Contingency in Iris Murdoch's "Under the Net"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

29 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Definition and Theoretical Background of ‘Contingency’

3. Contingency in Under the Net
3.1 Contingency and Individuals
3.2 Contingency and Language
3.3 Contingency and Art

4. Jake Donaghue’s Changing Attitude towards Contingency
4.1 Jake’s Attitude at the Beginning
4.2 Contingency in Jake’s Life
4.3 Jake’s Change

5. Reasons for the Change in Jake’s Attitude
5.1 The Influence of Other Characters
5.1.1 Hugo’s Influence
5.1.2 Anna’s Influence
5.1.3 Jean Pierre’s Influence
5.1.4 Dave’s Influence
5.2 Misinterpretations

6. Consequences of the Change

7. Conclusion

8. References

1. Introduction

All human beings have a deep need for necessity in their lives. We want to know why we exist, we want to understand the world and its secrets, and we want to know our place in the world. Concepts like religion and philosophy are concerned with those questions and try to provide answers to them. Nevertheless, there are still no satisfying explanations. This is due to the fact that “our actual lived experience has no form or unity in itself, but is full of contingent rubble, accident, and unsystematized detail which may resist our attempts at unity” (Antonaccio & Schweiker, Human Goodness 111). As our world is contingent, it cannot be completely understood. Consequently, we should accept its contingency instead of denying it by trying to find an explanation to everything.

The stress ratio between contingency and necessity is also the theme of Iris Murdoch’s first novel Under the Net. Throughout the novel, the protagonist Jake Donaghue searches for his own identity and for a master theory which is able to explain the world (cf. Porter, Leitmotiv 379). In the end, he realizes that he has to change his attitude towards contingency.

In the following, I will try to find reasons for the change of Jake’s attitude, and I will describe the consequences of this change. In order to be able to do this, I will first provide a definition of the term ‘contingency’ and place it in the context of philosophy in chapter 2. Afterwards, I will explain some essential aspects of contingency in the novel in chapter 3. In chapter 4, I will have a look at Jake’s changing attitude towards contingency in the course of the novel in order to, finally, be able to find reasons for the change and to describe its consequences in chapter 5 and 6.

2. Definition and Theoretical Background of ‘Contingency'

‘Contingency’ is an ancient philosophical term. It derives from the Latin ‘contingere’, which means ‘to coincide, to occur, to happen’, and from the Latin ‘contingentia’, which means ‘coincidence, possibility’ (cf. Holzinger, Kontingenz in der Gegenwartsgesellschaft 26). Numerous philosophers dealt with contingency, and each

of them accents a different aspect of it. Therefore, I will merely concentrate on the most important philosophers and their approaches on the term ‘contingency’.

The origins of the term can be traced back to the Middle Ages, more precisely to Aristotle. He defines ‘contingency’ as something which is neither impossible nor necessary (cf. Holzinger, Kontingenz in der Gegenwartsgesellschaft 26). It is something which cannot be justified. This definition is generally accepted among philosophers and provides a basis for the different approaches.

Although Aristotle introduces and defines the term ‘contingency’, Husserl is the first who adverts to the problematic relation of rationality and contingency (cf. Orth, Vernunft und Kontingenz 8). For him the question is: how is it possible to deal with philosophy if there is an unpredictable factor, namely contingency, in each consideration? This boils down to the problem that I have already mentioned in the introduction. On the one hand, there is the philosophical need to find an explanation for everything, on the other hand, there is the impossibility of this action because the world is contingent and does not fit into a concept.

Up to this point of time, contingency and its implications have only been observed but not evaluated. Jean Paul Sartre changes this. “In the French philosopher, the ‘contingency’, or arbitrariness, of particulars, or the concrete world, causes nausea” (Roxman, Contingency and the Image of the Net 65). According to Sartre, contingency has, thus, a clearly negative connotation. This perspective has established itself in philosophy over the years. The positive implications of contingency, such as diversity and the emergence of fortunate events in our lives, have been totally ignored. This is probably due to the fact that they are not relevant to philosophical considerations. Even today, philosophers still think that contingency is a deficit which has to be eliminated (cf. Ricken, Subjektivität und Kontingenz 183).

Sartre states his opinion concerning contingency indirectly through the protagonist of his book La Nausée.

It concerns itself with freedom and bad faith, the character of thought, of memory, of art. Those topics are all raised as consequent upon a certain discovery, of metaphysical interest, which is made by the hero, Antoine Roquentin. This discovery, put in philosophical jargon, is the discovery that the world is contingent, and that we are related to it discursively and not intuitively (Murdoch, Sartre 11).

At the beginning, Roquentin thinks that the world can be pinned down and that we have a determined place in it. In the end, he has to admit that the world cannot be classified because it is contingent and consists of particular elements (cf. Murdoch, Sartre 12). This causes nausea in him.

Sartre’s La Nausée clearly had an influence on Under the Net. Although Iris Murdoch is no existentialist, she is fascinated by Sartre and shares many of his existentialist views (cf. O’ Connor, The Formal and the Contingent 35). Thus, she almost adopts his understanding of contingency. However, there is a slightly difference.

It [her meaning of contingency, S. B.] always retained Sartre’s meaning of brute and nameless things that frighten us by their resistance to our need for form but precisely because that need for form and significance is tainted by egoism, contingency also meant for her, as it never did for Sartre, the precious and separate reality of other persons (Gordon, Fables of Unselfing 7).

Whereas Sartre focuses on the contingent world, Murdoch also takes the contingency of individuals into account. The individual person does not only have the duty to respect the world, but also the duty to respect the contingency of other persons. This accentuation is central for her work as a philosopher as well as for her work as a novelist. Accordingly, she accuses Sartre of failing to possess “an apprehension of the absurd irreducible uniqueness of people and of their relations with each other” (Murdoch, Sartre 75).

Another important term in Iris Murdoch’s work is the ‘Good’, a moral concept which is closely connected with the definition of contingency.

Good is the absolute of both necessity and contingency, of form and formlessness. Understood as the absolute of necessity, it has as its moral equivalent a pure obedience of the will, a perfect fusion of what one is with what one ought to be. Understood as the absolute of contingency, it has as its moral equivalent the perfect acceptance of separate things, free of any wish to possess them or give them meaning. But each absolute is also a source of fear. The fear, in the first case, is that what one finds morally necessary resembles the shape of our own mind and so proves our inability to escape solipsism, in the second case, that chance is the final truth and thus moral ideas are unreal (Gordon, Fables of Unselfing 8).

In order to understand Murdoch, one has to know that for her, as well as for Plato, the ‘Good’ equals the ‘Real’ (cf. Gordon, Fables of Unselfing 8). It is the highest stage of morality, and people should strive for it (cf. Nicol, The Retrospective Fiction 7). Reality consists of necessity and contingency. If necessity rules, we are exactly what we want to be. Thus, the Good matches the will. As a result, we are, however, in fear of being stuck in solipsism. If contingency rules, we accept all the contingent parts of reality and do not try to impose our will on them. This leads to the fear that our will is dispensable as chance rules. Accordingly, we have to find a balance between these two extremes. Thereby, it is more difficult to accept contingency because we do not want to approve that we have no influence on the world. We would rather accept that we are stuck in solipsism. Jake, the protagonist of Under the Net, has to deal with this problem, too. Yet before having a look on his attitude towards contingency, I will first describe the different aspects of contingency in the novel.

3. Contingency in Under the Net

There are two aspects which may be contingent in a novel: the form and the content. In Under the Net contingency appears in both of them. “Indeed, the whole novel may be taken as a gigantic image of concreteness and contingency” (Roxman, Contingency and the Image of the Net 67). First of all, the novel has a picaresque form. This leads, of course, to a contingent plot containing incidents which seem very bizarre to the reader. Moreover, contingency is also inscribed in places. Jake, for instance, divides London into contingent and necessary parts. “There are some parts of London which are necessary and others which are contingent. Everywhere west of Earls Court is contingent, except for a few places along the river” (Murdoch, Under the Net. – henceforth UTN – 24). The action only takes place in contingent London (cf. Viebrock, Iris Murdoch 349). This fact matches with the contingent form of the novel. Furthermore, Iris Murdoch manages to directly convey elements of her theory through Under the Net. In doing so, she especially dwells on contingency in relation to individuals, language and art.

3.1 Contingency and Individuals

As one expects against the background of Murdoch’s theory, the characters of Under the Net are all contingent. Moreover, she believes that the characters of a novel must be constructed as if their characteristics were a part of their personality instead of being imposed by the author (cf. Culley, Theory and Practice 341). In other words, not all characteristics and actions of a character can be explained in the context of the novel’s plot. This is clearly the case for the characters of Under the Net.

As I have already mentioned before, Murdoch emphasises the importance for an individual to respect the contingency of other persons. “Thus the central moral imperative of her work is the imperative of unselfing, the overcoming of the self- centeredness that prevents us from loving others as separate existences” (Gordon, Fables of Unselfing 7). This imperative of unselfing also applies for the characters of Under the Net. At the beginning, Jake Donaghue is, however, not able to comply with it. He has a permanent urge to decode the personalities of other persons (cf. for example Murdoch, UTN 14). According to Sartre, this urge is a characteristic of humans (cf. Murdoch, The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited 255). In this respect, Jake can be seen as a representative of humankind.

The best example for the denial of every person’s contingency is, however, society as a whole. It constantly tries to force its members into a certain scheme while similarly ignoring their contingency. “[S]ociety is seen as precisely the net which is always coming down to catch us, but which has large or coarse meshes which we can easily escape through, if only later to be caught in other, finer meshes” (Fraser, The Solidity of the Normal 38.). As a result, individuals either deny their own contingency by conforming to society, or they try to escape the pressures of society in order to be able to live out their contingent personalities. No matter what they do, in the end, each of them has to accept that one cannot escape the demands of society. In the novel, the pressure of society on individuals is, on the one hand, conveyed by Dave Gellman, a philosopher. He urges Jake to look for a job. “‘Society should take you by the neck and shake you and make you do a sensible job. Then in your evenings you would have the possibility to write a great book’” (Murdoch, UTN 28). On the other hand, there is, of course, the title which alludes to it. This is, however, not the only possible interpretation of the title. I will come back to its second interpretation later on.

3.2 Contingency and Language

In her book about Sartre Iris Murdoch deals with the problematic relationship between language and the contingent reality.

We can no longer take language for granted as a medium of communication. Its transparency has gone. We are like people who for a long time looked out of a window without noticing the glass – and then one day began to notice this too (Murdoch, Sartre 26).

Nowadays, the function of language is questioned. It is supposed to describe the world. However, language is a concept with certain rules which have to be obeyed. Thus, the nature of the world cannot be expressed by language. The image of the world as we know it is not constructed until we employ language. We are never able to see the world but only its description. And this description is already an interpretation of the world (cf. Nicol, The Retrospective Fiction 19). Murdoch addresses this by the image of the window. The glass stands for language. We are not able to open the window in order to directly look at the world; we always have to look through the glass. As a consequence, language is not an instrument to reveal reality, but rather conceals it (cf. Spear, Iris Murdoch 21).

Wittgenstein uses another image in order to describe “the incapacity of language and theory fully to represent contingent reality” (Nicol, The Retrospective Fiction 15): the net. Language is cast over the world like a net. We can see the world through its meshes, but we can never see everything which is under the net.

The image of the net is central for Iris Murdoch’s novel Under the Net. “Until almost the end of the novel the characters in Under the Net are trapped by the net of language which has buoyed their false understanding […]” (Spear, Iris Murdoch 21). Especially Jake is affected by this. Moreover, Hugo Belfounder directly addresses the connection between language and reality in a conversation with Jake. “’Try describing anything, our conversation for instance, and see how absolutely instinctively you…’ ‘Touch it up?’ I suggested. ‘It’s deeper than that,’ said Hugo. ‘The language just won’t let you present it as it really was’” (Murdoch, UTN 59). The theme is, thus, embedded in the content of the novel. In addition to that, it already appears in the title. As I mentioned earlier, the net may be identified as society. The net may, however, stand for language, too.


Excerpt out of 29 pages


Contingency in Iris Murdoch's "Under the Net"
University of Mannheim
British Literature of the 50's
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Contingency, Iris, Murdoch, Under, British, Literature
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Saskia Bachner (Author), 2008, Contingency in Iris Murdoch's "Under the Net", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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