Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

"Seething Underneath": Objectification in Iris Murdoch's Early Fiction

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

"Seething Underneath": Objectification in Iris Murdoch's Early Fiction

Article excerpt

In his scathing essay on Iris Murdoch's methods of characterisation, Marvin Felheim observes of her characters, "we are told about them; we observe them in action; but we never really get inside them. They function as puppets" (189). He sees the philosophical backbone of her novels as unsupported by the unconvincing flesh of her characters. This reductive view persists in more recent criticism of Murdoch's women in particular, including feminist criticism such as Sabina Lovibond decrying her characters' "half-baked or abject femininity" (5). Rather than adopting this dismissive attitude towards female characters, I will show how they resist objectification through a more active passivity and resistance to petrification. Even within this sweeping criticism, Felheim inadvertently opens up interesting avenues of study regarding women, immobility and the nature of objecthood through his use of the word "puppets". Felheim has Murdoch as puppetmaster, while Murdoch in fact characterises her male narrators as trying to make puppets of female characters. In The Sea, The Sea (1978), Murdoch's Booker Prize winning novel, Charles Arrowby, the protagonist, describes his childhood sweetheart, Hartley, as "a shell, a husk, a dead woman, a dead thing. Yet this was the thing I had so dearly wished to inhabit, to reanimate, to cherish" (461). Here it is Arrowby, not Murdoch, blindly attempting to "animate" a character while denying her body its subjectivity: it is a "husk", a dead "thing". In being observed by the first person male narrator, the female body is described on his terms, seen through an objectifying, immobilizing male lens. Some critics have failed to push past the male narrators' view of these women, and take the narrative point of view too much on its own terms. Instead, I will draw on Sartre's analysis of "the look" in Being and Nothingness (1943) as well as feminist film theory to firstly consider evidence of immobilization then go on to show how this apparent "puppetry" of female characters is undermined through a representation of their empowered, Medusa-like gaze. While critic Gillian Alban has approached the gaze of Medusa in A Severed Head (1961), I will expand this into a greater understanding of the objectification and gender relationships in her early novels; how the Medusian gaze interacts with the male gaze inviting the reader to look with a more scathing eye at the narrator.

The Sea, The Sea is not the only instance of apparent chauvinistic control. Three of Murdoch's early novels, A Severed Head (1961), Under the Net (1954) and The Italian Girl (1964), are read through a male "I", with female characters seen and ostensibly objectified. In considering how being looked at immobilizes oneself, a useful approach is cued by Murdoch herself. As a prolific scholar of Jean-Paul Sartre, writing two critical studies of his work (Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953) and Sartre: Romantic Realist (1980)), Murdoch's understanding of his theory of "the look" provides a valuable philosophical language with which to consider the gaze in her novels, when we consider the narrator as "Other". In his extensive existential study, Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre sums up the relation of the Other to one's subjectivity and how a look can make one feel like an object:

   The Other by rising up confers on the for-itself a
   being-in-itself-in-the-midst-of the-world as a thing among things.
   This petrification in in-itself by the Other's look is the profound
   meaning of the myth of Medusa. (555)

Murdoch's female characters can similarly be made objects when exposed to the male narrative gaze and described on its terms, immobilized as petrified statues. Many critics stop here, frustrated at Murdoch's apparently restrictive characterisation, but this does Murdoch a disservice. In angrily concluding "we never see inside them", Felheim does not recognise that this is crucial: her female characters are somewhat untamed and they evade a supposedly penetrating male gaze through the surprise, and even horror, they incite in the narrator. …

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