Iris Murdoch

The works of the novelist and philosopher Jean Iris Murdoch (born 1919) portray characters whose warped and often dreamlike perceptions of reality create suffering among those whose lives they attempt to dominate.

Jean Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin, Ireland, on July 15, 1919. In 1942, she obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree with first-class honors in the Classical Greats from Oxford University in England. From 1942 to 1944, she worked as assistant principal in the British treasury and from 1944 to 1946, with the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Center. In 1947, she returned to her education and obtained a studentship in Philosophy at Cambridge University, also in England. In 1948, she became a tutor at St. Anne's College in Oxford, England; a position she held for the next 20 years.

Murdoch published several philosophical studies during the early 1950s, including one of Jean Paul Sartre, a philosopher to whom she has been compared. She has also written over 50 novels. The first novel was Under the Net (1954), about a man who fails in his personal relationships because he sees the world as a hostile place and people are not completely real to him. In 1956, Murdoch married John Bayley, a novelist and lecturer. Her second novel, The Flight from the Enchanter (1956), is about a rich and powerful man who sees all human relationships as power struggles and uses his power to draw the other characters into his grasp. Murdoch's third novel, The Sandcastle (1957), deals with a man who attempts to free himself from what he considers the death of him; his marriage. The Bell (1958) has a similar theme, except that a young woman decides not to go back to her mate so that she may find herself.

Many of Murdoch's later novels contain themes that are rewritten from her earlier works. For example, A Severed Head (1961) returns to the theme of Flight from the Enchanter: the extent to which human relationships—in this case, sexual ones—are damaged when they are seen as ways to overpower others. An Unofficial Rose (1962), like The Sandcastle, features a hero who feels enslaved by his marriage; while The Unicorn (1963), the study of a passive, guilt-ridden woman who poisons all her relationships by holding to one view of herself is repeated in The Bell. The Italian Girl (1964), The Read and the Green (1965), The Time of the Angels (1966), The Nice and the Good (1968), Bruno's Dream (1969), and A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970). Murdoch often writes novels that involve the fantasy of freedom—often sexual—versus conventional responsibility and the difficulty of establishing loving relationships between equals. Also characteristic of much of her late work are the brooding, dreamlike landscapes and the bizarre turns of plot which have prompted many critics to refer to her as a Gothic novelist.

Even in her later years, Murdoch continues to write rather lengthy, complex, and mind grabbing novels. Her latest titles are Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1982), The Good Apprentice (1986), and The Green Knight (1993). Murdoch has published over 50 titles.


Further Reading on Iris Murdoch

Two useful studies of Iris Murdoch's work are Antonia S. Byatt's Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch (1965), and Peter Wolff's The Disciplined Heart: Iris Murdoch and Her Novels (1966); First Things written by Alan Jacobs (February 1995) discusses Murdoch's later novels. Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human edited by Maria Antonaccio and William Schweiker is a collection of essays that examine Murdoch's thoughts on human goodness.