Iris Murdoch

A Fairly Honourable Defeat

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A Fairly Honourable Defeat Summary

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Irish author and philosopher Iris Murdoch’s thirteenth novel, A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970) tells the story of a man who makes a cruel bet that he can dissolve a relationship between two of his friends. According to The New York Times, “The farcical interludes and the intricacy of the philosophical theme make this one of the most enjoyable and interesting of Iris Murdoch’s recent books.”

Julius King is an academic biochemist who relishes his own talents for manipulation. For little apparent reason beyond sheer cruelty, Julius makes a bet with Morgan Browne that he can dissolve the loving gay marriage between Axel Nilsson and Simon Foster. In the past, Morgan and Julius dated, though she rejected him for her currently estranged husband, Tallis Browne. Other characters who become wrapped up in Julius’s scheme include Hilda Foster, Morgan’s sister. Hilda’s husband, Rupert Foster, a former colleague of Julius, is currently working on a book of moral philosophy. Rupert is also Simon’s brother. Finally, there’s Peter Foster, Rupert and Hilda’s son who is infatuated with Morgan, his aunt.

While Axel and Simon love one another deeply, there are fissures in their relationship that Julius seeks to expose. Axel is very conservative emotionally, disdaining public displays of gay affection. He is nearly closeted, sharing his sexual identity only with those closest to him. He rebukes performative acts of queerness as “tribal habits” and is mortified by Simon’s younger days when he would cruise train station bathrooms. Simon, however, still recalls his youthful indiscretions with fondness and without shame. While happy in a life of domesticity with Axel, Simon looks approvingly on gay bars and clubs, a scene Axel rejects as “that goddamn secret organization.”

Julius also attacks their relationship by seeking to dissolve the marriage of Hilda and Rupert, a coupling that on the surface, at least, seems to exist as a model of love and monogamy. If their marriage can fail, the logic follows, then anyone’s can. A moral philosopher, Rupert thinks of himself—and is thought of by others—as a man of impeccable virtue who would never succumb to infidelity. The book goes to great lengths to probe Rupert’s idea of goodness. An atheist, Rupert believes that morality is rooted in Platonic ideas of love and goodness rather than God. The philosophical argument Murdoch puts forth in the book seems to suggest that while morality need not stem from a belief in an actual heavenly deity or an active adherence to theology, goodness must be rooted in some idea of the metaphysical, a notion Rupert rejects.

Nevertheless, Rupert will require some nudging to betray his purported virtue. One day when Hilda and Rupert are away, Julius sneaks into their house and uncovers a series of old love letters written by Rupert to Hilda. He steals them, changes a few words here and there, and sends them to Morgan. He also maneuvers Hilda into discovering the existence of the letters, which are even more gut-wrenching to her because they so resemble the content of Rupert’s letters to her. His marriage to Hilda now doomed, Rupert engages in an affair with Morgan for real this time. In this way, his sense of virtue and morality is revealed to be largely situational as he resigns himself to the false reality Julius built rather than work to preserve his marriage to Hilda.

While Murdoch never elaborates on a motive for Julius’s treachery beyond cruelty, she expands on the book’s moral argument late in the story when she reveals Julius is a Holocaust survivor who had been imprisoned at the Nazi concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen. Evil, Murdoch suggests, is a cycle that involves one victim passing suffering off to another in an effort to relieve his own pain. Julius’s past suffering is so immense that not only does he seek to destroy the relationships of all his friends, he also is found to be involved in a government project to turn anthrax into a bioweapon. For him, evil is not just inevitable but preferable to goodness. The philosophical counterpoint to Julius is Morgan’s estranged husband, Tallis. Tallis, suffering personal and professional ruin, sits all day in an insect-ridden kitchen wallowing in his own pain. What he doesn’t do, however, is allow himself to participate in Julius’s sick games of manipulation. He has no intention of passing his suffering onto others; it is only here that the cycle of evil is somewhat abated.

In the end, only Simon and Axel’s relationship survives Julius’s machinations, but plenty of other lives are left in shambles.