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Under the Net

Under the Net

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading

Iris Murdoch


Under the Net, published in 1954 in London, was Iris Murdoch's first published novel. It relates the humorous adventures of Jake Donahue, a male protagonist who many critics believe is closely based on the author herself. Jake is described by Cheryl K. Bove in Understanding Iris Murdoch as a "failed artist and picaresque hero," a sentiment that Murdoch attributed to herself at the time she wrote this book. Although Murdoch was later embarrassed by Under the Net because she felt the writing was immature, other critics have hailed it as one of her best works. It is rated ninety-fifth on Random House's top 100 novels of the twentieth century, and it marked the beginning of a long and distinguished career for Murdoch, who went on to write twenty-five additional works of fiction, as well as several books on moral philosophy, one of her favorite topics. Under the Net can be read simply as a fascinating story of a crazy artist who loves serendipity or on a deeper level as an existential, absurd reflection on life.

Author Biography

Iris Murdoch was one of the "most productive and influential British novelists of her generation," writes Richard Todd in his book Iris Murdoch, and a "powerfully intellectual and original theorist of fiction." In other words, she could write a good story and also thoroughly understood the underlying concepts of her craft.

Although Murdoch was born July 15, 1919, in Dublin, Ireland, to a family with a long history of Irish descent, she grew up in London and only returned to her homeland for holidays in her childhood. Her binational identity not only affected her personality it was also often reflected in her novels, which are known for their strong sense of place.

Murdoch was an only child. She has referred to her relationship with her parents and her memories of her youth as being very happy. Her father, Wills John Hughes, was a civil servant who was a cavalry officer in World War I. Her mother, Irene Alice Richardson, was a trained opera singer. In the 1930s, Murdoch attended Somerville College in Oxford and upon graduation worked in the Treasury Department as a civil servant. During this time, she wrote five novels, none of which were published.

During World War II, Murdoch left the Treasury and joined the United National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. She was transferred to Belgium and then Austria, where she worked with war refugees. While in Belgium, she became fascinated with the existentialist movement, especially as professed by Jean Paul Sartre, the French philosopher and novelist. Sartre believed that the novel was, as Todd states, "a mode of human enquiry"; Murdoch's first published work, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, is a study of Sartre's philosophy. Other writers who influenced Murdoch include Samuel Beckett and Raymond Queneau, who is fictionalized in Murdoch's novel Under the Net (1954).

At one time in her youth Murdoch was a member of the Communist Party and thus was refused a visa to visit the United States. She had earned a scholarship from Vassar and planned to study there, but instead she furthered her studies in London and eventually found a job teaching her favorite subject, moral philosophy. She taught first at St. Ann's College in Oxford and later at the Royal College of Art and at University College, both in London. In 1956 she married author and literary critic John Bayley whose own writing is said to have had an influence on her writing. Bayley taught English at Oxford and wrote a memoir, Elegy for Iris (1998), on which the movie Iris (2001) is based.

Murdoch's parents have claimed that Murdoch was a prolific writer as early as age nine. By the time of her death, she had produced twenty-six novels, the last of which was written in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, which eventually took her life. Under the Net was her first published novel.

Murdoch won several awards in her lifetime. Her book The Black Prince (1973) won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974) was awarded the Whitbread Literary Award; and in 1978 The Sea, The Sea, which most critics agree is her best work, won the famed Booker Prize. In 1987, Murdoch was honored with the British title of dame. She was also made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature in 1987, and awarded the National Arts Clubs (New York) Medal of Honor for literature in 1990. She died February 8, 1999, in Oxford.

Plot Summary

Chapters 1–5

Under the Net begins with protagonist James "Jake" Donahue returning to England to find his friend and almost constant companion Peter "Finn" O'Finney waiting to tell him the sad news that the two of them have been asked by Jake's current girlfriend, Magdalen "Madge" Casement, to leave their apartment. The two men have been living there for free. Madge has found a new boyfriend, Samuel "Sacred Sammy" Starfield, who has promised to make her famous.

Jake protests to Madge, but she insists that not only do they have to move, they must take everything with them that day. When Jake asks where he is supposed to go, Madge suggests he contact Dave Gellman, a philosopher friend of Jake's. The two men begrudgingly depart, taking almost every article they possess with them and wandering through the streets of London in search of a roof and a bed.

While Finn meanders over to Dave's place, Jake visits Mrs. Tinckham, the owner of a newspaper shop he often visits, seeking consolation from Mrs. Tinckham's straightforward statements; her willingness to listen and keep secrets; her watchful eye on Jake's meager possessions, which he often stows at her shop when he is between residences; and a shared drink of whiskey or brandy, which Jake provides and Mrs. Tinckham stores behind her counter. "People and money, Mrs. Tinck," Jake tells her. "What a happy place the world would be without them." Mrs. Tinckham concurs, adding, "And sex."

In chapter 2, Jake makes it to Dave's house, where he is reunited with Finn. Dave has told Finn that he can stay, but he tells Jake he must find someplace else to stay. "We must not be two nervous wrecks living together," Dave explains. Then he suggests that Jake find Anna Quentin, Jake's only admitted love. The thought throws Jake off guard. Once she has entered his mind, he cannot think of anything but Anna, and he is determined to find her though he has not seen her for several years.

In chapter 3, Jake encounters Anna at the Riverside Miming Theatre. She is the director of the theatre, and they share intimacies in her office before she abruptly leaves, informing Jake not to try to find her again. She says she will contact him when she is ready to see him again. She suggests that Jake contact her sister Sadie, who is in need of someone to house-sit her apartment. Jake spends the night in Anna's office.

Sadie is introduced in the next chapter. She is a successful actress and lives in a plush, third-floor flat. She tells Jake that she not only needs someone to stay in her home, she also needs a bodyguard to protect her from Hugo Belfounder, the head of the movie studio that employs Sadie. Hugo is a former friend of Jake's. At the mention of Hugo, Jake remembers the first time he met Hugo at a medical research laboratory, where he and Hugo were participants in a test for a new cold medicine. They spent several days there discussing philosophy. It was from these discussions that Jake wrote his one and only published book. He felt so ashamed for never asking Hugo's permission that he ultimately avoided contact with Hugo. Hugo, according to Sadie, has fallen madly in love with her.

Jake returns to Madge's house in chapter 5 to retrieve his remaining belongings. While there, Sacred Sammy appears and suggests that he give Jake some money to better balance the situation, since Sammy feels Jake has been injured by Sammy taking Madge away from Jake. Jake, knowing that Sammy is a bookie, suggests Sammy place the offered money on a winning horse in that day's races. Sammy wins Jake quite a bit of money.

Chapters 6–10

In chapter 6, Jake sets himself up in Sadie's apartment. While she is out, he enjoys the luxurious food and drink he finds in her cabinets. While relaxing, he discovers a copy of his book The Silencer on Sadie's bookshelf. He has not seen a copy in years and is rather impressed with the writing, although he thinks about revising it. The book also stirs memories of Hugo, who coincidently calls Sadie's apartment, but hangs up when Jake identifies himself and asks if they can get together. This puts Jake in a frenzy, and he decides to go over to Hugo's house and confront him in person. He wants to finally confess to Hugo that he wrote a book about their shared thoughts and dialogues without asking his permission. However, he discovers to his dismay that Sadie has locked him inside the apartment, so he cannot get out. Finn and Dave show up at this time; Finn jimmies the lock, and the three men take a taxi to Hugo's place.

In chapter 7, the threesome arrives at Hugo's only to discover Hugo is not there. They go in search of him, basing their search on a note Hugo left to some unknown person that says he has gone to a pub. The men drink their way around a whole neighborhood of pubs without finding Hugo. They do, however, come across Lefty Todd, Dave's friend, who is active in a labor movement.

Chapter 8 includes Lefty's philosophy. Lefty invites Jake to write a political play that will help people understand labor-union issues. By the end of the chapter, the four men are very drunk, and they end up stripping and jumping into a river for a late-night swim.

In the morning, Dave remembers a letter he has for Jake. It is from Anna, who writes that she desperately needs to see Jake. When Jake arrives at the theatre, where she tells him she will meet him, he discovers that the theatre troupe is moving out and Anna is nowhere to be seen. She has left a small note, which tells him she could not wait any longer, having decided to take up some offer she does not define.

Chapter 10 begins with Jake wanting the copy of his book The Silencer, which he saw in Sadie's apartment. He returns to Sadie's place and as he climbs the back stairs, he overhears Sadie talking to Sacred Sammy. They are setting up a scheme that involves a manuscript, which turns out to be Jake's translation of Jean Pierre Breteuil's The Wooden Nightingale. Madge had given it to Sammy, and he and Sadie are preparing to ask another producer if he is interested in making a movie deal, something that Hugo was planning on doing. So in essence, Sadie and Sammy are scheming behind Hugo's back, wanting to make money in the deal.

Chapters 11–14

Jake learns from the conversation he overhears between Sadie and Sammy that the manuscript they are discussing is back at Sammy's place. Jake calls Finn, and the two of them break into Sammy's apartment. They cannot find the translation, but they do find Mister Mars, a German shepherd who is also a movie star. Jake refuses to leave Sammy's place empty-handed, so he decides to take the dog; however, he cannot figure out how to get the dog out of its locked cage. Finn and Jake carry the whole contraption, with the dog inside, downstairs and hail a cab.

In chapter 12, Jake decides to warn Hugo about Sammy and Sadie's plot. He goes to the movie studio and tricks a guard into letting him inside. Jake finds Hugo on a huge set that looks like a Roman amphitheater. In the center is Lefty Todd, rousing a huge crowd of people with his talk of unionization. Jake takes Hugo down to the floor in a wrestling move, in order to get his attention. As they begin to talk, a huge police squad enters the studio and mayhem breaks out. In the process, Jake is separated from Hugo but still has Mister Mars with him. In order to get past the police barricade without getting arrested, Jake tells Mister Mars to play dead, then carries him out, telling the police that his dog has been injured and he must get him to a vet. Once they are on the other side of the gates, Jake commands, "Wake up! Live dog!" to which Mister Mars responds, and a group of onlookers lets out a cheer.

In chapter 13, Dave, Finn, and Jake discuss what to do with Mister Mars. Jake wants to use the dog as ransom in exchange for his stolen manuscript. Dave points out that Sadie and Sammy have not really done anything illegal, whereas Jake has, by stealing Mister Mars. Jake feels hopeless until a telegram arrives. It is from Madge, who is in Paris and who offers Jake a free trip there if he will come immediately. She has a plan that involves him. Jake decides to go because he is curious about Madge's new plot, and because he has a feeling that Anna is in Paris and he hopes to see her.

Jake arrives in Paris in chapter 14. As he passes a bookstore window, he sees that Jean Pierre Breteuil, the French author for whom Jake has translated many books, has won a literary prize. This surprises Jake, who has always believed that Breteuil is not a very good writer. He feels betrayed in some odd way, as if Breteuil turned into a good writer behind Jake's back. He begins to think of Breteuil as a rival: "Why should I waste time transcribing his writings instead of producing my own?" He then promises himself that even if asked, he will not translate Breteuil's new novel.

When Jake finally arrives at Madge's hotel room, he is struck by how different Madge looks, more refined. She makes a proposal that will pay Jake a great deal of money for scripts for a shipping mogul, who wants to invest in the movie-making industry. As it turns out, Breteuil will be on the board of directors, and the first film will be an adaptation of his latest book. The job turns out to not really be a job, but what Jake refers to as a "sinecure," in which a person receives "money for doing nothing."

Madge tells Jake the new film company will be the demise of Hugo's studio. The new film studio has already purchased the rights to Breteuil's works, so Sadie and Sammy's plot is doomed to failure. Madge adds that Mister Mars has been retired, so his worth has been diminished to that of a household pet. Then Madge confesses that her whole scheme is just to get Jake back. In essence, she would be the one who is paying Jake, while she is being kept by the movie mogul.

Chapters 15–20

Jake thinks he sees Anna in a park while he is still in Paris, but the person turns out to be a stranger. Jake returns to London in chapter 16, and falls into depression. He spends many days in bed at Dave's place. In chapter 17, Jake decides to take a job as an orderly at the hospital located next to Dave's apartment. The routine helps get him out of his despair. While working one night, he sees a man brought in on a stretcher. It turns out to be Hugo, who has suffered a concussion after being hit over the head during a labor rally.

Jake is compelled to talk to Hugo. In chapter 18 he creates a plan. He will sneak back into the hospital after work and visit with Hugo after hours. Jake has questions only Hugo can answer. Once in his room, Jake asks questions about Anna, but Hugo instead talks about Jake's book. He tells Jake that he liked it. When Jake tells Hugo that he got most of the material from Hugo, Hugo has a hard time believing it. When they finally get around to the topic of Anna, Jake is terribly disappointed. It turns out that Anna is in love with Hugo. Hugo, on the other hand, is in love with Sadie, while Sadie is in love with Jake. Jake helps Hugo escape from the hospital.

Hugo told Jake that Anna had sent him letters, so Jake goes back to Hugo's apartment in chapter 19 and steals them. In the last chapter, Jake is with Mister Mars, heading back to Mrs. Tinckham's newspaper shop. He has a lot of mail to read, including a copy of Breteuil's new book and a request that Jake translate it. There is also a note from Finn telling Jake that he has gone back to Ireland. In a letter from Sadie, Jake discovers Sammy does not want Mister Mars back and says Jake can have the dog for seven hundred pounds. Jake writes out the check so Mister Mars can retire. Then he tells Mrs. Tinckham that he is going to find a part-time job. He also decides he is not going to translate other people's work. He is going to write his own.


Hugo Belfounder

Hugo Belfounder is a gentle soul who represents all that is good about people. He is a deep and profound thinker. He once worked in his parents' fireworks factory, where he made intricate displays that earned good money for his father's business. He could make the fireworks do fantastic things no one else could replicate. However, he tires of this profession and, upon inheriting the business, sells it and invests in a movie studio.

Hugo befriends the protagonist Jake while the two men are volunteering for medical research. They spend several days together in intense dialogue, which Jake transcribes and turns into a published book. Hugo falls in love with Sadie Quentin, Anna's sister. It is Anna, however, who falls in love with Hugo. Hugo allows Lefty to use his studio to talk to a crowd of people about labor unions. During one such talk, Hugo is hit over the head and is taken to the hospital where Jake works. It is in the hospital that Hugo answers many of Jake's questions.

Critics have noted that Hugo represents Murdoch's interpretation of either Ludwig Wittgenstein or his pupil Yorick Smythies. It is through Hugo that Murdoch expresses some of Wittgenstein's philosophical theories.

Jean Pierre Breteuil

Jean Pierre Breteuil is a French author who writes mediocre stories, which Jake gets paid to translate. Toward the end of the novel, Breteuil writes his best work and wins a literary prize. This prompts Jake to want to compete with Breteuil to prove that he is more than just a good translator; he is a good writer too.

Magdalen Casement

Magdalen (known as Madge) is living with Jake at the beginning of the novel, but she tells him he has to move out because Sammy is about to move in. Madge is in love with Jake, but Jake has refused to marry her. Madge later moves to France with a movie mogul with whom she has become involved. She finds that she has more money than she needs, so she offers to pay Jake a living wage without him needing to do much in return. She just wants Jake to be close to her.

James Donahue

James (known as Jake) is the protagonist of the story. He spends his life doing as little work as possible, living in other people's houses for free, and staying as clear of personal relationships as possible. He says his nerves are shattered. The closest he comes to being in love is his relationship with Anna, who has affection for him but is not in love with him; but her sister Sadie is in love with him. Jake temporarily moves in with Sadie to act as her bodyguard. It is through Sadie that Jake meets up with Hugo again after a long absence.

Jake is in many ways the antithesis of Hugo. Whereas Hugo is quiet and meditative, Jake hops around from situation to situation as quickly as one thought changes to another. His actions are completely spontaneous; he cannot have a concept in his mind without physically playing it out to see where it will lead him. When Dave mentions Anna, for example, Jake acts on impulse and goes in search of her immediately. Jake's buddies Finn and Dave like to follow him around as they know there will be adventure involved in whatever Jake does.

Jake also reflects many attributes of the author, leading many critics to believe that Murdoch chose a male first-person narrator both to remove herself from the character and as a vehicle through which she could present many personal details of her own life.

Jake shies away from jobs and makes a very basic living wage by translating books. He feels he is a writer and carries around several half-completed manuscripts but, until the end of the novel, does not sit down and take the time to work on them. He is shiftless all through the novel, flitting from one adventure to the next, never finding that which he is seeking. At the climax of the story, he finally has some issues resolved and is able to make a commitment to settle down, get a job, and find out if he is really as smart and capable as he thinks he is.


See Peter O'Finney

Dave Gellman

Dave Gellman is Jake's friend. He is not a close friend because he is in many ways too much like Jake, and they tend to get on one another's nerves. Dave teaches philosophy, but he is not so much the pure philosopher as Hugo is. Dave follows Jake around, seeking adventure, and provides some rationality and stability to Jake's life.


See James Donahue


See Magdalen Casement

Mister Mars

Mister Mars is a dog who just happens to have a movie contract. He has appeared in several films, and Jake steals him from Sammy's apartment in an attempt to persuade Sammy to give back a transcript Sammy has stolen from Jake. Mister Mars is getting old, however, and, unbeknownst by Jake, is about to be forced into retirement. Jake becomes attached to Mister Mars and in the end buys out his contract so that the dog can enjoy his final years as a non performer. Jake's attachment to Mister Mars marks the beginning of Jake's settling down.

Peter O'Finney

Peter (known as Finn) is Jake's friend. He does not say much, a quality that Jake likes. Finn follows Jake around and often gets Jake out of trouble. There is not much known about Finn, except that he is from Ireland (in the end, he returns to his homeland) and that he has lived with Jake for a long time.

Anna Quentin

Anna is Sadie's sister, but the two sisters never encounter one another in the story. Anna was a folk singer when Jake first met her. She represents the closest relationship in which Jake has been involved. She flits around almost as much as Jake, often changing her mind about which profession she wants to follow and engaging in frequent relationships with a variety of men. Her actual presence in the story is only one chapter long, when Jakes bumps into her at the mime theatre. They have a brief encounter, and Anna promises to get back to him, but their paths never again cross. At the end of the story, Jake learns that Anna has fallen in love with Hugo. Some critics compare Anna to Murdoch, who also was very flighty in her early relationships and who was at one time a singer.

Sadie Quentin

Sadie is an actress and, according to Hugo, more intelligent than her sister Anna. She is a famous movie star in London, and she engages Jake to guard her from Hugo, who has become obsessed with Sadie. Sadie turns what little affection she has toward Jake. She does not trust Jake, however, or else she knows him too well, because when she leaves him at her apartment, she locks the door from the outside, so Jake cannot get out.

Sacred Sammy

See Samuel Starfield

Samuel Starfield

Sammy is a bookie who has made a lot of money. He is also a schemer. He becomes involved with Madge but drops her after Madge gives him a transcript that promises to make Sammy some more money. Sammy and Sadie plot against Hugo to gain a movie contract with another moviemaker. Their plot fails and Sammy drops out of the story.

Mrs. Tinckham

Mrs. Tinckham is probably the most stable person in this novel. She is a kind of earth-mother figure to whom everyone comes to be consoled. She is a great listener and never reveals the secrets with which people trust her. She owns an old, dusty newspaper shop that Jake often uses as a storage space whenever he is between residences. It is to her place that Jake goes both at the beginning of the story and at the conclusion.

Lefty Todd

Lefty is a socialist dedicated to unionizing workers. He probably represents Murdoch's involvement with the Communist Party, a party active in the promotion of unions. Lefty attempts to persuade Jake to write plays with a socialist theme, a proposition that Jake only momentarily considers.


Unrequited Love

Jake loves Anna, who loves Hugo, who loves Sadie, who loves Jake. Like a Shakespearian drama, unrequited love weaves through Murdoch's first novel. Jake, who claims that he does not like people and would rather stay clear of relationships, accidentally falls for Anna, and though she gives into him from time to time, she is forever elusive. Anna instead becomes enthralled with Hugo, whose mind is like a drug for Anna. His thoughts liberate and inspire her. She gives up singing (one of the skills for which Jakes loves her the most) for Hugo, who then invests in creating a theatre dedicated to mime. In return, Anna loves Hugo, but Hugo finds Anna's sister Sadie more to his liking. Sadie is more intelligent, and Hugo becomes obsessed with capturing her. While he is aloof with Anna, he is clumsy with Sadie, to the point where Sadie fears for her safety. Sadie asks Jake to protect her from Hugo.

Topics For Further Study

  • Iris Murdoch is said to have been influenced by both Jean-Paul Sartre and Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein. Choose one of these philosophers and analyze Murdoch's Under the Net in relation to his basic tenets. How does Murdoch demonstrate the philosopher's beliefs through her protagonist?
  • What was the literary atmosphere in Europe and in the United States during the middle of the twentieth century? Which authors were winning literary prizes? What were the literary critics saying about the works contemporary to their times? What major literary movements were developing? Write a research paper that concludes with a reading list of novels prominent at the time.
  • Research the activities of the Communist Party in London from the 1940s through the 1960s. How did the Communist Party affect politics in England? How involved was it in the labor movement? Are there any remaining effects of the Communist Party on politics and social issues in London today?
  • Research Alzheimer's disease and explain what it is, how it affects a person, what current research of the disease has revealed, and whether a cure is available.
  • Read John Bayley's memoirs Elegy for Iris and Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire, and then write your own biography of Iris Murdoch for an audience of elementary-school children. Keep your language simple and the story interesting but uncomplicated. What elements of Murdoch's life do you think might most interest children of this age? Most inspire them?


There are several allusions to silence. The name of the only book that Jake has published is called The Silencer, and it is based mostly on Hugo's thoughts and philosophy (who in turn reflects the concepts of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, who professed the inability of language to express the deepest and most significant thoughts). The theme of silence is also apparent in Anna's mime theatre, where the actors do not speak and the audience is asked not to applaud. Jake likes his steady companion Finn because Finn hardly ever speaks. Even Mister Mars, the movie-star dog, never barks, not even when Jake and Finn are stealing him.

Jake, who makes a living translating French novels into English, finds himself unable to communicate when he goes to Paris, putting him into yet another form of silence. The value of silence is summed up in a conversation between Hugo and Jake when Hugo says, "For most of us, for almost all of us, truth can be attained, if at all, only in silence."

There is also the role that Jake plays out as a writer. Throughout the novel, he never speaks with his own voice in his work. Instead he translates the novels of another author, a man Jake criticizes for being a mediocre writer. Jake's only published work is another type of translation, as he all but transcribes conversations he had with Hugo. Jake is embarrassed about having published this book. He feels as if he has stolen the work from Hugo, since the basic tenets of the book are not his own. It is not until the end of the novel, after Jake has been challenged by the award that the French author Breteuil has won, that Jake attempts to create a voice of his own.

Artist versus Saint

Several critics have pictured the relationship between Jake and Hugo as one of artist versus saint. The role of the artist is to communicate ideas, to put them into some kind of form. The saint, on the other hand, is contemplative. Saints are the medium through which ideas are born. Jake and Hugo's most intimate relationship occurs while they are allowing themselves to be used as guinea pigs in medical experiments comparing new cold medicines. During this time they spend their days lost in theorizing and philosophizing. Hugo's concepts are stronger than Jake's. Hugo is the contemplative one. His concepts flow almost without an awareness that he is speaking, a point emphasized toward the end of the novel when Hugo does not even recognize his own thoughts when Jake asks him what he thinks about the book Jake wrote based on Hugo's ideas. When Hugo reads the book, he compliments Jake on his originality. He also states that some of the thoughts expressed in the book were a bit too deep for him.

Jake took Hugo's thoughts, rearranged them, and made them more accessible, much like the work he did for the French author Breteuil. Jake claims that Breteuil's work is clumsy, making it necessary for Jake to re-form it as he translates it from French into English. Jake even takes credit for improving Breteuil's work. Although he criticizes Breteuil's work, Jake himself does not sit down to create an original work until the end of the novel. However, whereas Jake is compelled to put his thoughts on paper, Hugo has no aspiration to do so. At the end of the book, Hugo aspires only to learn how to make watches, possibly another form of meditation.


First Person Narrative

Murdoch uses a first person narrator for Under the Net, but, rather than using a female voice, she relies on a male's perspective. Some critics believe that in so doing, she is able to write less self-consciously. The protagonist Jake is spontaneous, offering a quick pace to the story, as he hops from one thought and one reaction to another. Also, in using a first person narrator, Murdoch is able to develop the inner life of her protagonist by allowing readers to be privy to Jake's thoughts. This limits the scope of the other characters in the story, however, because everything that happens is seen through the eyes of only one person. Even the dialogue of the other characters is interpreted through Jake.


Setting always plays a large role in Murdoch's novels. Under the Net is no exception. Throughout the story, readers are aware that the characters are either in London or Paris, as Murdoch provides the precise names of streets. Jake even criticizes different parts of the city, stating that he prefers certain neighborhoods or sections of the city to others. The names of actual rivers and bridges, as well as the names of pubs, are often mentioned.

The Great Quest

From the opening lines of the first chapter, Murdoch sets up Under the Net as a great quest. Her protagonist is pushed out of his comfortable abode and must search for a new place to live. It is this initial action that leads to all the following actions, as Jake bumbles his way first to find a home, then to find an old lover, and then to locate an old book and, later, a stolen transcript. In the process, questions mount around him, questions that are not fully answered until the end of the book. This technique keeps the reader engaged in the story, curious about what might happen next. There are twists and secrets that beguile Jake, and, in turn, readers find they are pulled into the story, also wanting to find the answers.

Traditional Realism

After World War II, many artists wanted to break away from the confines of realism and move into abstraction and experimentation, as they tore old artistic forms into pieces and attempted to put them back together in new ways. Murdoch stood out in a group of her contemporaries for her determination to stay a realist. She preferred to look back to nineteenth-century English literature, which contained the traditional form of plot and rational point-of-view narration. Her novels are based in the real world, as opposed to fantasy. She is also exact in the naming of things and places. If she mentions that Hugo once worked in a fireworks factory, she provides the details of such an environment. She includes the riots between police and labor unions with a historic reference. Her work compares favorably to novelists like Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Sir Walter Scott.

Preliminary Writing

Murdoch was known to plot everything out before she began writing. She knew exactly what would happen and when, before she put pen to paper. She controlled her characters because she knew what they were supposed to do and why. She knew when the tension must rise at just the right place in the novel, as her protagonist becomes engulfed in emotions. Then the climax is reached at a precise moment, and everything is resolved. She was said to write preliminary notes, which usually included summaries of each chapter. The notes consisted of a variety of details, such as bits and pieces of dialogue she might use, descriptions of the characters, and possible beginnings and endings for each chapter. This outline was often revised several times before she actually sat down to write the book. Her outlines were written longhand, as was the actual writing of the full work, which was inked in notebooks, with writing on only one side of each page. The blank side of each page was left open for later revisions.

Historical Context

Philosophical and Literary Influences

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (1889–1951) influenced many writers and philosophers at the turn of the twentieth century. Some people believe that he was possessed by the concept of moral and philosophical perfection. His most famous work is Tractatus (1921), which he himself later referred to as meaningless. In 1953 he totally rejected the concepts he had originally published in Tractatus. As a matter of fact, he eventually stated that what most philosophers have to say about life is nonsense, because language always imposes limitations on thought. What is most purely true cannot be put into words. He also suggested that the philosopher's role is to express what is possible, not what is conceivable. His philosophy is said to have affected Murdoch's attempts to put particulars into words, avoiding references to abstractions. Murdoch also believed, through Wittgenstein's influence, that life can only be shown, not explained.

Raymond Queneau (1903–1976) was a French author and precursor of the literary theory of postmodernism. His works are said to have been a link between the surrealists and the existentialists. He was very interested in language, and some of his novels were written phonetically rather than with proper spelling. Murdoch tried to translate one of his novels into English, but his use of colloquial language presented a challenge that she could not proficiently surmount. Some critics believe that Queneau's Pierrot Mon Ami (1942) was an inspiration for Murdoch's Under the Net. It is Queneau's book that Murdoch's narrator Jake takes with him when he must vacate his apartment at the opening of Under the Net. Under the Net is also dedicated to Queneau.

Jake is often referred to as a Sartre hero, in reference to France's philosopher and author Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980). Sartre was a proponent of existentialism, which stresses concrete individual experience as the source of all knowledge. This philosophy emphasizes the loneliness and isolation felt by individuals in a world of absurdities, a world in which there is no proof that a spiritual world exists beyond this one reality. Sartre's play No Exit is one of his most anthologized works. It tells the story of three people trapped in hell, and its message is that life can be controlled by a person's choices, a theme that Murdoch's narrator Jake plays out.

Another comparison that is made to Jake is the protagonist in Samuel Beckett's Murphy, a story about an alienated young man who cannot hold down a job except for a temporary position as a male nurse in a mental hospital. Like Jake, Murphy also has trouble involving himself in personal relationships. Samuel Beckett (1906–1989) is probably best known for his play Waiting for Godot (1953). Language in Beckett's work is somewhat useless, as most of his characters try in vain to express what is inexpressible, reminiscent of the thoughts of Wittgenstein. This concept is expressed throughout Murdoch's work.

Youths in Postwar Britain

Before World War II, Britain was a major world power, having gained riches from its policy of colonization. World War II, however, left the British government bankrupt. Shortly after the war, Winston Churchill lost his bid to remain prime minister, as the Labor Party gained strength. Harold MacMillan became the new prime minister in 1957, and he believed in change, which was interpreted as a dismantling of the old British Empire. Some historians believe that by changing the focus from an international one to a domestic one he appeased much of the population that was busy fending for themselves, recuperating from the war, and trying to create new definitions of themselves.

British youths in the 1950s were not as free as their counterparts in the United States. The war had left them with very few pleasures or dreams. They listened to music from the States, which spoke more directly to them than the music being produced in Britain. They could not afford expensive instruments, so their basement musical productions seemed pithy in comparison to the music they were importing. Then in the mid-1950s, a British youth named Lonnie Donegan began a trend. With one official musical instrument, a guitar, and some form of a rhythm base, which often was no more than a washboard, Donegan caught the imagination of British teenagers. This musical trend gained momentum and soon there were many bands either copying Donegan or experimenting with their own forms of music.

By the 1960s, young people in Britain had a little more cash at hand than in the previous decade, and new bands seemed to appear everywhere. The most popular British bands in the United States were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Suddenly, youths in the States were looking to Britain for musical inspiration. London became the center of pop music and pop fashion, as Mary Quant, a designer whose mini skirts and model Twiggy (an extremely thin model) shocked the fashion world.

Youth gangs developed in the early 1960s in the seaside towns of southern England. The two most recognizable were the Mods, who favored stylish clothes and motorcycles and listened to American Motown music, and the Rockers, who liked to wear leather and listen to rock and roll.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1950s: Elizabeth II is crowned queen of England, and Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, and Harold MacMillan, consecutively, are elected prime minister.
    Today: Elizabeth II continues as queen of England. Her reign has outlasted ten prime ministers, with Tony Blair serving in the post in the early twenty-first century.
  • 1950s: Existentialism, as espoused by Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger, is developed in France by Jean-Paul Sartre through his essays and novels.
    Today: Jacques Derrida, a Frenchman whose philosophical essays have inspired and influenced literary criticism all over the world, espouses deconstruction and postmodern theories.
  • 1950s: Forgetfulness in old age is often referred to as a natural state of aging. Generic terms such as dementia or senility are applied to older people who display these symptoms.
    Today: After many years of research, Alois Alzheimer's theories have been accepted, and doctors and researchers have come to recognize the disease that is now referred to as Alzheimer's, an illness that affects over 4 million people in the United States alone.

Taboos on sexuality as ensconced by the Victorian era began to fall away in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain. This was first signified by a ruling by the courts that D. H. Lawrence's 1930 novel Lady Chatterley's Lover could finally be legally published. The ruling was so popular that over 2 million copies were eventually printed. Movies followed suit with more sexually revealing scenes; and musical lyrics became more sexually explicit as well. The women's movement also grew in strength around this same period.

Critical Overview

Under the Net was Murdoch's first published novel. She later felt somewhat embarrassed by this book, claiming it was juvenile. However, as Cheryl K. Bove in her study Understanding Iris Murdoch points out: "Under the Net foreshadows [Murdoch's] mature works with its fast-paced plot, closely detailed settings, fully developed characters, and attention to moral issues."

Under the Net marked the beginning of a long writing career for Murdoch, who also taught philosophy but only to the point it did not interfere with her writing schedule. Each of Murdoch's twenty-six novels was written longhand and, as John Russell explains in a New York Times article, she took each manuscript "to her publishers in London in a capacious paper bag." Her editors were never allowed to make any changes.

Peter J. Conradi, in his biography and study Iris Murdoch: A Life, takes great lengths to compare the life of Murdoch to the characters in her books. "It is no accident," Conradi writes, "that each of her first-person male narrators is the same age as Iris at the time of the novel's composition." It is her "first-person novels," Conradi states, that "are often among her best work" and it was through a male narrator that Murdoch was able to "liberate" her writing. Conradi, who notes that upon the publication of Under the Net, the Times Literary Supplement hailed Murdoch as a "brilliant talent that, despite a lack of 'fit' between characters and plot, promised great things." Conradi writes that author Kingsley Amis in the Spectator "admired her 'complete control of her material; [she was] a distinguished novelist of a rare kind.'" Conradi also observes that Asa Briggs, a noted British historian, "was struck by [Murdoch's] ability to turn common experience into poetry."

In a collection of critical reviews of Murdoch's works titled Iris Murdoch, Steven G. Kellman notes that a few critics find Under the Net to be Murdoch's best work: "Such critics tend to see Under the Net as her most successful work, as well as her most original, and her painstaking efforts at creating a fuller and more realistic world in her later

books as an aberration, or a retreat into English bourgeois complacencies."


Joyce Hart

Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing and writes primarily on literary themes. In this essay, Hart explores the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophy of truth on Murdoch's first novel.

Although she was never a student of the turn-of-the-century Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein, Murdoch did once meet the philosopher and befriended Wittgenstein's star pupil, Yorich Smythies. Murdoch was also influenced by Wittgenstein's concepts, as many critics have noted, especially in her first novel, Under the Net. This influence begins with the title and carries through the story, in particular through her protagonist Jake Donahue.

One of the concepts that Wittgenstein professed in his most widely read philosophical treatiseTractatus (1921) is that the deepest truths, although people might conceive of them, can never be fully verbalized. Truths, he believed, become diminished by the limitations of language. Any attempt to talk about, to explain, or to write a truth is similar to placing a net over the truth, which in essence is to blur the image, to make the truth less than perfect, or, in other words, to hinder it. In choosing her title, Murdoch thus signals that she is incorporating the Wittgenstein theory into her work. To know this allows the reader to look for other ways in which Murdoch explores Wittgenstein's concepts. How might Murdoch have created her protagonist, for instance, to demonstrate Wittgenstein's ideas? How would this affect the rest of her characters? What would be the consequences? How might she symbolize the theory in her characters' actions?

Jake is introduced as he is walking down the street toward the house where he has been living with his close companion Finn (a man who seldom ever talks), and Jake's on-again, off-again girlfriend Madge. Finn greets Jake with the news that Madge has kicked them out. Jake and Finn are to pack their belongings and vacate the house that very day. Finn is disheartened, and Jake is a bit put-off by the sudden change of heart by Madge, but he is not totally surprised. He knows that Madge has wanted to get married. He had even considered it at one point, but he could not commit to such a relationship. Madge, on the other hand, just wants to get married. If she cannot have Jake, she will find someone else, like Sacred Sammy, the bookie. With this first scene, Murdoch demonstrates, on a somewhat simplistic level, the various layers of lies that are spoken in an attempt to express a truth. Wittgenstein believed that in verbalizing truths, only lies come forth. Madge, for instance, really does not want to marry Sammy. She wants to marry Jake. Jake, on the other hand, does not want to leave Madge, but he does not want to marry her either. The character Finn here represents silence. Only in silence can one remain in truth, according to Wittgenstein.

Jake packs his bags, and his next stop is Mrs. Tinckham's newspaper shop. Mrs. Tinckham is the kind of woman with whom everyone likes to talk. She is a good listener. People come to her and tell her all kinds of personal stories, and they can count on her to keep all their secrets. This draws them to her. At one point, one of her customers becomes so frustrated with her unwillingness to share a secret about someone else that he shouts, "You are pathologically discreet!" In other words, Mrs. Tinckkam, like Finn, represents silence. Therefore she can be trusted. Mrs. Tinckham, with her gift of silence and thus trust, represents truth. "I suspect," states the narrator, "that this is the secret of Mrs. Tinckham's success." Then Jake tries to further describe Mrs. Tinckham, but he cannot quite figure her out. Is she very intelligent or very naïve? He has trouble defining her, just as one would have trouble defining truth. He concludes his observations of Mrs. Tinckham with the statement: "Whatever may be the truth, one thing is certain, that no one will ever know it." To know truth is to translate it, to put it into words. Truth is beyond knowing, according to Wittgenstein.

Jake travels on to Dave's house next, looking for a bed and a roof over his head. Dave is a philosopher, "a real one," Jake says. He also says that he used to like to talk to Dave about philosophy. "I thought that he might tell me some important truths." No matter how much Jake talks to Dave, he finds that they never get anywhere. Jake would present various philosophical concepts, say from Hegel or Spinoza, things that Jake did not fully understand. However, after Jake would submit his thoughts, Dave would tell him that he did not understand him. So Jake would repeat himself. "It took me some time," Jake says, "to realize that when Dave said he didn't understand, what he meant was that what I said was nonsense." This statement is very similar to one that Wittgenstein was known to make. He believed that all philosophers, including himself, could at best only write nonsense. Jake then offers one of Hegel's concepts, "Truth is a great word and the thing is greater still." This is another way of stating Wittgenstein's theory about the limitation of language. Jake finally concedes to Dave, or at least gives up trying to talk philosophy with him, because "Dave could never get past the word."

Jake must next find Anna. After Dave mentions Anna's name, Jake goes into a frenzy. He has not been with her for a while, but suddenly he has an uncontrollable impulse to see her. She is, he describes, someone who is "deep." She is also very elusive and the exact opposite of her sister Sadie. As he continues to describe her, Jake says that he has found her to be "an unfathomable being." The word unfathomable can mean either "mysterious" or "incomprehensible." Anna thus also symbolizes truth. Her sister Sadie, to further emphasize this fact, is an actress, someone who pretends. She is flashy and dazzling but not very real. She is a good con artist, and later in the story she actually becomes involved in a deceitful scheme with Sammy, as the two of them weave a web of lies in order to make some money. Jake ponders why Anna never became an actress. He feels that she could have been a good one. Then he concludes that it is because she has a lack of "definiteness": she could not be defined. All these statements about Anna (and her opposite, her sister Sadie) reinforce the idea that Anna represents truth as defined by Wittgenstein.

When Jake finds Anna, she is directing a theatre of mime. She works with performers who move on the stage in silence in order to portray their story. To exaggerate the silence, the audience is requested not to applaud. This silence is too heavy for Jake, which he says falls upon him like a "great bell." When he finally comes face to face with Anna, his first impulse is to turn away from her. He needs to collect his wits, he says. However, as soon as she speaks, Jake declares, "The spell was broken." This could imply that Jake is a seeker of truth, but the truth frightens him. He runs after it, but it is as elusive as Anna, who always seems to be slightly out of his reach. He runs after her until he catches her, and then he is afraid to confront her. When she speaks, she defines herself, and as Wittgenstein stated, this imposes a limitation; and as Jake discovers, when she speaks, the spell is broken. However, he is forever drawn to her "like the warm breeze that blows from a longed-for island bringing to the seafarer the scent of flowers and fruit."

Jake seems caught in a paradox. He appreciates silence, and that is why he likes to have Finn around him, a man who seldom speaks. But Jake abhors solitude. It makes him nervous. For him, silence is best found in a noisy pub, where he does not have to speak to anyone but also does not have to contemplate any of his own truths. He likes the distraction of busy sounds, even though he recognizes that words can break the spell, that one can become entrapped in words, like his friend Dave.

He has the desire to search for truth, but when he draws near it, he is afraid of it.

After Jake's encounter with Anna, he reminisces about Hugo, whom many critics believe represents Wittgenstein himself. Hugo used to work in his parents' fireworks factory, a place that fascinated him. He at one point tells Jake that what he likes most about fireworks is their impermanence and honesty. They were "an ephemeral spurt of beauty." Hugo also says in reference to fireworks: "You get an absolutely momentary pleasure with no nonsense about it. No one talks cant about fireworks." In other words, you do not have to define what you see. You do not have to talk about it. You just enjoy it, like Wittgenstein might have wanted to enjoy truth. Hugo's love of fireworks, however, is destroyed once they are shipped to the United States, where people begin to "talk" about them, to refer to them as pieces of art, to "classify them into styles."

Jake meets Hugo at a medical research hospital, where the two of them give themselves up as guinea pigs for a new cold remedy. They are roommates, and at first Jake fears that Hugo will bore him with endless chatter; but Hugo is completely silent for the first few days. When he does speak, Jake is fascinated by his intelligence. As with Anna, Jake is drawn to Hugo. Jake is always searching for something. He senses that Hugo might have some answers. With Hugo, Jake is comfortable enough to be "frank." Jake becomes so engrossed in their conversations that he enlists for a second medical experiment, and so does Hugo.

Jake describes Hugo as the most objective and "detached" person he has ever met. Hugo has little concept of self: this was not a condition to which Hugo aspired, but rather it was as if he had been born with it. He also has no general theories. Rather, he has separate theories of everything; when Jake tries to tie him down to something specific, he could not. In other words, Jake could not define Hugo. Then one night, Jake and Hugo begin a discussion of truth. "What if I try to be accurate?" Jake asks. "One can't be," Hugo responds. "The only hope is to avoid saying it." They are referring to emotions at the time of this conversation—the truth of one's feelings. The discussion is about defining feelings, which Hugo says is impossible. "Language just won't let you present it as it really was."

Jake goes on to record his conversations with Hugo. He edits them, changing them around, making some things clearer. Then he publishes them in a book he calls The Silencer, an ironic little twist, seeing that the book is a conversation about truth, which Wittgenstein stated could only be known in silence, and yet here Jake is trying to capture truth in words, only to call his creation The Silencer.

Of all Murdoch's characters in Under the Net, Hugo best represents truth. He does not like definitions, and when he finally reads Jake's book, he does not recognize the thoughts contained in the book as his own. He even congratulates Jake for his originality. He neither says anything about Jake having written down truths nor does he attempt to write his own book about them. It is understood that he believes this task to be impossible.

When Wittgenstein looked back on his own earlier writings about truth, he referred to the work as nonsense. Wittgenstein had tried to define truth, to explain it, or better yet, to explain that one cannot explain it. But he found that even that was ridiculous. Murdoch too, when she looked back at her first novel from the distance of several years, thought that Under the Net was a bit foolish. She, in her own way, had tried to explain what Wittgenstein believed could never be made clear.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Under the Net, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2003.


Bove, Cheryl K., Understanding Iris Murdoch, University of South Carolina Press, 1993, p. 36.

Conradi, Peter J., Iris Murdoch: A Life, W. W. Norton, 2001, pp. 380, 385.

Kellman, Steven, "Shakespearean Plot in the Novels of Iris Murdoch," in Iris Murdoch, edited by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, p. 89.

Russell, John, "Under Iris Murdoch's Exact, Steady Gaze," in the New York Times, February 22, 1990.

Todd, Richard, Iris Murdoch, Methuen, 1984, pp. 13, 16.

Further Reading

Antonaccio, Maria, Picturing the Human: The Moral Thought of Iris Murdoch, Oxford University Press, 2000.

So much attention has been spent on Murdoch as a novelist that her philosophical contributions are often overlooked. This is one of the first books that has tried to fill that gap. Antonaccio explores the contributions to moral and religious philosophy that Murdoch fervently studied and presented.

Bayley, John, Elegy for Iris, St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Bayley wrote this book before his wife Iris Murdoch died. She was suffering from Alzheimer's disease at the time, and he recounts his memories of her and of their relationship together. The movie Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch was taken from this book. Both the movie and the book received rave reviews.

——, Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire, W. W. Norton, 1999.

This is the second memoir written by Bayley about his wife. This one was written after her death, and many critics have highly recommended this book for its disclosure of a wonderfully warmhearted story of love.

Byatt, A. S., Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch, Chatto and Windus, 1965.

The philosophical ideas that influenced Murdoch's early novels are explored in this book, as Byatt examines how those ideas are used in her novels.

Kaufmann, Walter Arnold, ed., Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre, Meridian Books, 1984.

This has been hailed as an excellent introduction to the philosophy of existentialism. It includes a discussion of purely philosophical essays as well as the influence of existentialism on literary works. Such works discussed include Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus, and Sartre's short story "The Wall." Philosophers include Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, among others.

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