The influence of Sartrean existentialism on Iris Murdoch’s early novels

Richardson, C. (2019) The influence of Sartrean existentialism on Iris Murdoch’s early novels. Undergraduate theses, University of Chichester.

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Iris Murdoch, an Anglo-Irish novelist and philosopher engaged with Sartrean existentialism throughout her career. This thesis aims to explore the presence of existentialist discourse in Murdoch’s first four novels and evaluate to what extent this discourse had influence over her fiction. This exploration will take its course over three chapters: chapter one will consider Murdoch’s debut novel Under the Net (1954) as a work greatly influenced by Sartrean existentialism but primarily in the form of a critique; chapter two looks at ideas of inhibited freedom in Murdoch’s second published novel The Flight from the Enchanter (1956) and determines this to be another work influenced by existentialism but in a more confused manner than Under the Net; the third and final chapter of this thesis considers Murdoch’s philosophical turn in the publication of The Sandcastle (1957) and her engagement with Plato and Simone Weil in The Bell (1958). In this fourth novel ‘notions of attention and ‘unselfing’ take center stage.’ The conclusion reached in this thesis will be to determine the degree to which Murdoch’s first four novels are influenced by Sartrean existentialism. Before embarking on this study, there are two topics which warrant acknowledgement.

The first idea to consider is that of a philosophical novelist and whether Murdoch can be situated in this arena. Sofia de Melo Araújo acknowledges that ‘literature seems to congregate two roles: that of aesthetic delight and that of vehicle for information, tradition and moral values.’ These opposing ideas suggest that literature can only be for pleasure, or to act as a vehicle for an agenda. The problem arises because Murdoch specifically stated her intention not to be categorized as a philosophical novelist. Murdoch insisted that ‘I have definite philosophical views, but I don’t want to promote them in my novels…I don’t want philosophy, as such, to intrude into the novel world at all and I think it doesn’t.’ Yet despite her assertion, critics have made strong connections between her fiction and philosophy. Mark Luprecht notes these ‘inextricable links between philosophy and literature…’ Scholars also note the influence of Murdoch’s two disciplines upon one another and use them to explicate both her novels and philosophical essays. Guy Backus was the first scholar to write a major analysis of Murdoch as a philosophical novelist, his exploration was restricted to Murdoch’s seventh novel, The Unicorn (1963). Since then many works have been published drawing connections between the philosophy and literature in Murdoch’s oeuvre. Miles Leeson later published a thorough exploration of a selection of Murdoch’s novels to investigate the ‘notion that the history of philosophy is more prevalent within Murdoch’s fiction than is usually given credit…’ Scholarship is suggesting that, subconsciously or perhaps even consciously, Murdoch was using philosophy in her novels. Graham Martin takes the extreme view that ‘Murdoch comes to literature as a philosopher; her own novels reflect her philosophical interests…’ Martin suggests that Murdoch wrote her novels as a philosopher and an analysis of her novels may indicate this to be true. Niklas Forsberg, contrastingly, sets out to challenge the assumption that ‘the question concerning the relation between philosophy and literature in Murdoch’s authorship is to be answered by means of showing that Murdoch does or does not express philosophy in her novels.’ Here, the debate surrounding these ideas begins to become clear. Martha Nussbaum, for the sake of this thesis, has the final word as she concedes that ‘literary form is not separable from philosophical content, but is, itself, a part of content – an integral part, then, of the search for and the statement of truth.’ The purpose of this thesis, though, is not to define Murdoch concretely as a philosophical novelist or otherwise. An awareness, however, of this ongoing debate is clearly of use.

The second topic that warrants discussion is that of Murdoch’s relationship with Sartrean existentialism. Richard Moran notes that ‘Murdoch encountered Sartre’s Existentialism at the height of its cultural fashion and influence, and…she played a crucial role in bringing these ideas out of the realm of posture and fashion and into the realm of serious thought.’ Here, Moran is making reference to Murdoch’s first published work: Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953). Murdoch introduced a British audience to Sartre’s existential philosophy. However, her book took the form of a scathing critique, particularly in the final three chapters. Initially Murdoch was attracted to the movement; Conradi writes that the war was over and ‘Sartre’s philosophy was an inspiration to many who felt ‘they must, and could, make out of all that misery and chaos a better world…’ Murdoch would later determine that the movement was simply too solipsistic, individualistic and indifferent to the ‘other.’ Murdoch would argue that ‘existentialism is not, and cannot by tinkering be made, the philosophy we need.’ This demonstrates Murdoch’s inability to reconcile the movement with her perception of ‘the good’ and morality. Murdoch would ultimately come to ‘a deeper engagement with the more contemplative ideals of Plato and Simone Weil.’ It must be noted, though, that Murdoch’s relationship with existentialism was not a linear one, but a complex one. She would engage with existentialism throughout her career and revisited these ideas, however, she was deeply critical of Sartre. This thesis will attempt to track these ideas in relation to Murdoch’s first four novels.

Publication Type: Theses (Undergraduate)
Additional Information: BA (Hons) Philosophy and Ethics and English Literature
Uncontrolled Keywords: Sartre, existential, philosophy
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > B Philosophy (General)
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BD Speculative Philosophy
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0080 Criticism
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Divisions: Academic Areas > Institute of Arts and Humanities > Theology, Philosophy and Religion
Student Research > Undergraduate
Depositing User: Janet Carter
Date Deposited: 29 Mar 2021 15:18
Last Modified: 30 Mar 2021 00:10

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