A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch Essay
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Iris Murdoch constructs the novel, considered widely to have ushered in the Sexual Revolution of the 60s and 70s in England, with a first person male character, Martin Lynch-Gibbon. Martin is an upper class wine merchant, and it is with him that the novel begins, as we are given a picture of him lying in bed with his younger lover, Georgie, a student at Oxford, in the bliss of a vigorous, sexually driven relationship alongside a stable and convenient marriage.
However, it is soon after this, when upon returning home, that his pampered wife Antonia tells him that she has been in love with his psychoanalyst and a family friend, Palmer Anderson.
They wish to continue their cordial relationship with Martin, though Antonia has decided to seek divorce and marry Palmer. Martin falls back on his relationship with Georgie Hands, though we are given a sense at this point in the story, that the vigor is no more to be found, and it is reminiscent of something like Florentino’s womanizing in an attempt to rationalize the meaning of the loss he has suffered in Marquez’ ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’.
It is Fermina’s rejection that drives him into a situation of bankruptcy, and it is here too that Martin tries to keep the different pieces together, though with a sense of loss that had made his relationship with Georgie complete. This missing part is his sense of security, his marriage of convenience, and a wife that he is otherwise indifferent to, Antonia. It is also the sense of having lost her to his friend, when he had taken for granted that fact that his ‘maleness’ in his liaison with Georgie had made him something of an artifact, a severed head to be held onto by the anthropologist; A man who would not lose his wife’s attentions.
As a wine merchant, he chooses whiskey as a preference, and as a Marquezian lover, misinterprets his own charm. What is to be understood is that Antonia can only be truly free when she has broken out of the construct in which she finds herself pampered, materially lack of want, but missing a sort of impulsive romanticizing that will give her otherwise mundane life an aesthetic appeal. She needs to be tested for her love, and this can only happen when another male is involved, preferable someone close to and trusted by Martin himself. Thus, the betrayal is complete.
Martin refuses to acknowledge the ethical impunity involved in his affairs with college girls, and the in his brazen pursuit and courting of Honor Klien. His decision to break into her house tells us again that his impulses will bring him no romantic merit, but only add to the tragicomic reality of a middle age well off man looking for sensual adventure but in a society that is already so riddled with misplaced and mismatched relationships, that each encounter will reveal a murkier reality to him. His breaking into Honor’s house finds her in bed with her half brother.
This can only mean chaos for him. In his infatuation, childlike advances steadily give him a sense of failure, and slowly, acceptance. Martin is shown in a hedonistic light, and so are the other characters at different times in the novel. The pursuit of pleasure is seen as worthwhile in itself, though whether it conforms to conventions, or places them in opposition to a strangely rebellious modernity, is where Murdoch toys with the idea of a new sexual order to replace what England had come to be known for throughout the 17th to 19th centuries.
At different times, the characters try to assert that they are independent agents, and by virtue of being so, they must naturally seek pleasure as their objective. Freud’s theories of motivation in human nature is a slight variant of this belief, and slowly we com to be acquainted with Freudian ideas, as relationships are confused, partners become parents and love finds expression in incest. Martin’s tragicomedy is reflected in several instances. For example when he moves out of their comfortable London home, move into a flat, and then moves back to their old residence.
It seems as though his attempt to deal with the changes around him find expression in behaviour that he cannot himself explain. It was later that the pain came, a pain unutterably obscure and confused like that induced by some deprivation in childhood. (Oedipus complex) The familiar world of ways and objects within which I had lived for so long received me no more; and our lovely house had put on suddenly the air of a superior antique shop. The things in it no longer cohered together.
It was odd that the pain worked first and most immediately through things, as if they had at once become the sad symbols of a loss which in its entirety I could not yet face. (p. 33) Here we get a glimpse of how childhood maturity plays a role in his relationships even as a 41 yr old adult with a fine business prospect. The deprivation that Martin claims to have a sense of, qualifies as Freud’s notion of the subjection of id, the subconscious, by the ego, conditioning.
Martin’s frantic relocation, his breaking into Honor Klien’s home, are all an instance of hysteria, as is his self absorption when he is shown lying in bed with Georgie at the beginning of the novel. Such characterization has given critics the impression that Murdoch has adapted this book for the stage. The plot is simple and it is presented straightforwardly. Ethical questions come up in different discourses, but there is the impression at the end of the book that all the characters are flawed, through together, round and flat, in a given space.
We as readers, watch them run around in different directions, emotionally, and sometimes come up against each other. To say that “the proper value is whatever gives you pleasure” is to say that “the proper value is whatever you happen to value”. Indeed, people begin to value different things at different times in the novel, and each change in heart raises moral questions. The symbol of the severed head, something that greatly fascinates Honor Klien, as a Lecturer of Anthropology, is something that Martin finds himself becoming.
A severed head such as primitive tribes and old alchemists used to use anointing it with oil and putting a morsel of gold upon its tongue to make it utter prophecies. ” He feels his adornment is something artificial that has been used to beautify a disgusting and decayed object. Toward the end of this novel two of the main characters (Honor Klein & Martin Lynch-Gibbon) are speaking after Martin discovers a secret about Honor, and she says to him “because of what I am and because of what you saw I am a terrible object of fascination for you.
I am a severed head such as primitive tribes and old alchemists used to use, anointing it with oil and putting a morsel of gold upon its tongue to make it utter prophecies. And who knows but that long acquaintance with a severed head might not lead to strange knowledge. For such knowledge one would have paid enough. But that is remote from love and remote from ordinary life. As real people we do not exist for each other. ” (182) The severed head can also be seen as a symbol of the Castration anxiety.
It would be the father who would do the severing, against the son’s anxiety to dominate, especially in illicit sexual relations with the mother. In this context, the castration anxiety transmutes into a sort of mangled turnaround situation, when in the randomness of sexual anxiety, complexes are reversed and uncoordinated. Murdoch draws a close sketch of the other, the victim of the castration, though in this sense it is not so much the protagonists attempt at keeping the terms of association in equilibrium, the careful examination of loss and damage control.
The male has been castrated, now he must survive in a world where he had thought that his emotionally charged liaisons with younger women would give him magnanimity over his nuptial vows. This is the irony which has been reversed on him, he is the fallen woman, the Lady who has stepped beyond the boundaries, and who must now experience perdition, a cleansing. Honor Klien is also an agency in the plot of the novel. It is her who discloses that liaisons between Georgie, Martin, his brother Alexander, Antonia and Palmer.
Her affecting an introduction between Georgie and Alexander is the final destabilizing factor in Martin’s life, when he is sure that he has lost Antonia and Honor is beyond his grasp, the his final relationship with Georgie is put to threat. Honor seems like the feminist crusader, in her battle to bring sexual freedom to the women around her, an attitude that can find easy significance by her position as Georgie’s teacher at Oxford.
Antonia easily fits as her aide; when Honor goes on to tell her and Palmer about Martin’s relations with Georgie that he has tried so hard to keep hidden even after he has symbolically broken away from his London high society moorings. Thus, she must act as the agent who forces upon him the task of reflection, thus reinterpreting his own history and that of the women around him. As Tagore said of each of his female characters, particularly of his protagonists, that they must go through the test of fire to be able to prove their existence in a society that demands absolute obedience from thinking women.
Murdoch, as a female writer coming up in the coffee table age when sexuality was beginning to be openly discussed in the London circles, seems to offer a similar retribution of her male first person characters, to which she has attributed the female gaze. The gaze is an important cultural symbol that is seen in Tennyson’s poem, ‘The Lady of Shallot’. The lady can see the masculine space only through a glass mirror, while the man sees the lady, only later and in her death, and passes a flippant remark on her glassy countenance. She, in fact, has become the mirror herself.
Martin similarly is an embodiment of the emotional turmoil that his class witnessed as a whole, and the failure of on man would go on to symbolize the failure of his entire class. Thus, while a crusader works on both ends of the sexuality debate, one is the pragmatic woman of the 20th century, while the other is the new man confused by changing roles and mores. Murdoch uses other recognizable symbols as well. The weather often corresponds with the moods of her characters. The dense fog over London is symbolic of his trance like inability to not bring his life back on his own terms.
His acceptance towards the end of the novel has something of a Stephen Blackpool in him; through there is no fatalism to his relationships and the nature of his life. He must struggle, though only with himself, to bring about an external transformation. A severed head is sometimes seen as a satire, or a farcical novel, where people and customs are shown in an ironic stance to give us alternating points of view. It is because of this that it is so hard to pass a judgment on any of the characters in the novel. It occupies the grey mass between what we know and whet we are afraid to find out.