Dame Iris Murdoch

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

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

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 HerNovels (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. □

views updated

Dame Iris Murdoch (Dame Jean Iris Murdoch) (mûr´dŏk), 1919–99, British novelist and philosopher, b. Dublin, Ireland. In 1948 she was named lecturer in philosophy at Oxford, and in 1963 she was made an honorary fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford. Murdoch's novels, subtle, witty, convoluted, puzzling, and often wildly comic, have elicited widely differing critical interpretations. Murdoch views human beings as "accidental" creatures, purportedly free but actually constricted by the boundaries of self, society, and the natural world. Although the plots of her novels are complex, involving innumerable characters in seemingly endless configurations and punctuated by extraordinary incidents, they often focus on one individual's recognition that free will and self-knowledge are illusory.

Among Murdoch's 26 novels are The Flight from the Enchanter (1956), The Bell (1958), A Severed Head (1961), An Accidental Man (1972), The Sea, the Sea (1978; Booker Prize), Message to the Planet (1989), The Green Knight (1994), and Jackson's Dilemma (1995). Murdoch worked on dramatizations of two of her novels, A Severed Head (1963, with J. B. Priestley), and The Italian Girl (1967, with James Sanders), and she wrote several plays, including Art and Eros (1980). She also published Sartre, Romantic Rationalist (1953), The Sovereignty of Good (1971), The Fire and the Sun (1977), and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992). In 1956 she married John Oliver Bayley, the novelist and critic who wrote movingly of her in Elegy for Iris (1998). She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1987.


See biography by P. J. Conradi (2001); studies by A. S. Byatt (1965), P. Wolfe (1966), R. Rabinovitz (1968), D. Gerstenberger (1975), R. Todd (1979, 1988), E. Dipple (1982), A. Hague (1984), P. J. Conradi (1986) and as ed. (2010), C. B. Bove (1986, 1993), D. Johnson (1987), R. C. Kane (1988), D. D. Mettler (1991), P. P. Punja (1993), D. J. Gordon (1995), B. S. Heusel (1995), and H. D. Spear (1995).

views updated

Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (1919–99) British novelist and moral philosopher, b. Ireland. Murdoch created her own genre, the philosophical love story. Her early novels, culminating in The Bell (1958), are short and concise. Her later novels, such as The Black Prince (1973), the Booker Prize-winning The Sea, the Sea (1978), The Good Apprentice (1985), and The Book and the Brotherhood (1987), are longer and more elaborate. Recurrent themes include the difference between sacred and profane love and the nature of chance.