The Girder and the Trellis


Iris Murdoch is one of the few British philosophers who is accepted as both a novelist and philosopher by academia. In contrast, Ayn Rand is a widely read and admired American philosopher who is entirely out of favor with the academic community. She, too, writes both novels and philosophical essays.

Ms. Collins' article contrasts the difference between these two individuals—as well as the reasons for the different manner in which they are received by both the intellectual community and the public.

Ayn Rand and Iris Murdoch are noted contemporary philosophical novelists. In addition to their fiction, both have published books and essays challenging other philosophical systems. In an age fiercely sensitive to the issue, both have dealt in their novels with the theme of freedom versus slavery. Yet the novels of Iris Murdoch, exclusively, are analyzed in at least three books[1] and considered among others in several more. Ayn Rand, however, is the subject of no book of literary criticism written outside the Objectivist camp.[2] That is to say, Iris Murdoch is considered by Great Britain's critical community as an important part of the current literary scene, whereas Ayn Rand, in the United States, is criticized at length solely as a philosopher and, despite a constant readership and influence in academic circles, is studiously ignored by literary critics.

It would be precipitous to explain this contrast solely in terms of differences in the two authors' philosophies, although that is undoubtedly a factor. I suggest that it would be more significant to examine their respective theories of art, determine the degree to which those theories translate into their fiction, and discover if either theory has something to offer the other without destroying internal validities on either side. With that foundation it should be possible to offer a more comprehensive explanation of the disparity in their status, and to speculate upon its consequences.


The primary difficulty in comparing Iris Murdoch to any other novelist is in isolating Murdoch herself. She writes, "Art is not an expression of personality, it is a question rather of the continued expelling of oneself from the matter in hand."[3] Such a philosophy put into practice, as she unfailingly does, makes her well-nigh invisible in her fiction and camouflaged even in her essays. For her, the novel must be "a house fit for free characters to live in,"[4] its highest aim to reveal "that other people exist,"[5] its creator's essential quality one of tolerance in the presence of "persons other than the author [who have] a right to exist and to have a separate mode of being which is important and interesting to themselves."[6] Her contention is specifically with Romanticism, which she defines as an art form "where the struggle between persons is really a struggle within the mind of a single character. In such works we feel the ruthless subjection of the characters to the will of their author."[7] She criticizes as "far too shallow and flimsy" the Romantic conception of human personality, of "the individual as a free rational will"[8] and "capable of self-knowledge by methods agreeable to science and common sense."[9] She sees people as "benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy"[10] and looks to literature to "arm us against consolation and fantasy and…help us to recover from the ailments of Romanticism" by leading us to "re-discover a sense of the density of our lives."[11]

Ayn Rand, in THE ROMANTIC MANIFESTO, offers her own definition of Romanticism as a movement "based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of volition."[12] It is precisely the vision of man which Murdoch denounces as "flimsy" that Rand proposes as the essence of the individual. Elsewhere Rand declares that the purpose of her writing is "the projection of an ideal man,"[13] and it is obvious from Rand's work that she considers her ideal man physiologically and psychologically possible: he is not a dream but a blueprint.[14] Rand sums up Romanticism as "a crusade to glorify man's existence,"[15] and she is willing to strip him of his "density" in order to portray what she considers his essence.

Moving from art to morals, Murdoch declares that they are the same, for "the essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality."[16] It is at this point, the importance of the real, that Murdoch and Rand are contingent. It is here, too, that they touch and part, for although Rand proclaims the novel to be "a selective re-creation of reality, its means…evaluative abstractions, its task…the concretization of metaphysical essentials,"[17] she is not content with a reality in which her ideal man is an oddity. Instead, she qualifies its re-creation as one "according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments."[18] Consequently, where Murdoch strives for multiplicity, Rand projects unity—of vision, purpose, conduct—as the proper goal for people. There is no expunging of the author in Ayn Rand's novels, nor could there be, given this rejection of "separate modes of being" as having equal validity for man existing qua man. Her passionate attachment to form in life, where it is difficult to achieve, and in art, where it is more easily attainable (even to the degree of ossified convention) provides another point of comparison with Iris Murdoch.


Obviously "a house fit for free characters to live in" would ideally be designed by those characters. That is probably the main source of Murdoch's grudging acceptance of literary form as a necessary evil. Proceeding, as she does, from a tolerance of actuality, she tends to draw back from that which is not evident in actuality, that is, form. In "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited" she writes that "form is the temptation of love and its peril, whether in art or life: to round off a situation, to sum up a character."[19] Her solution is to emphasize the "contingency" of her characters, the unavoidable "messiness" of their lives, and she concludes that "to combine form with a respect for reality with all its odd contingent ways is the highest art of prose."[20]

Rand, however, shuns "the range of the immediate moment…the trivial irrelevancies, repetitions and routines of daily living" in order to emphasize "the essentials, the turning points, the direction of a man's life."[21] She dismisses the possibility of a purposeful novel without purposeful characters. The effects of "contingency" are to be absorbed by individuals and not allowed the influence Murdoch accords them; consequently, "messiness" does not have a place in Rand's literary vision, and people aware of its influence on their lives may have difficulty in placing themselves in Rand's fictional world. She likens the plot of a novel to the "steel skeleton of a skyscraper"[22] which relegates the other artistic elements to subordinate positions. Murdoch's use of plot, by contrast, can be likened to a trellis which provides support but only minimal direction for free-growing, natural things.[23] The girder and the trellis, if adhered to in their exponents' fiction, should provide two quite dissimilar literary experiences.


Iris Murdoch's fourteen novels demonstrate that her desire to show multiplicity does not preclude the repetition of character, relationship, or event. From Jake Conaghue in UNDER THE NET to Garth Gibson Grey in AN ACCIDENTAL MAN, a significant number of characters are engaged in writing books, usually at length and ineffectually. Few of her people ever find, or really seek, professional success. In addition, there are several pairs of young people discovering love, at least eight overt homosexuals, three grotesquely dying parents, and an assortment of enchanters and power-wielders, demonic and destructive. There are, above all, people who refuse to apprehend the reality of others, who insist upon cloaking them in myth and illusion, with sometimes comic, sometimes tragic results. But even though "multiplicity" is reduced to patterns of eccentricity, Murdoch does convey the fruitlessness of acting upon one's fantasies when dealing with other human beings. However, given the sort of individuals she offers, it is easy to see why they are so elusive of understanding.

Murdochian people are in a "muddle." To enter her novels is to be thrown into a hopeless tangle of disintegrating marriages, love affairs, lives, and lingering deaths. The victims ponder the attitudes and events that brought them to their condition, but few answers emerge. The never-acted-upon cry of "We must think" underscores the tragedy of A FAIRLY HONOURABLE DEFEAT. This is the result of Murdoch's own fear of solipsism, of personal analysis that may unmask oneself but veil others:[24] and it is in this way that she fails in "expelling" herself from her art. Tolerance is not illuminating, and almost every Murdoch novel is a puzzler as no detective novel could hope to be. Yet there is value in her confusion because, in conspicuously operating from no profound moral construct, Murdoch makes the strongest possible case for the necessity of such a foundation. Her people, hating with some reason, loving with none, are lost as no rational person would want to be. They are examples in reverse. They are, too, the kind of characters Ayn Rand tries to portray in her novels, and cannot.


There is as much a "world" peculiar to Rand's novels as to Murdoch's. Nathaniel Branden asserts that her heroes are heroes "all of the time,"[25] but Dominique, afraid of the world, tries to destroy her happiness and Roark's career; Hank Rearden, still accepting a conventional moral code, is contemptuous of his desire for Dagny; Francisco, Ragnar, Dagny, all have to be convinced by John Galt to do what he did without a second thought. Only Howard Roark and John Galt are untouched by value conflicts, are never seen in the process of "becoming" but simply "are." Closest to them is Kira Argounova, whose conflict between loyalty to Leo and an alliance with Andrei that would save Leo's life is contained in a few short paragraphs and resolved by the vision of a horribly dying woman. The conflict, once reduced to life versus death, requires no further agonizing. It is these characters, immuddled, living to think almost as much as thinking to live, who exhilarate the visitor to their world.

Yet, because they are "givens," they do not satisfy completely. Why are Dagny and James Taggart, with the same heritage, opposites? Why can Kira fight her environment but Catherine cannot? Why does Hank Rearden need John Galt and Galt need no one? Despite Ellsworth Toohey's confessions and Galt's broadcast, Rand offers no deeper explanation than one of "will." Some people chose reason, some do not. She simply cannot imagine the minds of her villains and is driven to protraying them through "whining" voices, "glazed and dead" eyes, or "shapeless features." She dismisses them as non-thinkers and divorces them from her sphere of understanding. It is left for a Murdoch to reveal what is, or can be, behind those "glazed and dead" eyes, and her muddled people are as devastatingly drawn as are Rand's heroes.

A final contrast can be made between their treatments of the theme of freedom versus slavery. For Rand, freedom is individual sovereignty; for Murdoch, it is "knowing and understanding and respecting things quite other than ourselves."[26] Thus, where Rand's heroes are fighting to disengage themselves from others, Murdoch's are struggling to find the "decent" way of dealing with all who make claims on them. It is a losing battle, and here, perhaps, Rand is the more realistic of the two. But Rand, in denying the potency of evil, sets up straw villains: it is their numbers that make them obstacles. Murdoch prefers to establish a single demon, as Mischa Fox in THE FLIGHT FROM THE ENCHANTER or Julius King in A FAIRLY HONOURABLE DEFEAT, and show how they trade on the conscientiousness of their victims in order to destroy them. Murdoch's people will never understand themselves: that is their tragedy. Rand's will never understand the demons and muddlers: that is theirs.


The temptation now is to assume that where two artistic visions complement each other, they may engage in a form of literary cross-pollination. Granted, consciousness of self does not inhibit consciousness of others, and in believing it does, Murdoch denies here characters the very independence she wishes for them. Granted, too, Rand's villains would gain in credibility if they were allowed some form of mental activity. But it is the two views of the human condition, one of nobility, unquestioned values, form; another of muddling, moral searching, contingency, that cannot co-exist in a single literary expression. Such an expression could incorporate varieties of men, but not of man. So Ayn Rand and Iris Murdoch cannot be reconciled, but it is not reasonable to ask of every writer the same vision, only that they see, and tell us, that we may see.

An answer to our initial question begins to take shape. Graham Hough in THE DREAM AND THE TASK defines literary criticism as "the means by which attention is called to new work and recalled to old" and adds that "those who have the advantage of special perceptiveness, special knowledge or special study should make it generally available: that whatever insight and intelligence exists on literary matters should be in general currency and exchange."[27] It is the implicitness of art that entices the critic: where the vision is explained and not alluded to there is precious little room for him to practice his craft. Iris Murdoch, in tucking herself away in minor, unsympathetic characters,[28] in relying heavily on classical myth to suggest relationships, in personifying many philosophical schemes, demands elucidation. Rand, in openly identifying with her heroes, in condensing all philosophical systems into one and setting up hers in opposition, in severely limiting her use of myth and symbol, requires none. What does remain for the critic is to compare her with her contemporaries, to make use of her self-placement in the Romantic tradition and consider her claims; in short, to acknowledge her identity as a writer of ideas.

As noted earlier, the nature of Rand's philosophy, couched as it is in unapologetic terms and running contrary to ordinary morality, has no doubt caused many critics to dismiss her as a philosopher using literature; this is unfair. Hough writes, "To confine the novel and criticism of the novel to the mere corroboration of values that we already accept is a disastrous narrowing of their range of action."[29] Yet, ironically, Ayn Rand is both victim and perpetrator of this very behavior. She suffers certainly in the first role, perhaps not so much now while she is still writing and has, consciously or not, cultivated a legend which draws young people to her work, but in the future, when there will be no body of criticism to call attention to her novels, no statement by her contemporaries of her relation to her age. She can survive critical dismissal, but she does not deserve the handicap. Hopefully, in her time, it will be removed.

Kathleen Collins is a television writer living in Los Angeles. She received a B.A. in English/creative writing from Wayne State University in 1967 and a Master of Fine Arts degree in television from UCLA in 1972. Her media agent is Creative Management Associates of Beverly Hills.


[1] A.S. Byatt, DECREES OF FREEDOM (Barnes and Noble 1965); Rubin Rabinovitz, IRIS MURDOCH (Columbia University Press 1968); Peter Wolfe, THE DISCIPLINED HEART (University of Missouri Press 1966).
[2] See Nathaniel Branden, WHO IS AYN RAND? (Paperback Library, Inc. 1964). The book is not pure literary criticism. Also, in a REASON interview (October 1971), Nathaniel Branden expressed dissatisfaction with it.
[3] Iris Murdoch, "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited," THE YALE REVIEW December 1959, p. 269.
[4] Id. at p. 271.
[5] Id. at p. 267.

[6] Id. at p. 257.
[7] Id. at p. 265.
[8] Iris Murdoch, "Against Dryness," ENCOUNTER January 1961, p. 16.
[9] Id. at p. 17.
[10] Id. at p. 20.

[11] Id. at p. 20.
[12] Ayn Rand, THE ROMANTIC MANIFESTO (The New American Library, Inc. 1971), p. 64.
[13] Id. at p. 127.
[14] See Arthur Koestler, THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE (Macmillan 1968) for physiological material on the evolution of the human brain that casts doubt on Rand's contentions.
[15] Rand, supra note 12, pp. 74-75.

[16] Iris Murdoch, "The Sublime and the Good," CHICAGO REVIEW Autumn 1959, p. 51.
[17] Rand, supra note 12, pp. 48-49.
[18] Id. at p. 19.
[19] Murdoch, supra note 3, p. 271.
[20] Id. at p. 271.

[21 ] Rand, supra note 12, p. 48.
[22] Id. at p. 49.
[23] The contrast between cultivated and wild roses in AN UNOFFICIAL ROSE, Murdoch's sympathies being with the latter, bears out the image at its most obvious. Indeed, gardens play as important a role in Murdoch's novels as do machines in Rand's. Morgan and Peter in A FAIRLY HONOURABLE DEFEAT are delighted to discover a railway bed being reclaimed by nature; Hank and Dagny are sickened by a similar sight during their search for the motor.
[24] See R. Rabinovitz, IRIS MURDOCH.
[25] Branden, supra note 2, p. 54

[26] Murdoch, supra note 3, p. 270.
[27] Graham Hough, THE DREAM AND THE TASK (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1964), p. 73.
[28] Rabinovitz, supra note 1, p. 44.
[29] Hough, supra note 27, p. 56.