It of this kind to define what a philosophical

It is perhaps best when dealing with a question of this kind
to define what a philosophical novel is. Whilst there is not a universal
definition for philosophical fiction, it is probably best defined as a piece of
literature that dedicates a significant amount of content to address topics
that appear in discursive philosophy such as the function and role of society,
purpose of life, and development of knowledge through experience. Through the
use of Julius King, a satanic intellectual who uses a Machiavellian approach to
deconstruct the lives of the other characters, Murdoch is able to depict how
devoted couples, friends, and family can betray these loyalties due to the
human flaw of embracing drama rather than honest and open communication as well
as being unable to accept suffering without passing it on. Though there are
moments in the novel, which leave the reader in awe of Iris Murdoch’s
embellished realism, the inclusion of melodramatic scenes and a group of
characters that fail to convince, strains the reader’s belief and evokes little
sympathy for the characters. However, in sacrificing her novelistic potency,
Murdoch can emphasise the philosophical themes and ideas that her characters
represent. Thus making A Fairly
Honourable Defeat, at the very least, a novel, which confronts prevalent
philosophical topics associated with British culture in the post-war period.

The novel opens with several pages of dialogue between
Rupert and Hilda, a seemingly happily married couple, who fill the reader in on
the rest of this small set of closely-intertwined characters. Given that Rupert
and Hilda are not given any free indirect discourse in this opening, the reader
is left essentially with no ‘beginning’ to this story and is left to learn
about the characters through other characters’ ways of perceiving them. The
theatrical device of not having a narrator means that the reader cannot trust
Rupert and Hilda’s early judgements until very late on. Murdoch borrows from
theatre to enhance the realism genre she incorporates in her writing. She
narrows the scope and range of the novel by setting it in a small part of
London, over a couple of weeks with a moderately-sized cast and, unlike the
traditional chronological structure of a novel, we learn more about each
character as the novel progresses from different perspectives. This allows
Murdoch to show an accurate, detailed and unembellished depiction of nature and
contemporary British life. Whilst this certainly fits in with the
characteristics of realism, the dialogue is littered with chunks of exposition,
which makes the conversation flow in a manner, which is unusual in real

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“‘You speak his name as if you
were meditating upon it.’

‘I am meditating upon it.’

‘He’s not a saint.’

‘He’s not a saint. And yet –’

‘What about him?’

‘He’s in England.’

‘I know.’

‘Who told you?’

‘Axel.'” (11)


The conversation continues like this, in an unnaturally
well-ordered way, rather than more realistically meandering responses with
occasional endless sentences and deviations from topic, as actual speech does.
It could be argued that Murdoch’s desire to stress the philosophical points the
novel makes, negates the features of realism that she incorporates in her
writing. This is reinforced by Murdoch’s use of coincidence and exploration of
the philosophical idea of contingency which creates further debate whilst
sacrificing believability.

Simone Weil, a French philosopher who heavily influenced
Iris Murdoch’s works, believed that evil spreads in the world in the form of
suffering. Someone who has been a victim of a form of evil, finds relief by
passing on this suffering to others, thus forming an endless cycle of suffering
and evil. This idea is heavily instilled in A
Fairly Honourable Defeat. Although at first the reader is unaware of what
is motivating Julius to commit these acts, Murdoch reveals that Julius is a
Belsen survivor. Whilst his evil acts may be inexplicable, and perhaps
unbelievable, Murdoch is implying that these evil acts are no more evil than
the evil Julius was subjected to at the hands of human beings. Murdoch goes on
to employ the traditional device of coincidence, a device she uses frequently
in her work. An example of this can be seen when Hilda falls and breaks the
telephone which in turn prevents her from calling Rupert and thwarting his
suicide. Here, Murdoch is suggesting that a telephone breaking at a moment when
it is most required, is not as improbable as the atrocities human beings
inflict on each other. In fact, the coincidental moments are not as
preposterous as the idea of evil itself.

Contingency was a prevalent theme in philosophy in the 60’s
and 70’s and is equally prevalent in A
Fairly Honourable Defeat. Jordan (2010) says, “That events are contingent
means that they are profoundly subject to the vagaries of chance; it also
implies something of the future element – if the future is contingent, we do
not yet know what it consists of.” (116) Murdoch propagates the idea that
because of contingency, “muddle, and the ability to bear it…define a person.”
(Jordan, 2010, p115) Tallis shows us that “an affinity with mess, with aspects
of the natural world and its paradigm of formlessness, or with the accidental,
are all consistently shown to be a path to the elusive good.” (Jordan, 2010, p115)
On the other hand, Julius’s impulse for plotting can be viewed as a rejection
of contingency. The idea of contingency in the novel creates further debate on
whether Julius’s actions are truly evil. Whilst, Julius’s actions may be seen
as cruel and vindictive by some readers, Murdoch attempts to show that his
perceptions are quite right and justifiable, however, it is his desire for
justice and an obsession with unmasking human hypocrisy which ultimately leads
him to deconstruct so many lives. So, if Julius’s attempt to pierce the
delusional fantasies of the other characters had no intention of evil, the reader is left to deliberate whether his
actions have been misguided or evil. Murdoch is questioning how we judge evil
and implying that we need some sort of objective morality; a way of measuring
what is absolute ‘good’ and absolute ‘evil’.

This concept reflects Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, he
writes, “What we need is a metaphysics of morals, which must be carefully cleansed
of everything empirical in order to know how much pure reason could achieve.”
(Kant, 2002, p23) Whilst Kant uses the words “reason” and “empirical” to mean
necessary and contingent, the point remains. Kant did not want contingent facts
to frame morality – he wanted moral sincerity to be completely necessary
instead of being derived from facts about us and our world. He believed that
some sort of moral system could be derived, as if it were geometry, from logic.
Rupert’s philosophical book in the novel almost mirrors this idea. It could
then be argued, that Murdoch is suggesting a moral system which does not take
contingency into account is a futile and misguided task. The irony is that the
philosophy Rupert writes about and preaches in the novel is essentially the
same as that offered by Murdoch in her philosophical writing. In chapter
eighteen, Rupert puts forward his case for goodness to Julius, but it is not as
convincing as Julius’s dismissal. Ramanathan (1990) writes of this interaction:
“the case against her own philosophical choice is given the fullest possible
hearing.” (13) Murdoch believes that philosophy is useless unless it is lived
and made part of someone rather than consciously believing in it but not
carrying out the very philosophy you profess. As Peter Conradi (1992) states,
“the gap, which lies at the heart of this tragi-comedy, is that between the
wisdom, which is professed, and the wisdom, which is lived from the heart. It
is a gap which Julius as artist is uniquely equipped to unmask, and one which
only Tallis – significantly a man who does not rate himself as an intellectual
– is able to overcome.” (93) Tallis is the only character in the novel who does
not express his moral and ethical beliefs, perhaps because he cannot articulate
them, but who genuinely tries to live a life which adheres to good morals. On
the other hand, Rupert is described as not truly loving ‘goodness’ but rather
“a big imposing good-Rupert image.” (428) Like Rupert, Tallis is also depicted under
scrutiny on his philosophy and he is unable to verbally express what is wrong
with other people’s philosophy that he sees as wrong: “it sounds like sense…but
somehow – oh how stupid you make me feel.” (215) In response, Morgan says,
“You’re not on my wavelength, you don’t understand what I’m saying half the
time.” (215) Murdoch is insinuating that assumptions that extend to real life
possibilities has to be called upon first before the argument can continue.
Under scrutiny, belief in good cannot prove its credibility and is forced to
return to faith. Both Julius and Morgan’s views and beliefs are deeply wrong in
the eyes of Rupert and Tallis, but they are unable to express why.

The characterisation of Rupert and Julius places them as the
figures that most show Murdoch’s conflicting position on the major themes of
the novel. Rupert, who is writing a philosophical book about positivity and the
power of love, is put directly against Julius, who offers a more cynical
approach to love that juxtaposes Rupert’s idea and portrays Rupert’s philosophy
as unrealistic, conceited and naïve. Whereas Rupert believes that attempting to
tell the truth, as he is in his philosophical book, “has meaning,” (220) Julius
argues that these “truths are tissues of illusion. Theories.” (222) He goes on to say that human beings are “roughly
constructed entities full of indeterminacies” (223) who are driven along by
“their own private needs”(223) and are “essentially finders of substitutes.”
(223) In describing human beings as “finders of substitutes,” Murdoch is
lamenting human beings inability to suffer and not pass this suffering on to
other people as many of the characters in the novel do. For example, Morgan,
who has her heartbroken by Julius, goes on to have an affair with her sister’s
husband. Julius proceeds to prove his theory correct by testing the
relationships he views as insincere and vain: “Mix up pity and vanity and
novelty in an emotional person and you at once produce something very much like
being in love.” (406) Julius challenges Rupert’s idealism and Hilda’s
complacency; Axel’s very-British reservedness and Simon’s insecurities;
Morgan’s selfishness and Peter’s childish defiance. Murdoch is critiquing the
pretences of middle-class society in Britain by depicting how people who are
seemingly good people, can so easily turn on their morals once their vanity is
triggered. Rupert, as an incredibly intelligent man, should know better than to
embark on an affair with Morgan; Morgan, who was a teacher and so clearly not
foolish, ought to understand that not everyone must fall in love with her.
Furthermore, the result of Julius’s actions show that, to an extent, good is no
match for evil. It is interesting, however, that Julius decides to confess his
scheme to Tallis. Tallis, the good, Christ-like figure is too late when he
orders Julius to confess the truth to Hilda and demanding that Julius leave
London immediately is hardly enough of a punishment. In addition, Tallis cannot
even reclaim and rectify his marriage or prevent his father’s painful death.
Tallis, and his home, symbolise the nature of the world; however hard Tallis
tries, the muddle of life continues.

Whilst Murdoch (1982) herself claims that philosophy and
literature are “two radically different kinds of writing,” (230) her use of
themes related to biblical figures and central ideas from the novel originating
from modern philosophers, propagates the argument that literature has the
ability to “engage the reader in the moral work of thinking through the
problems which confront the fictional characters.” (Holland, 1998, p4) As
Holland (1998) states, “philosophical discipline can provide one with the skill
to examine critically what is portrayed in literature, and to evaluate
fictional lives. One can both recognise the value of philosophical reflection
on literary text, and maintain that the two activities are distinct.” (6) Tallis
Browne’s juxtaposition with Julius is a clear allegory of the story of Job.
Like Job, Tallis is presented as a good and fruitful man who suffers deeply.
Deserted by Morgan, deprived of a sister, and considered a failed author,
Tallis lives in a filthy apartment with his father and Peter who both “reject
the universe” (66) and are either incapable of helping Tallis due to
elderliness or childish petulance. Although Tallis is altruistic and advocates
sound ethical and moral concepts, he often finds it difficult to actually show
the logic behind advocating goodness. When he catches Peter stealing he is
unable to articulate his morality, left to simply state it to be “wrong” and
“undignified” (114). In contrast, Julius represents Satan. This is made clear
when Julius leaves Tallis’ apartment and the “things which had scuttled away in
terror on Julius’s arrival had begun to come out from under the sink and the
dresser.” (340) This could be seen as a representation of Satan through
Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies. Conversely to Tallis, Julius advocates evil
and seeks to prove that it is more logical to advocate evil than goodness. Near
the end of the novel, Tallis is forced to accept money offered by Julius. This
could be seen as an ironic representation of Job’s recovery at the end of the
Book of Job, seeing as Tallis is at the lowest point of his life at this point.

Although Murdoch does not make a philosophical viewpoint
explicit in the novel, her gesturing towards biblical stories and philosophical
ideas makes A Fairly Honourable Defeat
a novel which has the chief aim of tackling important philosophical ideas. As
Jones (1975) states, “Creative interpretation requires the postulation of
purposiveness (assumption of something serving/effecting a useful function)
without actual purpose; because of this, one way in which a novel may be
described as, justifiably, philosophical is if it displays philosophicalness
without philosophy.” (34) In her own explanation of the differences between
literature and philosophy, Murdoch (1982) points at a multitude of distinctions:
“literature arouses emotion, philosophy tries to eliminate emotional
appeal…literature is concerned with aesthetic form, philosophy does not aim at
formal perfection.” (236) However, the artificiality of the novel in which
Murdoch’s characters move in somewhat predetermined patterns, puts the
characters in situations that best illustrate the philosophical point Murdoch
wants to make. Murdoch sacrifices a gripping and pragmatic plot for one that is
more focused on the philosophical message. Furthermore, although the portrayal
of Tallis is a sympathetic one, his messy and insipid life fails to elicit
admiration or arouse emotion from the reader. The novel does the very thing
Murdoch claims philosophy does: eliminate emotional appeal.

Furthermore, as Nussbaum (1990) says, “a narrative artist
can state truths which cannot be conveyed through philosophical argument.” (6)
Literature has the ability to engage readers in confronting the problems which
the characters in the fictional novel face. Although philosophy may do this
through use of examples or dialogue, fictional writing is more suitable for the
task of reflecting on specific circumstances and characters. Philosophy
educates the reader in a more systematic sense, whilst literature can convey
facets of morality which cannot be explored in an argumentative form of
literature, therefore provoking a separate kind of moral reflection. (Holland
1998) In describing the ideal style and goal of philosophy, Murdoch implies
that fictional works of literature; no matter how well it portrays moral life
and strengthens the reader’s understanding of the morality it professes, are
not works of philosophy. However, literature can help philosophers look at
moral life and improve their systematic accounts (Holland 1998). And so,
viewing philosophy and literature as separate ventures with contrasting goals
and methods, and therefore dismissing novels such as A Fairly Honourable Defeat as works of philosophy, does not
necessitate the view that fictional pieces of literature cannot be
philosophical novels.