Murdoch’s Under the Net and Womanhood: Your Real Self? Blog by Eliza Forshaw


Written as it is from the perspective of male protagonist Jake Donaghue, we might consider Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net to be confirmation of Rachel Cusk’s assertion that Murdoch is not a ‘woman’s writer’. We might then be led to the same conclusion as Cusk; that Murdoch chooses to ‘transcend’ the fact of her womanhood in her writing, rather than to ‘engage’ with it. However, Under the Net troubles the idea of a clear and uncomplicated identity at all, female or otherwise, as Murdoch appears to ask the reader directly in Chapter 2, ‘How do you know your real self, anyway?’
This brings to the fore the question of authenticity, and how to be truly authentic, something which Zadie Smith considers in her essay ‘Two Directions for the Novel’. Does Murdoch sacrifice authenticity in her writing due to her ‘sidestepping’ her gender? And furthermore, how important is the factor of gender for women in the construction of the true self?
In Murdoch’s essay ‘Against Dryness’, she argues that, in the aftermath of WWII, ‘we have been left with far too shallow and flimsy an idea of human personality’ and are in need of something new and solid, a ‘hard idea of truth’ rather than ‘a facile idea of sincerity.’ While we could assert that Murdoch’s refusal to engage with her womanhood is a denial of a certain truth, we might also consider that there are many other truths to be considered; that there are many facets of the human personality other than gender to be expressed. Maybe Murdoch does ‘sidestep’ the reality of her gender in Under the Net, however perhaps this is not the only truth, or even the most important truth, to be expressed in her work.


9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Lukas on January 25, 2016 at 5:19 pm

    I agree with you, I think even if Murdoch does sidestep her gender, as you say, it does not mean that the novel is inauthentic. Under the Net seems more like a novel about humanity than a novel about womanhood to me, and Murdoch expresses the authentic experience of humanity rather than femininity. In a time when society imposes restriction upon female writers, demanding that they write about feminine experiences, I think indeed that Murdoch, as you said, ‘transcends’ that notion.


  2. I think the concept of Iris Murdoch ‘side stepping’ her gender an interesting one. As in many of her novels, ‘Under The Net’ is written from the perspective of a young male and for some this could be considered as unauthentic and insulting. However, as we already are aware, Iris Murdoch identified as a man therefore her writing cannot be considered anything but authentic to her true self. In my opinion Murdoch’s writing and philosophy was not only authentic, yet innovative, breaking through the stereotypical conforms that society places on women. In today’s society we can accept gender fluidity and understand that confining women writers to only write about women’s issues is again conforming to patriarchal attitudes.


  3. Posted by Wafaa on January 25, 2016 at 9:28 pm

    The same question intrigued me too about ‘how do you know your real self’ as that is something thar dominant ideology tries to confine in to categories and very often is it reiterated of what you should be but not enough encouragement of finding out what you could encompass as a whole human being without encountering gender limitations, even if we seem to be ‘progressing’ in being more equal and accepting, the reality is still limited.


  4. Posted by Eva on January 26, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    When we discuss whether Iris Murdoch is a ‘woman’s writer’ and question the authenticity of the novel by her ‘sidestepping’ her gender, it makes me wonder if we would have the same discussion if we were talking about a novel written by a man through a female voice. While, like you said, ‘there are many facets of the human personality other than gender to be expressed’, accepting gender fluidity, gender is also a multifaceted part of the human personality.


  5. The question of whether Murdoch needed to transcend her gender in order to get published is very important. Would we be studying her on this course if she had caved to pressure to being a woman’s writer? Also, would her great many published works be as genuine and authentic as they are if they were written from a forced alternative perspective for the benefit of her readers?


  6. Murdoch even have felt it necessary to ‘sidestep’the reality of her gender in order to prevent parallels being drawn between her own personal life and that of the narrator. Her work does explore a range of complicated ethical dilemmas, which are undoubtedly influenced by her own personal experience, and perhaps she felt as though readers would of assumed she was writing of the self if she had narrated her novels from a females’ perspective. Being a relatively private person, Murdoch may not have wanted this to be the case.


  7. Posted by Christie on February 2, 2016 at 9:06 pm

    I think Eliza’s questions are very interesting and heavily debated ones: ‘Does Murdoch sacrifice authenticity in her writing due to her ‘sidestepping’ her gender? And furthermore, how important is the factor of gender for women in the construction of the true self?’ In my opinion, Murdoch does not sacrifice any authenticity by ‘sidestepping’ her gender because she found her gender to be confused and fluid. So, Murdoch might have believed that for her to commit a thorough consideration and expression of womanhood throughout her novels would have been a sacrifice of authenticity, because she did not feel it was her own authentic gender.


  8. Posted by Salma AlTabari on February 3, 2016 at 2:08 am

    I agree with Eliza’s final remake, perhaps gender is not the most important truth to be expressed in Murdoch’s work. I believe that Murdoch was ahead of her time in various aspects of her life, such as her open marriage and gender fluidity, which are things that only in the last few years has there been an open discussion about. She was ahead of her time in her approach to writing gender as well. Murdoch remained true to herself in her writing, placing high importance on truth. Under The Net is certainly void of any bias, Murdoch writes convincing female and male characters in convincing realities; she remains true to her craft, without placing significance on her role as a woman in her writing – as this is not necessarily the most important thing in writing. As Murdoch says in Against Dryness: ‘We need to return from the self-centred concept of sincerity to the other-centred concept of truth.’ Perhaps truth – for Murdoch – is more important to be expressed in writing than gender.


  9. Posted by Georgia on January 13, 2018 at 6:00 pm

    I really did believe Cusk was right in criticising Murdoch’s lack of female voice, especially in a 1950’s era. However, after learning that the frankly despicable character of Jake is written ironically, I think she actually does give a voice to women in a certain way. The two-dimensional women were how he perceives them and I think that’s quite shocking as a female reader to take in. I would be interested to learn some more about the woman herself, her life experiences and also what inspired her to write in such a way


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