Appropriating the real


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Appropriating the real myth in Iris Murdoch's fiction
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v, 140 leaves : ; 29 cm.
Faulks, Lana
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Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1990.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 136-139).
Statement of Responsibility:
by Lana Faulks.
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University of Florida
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I am grateful to Dr. Brandon Kershner who first

introduced me to the work of Iris Murdoch. He has been a

discerning and valuable critic and a meticulous editor.

Dr. Daniel Cottom's keen wit and generous advice has often

improved my perspective and rekindled my hope. I also thank

Drs. Alistair Duckworth, Beth Schwartz, and Andrew Gordon

for their critical insights and encouragement.

Brenda Gordon has been a compatriot from the beginning;

her assistance has gone above and beyond the call of

friendship. Dialogues with Bill Jernigan have been an

invaluable source of ideas and humor. Harry Robinson

listened and cheered at important times.

My parents, Carl and Elva Faulks, have always been

there for me.



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS................................................ ii

ABSTRACT............... ................ ................. iv



ONE LOVE LETTERS. .................................... 11

Under The Net................................... 15
A Fairly Honorable Defeat....................... 23
An Accidental Man.............................. 30
The Black Prince............................... 40
The Sea, The Sea.. ................. ............. 49
Glimpses Of The Real............................ 55


The Unicorn ................................... 62
The Bell.... ..................... ............... 75
A Severed Head.................................. 90

THREE REACHING OUT TO THE DEAD........................ 102

The Good Apprentice:
Calling Out To The Dead......................... 104
Edward......................... .................... 106
Stuart ............... ............ ......... .. 110
Harry ............ ............... ........ 114
Thomas..................................... .. 118
Revision: Giving Up The Ghosts................... 120
Death In The Novel.............................. 129

CONCLUSION: LIVING IN MYTH.............................. 133

BIBLIOGRAPHY........................................... 136

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.................................... 140


Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Lana Faulks

August, 1990

Chairperson: Dr. Brandon Kershner
Major Department: English

This study is dedicated to examining how Murdoch's

concept of myth functions in her novels. In her aesthetics

and philosophical works she has criticized the solipsistic

concerns of the modern novel, arguing in particular with the

existentalist notion of freedom which dramatizes the

personal will in conflict with the universe. For Murdoch,

freedom depends on respecting the autonomy of others and

recognizing "their absurd irreducible uniqueness." She has

used the term contingency to suggest that reality is

incomplete and inexplicable, and thus the novelist should

attempt to present his fictional worlds in a similar way,

resisting the temptation to console the reader by portraying

a falsely ordered reality. Though Murdoch applies this term

to reality in general, she emphasizes the importance of

viewing others as real, proposing that the novelist should

create contingent characters who reflect the complexities of

the human personality.

My reading of Murdoch's myths focuses on how her

characters appropriate the otherness of the world and how

the mythical framework of her novels recapitulates this

appropriation, emphasizing the self-centered subjectivity

which denies the reality of anything other than the self.

In this way the characters attempt to define, control or

unify their worlds, fending off the contingent possibilities

that could potentially disturb their ordered existence.

Although myth remains the central focus of the three

chapters, my theoretical approach changes to accommodate

different ways of applying the term to Murdoch's fiction.

In the first chapter I show how the language of love,

evident in letter-writing, is used to defer contingency

through an effort to find meaningfulness and truth in the

other. I show how letters reveal myth-making in five of the

novels: Under the Net, A Fairly Honorable Defeat, An

Accidental Man, The Black Prince, and The Sea, The Sea. The

second chapter, a discussion of The Unicorn, The Bell, and A

Severed Head, examines the way in which the spiritualized

image of woman takes on a transcendent value to other

characters. In the final chapter I assert that in The Good

Apprentice death as trope produces a variety of ghosts whose

otherness gives significance to the lives of the characters.

Further, I show how this notion reveals an underlying myth

in The Good Apprentice and in the novel in general.


Iris Murdoch's fiction attracts critical attention of

two extremes. She vexes those who find her novels to be far

too reliant on nineteenth-century realism, admonishing her

for her refusal to adopt a modernist or post-modernist

sensibility. Harold Bloom, for example, is none too kind in

his comments on narration in The Good Apprentice:

Admirers of Murdoch are fond of defending such
authorial interpolations by citing their
prevalence in the nineteenth-century novel. It is
certainly true that George Eliot is never more
impressive than in such interventions, and Murdoch
is recognizably in Eliot's explictly moral
tradition. Unfortunately, what worked sublimely
for Eliot cannot work so well for Murdoch, despite
her engaging refusal to be self-conscious about
her belatedness. (4-5)

Lorna Sage finds weakness in Murdoch's failure to employ

self-consciousness in her fiction: "The 'moral greed' she

awakens and feeds depends for its very existence on not [her

emphasis] querying the author's nature or status--each new

novel is unsatisfying, to its author and its readers, and

addictive because it's unsatisfying" (74).

Yet Murdoch, at the other end, has her advocates who

defend her against such judgments. Both Peter Conradi and

Elizabeth Dipple do a fine job of arguing that critics have

overlooked the apparent self-reflexivity in Murdoch's

fiction. In response to those who have criticized her

fiction for its adherence to conventional realism, Dipple

argues that

Murdoch's novels continue an unruffled
demonstration of what fiction can actually do now
as opposed to how it functioned in the past, how
it can be said to operate, and what its
limitations and necessary ironies are. This quiet
self-consciousness works at odds with her stress
on external matters like plot and character, and
must not be underestimated as on of the primary
sources of the reader's anxieties. (189)

In his seminal work Iris Murdoch: The Saint And The Artist

Peter Conradi brings to task a variety of criticism directed

at Murdoch's fiction. Clearly he feels that she has been

done a disservice by those who have failed to recognize her

as an important contemporary novelist. In one example, he

finds criticism which uses her early theoretical works as a

yardstick against which to measure her fiction, "too

absolute and pious" (21).

My critical stance falls closer to that of these latter

critics; like them, I feel Murdoch has been slighted by

those who, referring to her abundant commentaries on the

craft of fiction and her philosophical treatises, have

reduced their vision to a one-dimensional scrutiny based

solely on the author's intentions. Further, those who

consider her recalcitrant in her allegiance to mimetic

realism overlook characteristics of her fiction which serve

to unsettle her fictional frameworks. In some of her

novels, she parodies certain conventions of the genre,

pointing to the artificiality of the novel's form. She is

fond of using the Gothic mode to create hyper-symbolic

worlds, highlighting the mythical entrapment of her

characters. The Unicorn, The Time of the Angels and The

Sea, The Sea use Gothic elements to form their uncanny,

unreal worlds. The Black Prince has received praise for its

self-conscious reflection of the artist's role, as voiced by

Arnold Baffin, the book's narrator. According to Richard

Todd, the novel "challenges its own text and reliability and

speculates on fictionality" and "flaunts the issue of

solipsism" ("Postmodernism" 114-15). Yet in other novels

Murdoch uses an egocentric, male narrator to achieve a

similar effect--that of foregrounding the narrow,

solipsistic world view of these characters. A World Child

and A Severed Head use similar narrators to take us into the

psyche's dark and unsavory depths; centered within the

consciousness of a central ego, they reveal what a tenuous

hold we have on what is real, suggesting that our lives are

mere dramas that we continually invent to serve ourselves.

In addition, it seems to me that many critics overlook

Murdoch's rather droll sense of humor that appears in the

most unexpected scenes, having the effect of displacing the

reader's expectations. In some of these scenes the humor

arises not only from the element of surprise but from the

uncanny nature of the incidents. Finally, the reality of

Murdoch's characters is frequently disturbed by paranormal

events which give her fiction a hyper-real quality--what

Conradi refers to as "magical realism" and Robert Scholes

calls "fabulation." Within the bourgeois settings of some

of her recent novels, supernatural occurrences not only put

into question the perceptions of her characters, but parody

the human tendency to mythologize the inexplicable. In Nuns

and Soldiers, for example, Anne Cavidge experiences bleeding

from the hands, emulating the crucifixion of Christ. It is

not my purpose here to argue for a postmodern aesthetics in

Murdoch's fiction, but simply to suggest that our

methodology can, if we let it, tie our critical vision to

our own expectations.

Many of Murdoch's critics depend, to some degree, on

her philosophical and theoretical works to unravel her

intricate fictional worlds. This approach is enlightening

and useful but can also lead to a monocular view, inhibiting

our potential for discovering the unexpected in the

individual novels. In this study I too depend on such

references but attempt to reach a compromise between

relating her work to her theories and looking at her novels

as autonomous. In Murdoch's fiction, patterns repeat

themselves, and over the span of some thirty-odd years

during which she has been writing, some of the same concerns

reappear, albeit in different guises. In this study,

dedicated to examining how Murdoch's concept of myth

functions in her novels, her aesthetics and philosophical

works have been useful in understanding some of the

influences and concerns which have found their way into her



There are discrepancies between Murdoch's aesthetics

and her fiction, but she acknowledges this problem,

attributing these incongruities to the difficulties of the

novelist's task in general. I am referring here to

Murdoch's conception of the artist's responsibility,

particularly the novelist's. Like Plato, she recognizes the

tendency of the artist to become engulfed in his fantasy

world, and she distrusts the one who presents his fantasies

in the form of illusion (Fire 40). Many of her novels focus

on artists trapped in such a world. But she differs with

Plato in her belief that the artist can, through the

imagination, transcend fantasy which is "the enemy of art

and the imagination" (Sovereignty 52). In The Fire and the

Sun she explains her opposition to Plato's view:

Good art, thought of as symbolic force rather than
statement, provides a stirring image of a pure
transcendent value, a steady visible enduring
higher good, and perhaps provides for many people
in an unreligious age without prayer or
sacraments, their clearest experience of something
grasped as separate and precious and beneficial
and held quietly and unpossessively in the
attention. Art which we love can seem holy and
attending to it can be like praying. Our relation
to such art though 'probably never' entirely true
is markedly unselfish. (76-7)

Attributing a moral significance to the artist's role,

Murdoch claims that the essence of art and morals is the

same: "The essence of both is love. Love is the perception

of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization

that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art

and morals, is the discovery of reality" (Sovereignty 51).

She uses the term fantasy to describe the imaginative

exclusion of others from one's reality. Others become dream

objects whose freedom is restricted by the power of the

fantasist. The artist, immersed in fantasy, ignores

reality, creating a world which conforms to his self-

ordained illusions. Instead, the artist should give the

world of art "an independence and uniqueness which is

essentially the same as that conferred upon, or rather

discovered in, another human being whom we love"

(Sovereignty 54-5).

In her early critiques of modernism, Murdoch criticizes

the lack of independence in the characterization of

twentieth-century novels. She emphasizes the need for more

naturalistic characters like those in nineteenth-century

novels "with real various individuals struggling in society"

("Against" 18). She criticizes the "neurotic modern novel"

(Wolfe 26) for its lack of concern with the real world

outside the self-conscious concerns of the artist. While

the nineteenth-century novel succumbs to certain

conventions, this tendency is "less deadly" than the

solipsistic concerns of the modern novel (Sovereignty 53).

She has argued, for example, with the existentalist notion

of freedom which overemphasizes the personal will in

conflict with the universe. True freedom, for Murdoch, must

be achieved by respecting the freedom of others, which

requires self-discipline. In Sartre: Romantic Rationalist

she finds Sartre's weakness as a novelist to lie in his

failure to present "the absurd irreducible uniqueness of

people and of their relations with each other" (75).

Elizabeth Dipple sees a distinction between Murdoch's

brand of realism and the nineteenth-century realist

tradition. Murdoch, she claims, has developed a "radical

idea of realism" which requires on the artist's part a

"commitment to look clearly." To attain this clear

perception, Murdoch suggests that the artist must resist the

temptation to console the reader by portraying a falsely

ordered reality. He should not succumb to the "consolations

of form" but his representation of reality should resist

fantasy while showing "a respect for the contingent"

("Against" 20). Numerous critics have pondered Murdoch's

notion of contingency as an important criterion for the

novel, but perhaps the best explanation of her concept of

the term comes from her own work. She emphasizes, for

example, the incompleteness of the world, its

inexplicability, claiming that art should concern itself

with "whatever is contingent, messy, boundless, infinitely

particular, and endlessly still to be explained" ("Sublime"

51). Though Murdoch applies this term to reality in

general, she emphasizes the importance of viewing others as

real, and thus believes that the novelist should create

contingent characters who reflect "the real impenetrable

human person" ("Against" 20).

Murdoch's concept of myth derives, to a large extent,

from these early critiques of modernism, particularly that

of the existential hero whose monomanical preoccupation with

his own subjective experience leads him to appropriate

others as a part of his ongoing delusion. Richard Wasson

describes this type: "To this man the only thing that

matters is his own consciousness; the world, its objects and

people have no reality as separate, contingent beings, but

exist only as symbols in his internal drama" (463). This

type of character frequently appears in Murdoch's fiction as

a selfish power-monger whose personal drama inevitably

brings harm to others. My reading of Murdoch's myths

focuses on how her characters appropriate the otherness of

the world and how the mythical framework of her novels

recapitulates this appropriation, emphasizing the self-

centered subjectivity which denies the reality of anything

other than the self. In this way the characters attempt to

define, control or unify their worlds, fending off the

contingent possibilities that could potentially disturb

their ordered existence.

Although myth remains the central focus of the three

chapters, my theoretical approach changes to accommodate

different ways of applying the term. In the first chapter,

I show how the language of love, evident in letter-writing,

is used to defer contingency through an effort to find

meaningfulness and truth in the other. I analyze the

mythical nature of letters in five of the novels: Under the

Net, A Fairly Honorable Defeat, An Accidental Man, The Black

Prince, and The Sea. The Sea. In Under the Net the sending

and receiving of letters reinforces the book's preoccupation

with the inherent deceptions of language. In this first

novel Murdoch establishes the importance of letters as a

literary device that she will frequently use to reveal her

characters' abundant myths. In the other four novels,

written during the 1970's, Murdoch relies on letters not

only to reveal her characters' fantasies about reality, but

to motivate much of the plot. Although Murdoch frequently

uses letters to support her novels' mythical frameworks, in

these novels letters become a substantial supplement to the

developing narratives. My analysis is not concerned with

chronologically placing these novels in Murdoch's canon, but

it is of interest that during this period she utilizes

letters to fuel the love entanglements.

The second chapter, a discussion of The Unicorn, The

Bell, and A Severed Head, examines the way in which the

spiritualized image of woman takes on a transcendent value

to other characters. In the first two books, women are the

center of the allegorical structure, indicating their

entrapment within a power system. A Severed Head differs

from these in its employment of a male narrator, but it

finds kinship with them in its self-conscious mythification

of women through this character's point of view.

In the final chapter I assert that in The Good

Apprentice death as trope produces a variety of ghosts whose

otherness gives significance to the lives of the characters.


Further, I show how this notion reveals an underlying death-

myth in The Good Apprentice and in the novel in general.


Iris Murdoch's characters often define their reality

through the repetition of myths inherent in the mechanics of

language. Her novels describe human thought and behavior as

mechanical while language entraps her characters, compelling

them to repeat patterns of behavior which are harmful to

themselves as well as others. The pattern might be the

construction of an ill-conceived fantasy, which the

character uses for his egotistic purposes, or he may simply

be reciting (and living) the culturally given language of

morality and myth. In any case, his actions arise from

language's iterability: the machine fosters a variety of

behavioral codes, traps which keep the character oblivious

to reality. Murdoch's notion of reality centers, to a large

extent, on her concept of love, as evident in her novels'

preoccupation with the characters' usually vain efforts to

love one another. Through the sending and receiving of love

letters, the encoded nature of language establishes and

perpetuates a love-myth, constituting a denial of reality in

Murdoch's schema.

When the fantasist in Murdoch's novels uses letters to

establish and perpetuate a false image of the loved one or

to control another, he fails to recognize the otherness of

that person or her reality. In "Against Dryness" Murdoch

proposes that characters should be real, claiming that "Real

people are destructive of myth, contingency is destructive

of fantasy and opens the way for imagination" (20).

Murdoch's notion of what constitutes real people depends on

giving characters a certain depth. She refers, for example,

to the "real impenetrable" nature of the human personality

and the "opacity of persons" (20). Murdoch's novels suggest

that the human personality is subject to certain

contingencies which complicate our efforts to give meaning

to human behavior and events. These contingencies vary in

nature, but have in common the unknowable, unpredictable

quality of human consciousness.

It is not surprising, then, that Murdoch's novels

depict characters who are deluded by the myth of the other.

Further, her plots unravel these myths as characters show

themselves to be less predictable than the fantasist would

imagine. This unpredictability constitutes a hidden

contingency which the fantasist ignores in the fabrication

of his fictional other. While the contingent nature of the

loved one is absent in the language of the love myth, it is

present in real characters whose use of language disrupts

the fantasy. Murdoch suggests that since language is the

creation of human beings, it comprises not only their myths

but their contingent nature as well.

In The Sovereignty of Good Murdoch explains that human

love and art are evidence of a transcendent principle of

good, noting, however, the tendency for human love to be

"profoundly possessive" and "too mechanical" (65). Her

novels reveal this same cynicism, evident in the comic as

well as tragic escapades of her aspiring lovers. The love

letter in Murdoch's fiction motivates and complicates the

love entanglements, frequently embroiling the letter-writer

in unpleasant if not tragic circumstances.

Frequently, the letter operates to console the sender,

by encompassing him in a love-fantasy or functioning as a

defense to keep out unwanted affection. Love letters show

the language of love at its worst, commenting on humans as

compulsive writers who formulate fictions about themselves

and live as if the fictions were true. Frequently, letters

pursue an ideal--embodied in the beloved--or conversely,

create a barrier between the writer and a threatening

intruder. The love letter creates romance where there is

none and fires the embers of romances which are based on

vanity and self-interest. While the letter motivates and

feeds romance, it seldom produces the response that the

writer intends. The loved one may respond in a desirable

way--continuing the drama at least temporarily--but

eventually the letter comes back mechanically, wrecking

lives and inviting accidents which might have been avoided.

As the machine operates to give form to an erstwhile chaotic

universe, letters attempt to restrain the contingent nature

of existence by imposing order on a random world.

Parodoxically, however, once the machine of language is set

going, it exacts a kind of karmic retribution insuring that

the perpetrator reaps the language she sows. Contingency,

then, is inherent in the operation of language and has the

effect of demythologizing it.

In "The Sublime And The Good" Murdoch explains how her

notion of freedom relates to love: "Freedom is exercised in

the confrontation by each other, in the context of an

infinitely extensible work of imaginative understanding, of

two irreducibly dissimilar individuals. "Love is the

imaginative recognition of, that is respect for, this

otherness" (52). Murdoch's novels have a great deal to do

with attaining such freedom through the experience of loving

another. In "Against Dryness" Murdoch posits that one can

attain "degrees of freedom" in the world while in her novels

we see that freedom, to any degree, eludes most of her

characters. Ann Byatt claims that "All Miss Murdoch's

novels can in an important sense be seen as studies of the

'degrees of freedom' available to individuals ." (11).

William Slaymaker has suggested a "gradual change" in

Murdoch's attitude toward freedom, claiming that in the

novels of the 1970's attaining freedom becomes "not a matter

of degree but an unrealizable dream" (173). In this

chapter, I will examine five of Murdoch's novels from the

70's along with her first novel Under the Net. This novel

presages the later ones' use of letters as a literary device

to establish Murdoch's fantasy myths. Although this chapter

is not meant to be a chronological study of Murdoch's books,

it is to some degree an analysis of how her dispensation of

freedom varies in the five novels as evident in the

characters' sending and receiving of letters.

Under the Net
"The whole language is a machine for making falsehoods" (60).

Under the Net contemplates the inadequacy of language

as a method of discerning reality. Metaphorically, Murdoch

uses the net to represent theories which Jake, a writer,

attempts to get "under" in order to find the essence of

reality. Murdoch has said that she was thinking of

Wittgenstein's net of discourse when she wrote the book and

in an interview with Frank Kermode explains that the novel

presents "the problem of how far conceptualizing and

theorizing, which from one point of view are absolutely

essential, in fact divide you from the thing which is the

object of theoretical attention" (115). In Under the Net

Jake's pursuit of reality is inhibited by language, the net

which he uses to trap truth, and which paradoxically traps

him. When the net is used to trap meaning, it ensnares the

one who wields it--being trapped goes along with the

territory of trapping. The plot develops the philosophical

metaphor of the net as the characters attempt to capture the

possessions of others. Kidnapping, stealing, illegal entry,

eavesdropping and plagiarism make up the comical escapades

of the novel-netting activities primarily perpetrated by

Jake, the narrator. All of these activities describe,

metaphorically, the mimetic nature of language. Acts of

thievery are acts of copying: the mechanical net endlessly

repeats itself by replicating the myths that are inherent in

the language system.

While Jake believes that such efforts will reveal the

mystery of reality, in fact, he is merely caught up in the

mimetic production of language, a situation which is evident

in his desire to copy the ideas of others or to simply

repeat patterns of behavior. The operation of the

tautological net is also evident in the postal network which

gives impetus to much of the plot. The sending and

receiving of messages show how Jake is seduced and

controlled by the powerful influence of the language of the

other, particularly the language of love.

Jake's eager response to the love message leads him in

pursuit of a former girlfriend, Anna, a chase around which

the entire novel revolves. In his first encounter with her

at the theatre, letters are established as seductive

messages prompting his pursuit. Trying to reestablish a

bond between them, Jake brings up the subject of letter

writing. First he asks to see her again, but she responds

uninterestedly, "If I need you I'll call for you" (43). He

then attempts to elicit a more definite response: 'May I

write you?' I asked. In my experience women who have any

interest at all in keeping a hand on you will rarely refuse

this. It binds without compromising. 'I don't mind,' she

said. 'A letter to the theatre finds me' (43).

With this request Jake feels that he can discover

Anna's feelings toward him while reestablishing a

relationship with her; the language of love letters holds

some special power that will bind her to him. Jake believes

that by writing letters, he can seduce the loved one. He

believes, therefore, that he has some control of language,

and thereby control of the beloved. It is soon obvious,

however, that the opposite is true: Anna and language

control him, as is evident in her instructions as they part

company, "...don't come back here unless I summon you" (44).

This comment marks the beginning of a series of summonses to

which Jake eagerly responds. In the first one she summons

him to the theatre where he finds a letter announcing her

departure, but leaving no clues as to her destination. With

her disappearance, she takes on the attraction of the

elusive love-object. This note prompts Jake's search for

Anna, which traverses London and even takes him to Paris at

one point, a trip inspired by a telegram from his former

girlfriend Madge. Hoping to find Anna in Paris, Jake

responds to this love message as if it held some clue to the

whereabouts of the elusive other. In this way, he believes

that language can unveil Anna's mystery.

In a parallel pursuit, Jake tries to uncover the

whereabouts of Hugo Belfounder, a former friend whose

theories Jake has plagiarized in a book entitled The

Silencer. Jake regards Hugo as a god-figure, referring to

him as his "destiny"; his pursuit of him is a pursuit of

truth. In short, Jake wants to discover the whereabouts of

these two characters to uncover their separate mysteries.

Jake compounds the mystery, however, when he mistakenly

decides that Hugo has fallen in love with Anna. In

actuality, Anna loves Hugo, while he loves her sister Sadie.

Fearing that to find Hugo is to find Anna, Jake heightens

the separate mysteries of the two while exaggerating the

importance of his desperate pursuit.

Hugo, however, does not send alluring messages as does

Anna. As Jake explains: "Hugo is not a great hand at

letter-writing and finds it very hard to express himself on

paper at all" (67). Hugo's inability to write letters

derives from his attitude toward language, a notion which

Jake reiterates in his book The Silencer. In this forgery,

Jake develops a theory about the equivocality of language,

an idea Hugo expresses in a conversation with Jake during

which he states: "The whole language is a machine for making

falsehoods" (60). Jake interprets Hugo's distrust of

language as a "truth" and his silence as a kind of

godliness. He does not expect, then, a seductive message

from a god-figure, one who operates outside the machine of

language. Hugo's silence, in fact, makes him even more

compelling. Jake's simultaneous pursuit of the love message

and of silence indicates his contradictory belief that

language can evoke the truth of godly silence. A similar

contradiction is evident when he uses language to declare

the falseness of language in The Silencer. Jake's actions,

then, contradict his theories, activating the machine-net

and perpetuating lies.

Viewing truth as elusive and seductive, Jake cannot

compose letters to attract the attention of the absent

lover. He writes only one love letter to Anna, a scribbled

note written while he is drunk. As he begins to write, he

experiences a dearth of sentiment: "I started to write to

Anna, but I could think of nothing to say to her

except I love you, which I wrote several times over, very

badly. I added, you are beautiful and sealed the letter"

(102-3). Jake not only lacks the ability to write a

compelling message, he repeats the love sentiment,

indicating his lack of originality and his entrapment in the

machine-net. By the time Jake mails the letter, Anna has

left town and, henceforth, he has no idea of her

whereabouts, a fact which precludes the possibility of

sending her another letter. The sole participant in the

creation of his fantasy, he has no one with whom to share

his discourse. Anna's absence is absolute: to write

compelling messages, one must have a willing recipient in

the love-dialectic.

Further, Jake cannot write original messages but

appropriates the language of others. His dependence on Hugo

for the ideas in The Silencer, his emulation of Hugo's

silence, and his translations of Jean-Pierre's books

exemplify his plagiaristic tendencies. This desire to

appropriate the language of others corresponds to his desire

to possess Anna. His pursuit of the elusive other is a

plagiarism, a copy of the myths inherent in language.

When Jake returns from Paris, disappointed at not

having found Anna, he cloisters himself in a room at Dave's

where he awaits the daily visit of the postman, "the only

real moment of the day" (200). Without messages to compel

him, Jake is rendered immobile: forlornly he awaits news of

his beloved, fearing the possibility of her eternal absence.

Roland Barthes defines the lover's absence: "Any episode of

language which stages the absence of the loved

object--whatever its cause and its duration--and which tends

to transform this absence into an ordeal of abandonment" (A

Lover's 13). The absence of love messages indicates the

one-sided, fantastical nature of Jake's pursuit; his

feelings of abandonment, though painful, are self-created

since there is no real person to return his love.

When Jake finally stops waiting for the love message

and takes a job at the hospital next door to Dave's

apartment, he discovers Hugo and thereby the truth which he

has been so desperately seeking. By changing his

repetitious behavior, Jake enters Murdoch's contingent world

where unpredictable events bring about unexpected

circumstances. Early in the novel Jake claims that he

understands the contingent nature of reality: "My fates are

such that as soon as I interest myself in a thing a hundred

accidents happen which are precisely relevant to that thing"

(33). We can see, however, that Jake interprets contingency

as a component of his ongoing fantasy--he believes that

everything that happens is relevant to it, including the

behavior of other people. The irony of Jake's discovering

Hugo where he least expects to find him reflects the true

irrelevance of contingency in Jake's pursuit. At this

turning point in the novel the unstable world of Under the

Net begins to unravel Jake's fantasy, revealing the

equivocality of language.

In Murdoch's schema certain contingencies operate

within language which disrupt the mythopoeic structure.

When Hugo informs Jake that not only does he love Sadie, but

that Anna does indeed love him, Jake discovers the true

irrelevancy of his pursuit. The letters which Jake has been

expecting from Anna have already been written to Hugo. This

unexpected revelation reveals the contingent nature of

humans that is inherent in their language. Jake's fantasy

is then upset, forcing him to reexamine his conception of

reality. Peter Wolfe points out that in Murdoch's novels

"the world's radical instability" plays havoc with the

character's efforts to distort the contingent, reawakening

"the individual to the responsibility of his freedom" (31).

Certainly Jake achieves some measure of awareness when he

discovers after his conversation with Hugo that his pursuit

has been based on false perceptions. But it is difficult

for Jake, even with this knowledge, to end his saga. When

he burglarizes Hugo's apartment, he wrestles with the desire

to steal Anna's letters which he finds in Hugo's safe. No

longer compelled by Anna's mystery, he resists the urge,

viewing her "as a separate being" (283). These references

suggest that Jake experiences some measure of awareness or a

"degree of freedom" but it is not a triumphant epiphany

which exempts him from the charm of the net. He wonders,

for example, if he "had finished with Hugo" (288), and when

he hears Anna's voice singing over the radio at Mrs.

Tinckhams' he responds "mechanically" to her voice.

His receipt of four letters at the end of the novel,

however, suggests that at least this particular fantasy has

ended: when Jake's desperate desire for the message has

paled, he receives a plenitude unexpectedly. With this

final irony, Murdoch suggests that communication is only

possible with real, contingent people. Once Jake has

removed himself from the trance of the net, he can then

receive letters--although they are not the seductive love

letters he has hoped for. Jake writes the last (love)

letter of the novel when he responds to Sadie's request that

he settle the Mars controversy by buying the dog.

Responding to her solicitor with a letter and the 100 lbs.,

he shows that he can express love that is not imitative or

possessive. In this comical ending, Jake loses his

fantasy-love while gaining the love of a true friend--Mars,

his canine companion.

In this first novel Murdoch responds to the kind of

solipsistic protagonist, like Sartre's Roquentin, whom she

has criticized in Sartre: Romantic Rationalist. According

to Murdoch, Roquentin's awareness of contingency isolates

him from the reality of others, constituting an escape into

the myth of the self. In Under the Net Murdoch mocks this

notion by creating a protaganist who is similarly

self-absorbed in such a myth. Jake's dead-end pursuit,

however, describes the construction and final dissolution of

that myth. When Roquentin encounters contingency, he

realizes his personal freedom in an absurd world. Jake, on

the other hand, realizes the mythical nature of his

self-constructed reality.

A Fairly Honorable Defeat

"Human beings should be awfully careful about letters.
They are such powerful tools. Yet people will write
them, in moments of emotion too, and other people will
fail to destroy them." (40)

In A Fairly Honorable Defeat Murdoch examines the coded

nature of language, as evident in the identical nature of

love messages. In this novel she creates characters whose

failure to love arises from their self-deception and

dissatisfaction. The most self-deluded characters are

particularly susceptible to the illusory love message and,

like Jake, interpret it for the purpose of creating or

nurturing a love drama. While the characters' vulnerability

arises from their own weaknesses, the consciously

manipulative Julius King controls their behavior by

recognizing the powerful influence of language and its

ability to produce predictable responses in aspiring lovers.

With such a power figure, Murdoch shows how easily people

can be manipulated and controlled by one who understands the

language codes which evoke certain mechanical responses.

Julius, who understands what "powerful tools" letters are,

creates a love drama for the purpose of his own


Julius functions as an unwelcome interloper in the

patently bourgeois lives of Rupert and Hilda, a married

couple who live in Priory Grove, an upper-middle-class

neighborhood in London. Rupert leads the orderly life of a

self-satisfied civil servant, who fancies himself an expert

on morality. Hilda, an uneducated but intelligent

housewife, adores her husband and savors the comfortable

life they lead. Julius undermines this life when he makes a

wager with Morgan, Hilda's sister and his former lover,

claiming that he can destroy any relationship by playing on

human vanity. Finding this notion amusing, Morgan accepts

the wager and ostensibly, Julius plans the dissolution of a

relationship between Simon, Rupert's brother, and his lover

Axel. Unbeknownst to Morgan, Julius contrives to have

Rupert and Morgan fall in love by sending them fraudulent

love letters. He sends Rupert a love letter, which he has

saved from his relationship with Morgan, and he sends Morgan

an old love letter from Rupert to Hilda which he has stolen

from her desk. Neither objects to the other's declaration

of love and so a Platonic love affair between the two

begins. Once Julius sets the machine going, Rupert and

Morgan begin writing love letters to one another and the

complications commence.

Julius attributes the success of his charade to the

identical nature of love sentiments. As he explains,

"Almost all the letters began 'Darling' or 'Angel' or

something equally ambiguous. In fact the style of love

letters in a certain class of society is remarkably similar"

(405). The recycling of old letters highlights the notion

that humans respond mechanically to coded messages. Because

of the ambiguity and impersonal quality of the message,

identical words of endearment may comprise the intimate

exchanges of countless lovers. Like the sentimental

messages of Hallmark cards, marketed and designed for masses

of people, the love letter lacks distinction. If love

messages lack distinction, then so does human love, or at

least what passes for love in Murdoch's terms. Julius'

trick works because of the vanity of his victims, not their

common love. Rupert and Morgan also respond readily to

Julius' tricks because the language of the letters

reiterates bourgeois ideals and aspirations with regard to

love. Their particular self-absorption arises from their

comfortable, bourgeois lives, and Murdoch points out the

tendency of such a life to encourage consoling fantasies

derived from the language of that class.

Rupert exemplifies the kind of self-deluded solipsist

who populates much of Murdoch's fiction. He typifies the

patriarchal father-figure whose financial success allows him

to act as provider and protector of his small family circle.

This position, in turn, fosters in him a self-

congratulatory smugness which he interprets as an indication

of his personal "goodness." While Rupert regards his love

for his family as "innocent affections" (248), his role as

loving father is selfishly motivated, and his self-image

needs to be rewarded with the language of self-love--that

is, by flattery. This weakness for language proves to be

destructive when Rupert responds mechanically to the

flattery of the spurious letter from Morgan. She calls him

"the wisest person I have ever met" and the "master" of

"coolness and rationality" (252). Believing that he

understands the nature of true love, Rupert decides to act

"wisely" by pursuing a relationship with Morgan, rather than

causing her possible harm by rejecting her.

Rupert's inability to express real love is evident in

his rocky relationship with his recalcitrant son Peter, who

rejects his values and lifestyle. Rupert faults himself for

not being "wise" in his communication with his son and

admits that he behaves mechanically by acting "the stern

father" (23). Trapped in this conventional role, Rupert

cannot write a letter to Peter expressing his love: "But

Rupert knew too that his whole training, the whole of the

society which kept him so stiffly upright and so patently

and pre-eminently successful, had deprived him of the direct

language of love" (138-9). While Rupert experiences some

frustration from his inability to communicate with Peter, he

cannot sacrifice the comfortable social position and role

which define his identity. In Murdochian terms, he seeks

consolation in such a role, a weakness which entangles him

in the ill-fated relationship with Morgan. Murdoch's notion

of the consoling power of the love-myth emerges in Morgan's

dissatisfaction and disquiet after her romance with Julius

has ended. Julius' powerful influence over her derives from

his mythical nature as she explains to Hilda, "Julius was

almost all myth. That is what took me" (60). When Julius

ends the relationship, Morgan must face the contingency of

her own consciousness, freed from the myth that describes

her reality. She is, in fact, searching for a myth to

replace the one she has lost. Tallis, her husband, will not

do because "he has no myth" (60), and thus she turns to her

nephew Peter for a "free innocent love" which exists

"outside the machine" (194). With this lip service to an

ideal, Morgan expresses her need to create myths which

will protect her from the contingency of human experience

and consciousness. Like Jake, Morgan falsely believes she

transcends the behavioristic net of language, perpetuating

lies to keep her fantasy alive.

When Morgan receives Rupert's letter, she transfers her

love interest to him, lying to Peter in a letter in which

she claims she is leaving London for awhile. Instead, she

begins the secret relationship with his father, who offers

her a more substantial love, a more consoling fantasy. She

recognizes that "she felt more at home with Rupert than she

did with either Julius or Tallis" and that he "might have

made her happy" (272). Morgan's needy love lies firmly

within the machine rather than outside, as she would have

it. She exemplifies the kind of female character in

Murdoch's fiction whose love fantasies arise from her

dependence on a mythical male figure to give meaning to her

life. While Jake is seduced by the elusive female other,

Morgan is enthralled by the powerful image of a

father-figure whose wisdom gives order and reason to her

chaotic world. Her letters to Julius, which Rupert

mistakenly believes are written to him, show how easily her

discourse may be transferred from one power figure to

another. By succumbing to such a myth, she denies not only

her own reality but that of the men who constitute her


Like Morgan, Hilda too seeks security and solace in a

mythical relationship. Julius' scheme depends largely on

Morgan and Rupert's shortcomings but also relies on his use

of Hilda's love letters, implicating her in the fiasco. By

saving letters, she demonstrates her faith in the sentiments

therein and the inviolablity of her perfect marriage. When

she begins to suspect an affair between her husband and

sister, she gets a "sick disconnected feeling," seeking

comfort in Rupert's old love letters to her. Julius has, of

course, stolen the letters and thereby stolen the love-myth

which has defined her world.

In contrast to saving letters, discarding or destroying

them indicates a desire to discontinue the romantic

scenario. When Julius discards a letter from Morgan, he

tries to destroy any illusions she may have about their

resuming a relationship. Similarly, Morgan tears up a

letter from Tallis to rid herself of his affections. The

same gesture does not work, however, when at Rupert's

request she tears up his letters to conceal their affair

from Hilda. Destroying the evidence is not effective when

the one who controls language, Julius, fuels the drama by

planting a phoney letter in Rupert's desk for Hilda to find.

The letter convinces Hilda that the relationship is sexual,

a lie which causes her to leave Rupert, bringing about his

despondency and subsequent drowning. Language not only

returns to the source, but proliferates lies, entangling the

composer in the chimeric net of her own weaving.

In contrast to these self-deceived characters, Murdoch

introduces the simple, unpretentious Tallis, a reluctant and

unprolific letter writer. His love for Morgan and his

father Leonard suggests the possibility of loving without

benefit of fantasy. Morgan, in fact, cannot tolerate the

undramatic nature of his love and complains that "He never

could write letters" (61). Tallis' letters, factual and

honest, communicate without fictionalizing his emotional

life. He does not construct a love fantasy to hide from the

erratic inconstancy of his own consciousness, from

contingency and its discomforting unpredictability. Not a

happy man, he lives with his imperfections rather than

obfuscating them with highminded romantic vagaries. He

continues to write letters to Morgan when she comes to

London, but he realizes that he does so because of his fears

and fantasy needs. This awareness distinguishes him from

those characters who lack such introspection. As he

explains to Julius: "I supposes it's cowardly to write

letters. But if one writes letters one can go on hoping"

(401). Tallis understands the solace afforded by language

as well as the harm that it can perpetrate, but unlike

Julius, he does not use this knowledge to control others.

He represents, then, one of Murdoch's good characters

whose lack of a personal myth indicates an acceptance of his

own contingent nature and the possibility of loving without

benefit of fantasy. Tallis' honesty with himself and his

reluctance to embellish his feelings with the language of

love allows him a certain amount of freedom, but also places

him in a disorderly, discomforting reality which offers no

significant consolation.

An Accidental Man

"It had all been, like so many other things in the story,
accidental." (438)

In An Accidental Man letters often appear in groups

without benefit of narrative interruption, foregrounding the

personal discourse of characters regarding accidental events

in the novel. Critics have noted Murdoch's use of letters

in this novel to introduce what she refers to as

"peripheral" or "accidental" characters with no main

characters. For Richard Todd this novel "represents a

considerable measure of success" (47) in Murdoch's efforts

to introduce such characters into her fiction. Her use of

letters as a narrative technique creates a kind of chorus

effect as characters comment on the random events which

comprise the plot. Epistolatory sections have minimal

effect on the plot development but introduce the voices of

diverse characters, whose perceptions of reality are

markedly solipsistic.

In An Accidental Man letters emphasize the mythical

nature of bourgeois discourse. While A Fairly Honorable

Defeat focuses on the lives of a few characters caught up in

the misuse of language, An Accidental Man establishes a

small society whose daily discourse exemplifies the

self-deception and cruelty inherent in their language.

This society has little concern for the personal welfare of

others and their affections, to a large degree, are feigned

and self-motivated. Their gossip and slander indicate a

kind of morbid pleasure which they derive from others'

misfortunes. Such prattle not only maligns others but

affirms the writer's superior position in an accidental

world. Their preoccupation with the problems of others

affirms their own good fortune as evident in the comfortable

accident-free bourgeois world in which they live. Within

the language of these letters Murdoch's conception of a

middle-class myth emerges.

Numerous characters write letters to alleviate the

difficulties of others whose lives appear muddled and

desperate to the letter-writer. Their letters, however,

reveal false sentiments composed by those who need to

satisfy a false self-image, ratifying their own personal

goodness. Those who are subject to such beneficient

treatment exist to some degree outside the boundaries of the

small social circle of the novel and are, therefore,

contingent not only in their peripheral status but in the

accidents which have created their hapless lives. Murdoch

does not suggest that these are the only accidental

characters, but that their place outside the social circle

makes their lives more subject to contingent events and more

pitiable to the characters inside the circle.

Austin Gibson Grey, the accidental man of the title,

receives unwanted assistance from those inside the circle

who want to help him put his life in order. Austin's

haphazard existence produces many of the tragic incidents of

the novel, events which fuel much of the gossip and

feigned-concern of the letters. In the opening of the

novel, we discover that Austin has separated from his wife

Dorina and that he has lost his job. These circumstances

provide ripe opportunity for well-intended intruders for

whom he becomes a worthy cause. Clara and George Tisbourne,

at the center of the small social circle, volunteer their

help in finding Austin a new job. Austin's refusal of their

help does not discourage them, however, as evident in a

letter from Clara to Dorina: "George, who sends his best

regards by the way, is scouting around for a suitable post

and has told Austin this, which has relieved Austin's mind

very much indeed, so don't you worry either" (78). Clara's

abundant, dissimulating letters mark her as the major

busybody of the novel, and lies such as this one exemplify

not only her blindness to Austin's wishes but her desire to

console Dorina. Her sentiments, however, are a mere

simulation of actual affection; her motive is to persuade

Dorina to come live with her and George.

Later in a letter to her friend Hester, Clara gossips

about Austin's having accidentally run over a little girl.

In this letter the hyperbolic nature of her sentiments

conceal the rather vicarious pleasure which she finds in the

event: "Dearest Hester, have you heard the absolutely awful

news? Isn't it ghastly? Oh dear, I can't think

of anything but poor Austin, I must write to him, and I'm

sure he'd be glad if you wrote too" (179). The gossip in

the remainder of the letter reveals the true trivialities

which comprise her bourgeois life. The last line of the

letter reads, for example, "Are you coming to the opening of

Mollie's boutique?" (179).

Austin also evokes help from his brother Matthew, who

unexpectedly arrives in London as the novel begins.

Contemplating the recent loss of his job, Austin considers

the forthcoming intrusion of his friends who will not only

gossip but offer their help. He wants to free himself of

their meddling and is particularly grateful for the absence

of his brother: "Thank God Matthew was abroad, elsewhere

forever, and that they had stopped writing to each other.

The Tisbournes' sympathy would torment him. Matthew's

sympathy might kill him" (23). Matthew's sympathy for his

brother is not immediately apparent in his first missive to

him. Claiming that he has returned to London to resolve old

difficulties between them, he denies the real nature of his

motives: "I do not presume to imagine that I can help you.

But you can certainly help me" (81). We soon discover,

however, that Matthew's raison d'etre is to help others, as

he thrives on adulation and others' dependency. Austin's

refusal to mend the difficulties of the past plagues his

brother, disturbing his image of himself as a saint. When

he leaves London at the end of the novel, separating himself

from his brother once again, we discover that Matthew has

given up on Austin's "salvation." He leaves without

notifying his brother, and in a letter to his former ghuru

Kaoru reveals his true intentions in leaving London:

"Perhaps this is my ultimate spitefulness against my brother

[her emphasis], he said in the letter" (440). Matthew's

fraternal concern for his brother conceals a need to make

Austin one of his admirers, one who comes to him for advice

and wisdom. His efforts to achieve some kind of spiritual

goodness prove to be a sham and this admission in the letter

reveals the selfish motivations which lie behind his

benevolent facade.

All but Austin and his son Garth succumb to Matthew's

charismatic personality. In a conversation with his friend

Ludwig, Garth calls his uncle "a false prophet" describing

him as follows: "He's a fat charmer, charming his way to

paradise. He's the sort of person who makes everyone tell

him their life story and then forgets it" (111). This

evaluation proves to be quite accurate as most of the

characters are indeed charmed by Matthew. He, furthermore,

understands the powerful influence he has over people and

his ability to seduce them with language. Contemplating a

reunion with his former lover Mavis, Dorina's sister, he

decides, "He would not write her. It was indeed essential

that he should leave her alone since he must not, whatever

else he did, go anywhere near Dorina" (129).

Matthew eventually writes Mavis and they resume their

relationship. Though he makes no overtures to Dorina, she

eventually seeks him out after discovering Austin in bed

with another woman. His desire to stay away from Dorina

derives from his earlier friendship with Austin's first wife

Betty, who drowned "accidentally." Because of an ambiguous

letter that Betty wrote to Matthew, Austin believes that the

friendship was more than Platonic. This letter has denied

Matthew the love and respect of his brother, and though he

claims that Austin has interpreted it incorrectly, it

contains at least this truth: that Matthew is not perfect.

His determination to persuade Austin of the letter's

innocence is motivated by his desire to perpetuate a

self-image that his brother refuses to affirm. This

ambiguous letter bears evidence of the contingent,

displacing the personal myth that Matthew assiduously tries

to create with his own powerful use of language. The lack of

one interpretation creates multiple possibilities which put

into question Matthew's mythical role.

The ongoing dialogue of the letters between Ludwig

Leferrier and his father further examines the underlying

motives of familial love. Ludwig, an American born in

England, has determined to make England his home to avoid

being drafted into the Vietnam war. His parents, European

immigrants of Aryan German descent, strongly disapprove of

his actions and try desperately to persuade him to change

his mind. Ludwig's stalwart determination to remain in

England does not exempt him from the guilt which he feels at

having disappointed his parents: "He dreaded their letters

in which, in language which both offended and touched him,

they begged him to come home and get himself 'straightened

out' (13). In the Leferrier's long letters to their son,

Murdoch shows how the language of parental love is often

authoritative and emotionally manipulative; Ludgwig's mixed

response to his parent's entreaties suggests how difficult

it is to resist such emotional rhetoric. While trying to

establish a separate reality of his own, within which he can

make personal philosophical decisions, he must live with the

disapproval of his parents and the subsequent guilt.

In his responses to his parents' letters, Ludwig

resists their interference while trying to convince them

that he has the right to make his own decisions. His

letters imitate those of his parents, particularly his

father's, in their authoritativeness on the one hand and

their familial sentiments on the other: "And see that now I

must envisage a time when we shall all be united in peace

and happiness in Europe. Please see it this way. I love

you and I honour you and if I could obey you I would. But I

must first obey my conscience, as you yourselves have always

taught me to do. Please understand that my decision is

firmly taken. And please write soon and forgivingly too"

(88). Ludwig's dilemma, Murdoch suggests, is a universal

one: to what degree does one's love for his country or

parents affect his actions? His confusion is further

compounded by his uncertainties about his ability to make

right choices. The determination expressed in his letters

belies his doubts concerning his decision to stay in


As the dialogue between parents and son progresses, the

language of their familial love letters reveals a power

struggle. When Mr. Leferrier writes to concede to his son's

wishes, then Ludwig achieves a sense of his own personal

authority, as evident in his decision to return to America.

In Mr. Leferrier's last letter to his son he surrenders his

authority, claiming that "love now unambiguously dictates a

surrender of our former position" (400). While the language

of this letter demonstrates the same controlled reasoning of

the former ones, it constitutes a surrender, giving Ludwig

the freedom to act according to his own conscience.

Released from the demands of his parents' authority, he

returns to the United States to accept the consequences of

his draft resistance. In the absence of his parent's

emotional rhetoric, Ludwig must face up to the choices which

he has so firmly defended in their dialogue. In short, he

has the freedom that he has been seeking. This freedom,

however, proves to be rather ambiguous as conversations with

Matthew have influenced his decision although to him "it did

not seem that Matthew had influenced him" (430). Matthew's

interference renders Ludwig's freedom uncertain, suggesting

how easily love becomes authoritative and how ambiguous

one's personal choices really are. Ludwig's freedom, then,

is contingent on the language of others, rendering his moral

decisions uncertain and doubtfully based on his own personal


In one way or another all of the characters in An

Accidental Man attempt to control others, to seduce them

with language, except for Dorina, who is powerfully

controlled by her husband Austin. Her love letters to him

reveal that she is imprisoned by the notion of his mythical

godliness. The whole purpose of her being resides in him as

expressed in a letter to him: "There is no God, but I pray

to you and lodge therein the thought of you all the good

that I know or dream of" (252). When she discovers Austin

in bed with Mitzi she runs immediately to Matthew

transferring her myth to him. When he insists that she

leave his home and refuses to correspond with her, she runs

away to a hotel where she is "overwhelmed with misery and

fear" (364). With no myth to protect her, she experiences

the contingent nature of her own consciousness, which makes

her physically ill, much like Nausea's Roquentin. Unlike

Roquentin, however, her realization of the world's

contingency, which is for her the absence of God, is

tragically displayed in her freakish death: an electric

stove which she has balanced on the lavatory falls into the

tub while she is bathing. Dorina's unfortunate death is

ironically counterpoised by Austin's rather bright outcome.

Having caused so much harm to others, he emerges quite

unscathed by his actions. Personal outcomes, the novel

suggests, are not based on a reasonable or fair measure of

personal goodness but depend largely on chance events.

Death and suffering occur in a random fashion without regard

for personal merit. This stark reality underlies many of

the characters' attempts to deny such a world view and to

console themselves with fantasies which conceal the

accidental nature of existence. The novel, however, makes

it clear that Austin is no more accidental than any of the

other characters, as evident in this piece of cocktail party

dialogue: 'Austin is like all of us only more so.' 'He

gets away with it' (445). The language of the letters in

An Accidental Man attempt to cover up how much everyone is

just like Austin. They create, in short, fictions to

conceal this Murdochian conception of human nature.

The Black Prince

"What dangerous machines letters are. Perhaps it is as
well that they are going out of fashion. A letter can
be endlessly reread and reinterpreted, it stirs
imagination and fantasy, it persists, it is red-hot
evidence." (184)

In The Black Prince Murdoch creates another solipsistic

lover whose downfall arises from a love fantasy. Bradley

Pearson, the narrator and fantasist, composes his book in

prison, describing it as a love story and recollection of

events which lead up to his incarceration. Bradley believes

in the magic of language, using the sorcery of letters to

defend himself against the reality of others. He also finds

consolation in secrecy--an occult effort to exclude others

from his reality. He invests love with supernatural power,

a fantasy which lifts him from his frustrating struggles in

the contingent world to a lofty, god-like position outside

the machine of language.

In an interview with William Slaymaker, Murdoch

describes her novels as battles between magic and freedom or

magic and goodness. As she explains, "one has to be aware

of magic, in general, it's a 'lower condition'" (431). In

Murdoch's novels, we find characters investing language with

magical significance to empower themselves. This

misapprehension is a lower condition because it gives

supernatural meaning to the character's personal myth,

offering a specious transcendence that excludes the mundane

reality of others. The language of love, for example,

allows Bradly to experience a kind of mock-transcendence,

allowing him to perceive the real. While he believes that

love has brought him freedom, Murdoch suggests that he is

imprisoned by his own magical tricks. Bradley is, in fact,

a prisoner of his own love story, an artist who has

encapsulated himself in the fantasy of his novel. Such a

position renders his narrative unreliable; his guilt or

innocence lies within the unfolding subtext of Bradley

Pearson's story.

Living an isolated life, Bradley wants to keep

potential affection at a distance. Letters figure in his

defensive efforts because they allow him communication

without personal contact. Early in the novel his privacy is

impinged upon by a series of characters who interrupt his

plans to leave London for a seaside retreat where he plans

to write his third novel. His former brother-in-law,

Francis, arrives to inform him that Bradley's ex-wife and

Francis' sister, Christian, has taken up residence in

London. While trying to get rid of Francis, Bradley's

friend Arnold Baffin calls to say that he may have killed

his own wife Rachel. Bradley, then, goes to his friends'

home to find the aftermath of a violent fight between the

two. Rachel, hiding in the bedroom, has suffered a blow

from a fire poker wielded by Arnold. The next morning

Bradley writes a series of letters to sever contact with

this small group of characters who have interrupted his

plans. He describes his need to write letters: "I am, I

must confess, an obsessive and superstitious letter-writer.

When I am troubled I will write any long letter rather than

make a telephone call A letter is a barrier, a

reprieve, a charm against the world, an almost infallible

method of acting at a distance" (62-3).

The distancing effects of letters translate as magic

for Bradley, allowing him the sanctitude of his solitary

reality. But before he can leave town, his sister,

Priscilla, arrives at his door distraught after having left

her husband. Disgruntled by the imposition and insensitive

to her needs, he unsuccessfully tries to persuade her to go

back to her husband. He fails to convince her, however, and

the same day she attempts suicide, further thwarting his

efforts to leave town. Lacking the countervailing recourse

of a letter to put Priscilla at a distance, Bradley escapes

the situation and the responsibility by allowing Christian

and Francis to take care of her. He excuses himself by

saying that "he doesn't love her enough to be any use to

her," describing his feelings for her as "mechanical."

In Iris Murdoch's Comic Vision Angela Hague explains

Bradley's defensive use of language: "People and situations

that pose a threat to Bradley's emotional isolation and

serenity are frequently treated in a detached, ironic manner

which lessens their stature and importance for both the

reader and the narrator" (105). Bradley defends himself

against others by downplaying their importance to him, using

language to deny emotions which might threaten his consoling

reality. By fictionalizing his own emotional life, he hopes

to attenuate the importance of others' reality.

Bradley's inability to express love extends to other

characters for whom he has ambivalent feelings. The arrival

of Christian upsets him considerably, and though he claims

to detest her, his vehement ejection to her presence in

London speaks otherwise. The language of a letter to her

contradicts his intended rebuff: behind every negative "not"

and "no," a "yes" speaks, expressing his hidden desire. For

example, "There is nothing of a cordial or forward-looking

import to be read 'between the lines.' My act of writing to

you does not betoken excitement or interest" (66). The

letter contains 17 negative constructions: rhetorical

obstructions to hide Bradley's true feelings. Neither this

letter nor the others repulses the receiver, but all act

like invitations to those who read between the lines.

Both Christian and Francis become involved in the

caretaking of his sister, as well as Arnold and Rachel

Baffin and their daughter Julian. As the emotional climate

thickens, Bradley becomes more uncomfortable with his

unprotected world, and is particularly discomforted by the

developing friendship between Christian and Arnold. His

jealousy of Arnold's far more prolific and successful

writing career magnifies the threat. As a result, he

resorts to a more powerful defense: he has a secret, though

Platonic, affair with Arnold's wife Rachel.

Secretiveness, or the withholding of language, provides

Bradley with a backup defense when his letters fail to

provide a comforting barrier. His relationship with Rachel

makes him feel "defended against Arnold. There was

something important to him which I knew and he did not"

(126). The morning after their first kiss, Bradley feels

the desire to write her "an ambiguous letter" (127), an

indication of his need to conceal his real intentions while

maintaining a secret language between them. Rachel

forestalls him, however, by sending him a very

straightforward letter in which she asks him to be her

"ally." Bradley recognizes that he and Rachel have joined

in an alliance against Arnold, but he wishes that she had

not spoken so explicitly about their motives. Bradley wants

to use language in an occult way so that he can find

protection in its mysteriousness. Letters can provide

insulating magic if they keep secrets not only from the

excluded party, but from the receiver and sender as well.

Rachel's need to tell secrets, however, proves to be

the undoing of Bradley's emotional barriers when she tells

Arnold about the affair. Trapped in the machine of her

marriage, she believes that revealing secrets will free her

from those confines. In contrast to Bradley, who wants to

be a prisoner of language, Rachel wants to escape the

machine by having an open relationship with both men. She

translates this freedom in a spiritual sense, telling

Bradley that as a result of their mutual love, "We've become

Gods" (139). The desire of Murdoch's characters to be

god-like constitutes a denial of their imperfect human

nature and a desire for mythical stature. Human

imperfection is the contingency which renders them powerless

in a frightening, accidental world. By seeking a

transcendent, perfect love, they express a faith in some

spiritual condition which sanctifies their actions and

justifies their existences, a kind of absolution of the


With no secrets to console him, the old anxiety

returns, and Bradley's emotional vulnerability puts him in

"an obscure frenzy" (145). He feels "that strong urge to do

something, to act, which often afflicts people in

unanalysable dilemmas. If one can only act, depart, return,

send a letter, one can ease the anxiety which is really fear

of the future in the form of fear of the darkness of one's

present desires" (145). Desperate and disconsolate, Bradley

does act: he mails a scathing review of Arnold's new book

which he has been hesitating to send. With this act Bradley

exemplifes the Murdochian fantasist who lacks the

self-discipline to control the powerful influence of his

emotions. Mechanically, he acts rather than reflects, and

in so doing causes harm to others.

As we continue to read between the lines of Bradley's

love story, a secret which the entire novel serves to reveal

begins to surface. The obscurity of his previously

mentioned frenzy conceals the true object of his desire. If

letters mechanically deny his affection for others, ironized

beyond the sender's awareness, then the review of Arnold's

book and the secret relationship with Rachel conceal the

real object of his desires and source of his fears--Arnold.

While Bradley tells himself and the reader that his contempt

for Arnold arises from their professional rivalry, this

excuse belies another more intimate connection. Because of

his love for Arnold, he acts aggressively in order to

alienate him. By sending the review he tries to rid himself

of the one who causes his obscure anxiety.

In addition to his covert pleasure at having "scored

off" Arnold in his relationship with Rachel, he continues to

ignore Arnold's suggestions that they begin to write to one

another again. By withholding language he tries to alienate

his friend. Arnold, however, is not easily rebuffed, but

continues to try to break through Bradley's silence. It is

only when Bradley falls in love with Arnold's young daughter

Julian that he succeeds in making an enemy of his long-time

friend. With this new magic, Bradley alienates Arnold and

finally escapes London.

When Bradley falls in love with Julian he feels like a

"god," experiencing an "overwhelming sense of reality"

(209). No longer needing the edifice of language to keep

Arnold at a distance, he enacts a simulated escape from the

defensive mechanisms which have enslaved him, experiencing

the spiritual (though spurious) freedom which Rachel has

earlier described. Because of his godly status, he no longer

needs language to defend himself against unwanted intruders

or to express his love to Julian. Neither he nor Julian

write letters to one another, and he secretly leaves London

without writing letters to inform his friends of his


The flimsy facade of Bradley's fantasy quickly

collapses, however, when the suicide of his sister prompts

Francis to seek his whereabouts. Finding a letter from the

travel agent in Bradley's desk, he discovers the location of

their retreat and sends Bradley a telegram. Bradley then

experiences the same karmic retribution as other Murdoch

solipsists, as letters and language uncover the concealed.

His inability to love his sister and to recognize the

contingent nature of her reality brings about the

dissolution of his perfect life. In one final effort to

keep his fantasy intact, Bradley keeps Priscilla's death a

secret from Julian. Informed of their whereabouts by

Francis, Arnold arrives at the love-nest and exposes

Bradley's secret. Unbeknownst to Bradley, he also brings a

letter to Julian from her mother describing her recent

affair with Bradley. Bradley's need to conceal language by

keeping secrets proves fatal to his love-fantasy. Julian

leaves him in the middle of the night and he never sees her

again. As sending and receiving letters reveal the secrets

of Bradley's fictional world, they also reveal the

complexity of the human emotions involved in our

relationships with other people. Letters are "powerful

tools" as Julius King has said because they record the

erratic, everchanging nature of human emotions.

On his return to London Bradley writes letters in an

attempt to find Julian, who has been secreted away by her

father. Like Jake, however, he cannot retrieve his lost

fantasy with compelling messages. When Rachel tells him

about her letter to Julian, he retaliates by showing her a

letter which Arnold had written to him confessing his love

for Christian and enlisting Bradley's help in explaining to

Rachel. Although Arnold's emotions regarding Christian have

changed by the time Rachel reads the letter, the language of

this fleeting affection still remains to harm the sender.

With letter in hand, Rachel returns home and kills Arnold

with the same fire poker which he had struck her with at the

beginning of the novel. Mechanically, language brings the

characters back to where their story began. When Bradley

arrives at the scene, he performs his last act of

concealment by destroying the crumpled letter that he

discovers on the floor beside Arnold's body. Ironically,

this belated concern for another's welfare, a gesture to

protect Rachel, proves to be his undoing. When the police

arrive they arrest Bradley for the murder of Arnold Baffin.

By giving Rachel this final letter of the novel,

Bradley kills Arnold with language, insuring a permanent end

to the communication between them. By destroying the

letter, he effectively protects Rachel from prosecution for

the crime, taking back the language that he had used to harm

another. Because of his abuse of language and inability to

love, Bradley must suffer for Arnold's death. Convicted of

murder and given a life sentence, Bradley is incarcerated.

A prisoner of language, he finally finds the privacy and

distance he needs to write his novel--The Black Prince: A

Celebration of Love.

The Sea. The Sea

"But the past refused to come back, as it did in dreams
to be remade." (414)

Charles Arrowby, the central figure and narrator of The

Sea. The Sea, recounts his story in the form of a journal;

his memoirs relate the incidents which occur after his

retirement to Shruff End, a fin-de-si&cle home on the

seaside. A former theatre director, Charles has given up

the life of the stage to seek a calm, tranquil existence

bereft of vanity. Charles resembles other Murdochian

solipsists who perceive themselves in a better light than

they appear. In this novel Murdoch examines the seductive

power of the past which compels people to want to repeat it.

Memory, an act of replication, reinterprets events for the

consoling benefit of the one who harbors regrets and wishes

to return to the past or to relive it. Over the age of 60,

Charles has never recovered from the loss of his first love,

Mary Hartley, who ended the relationship without

explanations. Through the years he has idealized her,

remaining unmarried because of this unexorcised ghost from

the past. He has continued to hope that he would find her

again and so he has waited, deferring other romantic

involvements for this elusive one.

Charles contends that he has forsworn the fame and

power of a successful life in the theatre to find happiness

and peace in the reclusive life. His egotism, nurtured and

encouraged by the stage-life, remains quite healthy,

however, and it is soon obvious that he still needs the

adulation and servility of others. In the early pages of

his journal, he finds it troubling that he has received no

letters from his friends. His aspiration for the cloistered

life rings hollow as his need for communication makes him

and the reader question the sincerity of his new lifestyle.

In a letter to a former lover, Lizzie, he asks her to come

live with him at Shruff End, further evidence of his

dissatisfaction and preoccupation with the past. Finding

consolation in hindsight, Charles remembers and waits for a

message from the past to console him in his disturbing


More than adulation, Charles needs obedience. He

exemplifies the kind of fantasist whom Murdoch describes as

one who wants to impose his will on others. In The

Sovereignty of Good she explains this notion: "What I have

called fantasy, the proliferation of blinding self-centered

aims and images, is itself a powerful system of energy, and

most of what is often called 'will' or 'willing' belongs to

this system. What counteracts the system is attention to

reality inspired by, consisting of, love" (67). That

Charles cannot love according to Murdoch's definition is

evident when he interprets Lizzie's letter refusing his

request as a weak protestation of his more powerful

influence over her. Recounting their love affair, he

explains, "I was touched by her love and by her superb

obedience..." (50). Interpreting Lizzie's letter for the

benefit of his own power-fantasy, Charles reads surrender in

her objections and adulation in her expression of love, but

is unmoved by her objection to his previous ill-treatment of

her. Charles, then, interprets the language of love

according to the needs of his own powerful will, while

ignoring the needs and the reality of the letter-writer.

Murdoch's novels are populated with characters who

submit to the will of a power figure. Female characters,

easily seduced by such figures, fail to recognize or accept

the reality of their own lives. Hence, they surrender their

personal freedom to find security in the spurious reality of

another. Lizzie, for example, cannot resist Charles's

charismatic influence over her and writes him another letter

consenting to his request to come and live with him. Before

this letter arrives at Shruff End, Charles discovers Hartley

living with her husband in the local village. After an

encounter with Hartley in a local church during which she

promises to "write to him later" (136), he writes another

letter to Lizzie claiming that he agrees with her first

objection. When he receives the second letter from Lizzie,

he refers to it as a "shifty missive" (141) and writes a

telegram reiterating the rejection contained in his letter

to her. Charles' self-absorption again allows him to

manipulate and interpret language in a way which fits the

needs of the moment. Lizzie's submission to his request

further quells his desire for her, indicated in the tone of

his comment that, "She almost made it seem as if she was

endeavoring to oblige me" (141). This elusive first-love

attracts him far more than Lizzie's compliant love. Once

Charles recognizes Hartley's youthful face in the aged,

tired one of the old woman she has become, he begins an

obsessive campaign to steal her away from her husband Ben.

When Charles does not receive a letter from Hartley, he

intrudes upon her marriage, visiting her home without

invitation and secretly sending letters to command her

allegiance. Though Hartley resists his interference, he

convinces himself that she objects to his overtures out of

fear of her husband. Eager to prey upon what he perceives

as her weak will, he becomes more aggressive in his pursuit

and irrational in his thinking. When waiting for her to

succumb to his will proves too frustrating, he decides: "I

had waited long enough on Hartley's will, and I was

beginning to believe that she wanted me to force her" (319).

When Charles's fantasy-love does not submit willingly to his

advances, he takes her captive in his home, sealing his

conquest with a succinct letter to her husband informing him

that Hartley is at Shruff End.

While Charles keeps Hartley a prisoner at Shruff End,

he attempts to revive her memories of their former

relationship. This effort proves ineffectual, however, when

her memories do not correspond to his own. Referring to

their youthful love as a "dream made of lies" (32),

Hartley recognizes the equivocal nature of memory and its

tendency to create fictions out of past experiences.

Charles's fantasy, however, depends on his denial of change.

Refusing to acknowledge the ongoing process of life with its

multiple permutations and diverse alterations, he denies the

contingent nature of human experience. By refusing to

accept the inevitable changes which have occurred during the

years they have been apart, he tries to force his own false

notion of reality upon the present. Hartley, the old woman,

is not the young girl whom he once loved, nor is he the

young boy who once loved her.

Because contingency produces changes in the process of

living, it eventually arrests the mechanical fantasy-life of

the perpetrator, whose nemesis is the language of his own

invention. When Hartley does not respond willingly to her

captivity, Charles' cousin James persuades him to write a

letter to her husband confessing the abduction. Intended to

soften Ben's treatment of his wife on her return, the letter

admits to Charles' delusory pursuit. It reads, for example,

"I did not act out of malice, but out of the promptings of

an old romantic affection which I now see to have nothing to

do with what exists at present" (330). Hartley thus escapes

him with a letter in which Charles confesses to his own

wrongdoing. By revealing Charles's true motivations,

language upsets the love-fantasy.

Hartley's final escape from Charles occurs as the

result of a love letter she writes inviting him to come to

tea. When he arrives, she and Ben inform him of their plans

to move to Australia. Alone with Hartley on the porch, he

hands her another letter and pleads with her not to leave.

Pulling away from him, she answers: "You haven't

understood--" (424). Without an invitation, he visits them

again the next day only to find them gone and the house bare

of furniture. In the bathroom he discovers his unopened

letter hidden under the linoleum. This chosen hiding place

reaffirms the false notions which have compelled Charles'

pursuit of his first love. Earlier in the novel he has

wondered whether she will secretly write him a letter in the

bathroom out of the watchful eye of Ben. Instead, she has

hidden his letter in the bathroom, an indication of her

desire to not only to hide Charles' delusory sentiments but

also to escape his entrapping language. Charles' power is

then diminished by the discarded love letter and the escape

of Hartley--a situation brought about by the only letter

which she has written to him "for over forty years" (414).

The love letter, for which he has been desperately waiting,

proves to be the vehicle through which his fantasy escapes

him--a circumstance brought about his efforts to control the

language of love and thereby deny the changing nature of


After this final escape, Charles gives up his pursuit,

and in his Postscript he recognizes in hindsight that "I

have battered destructively and in vain upon the mystery of

someone else's life and must cease at last" (490). This

comment suggests that he has recognized Hartley as a real

person rather than a fictional one whose freedom he has

violated by trying to force his will upon her. In his

Postscript we find him recollecting in order to understand

his previous behavior, and enjoying solitude in the

aftermath of his dramatic story. He also interprets the

language of love differently than in the past: "I have

reread Lizzie's letters At the time they seemed to

be mere outpourings of self-deceiving nonsense. Now they

seem rather touching, even wise" (494). At the end of the

novel, Charles experiences the changes which he has claimed

to experience as he began his journal. His use of language

to control others proves to be the instrument of change

which frees him from the power fantasy and the love story

The Sea. The Sea.

Glimpses Of The Real

"The whole language is a machine for making
falsehoods." (60)

Murdoch's abundant use of letters to support her

fictional structures contributes to the overall mythical

framework of her novels, suggesting that language creates

and controls our fantasies and deceptions about reality.

The language of love, as I have discussed it in these

novels, reveals the various ways in which we distort our

perceptions of others in the name of love, denying their

reality as separate beings.

Although Murdoch seems to agree with Hugo's notion that

"The whole language is a machine for making falsehoods"

(Under 60), she also proposes that language can provide

glimpses of the real, offering us a vehicle for perceiving

others more clearly--as contingent and separate from us.

While she offers good characters, whose acceptance of the

contingent reality of others prevents them from egregiously

abusing language, these characters do not occupy a

transcendental place outside the net. Her novels do not

claim, for example, that what-is-love exists outside the

net, but that fantasy or what-is-not-love exists within

language. Goodness, for Murdoch, describes acts of

reflection which help us, through self-discipline, to deny

the compulsion to create solipsistic fictions. This denial

requires that we face the contingency of others, affirming

their freedom and giving ourselves an opportunity to express

real love.


Frequently, in Murdoch's fiction women take on the role

of the other whose identity is defined by the other

characters' mythification of her. The other in this

paradigm loses authenticity as a separate, independent

being. Such a view corresponds to a large extent to Simone

de Beauvoir's The Second Sex in which she reformulates

Sartre's theory of the other as object by showing how women

are subject to such objectification. Women, she explains,

find themselves "living in a world where men compel her to

assume the status of the Other" (xxviii). In this way, men

"propose to stabilize her as an object and to doom her to

immanence since her trancendence is to be overshadowed and

forever transcended by another ego which is essential

and sovereign" (xxviii). Murdoch's fiction provides

numerous examples of women whose images are appropriated by

powerful male figures attempting to establish such

sovereignty. In these scenarios the struggle between

oppressor and victim has different consequences; in some

cases, the female character succumbs to her role as image,

while in others she attempts to wrest herself from such a

position. In the first case the female character fails to

take responsibility for her own self-actualization, an idea

similar to de Beavoir's notion that women too can practice

"bad faith" through complicity with their own

objectification. In the latter case the female character

attempts to shed the ideology of otherness, a concept that

not only de Beauvoir but other feminist critics, such as

Mary Daly, have espoused.

Josephine Donovan sees in Murdoch's fiction and

theories a women's epistemology which, following

Wittgenstein and Simone Weil, denies a rational, Newtonian

world view. She explains: "The implications of Murdoch's

theory are that the I-it view of Newtonian science must give

way to a more comprehensive vision that accepts the

'thou-ness' of life beyond the self and accepts the

importance and reality of dimensions beyond the rational"

(182). The mythical framework of Murdoch's novels often

depends on this kind of rational model wherein the female

characters become an indeterminate element which other

characters appropriate for the purpose of keeping their

world ordered. With this kind of fictional schema Murdoch

describes how power structures work and how women figure in

them. There is the question, of course, whether her

fictional representations of women simply reappropriate a

male-centered discourse, replicating an image that limits

and textualizes her within the confines of the novel.

In the following analysis I will suggest that Murdoch's

mythical worlds, whether based on philosophical paradigms or

archetypal stories, confront the question of their own

credibility by exposing the false order or deceptive images

on which they are founded. Alice Ostricker's discussion of

how myth can be useful to female poets provides a valuable

way of looking at Murdoch's fiction: "But in them [poems]

the old stories are changed, changed utterly, by female

knowledge of female experience, so that they can no longer

stand as foundations of collective male experience, so that

they can no longer stand as foundations of collective male

fantasy. Instead they are corrections; they are

representations of what women find divine and demonic in

themselves; they are retrieved images of what women have

collectively and historically suffered; in some cases they

are instructions for survival" (318). It seems to me that

Murdoch's recapitulation of women's place in cultural myths

exemplifies an effort to unsettle and "correct" the images

of women as mystified other.

In the three books studied in this chapter, I show how

women are trapped within certain spiritual-myths which have

in common the reification of woman as a spiritual ideal. I

use the term spiritual to describe what I observe in

Murdoch's novels as a belief in a transcendent source of

power which exists beyond the physical plane in another

world or "other" world. The spiritual aspirant depends on

the image of woman for access to this world, and thus she

comes to represent a source of spiritual power and

knowledge. The spiritualized woman constitutes a hidden

meaning which prompts the will to power and also makes her

desirable. By investing the female other with a spiritual

meaning, the power-figure hopes to control or explain his

existence through appropriating her image. The desire for

spiritual knowledge and sexual desire become confused within

the power myth, however. Woman's spiritual mystery invests

her with a certain indeterminancy which is both threatening

and attractive to the male character, who may view this

indeterminancy in different ways: as the hidden meaning of

existence, as God, or as death. The spiritual myth, then,

constitutes a discourse of desire which is power-centered,

the structure of which depends on this sacred image of


The female other in this system has no discourse of

desire and must define her own pleasure through the language

of power which frames her. Her desire arises from her own

desirability and the mystery of her naming which has the

effect of silencing her, leaving the nature of her desire

indiscernible. Many of Murdoch's female characters struggle

to free themselves from their constraints, seeking a place

outside the spiritual myth of patriarchy. Murdoch does not

establish where this place might be, but her novels do

suggest that freedom is an ongoing process whereby one

removes the layers of mythological conditioning that

controls one's behavior. Her novels do not establish an

ideal place for this experience of freedom since, in her

schema, it is never wholly attainable. As I previously

mentioned, Murdoch also creates female characters who

contribute to their imprisonment by refusing to resist the

boundaries of mythical discourse, remaining placed within

that power system as an image or symbol. Of course,

Murdoch's fictional worlds create numerous power scenarios

which depict women abusing power and which show the

victimization of men as well.

Architectural boundaries-walls, houses, and

rooms-confine many of Murdoch's female characters, prisons

within which the women are subject to the desires of the

male figures. This denial establishes her purity and

perfection, producing such idealized images as goddess,

angel or nun, a spiritual status that makes her desirable

to the one who worships her. The spiritual place exists as

both a sanctuary and a prison-an illusory space enclosing

the sacred woman. Within this space the male character is

torn between a desire to know the sacred object and a desire

to distance himself from her. He experiences both elation

and repulsion, indications of his ambivalence toward the

acquisition of spiritual knowledge. The scene of desire

produces a tension which arises from the impossibility of

satisfaction. Because the spiritual must remain mysterious,

there can be no fulfillment-pleasure must be derived from

the tension which arises from the conflicting emotions of

love and fear of the sacred woman. The spiritual image of

the woman is not wholly pure, however, but embodies a

threatening evil. Julia Kristeva establishes a link between

the sacred woman and what she refers to as the abject: "As

abjection-so the sacred. Abjection accompanies all

religious constructions and reappears, in order to be

elaborated in a new guise, at the time of their collapse"

(167). Similarly, in Murdoch's novels the sacred image of

woman embodies contradictory opposites: good/evil,

pure/impure, licit/illicit.

The Unicorn
The Unicorn, one of Murdoch's Gothic novels, begins

with Marian Taylor's entrance into the savage landscape of

Gaze Castle, where she has accepted a job as governess for a

Mrs. Crean-Smith who resides there. Fearful of the wild,

untamed land with its black cliffs, violent sea, and sparse

vegetation, she approaches the castle in the Land Rover with

her escorts, employees of Mrs. Crean-Smith: "She feared the

rocks and the cliffs and the grotesque dolmen and the

ancient secret things" (13). Dorothy Winsor claims that

"The pre-civilized quality of the setting makes it both a

metaphor for and a fitting location for primitive sex and

violence" (126). For Winsor the Gothic setting represents

and comments on the primitive nature of hidden primal

instincts. I suggest, however, that the book's setting acts

less as a symbol for the repressed than as a place where

symbols collapse, causing the dissolution of boundaries

between the spiritual and sexual impulses of the characters.

While the symbols and setting do suggest and mark boundaries

between an inside (dark and frightening world) and an

outside one, this demarcation proves to be a false creation

of the characters who attempt to control others (and thereby

their reality) through such false divisions.

Gaze Castle sits at the center of the wild landscape,

where Hannah, "the image of the significance of suffering,"

has been sequestered by her husband Peter Crean-Smith. A

small group of servants, headed by Gerald Scottow, tend to

her needs but also act as her jailers. Her husband

imprisoned her there after she committed adultery with a

neighbor, Peter Lejour, then, according to rumor, attempted

to push him over a cliff during an argument. As the

symbolic figure of the novel, Hannah takes on mythical

significance to the other characters. As a unicorn she

represents the perfect Christ of Christianity and the

original animal-monster of Roman myth. As Peter Conradi

explains: "The unicorn of the title is a leading symbol of

Christ in medieval bestiaries" (123). To the other

characters she becomes an object of worship because of her

martyrdom; her suffering makes their lives more meaningful.

Her sins against patriarchy-the adultery and attempted

murder--however, violate the boundaries dividing the

spiritual marytr and the flawed human. As a sufferer she

becomes a spiritualized figure (an angel), but her adultery

and attempt to kill her husband renders her a Lilith or

demon-a two-fold symbol of good and evil. Peter Conradi

clarifies this notion: "Hannah's worshippers are also her

gaolers. If she is ambiguous, so are they. She is the

source and repository of the idea of the ambiguity of Eros,

but in needing her to play the roles both of Christ and

tainted enchantress, they collude. Spirituality, sex and

power are throughout the story richly confused" (123).

Hannah's ambiguity increases her desirability, making

her the center of the voyeuristic gaze, as evident in the

name of the castle. As the object of the gaze, Hannah is

trapped by the image which others have made of her; the

voyeuristic gaze requires a certain detachment or distancing

which separates the image from the gazer. The boundary

between the two imprisons Hannah as well as the characters

who idolize and fear her. The demarcations born from her

mythical naming and these false divisions drawn between her

and the other characters create the illusion of spiritual

knowledge. This epistemology, however, depends on the

erection of dead images. In a conversation with Effingham,

one of her worshippers who questions her unwillingness to

free herself, Hannah says she doesn't "feel much any more"

and to leave the Castle "would make me be something." In

the same conversation Effingham recognizes that she is dead

(101). The mythical names framing or incarcerating Hannah

are empty of meaning. There is no temptress, no sorceress,

no enchantress, no unicorn, no Christ, no angel, no monster

because there is no Hannah-the object of the gaze is dead.

In one sense Hannah resembles Woolf's angel in the

house: she exists to please those who use her image to

mythologize their reality. She has indeed given up her self

to become a symbol. Gilbert and Gubar comment on this kind

of sacrifice: "Whether she becomes an obiet d'art or a

saint, however, it is the surrender of her self-of her

personal comfort, her personal desires, or both-that is the

beautiful angel-woman's key act, while it is precisely this

sacrifice which dooms her both to death and to heaven. For

to be selfless is not only to be noble, it is to be dead"

(25). Hannah's acceptance of her imprisonment is a major

question of the novel as certain characters try to explain

her acquiescence. Marian, the newcomer, theorizes that

Hannah's surrender to her captivity was initially motivated

by fear: "Then she became rather apathetic or miserable.

Then she began to find her situation sort of interesting,

spiritually interesting. People have got to survive, and

they'll always invent some way of surviving, of seeing their

situation as tolerable" (129). If we accept Marian's

interpretation, then it appears that Hannah succumbs to the

incarcerating gaze to make her life more tolerable, finding

meaning in her own reification. In this way Hannah "avoids

the strain involved in undertaking an authentic existence"

succumbing to "the temptation to forgo liberty and become a

thing" (Donovan 124). If we assume that Hannah can gain

freedom by killing the angel in the house, then the

responsibility for her imprisonment lies with her. There

seems, after all, to be ample opportunity for escape. I

suggest, however, that Hannah cannot be freed or free

herself within the confines of the novel because she exists

only as a spiritual idea. In this sense my reading of

Hannah agrees with Ben Obsumelu's point that "The Unicorn

does not make sense as the realistic novel which its critics

insist that it should be" (315).

Hannah's symbolic significance is analyzed by Max

Lejour, the owner of Riders, an adjacent estate from which

the occupants watch the activities of Gaze Castle. As the

philosopher of the novel, Max is minimally involved in the

book's action. In dialogues with his former student,

Effingham, he attempts to explain Hannah's imprisonment and

suffering. Such analysis shows how philosophy, in

attempting to clarify the ambiguities of human behavior, can

reduce the individual to a seductive ideal. Max suggests,

for example, that Hannah's behavior may conform to the Greek

notion of Ate which holds that victims of power transfer

their suffering to others. In the same conversation, he

posits that perhaps Hannah is one of the good "who does not

attempt to pass the suffering on." When Effingham questions

him on this point, he offers another interpretation: "She

may be just a sort of enchantress, a Circe, a spiritual

Penelope keeping her suitors spellbound and enslaved" (107).

Max's interpretation suggests an ambivalent attitude toward

the objectified female other whose indeterminancy

incorporates a transcendent goodness and a seductive evil.

Max exemplifies the philosopher-oppressor who

frequently appears in Murdoch's novels. His theories about

Hannah attempt to analyze her situation without taking into

consideration her actual suffering. He reveals his clinical

interest in Hannah when he confesses: "Perhaps Hannah is my

experiment!" (110). Max's absence from the novel's action

marks him as the ultimate gazer, the one who observes Gaze

Castle to discern truths about human good and evil. Max's

distancing of Hannah-his reticence to become involved in

her life-amounts to a fascination greater than that of the

other worshippers. This philosophical distancing, the novel

suggests, provides the foundation for scientific discourses

which analyze human phenomena without consideration for the

"real" other who is the subject of study. In Spurs Derrida

describes how "woman" functions as the transcendent idea in

philosophical discourse: "Distance--woman-averts truth-the

philosopher. She bestows the idea. And the idea withdraws,

becomes transcendent, inaccessible, seductive. It beckons

from afar (in die Ferne). Its veils float in the distance.

The dream of death begins. It is woman" (89). Max's

speculations about Hannah-his philosophical

myth-making-would not be possible without her absence which

constitutes "the dream of death." Unlike Effingham and

Marian who seek to resurrect Hannah, Max, as philosopher,

requires her death to support his theoretical discourse.

Apparently, a tacit complicity exists in this

non-relationship between Hannah and Max: their reciprocal

absence magnifies their fascination for one another. After

Hannah's actual death Max explains that "She loved what

wasn't there, what was absent" (294). While we can read

this comment as referring to Hannah's love for her own

absence within the idealized image of the unicorn, the novel

suggest that she loves Max because of his absence: she wills

him her estate. As the ultimate gazer, detached and removed

in his own castle, Max is Hannah's absent other-a prisoner

of his own philosophical gaze. As Effingham suggests, "You

are a prisoner, of books, age, and ill health. It then

occurred to him that in some curious way Max might derive

consolation from the spectacle, over there in the other

house, of another captivity, a distorted mirror image of his

own" (105). Thus the entrapped idea of the philosopher

reflects his own entrapped position as gazer.

When Marian enters this world "She had been settled,

perhaps too settled, in her job as a schoolmistress" (6).

She has also experienced a disappointment in love and is

ready for a new beginning, an "adventure." Obviously in

search of a "romance" she accepts the offer at Gaze Castle.

The adventure, however, doesn't unfold until Denis has told

her the story of Hannah. When he explains to her that the

local people believe that something will happen to Hannah as

it does in fairy tales, at the end of seven years, she

discovers her place in the story. Believing that her

arrival at the end of the seventh year of Hannah's

imprisonment is no accident, she experiences a revelation:

"A prophetic flash of understanding burned her with a

terrible warmth. That was what she was for; she was for

Gerald Scottow: his adversary, his opposite angel. By

wrestling with Scottow she would make her way into the

story" (67). With this realization Marian becomes a

character in the myth, rather than a curious outsider. She

finds her place as an opposite, an other who will spar with

the powerful figure of Gerald by trying to free Hannah.

Interpreting this role as both sexual and spiritual, she

becomes an angel of rescue who "burns" with physical desire

for Gerald.

When Marian enters this symbolic world she begins to

experience the sexual urges that underly the power edifice.

Yet such feelings are commingled with fear as evident in her

entry into the "violent" sea below the cliffs: "Marian had

never been afraid of the sea. She did not know what was the

matter with her now. The thought of entering the water gave

her a frisson which was like a kind of sexual thrill, both

unpleasant and distressingly agreeable" (31). Although fear

arouses Marian, we also find that erotic feelings, in turn,

empower her. In a scene with Violet Evercreech, she feels

sexually excited, allowing the older woman to kiss her hair

and brow. Leaving Violet's room, she feels more powerful:

"A rapacious desire for action, for sensation, had been put

into her by Violet. She felt so strong, so physically

alive, she felt she could persuade anybody of anything"

(145). Marian's submission to power eroticizes her,

investing her with a sense of her own power and giving her

the courage to try to free Hannah. This power is specious,

however, since it is based on an act of submission.

Translating her sexual desire as a spiritual afflatus,

Marian feels that she can destroy the story by taking the

dead Hannah outside the estate walls: "She felt above all,

as a sort of categorical imperative, the desire to set

Hannah free, to smash up all her eerie magical surroundings,

to let the fresh air in at last" (139). Subscribing to the

myth of the place, Marian makes Hannah her own personal

symbol-a Christ who offers the dream of ressurection in

some "other" world. This other world--outside the walls of

Gaze-is the same one from which Marian has escaped to find

a new meaning in the book's symbolic one. Her attempt to

rescue Hannah, then, becomes a symbolic effort to free

herself from the restraints of the world outside of Gaze by

destroying the boundaries of this allegorical world. The

division between an inside world and an outside one is the

framework of the myth-the borderlines of the symbolic

order. Yet, by trying to free Hannah, Marian submits to the

authoritative pattern of the story. After the aborted

escape she realizes that her act of power was one of

submission to Gerald's authority as he explains to her, "And

that is the only way it can be here, because of the way the

lives of several people are working themselves out, because

of the pattern that is what has authority here, and absolute

authority" (169).

Max's former student Effingham also enters the

narrative from the outside world, where he serves as head of

the department in a public service job. Reminiscient of

Jake's adulation of Hugo in Under the Net, Effingham "had

taken Max without question as a great sage; and when he

could himself still pass as a youth he had quite simply

adored the older man" (75). After Max's retirement to

Riders, Effingham has continued to visit him, and unlike

Marian, already has a place in the drama. Upon his first

visit to Riders he takes refuge in Gaze Castle after

becoming lost in a storm. When he falls in love with

Hannah, it disturbs the household at Riders but by his next

visit, "the drama had taken on a certain settled form.

Hannah was glad to see him, the Lejours were glad to see

him; he had his place. He fell into accepting it. He was

to be in love with Hannah, he was to be Hannah's servant, he

was to come running back whenever he could, he was to be

tolerated by everybody, he was to be harmless" (80).

Although Effingham harbors thoughts of freeing Hannah, he

acquiesces to his role, his harmless place, because he takes

pleasure in the story of Hannah's imprisonment: "And as he

sat in his office, dreaming of Hannah, he found himself

feeling a certain strange guilty pleasure at the idea that

she was, somehow, for him, shut up, reserved, sequestered"


Having special access to Hannah's room, Effingham

penetrates the inner sanctum of the castle, and by relating

their conversations to Max he becomes a part of the

philosopher's extended gaze. He, in fact, enjoys being

closer to Hannah than Max and wants to be the liaison

between the estates. He realizes, however, that events may

be changing after a conversation with Max where he gets the

sense "that Max might open direct relations with Hannah. He

appreciated, he enjoyed, the old man's interest in his

story, but his enjoyment depended upon his retaining his own

expertise, depended upon its remaining precisely a story"

(113). When Effingham fears that Max might communicate with

Hannah, usurping his position as pseudo-suitor, he agrees to

help Marian with the escape, rationalizing his decision in

this way: "But it suddenly seems to me that the whole

structure is just too dangerous. There are these-awful

cracks. And she might lose her nerve" (156). Fearing a

crack in the structure of the story, Effingham wants take

possession of Hannah before someone more powerful

does-particularly Max.

Marian and Effingham's actions do lead to a collapse of

the symbolic world but not in the way that they expect. The

incident allows Gerald Scottow to more firmly entrench

himself as the dominant figure of the household. When a

telegram comes announcing the arrival of Hannah's husband,

Gerald uses this foreboding news to assume the role of

Hannah's protector. The members of the household watch

obsequiously as Gerald carries the helpless Hannah to his

room and locks the door. Several hours later he announces

his plans to take Hannah away. Temporarily it appears that

Gerald is the prince who will rescue the princess or awaken

"the sleeping beauty," but this mythical rescue proves to be

a sham. After news arrives that Peter is not coming, Hannah

tells Marian that she believes the cable was "a fake" (244).

During this dialogue Marian realizes how Gerald has used the

opportunity to make Hannah his personal symbol: "Gerald had,

with one quick twist, as of one manipulating a whirling

rope, bound her, enslaved her, a thousand times more: and

then proposed that the situation should continue" (246).

Gerald, by displacing Peter's power, replicates the events

which lead to Hannah's imprisonment, creating a "new

beginning" as Hannah describes it: "I have a feeling that if

it means anything at all I must live it all through from the

beginning, since everything up to now has been a false

start. Now is the start" (247).

This conquering of an already dead image enacts a false

resurrection which displaces one power system for another.

This new myth or story replicates the old one; the only

thing which changes is the power figure. During this last

conversation, Hannah expresses regret for having become "A

dream. Do you know what part I have been playing? That of

God. And do you know what I have been really? Nothing, a

legend" (248). As Christ-figure, Hannah realizes that her

suffering has been for the sake of the group's "belief in

the significance of my suffering" (249). To release herself

from the deadly image, she shoots and kills Gerald,

fulfiling her role as devil-woman, again becoming the

threatening Lilith who defies patriarchal authority. The

death of one tyrant only assures the return of the formerly

usurped one; once again Peter's homecoming is imminent. The

double image of the spiritualized woman keeps the myth alive

by demanding worship and conquest coevally; the sufferer and

the criminal must exist in one image for power to perpetuate


When Marian unlocks the door allowing Hannah to escape,

she in effect allows her to kill the seductive reflection

inherent in her dead image. Without an object-a

center-the artifice of the gaze must collapse. She wonders

if she has made the right choice: "When at last Hannah had

wanted to break the mirror, to go out through the gate,

ought she then to have been her jailer? It was not any more

the old images of freedom which could move her now. It was

Hannah's authority which had moved her, her sense, in the

pathetic scene of her final imprisonment of Hannah's

sovereignty, of her royal right to dispose of herself as she

would" (283). By giving Hannah authority, Marian

relinquishes her own submissive role, releasing herself and

the other gazers from the spell of the story. By

recognizing Hannah's authority, she no longer views her as a

prisoner and thereby as a reflection of her own imprisoned

condition. Marian's entrance into the story has caused a

crack in the gaze structure, in the mirror which has kept

Hannah captive.

When Hannah passes through the gates and falls to her

death on the rocks below the house, she fulfills the

prophetic legend of the narrative. Fairy tales must end,

though they leave their dead images for the possession of

others. Hannah wills her story to Max, her absent other,

who enters Gaze castle for the first time to claim her

estate and to give her funeral speech. The powerful

philosopher-God takes ultimate possession of the

transcendent idea-"the dream of death begins."

Murdoch's use of the Gothic mode in The Unicorn

parodies that convention, drawing attention to the placement

of women in such a framework. My reading suggests that the

parody destabilizes the representations of women, working

counter to our efforts to place them. The novel asks that

we interpret Hannah's symbolic significance through the gaze

of the other characters. In this way the novel draws

attention to the process of mythmaking, rather than simply

offering up the symbolic for interpretation. This stylistic

foregrounding implicates the reader in the gaze-as literary

critics are voyeurs in their own right.

The Bell

In The Bell Murdoch creates another enclosed spiritual

world, separated from an outside one of common, worldly

activity. Imber Court, an estate that sits adjacent to an

Abbey, harbors a lay community consisting primarily of

people aspiring to live a spiritual life. Michael, the

owner of the estate, has returned to his former family home

to establish the community. The Abbess had suggested that

he make the Court "the home of a permanent lay community

attached to the Abbey, a 'buffer state', as she puts it,

between the Abbey and the world, a reflection, a benevolent

and useful parasite, an intermediary form of life" (81).

Michael, "who recognized spiritual authority when he saw

it," (82) viewed the Abbess' suggestion as a "command" and

began to make plans to create such a place.

The Abbey sequesters an enclosed order of nuns who have

vowed never to leave "the house where they take their first

vows" (64). To the community members, the nuns' self-chosen

imprisonment represents a transcendence manifested through

sacrifice. As parasites, this community feeds off the

suffering of women who, as "brides" of God, have foresworn

the sensual world. Further, they enclose themselves within

the walls of the estate, imitating the nuns' austerity.

Existing between the walls of the Abbey and the corrupt

outside world, Imbers occupies an in-between space, a

"buffer state" as the Abess would have it. It acts, then,

as an additional wall to protect the sacred world of the

Abbey from impure forces, while attracting potential

converts to the religious life.

The nuns' self-imprisonment gives them saintly status.

In the spiritual hierarchy they are superior and

superiority, in this case, breeds power. Like Hannah, their

power arises from the purification of women, which depends

on their incarceration. A "high wall," a line of trees and

a large lake separate the Abbey from the rest of the

estate--multiple boundaries which resist violation, creating

a fortress against the evil forces outside. A long building

attached to the wall allows the only access to the nuns

where they enter parlours where they "occasionally come to

speak to people from outside" (65). The parlours contain

three barriers: a gauze screen which opens up to reveal iron

bars behind which the nun sits to speak with her visitor,

and another gauze screen which "obscures" the room behind

her (65). In the visitors' chapel, an "enormous grill"

stretches "from floor to ceiling" separating it from the

main Abbey chapel. Worshippers face a raised altar which

conceals the nuns on the other side.

Such efforts to obscure the nuns' sanctuary not only

add to its mystification by keeping the purified hidden, but

also suggest that looking upon the sacred place is a form of

violation. While the distancing gaze in The Unicorn focuses

on the multiplicitous image of Hannah, in The Bell, gazing

upon the inner sanctuary of the Abbey is an intrusion into

the spiritual, and thus a violation of boundaries.

Non-gazing, then, through various methods of obfuscation,

takes on spiritual significance. The inability to see

inside the spiritual enclave makes it more secretive and

thus seductive.

This symbolically ordered world is apparently

undisturbed until Dora arrives at Imbers. Her husband Paul,

an art historian, has come to the estate to study old

manuscripts, "early chronicles of the nunnery," dating back

to 1400. Having been separated from Paul, she decides to

return to him: "Dora Greenfield left her husband because she

was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return

to him for the same reason" (7). Dora's surrender to Paul's

power parallels the nuns' sacrifice to God. Imbers

represents for her the restrictions of marriage. By

reuniting with her husband, she surrrenders her power to

someone "whose conception of life excluded or comdemned her

deepest urges. That was marriage, thought Dora, to be

enclosed in the aims of another" (18). Like the nuns, Dora

freely chooses to sacrifice her will to the desires of

another. Paul is indeed her God and marriage is a denial or

repression of her own personal power. While the nuns give

up sexuality for the spiritual life, Dora surrenders herself

to the sexual power of another, marrying "because of the

demonic intensity of Paul's desire for her" (8).

Paul's attraction for the submissive, entrapped woman,

evident in his interest in the nunnery manuscripts, is

paralleled by his need for Dora's submission. Engrossed in

ancient history, which chronicles women' enslavement, Paul

finds pleasure studying such oppression, as exemplified in

his fascination with the legend of the bell. During the

14th-century the Bishop put a curse on the Abbey after one

of the nuns failed to confess that she had taken a lover.

Due to the curse, the bell flew out of the tower and into

the lake, whereupon the guilty nun drowned herself in the

same lake. When Paul tells Dora the legend of the bell he

becomes sexually aroused: "Dora realized obscurely that in

telling her the story he had released in himself the desire

for her which had been quiescent before" (44). When "the

violence of the tale" arouses Paul, he in effect wants to

drown Dora who is guilty of not conforming to his perfect

image of womanhood; though she succumbs to the strictures of

marriage, she does not fulfill the wifely role that he has

designed for her.

Paul's dictatorial attitude about Dora's behavior

suggests that he wants her to imitate the nuns' perfection

and purity. We find, however, that Paul is attracted to

Dora not only for her submissiveness, but also because of

her failure to conform to his demands. Her undistinguished

hereditary background and lack of the cultivation required

in his social artistic milieu renders her imperfect. Her

liveliness and eccentric behavior becomes a source of

irritation to him: "As a child-wife she irritated him

continually by the vitality for which he had married her"

(10). Dora's individuality and nonconformity represents a

challenge to Paul, increasing his desire for her. When she

submits to him, he becomes all the more powerful because he

has subdued the tainted female who poses a threat to his

ordered life. Similarly, the Imbers' community finds Dora's

behavior heretical, and they attempt to bring her into their

order by forcing her to conform to the life there-they too

desire her submission.

Even in her surrender, Dora resists the power of these

forces. Her cynicism toward the community and the Abbey

reflects her self-doubts about her imprisonment. She is

uncomfortable praying in the chapel because of her high

heels, and she sees the chapel as "harboring an alien rite,

half sinister, half ludicrous" (34). Within a short time of

her arrival at Imbers, she attends a church service where

she is scrutinized by a nun and instructed to cover her head

by Mrs. Marks, to which she responds by putting a "not very

clean handerkchief on her head" (34). These examples

suggest that Dora's wordliness threatens to defile this

sacred world. The pain which she experiences from kneeling

in the shoes effectively punishes her for such worldly

accouterment. Uncomfortable with these religious rites,

Dora leaves the service, removing her shoes to walk barefoot

along the lake, escaping the stultifying ritual and the pain

caused by kneeling. When the members discover she has lost

her shoes, they begin a search party. The lost shoes

represent Dora's lost spiritual condition, as suggested by

Father Bob when the shoes are found: "There is more

rejoicing over what is lost and found than over what has

never gone astray" (39). Dora indeed offers a challenge to

those who would hope to save her.

Mrs. Marks begins working on Dora's conversion the

morning after her arrival. When Dora puts flowers in her

room, Mrs. Mark looks at her censoriouslyy" and asks her to

remove them because of "the rules of the house" (61). The

"wild flowers" which make up Dora's "nosegay" threaten the

somber, rule-bound spiritual existence of the community. In

another example, Mrs. Mark refuses to answer Dora's question

regarding her past, explaining that because of their

"religious rules," they never discuss their past lives and

allow no gossip. This silencing has the effect of making

the spiritual aspirant powerless, insuring that she remains

occupied with the contemplation of spiritual matters. In

effect, the aspirant should erase worldly thoughts,

sacrificing her identity as she becomes one with the group.

Mrs. Marks does suggest, however, that Dora speak with one

of the nuns regarding her life, hinting that the newcomer

might need to confess. Alarmed at such a proposal, Dora

refuses: "She'd see the place in hell before she'd let a nun

meddle with her mind and heart" (66). By resisting the

submissive confessional, Dora refuses to relinquish the

details of her disorderly, impure life for the purpose of


As the story progresses, Dora struggles harder to gain

her own personal sense of freedom and to resist her

subjugation. She wants to free herself from her oppressive

marriage and the symbolic world of Imbers which mimics the

strictures of that marriage. Slowly, she begins to realize

that her sensuality marks her as a guilty nun and she rebels

against the community's efforts to save her. Her response

to Catherine, the postulant who is soon to enter the

convent, demonstrates not only her fear of entrapment but an

awareness of the potential danger at Imbers. She finds her,

for example, "a little menacing" (38). Through Dora's

recognition of the threatening nature of the religious

symbols at Imbers, she slowly begins to recognize her own

surrender of power and begins to try to regain her freedom.

By retrieving the bell from the lake, she rebels against the

authority of the Bishop's curse, hoping to save herself from

the fate of the unfaithful nun.

The legend of the bell exemplifies the kind of mythical

stories which support and maintain the religious community.

Regarding the symbolism of the bell, Debra Johnson states:

"The bell itself changes its significance as symbolic object

according to the characters who respond to it" (84). But

for all the characters the bell represents power. For the

spiritual aspirants it represents the powerful force of

spiritual judgment-a sign of death which threatens those

who like the nun are tempted to violate the codes of

self-sacrifice. Like the nuns, the bell takes on symbolic

power because it is hidden and inaccessible: the

question remains, for example, whether it is actually in the

lake. James, one of the most powerful members of the group,

is particularly fascinated with the image of the bell. In

one of his lengthy sermons, he uses the image of the bell as

an example of the kind of innocence one should value and

nurture as a spiritual objective. Innocence, he claims,

brings "a deeper and more precise knowledge" than experience

(135). Innocence, in his estimation, requires truthfulness

and bearing witness, qualities represented by the image of

the bell: "A bell is made to speak out. What would be the

value of a bell which was never rung? It rings out clearly,

it bears witness, it cannot speak without seeming like a

call, a summons All that it is is plain and open; and

if it is moved it must ring" (135). James' sermon indicates

the kind of witnessing which he values as a spiritual ideal,

a summons which he hopes will seduce others to join the

spiritual life. The name of the bell, Gabriel, also

supports the notion of the bell as messenger. For James,

the bell represents the compelling influence of the language

which embodies spiritual laws. His call for innocence

exemplifies the kind of seductive rhetoric which maintains

such communities. Innocent followers are much more pliable

and impressionable: they are, in fact, easier to dominate.

The innocence to which James alludes must also refer to

the sexual denial and purity practiced by the nuns. The

ring of the bell (its simplistic speech) represents the

symbolizing impetus of the community's rhetoric which

attempts to murder desire with a counter-seduction,

promising a higher knowledge through the denial of sexual

urges. As James asks the aspirants to become like a bell

(symbolic and compelling), he bids them enter the symbolic

order to become an image, an empty sign. Such symbolic

ordering through language is required for the dissemination

of power, preventing the collapse of the boundaries which

contain spiritual ideals.

The arrival of a new bell constitutes the

reentrenchment of the old order of religious myth. It is

supplementary, a double sign which through copying,

reenforces the perpetuation of dead (drowned) images. This

doubling acts as a supplementary barrier, further insulating

the Abbey and community. Religious symbols may appear to

erase sexual desire but can only mask it. Such concealment

is tenuous, however, as powerful sexual feelings underly the

very foundation of the community. Michael, for example, has

converted to the spiritual life in order to absolve himself

of past sins. While serving as a schoolmaster, he was

dismissed from his post for having become romantically

involved with Nick, Catherine's brother. Troubled by his

homosexual feelings and still in love with Nick, he hopes to

escape his dilemma. Unable to come to terms with his

homosexual feelings, he chooses to love the only women he

can-asexual ones. He finds Dora, for example, "crude and

exotic" (121): "she epitomized everything he didn't care for

about women" (128). It is this female crudeness that

Michael tries to expunge in his dedication to the Abbey;

the nuns are not really women to Michael, they are an image

through which he channels his sexual desire in the hopes of

purifying it. His desire for the spiritualized woman masks

his sexual desire for men, revealing a double intention.

The presence of both Catherine and her twin Nick in the

community demonstrates Michael's sexual confusion. When

Catherine enters the convent to become a bride of God, his

sexual feelings for Nick will be, through her symbolic

sacrifice, hidden in the dark sanctuary of the Abbey.

Michael's efforts to quell his sexual desires prove

ineffectual, however. Finding himself attracted to young

Toby, he gets swept away by his passion and kisses the boy

one night. Trying to interpret his feelings in a spiritual

way, he justifies his affection for the boy: "It could not

be that God intended such a spring of love to be quenched

utterly. There must be, there must be a way in which it

could be made a power for good" (157). Michael's attempt to

purify his sexual feelings by interpreting them as an act of

goodness indicates the bogus nature of his religious beliefs

which mask his true feelings by providing godly sanction and

justification. His immersion in the spiritual life is a

masquerade, concealing his powerful sexual urges which he

considers sinful. Peter Conradi claims that Michael's

religious urge is not "just sex": "Of course it is sex. It

is also religion. Murdoch's desublimations are offered to

us not so much to 'unmask' the idea of virtue as bogus as to

demonstrate the mysterious inaccessibility of virtue, and

the dangers of too swift or un-self-sceptical an ascent"

(116). Although I agree that Michael has religious urges, I

suggest that he attempts to conceal his sexual inclinations

within the community's religious imagery and rituals.

His encounter with Toby, however, begins the boy's

rebellion and doubts about the religious life, awakening

sexual feelings and causing Toby to question his own sexual

preference. After a discussion with Michael, who apologizes

and asks him "to bury the matter" (170), Toby enters the

visitor's chapel where "He pondered for a while rather

generally upon the conception of Woman" (174), then finds

himself aroused by the image of Dora Greenfield. This

fantasy is interrupted by: "the sound of movement within the

nuns' chapel. Soft footsteps were heard and the frou-frou

of heavy skirts. Toby jumped up in alarm. It must be time

for sext" (175). For Toby, sext is sex. The symbolic value

of the nuns and their ritual begins to lose sway as he views

them as sexually provocative. Stumbling out of the chapel,

he has the urge to do "something violent." He enacts this

violence by climbing over the Abbey wall and entering a door

which opens into the Abbey cemetery. There he encounters a

group of nuns and is approached by one who treats him kindly

and attributes his intrusion to his youthfulness: "Besides,

we have a special rule which says that children can

sometimes come into the enclosure" (179-80). Of course

Toby's act is not a childish one and is, in fact, a

declaration of his manhood. This intrusion is not only

sexual, but is an act of violence against the symbols of the

community. By invading the enclosure he transgresses the

mysterious boundary which separates spirit from flesh.

Prompted by "a feeling of the utter messiness of everything"

(175), Toby rebels against these holy boundaries: his

confusion reflects the immanent disarray hidden beneath the

ordered pronouncements of spiritual law.

When Michael kisses Toby he brings about the

dissolution of his community. No longer subservient to

spiritual authority, Toby gives way to his sexual feelings

for Dora. When he tells Dora that he has discovered the

lost bell in the lake, he foreswears James' language of

innocence and gives voice to his own desires. By making her

his confidante in the matter, he falls in league with the

community heretic. When Dora hears the news of the lost

bell, she finds her own personal symbol of the power which

she has lost in her marriage. Upon hearing the story she

"was suddenly filled with the uneasy elation of one to whom

great power has been given which he does not yet know how to

use" (197). Soon, however, Dora decides how to use this

power: she convinces Toby to join with her in secretly

retrieving the bell and substituting it for the new bell.

When Toby has doubts about their ability to accomplish this

feat, Dora insists that they can "make a miracle" (198).

With this new feeling of supernatural power Dora becomes the

evil opponent of the godly, reminiscent of Marian's decision

to oppose Gerald Scottow: "After all, and after her own

fashion, she would fight. In this holy community she would

play the witch" (199).

When Toby and Dora pull the bell from the lake they try

to achieve freedom from spiritual confines by becoming

sexually powerful, yet they interpret this sexuality in a

spiritual way. After retrieving the bell Toby feels a

"miraculous strength He was a hero, a king. He fell

upon Dora" (221). Caught up in this passion, they fall into

the mouth of the bell causing it to ring. The ringing of

the bell then becomes a cry for a sexual freedom which has

spiritual significance, an expression of power which depends

on the subjugation of another. Later, when alone, Dora

examines the bell and apparently becomes aroused by it,

realizing that "she was afraid of it" (266) and "She had

thought to be its master" (267). Dominated by the bell, she

begins frantically ringing it-the ring this time is the

self-same call of passion that has defined her life with

Paul, one of mastery. The bell finally speaks but not

James' simple language. It witnesses to the will to power

which underlies both spiritual and sexual desire. As

Dorothy Winsor explains, "The bell is associated with more

than sexuality, however, for it is also encircled with

pictures of the life of Christ The old bell thus

represents sexuality which has been directed to the outside

world through the transforming powers of religion and art"


The baptismal-drowning scene at the book's conclusion

brings to the surface the multiplicity of hidden motives and

desires within the community. Nick has sabotaged the bridge

over which the new bell passes as it enters the Abbey,

causing it to fall into the lake. To Catherine this

incident appears as an anathema. Considering herself unfit

for the convent because of her hidden desires for Michael,

she enters the lake to drown herself, followed by Dora, who

tries to save her. As they are drowning, one of the nuns

then jumps into the lake and saves them followed by two men

of the community who aid in the rescue. Ironically, the

spiritual aspirants save the two lost women from drowning in

their respective myths: Catherine is saved from the clutches

of the convent and Dora from the mastery of her marriage.

The peal of the old bell causes the collapse of the

community not simply because it is a symbol of sexuality,

but because of the instability of its function in the power

system. Symbols speak the language of those who ring them,

resisting the meaning which they are meant to uphold. As

Foucault suggests, "Discourse transmits and produces power;

it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it,

renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it. In

like manner, silence and secrecy are a shelter for power,

anchoring its prohibitions; but they also loosen its holds

and provide for relatively obscure areas of tolerance"


At the end of the book we see this particular spiritual

authority demolished when Toby reveals Michael's secret.

Imbers, no longer the symbol of purity, must disband.

Having decided to leave Paul, Dora remains at Imbers and is

the last to leave. During a quiet moment before her

departure she takes the rowboat out into the lake. Her

indifferent response to the ringing of the bell is in

contrast to her first feelings of alarm when she entered the

place: "From the tower above her the bell began to ring for

Nones. She scarcely heard it. Already for her it rang from

another world" (315). No longer compelled by this

messenger, it appears that Dora has resisted at least the

mastery of this powerful symbol.

In response to A. S. Byatt's criticism of Murdoch's use

of the bell as symbol, Debra Johnson responds by pointing

out that from a "female-centered" or "Dora-centered"

perspective the bell functions as a liberating symbol for

Dora. As she explains, "The ringing of the bell is only one

of a number of consciously [her emphasis] symbolic actions

which Dora takes in an attempt to resolve her predicament in

relation to her husband who doesn't respect her and to the

Imber community by whom she feels casually judged" (82).

From this point of view the symbolic bell as well as the

allegorical design of the novel self-consciously reflect

upon the oppression inherent in certain cultural

institutions which enslave both women and men. Yet the

novel clearly points out how important the spiritual image

of woman is to such oppression, presenting Dora as an

example of one who struggles to free herself from that

confining image.

A Severed Head

In A Severed Head Murdoch examines the mythical

thinking of Martin Lynch-Gibbon, a self-centered,

middle-class wine merchant and the novel's narrator. A

Severed Head takes place within the environs of London, an

apparently secular setting which contrasts with the enclosed

spiritual worlds of the other two novels. Within this

setting, however, Martin establishes his own mythical view

of the world, investing his reality with spiritual meaning

and encapsulating the female other with his gaze. In

contrast to The Unicorn the first-person male narrator is

the sole gazer whose depiction of the novel's female

characters conforms to his particular fantasy world. His

narrative tells the story of his love for three women. As

the book opens we find Martin content in his relationships

with two women-his wife Antonia and his mistress Georgie.

Martin's satisfaction derives from the dichotomized views he

has of women and the power which such a view affords him.

For the purpose of his gaze Martin sets scenes where

his mythical dramas can transpire. His affair with Georgie

unfolds as a drama as he buys her the accouterments of a

stereotypical mistress: "I loved to give Georgie outrageous

things, absurd garments and gew-gaws which I could not

possibly have given Antonia, barbarous necklaces and velvet

pants and purple underwear and black openwork tights which

drove me mad." Houses and rooms provide enclosures for the

objects of Martin's gaze, setting the scene of desire. For

example, "Georgie's room, a large untidy bed-sitting room

which looked out onto what was virtually an alley-way in the

proximity of Covent Garden, was full of things which I had

given her" (7). Georgie's untidiness and her role as

mistress places her in a position outside the comfortable

bourgeois world that Martin shares with Antonia. She is not

only forbidden, but like Dora, does not conform to the

social propieties of Martin's bourgeois existence. The

"impermanent jumble" of her room represents for Martin "the

very image and symbol of my relation to Georgie, my mode of

possessing her, or more precisely the way in which I, as it

were, failed to possess her" (8). This jumbled, uncivilized

scene, which Martin creates for the purpose of his fantasy,

is a taboo scene where Georgie represents the alluring,

unforbidden woman.

Martin explains that he didn't possess Georgie because

"Georgie was simply there" (8). We realize, however, that

Georgie is simply (for Martin) not there. The Georgie

enframed within Martin's gaze is his creation, a fabrication

imbuing him with a sense of his own power. To maintain the

fantasy, his creation must remain hidden and secretive, as

must the scene of the liaison dangereuse. Martin describes

this place: "Her room seemed a subterranean place, remote,

enclosed, hidden" (12). To keep his desire alive and

thereby his power, Martin must keep the affair secret. He

justifies the need for secrecy to Georgie: "Remember the

legend of Psyche, whose child, if she told about her

pregnancy, would be mortal, whereas if she kept silent it

would be a god" (13). Martin uses such mythological

allusions throughout the book, suggesting that his

perceptions of women are based on archetypal models. In

this way Murdoch shows how men's perceptions of women

resemble legends of antiquity. Women's silence, as in

Psyche's case, is associated with godliness, and the same

notion underlies Martin's rationale which amounts to a kind

of emotional blackmail-that is, he wants to keep Georgie

silent and thus submissive.

Martin finds a different kind of comfort in the

expensive, orderly home he shares with Antonia, as

exemplified in the description of his living room which his

wife has decorated for the Christmas season: "Antonia's

decorations combined a traditional gaiety with the

restrained felicity which marked all her domestic

arrangements" (23). When Martin returns to his traditional

and restrained bourgeois home, he crosses an imaginary line

dividing the two worlds, a demarcation that divides his view

of the female other. Georgie's dark, subterranean room

contrasts sharply with his living room at Hereford Square

where "A bright fire of coal and wood was glowing and

murmuring in the grate, and intermittent lamps lit with a

soft gold the long room" (23). To have a dark, forbidden

affair Martin must have the contrasting light of marriage

vows. Further, when he married Antonia he married an

"eccentric society beauty" who came from a distinguished

family. The fact that Antonia moved in "a fashionable

society" made their wedding "a sensation" (16), hence, their

marriage has been in the limelight.

Centered within the social context of Martin's gaze,

Antonia appears golden, flooded with exalted light: "and

indeed 'golden' is the epithet for her appearance. She is

like some rich gilded object over which time has cast the

moonlit pallor of a gentle veneer" (17). He goes on to

compare her to "the water-haunted sunlight on an old

pavement in Venice" (17). With these descriptions Martin

romanticizes Antonia as a figure of spiritual goodness, in

contrast to his view of Georgie. Wealth and status, in

Martin's schema, exemplify the power of good in his life,

while the economically deficient purlieu where his affair

takes place represents the antithetical evil that completes

his dichotomous world view. Martin clearly categorizes his

world as black and white, right and wrong, good and bad-his

gaze divides the female other, doubling his own sense of


When Antonia announces that she has fallen in love with

Palmer, her psychiatrist, and that she wants a divorce, the

boundaries which have enclosed and divided Martin's fantasy

collapse. As a result the objects in his life do not appear

the same as before: "The familiar world of ways and objects

within which I had lived for so long received me no more;

and our lovely house had put on suddenly the air of a

superior antique shop. The things in it no longer cohered"

(37-8). The logic of Martin's divided gaze disintegrates

when Antonia moves out of their home as the "things" in his

life "become the sad symbols of a loss" (38), a loss even

more profound because Antonia is a mother figure. She is

five years older than he, and he finds her aging face

attractive (17). During her sessions with Palmer, Antonia

has realized that their marriage has been based on this

mother-child relationship: "It's partly my being so much

older and being a sort of mother to you" (29).

When Martin loses Antonia, he also loses his attraction

for Georgie. With this new development he must consider the

possibility of marrying his mistress, an event which, by

raising her status and eliminating secrecy, would diminish

his sexual desire for her. Antonia, on the other hand,

becomes more alluring and he even finds himself in love with

her: "The scene with Antonia had left me stiff and weary, as

if I had been beaten, or had come a very long way. I was by

now in a state which could only be described as being in

love" (61-2). When Antonia leaves Martin, she becomes a

figure of power to whom Martin willingly submits. From this

previous description, one might think that he had sex with

Antonia rather than a mere conversation, and further, that

he had taken a passive role. We find that he indeed wants

to be mastered as Georgie has surmised: "The trouble with

you, Martin, is that you are always looking for a master"


Martin's association of love with the feeling of having

been beaten suggests a masochistic pleasure in being the

victim. When his world collapses, he transfers his desire

to the more powerful Antonia, expressing his love through

"acquiscence in her will to keep that thread unbroken

between us. At the same time, to consent to this was

torture and I felt the tender bond like a strangler's rope"

(62). With the disintegration of his world, Martin