Deborah Johnson's book on Iris Murdoch appears as one of the titles among Indiana University's Key Women Writers series edited by Sue Roe. According to Roe, this series seeks to reflect important critical insights that have developed from current feminist theory. One should be aware of Johnson's feminist critical posture, then, before turning to her book, because Johnson is on much firmer ground when she explores the issues of feminist theory than when she looks at the fiction of Murdoch.
Even in the introduction, the writing on Murdoch is imprecise, unsettling. Murdoch, Johnson tells us, is "a female writer who likes wearing male masks." In support of her assertion, Johnson refers to seven of Murdoch's novels—from Under the Net (1954) to The Philosopher's Pupil (1983)—that employ a male "dramatised narrator." Are we then to overlook the fourteen novels that, by default, do not employ male dramatized narrators? Johnson therefore needs to provide a more solid justification for her groupings than her statement that these seven novels "constitute, it will readily be agreed, some of her most distinctive and thoughtful work" (emphasis mine).
Johnson's prose improves when she turns to feminist theory. She writes with greater authority when she explains complex psychoanalytic theories of sexual difference, when she supports her views with quotations from Luce Irigaray, Mary [End Page 291] Jacobus, and Julia Kristeva, when she leans toward Freud and away from Murdoch. Johnson herself perhaps suspects she writes less convincingly of Murdoch, for she frequently relies on major Murdoch critics—A. S. Byatt, Peter J. Conradi, Elizabeth Dipple, and Richard Todd—to clarify her points.
Johnson's study is not without insight. For instance, her chapter on the role of the narrator initiates an interesting and fruitful discussion of Charles Arrowby in The Sea, The Sea (1978). Although Charles provides the primary narration, his journal offers a secondary mode of narration that is sometimes conjoined and sometimes opposed to the first. This three-page segment is loaded with possibilities for further study and development; it is actually richer and more satisfying than Johnson's more extended discussion of The Black Prince (1973).
But some fundamental problems mar Johnson's text. There is poor writing: "Keiko shows initiative, romantically taking on male disguise to further her love for Yorimitus [sic], and stabbing herself at the end of the play. But her self-sacrificial act is a result of the choice made by Yorimitsu, and stabbing herself at the end of the play" (65). Additionally, poor structure is evident: Chapter Four's focus doesn't become clear until we are ten pages (half-way) into the chapter. Some basic errors involve calling Catherine Fawley's twin brother Mick instead of Nick and listing this brother/sister pair among the incestuous families. Evident throughout is a need for stricter definitions: what does she mean when she states that the male narrator "works as well as it does" and that the male narrational voice has "some disturbing implications in Iris Murdoch's fictions"?
Any author who sets out to explore Iris Murdoch and her extensive canon (twenty-three novels and counting with the January 1988 publication of The Book and the Brotherhood) faces a formidable task. To attempt an illuminating reading of Murdoch's fiction in 114 pages adds great obstacles, especially one that features a discussion of current feminist and psychoanalytic literary theories. Deborah Johnson's contribution to the Key Women Writers series, in short, sets out to capture a literary Brobdingnagian with the tiny silken threads of the Lilliputians. [End Page 292]