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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.3 (2001) 657-673

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Desires Deferred: Homosexual and Queer Representations in the Novels of Iris Murdoch

W. S. Hampl

In the moving memoir Elegy for Iris, John Bayley, the widower of Iris Murdoch, writes that Murdoch "had an odd streak of romanticism about gay men and was apt sometimes to be naïve in her assessment of who was what" (188). This comment and Bayley's claim that Murdoch could brilliantly describe the physical details of characters without having "any instinctive sense of how those characters function in themselves, on the humbler level" (66) are actually quite enlightening to readers who attempt to analyze Murdoch's homosexual characters and the manner in which her texts intricately queer positionalities and sexualities.

Although Murdoch's texts are filled with homosexual characters, Murdoch's readers quickly realize that her fictional versions of homosexuality are light years removed from any versions of homosexuality in the real world; in other words, Murdoch's fiction is much stranger (and not necessarily more comforting) than truth. This disparity in Murdoch's work--her literary treatment of homosexuality versus a real-world version of homosexuality--proves to be increasingly problematic, not to [End Page 657] mention bizarre. Even when she writes a fine novel, The Green Knight (1993), that indicates queer possibilities for re-configurations of the family unit (or the "desire-ability" of queer relationships), the reader realizes that Murdoch's optimism surprisingly arrives after an extensive and observable history of unrealistic (even nonsensical) treatments of homosexuality.

Murdoch's most intriguing and successful configuration of a queer family unit appears in her Shakespearean The Green Knight, which demonstrates that conventional notions of desire and sexuality break down. A brief summary of some of the subplots of the novel follows: the text describes the dissolution of a long-term homosexual relationship between Clive and Emil. Murdoch writes against the grain of stereotypical homosexual hysteria: Emil, after Clive leaves him for another man whom Clive "loves more," does not fall apart. Having been happy with Clive, he decides to now enjoy life by himself. His later advances toward Bellamy, who considers becoming a priest, are politely refused, and still Emil is content. Later, Bellamy decides to live together with Emil, without sex, and be happy; Bellamy even imagines a future for them, living together in India, "adopting" the young woman Moy. Such a family unit may best (only?) be identified as queer, and indeed, queer family units are, as a result of the destruction of traditional sexual categories, the point toward which Murdoch's writings commonly strive. 1

Before approaching the queer politics of The Green Knight, I would like to examine the homosexual politics of some of her earlier novels, which reveal male characters who are insecure in their sexualities and the sexualities of others, male characters who desire other male characters (who do not reciprocate but do not mind being desired), and male characters whose homosexual dreams or futures never come to pass. Readers could find such tropes in a plethora of Murdoch's texts, but the present analysis will limit itself to two texts per homosexual trope (with additional examples in the endnotes). Queer politics are built upon the foundation laid by homosexual politics, and a knowledge of Murdoch's treatment of homosexuality is integral to an understanding of her works.

In this connection, Murdoch's texts reveal themselves to be strangely and strikingly at odds with one important aspect of Foucaultian theory. In his interview "Friendship as a Way of Life," Michel Foucault says: "I think that's what makes homosexuality 'disturbing': the homosexual mode [End Page 658] of life, much more than the sexual act itself [ . . . ] To imagine a sexual act that doesn't conform to law or nature is not what disturbs people. But that individuals are beginning to love one another--there's the problem" (136-37). According to Foucault, most of those people who are uneasy about homosexuality are troubled by the notion that two men or two women might love each...


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