Iris Murdoch: Under the Net Part II


Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir



Under the Net (1954) is one of Murdoch’s most self-reflexive novels. Like Murdoch, the central character Jake is an aspiring writer trying to find his feet as a novelist and as a human being after the devastation of War. Two figures are central to his and Murdoch’s development, both French:  Jean Paul Sartre the existentialist philosopher and the writer Raymond Queneau (to whom Under the Net is dedicated).


Raymond Queneau

Thus the major questions of the novel are: ‘in a post-war society that witnessed grave limitations on human existence how free are we – really?’; and, ‘at this stage in human history what are the moral, political and cultural responsibilities of the writer and what kind of novel should s/he write?’. Critics at the time daubed Murdoch as conventional social realist, missing the European influences on her writing and thinking. It’s both significant and unique that a female writer, functioning simultaneously in the role of philosopher and novelist, was demanding so much of the novel and experimenting with its form at this time. Murdoch certainly brings great moral seriousness to the novel – yet has been criticised enduringly by feminists. So for this reason we will look at this novel afresh, trying to rationalise why Murdoch chose in this important debut novel, to adopt the narrative voice of a man.


Charlotte Street, London, 1950s

We will also look at the perceptions of femininity and the role of women in society that she explores within it. What conclusions does the book draw about mid twentieth-century gender relations and where they might be heading?. She is not afraid to shirk her responsibilities here; she is telling the truth as she sees it and won’t conform to any preconceived ideas about what a female writer should be writing – and I think this is what many find unpalatable. Do you?


9 responses to this post.

  1. Love Actually- SMITH
    Smith begins by stating that to simply ‘love’ a piece of writing is not enough once we become older and more capable of analysing texts. It is too sentimental to state that we love a piece or that it makes us feel good and therefore plays an ethical part in our lives. Because of this, the feeling of love is irrelevant and ‘does not sit well’ with the analyst. We also tend to presume that the harder a text is to read or understand and digest, the more beneficial it must be for us to read. However, Smith argues that in fact every piece of literature intends to make us see things in a different way and this as a strategy, is ethical in itself, so ideas of morality and ethics are always part of literature. Two authors who Smith then discusses in terms of morals are Austen and Forster (who Smith states was heavily influenced by Austen). However the characters that they use to depict their moralistic story lines are extremely different. Austen’s are ‘good readers and…encourage good reading from others’ whereas Forster’s protagonists are ‘muddled’ and not sure how to go about achieving their desires. Smith criticises Forster’s work saying that this muddle leads to a melodramatic and mawkish style. Forster didn’t like the idea of too much positivity and clarity in his work and therefore intentionally includes elements of much less brightness and merriment. He focuses closely on the idea of the ‘undeveloped heart’ and gives this attribute to many of his characters in order to show the development of the person and also to explain how difficult it is to achieve an ‘educated heart’. Even though Austen was Forster’s favourite writer, his opinion was that there was an ethical advantage in his characters not always showing rationalism as her’s did. Forster receives more criticism due to his lack of urgency of climax in his plot. He is described by Mansfield as ‘warming the teapot’ without ever making any tea. However Smith states that this is done deliberately to tell the reader that some situations in life cannot be dealt with or described rationally as life and people do not always work that way; ‘our very consciousness’s are, at foot, faulty and fearful, uncertain and mysterious’. It is because of this that the reader would see themselves in Forster’s protagonists more than we would in Austen’s self-understanding and rational characters. Moreover, love is realistically an irrational choice in Forster and much more rational for Austen’s characters.

    Q) Is it true that we would rather identify with muddled, irrational characters like Forster creates rather than Austen’s self-aware and rational ones? Is it easier and less scary to remain in the dark about our own psyche?

    Morality, the Visual Arts and Rembrandt in Iris Murdoch’s ‘Under the Net’ and Zadie Smith’s ‘On Beauty’- ROWE.
    Rowe begins by stating that Murdoch was passionate about changing the tired form that the novel had been taking and reinventing it to include morality and visions of the inner self. The novelists compared to Murdoch are Smith and Forster who also have a keen interest in realistic and moral characters. Smith and Murdoch have both accomplished good educations and prestigious prizes for their writing. They have also continued to teach alongside their writing careers. They also support the return of so-called ‘unfashionable’ styles of writing in order to instil morality. They both grew to agree that theirs and other people’s characters CAN be treated as though they are real people and not just a ‘collection of sentences’ as Smith once stated and later took back. They both consider the concept of love to be an important one as it coincides with morality and truth which is in turn reflected in their art. They feel that now, ethics have been lost in contemporary writing and have been replaced with the importance of analytical responses. Rowe rightly says that the fact that a character’s decisions throughout a novel are considered by the reader, proves that the reader can be influenced and therefore morally guided by literature. Even though their sentimentality is similar, their writing is different due to their difference in culture and era. Murdoch focuses on the upper-middle classes and Smith on the racial stereotypes and ideas of difference. However it seems that aside from their ‘thematic concerns’, their messages are very similar with constant references to identity, ‘the need for connection between the sexes’, love and morals. Their protagonists in ‘On Beauty’ and ‘Under the Net’ are both male writers who have an over eagerness for theorizing and this leads to all sorts of problems, on being a ‘distancing from reality’ and a stereotyping of women. They have become idealised versions rather than real women. Ultimately the similarities outweigh the differences in these women’s writing and Rowe ends her essay saying that they ‘share the same respect for truth and love and the same belief in the redemptive power of art to work toward the greater good of humanity’.

    Q) Smith clearly holds Murdoch in very high regard and has been influenced greatly by her writing and her philosophy, but is it ever dangerous to refer too much to someone else’s work and can that in turn stunt your own growth as a writer and independent thinker? OR is it helpful to have been encouraged this much by a previous writer in order to enhance your own writing?

    Cusk’s essay on Murdoch and Women Writers.
    Cusk mentions that Iris Murdoch didn’t write as a woman, meaning that she did not focus on the themes that were expected of women at the time. She questions whether the absence of feminism in Murdoch’s work, harmed it in any way. She says that much of the work written by men in this era gives a more accurate representation of women than women writers did. This is due to the female writer’s need to prove their intellectuality, which ultimately led to writing like a man. Cusk says that many people would find the idea of a woman only being able to write effectively if she includes her womanhood a repulsive idea. She says that Murdoch clearly wanted to be considered an equal and an intellect and therefore did not harp on about life as a woman.

    Q) Would anyone consider it at all damaging to Murdoch’s writing that she did not include a strong feminist element?


  2. Posted by Fliss on March 16, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    Rachel Cusk. On Iris Murdoch.

    Iris Murdoch, in Cusk’s opinion, was a writer, a woman, but ‘not a women’s writer’. Is this a sin of omission, or in some way harmful to her work in ‘sidestepping the issue’, Cusk asks. Women writers avoid representations of ‘the female ‘ordinary’’ experience because they fear being boxed in, as so often they were in the past. Instead they attempt to ‘transcend’ this writing, only, in Cusk’s view, to stumble into a world man has created, ‘the woman writer loses her connection to her womanhood and hence to personal truth’. For Cusk, ‘Murdoch presumably wished to live as an intellectual, an academic, unfettered and equal precisely where women have traditionally been constrained and inferior.’ Murdoch did not wish her work to become fettered by what could or could not theoretically be happening in her writing, ‘the fear of things becoming ‘theoretical’ is a fear for the integrity of the work’s connection to life’.

    Important quote: ‘The woman reader comes to the woman writer with a question: to what extent can my feelings of powerlessness be made powerful? And: can my historical sense of silence be vocalised? These are important questions, but the woman writer retains the right and dignity of choice in how she responds to them…her remoteness from these questions creates a sense of lost parentage in the woman writer looking for literary forebears. A lost source of strength; a lost and gifted mother, cloistered in philosophy and academe.’


    – Should the woman writer be constrained by the fact of her sex to write primarily about matters of gender? Is it right to consider literature that does not as ‘sidestepping the issue’? Men are not considered to have created ‘sins of omission’ or of having harmed their work in any way by not being ‘a man’s writer’. Why should Murdoch be constrained in this way?

    Zadie Smith. ‘Love Actually’.

    The questions Smith asks in this essay primarily regard the approaches to both writing and reading in relation to sentimentality versus rationality. ‘Love’, Smith tells us, was her first response to reading the novel. However, through the course of her education, these feelings have been sidelined. Can such a response as love be of any importance? Smith becomes ‘suspicious of the subjective affective response’, of things such as ‘moralism’ and ‘sentimentality’. Her education at Cambridge taught her to engage with texts analytically, rather than ethically. It was through her readings of E.M.Forster, the writer whose work first made Smith respond with love, that a different reading to those authors such as Austen was required. In the ‘emotional, erratic and unreasonable’ aspects of life in Forster’s novels, the reader is asked to make ‘a conceptual leap, from literary style to morality, to something unspoken in their nature that is shared’. Ultimately, for Smith, ‘what Forster’s muddled style has to tell us is that there are some goods in the world that cannot be purely pursued rationally, we must also feel our way through them’.


    Is there a danger of reading texts too sentimentally? Could something be lost in moving away from analytical readings?

    Anne Rowe. ‘“Intimations of Morality from an Inkpot”: Morality, the Visual Arts and Rembrandt in Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.

    The incorporation of art, particularly in this case the use of Rembrandt’s paintings, in both Iris Murdoch and Zadie Smith’s novels are used as ways in which both authors might experiment with form, ‘to represent the unobservable inner experience of characters’ as well as to bring forward ‘a strong moral dimension’ (p.1). Art allows both characters and, as a result, readers, to reveal and explore deeper levels of understanding of the self, of others and of morals and truths. Smith follows Murdoch in this new form of novel, which critiques the ‘imposition of theories that replaced the affective response to literature’, the loss of which resulted in the ‘loss of the moral impact of the novel’ (p.1). Fiction, as Murdoch puts it, is ‘a way of doing moral philosophy’ (p.2). The inclusion of art in the novels, as Rowe postulates, is a way of reaching back to instill morals once again in literature, as well as generating an ‘attentive, objective looking which is moral because it illustrates a sustained effort to see what is outside the self’ (p.3). More so in Smith’s novel On Beauty this broaches the concern ‘on how stereotyping of women damages relationships’ (p.3). As Rowe explains, Jake in Murdoch’s Under the Net is set up ‘as the paradigm of the new man who can only see art as a “symbol of his own internal drama [so that] the self [remains] locked within the self”’ (p.5). Through his misperceptions, the women in his life become ‘so stereotyped that the reality of women is invisible’ (p.5). It is not until Jake ‘learns from looking’ (p.7) he is able to see Anna clearly, for who she is rather than who he sees her as. However, for Rowe, Murdoch does not close the question with the clarity Smith does, whose ‘expansive and loving representation of Kiki puts Murdoch’s representation of her female characters into start relief[…]she surely surpasses Murdoch in a glorious celebration of femininity from which Murdoch shrinks’ (p.11-12).


    – If it was not Murdoch’s intention to consider women in the same way Smith does, can her work be judged on a similar vein?

    – Perhaps Murdoch’s novel is narrated by a man because the themes in which it addresses are not particularly feminist issues, rather, as discussed in all three of this week’s essays, issues of morality and experimentation with form.


  3. Posted by Caroline on March 17, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Rachel Cusk – On Murdoch

    Cusk details Murdoch as not owning her womanhood. She states that Murdoch wished to live as an individual, and due to the time, could not also therefore live as a woman, otherwise she would not be respected within her field. Cusk states that Murdoch, a great woman writer, is a ‘lost source of strength for the woman reader’, due to the fact that Murdoch doesn’t write from a woman’s perspective. She sees this as being something that holds Murdoch back, due to the fact that instead of portraying women from a strong woman’s perspective, she avoids the topic. She does not confront the idea of recreating perception of women.

    Q. If the novel was written in third person perspective allowing for the women’s viewpoints, would the novel be any more empowering to women?
    Do the women break the stereotypes of women enough to need a voice?

    Zadie Smith – ‘Love Actually’

    Smith discusses E.M Forster’s style of writing in ‘A Room With A View’, detailing it as ‘muddled’, with characters that are ‘chaotic, irrational human beings’. This enables Forster to create characters that are rounded and to express characters that are ‘a messy human condition’. Smith compares Forster’s characters to Austen’s characters, who are good readers of situations. Forster’s, instead, are not, therefore perceive the world as ‘muddled’.
    Murdoch’s writing is similar to Forster’s, in that Jake misreads reality completely. The ending of ‘Under The Net’ is Jake’s revelation of truth.

    Q. Novels produce a snapshot of the character’s lives. How does Jake’s perception of women change?

    Anne Rowe – ‘“Intimations of Morality from an Inkpot”: Morality, the Visual Arts and Rembrandt in Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.’

    This essay details the similarities between Smith and Murdoch, and their writing styles. Both authors use art to express characters removed understanding of reality due to their flawed understanding of art.
    Both novelists reveal the male characters’ culturally stereotyping of women, and show this to the readers, although in Murdoch’s case more subtly.
    The essay states that ‘such distancing from reality generates misogyny, which is intensified by the cultural influences of popular visual art.’

    Q. How do cultural influences of visual art create misogyny?


  4. Posted by Nabilah on March 17, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    Rachel Cusk Essay

    In this essay, Rachel Cusk discusses Iris Murdoch and her opinion that Murdoch ‘was not a women’s writer’. Cusk defines women’s writing as literature that has a ‘inalienably personal connection to lived life.’ There is a lack of feminism in Murdoch’s work as she ‘presumably wished to link as an intellectual, an academic, unfettered and equal precisely where women have traditionally been constrained and inferior.’ Perhaps, Murdoch thought that in order to be successful in a “man’s world” she should not discuss women’s issues and feminism and write like a man instead. Cusk also briefly talks about whether Murdoch’s lack of feminism is harmful to her work in any way.

    Do you think that Murdoch’s choice to omit feminism in her writing is harmful to her work in any way?

    Zadie Smith, Love Actually

    In her essay, Zadie Smith discusses EM Forster, in particular Forster’s novel ‘A Room With A View’, which she first read at the age of eleven. In relation to Forster, Smith talks about the concept of love within the form of the novel and how it ‘does not sit well with the literary academy’. Furthermore, Smith argues that Forster’s literary characters ‘are famously always in a muddle’, they do not know what they want or how to get it’. Smith also somewhat praises Forster for doing this: Forsterian characters are in a moral muddle; they don’t feel freely; they can’t seem to develop. Most comic novelists fear creating one-dimensional characters; Forster bravely made this fear a part of his art.’

    Smith mentions that Forster loosely based his characters on those by Jane Austen, do you think this is significant (that a man was inspired by a female writer)?

    Anne Rowe “Intimations of Mortality from an Inkpot”: Morality, the Visual Arts and Rembrandt in Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty

    In this essay, Anne Rowe argues that Zadie Smith is a ‘literary heir to Iris Murdoch, perpetuating and developing the “Novel of Ideas” in similar moral and aesthetic ways’ to Murdoch. Rowe demonstrates this by linking Murdoch and Smith’s writing to the Visual Arts, particularly the paintings of Rembrandt in relation to Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Rowe argues that both writers reference Rembrandt’s paintings ‘as a vehicle for soaking their novels with moral significance’ and ‘an antidote to the corruptive influence of mediocre art.’ Furthermore, Rowe’s essay somewhat links to Cusk’s essay as Rowe discusses Murdoch’s lack of female characters in Under the Net, when she states that the female characters are ‘ghosts’ in Jake’s life, they are merely in the background.


  5. Posted by floeastoe on March 17, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    “Intimations of Mortality from an Inkpot”: Morality, the Visual Arts and Rembrandt in Iris Murdoch’s ‘Under the Net’ and Zadie Smith’s ‘On Beauty’ Anne Rowe

    In this essay, Anne Rowe illustrates how these female authors – Iris Murdoch and Zadie Smith – whose early novels were published decades apart, share similar views on the importance of the presence of morality in literature, despite writing in different eras. Both authors use art in their novels to reflect truth and morals, so that they can offer an emotional education to their readers through their characters. Rowe shows how Smith and Murdoch both believe that it is necessary to include morality in literature, no matter how “unfashionable” it may to their contemporary literary culture. Iris Murdoch stated that “art and morality are one”, which is why both play such integral roles in her novels, and Zadie Smith has stated that she has been influence by this.
    Both novels are incredibly similar, through their subtle attempts to introduce philosophy and morality to the reader, through the power of art. It could be suggested that if the reader is not looking to be educated morally, they will not see it. Zadie Smith has described fiction as “a way of doing moral philosophy”, and Iris Murdoch clearly felt the same way, as seen in her novels. The constant references to eyes in both novels seem to be encouraging the reader to see the world differently.

    Q: If the reader has no concept of the art being discussed in the novels, will the moral message be lost on them?

    ‘Love, Actually’ Zadie Smith
    In this essay, Zadie Smith challenges the idea held by many literary critics that is unacceptable to “love”, that a book should be taken apart and deconstructed, not taking into account a reader’s initial reaction to a novel, thus creating a “disdain for novels that make us feel good”, resulting in people becoming “estranged from that which is most familiar”.
    Smith argues in ‘Love, Actually’ that readers should take pleasure from the literature they read, under the belief that “the ease of read, the vivid characterisation, [and] the satisfactory patterning of the plot” is just as important to literature as the critical analysis it produces, and should not be demeaned by the intellectual elite. Being a “good reader” is important to Smith, as engagement with characters and the situations the author has placed these people in helps people to “fully inhabit” their “ethical lives”.
    The novels of E.M. Forster are used to emphasise the arguments Smith makes, as his characterisation is “layered” and “offered a great deal more empathy”, something she regards as important for a novel.

    Q: Although analytical study of literature is important, could it be suggested that a novel is best enjoyed when it is not taken apart through study?

    ‘On Murdoch and Women Writers’ Rachel Cusk
    Cusk accuses Iris Murdoch of not being “a women’s writer”, which seems to be a rather harsh criticism. Murdoch did not write about women, or at the very least intellectual women, as she did not know any; the company she kept was men, and that is reflected in her novels, and Cusk believes that in doing so, she undermines women in society. However, it could be argued that Murdoch presents an accurate representation of women at the time – not yet emancipated, often at the margins of society, without the freedom of liberation, rendering them as figures on the sidelines, reduced to locking men in their flats or calling them to Paris to be with them.

    Q: Is there only one way to see the female characters in Murdoch’s novels? As “quote”? Is there another way that they can be interpreted?
    Q: Cusk states that Murdoch is “not a women’s writer”, but what is a “women’s writer”? Does such a person exist? Should authors, and readers, be pigeon-holed by their gender?


  6. Anne Rowe, “Intimations of Morality from an Inkpot:” Morality, the Visual Arts and Rembrandt in Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty
    Anne Rowe draws on the similarities and (few) differences between Iris Murdoch and Zadie Smith in their references to the relationship between art and morality in the novel. Rowe particularly focuses on the Rembrandt paintings in her analysis of these two writers and how they offer art as a model for how individuals should judge each other, and comprehend the ‘truthfulness’ of the world. Although Smith may not be fully equated to Murdoch’s philosophies, moral views and their inclusion in her novel form, many of her novels such as On Beauty contain subtle references to Murdoch and demonstrate a shared belief towards art’s influence on humanity, evoked by her protagonist Howard. Like the male protagonist we encounter in Murdoch’s Under the Net, Howard is shallow and limits his perceptions of humanity to his own distorted views of art. Whilst Jake and Howard’s characters transform, Rowe traces their progress alongside the paintings they encounter, exploring how their responses change towards art and how this mirrors their attitudes towards a situation or individual. Similar to Murdoch, Smith leaves the reader with the ‘wonders of the world’ as Howard’s transformation may have come too late yet, judging by Kiki’s vision of her husband, it is implicated that she is capable of taking him back. Would this not call into question then the fullness of Smith’s female characters? Women make short appearances in Murdoch’s texts and may appear unintelligent, coloured by the perspectives of male narrators however, many female experiences presented to the reader may be repeating common trends in the novel (E.g. a woman dealing with her husband’s infidelity in On Beauty.)
    1. Murdoch’s female experience may be absent from the novel however, is it not liberating for a woman to have the freedom to write about subjects she is interested in instead? If On Beauty was narrated by Howard (in first person), do you think that Smith would be subject to the same criticisms?
    2. Rowe refers to Rembrandt’s ‘Seated Nude’ in On Beauty where Katie’s admiration and appreciation of art (and the female body) is shown in contrast to Howard’s distaste. Are we therefore, dealing with gendered views of art?

    Zadie Smith, ‘Love Actually’
    Zadie Smith expresses her praise and admiration for E M Forster from a young age yet, she shows how her original childhood love for his novels became irrelevant in the meticulous world of literary academia. Although Roland Barthes denied the novel as a tool of ethics, readers such as Smith found that they felt more fulfilment from attempting to analyse complex texts and discovered that a natural, subconscious emotional response occurred. Regarding reading as a beneficial ‘moral activity’ became outdated however; E M Forster embraced the dangers of the ‘comic English novel,’ aiming to fill the voids Austen’s writing left behind. Forster takes on risks by integrating ‘one-dimensional’ and ‘flat’ characters in his plot and like Murdoch, succeeds by delaying the moral transformation until the end of his novel. The flaws and mistakes of characters are therefore, more appealing and interesting to the reader. Throughout her essay, Smith demonstrates how writing and ethics come in conjunction with each other and proves how Forster’s lost confused and ‘muddled’ characters invoke more empathy, and moral instruction than Austen’s ‘controlled’ optimistic protagonists. Forster’s famous ‘muddling’ was not only depicted in irrational characters but was also experimented through a ‘chaotic’ form that mirrored everyday life and humanity. By forming attachments to Forster’s ‘muddled characters,’ Smith suggests that we embrace ‘otherness,’ representing the reader’s goodness and demonstrating how novels act and generate morality.
    1. From reading this essay and gaining ideas about Forster’s writing style, do you think he bears similarities to Murdoch?
    2. In reference to Forster, Smith suggests that novelists write from their own mistakes and experiences in order to ‘avoid caricature.’ Could this also be used in defence of Murdoch and the criticism placed on her lack of female experience in the novel?

    Rachel Cusk on Iris Murdoch
    Rachel Cusk demands that women write from their own experiences and therefore, insists that Iris Murdoch is not a women’s writer. Although Virginia Woolf was an independent woman, the successes of her writing are based on the central mothers and wives of her domestic novels. By following what was viewed as the ‘ordinary life’ of women, Woolf was able to balance her female characters with the emergence of the new woman, an aspect Murdoch lacked. Unlike Woolf, Murdoch fails to capture an image of full female experience as her three minor women appear unintelligent or passive, dominated by her first person male narrator in Under the Net. As a highly intellectual woman, Murdoch struggled to equate with other females and may have felt that her choices in writing led to a more realistic narrative, fulfilling the purpose of the novel. Murdoch may have been trying to prove that women are no lesser than men, demonstrating how you can fall short of something extraordinary if you fail to take on the ‘gambles of human existence.’ Whilst Cusk acknowledges the difficulties and limitations of women writing in a male dominated world, she argues that Murdoch is a loss of talent, wishing that she had used her position of power to vocalise ‘more personal sources of knowledge.’ The reader however, can question these sources and argue whether an inclusion of the self can be traced in all three of her female characters in Under the Net.
    1. Cusk expresses the difficulties of women writing in a male dominated world as they are unable to enter subjects such as ‘war’ and ‘politics,’ ‘without creating a kind of absence or silence in her prose.’ Does Murdoch go beyond this or do the short-lived appearances of her female characters in Under Net support this view?
    2. Should all women writers be made to feel that they should expose an element of their personal lives in order to become successful novelists? Do you think that Murdoch takes on male forms of writing and should be praised for this?


  7. Posted by Alice Gomm on March 17, 2013 at 11:10 pm

    Zadie Smith – ‘Love, actually’


    Smith describes how the study of literature encourages on to regard the idea that one can ‘“love”’ a novel, or that a novel can represent ‘a Good in our lives’ as ‘shameful’ and are forgotten about. Critics such as F.R. Leavis ‘secured the novel’s status within the academy’ by regarding the novel as a ‘piece of social history’ which meant that love for a novel ‘would only be seen as [a] weakness’. Smith suggests that all novels, regardless of style, have ethical values because ‘every variety of literary style attempts to enact in as a way of seeing, of reading, and this is never less than an ethical strategy’.
    Smith examines how the style of E. M. Forster’s novels reflects his ethics. Forster’s protagonists are ‘chaotic, irrational’ and ‘always in a muddle’ which may mirror a belief that ‘the true motivations of human agents are far from rational’. Similarly, Forster’s ‘narrative structure is muddled also’ suggesting that ‘there are some goods in the world that cannot be purely pursued rationally’. Smith argues that this belief is influenced by John Keats’ theory of Negative Capability, which is ‘“when man is capable of being in uncertainties […] without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”’ Freud’s influence gave richness to Negative Capability, allowing Forster to see that ‘our very consciousnesses are, at root, faulty and fearful, uncertain and mysterious’. This view of human consciousness enabled Forster to usher in ‘a new era for the English comic novel’ which recognised that many of us ‘would rather not understand ourselves, because it is easier and less dangerous’. Smith argues that Forster ‘expanded the comic novel’s ethical space […] simply by letting more of life in’ and by portraying life as ‘messy’. Smith argues that a novel can have an ethical power over us, she writes ‘“When we read with fine attention, we find ourselves caring about people who are various, muddled, uncertain and not quite like us (and this is good).”’


    How does the form of Iris Murdoch’s novels reflect ethical values?

    Could Under the Net be regarded as a descendent of the comic novel Smith argues that Forster helped to develop?

    ‘“Intimations of Mortality from an Inkpot”: Morality, the Visual Arts and Rembrandt in Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty’ – Anne Rowe


    This essay argues that Zadie Smith ‘is a literary heir to Iris Murdoch, perpetuating and developing the “Novel of Ideas” in similar moral and aesthetic ways’ (1). Both writers advocate ‘ways of reading the novel that redirect critical attention to its moral status’ (2). Murdoch and Smith suggest that all novels have ethical values because ‘the fact that characters make choices and reader draw meaning from them illustrates that the novel is a moral medium’ (4). A significant similarlity between Murdoch and Smith is their interest in ‘the idea that morality resides at the point of vision rather than choice’ (5). The essay discusses how Murdoch’s Under the Net and Smith’s On Beauty focus on ‘how the cultural stereotyping of women damages relationships’ (5). The novels use references to ‘paintings by Rembrandt as an antidote to such ways of seeing and as a vehicle for soaking their novels with moral significance’ (5-6). For Murdoch, Rembrandt’s genius lies in his ‘attentive, objective looking which is moral because it illustrates a sustained effort to see what is outside the self’ (6), this enables the artist to see ‘truth’ and to reveal it ‘in art’ (6); a viewer of such art ‘shares in this clarity of perception and experiences truth by proxy’ (6). Under the Net uses ‘references to painters and paintings and allusions to schools of art theory to explore how inner fantasies distort perception of the world and how popular cultural images endorse such fantasies’ (7). Similarly, Smith uses ‘meaningful allusions to paintings that illustrate how aesthetics and morality are linked’ (7). Rowe argues that both writers ‘suggest that mediocre art is morally culpable by linking it with immoral behaviour’ (12) and both novels ‘offer Rembrandt as an antidote to the corruptive influences of mediocre art’ (12). Murdoch and Smith also suggest that good art has redemptive powers through their characters: ‘Jake’s and Howard’s perception is altered by it without their conscious knowledge or complicity’ (13).


    Does Murdoch’s representation of the relationship between art and morality vary in her other novels?


  8. Posted by Jasmin Staveley on March 18, 2013 at 1:01 am

    Zadie Smith – Love Actually
    Smith argues how ‘love’ is seen as detrimental to both the analyst and characters; such sentiment is seen as a weakness by the ‘literary community’. Instead, the analyst must make the novel scrupulously relevant and devoid of feeling for, she argues, a text cannot be for pleasure or ethics but rather the reader gets the most out of it by being ‘pained’. Smith highlights how Jane Austen’s titles affect our reading of the novel before we begin, for example we have in mind how ‘pride’ and ‘prejudice’ affects the characters. By having characters that are ‘good readers’ it encourages the audience to be good readers, however Smith argues Forster does not do this. By believing that clearly constructed, unmuddled and rational novels are a ‘failure’ by not lending itself to reality or morality, Forster wants his audience to ‘feel’ their way through a novel. Smith utilises Forster and De Beauvoir to argue that to be a serious character you must have an ‘under developed heart’. Forster uses ‘flat characters’ that ‘can’t seem to develop’ in order to show the result of consistency. By believing that Austen’s character connections of marriage and tolerance were only acceptable, Smith believes Forster uses introspective knowledge to create empathy between characters and with the reader rather than Austen’s ‘positivism: this often creates an unsatisfying effect for the logical reader. Smith argues that Forster demands love from his readers, going against literary acceptability and resulting in harsh criticism. Smith agrees and empathises with the statement that by becoming a ‘practitioner’ of literature, is to become sentimental about the work of other.

    Question: Are modern novels steering towards the clarity and clear construction? Or are they influenced by Forsters’ muddled depictions?

    Anne Rowe – “Intimations of Mortality from an Inkpot”: Morality, the Visual Arts and Rembrandt in Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty
    Murdoch uses art and innovation to express inner emotions and ‘strong moral’ aspects for clarity on the world. The essay argues that Smith is an ‘heir’ to Murdoch in her literary writings. They differ however, in their representations of women, where Smith could be seen to surpass Murdoch in her depictions, yet agree on the ego centrism of men. Both award winning writers believe in the importance of historical works of literature as an influence on modern audience. Additionally they agree on the importance on love; to think beyond yourself, is to realise reality and appreciate art and morality. Art personifies this as the visual representation that is beyond the self. The negative side of art is also brought to light when the essay discusses the importance, and shallowness, of the visual upon human relationships: this is exemplified through the perfection men see in the Mona Lisa. In turn, this highlights the responsibility of art, of all forms, as it influences even the subconscious: art is morality. Whilst Murdoch is only implicit with her art allusions, Smith is more open and explanatory. Murdoch uses her novels as a device to paint the pictures of her world through the eyes of her characters, whilst still being confined ‘under the net’ of language.

    Question: Does Murdoch have a right, as a successful female writer, to depict the ‘glorious celebration of femininity’ in her novels?

    Rachel Cusk
    Cusk argues that Murdoch was not a ‘women’s writer’ for she does not write about the female experience, necessary and synonymous with female writing, and often utilises male protagonists. In doing so, Cusk argues, she is undermining feminism and supporting the patriarchal ways. The essay questions whether such authorial behaviour also gives the texts a shelf life and topical, narrative limitations. She highlights that Virgina Woolf’s life was ordinary though not typically feminine, for she was not a mother or a wife, yet she is a women writer for her texts transcend the self. Yet Cusk questions whether the ordinary female life is more likely to be portrayed in the writings of a man who does not fear, as the striving female writer does, of portraying women as normal and unextraordinary . This however, taints the female with the male perspective. Cusk explores D.H Lawrence’s thoughts on existentialism, concluding the individual to be responsible for the ‘whole of mankind’, highlighting the influence of what a writer does with their work. What a women writer does not and cannot say, for lack of personal experience, defines her history almost more than what she does say within her own limits and obstacles of self-representation, however this ‘black hole’ of knowledge risks becoming the ‘anti-matter’ of female identity. Cusk argues that Murdoch is fearful of connecting her novels with herself. The essay questions whether in such a position of female power, Murdoch had the responsibility to convey the previously silenced femininity to the world.

    Question: Does Murdoch depict her female characters in a bad light in ‘Under the Net’?


  9. Posted by Nina Gill on March 18, 2013 at 5:55 am

    ‘Love Actually’, Zadie Smith

    In order to show the link between ethics and narrative, Smith explains how ‘EM Forster was trying to teach us a lesson’ through his ‘muddled’ characters and ‘muddled’ narrative structure, which expressed ‘the belief that the true motivations of human agents are far from rational in character’. She marks the distinction between Austen’s characters as ‘good readers’ and Forster’s as ‘chaotic, irrational human beings’. In his letter to Trevelyan regarding his novel, Forster expresses his concern of the place of morality within his literature, because the typically positive aspects of a novel, such as ‘clarity’, and being well-constructed ‘bothered him’. He feared ‘creating one-dimensional characters, because like the characters, the reader will feel that they ‘become existentially flat’, ‘morally inflexible’ and ‘consistent’. Avoiding this type of character expressed Forster’s ethical value of emotion, as it is essentially how humans live their lives: ‘he suggested there might be some ethical advantage in not always pursuing a perfect and unyielding rationality’. Smith credits Forster for weaving his ethical issues in his real life into his literature: ‘His genius lay in making these failures the basis of his ethics’. Smith parallels his ethics with those found in Keats’ poetry, as they both ‘“seized upon the supreme fact of human nature, the very small amount of good in it, and the supreme importance of that little”’, ultimately making it more true for the reader. Thus, Forster’s style communicates the idea that ‘there are some goods in the world that cannot be purely pursued rationally’, helping us to value the ‘impulsive, meandering, irrational’ that is an inherent part of our human nature. Smith uses the example of the ‘good’ that arises from Forster’s Lucy, when she adheres to her nature as ‘inconsistent’ to show the usefulness of the emotion in his ‘muddled’ characters. Smith regards this as a ‘serious vision’ of ‘the truth of human relations’ (to be ‘faulty’, ‘fearful, uncertain and mysterious’), as Foster succeeds by ‘simply by letting more of life in’. She concludes that: ‘“When we read with fine attention, we find ourselves caring about people who are various, muddled, uncertain and not quite like us (and this is good).”’ Thus, it is narrative that can allow the expression of ethics by showing the ‘consequences of human actions as they unfold in time’.

    Q: Do you value or love a novel more when its protagonist is ‘muddled’?
    Q: Do you value or love a novel more when its form is ‘muddled’?
    Q: Is it literature’s job to represent the emotive, ‘irrational’ and ‘impulsive’ side of human nature and keep it alive? If so, what ‘good’ does it bring to us?

    ‘Intimations of Mortality from an Inkpot’: Morality, the Visual Arts and Rembrandt in Iris Murdoch’s ‘Under the Net’ and Zadie Smith’s ‘On Beauty’, Anne Rowe

    Rowe describes the similarities between the two celebrated writers Iris Murdoch and Zadie Smith, who, despite coming from different eras, both include morality as a significant aspect within their literature. Just as Forster does, they openly reject the ‘unfashionable’ styles of writing because they see ethics as fundamental to their art by being able to provide a moral message. The idea of love is equally present in their novels as it is a concept closely linked to philosophy and truth and art is the forum to debate and display philosophies. Interestingly, Rowe describes the reader’s role in following the characters along their journey as a way to embark on their own philosophical journey, because the literature acts as a moral guide. They tend to differ in their ‘thematic concerns’ due to their different eras, but the ethical content is strong in both. Essentially, they ‘share the same respect for truth and love and the same belief in the redemptive power of art to work toward the greater good of humanity’.

    Q: Do you think that ethics is a dying aspect within novels today?
    Q: Do you feel that morals are always clear in novels? Or is this unimportant?

    Rachel Cusk On Iris Murdoch

    Cusk views Murdoch as ‘not as women’s writer’, because she does not relay the ‘female ‘ordinary’’ and Cusk defines ‘women’s writing’ as the ‘inalienably personal connection to lived life’. She explains that ‘Murdoch presumably wished to live as an intellectual, an academic, unfettered and equal precisely where women have traditionally been constrained and inferior’. Murdoch tried to separate herself from being seen as a women writer, but instead, simply to be appreciated as a writer, because she recognised that people would see her literature as inevitably linked to her gender: ‘the fear of things becoming ‘theoretical’ is a fear for the integrity of the work’s connection to life’. Cusk debates whether the woman writer should ‘transcend’ or ‘engage’ with her gender so that her ‘feelings of powerlessness be made powerful’. Thus, a woman writer can choose how to use her gender and to what extent it can affect her work. However Cusk believes that they should not ridicule the potential power of being a woman writer. She concludes that although ‘Murdoch wasn’t a disparager’, she does not connect with the fact that she is a woman in the literary world, leaving us wondering where the connection lies.

    Q: Do you think that is important/ meaningful for a female writer to acknowledge her gender while writing?
    Q: Do you like or dislike Murdoch’s detachment to her gender?
    Q: When reading any of her novels, do you question the connection between her novels and her gender?
    Q: Do you think the term ‘women’s writer’ is a valid, or a just one?


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