Iris Murdoch

Biografie şi Bibliografie

Iris Murdoch (15 July 1919 – 8 February 1999) was an Irish-born British author and philosopher, best known for her novels about sexual relationships, morality, and the power of the unconscious. Her first published novel, Under the Net, was selected in 2001 by the editorial board of the American Modern Library as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 1987, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 2008, The Times named Murdoch among their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".


Jean Iris Murdoch was born at 59 Blessington Street, Dublin, Ireland, on 15 July 1919. Her father, Wills John Hughes Murdoch, came from a mainly Presbyterian sheep farming family from Hillhall, County Down, and her mother, Irene Alice Richardson, who had trained as a singer until Iris was born, was from a middle class, Church of Ireland (Anglican) family from Dublin. When Iris was very young, her parents moved to London, where her father worked in the Civil Service.

She was educated in progressive schools, first at the Froebel Demonstration School, and then as a boarder at the Badminton School in Bristol in 1932. She went on to read classics, ancient history, and philosophy at Somerville College, Oxford, and philosophy as a postgraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she attended a number of Ludwig Wittgenstein's lectures. In 1948, she became a fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford.

From 1938, she was, like other Oxford contemporaries including Denis Healey, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The timing of her departure from the party seems uncertain. Conradi has it that she left twice: once technically in 1942, so she could get a job at HM Treasury, and then, at the end of that decade, leaving for spiritual reasons, as her philosophical thinking developed and she digested the lessons of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. She nevertheless remained close to the Left for a long time. She would subsequently have trouble getting a visa to the United States because of her former party membership. Around 1988–1990, she commented that her membership in the Party had helped her see "how strong and how awful it (Marxism) is, certainly in its organized form".

She wrote her first novel, Under the Net, in 1954, having previously published essays on philosophy, and the first monograph study in English of Jean-Paul Sartre. It was at Oxford in 1956 that she met and married John Bayley, a professor of English literature and also a novelist. She went on to produce 25 more novels and other works of philosophy and drama until 1995, when she began to suffer the early effects of Alzheimer's disease, the symptoms of which she at first attributed to writer's block.


She died, aged 79, in 1999 and her ashes were scattered in the garden at the Oxford Crematorium. She had no children.


She was portrayed by Kate Winslet and Judi Dench in Richard Eyre's film Iris (2001), based on Bayley's memories of his wife as she developed Alzheimer's disease. Parts of the movie were filmed at Southwold in Suffolk, one of Murdoch's favourite holiday places.


Her philosophical writings were influenced by Simone Weil (from whom she borrows the concept of 'attention'), and by Plato, under whose banner she claimed to fight. In re-animating Plato, she gives force to the reality of the Good, and to a sense of the moral life as a pilgrimage from illusion to reality. From this perspective, Murdoch's work offers perceptive criticism of Sartre and Wittgenstein ('early' and 'late'). Her most central parable concerns a mother-in-law 'M' who works to see her daughter-in-law 'D' "justly or lovingly" and to overcome an obscuring jealousy. The parable is partly meant to show (against her Oxford contempories) the importance of the 'inner' life to moral action. The parable also draws a connection between loving faith in an individual and seeing them aright. This is of significance for Murdoch's wider theory of knowledge, and for her conception of her craft as a novelist. It is the interest, for Murdoch, of St Anselm's remarks on the ontological proof, "I believe in order to understand".

Her better novels, in their attention and generosity to the inner lives of individuals, follow the tradition of novelists like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, George Eliot, and Proust, besides showing an abiding love of Shakespeare. Though particular novels differ markedly, and her style developed, themes recur. Her novels often include upper middle class intellectual males caught in moral dilemmas, gay characters, refugees, Anglo-Catholics with crises of faith, empathetic pets, curiously "knowing" children and sometimes a powerful and almost demonic male "enchanter" who imposes his will on the other characters — a type of man Murdoch is said to have modelled on her lover, the Nobel laureate, Elias Canetti.

Although she wrote primarily in a realistic manner, on occasion Murdoch would introduce ambiguity into her work through a sometimes misleading use of symbolism, and by mixing elements of fantasy within her precisely described scenes. The Unicorn (1963) can be read as a sophisticated Gothic romance, or as a novel with Gothic trappings, or perhaps as a parody of the Gothic mode of writing. The Black Prince (1973), for which Murdoch won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, is a study of erotic obsession, and the text becomes more complicated, suggesting multiple interpretations, when subordinate characters contradict the narrator and the mysterious "editor" of the book in a series of afterwords.

Murdoch was awarded the Booker Prize in 1978 for The Sea, the Sea, a finely detailed novel about the power of love and loss, featuring a retired stage director who is overwhelmed by jealousy when he meets his erstwhile lover after several decades apart.

Several of her works have been adapted for the screen, including the British television series of her novels An Unofficial Rose and The Bell. J. B. Priestley's dramatisation of her 1961 novel A Severed Head starred Ian Holm and Richard Attenborough.

Controversial biography

A controversial account of Murdoch's life was given by the British writer A.N. Wilson in his 2003 book Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her. The work was described by The Guardian as "mischievously revelatory" and "quite spectacularly rude," and labelled by Wilson himself as an "anti-biography". Though he was careful to stress his current and past affection for his subject, Wilson did not flinch from writing of her disloyalty and promiscuity. He observed that she "thrived on acts of betrayal", was cruel, and was "prepared to go to bed with almost anyone". Elsewhere, Wilson has passed judgement on Murdoch's philosophical achievement. In a BBC Radio 4 discussion of Murdoch and her work in 2009, Wilson assented to the view that her philosophical output consisted of nothing but “GCSE-style” essays on Plato.

Peter J. Conradi's 2001 official biography was generally well received, Conradi having previously authored The Saint and the Artist: A Study of Iris Murdoch's Works (Macmillan 1986, HarperCollins 2001).

Works by Iris Murdoch


    * Under the Net (1954)
    * The Flight from the Enchanter (1956)
    * The Sandcastle (1957)
    * The Bell (1958)
    * A Severed Head (1961)
    * An Unofficial Rose (1962)
    * The Unicorn (1963)
    * The Italian Girl (1964)
    * The Red and the Green (1965)
    * The Time of the Angels (1966)
    * The Nice and the Good (1968)
    * Bruno's Dream (1969)
    * A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970)
    * An Accidental Man (1971)
    * The Black Prince (1973), winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize
    * The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974), winner of the Whitbread Literary Award for Fiction
    * A Word Child (1975)
    * Henry and Cato (1976)
    * The Sea, the Sea (1978), winner of the Booker Prize
    * Nuns and Soldiers (1980)
    * The Philosopher's Pupil (1983)
    * The Good Apprentice (1985)
    * The Book and the Brotherhood (1987)
    * The Message to the Planet (1989)
    * The Green Knight (1993)
    * Jackson's Dilemma (1995)
    * Something Special (Short story reprint, 1999; originally published 1957)


    * Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953)
    * The Sovereignty of Good (1970)
    * The Fire and the Sun (1977)
    * Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (1992)
    * Existentialists and Mystics (1997)


    * A Severed Head (with J.B. Priestley, 1964)
    * The Italian Girl (with James Saunders, 1969)
    * The Three Arrows & The Servants and the Snow (1973)
    * The Servants (1980)
    * Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues (1986)
    * The Black Prince (1987)

Poetry collections

    * A Year of Birds (1978; revised edition, 1984)
    * Poems by Iris Murdoch (1997)

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