Under the Net, 1954
The Flight from the Enchanter, 1956
The Sandcastle, 1957
The Bell, 1958
A Severed Head, 1961
An Unofficial Rose, 1962
The Unicorn, 1963
The Italian Girl, 1964
The Red and the Green, 1965
The Time of the Angels, 1966
The Nice and the Good, 1968
Bruno’s Dream, 1969
A Fairly Honourable Defeat, 1970
An Accidental Man, 1971
The Black Prince, 1973
The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, 1974
A Word Child, 1975
Henry and Cato, 1976
The Sea, the Sea, 1978
Nuns and Soldiers, 1980
The Philosopher’s Pupil, 1983
The Good Apprentice, 1985
The Book and the Brotherhood, 1987
The Message to the Planet, 1989
The Green Knight, 1993
Jackson’s Dilemma, 1995
Something Special: A Story, wr. 1955, pb. 1999
A Severed Head, pr. 1963 (with J. B. Priestley)
The Italian Girl, pr. 1967 (with James Saunders)
The Servants and the Snow, pr. 1970
The Three Arrows, pr. 1972
Art and Eros, pr. 1980
The Black Prince, pr. 1989
Joanna Joanna, pb. 1994
The One Alone, pb. 1995
Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, 1953
The Sovereignty of Good, 1970
The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, 1977
Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues, 1986
Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, 1992
Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature, 1997 (Peter Conradi, editor)
Jean Iris Murdoch (MUR-dok) was the daughter of Anglo-Irish parents, Wills John Hughes Murdoch and Irene Alice Richardson. She was educated in England at Badminton School, Bristol, and then at Somerville College, Oxford, from which she graduated in 1942 with honors in classics. What followed were two two-year stints in, first, the British Treasury and, then, London, Belgium, and Austria doing relief work with war refugees for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. The exiles, refugees, and rootless characters in her novels probably originated from that experience.
After studying philosophy at the University of Cambridge for a year (a visa to study in the United States was denied Murdoch because of her previous affiliation with the Communist Party), she began a long tenure, from 1948 until her retirement, as a Fellow and Tutor in philosophy at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. During a one-year lectureship at Yale University in 1959, she published two philosophical essays, “The Sublime and the Good” and “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited.” As the bulk of her publication bears out, however, her reputation has consistently hinged on her novels rather than on her philosophy.
In 1956 Murdoch married the novelist, poet, and literary critic John Oliver Bayley, then an English literature don at New College, Oxford. In an important essay on her theories of fiction, “Against Dryness: A Polemical Sketch” (1961), she mirrors a critical theory that her husband had expounded in The Character of Love: A Study in the Literature of Personality (1960), that the artist necessarily must be a “good” person, respecting the reality and separate identity of his characters.
Despite her Irish birth, Murdoch’s residence was in Oxford, England, and the world her characters populate is largely an English one (usually London). Her characters are primarily mature and literate adults, usually academics or professionals. The dialogue is proper and polite, even during bizarre, outrageous, and passionate scenes. Murdoch has admitted that she writes in the tradition of such nineteenth century novelists as Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Sir Walter Scott, and Jane Austen, who create independent and fully drawn characters at a distance from their author in the “real world.” Her particular stamp on the form of the well-made novel is the sense of mystery and formlessness of people’s lives. Though there is satisfactory resolution and denouement, the novels end more often in irony or mediocrity than in a traditionally happy way, and many of them are unabashedly open-ended.
Murdoch’s novels use allusions from a variety of traditions and people. Freudian myth and pagan Celtic ritual are most obvious in A Severed Head, and Greek and Roman mythology feature in later novels. Her Irish heritage and sense of historical fact come to the fore in The Red and the Green, set in Dublin at the time of the 1916 Easter Rebellion. The chameleon-like nature of some lower-class characters and the introspective sensitivity of some middle-class Anglo-Irish characters also tell of Murdoch’s Irish roots. The influence of William Shakespeare is obvious in The Black Prince and subtly pervades her other work, from the very large number of main and peripheral characters to the use of specific Shakespearean allusions and theatrical devices. From the French philosopher-mystic Simone Weil, Murdoch borrows the idea of transference of suffering from individual to individual in an endless chain of doom. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein gave to Murdoch the concept of a “net,” a system or structure by which one’s life is ordered.
The idea of a “net” appears literally and figuratively in Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net, as does another Murdoch commonplace, a struggle between two characters she designates “artist” (one who shapes, forms, orders, and articulates) and “saint” (one who practices spiritual disciplines). The artist-saint struggle, which Murdoch has said is one of her favorite subjects, appears overtly in several other early novels: The Sandcastle, The Bell, and An Unofficial Rose. Sexual imbroglio is found in all of her novels. In her earliest work, love is unrequited and few of the attachments are consummated. The pattern of love relationships in later novels becomes more complex, with sexual pursuit a central element of the plots.
Murdoch has said that in her later novels (specifically The Sea, the Sea; The Black Prince; Nuns and Soldiers; The Good Apprentice; and The Book and the Brotherhood), she became more confident that the form would not be destroyed by “rambling about,” exploring the “messy” reality of her characters’ lives. The later, more serious novels concentrate more on mystery and magic, and they show more tendency for a painful or guilty experience to ameliorate a character’s condition. Nuns and Soldiers, for example, has a more positive view of society and uses more “good” characters than any previous novel. In The Book and the Brotherhood, only art, magic, and religion can facilitate the individual struggle for the good in a fragmented, pluralistic, and unsympathetic world.
Buddhism played an increasingly important role in Murdoch’s novels. There are practicing Buddhists in A Word Child, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, and The Sea, the Sea, and Buddhism is explored in The Nice and the Good, An Accidental Man, and Henry and Cato. Murdoch’s unique role as novelist and moral philosopher is evident in both The Philosopher’s Pupil and The Message to the Planet, which pit the quest for philosophic truth against existential contingencies. The Green Knight continues her exploration of guilt and expiation. Several of her later novels are also significant because they are narrated to a greater extent through the consciousness of women characters.
Murdoch was an astonishingly and consistently productive novelist whose most notable literary achievement was the revivification of the nineteenth century novel form. Like other twentieth century British novelists, she described her characters’ struggles for personal survival and their attempts to manipulate reality. Her huge readership proves that her novels are enormously entertaining and provocative. Even in a serious or tragic scene, an inversion, intrusion, or juxtaposition of an odd or humorous nature emphasizes the aesthetic and moral validity of comedy. The comedy in misdirected or forged correspondences, in glittery party scenes, and in linguistic or visual tricks shows her penchant for playing games up to the last word.