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A Word Child - Iris Murdoch

”What a stupid coagulated mass of indistinguishable guilt and misery I had become. How perfectly futile all my sufferings had been. If only I could separate out that awful mixture of sin and pain, if I could only even a for a short time, even for a moment, suffer purely without the burden of resentment and self-degradation to which I had deliberately condemned myself, there might be a place for a miracle. And I reflected too, as I walked and walked around London, on the absolute doneness of what was done.”

Hilary Burde has had a fair share of hard knocks. For one thing he doesn’t know who his father is, in some cases that is a gift, but certainly it is never a good start for anyone. His mother died young leaving him orphaned. For a while he is raised by his Aunt Bill (I know strange name for an aunt.) who much prefers his half-sister Crystal. Aunt Bill soon has him packed off to an orphanage for his burgeoning bad behavior. Of course if you tell someone he is a bad person enough times eventually he will start to believe you and act accordingly. Hilary is on a ruinous course, a poster child for a man destined to commit increasingly more violent crimes, and eventually end up incarcerated for at least the rest of his testosterone influenced years. 

A teacher, Mr. Osmand, is the first adult to ever show an interest in him. He introduces Hilary to the world of...words.

”Looking up words in the dictionary was for me an image of goodness. The endless endless task of learning new words was for me an image of life.

Violence is a kind of magic, the sense that the world will always yield. When I understood grammatical structure I understood something which I respected and which did not yield. The exhilaration of this discovery, though it did not ‘cure’ me, informed my studies and cast on them a light which was not purely academic. I learnt French and Latin and Greek at school. Mr. Osmand taught me German in his spare time. I taught myself Italian.”

His dedication to language lands Hilary a spot at Oxford. Mr. Osmand may have saved Hilary from rattling the bars of a cage, but Hilary lands in a cage none the less. He meets a woman named Anne. 

”Anne met me as a stranger, saw me as a stranger, and miraculously understood me. Her presence made me rest, every muscle, every atom, became quiet and relaxed. I lived, I saw, I was. “

Wonderful, he has met the woman of his dreams. Of course there is always a hitch, she is married to his best friend Gunner. Hilary, incapable of restraint, creates chaos that leads to tragedy. He walks into his cage of remorse and misery, and swallows the key. 

For most of the book we are with Hilary long after the events at Oxford. He has landed a job, a low level civil service position that requires very little of him. It allows him to wallow in poverty and leaves him with enough energy to properly cultivate and maintain his own special concoction of anxiety and self-loathing. He doesn’t really have a life, but he has caught his sister in the web of his own need. 

”I deliberately made Crystal suffer with me. Could her pure suffering have redeemed me? In some ideal theory, yes, in reality, no.”

He has a girlfriend, Tommy, who he is in a perpetual state of breaking up with. He keeps her strung out with a series of letters, misdirection, cruelty, and brief moments of tenderness. 

”A lot of what Tommy said was true. She had been a surprise package. After I had despaired of communications this soft-voiced clever little Scot had managed to get through. For she was clever. She argued quite well, she remembered things, one had to keep one’s wits sharp, there was even a pleasure in arguing with her about leaving her.”

The interesting thing about Hilary is that he has assembled, despite his acerbic personality, a collection of friends. Like with Crystal and Tommy he manages his relationship with them even to the point that everyone has their assigned days and times to spend with Hilary. He allows very little interaction between his friends because he likes controlling the narrative. He is a different person with each friend, and can only continue to be so if there is not too much interplay between those people and the slight variations of himself. What is truly amazing to me is that all these people allow Hilary so much influence on their behavior. They indulge him because he fascinates them. They find his idiosyncratic behavior humorous. He gets very angry though when his friends see him at the wrong place or at time when they are not scheduled. 

”I liked to live in other people’s worlds and have none of my own.”

I’m sure there are a whole host of psychological terms to better define Hilary. 

Hilary’s carefully constructed life goes into a tailspin when Gunner arrives, out of the mists of the past, to take a job “upstairs” in the same department as Hilary. He meets Gunner’s new wife Kitty. 

”I thought she was a saucy minx. I don’t mean anything to do with impropriety. I’m sure she is a perfect picture of propriety in the strict sense. After all, she would have the wit to play safe. But she is one of those numerous women who can’t stop flicking their eyelashes at anything in trousers, a compulsive flirt. She flirted with the prime minister. I suppose she flirted with you.”

Is history doomed to repeat itself? 

Will Crystal break away from the tenacious grasp of her brother and find a life for herself?

Will Biscuit, in the bluish-purple sari, ever escape the clutches of Lady Kitty? And why does Hilary keep *shiver* kissing her? 

Will there be a grand reconciliation scene with Gunner?

Will Tommy finally leave Hilary for good and marry that guy...whatshisname? 

More importantly will Hilary’s desk ever be moved back where it is supposed to be in the office? 


Those questions and many more will be answered when you read this book. 

What is remarkable is that Iris Murdoch has created this pathetic creature; and yet, she handles his story so deftly that this reader was knuckle deep into the book before he realized that he really didn’t like Hilary; and for that matter, really didn’t care for the other characters either. This is the second Iris Murdoch I have read and her dialogue and the social situations she creates are well structured, smart, and entertaining. I will certainly be reading more. 

If you would like to read more of my thoughts on Iris Murdoch's writing please click this link The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch