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Dame Iris Murdoch (Dame Iris Jean Murdoch) Biography

(1919–1997), (Dame Iris Jean Murdoch), Under the Net, The Sandcastle, The Bell, A Severed Head

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Mr Polly to New France

British novelistand philosopher, born in Dublin of Anglo-Irish parents, educated at Badminton School, at Somerville College, Oxford and later at Newnham College, Cambridge. She became a Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford, and a lecturer in philosophy. From her first novel, Under the Net (1954), Murdoch has followed a highly productive career as a novelist. Although filled with incident and vivid detail, her novels often seem like dramatized philosophical debates on the nature of good and evil, on the conflict between rationality and sexuality, and on free will and determinism. Many of her books have a dream-like quality, heightened by her frequently elaborate use of symbolism. Their settings are usually contemporary, although the prevailing impression is one of timelessness. Her characters, almost always drawn from the intelligentsia or from literary, artistic, and theatrical circles, are often memorably eccentric. Perhaps because of their combination of narrative exuberance and philosophical seriousness, her novels have resisted categorization. The Sandcastle (1957) involves a relationship between a schoolmaster and a young artist; The Bell (1958) concerns the extraordinary events in a lay community surrounding the consecration of a new bell; A Severed Head (1961; dramatized in 1963 by J. B. Priestley) is a blackly comic farce about infidelity; The Black Prince (1973; dramatized by the author) focuses on a middle-aged writer suffering from a ‘block’; The Sea, The Sea (1978; Booker Prize) describes the obsessional love of the narrator for his childhood sweetheart; The Good Apprentice (1985) has a fairytale quality and deals with the themes of disintegration and reconciliation; The Book and the Brotherhood (1987) concerns the moral and ideological dilemmas confronting a group of Oxford intellectuals; and The Message to the Planet (1989), her twenty-fifth novel, focuses on a magus-like figure, as do many of her works, and displays the author's fascination with the inhuman power of the exceptional individual, whose effect on the lives of others is seldom benign and frequently catastrophic. In The Green Knight (1993), a fictionalized philosophical dialogue, a man who has accidentally been killed ‘returns’, demanding restitution and retribution of his assailant in an echo of the medieval tale. Despite their preoccupation with the macabre and with extremes of human behaviour—suicide, incest, jealousy, and attempted murder all feature in her books—their overall mood is comic, rather than tragic, displaying an amused tolerance towards the absurdities of sexual relationships as well as a profound humanism. Her many other novels include The Flight from the Enchanter (1955), An Unofficial Rose (1962), The Unicorn (1963), The Italian Girl (1964), The Red and the Green (1965), The Time of Angels (1966), The Nice and the Good (1968), Bruno's Dream (1969), A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), An Accidental Man (1971), The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974), A Word Child (1975), Henry and Cato (1976), Nuns and Soldiers (1980), The Philosopher's Pupil (1983), and Jackson's Dilemma (1995). Amongst her philosophical works are Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953), The Sovereignty of Good (1970), The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banned the Artists (1977), Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues (1986), and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992). She has also written several plays and published a volume of poetry, A Year of the Birds (1978). In 1956 she married the literary critic John Bayley, and became a DBE in 1987.

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