Review of A severed head by Iris Murdoch

A Severed HeadA Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

What ties people together when they by choice or necessity escape the security of their own habits and find comforts of domestic life insufficient? The author seems to answer this question in a row of equally unlikable characters mixing up together in an accidental way, where no emotion is strong or lasting, no relationship reliable or inconvenient and no thought independent of other people’s whims. In a new-found freedom we don’t, as expected, witness autonomous, powerful beings, but the ones suffering from despair and restlessness. None can now be overly cautious of everyone else, since this becomes the only way of orientation in a newly opened horizon where previous patterns of behaviour are gone and foreign rules take charge (of which ‘the severed head’, coming from one of her distant tribe-expeditions, is the symbol).

Seeking for humanity when attachment is not a necessity anymore, the protagonists have to find comfort in ‘I suffer, therefore I care’ mentality, yet they are suffering from nothing but vanity, jealousy and leisure. The initial crossing of borders opens them only to fleeting and disappointing experiences, but after the painful rearrangements, a little gratification can nevertheless be found.

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16 thoughts on “Review of A severed head by Iris Murdoch

  1. Most of life can be ‘a little gratification,’ but it doesn’t sound like an optimistic book.

    There has been enough sorrow in my life for my whole lifetime (and there is always more to come); so I prefer books with at least the promise of hope in them. Not ridiculous HEA endings necessarily, but something to make you feel a little better.

    I require at least one character I can identify with, if not outright like, or the exercise is too depressing. Other people are welcome to the downers, if that’s what they like to see or hear.

    Possibly the title is enough for this author to be warning her readers?

    Give me a reason to love – or at least like.

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  2. It’s not an optimistic book at all, I’m seeking for that ray of joy in books as well, so I can’t recommend you this one unfortunately. 🙂
    I hope you meant sorrow in general terms when you mentioned it. If not, I hope that all the good things catch up on you as soon as possible, it’s their turn.
    You’re right about life being but a little gratification a lot of times, but why focusing on the worst is beyond me as well. At least when the topic of the book is everyday life and not a world war.

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  3. I may be a Pollyanna, pretty much, but I always (mostly always) end on a happy note…or at least a promise of happy. I can accept the premise of a plot in which the worst has almost happened, but did not. Even if the character sorely needs to be punished for whatever infractions she is guilty of, say having the volcano suddenly reach up and grab the character and thrust her into the flaming pit. Nah…I would want the flames to turn into the soul of the evil person and burn themselves out, ending in a bright light through a driving rain. Now that’s an ending. Maybe its the eternal optimist in me.

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  4. That surely is an ending!:) I agree with you completely, hopeless endings are so rarely justified. I feel that mostly the authors are just trying to shock the readers with this easy tool. A little ambivalence makes it better right away!

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  5. Isn’t it funny how a bad review can sometimes make you want to read a book even more, just to see if you agree? I just discovered Murdoch this year so I’d be curious to read this one anyway, if only to satisfy my curiosity. The cast of characters sounds suspiciously like that of The Book and the Brotherhood- maybe this isn’t uncommon in her work? I’ll have to read more to find out.

    Very interesting, very well-written review. I’m excited to read more! Thanks for stopping by my blog. 🙂

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  6. Haha I know that feeling, especially when the plot is as catchy as this one is.. Perhaps it also helps that you’re already familiar with Murdoch and know what to expect of it.
    I have no idea how common these characters are in her other works (it’s my first one as well), but I guess one can’t get rid of that kind of misanthropy in a day, so I’m not surprised to hear they might be very similar.
    Thank you very much for returning the visit and all the kind words!:)

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