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Sex, Purity, and Madness in Iris Murdoch’s Fiction
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The novels that Iris Murdoch wrote in the early part of her writing career ran parallel with other novels by writers like Margaret Drabble, A.S. Byatt, Doris Lessing and Penelope Mortimer, which depicted sexually passive housewives often on the verge of nervous breakdowns. Murdoch’s female characters share many attributes in common with the women represented by all of these other writers and, perhaps in the same way, Murdoch used the motif of women’s sexual experience to comment on a societal double standard. When exploring this she particularly draws attention to the loss of virginity and its connection with morality. This article deals with the issue of how society’s expectations of female purity can lead to mental illness and the ways in which Murdoch reflected and judged this in her writing.

Female Purity , Contemporary Women’s Writing , Sex and Society
  • Purity Debates

    The issue of female virginity as a highly prized commodity that is easily lost and very easily questioned, provides a further complication as the fragility of virginal status is intrinsically bound up with the reputation of the ‘respectable’ woman. Hanne Blank makes the observation that virginity is only significant for women, linking the loss of virginity to the idea of being ‘broken’ by the sexual act both figuratively, in terms of reputation and esteem, as well as literally, in terms of the breaking of the hymen during intercourse (10). Men, who are left physically intact following any sexual encounter, have no stigma attached to them. Women who are no longer virgins, however, are more readily seen to be damaged or soiled. Colette Forbes in Henry and Cato (1977) feels the societal pressure to remain pure most acutely and her abstinence is probably in part a reaction to the double standards that come with sexual awakening. In Henry and Cato, Colette’s attitude to the sexually free world in which she lives, where her future husband and even her own father are having sexual affairs with other women, is one of censorious disapproval. In discussing her sexual status with her father during an almost totally unrelated discussion about her lack of academic interest, she responds to her father’s question about whether she wants to be “an empty‐headed kitten, a little fluffy sex object” with a shocked: “No! I hated the way people talked about sex at the college” (97). Colette is, therefore, willingly virtuous and is one of the few women in Murdoch’s novels to have the courage of her conviction and maintain her strong sense of self, perhaps because the decisions are all her own. The double bind, however, is still present in this novel. Instead of being satisfied with her response to his question, Colette’s father takes her moral disapproval of other people’s sexual attitudes to mean that she is “timid” (97). The scene is a short one but the rapid alteration in John’s line of discussion is a key point in the novel because it allows Murdoch to raise the question, without actually having to ask it directly, of what girls like Colette are supposed to do to about their sexual status. Her inability to resolve the argument in any satisfactory way by producing the right answer is important to note. If she says she wants to experience sex, or to get married and have children, she will be accused by her father, in an echo of some of the feminist messages of the time, of being “empty headed” and of willingly throwing away her intellect to become a sexual subordinate. On the other hand, if she says she never wants to have sex to avoid becoming a “sex object,” she will be considered to be psychologically inhibited.

    Colette has to face the problems from both sides of this issue, and comes to see the pressures and dangers of sexuality most acutely when she is forced to deal with the more alarming and unwanted sexual attention of the would‐be rapist, Beautiful Joe. While Joe recognizes the unusual element of the untouched virgin in Colette, he also questions the truthfulness of Colette’s claims to purity. He expresses the opinion that: “Girls are muck” (45). His need to destroy Colette’s virginal status, viewing this as one of the major factors that marks her out as his moral and spiritual superior, means that he is prepared to physically damage her, threatening to slash her with a knife. By forcing her to become sexually active, Joe can force her, at the same time, to forfeit her right to moral superiority on the grounds of virginity. This intention is made all the more clear as his respect for her purity begins to vanish, visibly, before the act can even take place. The dialogue begins in a cajoling tone, interspersed with lines such as: “I know it’s the first time, I wouldn’t believe any other girl, but I believe you . . . You’re like a little girl” (284). The almost flattering tone here is cunning in its intent to make her believe that he respects her more than other girls as he hopes to convince her that allowing him to have sex with her would not only be a good action but also a necessary one. Yet within the space of one page he is already in the process of changing his attitude and, interestingly, the subtle switch in opinion can be exactly pinpointed through Murdoch’s use of punctuation:

    The dash in the middle of the sentence is crucial to the reader’s understanding of Joe and provides insight into his thought process because it separates the word “darling”, a last remnant of his earlier and more genial entreaties, from the directly succeeding accusation that she has misled him and that, in doing so, she is the one to have committed the crime. The second part of Joe’s speech here, taking place just before the intended rape, allows Murdoch to avoid depicting the act; instead Cato, the priest figure in the novel, murders Joe with a metal pipe and thus averts the ruination of the novel’s only chaste character, preserving her moral purity and exacting rightful punishment in the process (287). With her unblemished past, Colette is then able to marry the more respectable Henry Marshalson. However, the implication is still present, particularly in Joe’s manner of speech, quoted above, that, had Colette lost her virginity, such a marriage would never have been possible.

    Similarly, A Word Child depicts Crystal Burde, the sister of the male narrator, with a kind of reverence for having maintained her virginity despite having reached her mid‐thirties. She is also, however, subject to all the same doubts that Colette encounters from Joe in Henry and Cato. While Crystal is first given a saintly role and chaperoned by her brother, Hilary, in her meetings with Arthur Fisch, her love interest and eventual husband, her status is overturned when she reveals that she is, in fact, not a virgin at all. The revelation appalls Hilary, who reacts to his sister’s being “spoilt and ruined forever” in a similar manner to that of a Victorian patriarch, and he takes her ‘betrayal’ on board as something personal which affects not only her but also himself: “Oh Crystal, Crystal my pure darling, how could this awful thing have happened to us?” (255) His lament for her lost innocence leans perceptibly towards the nineteenth‐century view of the fallen woman, while the outcry for the “pure darling” that his sister used to be all of several lines before shows her as having desecrated the one thing on which Hilary’s respect for her was founded. This is further exacerbated by the change in language and manner that he uses towards her, overturning his previous intolerance for coarseness by immediately referring to her sexual encounter as the time “Gunnar fucked you” (252). Likewise, Hilary’s friend Clifford Larr, who had previously venerated Crystal for her virginity, responds badly to the news of her changed sexual status. The altercation that ensues recalls Othello’s Desdemona as she is also muted when subjected to the term “whore” by her husband; similarly in A Word Child, all Crystal is able to say is that Clifford “called me a bad name” (361). And, while Hilary defends her in one respect out of brotherly duty, he would seem to agree with Clifford’s sentiment, reinforcing Crystal’s newly created whore‐status by telling her that she is “just a nasty obscene incident in [Gunnar’s] remote past” (255). Far from viewing her in terms of purity and respect, the knowledge that she has been “fucked” by anyone is enough to make her appear dirty and contemptible. Clifford further voices the assumption that: “[i]f she let Gunnar do that to her she’s probably been to bed with half the neighbourhood” (360). His opinion therefore evinces that any woman who lies about her sexual status is obviously completely untrustworthy and must also have deceived people in a multitude of other ways. As Nancy Snow puts it: “women are simply assumed without argument to be more susceptible to immediate enticements than men, and consequently . . . to be slutty and dishonest” (41‐42), meaning that any kind of sexual experience, or even the future possibility of it, is enough to brand a woman depraved. Snow’s view comes in defense of women, however, while Hilary’s perspective, though recognizing the same phenomenon, is to eviscerate the character of his sister.

    The effects of this are most intriguing, however, because the women do not attempt to combat these negative and damaging slurs on their moral and personal worth, nor do they attempt to defend themselves against the backlash that they receive from men. Rather, as is shown not only in A Word Child, but also in The Bell (1958) and The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), they are driven mad by this impossible problem. This perspective offers the view that there is no hopeful solution or practical recourse that women can take, instead implying that it is male perspectives that must be changed and male expectations of and prejudices towards women that have to be altered. In The Philosopher’s Pupil, Rozanov questions his granddaughter’s virginity in a scene that is given all the more gravity as Murdoch describes Hattie’s “face covered with a net of tears like a veil” (433). This allusion then acts dually to conjure the image of spiritual purity and to mark out the injustice of being labeled amoral and promiscuous with no evidentiary basis. Significantly, both this encounter in The Philosopher’s Pupil and the one with Crystal and Hilary in A Word Child end with the women screaming hysterically and at a loss to know how else to respond, while the men who have caused all this emotional turmoil flee the scene. These examples only give a minor glimpse of the kind of madness and hysteria that Murdoch sees as resulting from such harsh male attitudes to women, however, and as the next section goes on to demonstrate, many of her female characters go to further extremes, taking ideas on chastity as a way to preserve moral goodness and opting for religion as a way to further enhance this and advertise it to the surrounding characters.

    Madness and Religious Mania

    Many of Murdoch’s female characters meet the loss of respect that sexual initiation or the question of their virtue brings with it by presenting a fervent and almost maniacal desire to do the right thing. This, more often, steers them towards religion as a way to ensure an image of purity and virtue while, very occasionally, the internal conflict that this causes produces severe psychological problems. Shulamith Firestone has described the type of situation experienced by these women as a dichotomy of “good/bad women”, which results in “sexual schizophrenia” (62), a phrase perhaps best suited to describing what happens to women whose mental state is shattered by the experience of trying to maintain a forced equilibrium between purity and a healthy attitude to sexuality.

    Catherine Fawley in The Bell also provides an example of this through manifestations of “highly strung spirituality” (86). Her intention to become a postulant at the nearby abbey is shown to exacerbate the mania for purity that is eventually diagnosed as schizophrenia. Catherine, much like Colette Forbes and Crystal Burde, is thus given a sacred status because of her purity and the added dimension of her pledge to God, meaning that she presents a clear juxtaposition with characters such as Dora Greenfield, the rebellious wife in The Bell, who is much more sexually aware, has no religion of any kind, and who expresses abject horror of being cloistered and controlled by overly censorious men. Dora’s immediate reaction to Catherine is, perhaps understandably, one of dislike because Catherine embodies all the attributes of womanhood that Paul, Dora’s husband, finds most appealing, these being passivity, calmness and obedience. Her dialogue is strictly limited to monosyllables in front of the male characters, showing her own perception that silence and almost complete physical inertia in front of men are the best means of procuring male respect. As a result, the longest conversations she has in the novel are both with Dora and are undertaken out of sight and hearing of male characters. The first of these conversations displeases Paul because he considers them to have “rather different interests”, showing his idea that Dora, as the more experienced woman, will corrupt Catherine in some way, and the second is truncated by Catherine’s attempt at suicide (137?39, 275?276).

    However, while the incident of Catherine’s suicide attempt demonstrates her despair to the reader, most of the surrounding characters fail to observe the signs of psychological disturbance that Catherine displays. Dora’s view, on the other hand, is that “people don’t go mad suddenly” (275), and that there must be a reason for it. Her pity is first inspired when she learns that Catherine is destined to become a postulant, an action that the comparatively worldly Dora is unable to comprehend as she equates becoming a nun with willingly taking up a life?sentence in prison. This sentiment is also expressed in Nuns and Soldiers when Anne leaves her order and returns to the world to be greeted as though she were an ex?convict, or somebody released from an “awful labour camp” (51). Dora’s assumption in The Bell is that Catherine has either been forced or brainwashed into this action, and her outsider status in the Imber community therefore gives her a power of observation, which allows Murdoch to comment on the kind of society that might attempt such mental training. This idea is reinforced by the story of the erring nun who broke her vows by taking a lover and ended by drowning herself, a story which turns out to be portentous since Catherine almost exactly replicates these actions towards the end of the book (42). Dora’s outrage on behalf of both Catherine and the nun in the story is made clear by Murdoch, but is also clarified as being not just a specific sorrow on their part, but a general lament for herself and all other women who are pushed towards these perfect and divine personas for men to worship at a distance. Dora feels the “obscure pain, compounded perhaps of pity and of some terror, as if something within herself were menaced with destruction” (73), because the men in this society and, more importantly, the man she is married to, have worked to censor and destroy the women amongst them. If the blame for women’s madness in these novels can be laid upon any character or characters, then, it must be placed with these men because they set such unachievable aims but hold their disappointment and disapprobation ready for the inevitable inability of women to meet the required standards.

    Afaf Khogeer has recognized Dora’s ability to identify “with Catherine because they are both menaced by the community’s denial of their reality” (16). They both suffer a similar kind of suppression, but they each respond to this in very different ways; Catherine bows to Imber’s demand for chastity and silence, while Dora rebels against those same demands from her husband. Also, unlike Catherine, Dora turns to extramarital affairs to fill the void created by an unfulfilling marriage. She also has other friends from whom to seek advice on her impossible situation with Paul, but Catherine has no such outside support. The descriptions of Catherine’s character in the wider setting of the novel are not autonomous or even the direct workings of an omniscient narrator, but instead rely heavily on the perceptions of male characters like Michael Meade or Paul Greenfield; even Mrs Mark introduces Catherine to Dora as “our little saint”, showing that the whole community uses Catherine’s purity as a benchmark for their own self?improvement (38). This might be more effective, however, if it were not for the fact that her desire to meet other people’s requirements of goodness and purity so obviously conflicts with her own emotional needs. In keeping with this, Catherine’s own personal reasons for wanting to enter the abbey as a nun are further complicated by her attachment to both her brother and the homosexual character, Michael Meade, whose previous affair with Nick remains unknown to her. This love is clearly never going to come to fruition and, in light of this, she perhaps feels that she has nothing to remain in the outside world for. At the same time, however, she feels confusion and desolation at not being able to attain the emotional or even sexual gratification that she seeks and in the absence of this fulfillment she turns to what someone like Dora would describe as masochistic behaviour.

    Jane Ussher has made the connection between the almost simultaneous applications of enforced purity and derogatory labeling and women’s mental anguish and despair by saying that if women “are objectified, associated with danger and temptation, with impurity . . . worshipped and defiled, evoking horror and desire . . . [i]s it surprising that we are made mad?” (21). The beautiful idea of the wholly virtuous woman is impossible to live up to and altogether misplaced since, naturally, no one can ever be entirely good. Dorothy A. Winsor sees this “distorted” view of Catherine as a “symbol of innocence” as a way to throw the Gothic element of her character into sharp relief (54). Both she and Nick appear innocent, and are hoped to be so, but they are ultimately more aware than they are supposed to be; this hiding of their true natures takes its toll on both of their mental states. It is perhaps more permissible for Nick to act in ways that society and smaller communities such as Imber might view as amoral because, as feminists such as Valenti have pointed out, this type of behaviour is more readily accepted in the male, while in women it is unforgiveable.


    The types of confusion that all of Murdoch’s female characters experience with regard to purity can therefore be explained in terms of the ideas outlined by both Ussher and Firestone, who both comment on and explore the duality and contradiction inherent in male expectations of women that can only have the result of psychological disturbance. However, the added dimension of a religious faith that carries with it an insurmountable quantity of guilt?inducing doctrine also provides a catalyst by which full?blown mental illness can develop. So, when the incident of Catherine’s “deranged” attempt at drowning is related at the end of The Bell in the newspaper, the headline reads: “Far from the Madding Crowd,” the connection is forged between the whole religious community and the propensity towards psychological imbalance (282).

    While it may seem that Murdoch condemns these women, her portrayal of such overbearing and hypocritical reactions, especially in the 1970s, merely reflects the backlash in this and subsequent decades against women who had begun to make choices about their own sexual status. The purity of female characters like Crystal or Colette is revered by the surrounding male characters as a last vestige of female delicacy and virtue in a world where secondwave feminism’s attempts to acquaint women with the mysteries of their sexuality was beginning to destroy such values. The further views of women like Crystal or Colette are also indicative of Murdoch’s recognition that women in a constantly changing cultural climate were still subject to the harsh double?standards of a conservative society. Although their personal characters are otherwise unchanged, the women in these novels make the transition from paragons of virtue to false women who have deliberately set out to deceive, and this transition is usually made within the space of a few pages. Murdoch’s characters navigate their way across this hair?line division between virgin and whore status either with despair or by means of religious fanaticism. Many of them feel a fracturing of their emotional state as they attempt to find the correct behaviour for a circumstance in which meeting all the requirements is virtually impossible.

  • 1. Blank Hanne 2007 Virgin: The Untouched History. google
  • 2. Chesler Phyllis 1989 Women and Madness. google
  • 3. De Beauvoir Simone 1972 Old Age. google
  • 4. Firestone Shulamith 1979 The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. google
  • 5. Khogeer Afaf (Effat) Jamil 2006 The Integration of the Self: Women in the Fiction of Iris Murdoch and Margaret Drabble. google
  • 6. Murdoch Iris 1999 The Bell google
  • 7. Murdoch Iris 1977 Henry and Cato. google
  • 8. Murdoch Iris 1990 Message to the Planet. google
  • 9. Murdoch Iris 1977 The Nice and the Good. google
  • 10. Murdoch Iris 1985 The Philosopher’s Pupil. google
  • 11. Murdoch Iris 1976 A Word Child. google
  • 12. Plath Sylvia 1963 The Bell Jar. google
  • 13. Showalter Elaine 1987 The Female Malady. google
  • 14. Snow Nancy E. 2002 “Virtue and the Oppression of Women.” Feminist Moral Philosophy. Ed. Samantha Brennan. P.33-61 google
  • 15. Ussher Jane 1991 Women’s Madness: Misogyny or Mental Illness? google
  • 16. Valenti Jessica 2008 He’s A Stud, She’s a Slut and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know. google
  • 17. Valenti Jessica 2010 The Purity Myth google
  • 18. Winsor Dorothy A. (1981) “Solipsistic Sexuality in Iris Murdoch’s Gothic Novels.” [Renascence] Vol.34 P.2-63 google cross ref
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