(réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 5. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1994)


The Visual Arts in the Novels of Iris Murdoch: with reference to
The Bell and The Nice and the Good

Maria K. Greenwood (Université Paris 7)

Iris Murdoch's whole vast oeuvre – still growing (1) – can be thought of as an on-going metaphor, a life-scale mise en abyme. She has never stopped meditating, on creativity, on what it means to be a true artist or to recognise true art, as well as, inevitably for a philosopher, on what it means to be human. But while recently she has tended to focus on exploring the makings of the saint rather than the makings of the artist (2), Iris Murdoch started by foregrounding art artists in her work. Her early novels set up comparisons between the two kinds of artistic activity: that of a writer and that of the visual artist, especially the painter (3). In the early novels she seems to meditate on the sort of writing she herself will develop) as her chosen career – that of the philosopher or that of the novelist, logic-centred, or image-centred. Evidently she chose the second, but the distinction between the two types of language, logical or artistic, profoundly nourished her thinking about creativity.

From her first novel, the characters of writer and visual artist measure their rival claims to true creativity, i.e. to originality and to effectiveness. In Under the Net (1954), the hero is a writer (at first a translator and ultimately a writer of philosophy, but hardly more than a copier of others' ideas, a scribe). But the hero's hero is a true artist (first producing fireworks, later films, and throughout and most importantly, original ideas). In The Sandcastle (1957), the heroine is a portrait painter who, if she has not yet outstripped her famous dead painter father is visibly more creative, as well as successful, than her schoolteacher lover. In other novels the spark of creativity is examined in less talented more


1. Iris Murdoch's latest novel is: Green Knight, London: Chatto & Windus, The Hogarth Press, 1993.
2. CONRADI P., Iris Murdoch: The Artist and the Saint, London: Macmillan, 1989 (1986).
3. The appeal of painting persisted for Iris Murdoch as a hobby. Conradi, op.cit., note 13, ch. 2., p.300.



average persons in their contact with art: main or secondary characters are art students, art historians or art lovers, and works of art abound. In two cases, in The Bell (1958) and in The Nice and the Good (1968) (4), art itself becomes more important than any character connected with it. In these novels, works of art created in the past are re-created in the present not by an artist but by a viewer. It is this study that Iris Murdoch makes of the effects of art on average individuals which I would like to examine in this paper.

When taken out of context, what can be called the work of art episodes in the two novels are so similar that at first one might challenge Iris Murdoch for plagiarising herself. In both cases, young women who are not getting. on with their husbands, Dora in The Bell, Paula in The Nice and the Good, go to the National Gallery in London to look at a favourite painting. In both cases the painting, boosts the viewer's morale to such an extent that she is able to face her difficulties with renewed spirit and even, as regards problems with men, eventually solve them. Yet this account is of course unfair, for in the context of each novel, the work of art episode is integrated so successfully into the story that it finally works as a controlling, metaphor. In this way The Bell as a whole is irradiated by the qualities of the painting which Dora admires / adores in the National Gallery: Gainsborough's unfinished Portrait of his two daughters chasing a butterfly. In a similar, but finally very distinct way, Paula's contact with the Bronzino allegory of Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time becomes emblematic of the entire novel, unifying its multifarious ramifications and the pullulating characters by providing a single thematic base (5).

We will begin with The Bell. Dora Greenfield, former art student and unfaithful wife of art-historian Paul, comes back to her husband at his place of research, a medieval abbey in the grounds of an 18th century English country house, only to find herself extremely ill-at-ease with the lay, religious, High Church Anglican community installed there. Oppressed by the intimated moral reprobation of her godly companions, Dora runs away, back to London and her former lover, a free and easy journalist called Noel. But even Noel proves oppressive by his aggressive atheism. So Dora runs away from him as well, and on a sudden impulse makes for the National Gallery. It is here that she has what she later describes as a mystical experiencew (6).

Dora's entry into the museum is described in terms which suggest escape into an almost pastoral retreat. The paintings are so familiar that "passing between them now, as


4. All references are to the hardcover editions: Iris Murdoch, The Bell, London: Chatto & Windus, 1958, and The Nice and the Good, London: Chatto & Windus, 1968.
5. See the re-drawing of the Bronzino painting by John Ward on the dust-jacket of the early hardcover editions of The Nice and the Good.
6. The Bell, p. 302.


through a well-loved grove, she felt a calm descending on her." Her special relationship to these particular works is made clear. Dora knows the paintings in the National Gallery intimately, personally. She may not have learnt to be very creative at her art school (7), but she has at least learnt to be appreciative. She Genuinely loves paintings, and she loves most the paintings that seem to speak to her, before which her own idiosyncratic reaction sets off a real inner experience. Dora looks at the paintings not as her art-historian husband might do, to label, categorise, arrange in a social hierarchy of deference, but with a cheerful ordinary instinct for recognising what she likes. She feels her advantage over the other tourists who have to peer at the paintings and borrow from guide-books other people's ideas in order to know what to think. Dora is pleasingly suffused with a sense of proprietorship and feels the paintings belong to her because she can recreate their message for herself.

So Dora confidently passes by the universally acknowledged masterpieces, Botticelli, Rubens, Rembrandt, Piero della Francesca, Crivelli, to stop at last at the painting, which she likes the most: "Gainsborough's picture of his two daughters". If the reader knows this painting he or she can immediately reflect on how skilfully the novelist has characterised her heroine by her choice. By having been told at the beginning of the passage that "the pictures were almost as familiar to her as her own face" we can think of the ways that the painting reflects back to the viewer an image of herself, consider what elements she shares with it and how it mirrors her, physically or morally. Dora is very English, very simple and very young, and despite shadows of confusion and trouble, very hopeful. So is the painting. The suitability of having Dora like it is only corroborated by any further knowledge we may have about its real history; that Gainsborough was young when he painted it, a young father starting out on a career as a portraitist, using his daughters to practice on and producing, almost by the way, a series of unfinished masterpieces (8). Yet Dora's choice is credible not only because she shares youth and Englishness with the artist, but because she has even more in common with his models, his daughters and what they are doing in the painting. They are girls, like herself, who are running, like herself, chasing something pleasing, like herself. The background is shadowy, mysterious, natural and free; so is Dora's inner life. The butterfly, the natural marvel, is erratic, elusive, ephemeral: so are Dora's moments of happiness. The slight anxiety on the girls' faces generated by the chase mirrors Dora's own more desperate pursuit of certainties.


7. Britain's most traditional school of art, the Slade, The Bell, p. 7.
8. "Gainsborough's daughters holding a cat" (the cat unfinished) and "Gainsborough's daughters adorning each other's hair". See author's thesis: Les enfants dans la peiniture britannique du XVI°' au XVIII° siècles, thèse présentée devant I'Université Paris VII, 1er trimestre 1986.



To perceive these correspondences between Dora and the painting, between this viewer and this work of art, the reader of the novel needs to remember the portrait clearly and think and analyse its visual components for him/herself, since the author's description does not quite do this. Ms Murdoch's textual description reads: "These children step through a wood hand in hand, their garments shimmering, their eyes serious and dark, their two pale heads, round full buds, like yet unlike." Now while these words evoke the original painting for the inner eye clearly enough, on a textual, purely literary level, the precise formulation used sets up its own poetic overtones and conveys a new interpretation of the painting. The reader is thus invited to pay attention to different elements in the painting from those previously considered. Not the painting itself, but this specific description of it must now be analysed.

The textual description of the painting favours elements that give it more weight and solemnity than those we noticed as corresponding to the viewer-character, Dora. First of all our impression of impetuous movement in the painting is checked. The text informs us that the youthful figures do not "run" but much more staidly "step" through the natural setting. The text names Gainsborough's daughters as "children" not "girls," who move "through a wood" and not "run after a butterfly." There is no mention of the butterfly or of the fact that the little girls are chasing it in play. The text's "children" are "hand in hand" and not "holding hands" or "Pulling each other along." The emphasis falls on the children's dignity and seriousness rather than on their spontaneity or sparkle, and we are made to notice that their "garments are shimmering and not that their "skirts are flying." Mention is made of their eyes, their heads, the family resemblance between them, but nothing is said of their outstretched hands, their nimble feet or their lightness of movement.

Now if this description of the painting creates a distinctly different vision of it from the one that the viewer Dora, as well as the reader, could have remembered and loved in the past, we can understand that the author describes what must, for her character, be an unprecedented, a truly new experience. If Dora was attracted to the painting because she could see herself in it, she can now see herself in it in a new way. Her previous impression may have chiefly admired the spontaneity of the young girls, and through them her own. Her current impression is a revelation of unsuspected capacities for dignity and power. When instead of "girls" or "daughters" the models are designated by the word "children" Dora can see that the immaturity she can be thought to share has been divested of frailty, frivolity, femininity and opprobrium. Children are not an exclusive, or absolute category with in-built pejorative connotations. Children are not necessarily inferior – they are simply younger. And children who in the words of the text: "step through a wood hand in hand" act deliberately rather than giddily: they are autonomous, strongly bonded together, bound to win despite dangers like children in a folk-tale. Dora need no longer consider her


immaturity as a failing, but as a strength, and think of herself as a child with pride. The children with their "shimmering garments" shine like the bringers of hope to a dark world; they have "pale, round heads" like some sort of priests, their eyes are "serious and dark" as with profound and hallowed purposes.

As the character Dora receives a newly admirable self-image from the fresh interpretation of the painting before her, the reader receives from the author an intimation of how the action of the novel will develop and how it should be interpreted. Henceforth the two young people in the story, Dora the girlish young wife and Tom Gashe, the virginal adolescent boy, can be thought of as the real-life representatives of those serious children imaged forth in the textual description of the painting by Gainsborough. They are to be seen precisely in this way when they undertake together the only really purposeful action in the story: the attempt to restore to its rightful place the drowned medieval Chapel bell. On a conscious and superficial level this undertaking is merely a piece of childish showing off, Torn calls it silly and Dora a way of playing the witch. But the description of the Gainsborough painting, lingering in Dora's unconscious but the reader's conscious memory, gives to their undertaking the glow of a sacred mission. We are reminded by the authorial insistence on the children's "eyes, serious and dark" that the vision of these children, of all children perhaps, is fundamentally deep and responsible, the opposite of the misguided and frivolous that it superficially appears. The final words of her description, "round, full buds, like, yet unlike" come to haunt us as a leitmotif, both as regards the two young people and even all the other characters.

Readers are thus invited to ponder the specific "good" that the painting does to Dora, at the same time as pondering the specific "good" that reading the novel is doing to them. Questioning the real nature of the spiritual favour that Dora thinks she has received, leads us to question the spiritual favours that we ourselves obtain from works of art in general, and this novel and this painting in particular. Dora has been so deeply moved by "the radiant, sombre, tender, powerful canvas of Gainsborough" that she feels an impulse to fall on her knees. We are invited not quite to copy her physical gesture but to compare the strength of our own inner reactions with that of the character and to attend to the contrast made by her experiences between the dryness generated by the rituals of fading faith and the spiritual gifts gained by communion with great art.

We enter a very different, less rarefied, more worldly atmosphere when, ten years later, Iris Murdoch returns to the same motif of the work of art and its viewers in The Nice and the Good. The heroine of the two episodes (ch. 17 and ch. 38) is Paula Biranne, who unlike her predecessor, Dora, is not an artist, but who has an informed knowledge of art. Paula is an intellectual with moral principles, highly educated, a classics teacher, a mother.


But like Dora she is going through a difficult period of uprootedness, living with friends in a spacious country house in the West Country near the sea. Divorced by her philandering husband Richard for a unique infidelity, she broods on the threatened return of a former lover. On one of her book-buying trips to London, she decides on a cultural treat by a visit to the National Gallery.

When Paula "stops dead in front of Bronzino's picture of Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time," her motives are explained. It is because of Richard, her husband, who first taught her to like, even simply to see the sophisticated allegory of the 16th-century Florentine painter. The painting reminds her of her husband or rather of what he used to say about it his admiring qualification of it as "a real piece of pornography." Paula, (like Dora in The Bell) has a sudden illumination about herself. She realises that it was this painting, initially alien to her, which revealed to her both Richard and erotic love. The man, whom she expected to dislike as "deviously lecherous" was as surprising a discovery as the painting. And when he finally persuaded the "cool, chaste Paula" to marry him she was initiated into the extremes of erotic bliss.

She reacts to the picture now in a cool, chaste, intellectual manner, "reading" it (in the words of the author's description) without wholly ceasing to brood yet clear-sightedly and rationally, her feelings under control. The alluring forms of Venus and Cupid are thus described in a formal way, with slightly ironic repetition: "A slim, elongated naked Venus turns languidly toward a slim elongated naked Cupid. Cupid stoops against her, his long-fingered left hand supporting her head, his long-fingered right hand curled about her left breast." The perfect poise of the vocabulary used and the cadence chosen precludes erotic involvement. We remark the ambiguity of the depicted kiss, happening or perhaps about to happen, the uncertainty of the moment, "dreamy suspended passion" but as if from a distance. When the idea of "sexual union" is remotely evoked it is by the word "descent" with its strong moral connotations, followed immediately by mention of the two major allegorical figures of Folly and Time (the excited child on the right and the glaring old man above him) who clearly oppose the two mythological characters of Venus and Cupid. Paula's reading seems to be ending in a correct but rather distant and discouraging decoding of the allegory, a classic denunciation of love as foolish and fleeting.

Yet Paula's elegantly discreet interpretation is made over the top of churning memories of erotic experience, so that we can suspect her coolness to be only an admissible cover for more fiery impulses. Again, as with Dora and the Gainsborough, the reader already familiar with the Bronzino canvas cannot fail to compare his personal reaction to the painting to the interpretation being made of it in the text. Yet since the complicated painting evokes complicated reactions, the reader cannot applaud the author's stylistic decision to keep the


description clear of verbal eroticism. Here no spade is called a spade, or nipples "nipples." However much the latter stare us in the face by blatant foregrounding in the painting, their verbal disappearance into the term "breast" in the description is something of a relief. Whatever our own reactions when we first saw this picture, "lecherous" like Richard's or "alienated" like Paula's initially, we can appreciate the freedom given us to make up our own minds about the painting's pronounced ambivalence and precise degree of eroticism.

In the end, it is not the dourly moralising, publicly admissible message of the painting that Paula finds she has taken to heart, but the subversively sensual and private one that she has learnt with her husband. The description ends with the remembered voice of Richard asking Paula about the painting, appealing to her for reconciliation. She remembers how she refused him and the painting together. Yet now the painting seems to have worked on Paula at an unconscious level in her husband's favour. She must at some unsuspected point have suddenly seen it in his way as attractively sexy. She is unaccountably drawn to go and have a look at Richard's house, and finds, when there, that she has copied what she saw: she has. put her hand over her left breast in the manner of Cupid in the painting. Compared to the effect of the Gainsborough on Dora, the effect of the Bronzino on Paula is less on her spirit than on her body, her senses. When, a little later she sees an attractive woman entering Richard's house, she is astonished at her pang of jealousy.

Paula's viewing of the Bronzino is not yet complete. It must be repeated in this novel where everything is doubled and two-fold. So the first visit to the National Gallery (ch. 17) is followed by a secod (ch. 38, the last but one), to a rendezvous arranged by Richard. This time Paula looks at the painting more profoundly, recalling, not so much past personal emotions as knowledge gleaned from study. The description is therefore starker, more informative, less poetic than before. Truth (top left) and Jealousy (just below) are pointed out, as is the extraordinary central background figure of Deceit with her mixed up hands and scaly tail. Still silent about physical detail, this second description of the Bronzino uses harder-hitting terms. The touching lips are now unambiguously "the ecstatic kiss that Cupid is giving his Mother" ; Folly is now called Pleasure – both names are used by art historians (9) –; the painting's bold undercutting of its allegorical message by unabashed eroticism is more clearly brought out. As the author puts it "Truth stares, Time moves. But the butterfly kissing goes on ... (10)" intimating that far from convincing us of its folly or fleetingness it is love's supremacy that Bronzino effectively proclaims.


9. See PANOWSKY E., Studies in lconology, London, 1972, for the accepted academic title, "Folly"; the popularising publication National Gallery, London, New York: Newsweek / Mondadore, 1969, p. 58, p. 59, for the second tide, "Pleasure."
10. The Nice and the Good, p. 333.



Predictably, love triumphs in the novel as a whole. The ending is highly comic, with not just Paula and Richard reconciled by mutual desire and a realistic compromise, but even the most puritanical characters like Mary Clothier and John Ducane waxing lyrical over imminent sex. Some reviewers, as Peter Conradi tells us," found the happy ending "soppy," apparently impervious to the author's parodic gloss. For the novel, like the painting turns gleefully, wittily around its own high finish by focusing on a central metaphor of nakedness and clothes, teasing us about which is nice, which is good, and when. From both painting and novel we are mockingly confronted with lessons of worldly wisdom about reality and appearances. Naked bodies or naked desires must be recognised for what they are, though not necessarily nakedly, and the value of clothes and covers must be acknowledged, though not necessarily slavishly. We are warned against Deceit but shown that she is more fascinating and ubiquitous than Truth. But we are not worried unduly, for as Kate Gray, the central character of the book puts it, we all love to have our cake and eat it, and ambivalence is so much more accommodating than intransigence in moral matters. The comic tone sets up a protective veneer between text and reader as between work of art and viewer, a thick layer of obvious artifice that mockingly prevents us from getting disturbingly involved. Yet when looked at closely not one of the characters in novel or painting arouses unambiguous sympathy or admiration. In some profoundly moral way they are all faintly sinister, all making compromises that are almost indefinably corrupt. Using a machiavellian irony, Iris Murdoch persuades us that, contrary to the secretly idealistic Dora in The Bell it is our secretly unidealistic hedonism and selfishness that we should recognise and live with, following the clear-sighted Paula of The Nice and the Good.

Iris Murdoch's variations on the theme of art and its audience turn out on examination to be more "unlike" than "like," as do the characters, the novels and the paintings in question. By repeating herself creatively she makes us see that the twin languages of words and images can successfully withstand Wittgenstein's condemnation of both by assimilation, his despairing renunciation of all philosophical activity by his conclusion that words, being, only images, could never convey precise meanings (12). Iris Murdoch agrees with Wittgenstein in his distrust of language, one might even say copies his ideas but gives them her own original twist in order to function credibly. Words and images must be kept apart by the use of analytical logic, but made to work together and be seen to be working together in the syntheses of art. In this way our perceptions, thoughts and experiences can be meditated on in two distinct ways, verbally and visually: checking


11. CONRADI, op. cit., p. 156.
12. The conclusions of the Austrian-born philosopher, one time disciple of Bertrand Russell, at the end of his Tractatus Philosophicus, London, 1922.


each other out and complementing each other so as to reveal certainties in common and truths which are distinct. The technological age itself will not destroy humanity – a distinct possibility according to Iris Murdoch (13) – as long as we continue to think, to look, to read and even to copy, freshly, originally, creatively.


13. RAMANATHAN S., Iris Murdoch: Figures of Good, London: Macmillan, 1990, pp. 217-219.

 (réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 5. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1994)