A Word Child Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Author: Iris Murdoch

First published: 1975

Genre: Novel

Locale: London, England

Plot: Psychological

Time: The early 1970's

Hilary Burde, a linguist, former don, and minor bureaucrat, the brother of Crystal and lover of Thomasina. A big, hairy, dark man, Hilary, now guarded and remorseful, irresistibly attracts the three women on whom the plot turns. He is an angry, unloved orphan who was separated from his younger sister, Crystal, who represents goodness to him. Hilary escapes delinquency and despair only because of his talent for languages: He is a “word child,” created by language, not love. Uninterested in what words mean, he seeks to learn the rules of grammar, which represent law to him. His fellowship at Oxford promises a decent life for him and his sister until he becomes obsessed with Anne, the wife of Gunnar Jopling, another don. Gunnar and Hilary both leave Oxford, the first to a successful career, the second to become a government clerk. In London, Hilary carefully limits his involvements. The rigid routine that mirrors his emotional state reserves an evening a week for each of his friends and two evenings for Crystal. Gunnar's second wife asks Hilary to see her husband so that the past will no longer poison the present. Again, however, Hilary destroys both the woman he loves and Jopling's happiness. Hilary realizes that he is not solely responsible; all are in some degree victims of chance. He ceases to identify guilt and despair with penitence, and his new understanding means escape from the past. The measure of Hilary's growth is that this time he does not burden Crystal with what he has done but suffers alone. He also relinquishes his grip on Crystal so that she may marry.

Crystal Burde, Hilary's younger sister, self-sacrificing, simple, and instinctively good. Crystal cares for Hilary after Anne's death, follows him to London, and warns him not to continue seeing Gunnar's wife. Gunnar had slept with Crystal on the night Anne died. She still cares for him but marries Arthur Fisch and plans a happy life in rural Yorkshire.

Gunnar Jopling, an Oxford don, a career civil servant, and Hilary's alter ego. Jopling is successful and happily married but equally obsessed by the past. Both of his wives die in accidents resulting from their attraction to Hilary, and both deaths are precipitated by Gunnar's knowledge. Both Biscuit and Crystal love Jopling, and his relation to Hilary is not solely one of hatred. Jopling conceals Hilary's part in both deaths, and both tragedies lead Gunnar to further public success.

Lady Kitty Jopling, Gunnar's second wife, the beautiful daughter of an Irish peer. She wants the child Jopling cannot give her and wishes Hilary to father a child, which she will claim is Gunnar's. Jopling appears as Hilary is refusing, and Kitty is killed accidentally.

Thomasina Uhlmeister, a minor Scottish actress who is Hilary's jealous mistress, determined to marry him. She tells Jopling of Hilary's relationship with Kitty, thus precipitating the tragedy. It is unclear whether she and Hilary will ever marry.

Arthur Fisch, an unprepossessing, good man who is a minor civil servant. He rescues drug addicts. He loves Crystal and eventually marries her.

Biscuit, Lady Kitty's Eurasian maid, a follower of Hilary who is devoted to Jopling. Appearing as a mysterious agent of change in Hilary's life, she actually is gathering information and delivering messages for Kitty.

Categories: Characters