Iris Murdoch (1919 – 1999)

Dame Jean Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin, Ireland, on July 15th, 1919 to parents Irene Alice and Wills John Hughes Murdoch.

The family moved to London shortly after Iris’ birth, and Iris was raised in Chiswick, a district of west London. She attended the Froebel Demonstration school beginning in 1925 and moved to the Bristols’ Badminton School in 1932. In 1938, she attended Somerville College in Oxford, where she studied classics, philosophy, and ancient history, and left with first-class honors in 1942.

She worked for HM Treasury in London for two years before leaving to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in 1944, which she left after stints in Brussels, Innsbruck, and Austria. After leaving the UNRRA in 1946, Murdoch decided to continue her postgraduate education by studying philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge. Her passion for philosophy led her to a fellowship teaching the subject she was so dedicated to at St. Anne’s College, Oxford in 1948. All of these accomplishments, and she had not even published her first book yet.

She published her first novel, Under the Net, in 1954, which depicts the trials and tribulations of Jake Donaghue, a struggling young writer in London. In 1998, Under the Net was selected as one of the books to appear in the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th-century list. After her initial publication, she went on to publish 25 more novels, including gems such as The Black Prince (1973), which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974), which won the Whitbread literary award for fiction, and The Sea, the Sea (1978), which won the Booker Prize. She also published short stories, philosophy papers, plays, and poetry collections. Several of her works have been adapted for the screen, including the British television series of her novel A Severed Head.

However, she was not renowned just for her skill with a pen–she has become increasingly recognized for her contributions to postwar Anglo-American philosophy. In addition, her analysis of the role that attention and phenomenal experience play in moral philosophy has been lauded as transformative. Her reimagining of Plato and Aristotle added a new dimension to the study of their works. Her work impacted other philosophers such as Elizabeth Anscombe, John McDowell, etc.

Murdoch achieved much before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1997, and died in Oxford in 1999. In 1976, she became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, an order of chivalry that rewards contributions to the arts and sciences. Later, in 1987, Queen Elizabeth II herself named Iris Murdoch Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Only five years earlier (1982), she was elected as a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Furthermore, she has been awarded honorary degrees by many colleges, such as Kingston University and the University of Cambridge. Her incredible work continued to be recognized even after her death, as she was declared to be one of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945” by The Times, a London-based British newspaper.

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. Her close and intimate attention to the human experience beautifully depicts the hilarity, sadness, messiness, confusion, and absurdity inherent to life. She appreciates that people are not constant; they are constantly evolving and changing, and her novels reflect this understanding. Her work centers on connection to other people–how do you understand someone who is not yourself? A critical essay Murdoch published in 1959 aptly describes her consistent theme of the vitality of truly knowing others: “prose literature can reveal an aspect of the world which no other art can reveal … and in the case of the novel, the most important thing to be thus revealed, not necessarily the only thing, but incomparably the most important thing, is that other people exist.”

Books by Iris Murdoch