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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Severed Head

Iris Murdoch

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To purchase A Severed Head

Title: A Severed Head
Author: Iris Murdoch
Genre: Novel
Written: 1961
Length: 248 pages
Availability: A Severed Head - US
A Severed Head - UK
A Severed Head - Canada
A Severed Head - India
Une tête coupée - France
Ein abgetrennter Kopf - Deutschland
Una testa tagliata - Italia
  • The UK edition has an Introduction by Miranda Seymour
  • A Severed Head was made into a film in 1970, directed by Dick Clement and starring Lee Remick, Richard Attenborough, Ian Holm, and Claire Bloom

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Our Assessment:

B+ : typical Murdochian tale of creepily messy relationships; finely written

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/4/1961 Walter Allen
Der Spiegel . 6/11/1963 .
Time . 19/5/1961 .
TLS . 16/6/1961 G.S.Fraser

  From the Reviews:
  • "Iris Murdoch erforscht die Impulse ihrer wieder rundum sichtbaren Figuren mit Sorgfalt, Sachverstand und nicht ohne Humor -- trotzdem steigt aus dem Gedränge der Passionen so etwas wie unfreiwillige Komik auf." - Der Spiegel

  • "Oxford Philosophy Don Iris Murdoch has written a novel about adultery so complex and involuted as to suggest an anthropologist's chart of the mating patterns of a tribe at once polygamous and polyandrous. (...) But this sophisticated shocker seems to have little point beyond the homely moral that those who think life would be simpler without moral rules are very simple indeed." - Time

  • "In the dislikableness of its characters, the complication of its plotting, and the almost too consciously dazzling surface of its wit, A Severed Head recalls Congreve's The Way of the World. (...) But this is abrilliantly enjoyable book and leaves one, even after a careful first reading, with a feeling, as all Miss Murdoch's books do, that there is a central, large, and simple meaning which one has, somehow, just missed." - G.S.Fraser, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Severed Head is narrated by wine-merchant Martin Lynch-Gibbon, and the story begins with him at age forty-one, fairly happily married to Antonia, and with a young mistress, Georgie, on the side. The arrangement suits him just fine as is, but, of course, it doesn't stay as is. In fact, it gets very, very messy, very, very fast.
       Antonia has been seeing a close friend of theirs, psychoanalyst Palmer Anderson, professionally for a while now, and as Martin says to Georgie: "She enjoys it disgracefully." He doesn't know the half of it. Soon enough Antonia tells Martin she's in love with Palmer and that she wants a divorce. Martin has a bit of trouble taking the news, but they're fairly civilized folk and talk it out. So, for example:

     "A marriage is an adventure in development," said Antonia, "and ours is simply at a standstill. I was conscious of that even before I fell in love with Anderson. It's partly my being so much older and being a sort of mother to you. I've kept you from growing up. All this has got to be faced sooner or later."
       This romantic disruption also affects Martin's relationship with Georgie: he enjoyed having her on the side, but isn't so sure he wants her as the main woman in his life. And, indeed, Martin has difficulty escaping from Antonia -- largely because instead of confronting Palmer he goes along with their wishes, and also because he lets them try to help him through it. Yes, they try to maintain their friendships, too, and behave like civilized folk; the problem is that they're not entirely civilized, especially the dubious Palmer.
       Family complicates matters. There's Martin's older brother, who always gets Martin's girls (one reason Martin seems to have been reluctant to ever introduce Georgie to him), and then there's Palmer's sister, Honor Klein, a severe and cold busybody that really gets things stirred up.
       Scornful Honor lets Martin know exactly how she feels about his weak reaction to Palmer and Antonia getting together -- and she argues:
They are both persons with a great capacity for self-deception. They have enchanted themselves into a belief in this match. But they are both crammed with misgivings. They want to be let off the final decision. They look to you for help.
       Of course, Martin is the last person to be depended on in matters of the heart, prone to head-over-heels tumbles and as flighty as anyone. Needless to say, Martin soon enough has himself convinced that Honor is the one for him ..... But, of course, it's eventually revealed that Honor has her own reasons for not wanting Palmer and Antonia to be together, too. Meanwhile, there's little Georgie, quite overwhelmed but readily swept up by ... of course, Martin's brother, Alexander -- but also not beyond a theatrical suicide attempt to get everyone to gather around her sickbed. (In this bizarro world, when Georgie is told to talk to a professional about what she did everyone seems to think it's a perfectly fine idea for Palmer to take her into his care; no surprise how that turns out .....)
       The coupling and uncoupling comes fast and furious (well, in a civilized way), Martin always a step or two behind. When he gets Antonia back he's not sure he wants her any longer -- maybe their marriage really is over ? -- but he should know by then that it's hardly up to him. "Oh, Christ" he says after yet another revelation, and one really begins to feel sorry for him -- and when Antonia tells him: "You were so splendid about Anderson. Don't spoil things now" one has to wonder why more people in this novel haven't been slugged yet.
       This is a story full of deceptions -- including quite a bit of self-deception (and no small measure of delusion, too). The surprises, too, keep coming, the bizarreness of the complications that these people bring upon themselves not entirely plausible but exerting the fascination of the runaway train headed inevitably to wreck.
       By the time Martin suggests: "'It only remains,' I said, 'for me to fall madly in love with Rosemary and then we can all go and live happily together'" it sounds only half in jest (Rosemary is his sister); it would certainly be close to par for this novel's course. As is, things come differently. But this is no romance, and it comes with nothing approaching a happy end (which would be much too simple for Murdoch). So, there, Martin wonders:
"Could we be happy ?"
She said, "This has nothing to do with happiness, nothing whatever."
       Remarkably brisk in its telling (with characters conveniently whisked away when necessary or useful), A Severed Head is a dizzying and almost absurd relationship tragi-comedy. Martin's passivity and indecisiveness in matters of the heart are irritating at first, but coupled with his confused passion -- and what those around him get up to -- his story eventually becomes quite gripping. The turns Murdoch heaps on the story, unlikely though they are, move things along as well, the one big surprise after another exerting their own fascination (though as far as the coupling and un- she presents the storyline is like a ridiculous novel of high school romances). Stylishly written, the dialogue absurdly controlled (in contrast to the unleashed passion), it's a very odd and quite unsettling novel, but also truly compelling.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 June 2010

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A Severed Head: Reviews: A Severed Head - the film: Iris Murdoch: Other books by Iris Murdoch under review: Books about Iris Murdoch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) studied at Oxford and Cambridge, and was a fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford. She published twenty-six novels and won the Booker Prize in 1978.

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