A Review of A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

First published 1961, my edition 1964

“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 quote from A Severed Head above is lovely, and it shows how great a writer Murdoch was. However, I had no idea that this novel would be so… odd. And open. This was my first novel by Iris Murdoch, and I bought it on impulse from a bookseller near me at university, as it was an old Penguin edition featured in my collection of Penguin’s postcards. I really should have read the blurb, which includes the following description:

“[a] sombre, and often symbolic handling of adultery, incest, castration, sexual confusion, violence, and suicide”.

The novel really does include all of those things, I’m afraid to say.  I won’t give anything away, as someone reading this may wish to read it, but there are a lot of affairs – an insane amount of affairs. The incest element to the story is rather creepy, and I’m not sure what prompted Murdoch to include it. However, I guess Ian McEwan was a lot braver than her with The Cement Garden, for instance. I imagine both readers wanted to shock, or to question notions of morality. But Murdoch was writing in the sixties – if I found the text shocking, what did her contemporary audience think? I’ve done some research and found out that she was a philsopher who questioned political and social questions of good and evil, sexual relationships, morality, and the power of the unconscious – all concepts that this novel largely explores.

Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges,
 One of his Ministers, As She Goes to Bed by William Etty.

I did think that the novel was generally written well. I always enjoy intertextuality in novels, and therefore appreciated Murdoch’s references to Dante, historical works and mythology. I’m sure there are a lot more specific examples, but after flicking through the book once more I appear to be blind to them all. Regardless, I best liked the reference to the mythical story of Gyges and Candaules (from The Histories of Herodotus) in the closing pages of the novel.

In this tale, Candaules boasts of his wife’s beauty to his friend, Gyges, and wants him to see her naked. He conceals Gyges in their bedroom, but Candaules’s wife realises that he is there. Then later, because he had seen her, she approaches him and forces him to kill Candaules and become king himself. It’s all very dramatic, in typical Greek style, but matches the story quite well in some aspects (but not all). I hope that’s not a spoiler. Read it for yourself and find out!

3.5 stars


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