Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Dame Jean Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919 - February 8, 1999) was an Anglo-Irish novelist and philosopher, famed for her series of novels that combine rich characterization and compelling plotlines usually involving ethical or sexual themes.
Life and work
She wrote her first novel, Under The Net, in 1954, having previously published works on philosophy, including the first English study of Jean-Paul Sartre. It was at Oxford in 1956 that she met and married John Bayley, a professor of English literature and also a novelist. She went on to produce twenty-five more novels (plus other works of philosophy and drama) until 1995, around the time when she began to suffer the early effects of Alzheimer's disease.
Iris Murdoch's novels are by turns intense and bizarre, filled with dark humor and unpredictable plot twists, undercutting the civilized surface of the usually upper-class milieu in which her characters are observed. She often included non-stereotypical homosexual characters in her fiction, most notably in The Bell (1958) and A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970). Murdoch also frequently wrote about a powerful and almost demonic male "enchanter" who imposes his will on the other characters -- a type which Murdoch is said to have modeled after her lover, the Nobel laureate, Elias Canetti.
Although she wrote primarily in a realistic manner, on occasion Murdoch would introduce ambiguity into her work through a sometimes misleading use of symbolism and by mixing elements of "fantasy" within her precisely described scenes. The Unicorn (1963) can be read and enjoyed as a sophisticated Gothic romance, or as a novel with Gothic trappings, or perhaps as a brilliant parody of the Gothic mode of writing. The Black Prince (1973) is a remarkable study of erotic obsession, and the text becomes more complicated, suggesting multiple interpretations, when subordinate characters contradict the narrator and the mysterious "editor" of the book in a series of afterwords.
Murdoch was awarded the Booker Prize in 1978 for The Sea, the Sea. A finely detailed novel about the power of love and loss, its retired actor/narrator is overwhelmed by jealousy as he meets again, after several decades, his one-time lover.
Several of her works have been adapted for the screen, including British television series of her novels An Unofficial Rose and The Bell. In 1970, Ian Holm starred in a film version of Murdoch's novel and play, A Severed Head.
Murdoch was herself the focus of Richard Eyre's biopic, Iris (2001), based on Bayley's memoir of his wife following her death in 1999. The film starred Dame Judi Dench and Kate Winslet respectively as the old and young Murdoch.
In 1987 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 2001 her first published novel, Under the Net, was selected as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century by the editorial board of the American Modern Library.
- Under the Net (1954)
- The Flight from the Enchanter (1956)
- The Sandcastle (1957)
- The Bell (1958)
- A Severed Head (1961)
- An Unofficial Rose (1962)
- The Unicorn (1963)
- The Italian Girl (1964)
- The Red and the Green (1965)
- The Time of the Angels (1966)
- The Nice and the Good (1968)
- Bruno's Dream (1969)
- A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970)
- An Accidental Man (1971)
- The Black Prince (1973)
- The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974)
- A Word Child (1975)
- Henry and Cato (1976)
- The Sea, the Sea (1978), winner of the Booker Prize
- Nuns and Soldiers (1980)
- The Philosopher's Pupil (1983)
- The Good Apprentice (1985)
- The Book and the Brotherhood (1987)
- The Message to the Planet (1989)
- The Green Knight (1993)
- Jackson's Dilemma (1995)
- Something Special (Short story reprint, 1999; originally published 1957)
- The Sovereignty of Good (1970)
- The Fire and the Sun (1977)
- Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)
- Existentialists and Mystics (1997)
- A Severed Head (with J.B. Priestly, 1964)
- The Italian Girl (with James Saunders, 1969)
- The Three Arrows & The Servants and the Snow (1973)
- The Black Prince (1987)
- A Year of Birds (1978; revised edition, 1984)
- Poems by Iris Murdoch (1997)
- Iris Murdoch: A Life (2001) Peter J. Conradi
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