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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.3 (2001) 630-656



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Feminist Uses of the Fantastic in Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea

Katherine Weese


While many critics employ the term "fantastic" to describe aspects of Iris Murdoch's novels, none has systematically explored her work in conjunction with theories of the fantastic. Similarly, because Murdoch is often considered a writer who happens to be a woman rather than a woman writer, little exists in the way of feminist criticism of her work. Yet by examining Murdoch's Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea, the Sea, at the intersection of feminist narrative theories and theories of the fantastic, we can place Murdoch's work within a body of contemporary women writers' fiction that employs some degree of postmodern experiment in narrative form, but that nonetheless retains strong ties to a realist tradition. 1

Murdoch's The Sea, the Sea fits Tzvetan Todorov's category of the fantastic as articulated in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Todorov defines the fantastic as an unresolved moment of hesitation during which the reader or characters cannot decide whether seemingly supernatural events depicted in fiction are meant to be taken as real in a world with its own sets of laws, where supernatural events seem normal and undisturbing (marvelous fictions); or whether naturalistic [End Page 630] explanations account for these events, which take place in our historical world and are bound by the laws we know (uncanny fictions). While Todorov has come under attack for his very narrow definition of the fantastic text, nonetheless several of his insights--and the ways in which critics following on his heels have developed those insights-- bear on Murdoch's novel, especially in light of Todorov's explorations of the connection between the fantastic and the real. Toward the end of The Fantastic, Todorov asks, "Why does the literature of the fantastic no longer exist?" (166). The answer that he proposes stems from his conviction that while "the category of the real [. . .] has furnished a basis for our definition of the fantastic" (167), "today we can no longer believe in an immutable, external reality, nor in a literature which is merely a transcription of this reality" (168). Todorov concludes that in the twentieth century, the classic fantastic tale is replaced by the "generalized fantastic," which "no longer has anything to do with the real" (173-74). Iris Murdoch herself writes that "[w]e can no longer take language for granted as a medium of communication. Its transparency has gone. We are like people who for a long time looked out of a window without noticing the glass--and then one day began to notice this too" (Sartre 64). But Murdoch's fiction, along with that of many other contemporary women writers, allows critics to draw a very different set of conclusions than does Todorov about the continued existence of fantastic literature and about the relationship of that literature to what we call the "real." The Sea, the Sea is a novel in which instances of the unreal highlight the author's social and historical concerns, particularly the construction of gender roles. Murdoch and other contemporary women writers use fantastic devices that seem to straddle the boundary that Todorov proposes between the marvelous and the uncanny. Murdoch employs seemingly impossible events, at least one of which--James's miraculous rescue of his cousin Charles--is not resolved into the uncanny, but she sets this event squarely within our historical world. Murdoch, in her contemporary revision of the Gothic novel, employs the fantastic to disrupt conventional narrative practice and to force both her characters and the reader to "scrutinize the categories of the patriarchal real" (Cranny-Francis 77).

Many theorists of the fantastic have followed Todorov in his conclusion that literature of the fantastic no longer exists except as what he [End Page 631] terms the "generalized fantastic." For example, Gerhard Hoffman extends Todorov's ideas about the generalized fantastic, and Christine Brooke-Rose speaks of a "displaced" fantastic to describe postmodern versions...

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