Irish Murdoch and Under the Net Blog by Christie Hainsby


In the context of Iris Murdoch’s letters to her literary mentor, Raymond Queneau, Under the Net’s Jake Donaghue seems to mimic Murdoch’s own personal views of her work. The Guardian writes:

In 1946, writing to Queneau about […] Under the Net – which she later dedicated to him – Murdoch said “there is something heavy in what I write … that makes me wonder if I shall ever write something good“, and “I am going to regret that I spoke of my work, because it seems to give an importance to something that is nothing nothing nothing.”


Similar to this, is chapter seventeen of Murdoch’s novel, as Donaghue considers his own work:

Such intellectual work as I have ever accomplished has always left me with a sense of having achieved nothing [….] it may be that if one had any present thoughts that were at all considerable they would not have this quality of emptiness. I wonder if Kant […] said to himself from time to time, ‘But this is nothing, nothing’?

The great similarities between these two passages suggest that Murdoch has used Donaghue to express her own personal beliefs in an impersonal and distanced way. Rachel Cusk’s essay states that ‘the woman artist often treats self as the obstacle to a wider view’, suggesting that Murdoch feared that ideas coming from herself, rather than a male character like Donaghue, would have had a lesser effect upon a reader. Murdoch’s apparent insecurities as an author might therefore stem from insecurities surrounding her sex, and thus she uses ‘brilliant, limited people as her mouthpieces’, rather than allow her own personal knowledge to be seen as the origin of her ideas. However, the ultimate question is whether this method of expressing intellectual ideas was resultant of Murdoch’s insecurities as an author, or was it a necessary, tactful and empowering way for a twentieth century female author to have her voice heard?


9 responses to this post.

  1. In a letter addressed to philosopher Georg Kreisel, Murdoch once wrote: “I can’t divide friendship from love or love from sex – or sex from love etc. If I care for somebody I want to caress them.”
    Murdoch’s friendships often crossed certain boundaries and this trait could also be attributed to Donaghue. Donaghue speaks very fondly of Hugo in the novel – so much so that, at times, I was left questioning whether their relationship went beyond the confines of friendship. I can also think of several other occasions when Donaghue’s ‘friendships’ seemed to be more than just that. This is another example that supports the argument that Murdoch was expressing her own beliefs through the means of a male narrator. It is also worth noting that Murdoch saw gender as fluid rather than something fixed and once described herself as a ‘male homosexual sadomasochist’ – so perhaps that had some influence on her decision to express her intellectual ideas this way.


  2. I definitely agree with this blog that Murdoch reflects her personality in her characters, and Jake Donahue is an interesting reflection because he is very obviously flawed, with his self-centred personality. It is important to note that Under The Net is Murdoch’s first novel of many, and therefore maybe Jake is a reflection on her expectation of her future writing persona or maybe a warning to herself against being too wrapped up in her writing and neglecting her personal relationships.


  3. Posted by Salma AlTabari on January 19, 2016 at 12:58 am

    Murdoch’s narrative in Under The Net has reached me on a personal level. I don’t believe that Murdoch has intentionally attempted to conform to any socially acceptable standards of writing for women. Any forced kind of writing can never truly reach an audience on a personal level. There are several intelligent themes and scenes in the novel that draw attention away from the expectation of a woman writer being “a women’s writer”. One of the most prominent elements in the book that stuck with me was the relationship between the main character and the dog. Murdoch has demonstrated a deep knowledge of fundamental human feelings. The characters all felt real to me, male and female, and I was able to identify with the feelings projected into the narrative on a human level. I agree with Cusk, Murdoch has indeed “created brilliant, limited people as her mouthpieces, not ordinary ones.”


  4. Posted by Salma AlTabari on January 19, 2016 at 1:01 am

    Murdoch has remained true to her craft, regardless of the gender portrayals in the novel. Her argument in Against Dryness asserts her emphasis on the importance of prose and lyrical realism above all else, which reflects quite well in her novel.


  5. Posted by Eliza on January 19, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    Christie’s point about Murdoch using ‘brilliant, limited people as her mouthpieces’ is a very interesting one, when considering the conversations we had before Christmas about women being spoken for by men. Interestingly, in Under the Net, Murdoch almost short circuits this problem by mediating her thoughts through a male voice. Does this imply insecurity? Very possibly! Could it be seen as a shrewd move to confound expectation and predictable criticism? I think this might be true too.


  6. Posted by Kirsty on January 19, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    Much of the time I felt the same in regards to Murdoch being presented through Donaghue. This is especially interesting when thinking about the detail of the story Donaghue discusses that is “about a young composer who is psychoanalysed and then finds that his creative urge is gone” when considering Cusk’s mention of Murdoch expressing that she “writer truly doesn’t know ‘why things are in a novel’”, perhaps alluding to the idea that she wishes the work not to be ‘over’ analysed, though, in fact, this all work to ensure the opposite. We want to understand why the elements Murdoch chose are there, especially as she won’t tell us, there is more for us to uncover and understand.


  7. Posted by Eva on January 19, 2016 at 5:50 pm

    I too found it interesting that Murdoch chose to narrate the story through a male voice, when what she writes seem to be based a lot on herself and her own personal beliefs. Does she do this because it is ‘safer’ to project her beliefs through a man, because he is physically different from her and therefore separates herself from the story? Is it because the work seems more intellectual and believable spoken through Donaghue because he’s a man?


  8. Posted by Wafaa on January 25, 2016 at 9:18 pm

    I found Murdoch to be an interesting author who brings and interesting light to how one writes the novel. Cusk’s critical opinion just shows how much people are generally afraid of stepping outside the box to present ideas about people’s experience of different realities are diverse and are not always according to conventional life, dictated by certain groups in society.


  9. Posted by Phoebe on January 26, 2016 at 9:56 pm

    I find Christie’s reference to Rachel Cusk’s essay and her view that ‘the woman artist often treats self as the obstacle to a wider view’. During an interview, Murdoch once said: ‘I want to write about things on the whole where it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, in which case you’d better be male, because a male represents ordinary human beings, unfortunately, as things stand at the moment, whereas a woman is always a woman!’ As Jamie said previously, Murdoch described herself as a ‘male homosexual sadomasochist’. Maybe this is because she is aware of the prejudices and injustices placed upon women in this time. Instead, she chooses to see herself as male and to write ‘manly’ thus avoiding this criticism.


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