The Social Construction of Homosexuality in Iris Murdoch's Fiction

By Grimshaw, Tammy | Studies in the Novel, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The Social Construction of Homosexuality in Iris Murdoch's Fiction


Grimshaw, Tammy, Studies in the Novel


In his recent biography of his Murdoch, Peter Conradi praises the novelist and philosopher for her "sympathetic and adventurous" treatment of homosexuality (424). A detailed reading of Conradi's work may reveal the underlying basis for Murdoch's sympathy with homosexuality: during her lifetime, the writer herself had romantic and sexual relationships with persons of both sexes, both betore and while married to literary critic John Bayley. In addition to her personal same-sex experiences, Murdoch also thought deeply about homosexuality from its moral and social perspectives. She expressed these thoughts not only in her writings of fiction and moral philosophy, but also in interviews and articles. For instance, in an interview given shortly before her death, she stated: "I feel very strongly that there shouldn't be any sort of prejudice against homosexuals, or suggestions that homosexual love is unnatural or bad. I hope such views are tending to disappear from society" (Meyers 109).

While certain critics have given brief or cursory analyses of homosexuality in Murdoch's fiction, none has attempted to situate Murdoch's depictions of homosexuality within their historical and social contexts. (1) It is my contention that only by examining the political and social debates surrounding the subject of homosexuality during the post-war period, as well as during the specific time periods in which Murdoch wrote her individual novels, can one begin to understand fully the author's fictional accounts of homosexuality. My analysis will show that Murdoch often portrayed homosexuality in her fiction at times when it was not necessarily in vogue to do so, particularly during sensitive periods of change of legislative control over homosexuality in Great Britain. In depicting the impact upon the homosexual of the legal and social regulation of homosexuality, Murdoch's fiction is also aligned with social constructionist theories of sexuality, which assert that homosexual behavior is shaped by social forces.

Although Murdoch illustrates love between men much more frequently in her fiction than love between women, she depicts male homosexuality or lesbianism to some extent in nearly all of her twenty-six novels, and it could be argued that many of these representations of same-sex desire share similarities with social constructionist theory. For example, one could argue that the controlling Emma Sands in An Unofficial Rose (1962), the aggressive Mitzi Richardo in An Accidental Man (1971), and the cigar-smoking, gender-bending Patricia Raven in Henry and Cato (1976) are represented as "masculine" or "butch" lesbians, consistent with the then-prevalent societal expectation that female homosexuals were marked by their mannish appearance or demeanor. In addition, Humphrey Finch in An Unofficial Rose, whose homosexuality is an open secret to those in his community, lives in a sexless heterosexual marriage ostensibly to conform to social norms, while Theodore Gray in The Nice and the Good (1968) and Edgar Demarnay in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974) are male homosexual characters who remain "in the closet" even to those closest to them, which again illustrates the social pressures confronting homosexuals. However, I believe that two of the author's works of fiction, The Bell (1958) and A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), exemplify particularly well Murdoch's representation of the social forces shaping the homosexual because the publication of these two novels coincides with the legal reform of and concomitant social concerns over male homosexuality in Great Britain. Accordingly, I shall discuss in this article the historical background to and social bases of Murdoch's depiction of male homosexuality in these two novels.

The Bell

There was a great sense of excitement and optimism about the future of Great Britain following the end of World War II. When the Labour Party came into office at the 1945 election under a manifesto promising to restore public confidence through radical political and social change, it appeared that these sentiments of hope and renewal were well justified. …

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