In 1970 the British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch published both her thirteenth novel, A Fairly Honourable Defeat, and her best known work of philosophy, The Sovereignty of Good. Given the proximity of these publication dates, it does not surprise that there are many points of comparison between these two works. The novel features, for instance, a character writing a work of moral philosophy not unlike Murdoch's own The Sovereignty of Good, while another character exemplifies her moral philosophy in his life.

This article proposes a reading of the novel as a critical commentary on the philosophical work, focusing on the tension between creation and authority. While Murdoch considers humans to be first and foremost creative, she is at the same time wary of the misleading nature of any act of creation. For Murdoch, any creator and any creation—a beautiful picture as well as a watertight theory—may transmit a certain authority, and that authority may get in the way of acknowledging reality. It thus hinders the moral life, which for Murdoch should be thought of as a life of attention—to reality and ultimately to the Good—rather than a series of wilful creations and actions.

A Fairly Honourable Defeat queries the possibility and danger of creation, through different characters as well as through images of cleanliness and messiness. Thus, the character whose book of moral philosophy is challenged and who is found wanting when putting his ideas to practice, likes ‘to get things clear’ (176). Another character, whose interferences create the novel's drama, has a self-confessed ‘passion for cleanliness and order’ (426). The saint of the story, in contrast, does not interfere unless by necessity, and resides in one of the filthiest kitchens in the history of literature. Yet, none of the main characters exemplifies a solution to the tension between creation and authority found in Murdoch's philosophy. An indication of a solution is found in a minor character, and in his creations of outrageous bunches of flowers, unusual meals, and absurd interiors. Yet, its location in a subplot suggests that this solution is not in any way final. It is concluded that any final solution should not be expected, not in the least because of the pervasive nature of the tension between creation and authority, which goes well beyond Murdoch's own authorship.


Arts and Humanities | Social and Behavioral Sciences


Altorf, Marije. Iris Murdoch and the Art of Imagining. London: Continuum 2008.

Altorf, Marije and Mariëtte Willemsen. "Iris Murdoch en de verbeelding van het Goede." Introduction. Over God en het Goede. By Iris Murdoch. Trans. and intro. Marije Altorf and Mariëtte Willemsen. Amsterdam: Boom 2003: 7-30.

Arendt, Hannah. Willing. New York: Harcourt 1978. Vol. 2 of The Life of the Mind. 2 vols. 1978.

Bove, Cheryl. Understanding Iris Murdoch. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press 1993.

Byatt, A. S. Degrees of Freedom: The Early Novels of Iris Murdoch. 1965. London: Vintage 1994.

Conradi, Peter. Iris Murdoch: A Life. London: HarperCollins 2001.

Conradi, Peter. The Saint and the Artist: A Study of the Fiction of Iris Murdoch. 1986. London: HarperCollins 2001.

Gordon, David. Iris Murdoch's Fables of Unselfing. Columbia: University of Missouri Press 1995.

Griffin, Gabriele. The Influence of the Writings of Simone Weil on the Fiction of Iris Murdoch. San Francisco: Mellen University Press 1993.

Grimshaw, Tammy. Sexuality Gender and Power in Iris Murdoch's Fiction. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press 2005.

Johnson, Deborah. Iris Murdoch. Brighton: Harvester 1987.

Midgley, Mary. The Owl of Minerva: A Memoir. London: Routledge 2005.

Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. London: Chatto & Windus 1997.

Murdoch, Iris. A Fairly Honourable Defeat. 1970. London: Penguin 1972.

Murdoch, Iris. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. 1992. London: Penguin 1993.

Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good. 1970. London: Routledge 2001.

Purton, Valerie. An Iris Murdoch Chronology. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2007.

Rowe, Margaret. "Iris Murdoch and the Case of ‘Too Many Men.’" Studies in the Novel 36.1 (Spring 2004): 79-94.

Spear, Hilda. Iris Murdoch. 1995. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2007.

Todd, Richard ed. Encounters with Iris Murdoch: Proceedings of an Informal Symposium on Iris Murdoch's Work held at the Free University Amsterdam on 20 and 21 October 1986. Amsterdam: Free University Press 1988.

Todd, Richard ed. Iris Murdoch: The Shakespearean Interest. Plymouth: Vision 1979.

Todd, Richard ed. "Iris Murdoch: veertig jaar romanschrijven." Wijsgerig Perspectief 35.3 (1994/5): 66-71.

Wood, James. "Iris Murdoch's Philosophy of Fiction." The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief. London: Cape 1999: 174-85.

First Page


Last Page