Iris Murdoch

Bruno’s Dream

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Bruno’s Dream Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Bruno’s Dream by Iris Murdoch.

At the center of Iris Murdoch’s novel, Bruno’s Dream (1969), is an elderly man dying of a disfiguring disease. Bedridden in a South London house near the Thames river, Bruno Greensleave maintains a daily routine of reading, drinking champagne, indulging his obsession with spiders, and studying his stamp collection. He also spends a great deal of time reviewing his long life and regretting his broken relationships. As Bruno grapples with his past, the rain falls, the river rises, and his estranged son returns, setting in motion a series of events that will reveal to Bruno the real meaning of his life.

Self-centered and greedy, Bruno has devoted most of his life to enriching himself at the expense of others. When he was a boy, he developed an enduring fascination with spiders and dreamed of becoming a scientist. His domineering father impressed upon him the importance of making money, however, and maneuvered him into the printing business. Bruno recalls that “only through business, only through money, had he ever really communicated with his father.” After Bruno’s marriage, he and his wife, Janie, enjoyed socializing in affluent circles and had two children, Miles and Gwen. Their life abounded with frivolous amusements, until Janie discovered Bruno was having an affair. After that, a dark cloud of hostility chilled their relationship. Bruno is still haunted by the cries of Janie, who, forty years ago, called for him from her deathbed, moments before succumbing to cancer. He refused to see her, convinced she only wished to hurl recriminations at him again.

Now Bruno is on his deathbed in a dark, spider-filled room in the home of his son-in-law, Danby Odell. Having lost his wife, Gwen, in a drowning accident, Danby halfheartedly indulges in a dalliance with his housemaid, Adelaide Decrecy. Adelaide has fled an abusive relationship with her cousin, Will Boase, but she continues to exchange letters with him, and Will’s twin brother, Nigel, also works in Danby’s house as Bruno’s nurse. Long-haired, barefooted, and with a penchant for mischief and mysticism, Nigel dabbles in Indian spirituality and promotes a Shiva-like understanding of creation and destruction as ever-emerging from each other. He shows deep compassion for Bruno, who admits that only with Nigel is he moved to talk about God, although Nigel’s pronouncements are often paradoxical and puzzling.

As he nears the end of his life, Bruno resolves to make amends with his son, Miles, a frustrated poet also living in London. The two have been estranged since Bruno, upon learning Miles intended to marry an Indian woman, declared he did not want “coffee-colored grandchildren.” That was a decade ago. During the intervening years, Parvati, Miles’s wife, died in a plane crash, leaving Miles to channel his grief into the composition of a poem he titled “Parvati and Shiva.” He then lost his ability to write. His second marriage to a beautiful woman named Diana is more form than substance, as Miles still mourns Parvati, and Diana merely role-plays as his wife. When Danby arrives at Miles’s home to relay Bruno’s wish to see his son, he is captivated by Lisa Watkins, Diana’s sister who resides in the household.

Miles reluctantly heeds Bruno’s call but is repulsed by his father’s degeneration into “a huge bulbous animal head attached to a body shrunken into a dry stick.” After Bruno dismisses his marital infidelity as inconsequential and accuses Miles of misunderstanding his remarks about Parvati, Miles departs, no less resentful than when he arrived. Lisa then visits Bruno, serving as a goodwill ambassador between the two households. Once a nun, Lisa is habitually selfless, although she acknowledges the difficulty of seeing beyond one’s own, limited perspective. Bruno, who perceives his life as a confusing dream, tells Lisa he has mixed emotions about his past, and she replies, “One doesn’t necessarily feel anything clear […] about the past. One is such a jumbled thing oneself.”

Danby’s undisguised ardor for Lisa precipitates Miles’s sudden revelation that he, too, loves her. Detecting her husband’s newfound attraction to her sister, Diana sinks into despair. She contemplates suicide and pockets Bruno’s pills, unaware Nigel is watching. After he confronts her, she shares her misery over losing Miles to Lisa, and Nigel advises her to “let them walk on you.”

Ever ready to create upheaval, Nigel also hastens the demise of Danby and Adelaide’s relationship. He witnesses Adelaide stealing a valuable stamp from Bruno’s collection, a crime she commits for Will’s benefit. Nigel reports her transgression to Danby and also informs Will, his brother, about the affair between Adelaide and Danby. Owing to Nigel’s machinations, Danby and Will stage a duel on the banks of the Thames, but before it turns deadly, Danby jumps into the river and swims away.

Miles professes his love to Lisa, who, it turns out, reciprocates his feelings. Guided by her selfless nature, however, Lisa tells Miles they must renounce their mutual love for the sake of his marriage to Diana. She claims she will go to India to work for a charity organization but instead goes to Danby, whom she marries. Following Lisa’s departure, Miles discovers his muse has returned, and he writes poetry again.

Meanwhile, a steady rainfall has swollen the Thames, which finally crests, surging through Danby’s house. Bruno crawls to the stairs to rescue his box of stamps but falls, and the priceless collection washes away. Stripped of his material possessions, it dawns on Bruno that love, not money, is life’s greatest treasure. Certain that Janie understood this, too, in her final moments, Bruno realizes she called for him not “to curse him,” but “to forgive him.”

Because Lisa is preoccupied with married life, and Miles, with poetry-writing, Diana assumes the responsibility of tending to Bruno during his final days. She holds his hand, watching his life fade, and becomes deeply aware of how temporary one’s ‘self’ is. Relaxing her attachment to her own transient self and receding into selflessness, Diana “let love like a huge vault open out overhead…She lived the reality of death and felt herself made nothing by it.” As for Nigel, he picks up where Lisa left off and goes to India to join Save the Children. Adelaide marries Will, who, the narrator discloses, will eventually fulfill his dream of becoming a famous actor.

Bruno’s Dream was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1970, and in 1997, Murdoch received the Golden Pen Award for her lifetime literary achievements.