Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch QuoteImage by embeemb via Flickr

Brief biographical notes

Iris Murdoch (1919 - 1999), was a British —born in Dublin, but Oxford-educated— novelist, university lecturer, and philosophic writer who grappled with serious ethical or moral issues. Her background in the classics, ancient history, and philosophy, made her a well-rounded scholar. Murdoch took up a postgraduate studentship in philosophy under Ludwig Wittgenstein, and in 1948 she was elected a fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford, where she worked as a tutor until 1963.

How to become a writer

Her novelistic success brought her financial success, enabling her to dedicate the rest of her life to writing. And even though she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease (at the end of her life) she continued to write. Her editors were often intimidated by her towering intellectual presence and were reluctant to change anything she turned in. As a result, some of her work showed redundancies and other imperfections that marred what could have been masterpieces.

The Bell

Critics and scholars generally agree that The Bell is Iris Murdoch's best novel. The protagonist is Michael Meade, an ex-priest, schoolteacher, and latent homosexual tortured by his closeted feelings. The novel portrays an Anglican religious and insular community in Gloucestershire engaged in the mundane action of replacing a bell to be hung in an abbey tower. After much travail and difficulties, the task remains incomplete when the bell suddenly falls into the water and sinks without a trace.
The characters in this unstable —though apparently happy— community represent a cross section of humanity torn asunder in the end by the arrival of outsiders: Dora Greenfield (an unhappy wife) and Toby Gashe, a young man who finds himself attracted to both Dora and Michael Meade.

Other Works


Murdoch published her first novel Under the Net in 1954, in which she portrayed Jack Donaghue, a sort of existentialist hero. Another novel followed, A Severed Head (1961), which experimented with Jungian archetypes and Freudian theories of sexuality much in vogue at the time. In The Red and The Green (1965) Murdoch turns to Irish history, chronicling the Easter Rebellion in Dublin. In The Time of the Angels (1965) Murdoch explored devil worship. By manipulating time-fragmented narration, Murdoch creates a hybrid worl in which contemporary characters interact in a medieval accidental world. The Black Prince (1973) is another experimental novel in which the narrator is an aesthete- writer. The Good Apprentice (1985) was uses the problem of good and evil as the protagonist’s battlefront.  The Sea, The Sea, may just be Iris Murdoch’s other major work.

Philosophical works

In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992) and her collection of essays, The Sovereignty of Good and Other Concepts (1967), readers encounter the deep and thoughtful side of an anguished writer reaching for enlightenment. Her book Existentialists and Mystics includes a long essay entitled “The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists,” which is a careful meditation on reinstating the arts as rightful means to truth.

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

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