A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch


Well, the first full week of my writing regimen has been pretty true to form.  Procrastination early means cramming three entries in the latter half of the week.  But no worries, at least I have some material to write about.

Since “books” is included in the title of this blog, I reckon I ought to at least mention some books here.  This is the first of those posts.  The book under consideration is Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat.  I know what you’re thinking, and yes, there is supposed to be a “u” in honourable, it’s a British thing.  Also spoiler alert, if you haven’t read this book and intend on reading it, please read no further.  I would hate to ruin someone’s day by giving away essential information about the plot, characters, etc.  Disclaimers out of the way, here we go.

Almost, a quick word on how I came to read this book.  No, I did not have a particularly powerful experience in my high school English Lit class.  Stanley Hauerwas taught my Christian Ethics course at Duke Divinity, and throughout the semester he referred to Iris Murdoch.  I think he said she’s his favorite writer, but I could be mis-remembering.  Anyhow, I was enamored enough with his reference that I kept my eye out when I perused bookstore shelves.  I was on break from school back in Wichita, on my customary pilgrimage to Eighth Day Books, when I found a used copy of this book and picked it up.  Quick aside to this aside, if you live in Wichita, or are passing through, and are interested in theology, church history, poetry, fiction, go check out Eighth Day, you won’t be disappointed.

To the novel. The back cover reads, “Rupert and Hilda are perfectly matched.” Having never read Murdoch that line seemed benign. Wonderful, I’m so glad they’re happy. Now, I realize my naiveté and see how that line should’ve set me off to expect some sad fate to befall this happily married couple.

The novel traces Rupert and Hilda’s interactions with a handful of characters. Morgan, Hilda’s manchasing eccentric sister, who is married to Tallis, a sad soul who never can quite satisfy his wife. Simon and Axel, a quietly gay couple (novel set ca. 1970 England), and close friends of Rupert and Hilda. Finally Julius, a clever and conniving figure who was once romantically involved with Morgan. Julius’ nefarious puppeteer-ing tugs at a loose relational strand until the whole sweater unravels.

The story lags a bit, about a third of the way in. Otherwise, Murdoch’s engaging story-telling and lucid prose are delightful to read. She opens up characters to the reader, allowing them to keep their integrity while exposing their flaws. Part of the joy and pain of this reading was my inability to identify wholly with one character. Instead of an obvious hero and villain, Murdoch presents fully human characters with foibles and aspirations of goodness.

I was struck by the questions around truth and falsehood, especially in the context of community. Given Hauerwas’ work on ethics in the context of a story formed community, I can see why he favors Murdoch’s work. Murdoch brings to light even the smallest moments when we think falsehood will be a good strategy to protect those we love. This book made me pause and reflect more than most novels.  I’m not much of a thinker in general; real talk, no self-deprecation.  Murdoch offers no easy answers, but opens the door for good contemplation.

*Cover Credits


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