The novels of Iris Murdoch are lively journeys across landscapes teeming with ideas. Such texts as "An Accidental Man," "The Philosopher's Pupil," "The Black Prince," and "The Sea, The Sea" blend art and philosophy in tales that have intrigued and puzzled readers like few other contemporary novels. In "Patterned Aimlessness" Barbara Stevens Heusel brings an order and a clarity to the mystery of Murdoch's narrative form. She shows how this writer of many genres came to integrate philosophy, morality, psychology, language, and aesthetics in order to call into question the conventions of the English novel.
Murdoch's major philosophical work "Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals" serves as Heusel's point of departure into the multiple layers of thought in the novelist's work of the 1970s and 1980s. Through that treatise and through her dialogues with such philosophers as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Plato, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Jacques Derrida, Heusel argues, Murdoch arrives at a narrative stance that employs "brute particulars," rather than abstractions, to convey the complex notions woven throughout her work.
Heusel emphasizes how Wittgenstein inspired Murdoch to define her own philosophical place in fiction. His suggestion that life can only be shown, not explained, enlightens Murdoch's reinvention of the formal realistic novel. Following Wittgenstein's lead Murdoch makes palpable the complexities of human experience, the "accidental, idiosyncratic happenings of life." Her fiction and her individual voice, Heusel says, reflect the chaos of existence with all of its contradictions, its paradoxes, its jarring rhythms. Heusel turns to literary theory to point out Murdoch's compatibility with Mikhail Bakhtin's views on the narrative voice in the novel. For both, morality is an utmost concern, and language is inherently a social, historical, and ideological creation: words resonate with centuries of meanings and uses. Answering some common criticisms of Murdoch's novels, Heusel also points out that Murdoch's presentation of female characters critiques societal expectations of women. The study culminates with thoughtful analyses of Murdoch's characters in "A Word Child," "The Black Prince," "The Sea, The Sea," "Nuns and Soldiers," and "The Message to the Planet" in light of the patterns she has introduced.
Like Yeats and Joyce, Iris Murdoch refuses to limit herself to the "staid realism" of the English tradition. Often elusive and always surprising, she has breathed new life into the novel form with her cacophony of voices and experiences. Heusel's work offers insight into Murdoch's most disorienting fiction, sojourns in a labyrinth of moral issues that remain unresolved.