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Iris Murdoch
Born 15 July 1919
Dublin, Ireland
Died 8 February 1999 (aged 79)
Oxfordshire, England
Occupation Novelist, Philosopher
Writing period 1954-1997

Dame Iris Murdoch DBE (15 July 1919 – 8 February 1999) was an Irish author and philosopher, best known for her novels about sexual relationships, morality, and the power of the unconscious. Her first published novel, Under the Net, was selected in 2001 by the editorial board of the American Modern Library as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 1987, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.



Jean Iris Murdoch was born at 59 Blessington Street, Dublin, Ireland on 15 July 1919. Her father, Wills John Hughes Murdoch, came from a mainly Presbyterian sheep farming family from Hillhall, County Down, and her mother, Irene Alice Richardson, who had trained as a singer until Iris was born, was from a middle class, Church of Ireland (Anglican) family from Dublin. When Iris was very young, her parents moved to London, where her father worked in the Civil Service.

She was educated in progressive schools, first at the Froebel Demonstration School, and then as a boarder at the Badminton School in Bristol in 1932. She went on to read classics, ancient history, and philosophy at Somerville College, Oxford, and philosophy as a postgraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she attended a number of Ludwig Wittgenstein's lectures. In 1948, she became a fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford.

About 1939, she was briefly a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain[1], although she soon became disillusioned and left the party. She nevertheless remained for a long time close to the Left.[2] She would subsequently have trouble getting a visa to the United States because of her former party membership.[3] Around 1988-1990, she commented that her membership in the Party had helped her see "how strong and how awful it (Marxism) is, certainly in its organized form".[3]

She wrote her first novel, Under the Net in 1954, having previously published essays on philosophy, including the first study in English 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 25 more novels and other works of philosophy and drama until 1995, when she began to suffer the early effects of Alzheimer's disease, the symptoms of which she at first attributed to writer's block.


She died, aged 79, in 1999 and her ashes were scattered in the garden at the Oxford Crematorium. She had no children.


She was portrayed by Kate Winslet and Judi Dench in Richard Eyre's film, Iris (2001), based on Bayley's memories of his wife as she developed Alzheimer's disease. Parts of the movie were filmed at Southwold in Suffolk, one of Murdoch's favourite holiday places.


She was strongly influenced by philosophers like Plato, Freud, Simone Weil and Sartre, and by the 19th century English and Russian novelists, especially Fyodor Dostoevsky, as well as Marcel Proust and Shakespeare. She also met and held discussions with philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. Her novels often include upper middle class intellectual males caught in moral dilemmas, gay characters, Anglo-Catholics with crises of faith, empathetic pets, curiously "knowing" children and sometimes a powerful and almost demonic male "enchanter" who imposes his will on the other characters — a type of man Murdoch is said[4] to have modeled on 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 as a sophisticated Gothic romance, or as a novel with Gothic trappings, or perhaps as a parody of the Gothic mode of writing. The Black Prince (1973), for which Murdoch won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, is a 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, featuring a retired stage director who is overwhelmed by jealousy when he meets his erstwhile lover after several decades apart.

Several of her works have been adapted for the screen, including the British television series of her novels An Unofficial Rose and The Bell. J. B. Priestley dramatized her 1961 novel, A Severed Head, which starred Ian Holm and Richard Attenborough.

Controversial biography

A controversial account of Murdoch's life was given by the British writer A.N. Wilson in his 2003 book Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her. The work was described by The Guardian as "mischievously revelatory" and "quite spectacularly rude," and labelled by Wilson himself as an "anti-biography".[5] Though he was careful to stress his current and past affection for his subject, Wilson did not flinch from writing of her disloyalty and promiscuity. He observed that she "thrived on acts of betrayal", was cruel, and was "prepared to go to bed with almost anyone" (Wilson 2003).




  • Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953)
  • The Sovereignty of Good (1970)
  • The Fire and the Sun (1977)
  • Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)
  • Existentialists and Mystics (1997)



  • A Year of Birds (1978; revised edition, 1984)
  • Poems by Iris Murdoch (1997)


Further reading

  • Bayley, J. Elegy for Iris, 1999
  • _________. Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch, 1998 Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., London 1998 ISBN 0 7156 2848 8
  • _________. Iris and Her Friends, 1999
  • Laverty, Megan. Iris Murdoch's Ethics: A Consideration of Her Romantic Vision, 2007 ISBN 0826485359.


  1. ^ Bove, Cheryl Browning. 1993. Understanding Iris Murdoch, p.3.
  2. ^ Todd, Richard. 1984. Iris Murdoch. P.15
  3. ^ a b Murdoch, Iris and Gillian Dooley. 2003. From a tiny corner in the house of fiction: conversations with Iris Murdoch.‎ P.220
  4. ^ Conradi, Peter J. Iris Murdoch: A Life (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2001), 350-352
  5. ^ Galen Strawson (September 6, 2003). "Telling tales". The Guardian.,6121,1036391,00.html.  

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.

Dame Jean Iris Murdoch (1919-07-151999-02-08) 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. Her life-story was filmed in 2001 as Iris.



Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.
  • The chief requirement of the good life... is to live without any image of oneself.
    • The Bell (2001), ch. 9, p. 119. (1958)
  • We can only learn to love by loving.
    • The Bell (2001), ch. 19, p. 219.
  • Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.
    • "The Sublime and the Good", in the Chicago Review, Vol. 13 (1959) p. 51.
  • Only lies and evil come from letting people off.
    • A Severed Head (1976) p. 61. (1961)
  • There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly taken-for-granted relationship.
    • A Severed Head (1976) p. 181
  • I think being a woman is like being Irish... Everyone says you're important and nice, but you take second place all the same.
  • Being good is just a matter of temperament in the end.
    • The Nice and the Good (1968), ch. 14, p. 127.
    • Murdoch attributed this opinion to her character Kate Gray. It was not her own.
Happiness is a matter of one's most ordinary everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self...
  • Happiness is a matter of one's most ordinary everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self. To be damned is for one's ordinary everyday mode of consciousness to be unremitting agonising preoccupation with self.
    • The Nice and the Good, ch. 22.
  • People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.
  • Almost anything that consoles us is a fake.
    • The Sovereignty of Good (1970) p. 59.
  • Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.
  • All art is the struggle to be, in a particular sort of way, virtuous.
    • The Black Prince (2003) p. 181.
  • Bereavement is a darkness impenetrable to the imagination of the unbereaved.
    • The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974) p. 37.
  • The sin of pride may be a small or a great thing in someone's life, and hurt vanity a passing pinprick or a self-destroying or even murderous obsession. Possibly, more people kill themselves and others out of hurt vanity than out of envy, jealousy, malice or desire for revenge.
    • The Philosopher's Pupil (1983) p. 76.
The cry of equality pulls everyone down.
  • Whit Meynell was a sociologist; he had got into an intellectual muddle early on in life and never managed to get out.
    • The Philosopher's Pupil (1983) p. 165.
  • Art is the final cunning of the human soul which would rather do anything than face the gods.
    • "Art and Eros: A Dialogue about Art", Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues (1986).
  • The cry of equality pulls everyone down.
  • But fantasy kills imagination, pornography is death to art.
    • The Message to the Planet (1989) p. 43.
A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.
  • I daresay anything can be made holy by being sincerely worshipped.
    • The Message to the Planet (1989) p. 322.
  • Perhaps when distant people on other planets pick up some wave-length of ours all they hear is a continuous scream.
    • The Message to the Planet (1989) p. 509.
  • The notion that one will not survive a particular catastrophe is, in general terms, a comfort since it is equivalent to abolishing the catastrophe.
    • The Message to the Planet (1989) p. 532.
  • A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.


  • Between saying and doing, many a pair of shoes is worn out.
  • Falling out of love is very enlightening. For a short while you see the world with new eyes.
  • Human affairs are not serious, but they have to be taken seriously.
  • The priesthood is a marriage. People often start by falling in love, and they go on for years without realizing that love must change into some other love which is so unlike it that it can hardly be recognized as love at all.
  • The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart. (The Red and the Green, page 29 [1])


  • I see myself as Rhoda, not Mary Tyler Moore.
    • Not Iris Murdoch, but the actress and comedian Rosie O'Donnell. See George Mair Rosie O'Donnell: Her True Story (1997) p. 81.

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