defence of women’s education, not-
ing that the emancipation of women was already under threat. But
Hobson is still not convinced: ‘Surely you exaggerate when you say that
men are still trying to suppress women?’. Only then does Murdoch alert
Hobson to his own prejudices by reminding him of his opening words
(Dooley, p. 5).
Astonishing as it may be to read this interview now, it appropriately
introduces my concerns in this essay. Here, Murdoch demonstrates a
keen awareness of sexual inequality, yet this is something she never
addresses in her essays.1 The scarcity of her writing on this topic, how-
ever, does not necessarily imply an absence of any interest in gender
issues, as Grimshaw demonstrates in her essay in this volume. I would
like to consider the reception of Murdoch’s philosophical work and
hope to demonstrate that an often implicit understanding of philoso-
phy as universal, and feminism as biased, may have inhibited the

176 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

reading of Murdoch’s philosophy in the light of feminist theory. By

reassessing the presuppositions embodied in these understandings, fem-
inist readings may offer new insights into Murdoch’s work.
In interviews Murdoch is often questioned about the relationship
between her own gender and her work as well as about her portrayal of
women in the novels. Her responses present an ambivalent picture. She
is reluctant to consider the inequalities between the sexes in relation to
herself or her work. She is cautious, in fact, of any interpretation of her
work which would single her out as a female writer, rather than merely
a writer. Thus she is reluctant to answer questions about her preference
for male narrators, about her unwillingness to consider women’s issues
in her novels, or about the fact that none of the women in her fiction
have her strengths.2 Murdoch seems determined not to acknowledge
any (innate) difference between men and women and fiercely objects to
any form of feminism which is a form of separatism: ‘The point of lib-
eration is not, and this is to differ with certain views of women’s lib, to
say we’re better, or we’re special, or we’re wonderful, but just to be
equal, to be ordinary, to join the human race, to be people, just people
like everybody else’ (Dooley, p. 83). These interviews also demonstrate
Murdoch’s awareness of persistent sexual inequality. To Hobson she
argues that women’s emancipation is only starting; to Heusel she says,
‘unfortunately, it’s still a man’s world. A man doesn’t have to explain
what it’s like to be a man, but a woman has to explain what it’s like to
be a woman’ (Dooley, p. 207). Murdoch approves of women’s liberation
as far as it seeks to get rid of these distinctions, and the most important
tool for achieving this equality, she repeatedly stresses, is education.
Implicit in these remarks is a distinctive understanding of what it is
to be ordinary. As Margaret Moan Rowe puts it, ‘Murdoch asserts that
men and women are the same [. . .] Then she goes on to suggest there
is a great difference: somehow men are already there. Their presence
defines the human race. Women have to join the human race and a
principal route to that connection is education’.3 If Murdoch were to be
associated with feminism, it would be with the kind which seeks social
and political reforms. She keeps this form of women’s liberation strictly
separate from the world of literature and philosophy, which are in the
realm of humanity where gender does not play a part. This position
raises problems for feminist interpretations of Murdoch’s work because
for feminists, this separation does not hold. They would argue that
social or natural differences between men and women are reflected in
literary and philosophical writing and endorse the examination of texts
from the point of view of the depiction of gender, or of partiality
Marije Altorf 177

towards a certain writing style or certain topics. Yet feminists need to

justify such an approach to an author who refuses to address gender
issues and is even averse to singling out women’s problems.
It is not surprising then that feminist interpretations of Murdoch’s
novels had a cautious start.4 In 1993, Gabriele Griffin finds only a few
critical studies on Murdoch that consider gender, and the scarcity of
such analysis may illustrate the extent to which Murdoch herself influ-
enced interpretations of her own work.5 Of the four authors Griffin
discusses – Goshgarian (1972), Cohan (1982), Seiler-Franklin (1978) and
Johnson (1987) – the last most significantly illustrates how Murdoch’s
position has shaped interpretation of the novels. Johnson almost apol-
ogizes for reading Murdoch’s novels through feminist theory. In what
she calls her ‘short’ or ‘very short’ book she acknowledges that to place
Murdoch in a feminist debate ignores Murdoch’s stated position. Both
the modest length of the work and the different perspective create
Johnson’s misgivings. She expects her approach to appear ‘partial and
eccentric’, and admits to ‘being particularly anxious to avoid what might
be construed as a “narrowly feminist” reading’.6 However, it is not clear
what Johnson’s misgivings are. Griffin remarks that ‘[o]ne cannot help
wondering [. . .] why [Johnson] was “particularly anxious to avoid”,
what she assumes would “construe” and what she takes to be a “nar-
rowly feminist reading”’(Griffin, p. 12). Would Johnson have had simi-
lar misgivings if her approach had been equally un-Murdochian yet not
feminist? Does she think that feminist readings as such are more likely
to be narrow, or that a feminist reading of Murdoch’s work in particular is
more vulnerable to such criticism? Yet, Johnson’s qualms are not iso-
lated. They reflect generally held assumptions by (feminist) critics con-
cerning Murdoch’s work.
Nevertheless, despite such a cautious start, there is now a growing
body of research into the role of gender in Murdoch’s novels. Her philo-
sophical texts, by contrast, have not received the same amount of atten-
tion from feminist thinkers.7 This is unsurprising as, with the exception
of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, it is doubtful whether Murdoch was
familiar with existing feminist literature. And even though Murdoch is
known to have appreciated this feminist classic, there is little to suggest
any connection between it and her own work. Conradi mentions that
the book’s ‘“fierce war-like manner” [Murdoch] believed fifty years
ahead of its time’ (IMAL, p. 309). But this tantalizing remark raises more
questions than it answers. And, when Murdoch herself suggests that The
Second Sex has had a profound influence on her, she carefully describes
her admiration for de Beauvoir in terms of a personal relationship.
178 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

To Sheila Hale she says, ‘Simone de Beauvoir is someone I admire enor-

mously. The Second Sex is a very good book and makes me like her as a
person, although I’ve never met her’ (Dooley, p. 32).
Because Murdoch does not address any gender issues in her philo-
sophical work, it is easy to forget that for women to study and teach
philosophy at university as she did was a rather new thing to do. She
certainly experienced the regulated inequality of the past when she was
at Cambridge, as the University did not allow women to graduate until
1948; Murdoch was there a year before.8 In the year that Murdoch went
to Oxford, Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, yet Murdoch still
confesses to being ‘not very interested in the female predicament’
(Dooley, p. 61). Instead, she maintains: ‘I have never felt picked out in
an intellectual sense because I am a woman; these distinctions are not
made at Oxford’ (Dooley, p. 32).
Such indifference may of course indicate an important achievement
in the feminist endeavour to create equality. When Murdoch began her
philosophical career, Oxford and Cambridge, unusually, employed a
number of female scholars. Among them were prominent philosophers,
friends and colleagues of Murdoch; with Elizabeth Anscombe, Murdoch
shared a passion for the work of Wittgenstein and she dedicated
Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals to her; with Mary Midgley, she vied for
the same job at St. Anne’s and, from the days of their studies at
Somerville, Philippa Foot was a life-long friend. Mary Warnock entered
Oxford only a few years later.9 None of these women address their novel
existence as female philosophers employed by a university. They must
have been aware of the novelty of their positions (if only in monetary
terms), but they did not feel the need to make it the subject of academic
scrutiny. Being a female philosopher does not, of course, obligate one to
comment on the relationship between women and philosophy, or to be
a feminist. Given the fact that most feminists are women it is more like-
ly, but certainly not necessary. The subject of ‘woman’ is, and has been,
as Simone de Beauvoir argues, often ‘irritating, especially to women’.10
Ignoring the novelty of one’s position can, moreover, occasion a situa-
tion in which it becomes more ordinary.
However, I would argue, it is worthwhile to consider the exceptional
position of this exclusive group of women, if only to explain why fifty
years later philosophy departments still employ comparatively few
women. In recent years it has become more widely recognized that the
practice and nature of philosophy is not always hospitable to women or
members of other minority groups who have only recently had access
to universities. Feminists would argue that the practice and content of
Marije Altorf 179

almost all professions contain means of excluding women, and philos-

ophy is no exception. Yet philosophers are more reluctant to consider
this suggestion than scholars in other disciplines. The reason for this
reluctance may be found in presuppositions implied in the understand-
ing of both philosophy and feminism, and are evident in the writings
of two of Murdoch’s contemporaries, Midgley and Warnock, on the few
occasions when they approach the topic of ‘women and philosophy’.
In her recently published memoirs, Midgley considers why she,
Anscombe, Murdoch, Foot and Warnock ‘all made [their] names in phi-
losophy’ and comments on the exceptionally large number of women
in Oxford when she was a student. Most men, she observes, were fight-
ing in the Second World War and their absence had important conse-
quences for the future academic career of these women: ‘The effect was
to make it a great deal easier to be heard in discussion than it is in nor-
mal times [. . .] Sheer loudness of voice has a lot to do with the diffi-
culty, but there is also a temperamental difference about confidence in
the amount of work that one thinks is needed to make one’s opinion
worth hearing’. Having found their voices, Midgley continues, all of
them went on to challenge the prevalent understanding of ethics,
which was inspired by logical positivism.11 Warnock also expresses
regard for Foot, Anscombe and Murdoch – all ‘remarkable and original
women’ – and wonders ‘whether their originality had anything to do
with gender’. She suggests that ‘women are less prone to jump on band-
wagons than at least some of their male colleagues, and more reluctant
to abandon common sense’.12 Again, the women are praised for their
independence of mind, but unfortunately Warnock does not pursue the
relation between common sense and good philosophy.13
One would certainly have expected Warnock to address the relation-
ship between women and philosophy in her earlier collection of essays
by women philosophers. However, even here she appears surprisingly
reluctant to consider the possibility that there would be anything
different to say about ‘women and philosophy’ than there is about ‘men
and philosophy’. She refuses to consider any possible reason for com-
piling this collection. The reason for this refusal becomes apparent,
though, when she explains why she has included only a few feminist
texts. While Warnock admits that much of what is written on ‘the
Women Question’ would satisfy her ‘criteria of generality and of the
hoped-for explanation of phenomena’, Warnock finds ‘too much unex-
amined dogma in these writings, too much ill-concealed proselytising,
too little objective analysis, to allow them to qualify for inclusion among
philosophical writing proper’. Like Murdoch, Warnock understands that
180 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

philosophy ‘must be concerned with “us” in the sense in which “we”

are all humans. The truths which philosophers seek must aim to be not
merely generally, but objectively, even universally, true. Essentially, they
must be gender-indifferent’.14
Warnock’s dislike of dogma and her decision to include only writing
which is ‘universal’ would find support from many philosophers.
However, support does not enforce practice. Warnock appears unaware
that this criterion, used strictly, would exclude many prominent works
from the philosophical canon. Many philosophical texts consider only
a privileged group, and thus are not ‘concerned with “us” in the sense
in which “we” are all humans’. Warnock’s collection thus suffers from a
contradiction in its conception: on the one hand, she has selected texts
by women philosophers only, and it cannot have escaped her that there
is no need for such a selection of essays by men. On the other hand, the
possibility that this difference may be to do with ‘women and philoso-
phy’ is repudiated from the beginning: the text on the cover states that
the ‘great subjects of philosophy [. . .] are arguably gender indifferent
since the search for truth is objective’. Warnock recognizes that female
and male philosophers are not equal in all respects, but her under-
standing of philosophy prevents her from exploring whether any such
differences may be significant for doing philosophy.
This contradiction is endorsed in Warnock’s conclusion, where she
finds that despite the omission of specifically feminist authors from her
anthology a disproportionate number of texts are concerned with moral
or political philosophy, and as such recall the view of the 1950s and
1960s ‘that moral philosophy was a woman’s subject, a kind of soft
option’ (WP, p. xlvii) but she hastens to add that this is not the only
field in which women philosophers have been successful. She con-
cludes, ‘in the end, I have not found any clear “voice” shared by women
philosophers [. . .] they turn out, unsurprisingly, to be as various as their
male colleagues. I believe this a matter not for disappointment but for
pride’ (p. xlvii).
So, neither Midgley nor Warnock considers gender to be of any philo-
sophical significance. They may allow for some points of similarity
among female philosophers: Midgley notices a shared opposition to the
understanding of ethics prevalent in logical positivism, and Warnock
finds that many of the texts by female philosophers are concerned with
either moral or political philosophy, but these observations are made
casually and are not given any philosophical relevance. Even though
Murdoch does not say so explicitly, it would seem from her observations
that she would agree with her contemporaries.
Marije Altorf 181

The idea that philosophy is gender-neutral is still current, despite

being increasingly an object of feminist criticism. In ‘Is the Feminist
Critique of Reason Rational?’ (1995) Linda Martín Alcoff convincingly
argues why this idea remains so prevalent. Her landmark essay offers the
possibility of finding certain tropes in Murdoch’s philosophical writing
that have not yet been drawn into feminist readings and make it more
difficult to group her with her contemporaries.
Alcoff responds to appeals by Martha Nussbaum and Sabina Lovibond
to keep feminism and philosophy separate. Her summary of
Nussbaum’s position bears echoes of Warnock’s: feminism is ‘[consid-
ered] a substantive set of empirical claims and political commitments’,
and philosophy ‘a discipline of thought organized by the pursuit of
truth but uncommitted to any particular truth’ (WP, p. 59). From these
two premises follows the conclusion: ‘to forego this separation by com-
mitting philosophy itself to some particular truth before it even begins its
work is to risk inviting dogmatism. Therefore, philosophical reasoning
must be kept prior to and primary over feminism, else feminism itself
will be doomed to irrationality’ (WP, p. 59). Nussbaum presents the dis-
cussion as one with only two alternatives: either one holds philosophi-
cal reasoning to be universal, or one abandons reason and in doing so
loses the means to claim equality. Not surprisingly, Nussbaum strongly
endorses the first possibility. She explicitly expresses the fear that the
intrusion of feminism into philosophy jeopardizes feminism’s project.
By questioning reason’s universality, feminism risks a return to those
days when women were restricted to a limited choice of roles. Again,
women are to be excluded from philosophy, only now by radical femi-
nism rather than by the authorities within a patriarchal society.15
Alcoff counters these arguments by maintaining on the one hand that
philosophy is not as universal as Nussbaum assumes, and on the other
that any feminist challenge to reason does not necessarily lead to irra-
tionality. In other words, the relation between philosophy and femi-
nism does not need to be put in Nussbaum’s absolute terms; there are
more possibilities than these alternatives suggest. Feminists’ challenges
to philosophy’s assumed neutrality have often begun with exasperation
at the various misogynist remarks in philosophical texts. Female
philosophers have had to engage with texts which deny them their own
ability to think rationally. While it has been argued that the misogynist
excerpts are merely incidental slips or that they reflect the mores of the
time, Alcoff doubts this conclusion because the disparity between
misogyny and philosophy’s alliance with truth is too significant.
However, this doubt is controversial, because it entertains a connection
182 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

between the form of the argument and its content. In other words, it
supposes a connection between philosophy and rhetoric, which stands
in complete opposition to a philosophical anxiety which has troubled
the discussion, and from which Alcoff knows herself not to be exempt:
‘the Philosophy/Rhetoric split we all intoned in graduate school as the
primary legitimation for philosophy, that is philosophy’s distinctive-
ness from and superiority over writing which aims primarily to per-
suade, which appeals to emotion, which supplants aesthetic for logical
criteria, or which conceals from view its ideological content or overrid-
ing strategic aim’ (p. 69). By contrast with philosophy, rhetoric has tra-
ditionally been considered at best superfluous, at worst misleading.
It is this anxiety that has singled out feminist philosophy for the
criticism of being irrational. However, as Alcoff points out, feminist
philosophy is not alone in challenging reason. She illustrates how the
feminist project of rethinking reason and expanding the notion of
rationality may be situated within a long philosophical tradition of crit-
icizing reason. Referring to MacIntyre, she argues that a historicist
understanding of reason does not imply relativism: ‘to locate an episte-
mology or a concept of reason in a social history [. . .] is not to say that
it cannot understand or communicate with other traditions, that it
shares no common ground with them upon which it can criticize their
positions or learn from them how its own positions are limited. Nor
does it follow that nothing we say represents the real’ (p. 69).
Rethinking reason is not restricted to feminist philosophers, Alcoff
points out. It is a general, philosophical activity.
Thus Alcoff pleads for ‘philosophy [. . .] to become more rhetorically
self-conscious’ and she introduces a ‘dialogical model of truth’ where
the relationship between philosopher and subject is not a ‘positivistic’
one, ‘in which an active knowing agent confronts a passive object’, but
rather ‘a conversation between participants’ (p. 70ff). She concludes, ‘If
truth is understood as the product of an argument (involving two or
more participants), then all the contributing elements of that argument
need to be analysed within an epistemological characterisation of its
results’ (p. 71). The imagery, metaphors and myths of a philosophical
text are part of this conversation and Alcoff at this point endorses the
work of Michèle Le Doeuff.
It is in the work of this feminist philosopher that I find inspiring new
ways of reading Murdoch. While Le Doeuff may be best known for
Hipparchia’s Choice (1991), when relating her work to Murdoch’s, I am
most of all concerned with the notion of the philosophical imaginary,
which Le Doeuff identifies as a constant element in her own oeuvre.16
Marije Altorf 183

The philosophical imaginary expresses her engagement with imagery,

metaphors and myth, and in particular her research into the part a
specific image, or imaginative idea, can play in a philosophical argu-
ment. Philosophical imagery, Le Doeuff maintains, has arisen from the
interplay between cultural, social elements and the constraints of philo-
sophical writing. An image may appear once in a text, but it can also
reappear throughout an author’s oeuvre, or even a philosophical tradi-
tion. Le Doeuff gives a diverse list of such images to be found in phi-
losophy’s history: ‘statues that breathe the scent of roses, comedies,
tragedies, architects, foundations, dwellings, doors and windows, sand,
navigators, musical instruments, islands, clocks, horses, donkeys and
even a lion, representatives of every craft and trade, scenes of sea and
storm, forests and trees’.17 The one she omits here, but analyses at
length elsewhere is, of course, that of woman. This image in particular
serves to preserve practices of exclusion within philosophy.18 With the
notion of philosophical imaginary Le Doeuff indicates that philosophical
texts not only contain such images, but that they even have their own
recurring imagery. Moreover, these images cannot be excluded from the
text without altering the argument.
The idea of the philosophical imaginary provides important new
insights for reading Murdoch. First, it explains why Murdoch did not
easily fit into the analytical tradition of her time, and why her work has
remained comparatively outside of it, despite its influence on some cen-
tral concerns. In her earlier essays it is apparent how much difficulty she
has in expressing her thoughts. This difficulty, I would argue, arises
from having to challenge not only particular arguments, but also ways
of arguing which present themselves as neutral. For instance, in ‘The
Idea of Perfection’ Murdoch expresses discontent with contemporary
moral philosophy in terms which recall the work of Alcoff and Le
Doeuff. Existing moral philosophy, Murdoch argues, does not consider
certain ‘facts’, nor does it allow for the existence of other positions.19
On the contrary, the strong device of the ‘genetic argument’ enables it
to reduce every position which differs from its own.20 But even though
Murdoch exposes the falsity of this supposed neutrality, she still has dif-
ficulty challenging it and defending her own ideas. At first, she presents
them in surprisingly unphilosophical terms, for instance by the repeated
use of terms such as ‘simply’, ‘obvious’ and ‘surely’. The use of these
terms expresses the need to hold on to a position even though argu-
ments fail her. At one point she exclaims, ‘This is one of those exasper-
ating moments in philosophy when one seems to be relentlessly
prevented from saying something which one is irresistibly impelled to
184 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

say’. She finds herself presenting her case ‘in a rough and ordinary way
and as yet without justification’ (EM, p. 316). Yet feminist philosophers’
challenges to philosophy’s universality would caution against too rapid
a dismissal of her ideas, even though they may be presented in unphilo-
sophical terms. Indeed, after Murdoch had left St. Anne’s, thus creating
some distance between herself and the dominant philosophical tradi-
tion, she wrote the two additional essays, later collected in The
Sovereignty of Good, which are considerably shorter, and demonstrate less
struggle and have more room for her own voice.
Le Doeuff’s ideas, secondly, draw attention to how in her ‘philosoph-
ical struggle’ Murdoch is concerned with the position of people who are
outside philosophy. However, while Le Doeuff is mainly concerned with
the exclusion of women, Murdoch is more generally concerned with those
outside philosophy; they seem to have stepped out of the nineteenth-
century novels she favours so much: virtuous peasants, or ‘some quiet
unpretentious worker, a schoolteacher or a mother, better still an aunt’
(EM, p. 244). The virtuous peasant may be slightly problematic because
of a similarity to, for instance, the noble savage. Yet Murdoch recognizes
that not all philosophy is universal when it does not allow space for
such mothers or aunts or for the supposition that ‘an unexamined life
can be virtuous’.21
Le Doeuff’s notion of the philosophical imaginary also illustrates ways
in which Murdoch makes ample use of imagery and other rhetorical
devices. ‘The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts’ opens by con-
firming the importance of metaphor and image-play in past philosophy.
Yet Murdoch acknowledges, that such image-play ‘is usually inconclu-
sive, and is regarded by many contemporary thinkers as valueless’.22 Is
one justified in discerning a causal relationship here? Is it that because
image-play is inconclusive, that it is regarded as valueless? Her contem-
poraries may think so, but Murdoch certainly does not. Her work is sat-
urated with imagery. The example of M and D is perhaps the most
famous, but it is not isolated. The first few pages of ‘The Idea of
Perfection’ alone provide many examples, such as likening morality to
visiting a shop. Le Doeuff’s work directs readers to such images, not just
so far as they illustrate an argument (in the way that Maria Antonaccio
reads the M and D argument) but also to the extent to which they
simultaneously counter a quite different argument, thus adding voices
to the dialogue.23
This discussion aims to inspire further reassessment of Murdoch’s
work in the light of feminist philosophy such as Le Doeuff’s. First, how-
ever, it is important to acknowledge how the assumptions about
Marije Altorf 185

philosophy and feminism which I have outlined may have deterred

such reassessment. Feminism should not be thought of as more partisan
than philosophy; it is not necessarily the secluded thinking Murdoch
takes it to be, any more than philosophy is the universal quest for truth.
As is often the case, Murdoch’s interviews do not fully tally with her
writing. Indeed, her philosophical writing shares important concerns
with those of feminists like Alcoff and Le Doeuff, more so than perhaps
she herself may have allowed for.24

1. Except for an occasional letter on education for girls. See The Times (16 January
1960), p. 9.
2. I have consulted mainly the interviews collected in Dooley. See in particular
the interviews with Sheila Hale (pp. 30–2), Bellamy (pp. 44–55), Biles
(pp. 56–69), Chevalier (pp. 70–96), Brans (pp. 155–66) and Heusel
(pp. 194–208).
3. M.M. Rowe, ‘Iris Murdoch and the Case of “Too Many Men”’, Studies in the
Novel (36.1), pp. 79–94 (p. 80).
4. There are a growing number of commentaries on Murdoch’s novels from a
feminist perspective. For a discussion of these works up to 1993 see
G. Griffin, The Influence of the Writings of Simone Weil on the Fiction of Iris
Murdoch (San Francisco: Mellen University Press, 1993) pp. 7–13. See also ref-
erences throughout this and the preceding essay.
5. Griffin, p. 2; compare G. Backus, Iris Murdoch: The Novelist as Philosopher, The
Philosopher as Novelist: ‘The Unicorn’ as a Philosophical Novel, (Bern: Peter
Lang, 1986) p. 13, and M.M. Rowe.
6. Deborah Johnson, Iris Murdoch (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1987), p. xi.
7. Exceptions should be made for the use of Murdoch’s philosophical writing
in the context of care ethics. The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2003) pp. 647–66 mentions Murdoch’s work as a
possible subject for further research.
8. IMAL, pp. 261, 633n1.
9. See Conradi (2001): passim and also Warnock, A Memoir: People and Places
(London: Duckworth, 2002) – hereafter PP.
10. De Beauvoir, The Second Sex (trans.) H.M. Parshley (London: Vintage, 1997),
p. 13.
11. Mary Midgley, The Owl of Minerva: A Memoir (London: Routledge, 2005),
pp. 122–23. Midgley did write about feminism. See Women’s Choices:
Philosophical Problems Facing Feminism (London: Weidenfield & Nicolson,
1983) with Judith Hughes. This work does not acknowledge a change in
philosophical reasoning as a consequence of women philosophers but rather
a change in topics.
12. PP, p. 37.
13. The contrast with Le Doeuff could not be more marked. See Le Doeuff,
Hipparchia’s Choice: An Essay Concerning Women, Philosophy, etc. (trans.)
T. Selous, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), pp. 29; compare L.M. Alcoff, ‘Is the
186 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

Feminist Critique of Reason Rational?’, Philosophic Exchange 26 (1995–96),

14. Warnock, Women Philosophers (London: Everyman, 1996), pp. xxxiii–xxxiv –
hereafter WP.
15. It should be noted that Nussbaum has also criticized philosophy for failing
to understand the importance of emotion for rationality. This has been a
permanent recurring theme in her work since The Fragility of Goodness
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1986).
16. Le Doeuff explains this notion in her introduction to The Philosophical
Imaginary (M. Le Doeuff, The Philosophical Imaginary [London & New York:
Continuum, 2002]) pp. 1–20 – hereafter PI. Compare R. Mortley, French
Philosophers in Conversation: Levinas, Schneider, Serres, Irigaray, Le Doeuff,
Derrida (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 80–91.
17. PI, p. 1.
18. See in particular PI, pp. 100–128.
19. EM, p. 299.
20. See Maria Antonaccio, Picturing the Human: The Moral Thought of Iris Murdoch.
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 75–84.
21. EM, p. 299; compare Le Doeuff, Hipparchia’s Choice, pp. 6–7.
22. EM, p. 363.
23. See Antonaccio, pp. 87–95. Compare my reading in M. Altorf. ‘De ver-
beeldende wijsbegeerte van Iris Murdoch’. Algemeen Nederlands Tijdschrift
voor Wijsbegeerte, 96.1 (2004), 40–52.
24. I would like to thank Edith Brugmans for comments on earlier versions of
this essay.
Part VI Reinvestigating Negative
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Oedipus, Peter Pan and Negative
Capability: On Writing Iris
Murdoch’s Life
Peter J. Conradi

The fascination and difficulty especially of first biography writing are

that no a priori solutions exist. It could be compared to landing in
enemy territory in war-time at night without map, torch or compass, in
order to capture a nameless city in a disputed location. The formal
aspect of this great responsibility is one topic of this paper, which con-
cerns the contest between a fixed and an open view both of Iris
Murdoch’s ‘character’, and also that of those she invented. One reason
I read little biography is a fear on my part that its subject-matter may be
diminished or reduced. And reduction is another topic here.
On the necessary tension between a fixed and an open view of the
subject of biography, Malcolm Bowie has written that you need a sim-
plifying model, a schematic life pattern, in order to give your work an
arresting plot and prevent it becoming a mere chronicle of particulars:
‘But if your model insists too much and alters too little, you may lose
all sense of a life being lived, a motivated individual moving forward in
time and occupying, as he travels, a border-zone between inner and
outer circumstances’.1 Another writer has argued for a strictly chrono-
logical method in biography as showing greater reverence and respect
than confident analysis does for the changefulness and mystery of
human beings.2 He argues, for example, that Hermione Lee’s conflation
of three periods of Woolf’s madness into a single chapter diminishes
and belies the singularity of each. ‘We do not, alas, live our lives in
themes, but day by day’.3
When I wrote Iris Murdoch: A Life I struggled for my publisher’s agree-
ment to include even two partly thematic chapters (19 and 20). Such
a unifying, analytic urge in biography may currently be dwindling,
together with the desire to locate an underlying explanation, theme or
unified life-myth which can be read backwards and forwards irrespective

190 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

of chronology. Murdoch herself employed the term ‘life-myth’ in an

interview with Malcolm Bradbury.4 ‘Life-myth’ was a common term
among inter-war writers, signifying an unconscious script for your life:
for example, the compulsive need Alexander feels to steal his brother
Martin’s women in A Severed Head. And since she shows, in many of her
novels, characters struggling for release from exactly such life-myths, it
is reasonable to enquire what her own were.
A life-myth, Murdoch believed, was usually unconscious. It has been
argued5 that discussion of life-myth offers biographer and reader the lin-
ear passage of a childhood paradigm through an indefinite series of
adult scenes: one early cause produces an unceasing procession of later
effects. (One might query the word ‘unceasing’). ‘[Each] young child is
hero of the Oedipal drama. Within her early experience the explanation
for neurotic misery is found: the early configurations of the individual’s
libido [. . .] within the family group hold a key to her later erotic
career’.6 Of the possibility of a female Oedipus complex Freud noted,
‘Things happen in just the same way with little girls, with the necessary
changes: an affectionate attachment to her father, a need to get rid of
her mother as superfluous’.7 In 1970, Murdoch appeared to be praising
Freud’s discovery of Oedipal conflict.8
If, one might ask, Murdoch had no direct experience of Oedipal con-
flict, why did she write about it with such conviction and obsessionali-
ty? So, although she referred to her family life as a ‘perfect Trinity of
love’ – which unconsciously proposes a Messianic role for the child – I
thought that I would try first to construct a basic Freudian and thematic
reading. In a later part of this essay I summarize her resistance to such
theorizing, and then try briefly to relate this to two of her best novels.
Such Freudian reading will be undeterred by my ignorance of psycho-
analytic theory. ‘Since she was hostile, she must have had something to
hide’ – or so they say.

Oedipal conflict

And of course Iris Murdoch was in love with her father. At a home cricket
match at Badminton school in July 1937, her mother Rene struck
observers by appearing to contemporaries like a ‘younger sister’ of Iris’s.
Our Freudian might say – without ignoring the role of superior intellect –
that Iris had won the Oedipal competition with her mother hands
down by the age of eighteen. Mary Midgley, a witness with a remarkable
memory, who knew Murdoch and her family from 1938, observed,
‘Irene and Hughes seemed to expect of Iris only what she wanted’.
Peter J. Conradi 191

She added, ‘The family-home seemed happy [. . .] [without] the kind

of conflicts most people experience’.9 John Bayley too attests to how
peaceful and harmonious Eastbourne Terrace was; and Iris herself wrote
of her parents’ bringing her up ‘too leniently’. [Reference needed] A world
beyond conflicts is presumably – to a Freudian – a world in which a war
has been won.
That her father, Hughes, sometimes acted as mother in the home10
might suggest an unconscious collusion between father and daughter to
render the mother yet more powerless: after Hughes’s death Rene
proved herself a perfectly competent housewife. Iris ‘loved’ her mother
but identified with her father.11 And Murdoch’s identification with men
has often been noted.12 Six of her first-person narrators are men, and
Murdoch has been commonly criticized for failing to invent women-
narrators. She wrote in 1988, ‘The sex of one’s god must be a very deep
matter. I think my daemons are all male’.13 John Bayley surmised that
Hughes and Rene’s was by mutual agreement a mariage blanc, that is, a
marriage in which the commonest form of contraception is abstinence.
By contrast almost any relationship in a Murdoch novel can be sexual-
ized and there may be a connection here. Tension caused by a mariage
blanc might cause an adolescent girl to feel an unusual degree of uncon-
scious responsibility for the well-being of her father.
When he died Murdoch noted in her Journal, ‘He was so gentle, so
quiet, so kind [. . .] few knew him or knew how good he was. He taught
me so much’. It was of Hughes she was thinking when Charles Arrowby
writes of his own father, ‘I was his comrade, his reading companion,
possibly the only person with whom he ever had a serious conversa-
tion’. She often fell in love with father-substitutes: some good, a few
notably unpleasant, cold-hearted, power-driven. Fraenkel was 31 years
her senior, MacKinnon older by seven years, Balogh and Canetti by 12,
Momigliano by 11 years, Steiner by ten. All but MacKinnon were
Jewish.14 Philo-Semitism is an aspect of hunger-for-fathers: ‘if only my
wise Jew were not such a bore’,15 she noted of one novel, and Jews in her
work belong to a race of involuntary teachers or father-figures, ‘wise’
Murdoch answered in 1968 the question as to whether her work is
autobiographical by saying that, though she did not wish to write from
life, there were friendships which ‘influenced me deeply when I was
younger, and something to do with them is in my books because it is
within me’.16 This remark refers to what she called ‘the quadrilateral
tale’ played out at Seaforth in 1943–4. In 1993, she remarked in answer
to a confidence, ‘I wish I’d kept the flat I shared in the war’.17 I felt I was
192 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

being told something bigger than a tenancy of a flat. Undeclared emo-

tion and a certain rehearsed casualness later recalled Prospero’s words to
Miranda about ‘the dark backward and abysm of time’.18
A friend’s comment on these years, ‘She lost a family’, is resonant.
The themes of that year – two ‘siblings’ in apparent competition for two
partners – got into many of her fictions:19 the erotic symmetry of her
plots, where couplings obey unconscious patterns, what one reviewer
called ‘the guiltily gratifying rhythms and geometries of passion and
form’, have an evident life source.20 In ‘taking on’ the theme of erotic
imbroglio she was also mapping something, if not universal, at least
true to its time.21
Imbroglio relates also to the theme of incest, which famously recurs in
her early fiction, mainly brother-sister, though once father-daughter:22
Muriel’s witnessing the act of father–daughter incest in The Time of the
Angels is one crux of the plot. Although she claimed her ‘incest period
was over’, grandfather/granddaughter incest crops up as late as The
Philosopher’s Pupil, and a father also has incestuous designs on his
daughter in The Good Apprentice.
Indeed many of her characters are in love with their parent of the
opposite sex.23 The Oedipal rivalry between mother and daughter for
the affections of a father surrogate is a buried theme in An Unofficial
Rose, where Miranda and Anne compete for Felix. The theme crops up
again in The Black Prince, avowedly autobiographical, on the model of
Hamlet, where Julian and Rachel Baffin are in competition first for
Arnold’s affections, later for Bradley’s, and Murdoch’s own notes-in-
progress for the novel remind her to emphasize Julian’s intense love for
her father. Indeed Bradley’s seminar with Julian on the secret meanings
of Hamlet confirms the Freudian reading before exploring a Neoplatonic
alternative. The novel, moreover, concerns a mother – Rachel – murdering
her husband over the theft of her identity, and the authorial Bradley’s
acceptance of complicity in the guilt of this.
After Marx and the saints of Anglo-Catholicism, her favoured philoso-
pher was Plato. She wrote that Plato ‘is in favour of religion and Fathers
[. . .] and although he never “invents” a full-dress Father-God, his work
abounds in images of paternity’ and that Freud, by contrast, was ‘against
religion and against fathers’. And ‘it would be hard to overestimate the
effect upon [Plato] of the death of Socrates’.24 By no means all agree that
Freud is ‘against fathers’. And while we may infer how Plato felt when
Socrates died, it is hard to avoid feeling that she was simultaneously
speaking here of her own grief at Hughes’s death.25 Her life and work too,
like Plato’s, also abound ‘in images of paternity’ while mistrusting power.
Peter J. Conradi 193

Her oeuvre itself starts by addressing the question of good and bad
father figures. The message of both her first two novels is that you must
wean yourself from fathers and empower yourself:26 Jake becomes a
writer-in-his-own right, free from Breteuil and Hugo; in The Flight from
the Enchanter the characters variously seek independence from Mischa,
wishing to find their own autonomy. Hugo is a good father to Jake;
Mischa Fox an equivocal father to his creatures. Later novels of course
often address religious issues27 and the question of life after the demise
of God-the-Father.
Dying or murdered fathers abound: Carel, Bruno, Rupert, Baffin,
Guy, Rozanov, Jesse, Vallar, Peter Mir.28 If, as has often been argued, the
nineteenth-century novel often concerned good and bad parenting,
good versus bad fathering and discipleship – by contrast – figure
throughout Murdoch’s fictions. These themes link Under the Net with
The Message for the Planet and The Philosopher’s Pupil. There are more bad
fathers than good. Her saints too – Hugo, Bledyard, Tallis, Stuart – are
often male.29 And there are few children.

Peter Pan

Murdoch has argued that philosophers attack their own faults. And
those she herself repeatedly attacked – and which she therefore saw
within – were solipsism, romanticism and fantasy. It would have been
odd if her life had lacked them. Her novels have been called crash
courses in maturity:30 growing up in each is always to be begun again.
As a 90-year-old Catholic priest once remarked, ‘au fond ils n’ya pas des
Peter Pan might be taken to illustrate this perennial theme. J.M. Barrie
noted in 1921 as the real meaning of that ‘terrible masterpiece’,
‘Desperate attempt to grow up but can’t’. Iris believed that the ‘greatest
of all moments in theatre’ was Peter Pan’s appearance outside the
Darling nursery window: ‘very exciting [. . .] very moving [. . .] fright-
ening’.31 She admired the division within the play between the world of
the Darlings and Never-never-land. While J.M. Barrie, moreover, twice
notes that Peter Pan if he grew up might turn into Captain Hook, Iris by
contrast noticed a quite different doubling: she was interested in the
fact that Captain Hook and Mr Darling might be played by the same
actor: the good father is the bad father.
On Saturday 2nd April 1938, after one year’s correspondence, she
elected to meet James Henderson Scott by Peter Pan’s statue in
Kensington Gardens. Froebel children evidently visited and loved the
194 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

statue,32 described in An Accidental Man as one of the sacred places of

Matthew’s childhood. Here by the statue a fantasy love-relationship by
letter turned into friendship instead – or, as a Freudian might say, pri-
mary narcissism received a check.
Peter Pan is a boy played by an actress; Iris sometimes felt herself sim-
ilarly mixed, and the ‘sinister boy’ Peter Pan haunts her novels. In An
Accidental Man, Gracie pursues Matthew to the statue. Rachel compares
Bradley with Peter Pan in The Black Prince; Charles Arrowby in The Sea,
the Sea loves to direct the play; in A Word Child crucial scenes take place
near the statue, the play is to be the office pantomime and there are
informal comic seminars on it. Her narrator-heroes are in love with
their own youth, youth-haunted. Hilary is possessed by events that hap-
pened during his early adulthood; Charles by a love affair forty years
before; Bradley falls in love with a girl forty years younger.
Iris typically saw in Peter Pan an ‘immature spirituality’, a play about
the terrible necessity of growing up. But it is also a subversive celebration
of the powers of invention explicitly denied to grown-ups. Why bother
to grow up if, as Wordsworth suggests, you lose the ability to quicken or
wonder at beauty? She thus also saw in Peter Pan a ‘play about the rela-
tionship of an author with his own subconscious mind’.33 The saint
needs to grow up: the artist’s immaturity is valuable beyond cost.
It is striking that Peter never intends to abduct the Darling children.
He arrives because he loves to listen to stories about other people’s lives,
and his own. Starved of stories, he oddly inhabits an alternative reality
like a novelist’s, put together from old narratives. Never-never-land is
made up out of bits of old stories: pirates, mermaids, Red Indians,
fairies. Iris, like Peter Pan, lived in a narrative world and was hungry for
inspiring stories. She wrote to a friend in 1964 that she too ‘liked being
told things’,34 and included this appetite at the end of The Philosopher’s
Pupil, where the narrator acknowledges that he is one whose role in life
is to listen to stories.
Peter is first sighted behind glass, self-sufficient yet lonely, unable to
engage in real relationships or grow up, never physically touched dur-
ing the play, a ‘being from elsewhere’.35 It is not without interest that
one Somerville contemporary remembered Iris as having a ‘covering of
ice’, and even a sympathetic friend has described her as belonging, like
a cat, essentially to herself. Anna in Under the Net has Iris’s ‘calculated
avoidance of self-surrender’ (p. 30).
While Murdoch’s falling for difficult older men – monstres – may sug-
gest a desire for vulnerability, her running of concurrent affaires, on the
other hand, implies an unreadiness fully to commit herself. Canetti in
Peter J. Conradi 195

1993 maliciously observed that ‘she was unable truly to lose herself’.36
This was a condition of separateness he – like many creative writers –
shared and he might easily be declared all-time world champion, a
theme to which I shall return. Separateness of course also belongs to
And separateness also belongs to pen-friendship, which offers intimacy
without proximity. Epistolary friendship with Scott began a series of
such friendships. Frank Thompson replaced Scott as distant love-object
from 1941 to 1944; David Hicks replaced Frank from 1944 to 1946;37
Queneau replaced Hicks from 1946 to 1956. She wrote to David Hicks,
‘When I was younger [. . .] I loved writing long letters to all sorts of
people – a kind of exhibitionism I daresay’.38
Marriage and artistic success in 1956 – which is to say ‘happiness’ –
attenuated two patterns: the pattern of a bullying older man and the
sequence of absent lover-friends. Like the children in Peter Pan she was
divided between two worlds: the nursery world of Steeple-Aston with its
‘Wind-in-the-Willows’ food and the Never-never-land of London to
explore outside: her first-person novels are always also London novels.
Absent pen-friends henceforth were often admirers of her work.39

Negative capability

It is relatively easy to describe someone’s love life, much harder to evoke

their spiritual life. This is doubly hard when these two – sex and spirit –
coincide. How do you evoke goodness and the challenge of ‘becoming
Good’? The problem of her work is also that of her biography. Her reli-
gious urge – which repeatedly emphasizes the moral importance of
‘transformed sexual energy’ or sublimation – cannot simply be col-
lapsed down into Oedipal guilt. To do so fails to honour her courage
closely to examine who she once had been, in the service of change.
In earlier life an enthusiast for Freud, around 1960 she began to dis-
approve of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy alike. The psychoanalyst
in A Severed Head is a demon; the psychiatrist in The Sacred and Profane
Love-Machine a temporizer, sexual cheat and poor listener, reducing
experience to formula; in The Black Prince Freudians are editors, simpli-
fiers, diminishers and indeed the Freudian Francis Marlow’s epilogue
offers a fatuous reduction of the novel’s events. Only Thomas
McCaskerville in The Good Apprentice, having given up all faith in his
subject as a ‘science’ and turned to Buddhism, is a good therapist.40
At the Psychoanalytic Society in London the year The Good Apprentice
was published, Iris duelled remorselessly with Juliet Mitchell on this
196 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

subject and would allow analysis only demerits: the analyst had illicit
power which he might abuse, and abuse sexually; only a ‘saint’ could
be a therapist (and there are no good men or women). She felt that
psychoanalysis generated self-concern, gave too abstract and crude a
picture to account for human variousness, left the spiritual out of
In practice she was not so foolish as to fail to see that, when miser-
able, there are worse fates than employing a decent therapist. In an
unpublished interview42 she got close to another and interesting objec-
tion: analysis might ‘solve’ an artist’s conflicts, without which she
would lose the need to create. It is paradoxical that to a number of close
friends she acted as mother-confessor or wise counsellor – which is to
say roughly a therapist herself – making no objection to any ‘transfer-
ence’ entailed. It mattered to her that she be worthy of the role.
Elsewhere, ‘If you are a writer, you psychoanalyze yourself anyway’.43
For the biographer, Freudian analysis sometimes offers a ‘sustained
flight from uncertainty and ambiguity’,44 but its singling out of one
theme can be a willed impoverishment of other modes of explanation.
It can minimize change and contingency, both themes of Iris’s story.
About her distinctive desire to honour contingency, one passage in
particular is suggestive: ‘Art and morals are, with certain provisos [. . .]
one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love
is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realiza-
tion that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and
morals, is the discovery of reality’.45 Love is not much discussed by
English literary critics, or – perhaps – philosophers. Nor is a secular
recovery of ‘sainthood’ felt to be pressing. Though she has a distin-
guished constituency in North America,46 hers are not ideas towards
which Oxford philosophers have been friendly. She thought the demise
of religion the most important event of her century. She wanted phi-
losophy and religion to communicate, to help defend the idea of the
‘inner life’. And love and secular sainthood are central to her. The ideal
of sainthood – or ‘perfection’ – is to act as a kind of ‘ideal limit’ by
which the moral agent can be drawn. And the ability dispassionately to
love many persons defines this limit.
It was always important to her not – in Hamlet’s words – to ‘pluck
out the heart’ of the human mystery, to allow interpretation to stay
un-fixed. Encouraged by a fellow Oxford student’s enthusiasm, Iris
sought in 1942 a volume by ‘Bachtin’ [sic] in the Bodleian. Bakhtin’s
Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929) emphasizes the ‘unfinalisability’
of Dostoevsky’s portraits.
Peter J. Conradi 197

Here is a unifying topic in her letters, novels, essays and journals.47 In a

1943 letter she wrote: ‘Human lives are essentially not to be summed up,
but to be known, as they are lived, in many curious partial & inarticulate
ways’.48 In her first published novel the narrator muses, ‘When does one
ever know another human being? Perhaps only after one has realized the
impossibility of knowledge and renounced the desire for it’.49 Two years
later she praised moral attitudes which ‘emphasise the inexhaustible detail
of the world, the endlessness of the task of understanding, the importance
of not assuming that one has got individuals and situations taped, the
connection of knowledge with love and of spiritual insight with appre-
hension of the unique’.50 The same year in The Sandcastle, Bledyard asks,
‘Who can look reverently enough upon another human face?’.51 In
Bruno’s Dream, Nigel asserts that, ‘A human being hardly ever thinks about
other people. He contemplates fantasms which resemble them and which
he has decked out for his own purposes’.52 In The Sea, the Sea in 1978,
Charles sees that ‘Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from
summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration’.53
Murdoch had the gift Keats praised in Shakespeare, that of ‘negative
capability’, that wise passivity and receptivity which allow those so gifted
to be touched by, and to enter into, the lives, thoughts and emotions – the
private worlds – of many others. The truth of negative capability, which
Shakespeare ‘possessed so enormously [. . .] the capacity of being in
uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after
fact and reason’,54 is not that the writer is simply and religiously absent,
but rather that he is mysteriously omnipresent within his characters. ‘The
poet has no identity’, Keats asserts, adding that ‘in a room with people
[. . .] the identity of everyone in the room begins so to press upon me
that I am in a very little time an[ni]hilated [. . .] it would be the same in
a Nursery of children’.55
Coleridge concurred. ‘Myriad-minded’, he called Shakespeare’s
genius, and ‘Protean’,56 finding Shakespeare in the nurse in Romeo and
Juliet as much as in the Constable in Much Ado About Nothing. Richard
Holmes terms this gift ‘a sort of passionate transmigration of the soul’.57
We might also term this a virtuous promiscuity, and ascribe it to Iris. She
wrote in The Black Prince, ‘We are tissues and tissues of different personae
and yet we are nothing at all’.58
Holmes has argued, ‘The true biographic process begins precisely at
the moment [. . .] where this naïve love [of biographer for subject] breaks
down’.59 For me this happened when seeing with much discomfort
that the relations of the young bohemian Iris around 1953 – power/
collection/the enjoyment of dependency – resembled those of Canetti.60
198 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

Chapter 13 was for me the biography’s centre, and I detected Canetti

behind those notably bad manipulative father-figures: Mischa in The
Flight From the Enchanter, Julius in A Fairly Honourable Defeat and Charles
in The Sea, the Sea.
Canetti, reminiscing shortly before he died, confirmed the central
importance of those friendships within Iris’s imaginative universe
whose portraits I had tried painstakingly to paint: MacKinnon,
Fraenkel, Momigliano, F.B. Steiner, his own.61 He termed these her
Verwandlungen/Transformations, a key word for him, meaning some-
thing akin to alter ego. That Canetti was himself her most important
Verwandlung had been my burden throughout. She created characters
who were half herself, half not, rather as in her poetry album poems
were sometimes literally co-written with friends.
Her essays – true – defended a human ‘difference’ that her fiction does
not always implement. Her plotting can be repetitive, her characters rec-
ognizable. Her last novels are too long, and remote from ordinary life.
She was a puritan and a romantic who wished the world to be different.
The list of those she tended to romanticize includes Jews, homosexuals,
foreigners, scholars. André Gide pointed out that, for Dostoevsky, beau-
tiful feelings make for bad art (as for bad biography!). She had some
investment in ‘beautiful feelings’.
Yet in her six or more best fictions her frailties, as can happen, turn
to gold. Here she tests her own pieties. The themes of discipleship and
of learning to perceive the individual apart from his or her Freudian
‘type’ run throughout. Julius King in A Fairly Honourable Defeat makes
an interesting devil, given the best tunes. He tells us that, ‘Driven along
by their private needs [human beings] latch blindly onto each other,
then pull away, then clutch again. Their little sadisms and their little
masochisms are surface phenomena. Anyone will do to play the roles.
They never really see each other at all [. . . .] Human beings are essentially
finders of substitutes’.62
The plot of this brilliant and satisfying novel tests out Julius’s premises,
which are also those of Murdoch’s fictional universe. Crudely, Julius
tries to ‘write’ an Iris Murdoch novel ‘in real life’. Julius combines the
roles from Much Ado About Nothing of Don Pedro – who brings Beatrice
and Benedick together – and Don John, who tries to separate Claudio
and Hero. Julius partly – but only partly – succeeds in his manipula-
tions. Love, at least once, shows the power to resist him.
Promiscuity, broadly construed, has an epistemological angle: if
anyone can fill a role for us, then it may be that we have difficulties sep-
arating one person from another, difficulties in apprehending any given
Peter J. Conradi 199

person’s uniqueness. The promiscuous lover is subject to the laws of rep-

etition and substitution, a victim of blind need and ‘doubling’. The
Black Prince, equally satisfying, is her most intimate and difficult work.
In it the narrator Bradley gives young Julian a seminar on Hamlet: ‘The
unconscious delights in identifying people with one another. It has
only a few characters to play with’ (p. 195).
Bradley’s scholarly reference is to Ernest Jones’s famous and Freudian
reading of Hamlet, in which Hamlet identifies Ophelia with his mother
and Claudius with his father. An intensely private reference is to Iris’s
own love for her father. During composition she dreamt of telling a
friend that her father was dead, and wept about this, as if it had hap-
pened anew, not fifteen years before. Julian Baffin’s love for a man she
later on discovers to be nearly forty years her senior has parallels in Iris’s
beloved father-figures. Both Julian and Iris struggle to see beyond self-
ish identifications. And the black prince of the title is partly Hamlet,
seen as both the most autobiographical and yet also the most rhetori-
cally dense and thus remote of Shakespeare’s works.


Biography is often said to be heir to nineteenth-century realistic fiction,

concerned with verisimilitude, story and detail. Yet it is also profoundly
different. The great nineteenth-century novels – from Emma to Anna
Karenina, let us say – are memorable for their variety of characters.
Biography concentrates remorselessly on a single consciousness. By con-
trast I wanted Murdoch’s story to resemble one of her novels, a group
portrait whose characters keep re-appearing in new guises. I admired
Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month, and Penelope Fitzgerald’s portrait of her
father and three Knox uncles, The Knox Brothers. I was happy that many
who counted in Murdoch’s story in 1939 could be brought back in again
Each chapter had to honour the then available human sources, which
of course constantly diminish and then invent its own emblematic
unity and coherence; its own path through the daunting masses of
available material. (Speaking of available sources, some thirty key origi-
nal respondents are no longer with us.) Of course there must be an over-
all trajectory too, but how to define this? ‘Brigid Brophy’, Murdoch
noted in 1958 during a crisis of faith in her own fiction, ‘distinguishes
between me and my work, and the person who is to help me must not
do that’.63 We can no longer help her; but how should we read her into
her novels? As biography and memoir start to reveal her, the reader can
200 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

begin to see some continuities between her life and art. In both, a facile
and promiscuous falling-in-love features. In both, the ‘problem’ of
goodness looms, underlined in the paperback of the biography by
re-naming its parts, Innocence, Innocence Lost, Innocence Regained.
That trajectory apart, I made other early decisions: to let the biogra-
phy, where appropriate, resemble a Murdoch novel; to address the issue
of ‘sublimation’, a common theme of her fiction, moral philosophy and
life; not to suppress the uncomfortable, but to find the right tone of
voice in which to tell it; to keep myself out of it in order to allow the
reader to undergo the immediacy of the story, as this hit me in her
letters and journals; to deal principally with the period 1919–56 – a
formative time about which least was known, even by John Bayley, who
scarcely touched on it in his three memoirs; to tell (of course) shapely
stories but allow such stories to collide without necessarily offering a
single overview; to present Murdoch as a figure in a shifting landscape,
with close attention to successive frames or contexts: Ireland, Froebel,
Badminton, Oxford, Treasury, the refugee camps, the Royal College
of Art, making each of these internally coherent, like a succession of
short stories. A series of perspectives (ideally cultural histories) might
productively collide with each other and thus honour both her protean
nature – ‘tissues and tissues of different personae’ – and her ‘irreducibil-
ity’. Richard Holmes has hymned what he calls ‘the peculiar music of
biography [. . .] always incomplete and unsatisfactory and sending out
many echoes into the future’.64 This celebration both of biographical
incompleteness and of biographical dissatisfaction alike seems a good
note on which to end.

1. Malcolm Bowie, ‘Freud and the Art of Biography’, in Mapping Lives: The Uses
of Biography, (ed.) Peter France and William St Claire (Oxford: Oxford
University Press for the British Academy, 2002), pp. 177–92.
2. Mark Kinkead-Weekes, ‘Writing Lives Forwards: A Case for Strictly
Chronological Biography’, in France and St Claire, p. 252.
3. Roy Foster, W.B. Yeats: A Life Volume 1, xxvi–xxvii. (Oxford: Oxford
Paperbacks), p. 244, apropos Ellman.
4. ‘Iris Murdoch in Conversation with Malcolm Bradbury’. British Council
Literature Study Aids Recorded Interview RS2001 (London, 27 February 1976).
5. Malcolm Bowie, ‘Freud and the Art of Biography’, in France and St Claire,
pp. 177–92.
6. Ibid., p. 180.
7. Sigmund Freud in Freud: Volume One (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,
1976), p. 376.
Peter J. Conradi 201

8. Murdoch, ‘A Note on Drama’, in Cue Magazine (September 1970), 13–4.

9. See interview in Conradi Archive CIMS.
10. Cooking, washing up, cleaning – see IMAL.
11. Indeed she later imitated parental role-reversal: wife (John) attempting the
cooking, while the major wage earner in the public world washed up.
12. John Bayley, Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch (London: Duckworth, 1998).
13. Letter to author apropos Tibetan Buddhism in Conradi Archive in CIMS.
14. So were, by part descent, David Hicks and Yorick Smythies.
15. Journal, 10 July 1953.
16. IMAL, p. 221.
17. Murdoch in conversation with the author.
18. Tempest, I, ii, line 50.
19. Under the Net (1954),The Flight from the Enchanter (1956), A Severed Head
(1961), The Time of the Angels (1966), Bruno’s Dream (1969), A Fairly
Honourable Defeat (1970), An Accidental Man (1971).
20. See Susan Eilenberg’s review of IMAL, in London Review of Books (5 September
21. In the lower photographs of Badminton School in my biography of
Murdoch, Bernard Leach’s dark-haired daughter Eleanor is identified below
a smiling Murdoch. Leach (apparently) later committed suicide after many
sorrows including her husband’s falling in love with her sister Jasmine – a
tragic story that recalls Iris’s plots, which are, by contrast, essentially comic,
as reflected in Malcolm Bradbury’s parody that begins ‘Augustina says that
Flavia tells her Hugo is in love with Fred’. Malcolm Bradbury, Who do you
think you are? Stories and Parodies (London: Macmillan, 2001) pp. 166–71.
22. The Bell (1958), A Severed Head (1961), The Red and the Green (1965), The Time
of the Angels (1966).
23. Rain Carter in The Sandcastle (1957) and Peter Foster in A Fairly Honourable
Defeat (1970) find surrogates in Mor and in (Aunt) Morgan respectively: also
Edmund Narraway in The Italian Girl (1964), Elizabeth Fisher in The Time of
the Angels (1966), Bruno in Bruno’s Dream (1969), David in The Sacred and
Profane Love-Machine (1974), Henry in Henry and Cato (1976).
24. ‘The Fire and The Sun’, in EM, p. 419.
25. Something she expressed in the early 1960s to her Royal College of Art pro-
tégé, David Morgan.
26. As Mary Midgley pointed out in a recorded but unused comment for the BBC
Omnibus programme on Murdoch in 2001.
27. The Bell (1958), The Unicorn (1963), The Time of the Angels (1966).
28. In respectively: The Time of the Angels (1966), Bruno’s Dream (1969), A Fairly
Honourable Defeat (1970), The Black Prince (1973), Nuns and Soldiers (1980),
The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), The Good Apprentice (1985), The Message to the
Planet (1989), The Green Knight (1993).
29. The sequence of good women – Ann Peronett in An Unofficial Rose (1962),
Kathleen Drumm in The Red and the Green (1965), Anne Cavidge in Nuns and
Soldiers (1980) – are, it could be argued, marginally less compelling or inter-
esting to their author and hence to us as readers. Others of what Barbara Pym
termed ‘excellent women’ are the edge of the action, like The Abbess in The
Bell (1958) or Pat Raven, mistress to John Forbes out of loyalty and love to
John’s dead wife Ruth in Henry and Cato (1976).
202 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

30. Peter Kemp, ‘The Flight Against Fantasy’, Modern Fiction Studies, XV, 3
(August 1969), 403–415.
31. Dooley, p. 88.
32. Miriam Allott in Conradi, IMAL, pp. 45–7. Where did Murdoch see the play?
Perhaps, if the dates fit, at the Scala where, later (in my post-war childhood)
it was put on every Christmas.
33. Dooley, p. 88.
34. Letter to David Morgan.
35. A Word Child, p. 227.
36. See IMAL, p. 584.
37. Her brief 1946 engagement to Hicks after a seven-year correspondence shows
that this writing had power-in-the-world, was not mere ‘fantasy’.
38. Murdoch, unpublished letter to David Hicks, dated 10 October 1945.
39. A novel, too, is (a) the creation of an elsewhere and (b) through the respons-
es of its readers, a communication with and about this elsewhere. Murdoch’s
readers became her pen-friends: like Anna in Under the Net (1954) who
yearned for love ‘as a poet yearns for an audience’. Unrequited love is the
theme, not just of the child, but also of the mystic: ‘only if love is all, all
imagination can it remain love while being unsatisfied’ (p. 40).
40. A Severed Head (1961), The Sacred and Profane Love-Machine (1974), The Good
Apprentice (1985).
41. Murdoch disputed Hampshire’s view that a ‘perfect analysis’ could ever make
us wholly self-aware. Our energy should in any case be turned outwards in
close loving attention of the quiddity of the world, not inwards, which tends
to reinforce habitual patterns.
42. Murdoch in conversation with David Pears, ‘The Idea of Freedom’, Logic
Lane/Oxford Philosophy series, Chanan Films Ltd, 1971.
43. Dooley, pp. 44–55.
44. Bowie, in France and St Claire, p. 190.
45. ‘The Sublime and the Good’, in EM, p. 215.
46. Charles Taylor, Martha Nussbaum, Mark Platt, Maria Antonaccio and others.
47. This was one reason why Murdoch loved and emulated Shakespeare. She
believed that the mysteriousness of great novels connected with the opacity
of human personality: novels celebrate human difference. Shakespeare was
the patron saint of novelists because he invented, and delighted in, free and
eccentric personalities. Such celebration of otherness could happen only
when the author got out of the way. While bad writing is full of the ‘fumes
of personality’, Shakespeare was invisible. ‘Art’, she wrote, ‘is not an expres-
sion of personality, it is a question rather of the continual expelling of one-
self from the matter in hand’ (EM, p. 283). Such removal of the novelist from
her work was a condition for success.
48. To David Hicks, unpublished.
49. Under the Net (1954), p. 238. Compare D.H. Lawrence, who once wrote: ‘a
book lives only as long as it in unfathomable – once it is known and its
meaning is fixed, it is dead’. The same was true, he felt of its author: ‘I hate
understanding people’, he wrote in 1921, ‘and I hate still more to be under-
stood. Damn understanding more than anything’.
50. ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’, in EM, p. 87.
51. The Sandcastle (1957), p. 77.
Peter J. Conradi 203

52. Bruno’s Dream (1969), p. 239.

53. The Sea, the Sea (1978), p. 477.
54. Letter from John Keats, dated 21 December 1817 to his brothers George and
Thomas Keats in Selected Poems and Letters of Keats (ed.) Robert Gittings
(London: Heinemann, 1986), p. 41.
55. Letter from John Keats to R. Woodhouse, dated 27 October 1818, in Gittings,
p. 88.
56. Lecture by Coleridge in November 1810, cited in Coleridge: Darker Reflections
by Richard Holmes (London: HarperCollins, 1989), p. 270.
57. Ibid., p. 270.
58. The Black Prince, p. 200.
59. Holmes, ‘The Proper Study?’, in Frances and St Claire, p. 332.
60. Elias Canetti, by the way, whose father died when he was a child, was sin-
gled out for immensely cruel bullying by his mother. She is said to have
wanted all three of her sons to win the Nobel Prize, but Elias was a special
case: Canetti is a startling victim-hero of Oedipal rivalry.
61. Elias Canetti, Party in the Blitz (London: Hutchinson, 2005).
62. A Fairly Honourable Defeat, p. 233 – my emphasis.
63. Journal (26 November 1958).
64. Holmes, Coleridge: Darker Reflections, p. 561.
Alzheimer’s Amyloid Analogy:
Disease Depicted through A Word
Rivka Isaacson

When Iris Murdoch resolved to donate her brain to science, she could
not have anticipated the extent of her potential contribution to medical
research. Last year, Garrard et al.1 published a headline-grabbing study
of Alzheimer’s disease, utilizing Murdoch’s first and last published nov-
els Under the Net (1954) and Jackson’s Dilemma (1995) and one from the
height of her career The Sea, the Sea (1978), which won the Booker Prize.
In an extension of a longitudinal study performed on an enclosed reli-
gious community (shadows of The Bell), the scientists analysed the syn-
tax and lexical diversity of all three novels, drawing conclusions about
the onset of various aspects of dementia in Alzheimer’s sufferers. This
work continues as an exciting example of fiction informing science.
To complement this theme, the following essay uses Murdoch’s work
allegorically, studying plot and character from A Word Child (1987) to
develop a multifaceted analogy that illustrates the current mechanistic
theories of Alzheimer’s disease. Though there are still notable gaps in
the present understanding of Alzheimer’s (most urgently we require a
cure) scientists have now reached a consensus on the basic pattern of
events that marks its path, which begins long before any symptoms are
observed and ends in death from secondary respiratory complications.2
It is this sequence of events that I will describe in the following pages,
drawing on examples from A Word Child to explain some physiological
A Word Child lends itself to this type of analysis for reasons that have,
perhaps, lessened its popularity with critics. Though repetitive, cyclical
plots abound in Murdoch’s novels, A Word Child probably offers the
most obvious example. A.S. Byatt, for example, feels duped by the novel
because expectations aroused by ‘the patient and delicate introductory
analysis’ of its protagonist, Hilary Burde, are not borne out by the

Rivka Isaacson 205

emerging plot which she describes as ‘an adventure story with [. . .] con-
trived repeated relationships’.3 It is precisely these symmetrical con-
straints on the freedom of Hilary Burde that facilitate my analogy with
Alzheimer’s disease and its repetitive cycles of pathology.
The possibility that such metaphors are frequently oversimplifica-
tions, and often misleading, is put forward in A.S. Byatt’s A Whistling
Woman (2002) when a fictional cognitive psychologist from La Jolla,
Hodder Pinsky, warns of the pitfalls of analogy in his opening address to
the Body-Mind Conference. Giving various examples, mostly pertaining
to thought and memory, he suggests that ‘difference was endlessly more
instructive than the analogy’. And the tetralogy’s heroine, Frederica
Potter, uses her brain, eyes and ears to digest Pinsky’s opinions, and mar-
vels at how capably she exploits these physical faculties while their actu-
al workings elude her. Frederica illustrates how we can all use our senses
(or contract diseases) without understanding how they work. But since
we are all manifestations of science it might be useful to attempt to con-
struct analogies that can help us comprehend how such devastating
processes as Alzheimer’s work. While understanding the differences, of
which there are many, between this fiction-based analogy and the bodily
process whose substance it allows us to picture, this paper is designed to
stimulate discussion for both artists and scientists.

Plot unfolding

The ‘word child’, Hilary Burde, is a man who transcends the academic
and social but not the psychological legacies of his underprivileged back-
ground. The son of a poor uneducated mother (who dies very young)
and an unknown father, his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (my
diagnosis) is arrested and his delinquency harnessed by a mentor in the
shape of inspirational French and Latin teacher, Mr Osmand. This nur-
turing gives rise to a blossoming academic career which is prematurely
curtailed by a scandalous incident involving his infatuation with a sen-
ior colleague’s wife (Anne Jopling) and events leading to her death for
which Hilary is responsible.
Following this fall from grace, and a period of physical and mental
dysfunction, he adopts a mundane existence, working in a government
department (‘it boots not which’! [p. 6]) punctuated by such idiosyn-
cracies as always doing certain things on specific days of the week and
futilely riding the Inner Circle line of the London Underground system,
stopping, sometimes, for alcoholic refreshment at Sloane Square or
Liverpool Street stations. After one and a half decades of an emotional
206 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

plateau, his obsessive routine is interrupted by the reappearance of

Gunnar Jopling (now equipped with a new wife, Lady Kitty), who
comes to manage the same Government Department. Inevitably, Hilary
falls in love with this wife as well, and accidentally effects her death too.
All principal characters wind up miserable or dead.
In subsidiary plots Hilary has a long-suffering and devoted sister
Crystal who has an on-off relationship with his work underling, Arthur,
whom she eventually marries despite being simultaneously in love with
both Gunnar Jopling (who, while under the influences of alcohol and
trauma, relieved her of her virginity the night his first wife died) and
Clifford Larr (friend and esteemed boss of Hilary, victim of an undis-
closed secret sorrow, who had possibly been romantically involved with
Christopher, Hilary’s musical, Buddhist flat-mate and who commits
suicide in the end). Hilary also has a theatre-obsessed girlfriend called
Thomasina Uhlmeister (Tommy), who ought to leave him but wants
to marry him; his flat-mate Christopher has an affair first with Laura
Impiatt (wife of Hilary’s boss, Freddie – they entertain Hilary on
Thursdays) but ultimately, in a surprise move, marries Biscuit (Lady
Kitty’s Indian maid and messenger).

Protein folding – a fine balance

Within the course of these events, Hilary has to make some tough deci-
sions, and there are usually significant pros and cons to consider each
time. Often, difficulty arises when the collective arguments for and
against seem equally weighty. The following table outlines some factors
affecting, for example, Hilary’s dilemma of whether to marry Tommy;
I will use the following table to illustrate the ways in which the proteins
in our body exist in a similarly precarious state of indecision.

Pros Cons

Would end T’s persistent nagging Victory for T difficult to swallow

T intelligent and engaging T infuriating at times
T loves H H does not love T
H’s trueloves are unavailable H’s love lies elsewhere
T would look after H H would give up bachelor existence
Would make T happy T’s happiness potentially irritating to H
Crystal free to marry Arthur Crystal free to marry Arthur (bad aspects)
(good aspects)

Further forays into the realms of psychiatry would no doubt provide

a more exhaustive list, but my point is that there are major influences
Rivka Isaacson 207

on both sides and yet the outcome depends on a minor tipping of the
scales one way or the other. In this particular example the situation does
seesaw between the two possible outcomes at different points in the
Most of the proteins in our bodies exist in a similarly precarious state
of indecision about whether to adopt useful mechanical shapes or
flounder like strings of beads with the clasps undone. While the Second
Law of Thermodynamics urges them to tend towards maximum selfish
disorder (Hilary’s cons or in scientific terms, entropy), enthalpic forces
remind them that they are better off with their water-loving parts on
the outside and their water-hating parts closeted in their dry interiors
(Hilary’s pros) and remind them also that every negative charge
becomes agitated without the companionship of a positive charge.
Although this fragile stability may sound like an evolutionary design
flaw (as Hilary’s self-centred introspection might be a by-product of his
potentially advantageous superior intellect), in fact, it is vital to our con-
tinued dynamic development. For example, sometimes we require one of
our cells to divide once and so we employ a protein machine called a
‘growth factor’ to facilitate this division. If this protein remained in its
working condition for too long our cells might continue to divide yield-
ing a tumour. In just such a way, Murdoch’s moral philosophy demands
that such self-centred introspection should be transformed into a medi-
tation on the other, in this case Tommy, or it develops into neurosis or
paranoia. Therefore, we need to be able to remove the machine as soon
as it has performed its function and this can require a shape change
followed by physical clearance. Our proteins can only be marginally
stable to facilitate their rapid turnover, but this leaves them vulnerable
and almost every human disease results from unwarranted changes in
protein stability.

Alzheimer’s – the protein culprits

Just as, left unattended, Hilary’s self-absorbed indecisiveness results in

misapprehensions, an invasive paranoia that destabilizes him mentally,
and wreaks havoc with his relationships by causing disruptive tangles, so
does, mutatis mutandis, protein misbehaviour. In a cascade of activity,
which gets underway up to twenty years before symptoms present them-
selves, a normal bodily protein, of undiscovered function, called ␤app
(beta-amyloid precursor protein) is aberrantly chopped in two places by
two different pairs of molecular scissors. The resulting fragments adopt a
rogue conformation and stack upon each other to form invasive threads
208 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

called amyloid fibrils which weave their way through brain tissue wreak-
ing havoc with thought and memory. In response to this nerve-damage
the body activates a signal which adds large amounts of a negatively
charged phosphate to an ordinarily useful soluble intraneuronal protein
called tau which then precipitates into neurofibrillary tangles which dis-
rupt nerve cells in a similar way to that seen in Parkinson’s disease. The
combination of ␤-amyloid which accumulates in the extracellular spaces
between nerve cells and the tangles inside the nerves themselves causes
the observed sequence of cognitive impairments that characterizes
Alzheimer’s disease. Similarly, the combination of obsessive behaviour,
guilt and indecisiveness characterizes the moral degeneracy that causes
Hilary’s tragedies. His state of mind serves as an adequate analogy for the
degeneration caused in the human mind by protein.

The central dogma

transcription translation
DNA RNA protein

This diagram illustrates how proteins are the practical end-products of a

well-oiled process whereby our genes (which are the stable DNA codes
for all the physiology that keeps us going) are transcribed into dispos-
able RNA templates which are modified to suit the particular cause and
then translated into protein machines which carry out our cellular func-
tions. This process can be visualized by alluding to Murdoch’s lament
against ‘loss of persons’ in twentieth-century fiction. She suggests that
when we recall great nineteenth-century novels ‘we are not remem-
bering Tolstoy and George Eliot, we are remembering Dolly, Kitty,
Stiva, Dorothea and Casaubon’,4 and she attempts to emulate the great
nineteenth-century realists in her construction of character. Proteins are
the Kittys and Dorotheas (and Hilarys) of the biological realm to the
extent that they are the manifestations of complex design set free into
the world to be buffeted by reality, and can fulfill the moral purposes of
the author only by being made to interact with other characters. The
events leading to protein or character synthesis, however, offer many
levels of control that begin with the transcriptional process (authorial
control) which decides which genes will be used, and include the splic-
ing of the RNA transcript into a variant which will yield the required
protein. Once a gene has been copied into its disposable RNA format,
protein ‘scissors’ can cut down the RNA or chop bits out to encode
Rivka Isaacson 209

whichever version of the protein end-product is required. This provides

yet more scope for variety.
In Murdoch’s fiction it is her characters that gain lives of their own
and make their mark on readers while Murdoch herself metaphorically
shrinks into the background. Despite Alzheimer’s disease having a
genetic component, it is proteins, like the characters, that come to
the fore, and do the damage. If analysis of character leads to the moral
core of the novel, so study of protein will simultaneously provide us
with information required to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s. While
the root causes of many genetic diseases (including Parkinson’s and
Huntington’s) were identified by comparing the DNA of affected fami-
lies to find common sequence errors, Alzheimer’s disease is unusual in
that its cause was discovered through a top-down approach. Scientists
worked backwards, utilizing proteins isolated from the amyloid plaques
and neurofibrillary tangles found in Alzheimer’s victims to trace the
offending genes. Some people are genetically predisposed to develop
Alzheimer’s because they have mutations in the genes for either ␤app
itself or the molecular scissors or other proteins which affect the
process in some way, leaving them more vulnerable to amyloidogene-
sis. Current therapeutic avenues include developing a vaccine against
␤-amyloid and designing drugs to stabilize the uncut form of ␤app
among many others.

Forces of nature

The method of describing character in terms of degrees of freedom was

employed by Murdoch in The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited, where
she criticizes T.S. Eliot for failing ‘to distinguish between two senses of
‘free’: ‘free’ as meaning ‘independent of the author’ and ‘free’ as mean-
ing ‘independent-minded’ (p. 276) and in Against Dryness (1961), where
she discussed personal freedom in the context of its interplay with ‘the
transcendence of reality’.5 This theme was expanded by Byatt in her
book Degrees of Freedom (1965) in which she chronologically examined
Murdoch’s novels and identified varying degrees of freedom in her char-
acters. A Word Child spans a fair gamut of power struggles against
oppressive relationships (both filial and abusive), social structure, the
elements and the author. These varying levels of control and forces
pulling characters in every direction find parallels in the world of ther-
modynamics and the wide range of energetic forces that determine
whether proteins adopt useful or diseased shapes.
210 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

With the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 we now

know the sequence of every human gene and, by extrapolation, the
sequence of every human protein, since three consecutive letters in a
DNA sequence encode one letter of the corresponding protein sequence.
While DNA only really comes in one shape, the famous ‘double helix’,
proteins exist in a wide range of shapes and sizes which provide their
unique properties and specific functions.
Applying concepts of entropy (tending towards maximum disorder)
and enthalpy (ordered freedom through cooperation with environ-
ment) to Hilary Burde, this paper proceeds to analyse his personal
behaviour and his interactions with the ancillary characters in A Word
Child. The regularity of Hilary’s habits, for example, while inconve-
niencing those around him, also affords them the liberty to conduct
their affairs in his absence and ignorance of them. Similarly, energetic
favourability is a juggling act between an entity, be it ‘self’ or protein,
and the ‘other’ (humans, proteins, water) in its immediate vicinity.

Free as a Burde

If, at the time of writing his story, Hilary were to exercise his ultimate
entropic energy and indulge in the utmost freedom with no regard for
his surroundings, he would probably commit suicide: ‘Not to have
been born is undoubtedly best’, he opines early on in the novel, ‘but
sound sleep is second best’ (p. 16).6 As an unfolded protein imposes
pockets of order onto its solvent, maximizing its own entropy while
decreasing that of the solution, Hilary’s suicide would produce local-
ized and temporary effects on his fellow characters, Crystal, Tommy,
Clifford, for example, and these would vary in intensity depending
on their proximity to him and their individual temperaments. If pro-
teins persist in occupying the entropically favourable unfolded state,
they usually forfeit their ability to do anything useful (since their
functions generally depend on their mechanical folded shapes) and
the body retaliates against this lack of contribution by invoking the
‘unfolded protein response’ a procedure which sends the errant pro-
teins hurtling to their doom down the cellular recycling chute which
chops them up to be made into new proteins. To combat this flagrant
anthropomorphizing, I feel obliged to point out that proteins are at
the mercy of their chemical composition and are not equipped with
decision-making abilities, though some may say the same of Hilary,
labelling him a puppet-victim of his particularly trying nature/nurture
Rivka Isaacson 211

Hilary does not commit suicide because, on balance, it makes more

sense to satisfy his enthalpic inclinations and compromise his absolute
entropic freedom in order to interact favourably with his surroundings,
favourably, that is, in the sense of satisfying his need to indulge in guilt,
self-torture and pity: ‘Had I ever considered marrying Tommy [. . .] an
equivalent of the suicide I could not commit because of Crystal?’ (p. 44).
Such a marriage would constitute the precise opposite of entropic free-
dom and it is strange that he equates it with death.
Hilary’s desires change as he ages and, as he contemplates the future
after his cold, watery run-in with the Thames (which kills Lady Kitty),
he remarks, ‘the deepest me, who knew of no-one else, was desperate to
survive’ (p. 382). Did the enthalpic then eclipse the entropic? Like ␤app,
which comes to a subtle rearrangement of its shape based on changing
energetic needs, Hilary readjusts his level of functionality in society in
response to his changing freedom requirements. Interestingly, there is a
direct parallel between Hilary’s ongoing, internal suicide debate and the
behaviour of Alzheimer’s disease proteins. Clumps of tau from the
nerves of post-mortem Alzheimer’s patients are found to be tagged with
ubiquitin (the label that cells use to mark proteins for destruction)
implying that the cell has recognized the protein’s ‘decision’ to remove
itself but the process has broken down and instead the ‘dying’ tau
lingers and festers causing obstruction and disease, as does Hilary to his
nearest and dearest.
Three suicides are committed in A Word Child. Of two out of three we,
in essence, learn only that they occur, though the news of them pro-
motes such a wealth of unavoidable speculation that in retrospect it is
hard to remember how little solid information we are actually given.
Tristram, the only son of Gunnar and Anne Jopling, aged four at the
time of his mother’s death, takes his own life at the age of sixteen.
Mr Osmand, alone and abandoned by society, takes a fatal overdose of
sleeping pills after seeking out his old protégé and finding him in a
deplorable state.
Unfortunately, the measurable effects of the best documented suicide
in the novel, that of Clifford Larr, are limited to Hilary’s distressed visit
to St Stephen’s church, of which T.S. Eliot had once been the warden. It
is also difficult to isolate the disasters caused by Clifford’s suicide from
all the other disasters that have befallen Hilary. The same can be said of
the impact of Tristram’s death on Gunnar. One hopes that others, in
addition to Hilary, suffered ill effects from Clifford’s suicide but if they
did not then it was certainly the most energetically favourable course of
212 Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment

A wider analogy

On a grander scale one can envisage the entire story of A Word Child as
analogous to the Alzheimer’s disease mechanism. Picture Hilary Burde
as ␤app – he has potential for a normal function in life whose details are
unclear and never realized because he is broken by two different devas-
tating events, namely, his falling for two different inappropriate women
and events leading to their respective deaths. Both Mrs Joplings, who
start as innocent bystanders and functional members of society (analo-
gous to the protein tau), change and are changed as a result of their
interactions with the troubled and troublesome Hilary Burde. They
become disorientated and their roles are thrown into question until
death eventually removes them from the frame, while their emotional
legacy continues to do damage. One might see Gunnar Jopling, of
whom we learn relatively little, as the human whole who is incremen-
tally torn apart by the tumult of influences exerted by the pathogens
described above.

Cooperative symmetry

The spiral shape features heavily in Alzheimer’s disease, from the double
helix of DNA strands that encode the proteins, ␤app and tau, to the
shape of the amyloid fibrils from whose presence the disease is diag-
nosed and the neurofibrillary tangles that crowd the nerve cells from
within. Each of these helices is built gradually from its constituent
macromolecules in repeating cooperative cycles. This can be a natural,
stable and necessary process like the building of the DNA double helix,
or a negative and destructive sequence as in the case of assembling amy-
loid fibrils and neurofibrillary tangles.
The plot of A Word Child contains many levels of symmetry, contrast-
ing the static circularity of the Inner Circle line (with its two points of
vulnerability – the bars at Liverpool Street and Sloane Square – which
precipitate some crucially bad decisions on Hilary’s part) and the
perimeter of the Royal Parks (which define the geographical boundaries
of the story and constitute solid and necessary cycles analogous to those
of the DNA double helix) with the spiralling progression of Hilary’s rigid
schedule, the sine wave of emotional peaks and troughs he imposes on
Crystal and Tommy, among others, and the ultimate repetitive
manslaughter of the first and second Mrs Joplings. These latter equilib-
ria, like those governing the Alzheimer’s disease state, inevitably break
down as the system tends towards disorder. Thus the rigid repetitive
Rivka Isaacson 213

structure of A Word Child also mirrors the cumulative events that char-
acterize the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

1. Of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College, London.
2. For a thorough and readable review, see D.J. Selkoe, Annals of Internal
Medicine, 140 (2004), 627–38.
3. A.S. Byatt, ‘The Writer and her Work’, in Degrees of Freedom (London: Vintage
2004), pp. 296–336.
4. ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited’ (1959), in EM, pp. 261–86.
5. ‘Against Dryness’ (1961), EM, p. 293.
6. A Word Child (London: Triad/Panther, 1976).

Adams, Tim, 137 Brophy, Brigid, 199

Aesthetics, 7, 17, 109–10, 126–7 Buddha, 30, 34, 38–9, 41–2, 44n
Alcoff, Linda Martin, 8, 181–3, 185 Buddhism, 5, 19, 30, 36, 38–9, 41,
Ali, Monica, 121 44n, 54, 195
Altorf, Marie, 8, 173, 186n Bultmann, Rudolf, 36
Alzheimer’s, 9, 119–20, 204–13 Burke, Jr., John J., 118, 122n
Anscombe, Elizabeth, 8, 17–18, 72, Burne-Jones, Edward, 127
83n, 178–9 Butler, Judith, 1, 8, 165, 174n
Anselm, 23, 25, 28, 30, 49–50 Byatt, Antonia Susan, 11n, 115–7, 119,
Antonaccio, Maria, 4, 6, 22n, 58n, 134n, 145, 204, 209
70–1n, 98–9n, 184, 186n
Aristotle, 15, 17, 37, 88 Caen, Conference at, 117
Arnold, Matthew, 158 Canetti, Elias, xvii, xixn, 191, 194,
Art, 1–3, 7, 11, 15, 17, 37, 63, 89–93, 197–8, 203n
95, 97, 101, 104–5, 116, 126–8, Canonicity, 1, 6, 115–22
130, 132–3, 149–59, 165, 169, Carter, Angela, 119
196 Cavell, Stanley, 51, 59n
Askesis, 87, 94–5, 97–8, 172 Cézanne, Paul, 91, 94, 127
Attention, xi, 5, 17, 33, 62–3, 72, Chatman, Seymour, 111n
76–7, 81–3, 90–2, 94, 96–7, 138, Chekhov, Anton, 104, 111n
140, 149, 157, 172 Childs, Peter, 159
Augustine, 88 Christ, 30, 32, 34, 36–43, 44n, 49
Austen, Jane, 136, 153 Christianity, 5, 19–20, 24, 30–4,
35–43, 44n, 50, 54–5, 90, 110, 130
Backus, Guy, 122n, 185n Clark, Robert, 122n
Bakhtin, Mikhail, 119, 196 Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, xviii, 197,
Balogh, Thomas, 191 203n
Barrie, J.M., 193 Compton-Burnett, Ivy, 143
Barthes, Roland, 1–2, 104–5, 108, 110, Conradi, Peter J., xixn, 6, 8–10, 58–9n,
111n, 159n 87–8, 95, 97, 98n, 110, 117–9,
Baudrillard, Jean, 103 138, 143–5, 152, 168, 171, 177
Bayard, Pierre, 111n Consciousness, 7, 17, 19, 35–6, 38–9,
Bayley, John, 119–20, 126, 132, 135n, 42–3, 48–9, 60–4, 66, 70, 72–3,
191, 200, 201n 77, 80, 89–90, 94–8, 138, 149
Bennett, Andrew, 120 Contingency, 2, 33, 43, 51, 54, 129,
Billingham, Susan E., 144–5, 147n 132, 134, 144, 196
Bloom, Harold, 6, 116–7, 122 Cunningham, Valentine, 9–10, 11n,
Booker Prize, The, 117–8, 204 134, 135n, 159n
Botticelli, 116, 127
Bowie, Malcolm, 189, 200–1n De Beauvoir, Simone, 175, 177–8
Bradbury, Malcolm, 111n, 117, 120, Delillo, Don, 110
134n, 190, 200–1n Derrida, Jacques, 1–2, 35–6, 43, 44n
Brookner, Anita, 119, 121 Descartes, René, 29–30, 57

Index 215

Detweiler, Robert, 122n Hale, Sheila, 174n

Diamond, Cora, 26, 34n Hampl, W.S., 171, 174n
Dickens, Charles, xiv–xviii, xviiin, 4 Hampshire, Stuart, 67–8, 71n, 74, 84n
Dipple, Elizabeth, 118, 140–2, 144, Harris, Wendell V., 116, 118, 122n
147n, 168, 174n Hartshorne, Charles, 25
Dooley, Gillian, 3, 159n, 185n Hayter, Alethea, 199
Dostoevsky, Fyodor, xvi, 196, 198 Head, Dominic, 7, 9–10, 11n, 121,
Drabble, Margaret, 119–20 123n
Heidegger, Martin, 34n
Eagleton, Terry, 2, 10, 144, 159n Hicks, David, 195
Eden, Edward, 146 Hinduism, 5, 19, 36, 38–9, 41
Eliot, George, 132, 208 Hobson, Harold, 175
Eliot, T.S., 209, 211 Hogle, Jerrold, 111n
Ethics, 7, 10, 15–22, 27, 40, 60–6, 74, Hollinghurst, Alan, 117
89, 92–3, 95, 97, 109–10, 116, Holmes, Richard, 197, 200, 203n
163, 169, 179–80 Holocaust, the, 40, 42

Ferrari, G.R.F., 174n Imagination, xviii, 4, 15, 17–20, 31–2,

Fitzgerald, Penelope, 199 38, 47–50, 53, 56, 58n, 93–5, 97,
Foot, Philippa, 8, 187–9 132, 152, 154
Foucault, Michel, 1, 8, 163–73 Iris (Film), 6, 120
Fowler, Alistair, 116, 122n Iris Murdoch Studies Centre, the, 121,
Fraenkel, Eduard, 191, 198 123n
Franco, F., 44n
Frankfurt, Harry, 70n James, Henry, 7, 124–34, 157
Freud, Sigmund, 31, 61, 80, 90, 96, Johnson, Deborah, 143, 147n, 177, 185n
104–5, 134, 155, 190–2, 194–6, Jones, Ernest, 199
198–9, 200n Joyce, James, 98
Judaism, 36, 40, 42
Gadamer, Hans-Georg, 36
Gale, Patrick, 121 Kant, Immanuel, 24–5, 34n, 53, 58,
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, 122n 150
Gauguin, Paul, 49 Keats, John, 197, 203n
Gaunilo, 28 Kermode, Frank, 116–7, 122n
Gender, 8, 154, 163–73, 175–85 Kolodny, Annette, 122n
Genette, Gérard, 111n
Gide, Andre, 198 Language, 2, 4, 9, 27–8, 31, 35, 41,
God, 5, 19–20, 23–34, 36–9, 41, 43, 92, 103, 128, 144–5
47, 149 Le Doeuff, Michèle, 8, 182–5
Goertz, D., 146n Lee, Hermione, 189
Golding, William, xvi, 118 Lessing, Doris, 119
Good, xv, xvii, xix, 16, 18–22, 29–33, Levenson, Michael, 109, 111n
35–40, 43, 47–51, 58, 64, 67, 69, Lewin, Jane E., 111n
88, 90, 96, 98, 195 Literary Canon, 116, 118, 122n
Gordon, David, J., 90, 98n Literary Gothic, 106
Greene, Graham, 36, 118 Lodge, David, 143, 147n
Gregson, Ian, 144–5, 147n London, xvi, xviii, 124, 195
Griffin, Gabriele, 177, 185n Lovibond, Sabina, 181
Grimshaw, Tammy, 8, 175 Lyotard, Jean-François, 110, 111n
216 Index

MacIntyre, Alasdair, 182 Henry and Cato, 40–1, 118, 127

Mackinnon, Donald, 191, 198 ‘Idea of Perfection, The’, 63, 124,
Malcolm, Norman, 25–8, 34n, 47 183
Marx, Karl, 37 Italian Girl, The, 141
McEwan, Ian, 7–8, 117, 121, 148–60 Jackson’s Dilemma, 204
McWilliam, Candia, 117 Jerusalem, xv
Metanarrative, 110 Message to the Planet, The, 40, 42,
Metaphysics, 10, 19, 36, 39, 50 118–20, 193
Midgley, Mary, 190, 178–80, 185n Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals,
Mitchell, Barbara, xv 11n, 23, 33, 35, 64, 93, 126, 144,
Mitchell, Juliet, 195 178
Mole, Christopher, 5, 18, 58n, 70n Nice and the Good, The, xv, xvii, 78,
Momigliano, Arnoldo, 191, 198 137
Mooney, Bel, 120 Nuns and Soldiers, 40–1, 128–30, 133
Montaigne, Michel de, 61, 70n ‘On “God” and “Good”’, 65
Moran, Richard, 71n Philosopher’s Pupil, The, 40, 192–4
Morris, Jan, 119 Red and the Green, The, xvi, 124
Morrison, Toni, 145 Sacred and Profane Love Machine,
Mulhall, Stephen, 34n, 59n The, xv, 101, 127, 195
Munro, Alice, 136 Sandcastle, The, xvi, 124, 197
Murdoch, Iris, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, xixn, 116
Acastos, 35, 40 Sea, the Sea, The, xvi, 41, 101, 104,
Accidental Man, An, xvi, xixn, 117, 120–1, 129, 194, 197–8, 204
5, 47, 51–3, 55–6, 58, 129, 141–3, Severed Head, A, xv-xvi, 101, 109,
194 190, 195
‘Against Dryness’, 116, 132, 209 Sovereignty of Good, The, 5–6, 17,
‘Art is the Imitation of Nature’, 22n, 59n, 60, 64, 68, 72, 77–8,
100–1, 104–5 88–9, 93, 95, 97, 184
Bell, The, xvi, 6, 104–10, 118, 128, ‘Sovereignty of Good Over Other
204 Concepts, The’, 77, 184
Black Prince, The, xvi, 7, 101, 104, ‘Sublime and the Beautiful
117, 127, 129–30, 134, 148–60, Revisited, The’, 116, 128, 209
192, 194–5, 197, 199 Time of the Angels, The, xvi, 129,
Book and the Brotherhood, The, 6, 40, 152
108, 119, 127 Under the Net, xv–xvi, 116, 124, 127,
Bruno’s Dream, xvi, xviii, 197 129, 133, 140, 193–4, 204
‘Darkness of Practical Reason, The’, Unicorn, The, xv–xvi, 117
xixn Unofficial Rose, An, xv, 119, 124–6,
‘Ethics and the Imagination’, 44n 133, 192
Fairly Honourable Defeat, A, xvi, 128, ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’,
133, 139, 198 101, 107, 109
Fire and the Sun, The, 127–8 Word Child, A, 9, 104, 109, 134,
Flight from the Enchanter, The, xvi, 194, 204–13
193, 198 Music, 116
Good Apprentice, The, 8, 40, 104,
118, 158, 192, 195 Nagel, Thomas, 51
Green Knight, The, xv-xvi, 118–20, Narrative, 100–10
158 Negative Theology, 26, 29, 41, 43
Heidegger Manuscript, 34n Nicol, Bran, 2, 6, 152
Index 217

Nietzsche, Friedrich, 51 Shields, Carol, 7, 121, 136–47

Noakes, Jonathan, 160n Smith, Zadie, 121
Nussbaum, Martha, 17, 22n, 70n, Smollett, Tobias, xv
88–9, 98, 181, 186n Socrates, 53, 79, 192
Sodre, Ignes, 119
Oates, Joyce Carol, 136 Soul, the, 30, 39, 41, 66, 90, 197
O’Connell, Alex, 146n Spice, Nicholas, 119
Ontological Argument, 23, 25, Steiner, Franz Baermann, 191, 198
29–31, 49 Strawson, Peter, 51, 58–9n
Ontological Proof, 5, 19, 27, 29–30,
47, 50 Taylor, Charles, xvi, 16, 22n, 70–1n
Orwell, George, xiv–xvi, xviiin, 119 Taylor, D.J., 119–20
Theology, 1, 4–5, 15, 19,
Pannikar, Raimundo, 42, 44n 35–43, 90, 116
Parmenides, 37 Thompson, Frank, 195
Peter Pan, xixn, 9, 193–5 Tillich, Paul, 36
Plato, 15, 17, 31–32, 37, 47, 49, 51, Tintoretto, 125, 133
66, 87–91, 98, 127–8, 133, Titian, 127–8
163–73, 192 Todorov, Tzvetan, 103, 111n
Pre-Socratics, 36 Toibin, Colm, 121
Proust, Marcel, 158 Tolstoy, Leo, 132, 208
Pynchon, Thomas, 110 Tracy, David, 22n
Turner, Joseph, 128
Queneau, Raymond, xv, 195 Turner, Nick, 6, 136

Raimer, Elizabeth, 141, 147n Updike, John, xvii

Ramanathan, Suguna, 2, 5, 17, 44n,
168, 172, 174n Van Dine, S.S., 103
Ramon, Alex, 7, 121 Vice, Samantha, 5, 18, 58n, 73
Reader-response, 102–6, 108–9, 150, Virtue Ethics, 15, 18, 47, 74
152–5, 157–8, 200 Vision, 3, 15–8, 48, 53, 62–7, 81,
Reich-Ranicki, Marcel, xvii, xixn 90–7, 157
Reynolds, Margaret, 160n Void, the, 33, 57
Rich, Adrienne, 8, 164, 173n
Rilke, Rainer Maria, 91, 94, Warner, Eric, 173n
Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith, 111n Warner, Marina, 117
Rowe, Anne, 7, 121, 124, 134n Warnock, Mary, 8, 178–80, 185–6n
Rowe, Margaret Moan, 176, 185n Watchel, Elaine, 147n
Waugh, Evelyn, 36
Sagare, S.B., 173n Waugh, Patricia, 146
Sage, Lorna, 117, 120, 130, 135n Weil, Simone, 33, 149, 172
Sartre, Jean-Paul, xvii, xixn, 17, 20, Williams, Bernard, 16, 22n, 51
101 Wilson, A.N., 117, 120–1
Schweiker, William, 22n, 98n Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 26, 28,
Scott, James Henderson, 193, 195 56, 178
Selkoe, D.J., 213n Woolf, Virginia, 136, 163, 178, 189
Seurat, Georges, 127 Wordsworth, William, 194
Shakespeare, William, xvi, xviii, 197,
199, 202n Young British Artists, 119