In Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head, the novel's protagonist Martin Lynch-Gibbon sustains a series of revelations which force him to become more aware of the realities of his life. This essay will examine how Murdoch infuses the novel with elements of Freudian psychology to develop Martin's movement from the unconscious to reality. Shifting Relationships
With the novel's opening and rapid progression from one event to the next, the reader quickly comes to realize that its narrator, Martin Lynch-Gibbon, is not completely aware of the realities regarding himself or the people around him. Although he considers his marriage to be "perfectly happy and successful" (p14), he nevertheless has kept a young mistress, Georgie Hands, for several years. With his wife's confession that she is having an affair with her psychoanalyst (and Martin's good friend) Palmer Anderson, Martin slowly begins to realize that his life may not be what it once had seemed; further plot twists give emphasis to this, and Antonia reveals to Martin near the novel's end that she has been deeply in love with his brother, Alexander, since before their marriage. To add to this convolution, Martin falls desperately in love with Honor Klein, who has been having an incestuous relationship with her brother Anderson. A Severed Head, then, is certainly a permeated with somewhat confusing and constantly changing relationships, but the central reality of Martin's life for much of the novel is his relationship with his wife, Antonia. His marriage, in fact, defines all of the other relationships in his life. Antonia tells Martin precisely why their marriage has failed: "It's partly my being so much older and being a sort of mother to you. I've kept you from growing up. Al...
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...tening at last out of irony. "So must you, my dear!" (p205)
With their love now out from the unconscious, Martin and Honour move toward a relationship based on reality and not the falseness that is often accepted as happiness. Conclusion
Iris Murdoch's use of elements of Freudian psychology in A Severed Head is masterful. (Indeed, there are many elements in the novel which parallel Freud's own desires: there has been some debate about Freud's childhood incestuous desires and his possible bisexuality.) In her centering of the novel around Freud's Oedipal complex and castration anxiety, and in the use of symbolic dreams, Murdoch creates a novel that is brilliant in its depiction of one character's movement from the shadows of the unconscious into the bright reality of real life.
Murdoch, Iris. A Severed Head. New York: Penguin, 1986.
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