The Novel of Ideas: Iris Murdoch Under the Net (1954) Part 1



Published in 1954, Under the Net is Iris Murdoch’s first published novel. As such, some biographical background, some understanding of the book’s literary and philosophical influences, and a short assessment of why it is relevant to the subject of women’s writing in the twentieth century, might be useful to your reading.











Murdoch was born in Ireland but came to London as a baby. An only child, and cocooned in a ‘perfect trinity of love’ with her parents, she had a privileged childhood both emotionally and educationally. Her father was a senior Civil Servant and the young Iris first attended the Froebel Institute in London, then won a scholarship to Badminton School, Bristol and from there went to Somerville College, Oxford.








She was conscripted into the Civil Service on leaving Oxford in 1939 and worked at the Treasury in Whitehall. Between 1942 and 1944 she worked with refugees in the camps in Austria and Belgium for UNRRA (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association) and was deeply affected by their plight. Deracination – the fear of being stripped of one’s home and one’s identity underlies Under the Net.


On her return she spent a year at Cambridge as a postgraduate student; Wittgenstein taught there – though she did not fall under his tutelage – but his ideas on language are also are fundamental to the book – the ‘net’ is an image taken from his Tractatus, and is an image of the net of language, from under which all writing struggles to emerge. In what ways does the nature of language itself figure in this text?


9 responses to this post.

  1. ‘Against Dryness’-MURDOCH
    Murdoch initially mentions that she is about to address a problem that novels are currently encountering. The problem concerning novels is to do with the background in which it is written; the era and society of the time. She quite rightly states that as a society, we are scientific and no longer nearly as religious as we once were, moreover we are still damaged by two world wars and the ‘experience of Hitler’ which has taken away the romanticism of our culture and perhaps forced us to become more rational. Due to all the factors of our past such as the various and diverse eras, our view of ‘human personality’ has become blurred. The development of science has led to a more clinical and less emotional perspective of life and the world. The modern man is rational and free and responsible for all his own actions. A philosopher named Moore wanted to reduce the mechanics of society and draw attention once again to the ‘inner life’, however it was seen as being too flimsy a concept for the modern exact scientific world we live in. The modern world is now removed from any moralistic background according to Murdoch. Furthermore truth in society as transformed to sincerity. Our concerns have turned to education and technology from religion and human personality. Overall the connection between ‘art and moral life’ has diminished because the moral world itself is disappearing. Murdoch believes that we need to remember the mystery of philosophy and the world, in which we live, rather than assuming that we are fully aware of our surroundings and therefore losing inspiration to write about it. However there is hope. Murdoch states that literature has the ability to influence us to reconsider our lives, even over philosophy.
    Q. Has the development of science killed moralistic religious literature? Have we as Murdoch says, become too distant from the ‘inner life’ that the Romantics wrote about? Or have we just begun to approach it in different ways?
    ‘Two Directions for the Novel’- SMITH.
    Smith, like Murdoch, states that the novel as a form is becoming less powerful in today’s society. She feels that the reason for this is that the form of the novel has ceased to explore new styles and radical ideas and is instead keeping to the same ‘perfected’ style which has led to it becoming less effective. She cleverly uses the comparison of photos and how they have led to the ‘nervous breakdown’ of the portrait simply because they are more convenient. She then speaks about a novel by Joseph O’Neill about a post 9/11 New York and the effect it has had on an individual, bringing together the national and personal panic of the white middle-class Americans. Smith goes on to compare realism and metafiction, saying that the former has been replaced by the latter resulting in a ‘fascinating failure…that lacked heart’. The character of Chuck is said to function as a way in which the reader can once again gain more meaning from the words of his statements. He allows for more depth and nostalgia, which reminds the reader of the more substantial narrative of the past. Smith describes ‘Netherland’ as an ‘anxious’ novel and says that she is a fan of this type of work and hopes it shall live on. However it needs to grasp, more fully, a method of capturing the self and the world itself, rather than just being a comfort to the reader. ‘Remainder’ by McCarthy, is about what Smith terms the ‘enactor’ rather than the protagonist, surviving a coma and attempting to learn everything again as though it were for the first time. The enactor then becomes re-termed the‘re-enactor’ as he is mimicking the actions of those he see’s around him, creating a novel of realism and selfhood. Smith then goes on, in her third and final section of the chapter, to discuss Necronauts. They are a group which tend to focus, less on the perfection that interests idealists, but the raw, rather gruesome reality of life. ‘We are death-marked creatures, defined by matter-though most of us, most of the time, pretend not to be.’ It is said that what is important in the world is to form a ‘rigorous attention to the damaged and the partial; the absent and the unspeakable’, which is what ‘Remainder’ seeks to explore. Smith says that such writing is what was needed to steer literature down a new, less recognisable path of writing and this is why it is such an exceptional novel. Furthermore, Smith feels that even without all the elements that ‘Remainder’ offers such as questions of literary modes, existence, political discourse and law, the imagination used to create it would still have resulted in a novel that was ‘more than sufficient’.
    Q. Smith and Murdoch both feel that novelists need to dispose of the ‘perfected’ novel style and create literature that represents the world and the self still more realistically. Is this idea in itself unrealistic? Can we ever really re-create the world and ourselves using just language?
    ‘Under the Net’- MURDOCH
    This novel by Murdoch is written from the first person perspective of a man named Jake. This is an interesting challenge set by Murdoch for herself, especially as it was the first novel that she wrote. The story begins with Jake’s return from France to London only to find that he is homeless as his ex-lover wants him out of her home. His friend and housemate finds another home at their mutual friend’s home, but Jake is left to find somewhere else and then goes on the hunt for an ex-girlfriend named Anna. It seems that Murdoch is portraying her protagonist as a proud man who at the same time has a reliance on women to live and maintain his lifestyle. He has up until his return, been living with Madge rent-free which suggests irresponsibility in him. Furthermore his pursuit for Anna is initially due to his need to find somewhere else to live. The character of Mrs Tinckham and her dingy shop serves as a place of peace and comfort to Jake and the respect he has for her is similar to that of a mother. She is able to counsel him without even saying much to him and he returns to this spot to sit and reflect on his life.
    Q. Is Murdoch’s portrayal of a male protagonist realistic? If it is what makes it so? If not, is it possible for a woman to write effectively as a man and vice versa?


  2. Zadie Smith, ‘Two Directions for the Novel’
    With the emergence of realism establishing the original novel form, Zadie Smith highlights its developments in what she terms as ‘lyrical realism,’ a modern approach established in more recent novels such as Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. In her essay ‘Two Directions for the Novel,’ Smith examines the use of ‘lyrical realism,’ outlining how this dominant form is overpowering the possibility of many other genres, determining the future of the contemporary novel. Whilst realism stems from ‘the incantatory power of language to reveal truth,’ lyrical realism challenges the ability of this language and its authenticity. This is one of the many arguments adopted by Smith as she suggests that lyrical realism offers a more accurate representation of the real and insists that its use of form and language is perfected by O’Neill. This perfection however, is a ‘problem’ as Smith places Netherland in contrast to Tom McCarthy’s novel, demonstrating how she is put off by O’Neill’s ‘indulgences’ in the flaws of the reader and presents her favouritism for Remainder. Nevertheless, her love for Netherland is clear however, Smith idealises this novelistic form and imposes the same admiration onto the reader as she speaks for everyone in her belief that this is ‘the post-9/11 novel we hoped for’ and encouraged. Despite her praises for both writers, these men may be outdated as Smith reinforces how the future of the novel may lay in the hands of women writers or sexual, and racial others in order to meet the contemporary.
    1.Do you therefore, agree that Zadie Smith is slightly forceful in her own opinions of these novels and attempts to speak for everyone?

    Iris Murdoch, ‘Against Dryness’
    In her essay ‘Against Dryness,’ Iris Murdoch argues that our philosophies have left us with insufficiencies and challenges remaining from the ‘Enlightenment’ to ‘the modern liberal world,’ calling upon a new set of moral concepts in our society. Whilst both 19th century and 20th century novels fail to tackle these problems, Murdoch is reminded of the ‘dryness’ deriving from Romanticism and symbolism, resulting in a ‘fantasy’ rather than reality. With a society centred on science, Murdoch believes that we have abandoned religion and lost our concepts through ‘morals and politics.’ For Murdoch, this loss can be saved by literature and in turn, fulfils its own purposes as Zadie Smith implies that a new literary canon needs to be established. Murdoch believes that literature has replaced the responsibilities of philosophies and is therefore, capable of filling in these gaps by ‘offering a new vocabulary of experience and a truer picture of freedom.’ Rather than revising original moral concepts, Murdoch demands that the contemporary novel depict the struggles of ‘real people’ in higher complexities and aim to appear more realistic through its use of language.
    1.Like Murdoch, do you feel that we have been left with a novel that is ‘dry’? If so, in what ways do you think it can be improved?

    Iris Murdoch, Under the Net
    When reading a novel by a female author, it is easy to assume that the story, when narrated in first person is going to be based on a female protagonist. Iris Murdoch however, presents the reader with the male perspective of Jake Donaghue in Under the Net and manages to capture an accurate, convincing and interesting portrayal of a man who changes his attitudes towards life throughout the novel. In an attempt to establish himself as a writer, Jake tackles with many issues concerning language, commitment, relationships and the inability to articulate thoughts and emotion. When Madge forbids Jake from being her scrounger, he crawls back to his ex-girlfriend Anna and shows his remorse at the discovery of her new partner. His realisation causes the reader to question whether his character is genuine or if he is attempting to use Anna for his own gratification. Additionally, the possibility of a broken relationship based on the assumption that Anna’s lover is Jake’s friend Hugo represents his inabilities to communicate and complicates what is means to be deceived? (Would there be a disloyalty if the person did not feel deceived?) Whilst Jake undergoes a transformation, Under the Net raises a number of philosophical questions that challenge the morals of the reader as well as the protagonist, alluding to Murdoch’s essay ‘Against Dryness.’ Jake’s indulgences and decadence, demonstrated by his reliance on other people and the fulfilment of his own selfish needs, reflect the shallowness of the novel’s London setting, corresponding to Murdoch’s belief that ‘we have been left with [a] far too shallow and flimsy idea of human personality.’
    1.For the first time we are given the viewpoint of a male. Does a male’s narrative differ in any way to the female viewpoints we have been given? Do you agree that Murdoch, as a woman, characterises the main male character successfully?
    2.It would appear that the importance of the philosophical novel is to express moral messages. How may the philosophical novels of today differ to those of the 20th century? Is this a less popular form in contemporary society?


  3. Posted by Alice Gomm on March 10, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    Under the Net – Iris Murdoch


    Unlike the other writers on this module, the protagonist (and narrator) of Under the Net is male. Another difference with many of the texts on this module is the humorous tone; Jake Donaghue is witty but troubled. The reader finds humour in Jake’s narration and in his foolish actions. Despite the comedic tone, Under the Net deals with complicated philosophical ideas about the nature of language and how it can hide true meaning. The problem with meaning is represented through the constant misunderstandings in the novel, through Anna’s mime theatre and through Jake’s book The Silencer. The section of The Silencer included in Under the Net highlights that the novel’s title refers to the net of language, ‘truth can be attained, if at all, only in silence’.


    Why does Murdoch use a male narrator/protagonist? What effect does this have?
    How do the philosophic ideas in Under the Net compare with those in her later novels?
    Which philosophers influenced Murdoch in the writing of Under the Net?
    How does the comedic tone of Under the Net influence how we read the philosophic ideas?
    Murdoch presents several female characters but through the eyes of her male protagonist, what is she trying to suggest about the way men see women?

    Iris Murdoch – ‘Against Dryness’


    In ‘Against Dryness’, Murdoch argues that in the 20th century society had a ‘shallow and flimsy […] idea of human personality (287) and suggest that society needs a ‘satisfactory Liberal theory of personality’ (290). This new theory would see man as ‘free and separate and related to a rich and complicated world from which, as a moral being, he has much to learn’ (290). 20th century society’s ‘shallow […] idea of human personality’ (287) is indebted to, among other things, Romanticism. Romanticism is found in the work of the ‘symbolist movement’ (292), the work of this group, argues Murdoch, is ‘Romanticism in a later phase’ (292). The work of the symbolists is the ‘dryness’ Murdoch refers to in the essay’s title. New literature should enable society to ‘recover from the ailments of Romanticism’ (294) by turning away from ‘the consoling dream’, ‘the dry symbol’ and ‘the bogus individual’ of Romanticism and towards the ‘real impenetrable human person’ (294). Murdoch calls for a new focus on ‘the now so unfashionable naturalistic idea of character’ (294) in literature and a ‘stronger and more complex’ vision of ‘real people’ (295).


    Has our view of human nature changed since the publication of this article?
    Murdoch mentions that the welfare state has ‘weakened the incentives to investigate the bases of a Liberal democratic society’ (293), how has the welfare state done this?

    ‘Two Directions for the Novel’ – Zadie Smith


    In the article ‘Two Directions for the Novel’, Zadie Smith compares Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and Remainder by Tom McCarthy. From these novels, writes Smith, ‘a story emerges about the future for the Anglophone Novel’, currently this literary culture is ‘ailing’. In ‘healthy times’ there are ‘multiple roads’ for literature, however, in these ‘ailing’ times ‘lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway’ and there is little variety in literature.
    According to Smith, Netherland is a lyrical realist novel, and its problem lies in its perfection. Netherland is ‘so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis’. Smith regards Netherland as a ‘post-9/11’ novel, but she also suggests that it is concerned with ‘authenticity’ and is aware of questions concerning whether ‘lyrical realism’ is ‘really the closest model we have of our condition’. Although Netherland is aware of the cliché of its form it ‘employs the effect anyway’ and Smith suggest that Netherland states its anxieties ‘to neutralise them’.
    Unlike Netherland, Remainder is ‘fully conscious’ of ‘the ideas that underpin it’. Also, unlike Netherland, Remainder ‘works by accumulation and repetition’ instead of by using ‘pretty quotes’. Remainder toys with our expectations of a novel ‘gleefully taking them apart’. In contrast with our expectations, Remainder ‘empties out interiority […] the narrator finds all his own gestures to b completely inauthentic, and everyone else’s too’. Smith argues that Remainder shakes ‘the novel out of its present complacency’ and offers a ‘glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty travel forward’.


    Why has the lyrical realist novel continued to be such a popular form?
    Where does Under the Net fit in with these two novels? Is it conventionally realist or does it have characteristics of the avant-garde?


  4. Posted by Caroline on March 10, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    Iris Murdoch – ‘Under The Net’

    The novel is told from a male point of view, enabling Murdoch, a woman writer, to express how women interpret how men understand women. This understanding is expressed best in the way that Jake discusses the women in the novel. They are depicted as free moving and complex. That he, Sammy and Hugo misread the woman’s love interests and the manner in which Jake cannot consider a woman as not having a partner detail how Murdoch sees the male’s view on women.
    Murdoch appears to be undertaking Virginia Woolf’s idea of “Judith Shakespeare”, as the novel appears to contain the love square and the misinterpretation of love that appears in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
    Jake is a translator, therefore focuses on language and the specificity of words. The book he writes, entitled ‘The Silencer’, depicts the idea that every expression of ourselves through language is false, due to the fact that our words are sought to impress the listener. One can never depict themselves accurately without intending a certain purpose.
    Q. Through speaking as a male narrator, is this Murdoch’s way of being taken seriously as a female writer, like a female Shakespeare? Does she feel the need to express herself through a masculine voice to be heard?

    Iris Murdoch – ‘Against Dryness’

    Murdoch is debating the freedom of the writer of the novel in depicting images and characters, not just one or the other. She suggests that novels can just end up being journalistic, or moralistic, trying too hard to detail what life is like, while missing the depiction of reality for what it is. Literature has the ability to depict symbols and depict real life and real individuals, whatever real is. Reality in fact cannot be defined, due to the fact that it is forever changing and nothing can be defined.
    Q. How does the ending of Murdoch’s novel depict what she is trying to say in this essay?

    Zadie Smith – ‘Two Directions for the Novel’

    Smith discusses two novels within this essay, ‘Remainder’ and ‘Netherland’, and details how they deconstruct and reconstruct what people expect of the novel. Smith details how the authentic and inauthentic are represented in the novels. One of the novels depicts absence, details the trauma of the event in the aftermath, what is left when the dead man is removed. Instead of using sentences, words depict the event. This expresses the idea of being able to speak about the thing itself and not just ideas about the thing.
    Q. Smith mentions necronauts as “modern lovers of debris”. What evidence is there of absence in Murdoch’s novel?


  5. Posted by floeastoe on March 10, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    ‘Under The Net’ Iris Murdoch
    The acting of reading ‘Under The Net’ creates the feeling that the reader vey much part of the narrative; Jake constantly addresses “you”, and Murdoch uses the phrase “as you know” regularly to create intimacy between protagonist and reader.
    Jake is a deceptive, unreliable narrator: statements he makes in one chapter are contradicted in the next. Jake’s concept of money, the way he uses, understands and talks about it, clearly shows this: in Chapter Four, he gets a “good shave”, and buys a new tie, having thrown away his “old” one, yet in Chapter Two, Jake has describes just how “short of money” he is and how “the state of my finances…prevent me from taking a taxi to Hammersmith”. In Chapter One, Jake discusses “the days when I used to drink”, yet drinks his way through the narrative, in a fashion not dissimilar to the pub crawl of Chapter Eight.
    He is immature, can be as petulant as a child and does not take responsibility for himself (or Finn), which may be why he relies so much on his friends for food and accommodation, Sadie tells Jake that he and Finn are “adults..[or] at least you’re supposed to be”.
    A study of literature written by female authors suggests that their protagonists and the majority of their characters will also be women, but surprisingly, there are very few female characters in the novel, with four central ones – Anna, Madge, Sadie and Mrs Tinckham – the rest blur into the background of the text. It seems that Jake loves London more than any of these women – he calls the city “dear” and speaks of it with great affection throughout the novel, while at times being quite disdainful of the women in the narrative. Jake states that he has a “rule of never speaking frankly to women in moments of emotion”, instead confiding in Finn, Dave, Hugo and the reader, which further separates the two sexes.
    Q: What is the ‘net’ of the title? It seems to be an influence over Jake of some kind, but is he ‘under’ the influence of silence, language, Hugo, alcohol or money, a combination of these elements, all of them, or something else entirely?

    ‘Against Dryness’ Iris Murdoch
    In this essay, Iris Murdoch presents the concept of ‘dryness’, and illustrates how damaging it can be to culture, particularly literature. ‘Dryness’ is a way to describe (usually prose) writing that features “smallness, clearness [and], self-containedness”. ‘Dryness’ essentially seems to be the opposite of Murdoch’s own writing. Murdoch dislikes ‘dryness’, and suggests that art, specifically literature, has become dry because of society, and the Welfare State.
    As society becomes less structured in terms of not only class, but morality, literature has also become less structured, less “crystalline”, because people and therefore writers, have become less curious about the world around them, which in Murdoch’s view “needs” to be explored, understood and then written about. If novels become “crystalline” once again, as they were in the 19th Century “the great era of the novel”, they will be the opposite of “dryness”, which will lead morals and virtues to return to society.
    Murdoch criticises the view of the individual held by society, of the “independent self” that stems from Romanticism, as she believes too much value is place on each single self. She finds it difficult to comprehend how “after Hitler” and the horrors which came from his power, that people still see the good and have an “optimistic picture of ourselves”, while not believing in the evil of others.
    ‘Against Dryness’ urges people to create art, and not to be afraid of “incompleteness”, as “reality is incomplete”. Murdoch wants art and literature to represent society clearly and honestly, as it is, not to give a “journalistic” and misleading representation of it.

    Q: Murdoch says that “all human endeavour is failure.” Do you agree? What are your thoughts?

    ‘Two Directions For The Novel’ Zadie Smith
    Zadie Smith cites “lyrical realism” as the cause for the “ailing literary culture” that has seemingly existed since 9/11. Zadie Smith discusses the faults in the contemporary novel in this essay, much in the way that Iris Murdoch does in ‘Against Dryness’. Her argument echoes that which Murdoch made 48 years earlier: that literature is stuck in a certain place in time, with other forms of literary creativity have been “blocked”, as more and more authors attempt to fit their work into the “perfected” pigeonholed, existing stereotypes, each text a copy of the hour, rather than attempting to be different, “radical” and interesting. Smith uses ‘Netherland’ to demonstrate the problem with this perfect literary form, and contrasts it with ‘Remainder’, which is full of cycles and deceptions, thus making literature interesting and imperfect once again.
    Smith suggests that culture is what creates the content in novels, and if it becomes stagnant, so does the art that is created from it. If nearly every media outlet, releases images and stories of concerns about “identities personal and national, immigrant relations,terror, anxiety”, it will have greatly influenced on the consciousness of that society. Like Murdoch, Smith emphasis the importance of the imagination for both novelist and reader.

    Q: From the perspective of ‘Against Dryness’ and ‘Two Directions For The Novel’ could it be suggested that literature has not improved in either author’s opinion since 1961?


  6. Posted by Nabilah on March 11, 2013 at 1:37 am

    Iris Murdoch, Under the Net

    Iris Murdoch’s first published novel, ‘Under the Net’ tells the tale of male protagonist Jake Donahue in first person, and it is rather interesting to see how Murdoch portrays his personality and his public image/persona. Another noteworthy point is that there are not many female characters in ‘Under the Net’ considering it was written by a woman. Jake’s views on women are also rather important, perhaps this is what Murdoch believed that men thought about women: ‘The women that I know are often inexperienced, inarticulate, credulous, and simple; but I see no reason to call them deep because they manifest qualities which would make us call men self-absorbed. Or if they are cunning they deceive themselves and others in much the same way as men do.’ Furthermore, the novel also delves into deep, complicated and somewhat confusing philosophical ideas. Jake writes a book called ‘The Silencer’ which links to these philosophical views as it discusses the idea that language is a ‘net’ (which links to the title) – we cannot truly express ourselves.

    What is significant about the fact that Murdoch gave ‘Under the Net’ a first person male protagonist/narrator rather than a female protagonist/narrator?

    How do you feel about the concept of language being a ‘net’? Do you consider it to be accurate?

    Iris Murdoch, Against Dryness

    In this essay, Murdoch argues that literature has changed over time, but for the worst, and it is due to society’s increasing detachment with religion and science. She believes that the twentieth century novel is the ‘degenerate descendant of the nineteenth century novel’. According to Murdoch, twentieth century novels cannot portray characters in the way a nineteenth century novel did. This is due to the ‘journalistic’ nature of modern novels; they focus on discussing ‘human condition’. Another contributing factor to the degeneration of the novel, in ‘that the structure of society is less interesting and less alive than it was in the nineteenth century’ and this is because ‘Welfare economics have removed certain incentives to thinking.’

    Is it accurate to say that words have degenerated over time?

    Zadie Smith, Two directions for the novel

    This essay focuses on two novels, ‘Netherland’ by Joseph O’Neill and ‘Remainder’ by Ian McCarthy and how they differ. Zadie Smith throughout ‘Two directions for the novel’ discusses lyrical realism in relation to both of the aforementioned novels, and how this ideal can affect the future of the novel as a form. Smith argues that lyrical realism has had ‘the freedom of the highway’ – leaving little room for other types of novel. Furthermore, according to Smith, O’Neill’s use of lyrical realism and accurate description of reality in ‘Netherland’, worked in the novel’s favour, however, lyrical realism did not work so well in McCarthy’s ‘Remainder’.


  7. Posted by Fliss on March 11, 2013 at 8:59 am

    ‘Under the Net’ follows bright but ‘lazy’ writer Jake Donaghue through his unremitting day to day journeys, of women, politics, money and literature, on his return from Paris. Characters and events are seen only through Jake’s eyes, who the reader learns is a master story teller. His ability to elaborate, particularly in the case of ‘The Silencer’, and spin yarns at his own discretion, makes him a largely unreliable narrator. The reader must take Jake’s musings on Anna, Mrs Tinckham, Madge and Hugo etc. as truth, as this is all we know might be true. The novel is largely focused around Jake’s acquaintance with Hugo, whose theories regarding language and truth fascinate Jake and centre around the book’s underlying concern: the net of language. This net is ‘the web of words that divides us from the unutterable particularity of the world and the immediacy of our experience.’ (Introduction, p.xi). In this case, ‘Under the Net’ is to a certain extent a paradox, as stories according to Hugo, equate to lies, ‘the whole novel is a paradoxical vindication of its own impossible art’ (Introduction, p.xii). This concern with truth is a theme which Murdoch often returns to, and this novel ‘leaves no-one in a more acute quandary than the novelist, the whole point of whose existence is to spin yarns out of words, to catch the truth of life in the toils of narrative’. (Introduction, p.xi). It is ultimately a book about language, and the role of literature, particularly in relation to the theorising of philosophy and politics. It is a complex thing, but the role of the writer is ultimately, according to Murdoch, to speak the truth.


    -What, ultimately, is Murdoch’s message regarding the role of the writer? Where does fiction stand if truth is the ultimate goal of the writer?

    -What is the significance of the narrator being a man? Would the message remain the same had the narrator been a woman?

    -To what extent, despite Murdoch’s division between philosophy and literature, is this a philosophic novel?

    -The web of words keeps us from the particulars of our immediate experiences, it generalises and objectifies. To what extent could this novel be considered a condemnation of theory, and as such, a critique of philosophy?


  8. Posted by Jasmin Staveley on March 11, 2013 at 9:22 am

    Under the Net – Iris Murdoch
    Murdoch takes the untraditional stance of utilising a male protagonist and discussing the public persona of this private man. She explores the character Jake Donahue’s wandering lifestyle as he moves between friend’s houses, staying rent free and claiming little money. If the protagonist had been female, such a scrounging lifestyle would render her weak and depended, as well as being judged for being unmarried and without success; such prejudice limitations are not enforced upon the bachelor life style. Despite most the female characters having careers and houses of their own, more than can be said of Jake, he is not satisfied and compares the ‘profound’ and ‘guileless’ women with the mythical Pegasus, stating that such a character only exists in literature. Murdoch does not limit dissatisfaction to gender however, rather she both connects and separates the two through unrequited love. By writing in first person we rely on Jake’s narrative for the facts of the story. Although the audience knows more than the other characters about the protagonists private life and thoughts, there is still a sense the whole truth is not being communicated: Jake claims he has money but lies about it, however he later states he does not have the money for a taxi and prefers to sleep in a dressing room than to pay to stay somewhere for the night. This implies that reader is not fully accepted into his private thoughts and truths but rather to a self deceived private persona.
    Q: How would the novel have differed if all gender roles were swapped?

    Two Directions for the Novel – Zadie Smith
    Smith discusses and contrasts two texts exploring how, even though they are both novels written in prose with similarities between the authors approach, the outcome is very different. Smith argues that Joseph O’Neill’s ‘Netherland’ is so precisely perfect in what is expected of a novel that it kills the form just as the photograph killed the painting. She highlights the ‘adjectival mania’ in the descriptions that try too hard to describe the inner soul; O’Neil’s portrayal of the 9/11 collapse is covered in ‘literary language’ rather than just letting the towers bee towers. Novels can no longer ‘transcend feeling’ but rather must have a purpose. By making the novel too ‘perfect’ Smith debates whether the representation of the ‘self’ becomes unrealistic , questioning in reality ‘do the selves always seek their good, in the end?’. The essay believes ‘Netherland’ to be only partially aware of the themes it is expressing, although it is acutely aware of how the audience will react and feel. ‘Remainder’ on the other hand, explores the ‘self’ with full awareness, taking a different route from the careful and descriptive ‘Netherland’. Smith explores how this second route for the novel also kills the form but this time Tom McCarthy consciously goes beyond the novels norms, it resists the reader and uses minimalist language. While both novels utilise cricket as a metaphor, ‘Netherland’ uses it to portray triumph while in ‘Remainder’ it implies death. O’Neil’ describes neutral imagery, with repetition of clouds, whilst McCarthy challenges the perceptions of every image and repetition.
    Q: Is there a way to salvage the novel?

    Against Dryness – Iris Murdoch
    In ‘Against Dryness’ Murdoch argues that the issues raised during wars and movements, like the Romantics and Enlightenment, have not been overcome but rather shaped a flimsy idea of self. She explores philosophical behavioural arguments and their relation to literature. The Humain side stated that inner life can only be judged by social concepts which are identified through overt behaviour. Kante and Hume argue for the free will of man and his capability for self knowledge. In French philosophy Sartre’s argument is that ‘there are no degrees of freedom’ but the ‘isolation of will’ and that the ‘only virtue is sincerity’. By encourage people to think they are free they surrender the values of reality. Murdoch states that nineteenth century novels combine ideas of the person with class, creating a view of merging and progression. She explores the varying viewpoints of the novel as a form of art and expression: T.S Eliot views that novel as a documentary form and not a symbol of expression like poetry. Tolsty believes art to be a perception of religion while Kante describes the how imagination is frolicking with understanding. Murdoch argues that we are confined by our ideas of freedom and need to be awakened from fantast to the ‘complexities of moral life’.
    Q: Would her argument have changed if the essay was written now?


  9. Posted by Nina Gill on March 11, 2013 at 10:10 am

    ‘Under the Net’, Iris Murdoch

    Jake, the narrator, speaks in first person to depict his physical, mental and emotional journey. He is presented as a ‘lazy’ ‘scrounger’, who continuously looks for women to accommodate him. Murdoch uses political issues, relationships and philosophies to craft this story of Jake’s journey. The main issue that the novel is founded upon is the questions of what it means to be able to express, communicate, articulate and convey meaning. To embed this idea of language and expression into the novel, Jake refers to his book ‘The Silencer’, because in his creation of that book, he attempted, but struggled to deliver the reality of the sentiments behind a conversation that he had with Hugo. The truth of a situation and whether it can be located or expressed is central to the book and Jake’s questioning of his own reliability as narrator furthers this debate surrounding communication.

    Q: As a female author, we may pre-suppose that Murdock has chosen a male protagonist to make a statement about how men view their world, including the women in their world. Do you agree? If so, what kind of a statement is she making?
    Q: What could the title mean? Especially when looked at specifically to this quotation from ‘The Silencer’: ‘Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however had we may try as it were to crawl under the net’ (page91).

    ‘Against Dryness’, Iris Murdoch

    Iris Murdoch describes the way in which society has changed its views on virtue. She claims that the era of romanticism has been ruined by the wars and by Hitler and that these events have inclined us to take a more rational approach to our sense of ‘good’ and ‘right’. The technological and scientific advancements and the secularisation in society have formed an incorrect view of morality and politics that we abide by. ‘What we have never had, [is] a theory of man as free and separate and related to a rich and complicated world from which, as a moral being, he has much to learn’ and what ‘We need [is to] return to from the self-centred concept of sincerity to the other-centred concept of truth.’. However, literature is able to do this as it can play the role of moral philosopher in today’s society.

    Q: Do you think that literature can change society in such a way? If so, why or how?


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