Jackson's Dilemma

James Marcus reviews the novel "Jackson's Dilemma" by Iris Murdoch.

Published December 16, 1995 8:00PM (EST)

Ever since she made her debut with "Under The Net," Iris Murdoch has continued to perfect the freewheeling novel of ideas, in which philosophical positions are happily subordinated to the quirks and tics of human character. "Jackson's Dilemma" continues this literary hot streak, which has now lasted for more than forty years.

As the novel opens, a storybook marriage is about to take place between Edward Lannion, the master of an idyllic country manor called Hatting Hall, and Marian Fox. The night before the ceremony, however, Marian shocks Edward and a half-dozen friends by bailing out, without a word of explanation. The immediate effect is bafflement, tinged in every case by "very private griefs, losses, regrets, and disappointments."

Yet Marian's no-show eventually brings about a Shakespearean reshuffling among the characters, each of whom ends up with the appropriate beloved. To whom do we owe this spate of happy endings? Part of the credit must go to Jackson, a mysterious butler who seems to dabble in angelic intervention. But, this being a Murdoch novel, I'd also suggest that there's a kind of Platonic machinery at work, which inclines the characters toward love as a heightened form of consciousness. This doesn't, of course, take romantic passion out of the picture.

At one point Murdoch compares the process of falling in love to "someone undergoing, still conscious, a very serious operation by a wonderful surgeon whom he trusted utterly, and all the time his eyes were open." That captures it very nicely, Platonic or otherwise.

By James Marcus

James Marcus is a critic, translator and novelist living in Portland, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to Salon.

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