The problem of evil and the fiction and philosophy of Iris Murdoch

Read, Daniel (2019) The problem of evil and the fiction and philosophy of Iris Murdoch. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


This thesis argues that Dame Iris Murdoch’s writings portray a dialectical picture of morality that invites the reader to acknowledge the presence of evil and reflect upon the necessarily ‘opposing forces’ of good and evil. Murdoch’s engagement with both historical and contemporary discussions of evil is traced through close reading of both her published texts, including fiction and philosophy, and her unpublished and recently published texts and resources, including annotations, interviews and letters. These close readings are focused on the theological, psychological and literary aspects of the contemporary problem of evil. The perspectives offered within this study all transcend the focus on goodness invited by Murdoch’s fiction and philosophy, thus challenging the biased perspective of scholars of the late-twentieth century who sought to elevate Murdoch’s good characters by drawing equations between her moral philosophy and her fiction. This study begins, first, by demonstrating how Murdoch’s writings engage with the problem of evil, with the theological attempt to reconcile goodness with the presence of evil and suffering in the world, by drawing on her allusions to the Book of Job and to the writings of Simone Weil and Dame Julian of Norwich, all of which assert the necessary presence of evil and suffering in the moral life. Second, I interrogate the inconsistencies between Murdoch’s fictional and philosophical pictures of evil to illustrate how her fictional and philosophical engagement with Saint Paul’s writings reveals that she adopted the same dialectical picture of morality for which she critiqued Jung in her moral philosophy. For her, Jung’s picture of morality merges aspects of dualism and monism, both of which, traditionally speaking, offer two countervailing ways in which to picture the moral life, where evil represents, respectively, either an independent moral force separate from the good or a failure to carry out the moral iii ideals of goodness. Third, I identify and develop a link between contemporary moral, psychological and sociological discourses on psychopathy and the evil characters, both male and female, within Murdoch’s novels: not only do her antagonists and demons, often called ‘enchanter’ figures by scholars, echo the psychopath’s moral psychology, but so too do her saintly figures. Such an ambiguous picture resonates with contemporary interpretations of psychopathy, such as those offered by Robert D. Hare, Kevin Dutton, or Simon Baron- Cohen, which highlight the complex role of compassion, empathy and emotion on the individual’s moral awareness, whether they are saintly or psychopathic. In the final chapter, I argue that Murdoch’s dialectical picture of morality is indebted to Blake, whose The Songs of Innocence and of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell illustrates the necessity of the ‘contrary’ pairs of innocence and experience, reason and passion, and good and evil. While Murdoch may praise goodness, her complex engagement with evil reveals a dialectical task for the moral agent in which they have to appreciate the complexity of the moral life, with its inherently ambiguous mixtures of emotion and rationality, the saintly and the psychopathic, and goodness and evil.

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