Rough Magic and Moral Toughness: Iris Murdoch’s Fictional Universe

  • John Fletcher


In 1970, the same year as she published her greatest novel, A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Iris Murdoch collected her philosophical papers under the stern title The Sovereignty of Good.1 Morality, she argues in that work, is pictured by many modern thinkers in terms of a personal liberation, through the power of will, into an area of indefinitely free choice. This is not a philosophical position she has much time for; in her view, moral endeavour is best seen as the attempt to overcome illusion and selfish fantasy in order to see and respond to the real world. Moral development, and also the experience of art and beauty, are the penetration of the veil with which selfishness conceals the reality of here and now from us. She does not delude herself that such transcendence of our normal, very human, selfish concerns is easy. The ‘difficulty’, she admits, ‘is to keep the attention fixed upon the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy and despair’.2 I shall be returning to those consolations, since characters in her novels, like the rest of us, happily (or more often unhappily) take refuge in them when doing the right things starts to hurt.


Moral Courage Good Night Love Affair Personal Liberation Great Love 
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  1. 5.
    Iris Murdoch made her interest in Wittgenstein clear to me in a private communication in 1984. Two of the interviews in which she has spoken of her affinity with Buddhism are in The Radical Imagination and the Liberal Tradition: Interviews with English and American Novelists (London: Junction Books, 1982) pp. 209-30, and John Haffenden, Novelists in Interview (London/New York: Methuen, 1985) pp. 191–209.Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    Elizabeth Dipple, Iris Murdoch: Work for the Spirit (London: Methuen, 1982) pp. 5Google Scholar
  3. 12.
    See Iris Murdoch, ‘Socialism and Selection’, in Black Paper 1975, eds Rhode Boyson and C. B. Cox (London: Dent, 1975) pp. 7–9.Google Scholar
  4. 16.
    Dipple’s book is cited above, note 6. See also A. S. Byatt, Degrees of Freedom: the Novels of Iris Murdoch (London: Chatto & Windus, 1965)Google Scholar
  5. Lorna Sage, ‘In Pursuit of Imperfection’, Critical Quarterly, 19 (Summer 1977) 61–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Peter J. Conradi, Iris Murdoch: the Saint and the Artist (London: Macmillan, 1986).Google Scholar

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© John Fletcher 1991

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  • John Fletcher

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