Iris Murdoch

A Severed Head

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A Severed Head Summary

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A Severed Head is the 1961 satirical, farcical novel written by British author and philosopher Iris Murdoch. Set in and around London during an unspecified time frame, the story follows Martin Lynch-Gibbon, an affluent wine merchant who grapples with the morality of having a beautiful wife, Antonia, and a striking mistress, Georgie. But when Martin learns that Antonia is planning to leave him for her psychoanalyst, Palmer Anderson, he begins to rethink his entire outlook on love and behave scrupulously. However, as Martin comes into contact with Honor Klein, another woman whose charm he cannot resist, an unrequited love affair occurs that changes the lives of all involved. Thematically, the novel touches on marriage, fidelity, adultery, incest, and the sexual liberation among educated upper-class Brits. A Severed Head has been called “beautifully and wittily written” by The New York Times. The novel was adapted as a successful stage production in 1963. In 1971, a film version of the novel was directed by Dick Clement, starring Ian Holm as Martin and Lee Remick as Antonia.

Narrated in the first-person perspective by 41-year-old protagonist Martin Lynch-Gibbon, the story begins in London. Martin is a well-off wine merchant married to Antonia, an older woman. Martin and Antonia do not have children, and appear to have a marriage of convenience rather than a truly amorous relationship. Martin is also having an affair with an educated mistress in her twenties named Georgie Hands. Martin does give a single thought to the immorality of having both a wife and a mistress. One day, Antonia tells Martin that she has been engaging in an affair with Palmer Anderson, her psychoanalyst and a mutual friend of the pair. Stunned, Martin becomes even more upset when Antonia tells him she wishes to divorce him so that she can wed Anderson. Martin moves out of their London flat in Hereford Square. First, Martin visits his older brother, Alexander, outside of Oxford. During his stay, Martin learns that Antonia has already informed Alexander of the divorce. Martin is devastated. Upon his return to Hereford Square, Martin is met by Antonia, who patronizes Martin and treats him like a child. As Antonia arranges a place for Martin to stay, they get into an argument. Martin departs for the train station to pick up Honor Klein, Palmer’s half-sister (and an anthropology professor) in town from Cambridge.

Martin is reluctant to publicly confess his affair with Georgie, much less become her fiancé. After a few days, Martin visits Georgie. Georgie wishes to publicly announce their affair, but Martin rejects the idea due to his belief it will crush Antonia. Still, Martin and Georgie travel together to Hereford Square in order for Georgie to view the house. As Martin gives Georgie a tour of the house, they hear the sound of someone approaching. Martin believes it is Antonia who has arrived. As a result, Martin hurries Georgie out of the backdoor so not be seen, although Georgie desperately wants to meet Antonia and tell her the truth. However, the surprise visitor is Honor Klein. Honor spots Georgie’s handbag, which she hastily forgot when rushing out of the house. Afterwards, Martin attempts to reach Georgie but fails and returns to the house in Hereford Square. While there, Martin discovers that Antonia and Palmer already know about his affair with Georgie. Martin locates Georgie and discovers that Honor Klein is the one who told Antonia and Palmer of their secret affair. Later, Georgie and Antonia meet and share an uncomfortable time together.

Before long, Martin and Antonia share breakfast. When they decide Martin ought to take a brief vacation, he asks Georgie to accompany him. However, Martin discovers that his brother, Alexander, is keeping Georgie’s company. Enraged, Martin becomes even more upset when he learns Honor Klein is the one who introduced Alexander and Georgie. Martin gets drunk and returns to Hereford Square, where he gets into a fight with Honor. Distraught, Martin spends the next two days writing apology letters and waiting for a response. Martin’s sister, Rosemary, helps him divide household belongings. When Martin tries to locate Antonia and Honor, he learns that the former has gone away and the latter has returned to Cambridge. With her absence, Martin suddenly realizes that he is head over heels in love with Honor and decides to follow her to Cambridge. Martin sneaks into Honor’s flat one night, only to discover her having sex with Palmer, her half-brother. Martin does not relay the incestuous occurrence to Antonia, but Palmer believes he has. As a result, Palmer begins acting oddly around Antonia.

Antonia comes to the conclusion that she should be with Martin, forcing Martin to end his affair with Georgie. After a few days, Alexander arrives and announces to Martin that he’s become engaged to marry Georgie. This makes Martin extremely jealous, reigniting his passionate feelings for Georgie. Martin angrily confronts Palmer, who explains that he and Honor are planning to leave the country on travel. Afterwards, Martin receives a parcel from Georgie containing locks of hair. Martin finds Georgie unconscious following a suicide attempt. As he awaits an ambulance, Martin is joined by Honor. Everyone gathers at the hospital to console Georgie. Afterwards, Martin professes his love for Honor. Honor explains that she knows Martin loves her, but that it doesn’t matter because she is leaving anyway. Not long after, Antonia confesses to Martin that she has also been having an affair with Alexander since the day Martin introduced the two. Antonia also declares that she and Alexander are willing to wed. In the end of the novel, Palmer and Georgie venture off together, Alexander and Antonia remain together, and Honor remains with Martin in England.

A Severed Head is Murdoch’s fifth novel. Her most well known titles include Under the Net, The Bell, The Red and the Green, The Nice and the Good, The Black Prince, Henry and Cato, The Sea, The Philosopher’s Pupil, The Good Apprentice, The Book and the Brotherhood, and The Green Knight.