Iris Murdoch is one of the most important English-writing novelists and philosophers of the 20th century. What threads run through her philosophical and literary work? What makes a philosophical novelist? We begin with a biographical note about Murdoch’s life, work, and reputation. We then discuss the themes and layered meaning of three of her most notorious works: The Sovereignty of the Good, Under the Net, and The Sea, the Sea.
Iris Murdoch’s Life and Work: Literature and Philosophy
Iris Murdoch was one of the most popular British novelists of the 20th century. She was also a philosopher, having studied at Somerville College and St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She was part of a generation of female philosophers at Oxford—including Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillipa Foot, and Mary Midgley—who had studied as undergraduates during the Second World War.
As Midgley famously remarked, this was a time when a large portion of the undergraduate body were women, as most of the men were fighting or otherwise involved in the war. Unimpeded by their male colleagues, these women were at the forefront of many of the most interesting developments in post-war philosophy. All four of them made substantial contributions to the study of ethics.
After the publication of her first novel, Under the Net (on which more later) in 1954, Murdoch’s focus on academic philosophy was reduced, though not eradicated. Much of her fiction is remarked upon for being philosophical in nature. But what is it that makes a philosophical novel, or the related so-called ‘novel of ideas’? It’s a difficult question to answer. To say that a novel speaks to universal concerns, or at least to something more general than its specific subject matter, is not to say all that much. Few novels are just about what they’re about.
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Certainly, some works of literature are often seen as embodying a certain set of philosophical principles. There is a long critical tradition relating Samuel Beckett’s work to a movement in French philosophy known as existentialism (incidentally, this movement was the subject of one of Murdoch’s earliest philosophical books). Yet Beckett himself appeared to suggest that no such relationship was intended by him, and in fact, more recent scholars have tended to take him seriously in that and de-emphasize the relationship between his work and existentialism. Is Beckett’s work, therefore, no longer philosophical?
To pose another problem: Murdoch was undoubtedly a philosopher and extremely well acquainted with many philosophers and philosophies. Yet her own philosophical work is often characterized by its distance from prevailing philosophical norms, and it is very difficult to pin down precisely what Murdoch’s doctrine or dogma was. What is the relationship between this kind of philosophy and the literature which can be said to embody it? These are just some of the problems raised by the conventional treatment of Murdoch as a ‘philosophical novelist’ and by the very idea of such a figure in literature.
1. The Sovereignty of the Good
The first work of Murdoch’s we will focus on is The Sovereignty of the Good. We remarked earlier on the generation of philosophers whom Murdoch was a part of and noted that all of the philosophers mentioned made distinctive contributions to the study of ethics. It is worth stressing that, after the war and especially as Murdoch became an academic in her own right, her work developed in directions which, whilst not leaving her philosophically ‘homeless’ as has often been suggested, certainly made her a difficult figure to categorize in the context of her philosophical contemporaries.
The Sovereignty of the Good can be understood as placing her in opposition to some of the prevailing views about ethics in mainstream, Anglophonic philosophy, and at Oxford more than anywhere else. The prevailing view, expressed by R.M Hare in one idiom and Jean-Paul Sartre in quite a different idiom, was that there is nothing ‘real’ which we could call morality. Indeed, no moral concept is real, but is to be understood as representing something further, or more real, than the concept itself.
Murdoch abhors this view. She is not the only philosopher to point to the (then even more) recent horrors of the Second World War to illustrate the ways in which morality is substantively real, and getting things wrong in an ethical sense is as genuine and consequential a mistake as any other. The view she takes owes a great deal to Plato, stressing, in particular, the relationship between metaphysics—the study of things of the most general or fundamental kind—and morality. This view is also a substantial part of a later book of hers called Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, which takes many of the themes of The Sovereignty of the Good and expands on them, as well as extending their reach to another area of value, namely aesthetics. The reality of morality allows Murdoch to follow the aforementioned Elizabeth Anscombe in suggesting that it is moral psychology—a study of the mind’s affections in the context of ethical behavior—that is needed.
2. Under the Net
Under the Net was Murdoch’s first novel. It concerns a writer’s fruitless attempts to, at various points, secure a stable living, make something of himself as a writer, rekindle a friendship stupidly tossed away, rekindle a romance stupidly tossed away, and then—eventually—allow himself to cut ties between himself and his past in order to live in a new way. Murdoch’s writing is extremely funny and rather melancholic.
Murdoch’s strength, here as in many of her subsequent books, lies partly in her convincing inhabitation of a rather narcissistic, flitty male narrator. There are few, if any, male novelists who can do a similarly convincing job of inhabiting female protagonists, and for as extensive a period of time. It is difficult not to read Under the Net with a sense of foreboding, and intense regret, not only for the sake of the characters or the tragi-comedy unfolding but for the intense geographical placed-ness with which London is treated. The city feels vast, each neighborhood clearly unique in a way that some older Londoners might recognize but many younger readers (this writer included) find almost impossible to imagine.
The city hasn’t grown smaller. In fact, it has expanded almost exponentially since Murdoch wrote Under the Net in the early 1950s. Yet the boundaries from place to place feel more fragile, and the places themselves—especially in the center—less inhabited than they are presented here.
3. The Sea, The Sea
The Sea, the Sea is often cited as Murdoch’s greatest novel. Certainly, it represents a maturing of many of the tendencies we can observe in her earlier fiction. It is a story of lost love and the failed attempt to reclaim it, but the (mostly) harmless delusions with which Under the Net is concerned give way to a more resistant, frightening kind of insanity.
The Sea, the Sea is concerned with a retired actor whose determination to reclaim one of his former lovers after she and her husband move to the same small seaside village to which he has retired. Rather than seeking redemption in new beginnings, in cutting ties, The Sea, the Sea offers a lucid representation of the very impossibility of such a task and the severe demands made by youthful memories on those in late middle age.
Perhaps a reader in late middle age would read The Sea, the Sea with a wry smile, recalling familiar hang-ups taken to their most extreme conclusion by Murdoch. For younger readers, it is quite a stressful experience, given it is a lengthy excursion into the psychologically unknowable. It is impossible to believe that the tests of later life will not test one as well, yet impossible to pre-empt one’s future responses.
The Sea, the Sea was acclaimed at the time of its publication, winning the prestigious Booker Prize. The metafictional premise—an aged writer begins to write his memoirs, of which parts of The Sea, the Sea are meant to consist—is often underrated as a structural force in the novel, and as a choice that will become increasingly common among a later generation of authors. Murdoch’s fiction often appears to exist on the cusp of postmodernity. Enlivened as they are, whatever our misgivings about the philosophical novel, the novel that provides us with a definitive ethical outlook, it nonetheless often veers close to the void of meaning and solace that characterizes so much contemporary fiction.