Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Iris Murdoch and the Case of "Too Many Men"

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Iris Murdoch and the Case of "Too Many Men"

Article excerpt

In The Flight from the Enchanter (1956), Rosa Keep makes several efforts to save the Artemis, a women's periodical founded by her dead mother and Mrs. Camilla Wingfield. One such effort involves visiting Mrs. Wingfield, an eighty-three year old suffragette, in an attempt to convince her to save the periodical she helped establish. That visit, one of Murdoch's great comic scenes, has Rosa telling how the Artemis, now edited by her younger brother Hunter, is in danger of being taken over by Mischa Fox, described as "'press lord and general mischief-maker.'" Rosa's account is interrupted by Mrs. Wingfield who exclaims: "'There are too many men in this story'" (114). When reading Murdoch's novels, many a reader or critic, especially a female reader or critic, has been tempted to repeat Mrs. Wingfield's comment about male omnipresence.

Yet, despite Mrs. Wingfield's criticism, women characters come in for a fair share of prominence in Flight. Ironically enough, that novel is as close as Murdoch comes in her fiction to giving a prominent role to what its characters refer to as "female emancipation" (169). Written before the publication in 1954 of her first novel, Under the Net, Flight can be read as Murdoch's ur-novel, introducing so many of the themes that figure in novels that follow. (1) Within the thirty chapters of Flight, Murdoch weaves a myriad of interests (e.g., the attraction to power relationships, particularly the Magus-disciple axis, the connection between sexuality and love, the interest in marginalized communities, the lure of intellectual quests, the relationship between good and evil). Most of those interests figure prominently in the twenty-four novels that follow-not so "female emancipation." Elizabeth Dipple judges the Artemis subplot in Flight "as close as Murdoch ever gets to an extended feminist statement" (140). And she is correct. (2)

From Jake Donaghue in Under the Net to Martin Lynch-Gibbon in A Severed Head (1961) to Hilary Burde in A Word Child (1975), male narrators are everywhere in Murdoch's fictional world, particularly in the novels written before 1980. And when not actually narrating their stories, male characters and their psychological, ethical, and social dilemmas occupy center stage. Murdoch favors male rivalry as a narrative complication and often stages it as conflict between brothers or cousins as in A Severed Head, The Time of the Angels (1966), An Accidental Man (1971), Henry and Cato (1976), The Sea, The Sea (1978), The Good Apprentice (1985), and The Green Knight (1993). Another form of male rivalry that she explores is the master-disciple relationship; the love-hate it engenders in works such as The Flight from the Enchanter, The Bell (1958), A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), The Black Prince (1973), The Philosopher's Pupil (1983), The Book and the Brotherhood (1987), and The Message to the Planet (1989) is as intense as any blood feud.

The preeminence of male rivalry in Murdoch's work is not surprising from a writer who told Michael Bellamy in 1977:

   I identify with men more than women, I think. I don't think it's a
   great leap; there's not much difference really. One's just a human
   being. I think I'm more interested in men than women. I'm not
   interested in women' s problems as such, though I'm a great
   supporter of women's liberation--particularly education for
   women--but in aid of getting women to join the human race, not in
   aid of making any kind of feminine contribution to the world. I
   think there's a kind of human contribution, but I don't think
   there's a feminine contribution. (133)

I quote at length from her response to Bellamy because Murdoch's position vis a vis "women's liberation" is a complex one.

Murdoch asserts that men and women are the same, or at least "'there's not much difference really.'" Then she goes on to suggest there is a great difference: somehow men are already there. …

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