Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch was a great Irish and British novelist who is not only famous for her novels but also for her poetry and philosophy. She was known for the way her moral realism affected her writing. Written in a contemporary and realistic way, the meaning behind her writing often contained philosophical notions that affected her characters' lives.

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Table of contents

    Iris Murdoch: biography

    Iris Murdoch was born Jean Iris Murdoch on July 15, 1919, in Dublin, Ireland. She was the only child of Irene Alice Richardson, who was previously a singer, and Wills John Hughes Murdoch, a civil servant and a World War I veteran. The family moved to London while Murdoch was still a newborn as her father wanted to work in the British government.

    Iris Murdoch wanted to be a writer since she was a child. She was dedicated to achieving this dream as she saw how her mother had to give up on her dream after having a child due to stereotypical gender norms. She went to a boarding school in Bristol and later went to study classics at Somerville College, Oxford, and then studied philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge. During university, Iris Murdoch had briefly come into contact with famous thinkers such as Jean Paul-Sartre and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

    In 1946 she won a scholarship to study at Vassar College in New York but was denied the offer due to her support for the Communist Party of Great Britain. She eventually left the party; however, her short commitment to communism made her visits to the US difficult even after leaving.

    Murdoch worked for the British Treasury (1942–1944) and then worked for another two years in the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (1944–1946), dedicated to working with refugees in different areas of Europe.

    Iris Murdoch met her husband, John Bayley, in Oxford, and they married in 1956. Murdoch never had children, used her maiden name even after she married and wasn’t shy to show that she had a career as a woman. Later on, she gave lectures in philosophy at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. She was also later romantically paired with Elias Canetti, a Nobel-prize winner.

    In 1987, she was appointed as a Dame Commander of the British Empire.

    When Murdoch was 76, she was diagnosed with dementia. Murdoch passed away in Oxford, England, in 1999 due to Alzheimer’s disease. Her final novel, Jackson’s Dilemma (1985), has simple language and was not edited extensively: a move from her signature style. However, this showed the effects of Alzheimer’s on her writing.

    The biographical drama film, Iris (2001), is based on the life experiences of Iris Murdoch. The film traces her experience with dementia and marriage to John Bayley (who was also a writer and a professor). She was played by Kate Winslet and Judi Dench, and the film won an Academy Award and a BAFTA Award.

    Iris Murdoch, aerial of Oxford, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Iris Murdoch passed away in Oxford from Alzheimer's disease.

    Iris Murdoch: key elements in her works

    Now we will take a look at the key elements and themes in Iris Murdoch's works.


    Murdoch lectured in philosophy at Oxford University and was a philosopher in her own right (she introduced a new form of thinking towards metaphysics and morals). Her passion for philosophy often led Murdoch to use philosophical and moral theories in her novels.

    Iris Murdoch stated the following in regards to the use of philosophy in her fiction:

    I mention philosophy sometimes in the novels because I happen to know about it, just as another writer might talk about coal mining.

    – Iris Murdoch, in discussion with Bryan Magee (1977)

    Murdoch explored a moral realism which allowed concepts of generosity, morality, and virtues.

    Murdoch deals with philosophical theory in her works The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), The Good Apprentice (1985), The Book and Brotherhood (1987), The Message to the Planet (1989) and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992).

    She was also intent on breaking free from the difficulty of forming ‘free’ characters. She emphasised not controlling her characters, letting them be free from her thoughts, making them behave like real humans and not creating unrealistic or glamourised traits, etc.

    However, she believed that philosophy and literature were not the same but that there were stark differences:

    Literature is (mostly) “works of art.” Works of philosophy are quite different things. Very occasionally a work of philosophy may also be a work of art, such as [Plato’s] Symposium, but these are exceptional cases… A philosopher is likely to be suspicious of aesthetic motives in himself and critical of the instinctive side of his imagination. Whereas any artist must be at least half in love with his unconscious mind, which after all provides his motive force and does a great deal of his work.

    – Iris Murdoch, in discussion with Bryan Magee (1977)

    She held that philosophy does not allow for creative expression, but literature does. She stated that her novels were not philosophical but just explored philosophical theories.


    Society and social reality play a significant part in the lives of her characters, mostly taking the shape of personal responsibilities. In regards to the relationship between literature and social expectations, Iris Murdoch said the following:

    I think it’s a novelist’s job to be a good artist, and this will involve telling the truth, and not worrying about social commitment.

    – Iris Murdoch, interviewed by William Rose (1968)

    Despite this, Iris Murdoch understood that an author or writer cannot be completely free from a particular moral perspective when writing. As not only the author has moral judgements, but also the readers too.

    Iris Murdoch's The Bell (1958) examines a set of characters living in a religious community and how society impacts their personal responsibilities and expectations.


    Iris Murdoch believed novels were either ‘closed’ novels or ‘open’ novels. To her, ‘closed’ novels were ones where her feelings majorly influenced the narrative, focusing on a household or smaller community. An ‘open’ novel had more accidental events and ‘free’ characters with a wider variety of characters overall.

    Iris Murdoch's The Bell (1958) and The Black Prince (1973) are examples of closed novels. Whereas her texts Philosopher’s Pupil (1983) and A Word Child (1975) are open novels.

    She believed it was the responsibility of an artist to have self-discipline when creating their art and to dismiss fantastical elements and focus on other events and ideas apart from themselves.

    Murdoch wanted to expel fantasy by going against dramatic structure, where stories can be clearly divided into a beginning, middle and end.

    Dramatic structure is a plot structure. Starting with the introduction, an inciting incident leads to rising action and a complication. After the climax, the falling action ends in a denouement.

    Murdoch unconventionally deviates from the dramatic structure as she believed that real life does not have a particular shape and form. Life is too chaotic, unstructured and absurd to fit into a fixed plot structure. Just as life does not unfurl to a particular pattern, her texts similarly do not.

    Murdoch wanted her characters to have a life of their own. One way she attempted this was to give accurate descriptions of her characters’ physical appearance with great detail.

    Philosopher’s Pupil (1983) has a huge cast of characters, whose individual stories are weaved into a messy web of interconnections.

    Iris Murdoch: key books

    Murdoch was a prolific writer with a wide range of publications. Below we will take a look at some of her key works.

    The Bell (1958)

    As a form of bildungsroman, the novel uses themes of release and space to present faith or lack thereof.

    Bildungsroman is a novel that deals with the protagonist's internal and external growth from childhood to adulthood and is usually written in the first person.

    In the religious Imber Court in Gloucestershire, a new bell is coming to replace the ancient bell that legend says flew out of the abbey and into the lake after a nun broke her vows and received a lover. The novel begins by following the life of Dora Greenfield, a young art student in a difficult marriage with the art historian Paul.

    Paul stays in a quasi-religious community to do some historical work and asks Dora, who is in London, to be with him. Dora fears her husband and does whatever he says; however, throughout the novel, she works through her turmoil and eventually leaves Paul.

    The Flight from the Enchanter (1956)

    The Flight from the Enchanter is a contemporary novel that deals with a whirlwind of characters and relationships; the plot is based on themes of love and relationships as well as personal and public power.

    The plot roughly follows a group of people bewitched by Mischa Fox, an enchanting man that possibly has mystical powers. Rose Keep rejected Mischa Fox’s marriage proposal ten years ago and is now having an affair. Yet Peter Saward unrequitedly loves Rosa.

    Rosa's brother is an editor for a suffragette magazine Fox is trying to buy. Annette Cockeyne leaves school to find out what ‘real’ life is but finds difficulties when Fox places his attention on her. Nina, the dressmaker, makes clothes for Risa and Anette and is an agent for Fox too. And so more characters enter...

    The Severed Head (1961)

    The Severed Head is a farcical, satirical novel that deals with themes of infidelity, incest and marriage.

    It centres on the life of an adulterous husband, Martin Lynch-Gibbon, who finds out his wife has been in a relationship with her psychoanalyst and is leaving him for her new love. His wife’s psychoanalyst is also his best friend, and the two want to remain in his life. However, Martin’s secrets bring further difficulties in his life.

    The Sea, The Sea (1978)

    This psychological fiction novel deals with themes of morality (the notion of good, love and freedom), spirituality, fantasy and imagination. It was inspired by William Shakespeare's The Tempest (1611), in which Prospero tries to change magic into a spirit. It won the Booker Prize in 1978.

    This novel presents Charles Arrowby, a playwright and director, as he decides to abandon the world and live essentially like a hermit. He buys a house near the coast, far away from any memory of his current life, writes his memoirs, has disgusting meals, and swims in the sea. But Charles' plan changes when he meets a previous lover and feels the need to affect her existence.

    Iris Murdoch, a close up image of the sea with a sunset in the background, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Sea, the Sea's themes are obsession and idealised romantic desires.

    The Black Prince (1973)

    This quasi-postmodern novel is inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603) and it is bookended with postscripts and forewords by the characters who describe the events that have taken place.

    It follows the life of writer Bradley Pearson who falls in love with his previous student’s daughter. The plot moves forward with the relationship between Pearson and his previous student, Arnold Baffin as Pearson is jealous that Baffin’s work sells and his doesn’t.

    Iris Murdoch presents the notion of art and what great art is supposed to be in this novel.

    Iris Murdoch: poems

    Murdoch's poems are an often overlooked aspect of her repertoire, yet they are also insightful and interesting.

    A Year of Birds (1978)

    The poems in this collection described birds from each season, for example, January’s seagulls and October’s swans.

    Rather than placing humankind as the most important beings, Iris Murdoch recognises the interconnectedness of various forms of life. Murdoch felt a tenderness towards non-human and inanimate things as well as for animals. A personal sense of animism pervades many of Murdoch’s work, whether literature or philosophy. In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992), she agrees with Ludwig Wittgenstein that the world is mystical. In The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), the character Gabriel McCaffrey has a tenderness for everything, whether insects or inanimate objects like buttons and spoons. This tenderness is apparent in the collection of poems placing birds centerstage.

    Iris Murdoch Quotes

    In an interview with Ruth Heyd, Murdoch stated that freedom can only happen when one isn't overly obsessed with their desires and goals. When asked whether freedom is her main subject, she replies:

    No, not now. I think it might have been in the past. No, I think love is my main subject. I have very mixed feelings about the concept of freedom now.

    – Iris Murdoch interviewed by Ruth Heyd (1965)

    She replaces the concept of freedom with love, and many of her novels are based on relationships and love.

    What do you think is the relationship between love and freedom for Iris Murdoch? And why do you think Murdoch replaced freedom with love?

    This quote from The Severed Head (1961) focuses on the concept of love.

    To lose somebody is to lose not only their person but all those modes and manifestations into which their person has flowed outwards; so that in losing a beloved one may find so many things, pictures, poems, melodies, places lost too: Dante, Avignon, a song of Shakespeare's, the Cornish sea.

    – The Severed Head (1961), Page 68

    How do you think Murdoch presents ‘free,’ realistic characters here?

    Iris Murdoch - Key takeaways

    • Iris Murdoch was born in 1919 in Dublin; the family moved to London while Murdoch was still a newborn.
    • Irish Murdoch was known for the way her moral realism affected her writing.

    • Philosophy plays a vital role in Iris Murdoch's texts, supported by her lecturing philosophy at universities.

    • Murdoch prefers to write ‘open’ novels, which have more accidental events and ‘free’ characters.

    • Iris Murdoch's key texts are The Bell (1958), The Flight from the Enchanter (1956), The Severed Head (1961), The Sea, The Sea (1978) and The Black Prince (1973).

    Frequently Asked Questions about Iris Murdoch

    What is Iris Murdoch known for?

    Iris Murdoch is well known for her philosophy and writing. Both were affected by her moral realism. 

    What was Iris Murdoch’s philosophy?

    Iris Murdoch explored a moral realism which allowed concepts of generosity, morality, and virtues.

    Did Iris Murdoch have dementia?

    Iris Murdoch was diagnosed with dementia when she was 76.

    What nationality is Iris Murdoch?

    Iris Murdoch is Irish and British. 

    How does Iris Murdoch define human beings?

    Iris Murdoch defined human beings through her philosophy of moral realism.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    As well as being a writer, what other roles did Iris Murdoch have in writing?

    What is Iris Murdoch’s nationality?

    Which city was Iris Murdoch born in?


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