Murdoch, Iris (1919–1999)

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Murdoch, Iris (1919–1999)

Prominent 20th-century English moral philosopher, as well as a gifted, prolific, and widely acclaimed novelist. Name variations: Dame Iris Murdoch. Pronunciation: MER-dock. Born Jean Iris Murdoch on July 15, 1919, in Dublin, Ireland; died in Oxford, England, on February 8, 1999; daughter of Irene Alice (Richardson) Murdoch (a singer) and Wills John Hughes Murdoch (a civil servant); mother's family from Dublin, father's family of Country Down sheepfarming stock; received early education at the Froebel Educational Institute, London, and the progressive Badminton School, Bristol; read ancient history, classics, philosophy at Somerville College, Oxford University, 1938–42; married John Bayley (a literary critic and Oxford professor), in 1956; no children.

Worked as temporary wartime civil servant (assistant principal) in the Treasury (1942–44, 1944–46); worked with refugees, first in Belgium, then in Austria, where she was assigned to a camp for displaced persons; received Sarah Smithson Studentship in Philosophy, Newnham College, Cambridge (1947–48); named fellow at St. Anne's College, Oxford, and appointed as university lecturer (1948), where she taught until 1963 when she was named honorary fellow; was a lecturer at the Royal College of Art (1963–67); made her debut as a writer (1954) with novel Under the Net; made honorary member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (1975); made Dame of the Order of the British Empire (1987).


James Tait Black Memorial Prize (1973) for The Black Prince; Whitbread Literary Award (1974) for The Sacred and Profane Love Machine; England's most prestigious literary award, the Booker McConnell Prize (1978) for The Sea, the Sea; The Good Apprentice (1985) and The Book and the Brotherhood (1987) were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Major works—novels (dates refer to first editions, published by Chatto and Windus, London; all of her novels are available as Penguin Books in the U.S.): Under the Net (1954); The Flight From the Enchanter (1955); 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 Honorable 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).


(with J.B. Priestly) A Severed Head (London: Chatto & Windus, 1964); (with James Saunders) The Italian Girl (London: Chatto & Windus, 1968); The Three Arrows (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973); The Servants and the Snow (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973).


(with engravings by Reynolds Stone) A Year of Birds (Tisbury, Wilts: Compton Press, 1978).


Sartre, Romantic Rationalist (Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes, 1953); The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge, 1970); The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977); Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (London: Penguin, 1992, based on 1982 Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology given at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland).

Greek mythology tells us that the flute was invented by Athena who, because Cupid dared to laugh at her disfigured face when she puffed out her cheeks playing the instrument, threw it away. It was picked up on earth by Marsyas, a satyr who played so ravishingly that he dared challenge Apollo, god of music and poetry, to a contest. Apollo won, of course, and punished Marsyas by flaying him. Iris Murdoch reads this myth so that the agony of Marsyas became emblematic of our—anyone's—long, patient, unattainable quest for goodness. Talk of the "good" may seem odd for our day and age, when most people have the sense that their lives are increasingly determined by science, technology, and other large-scale, systemic socio-economic processes, and where morality has largely been reduced to the language of rights. Heir to enlightenment of reason, the modern subject is pictured as a solitary rational, whose inner life is resolved into acts and choices confronting an empirical world of brute facts. Assailed by anxiety and fear and a loss of direction, witness to innumerable horrors and suffering, plagued by indecision, and bereft of religion, Murdoch's work aimed to provide a rich and expansive picture of humanity against a background of values and realities that transcend us. Murdoch's prodigious output as a philosopher and as the author of 25 novels and several plays was directed toward the elaboration of a moral vocabulary for a post-theistic age. While not a Christian believer, Murdoch embraced a religious picture of human beings as fallen, as, in some sense, sinful, and in need of transcendence. Art and Eros, though they might beguile and console us, can also help to guide us out of our confusion and suffering. Religion, morality, art and eros—these are the grand thematics running through Murdoch's philosophy and novels. Her work has indebted many philosophers, and earned her an international following of devoted readers who avidly welcomed each new novel of hers as yet another treat of entertainment and ideas.

Born in Dublin in 1919, Iris Murdoch was largely raised in London, where her family had moved while she was a baby, upon her father's entry into the civil service. Later in life, she claimed, she realized that she was a "kind of exile, a displaced person." And, indeed, the outsider figures prominently, especially in her early novels. An only child, she related her writing drive to the search for imaginary brothers and sisters and her fascination with twins—the "lost, the other person one is looking for," writes Peter J. Conradi. But, she said, she "lived in a perfect trinity of love." She studied what were then called the "Classical Moderations and Greats" (the classics, history and philosophy) at Somerville College of Oxford University. Wartime exigencies placed her first as civil servant in the Treasury, from 1942 to 1944, and then with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), from 1944 to 1946, working in camps for refugees and displaced persons in Austria and Belgium.

In Brussels, Murdoch encountered the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, a French philosopher, who had elaborated the philosophy of existentialism in various novels and Being and Nothingness. The most fundamental and attractive feature of existentialism was the idea of freedom. The appeal of an inalienably free and heroic consciousness that could make itself and the world anew held great appeal for a generation of war-weary intellectuals. Notwithstanding the great importance that existentialism attached to the consideration and depiction of experience and its comparative willingness to discuss problems of value and morality, Murdoch was skeptical of this philosophy. It did not ultimately offer any richer picture of the human being than did British philosophy which was engrossed in a dry, abstract analysis of the meaning of concepts, and, at best, offered a picture of a free, sovereign, rational individual. She was to offer a sympathetic, yet critical look at existentialism in her first philosophical work, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953). As she said, "We are not isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy. Our current picture of freedom encourages a dream-like facility; whereas what we require is a renewed sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life and the opacity of persons." Literature she felt allowed one to rediscover a sense of the density and texture of lives. And so, it was as a mature thinker and after having written five unpublished novels that Iris Murdoch published her first novel, Under the Net (1954), to critical acclaim.

A stylish, sophisticated, comic novel, handled with subtle emotional pacing and balanced with lucid philosophical conversation and insight, Under the Net, on her own acknowledgement, introduced many of the themes that would be developed in various ways in her subsequent novels: an inquiry into the nature of the good person; the highly ambiguous relationship of art to the discovery of truth; the difficult and slow movement from illusion to reality; the necessity of theorizing, imagining, seeking deeper insight; the respect for contingency; and the relationship to art and vision to morality and reality. A first-person account narrated by a bohemian artist and amateur philosopher, the novel tracks the journey of its protagonist, as would likewise many other characters in later novels, from a self-centered, fantasy-enveloped state of being to a comparatively other-oriented (to other persons, the world), humbler and more clarified condition of desire and truth.

The quests of her characters are however not necessarily successful and never painless or easy. People are secretly much odder, less rational, more often powered by passion and obsession than they outwardly pretend or indeed know themselves. Our reigning ideologies of rationality and our abiding faith in the sovereign will do not make it easy to acknowledge the large subterranean currents of dreams and fantasies which we unknowingly deploy to stave us from our defenselessness against history, contingency, chance and pain. And even once we have recognized all this, the path to truth, reality, beauty, and the good is arduous and fleetingly obtained only by an unswerving discipline and what Simone Weil (1909–1943), the famous French philosopher and mystic, who profoundly influenced Murdoch, termed "attention." Attention is respect for the contingent, the way things are, the stripping away of the intrusions of the ego. "A novel must be a house fit for free characters to live in; and to combine form with a respect for reality with all its contingent ways is the highest art of prose." One of the contingencies that frequently takes place in Murdoch's novels is man and woman falling in love intensely, abruptly, and absurdly.

All art is the struggle to be, in a particular sort of way, virtuous.

—Iris Murdoch

Falling in love, a characteristic and common enough experience, is for most ordinary men and women their glimpse of some sort of transcendence, an experience that permits one to see the world with newly awakened eyes. In his conception of the beautiful, Plato, as Murdoch elaborates in her book The Fire and the Sun, "accorded sexual love and transformed sexual energy a central place in his philosophy. … Eros is a form of desire for immortality, whatever we may take the good to be. … Love prompts anamnesis (recol lection) [of the Forms—the objects of true knowledge for Plato] and the good comes to us in the guise of the beautiful." But, as in everything that Murdoch writes about, both in her philosophical views and in her novels, things are always more complicated and clarity of vision into the truth is not easily attainable. So, as she expands on Plato's Eros, she points out: "Eros is a trickster and must be treated critically. … The energy that could save us may be employed to erect barriers between ourselves and reality so that we may remain comfortably in a self-directed dream world." So it is also with art; its central place in our moral lives is one of the great themes of The Fire and the Sun and indeed of most of her novels.

Murdoch, an avowed Platonist, shares Plato's reservations, though not his hostility, about the ability of art to assist the soul in its pilgrimage from appearance and illusion to reality and knowledge. Plato held that art was a magical substitute for philosophy, aiming for plausibility and sense-gratification rather than truth. As Murdoch explains, for Plato, "art delights in trivia … endless proliferation of truth. The artist cannot represent or celebrate the good but only what is fantastic and extreme; whereas truth is quiet and sober and confined. Art is sophistry … whose fake 'truthfulness' is a subtle enemy of virtue." However, aware of the pitfalls of art as providing consoling, false restingplaces, Murdoch avers that:

Good art provides a stirring image of pure transcendent value, a steadily visible enduring higher good, and perhaps provides for many people, in an unreligious age without prayer or sacrament, their clearest experience of something grasped as separate and precious and beneficial and held quietly and unpossessively, in the attention. … Good art provides work for the spirit.

Murdoch's own work was indeed animated by what she prescribed as the role of the good artist "to see the place of necessity in human life, what must be endured, what makes and breaks, and to purify our imagination so as to contemplate the real world (usually veiled by anxiety and fantasy) including what is terrible and absurd."

She resisted the labeling of herself as a philosophical novelist, pointing out that "ideas in art must suffer a sea-change." Murdoch has been described as a religious fabulist, both a fantasist and realist. She has been praised profusely for her near-Shakespearean faculty for plotting, the extraordinary control of her material, the meticulous and detailed rendering of objects, landscapes, of London, and the superb probing of the secret, hidden dream lives of her characters that uncannily resonate with some aspects of any reader's experience. Shakespeare's plays themselves were dominant influences on her work. Her extraordinary inventiveness in capturing the chaos, contingency, and ambiguity of experience was, however, directed toward the condition of truthfulness. As she told interviewer John Haffenden, "there is a sort of pedagogue in my novels. Bad novels project various personal daydreams. But the contingent nature of life and what human failings are like, and also what it's like for somebody to be good: all this is very difficult, and it is where truthfulness comes in, to stop telling yourself from telling something which is a lie." Truthfulness, grasping reality, being virtuous, all deeply tied together, depended, for Murdoch, on our ability to break out of the current of egotistic life, which is otherwise subject to ceaseless anxiety, pain, and fear. As one of her great characters, Bradley Pearson in The Black Prince, says:

Wickedness … is usually the product of a semi-deliberate inattention, a sort of swooning relationship to time … never allow[ing] ourselves to focus on moments of decision. We allow the vague pleasure-seeking annoyance-avoiding tide of our being to hurry us onward until the moment when we announce that we can do no other. There is thus an eternal discrepancy between our self-knowledge which we gain by observing ourselves objectively and our self-awareness which we have of ourselves subjectively. Our self-knowledge is too abstract, our self-awareness is too intimate and swoony and dazed.

Great art, the practices of meditation and attention as fostered by certain Buddhist philosophies, revelations brought about by love can all assist in decentering our ego, so that we are more focused and thereby gain more freedom.

Iris Murdoch lived in a house in Steeple Aston, Oxfordshire, hung with much-loved pictures by favorite artists. Early in her life, she claimed that she might have wanted to have been either a painter or a Renaissance art historian, but she got conscripted for the war and her love of philosophy and wanting to write novels soon took over. She enjoyed writing novels and started writing only after she had invented and figured out every character and incident; she also refused all assistance from editors. And even though she had a happy, fruitful married and professional relationship with her husband, literary critic and Oxford don John Bayley, she worked entirely alone on her novels and even her husband was not allowed to view her work until it was finished.

It was while she was working on what would prove to be her last novel, Jackson's Dilemma (1995), that she began exhibiting the first symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Her illness was announced publicly in 1996. Murdoch's voyage from full control of her extraordinary intellect to the state of "a very nice 3-year-old," as her husband phrased it, was detailed in his 1998 book Elegy for Iris. Bayley's story of their unusual but deeply devoted 40-year marriage, and of the equally devoted relationship they developed as Murdoch's illness progressed, was called by a reviewer "one of the longest love letters ever written." She was cared for solely by her husband, who refused all help (but welcomed visitors) in the small and increasingly unkempt home in which they had lived so many years. They remained there together until her deterioration necessitated transferral to a nursing home, and he was at her bedside when she died, three weeks later, on February 8, 1999.

The Murdochian world, like the Swiftian or Dickensian, has entered the vocabulary as a way of pointing to certain aspects of the world. Though the cast of her characters tends to be comprised of a narrow coterie of bourgeois, educated friends and relatives, the sheer genius of her explorations of the entanglements of her characters with each other in their hunt for love, consolation, power, vision, and beatitude, and the moral energy that infuses her narrative drives, has assured Murdoch a position as one of the most interesting and powerful novelists of the 20th century. As a novelist who, with great verve and ingenuity, defined and took up the challenge to reconcile an essentially theological sentiment to transcendental meaning with the psychological constitution of her characters, she had few peers. Her work has shaped recent thought on the subjects of human identity, the relationship of religion to ethics and of moral philosophy to literature, the nature of desire, the constitution of suffering, the shortcomings of liberalism, and on the role of metaphysics as a fund of concepts that have continuing validity for human beings. Her sustained inquiry into the nature of goodness made it seem as if she were the very incarnation of Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow and messenger of the Gods.


Bloom, Harold, ed. Iris Murdoch: Modern Critical Views. NY: Chelsea House, 1986.

Byatt, A.S. Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch. NY: Barnes & Noble, 1965.

——. Iris Murdoch. London: Longman, 1976.

Conradi, Peter J. Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Dipple, Elizabeth. Iris Murdoch: Work for the Spirit. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Haffenden, John. Interview with Iris Murdoch, in his Novelists in Interview. London: Methuen, 1985.

Johnson, Deborah. Iris Murdoch. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987.

The New York Times (obituary). February 9, 1999, pp. A1, C30.

Publishers Weekly. December 14, 1998, pp. 52–53.

Todd, Richard. Iris Murdoch: The Shakespearean Interest. London: Vision, 1979.

Wolfe, Peter. The Disciplined Heart: Iris Murdoch and Her Novels. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1966.

suggested reading:

Bayley, John. Elegy for Iris. St. Martin's Press, 1998.

——. Iris and Her Friends. NY: Norton, 1999.

Anil Lal , freelance writer, Chicago, Illinois