A Severed Head
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A Severed Head

3.72 of 5 stars 3.72  ·  rating details  ·  2,315 ratings  ·  180 reviews
Martin believes he can possess both a beautiful wife and a delightful lover. But when his wife, Antonia, suddenly leaves him for her psychoanalyst, Martin is plunged into an intensive emotional re-education. He attempts to behave beautifully and sensibly. Then he meets a woman whose demonic splendour at first repels him and later arouses a consuming and monstrous passion....more
Paperback, 208 pages
Published November 18th 1976 by Penguin Books (first published 1961)
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The Bell by Iris MurdochThe Sea, the Sea by Iris MurdochThe Black Prince by Iris MurdochUnder the Net by Iris MurdochA Severed Head by Iris Murdoch
Best of Iris Murdoch
5th out of 29 books — 33 voters
My Sister's Keeper by Jodi PicoultHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. RowlingAnd Then There Were None by Agatha ChristieHarry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. RowlingThe Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Best Twists
271st out of 1,480 books — 3,687 voters

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Community Reviews

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Nov 19, 2012 Shovelmonkey1 rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who thinks their own relationship sucks
Recommended to Shovelmonkey1 by: a bookcrossing friend
Well, what a messed up little love pentangle that was. I put off reading this book for a while because to be frank, I am a coward. Scared of the weighty prose? Taut wit? Scathing analogies of the middle classes on the cusp of a sexual revolution?

No actually. Just a bit scared of the front cover. Sinister looking serial killer lady wielding a samurai sword or sabre of some description. It just freaked me out and I can't explain it. My friend Dana will corroborate this irrational fear of book cove...more
Ben Loory
iris murdoch reminds me a lot of henry james, in that her style is almost scientific. there's a method and a premise and the rest is investigation; it proceeds step by step until the story's done. nothing ever stands out, everything is perfectly in place. as far as novels go, they all seem completely flawless.

this one was a lot more farcical than the others of hers i've read. everybody's fucking everybody and nobody tells the truth. it doesn't quite have the emotional heart of, say, The Sandcast...more
I got hooked on Iris Murdoch for a year or so when I was around 20 and read more than half of her novels. But I did wonder where she got her ideas from. I mean, here she was, respectable married professor of philosophy and whatnot, and her plots are always this tangled mess of everyone sleeping with everyone else in between dropping clever epigrams about Wittgenstein. I guessed that she just had a very active imagination.

It's always strange to look back and wonder how one could have been so naiv...more
Oh Iris, Iris, Iris....I just love her. This book is filled to the brim with flawed and fabulously unlikable characters who nonetheless manage to drum up my sympathies. They're like lab rats. I'm not particularly fond of rats, but seeing them trapped in mazes and getting zapped as they're forced to navigate their confined little world--well, after a while I'm thinking, "awww...poor things." Such is the case with these self-involved, amoral characters. But the confined maze-like lives in this boo...more
Oh, Iris, what have you done to me? How will I ever be able to read one of your books again? If I stop here and now it's only because of you!

Remember my infatuation with Charles last summer? Of course you do, because every now and then I go back and compare male characters with him. Now, guess what? Not only I didn't like Martin (Charles' counterpart for this novel) but I didn't like any of the characters.
Stop for a minute and try to imagine how awful it is for the reader to look for someone t...more
Karl S.T.
From one of my favorite British authors, Iris Murdoch unravels the many guises of love and how it results to different types of violence us human beings are capable of. A Severed Head, Murdoch’s fifth novels starts with Martin Lynch-Gibbon enjoying a lazy afternoon together with his mistress Georgie, in her apartment as he ponders his life. Committing adultery for Martin doesn’t necessarily mean his love for Antonia -his wife- lessens. As he goes home after a wonderful conversation with Georgie,...more
Mar 24, 2009 Jennifer rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: well, people who cheat would probably empathize
...I have absolutely no idea what the point of this book was. It's a whole bunch of machinations, bed hopping, and psychological manipulation with no emotion powering it at all; I spent twenty minutes after having finished it trying to talk myself into having a reaction, any reaction, toward it. At the end of things I just went and had a bowl of cereal.

That, and I'm one of those people who loves so hard (and, I will admit, unhealthily) that, when confronted in real life with people who cheat on...more
"On the whole 'do what you want' costs others less than 'do what you ought'."

Or does it? 'A Severed Head' is a doozy! Quality time spent with a glorious love pentagon in a foggy South Ken. God is dead and everyone has lots of lovely money ... who's to say what's the right thing to do?
Reading like an early draft of the play/film "Closer," this brilliant book was conceived by a woman whose p.o.v. is that of a man, Martin, who experiences degredation, despair, seeks sexual specters. It is an exact, almost samurai-sharp (more on that later...) case study of both true incest and a social, more acceptable type of partner swapping.

Let me try to explain the plot (SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER!): Martin is in love with his wife, Antonia, who is herself having an affair with Martin's bff,...more
Justin Griffiths-Bell
The first ever grown-up novel I ever read was Iris Murdoch's The Philosopher's Pupil. My father had bought it, but never read it, and somehow I felt that its destiny had been stifled in being abandoned on a bookshelf unread, and I felt sorry for it. It was not a novel for children or young adults, and I must have supposed it must therefore be written in some secret code that I hadn't yet learned (it was, but I wasn't to know this at the time). I recall the feeling of near-euphoria that I could a...more
This book is a bedroom farce, in which the characters look ridiculous one minute and pitiful the next. The narrator is Martin, a 40-something London wine merchant, who begins the novel by very smugly talking about how he loves both his mistress and his wife. Martin's about to get a come-uppance, however, because his wife Antonia soon tells him she wants a divorce. Not only has the cheater been cheated upon, but Antonia's been seeing Martin's close friend Palmer -- a double betrayal. The plot con...more
This catalogues a disintegrating 60s marriage: Martin is happy with his wife Antonia and mistress Georgie. Antonia then leaves Martin to be with their friend and her psychoanalyst, Palmer, who has a sinister half-sister, Honor. It’s all creepily amicable, rational and analytical. Martin’s siblings, Alexander (a sculptor) and Rosemary, also feature.

There are no sympathetic characters, but their thoughts and motives are mostly so well described (albeit not necessarily credible) that it hardly matt...more
Eric Jay Sonnenschein
I liked this book. Iris Murdock has a light touch and a beautiful style. She reminds me of Virginia Woolf. Her characters seem to be made mostly of air. They are ethereal, rootless, disembodied spirits. Perhaps this is why one cannot take the infidelities and adulteries too seriously. Compare this book, for instance, to Graham Greene's The End of the Affair. That book seethes with torment, it seems to turn on a knife. This book contains many of the same behaviors, yet it lacks the agony, the wei...more
Mark Desrosiers
In which a well-observed, comically sane love quadrangle (pentangle? parallelogram?) is invaded by a devious conqueror goddess named Honor Klein, whose desires are a bit off the grid. Or rather, on a creepy manipulative ticking grid. Murdoch's internal depiction of male lust (the narrator's a dude) is mostly inaccurate, though I suppose gender got scrubbed and reassigned at some point in this novel's prep stages. Certainly Honor Klein's character often verges upon the "masculine", including one...more
The Dame explores the gothic genre in "The Unicorn." Here she cracks the nut of "artificial comedy," with a bow to Schnitzler and Coward, as her intimate circle pops amid beds while shelling bons mots. It's not meant to be taken seriously. Sensibility without sense, and sex as a form of nervousness.
In A Severed Head, Martin Lynch-Gibbon, established wine merchant, and happily dedicated two-timing sophisticate (he has been betraying his wife, Antonia, by having an affair for some time with Georgie, a friend, and LSE lecturer), tells you the story of the collapse of his marriage, his wife's affair with no less than two men (one of which, with the manipulative, obnoxiously patronising, slimy psychoanalyst, Palmer Anderson, began even before Martin's marriage with Antonia; the other with Marti...more
Nancy Oakes
Toward the end of this novel two of the main characters (Honor Klein & Martin Lynch-Gibbon) are speaking after Martin discovers a secret about Honor, and she says to him "because of what I am and because of what you saw I am a terrible object of fascination for you. I am a severed head such as primitive tribes and old alchemists used to use, anointing it with oil and putting a morsel of gold upon its tongue to make it utter prophecies. And who knows but that long acquaintance with a severed...more
Kaitlyn Barrett
A Severed Head is about love and obsession. As everyone living knows, love and obsession inside the head of one person is a very complex and individual situation. When one or more people join the party, it becomes a wild game of Twister with each person reaching for their own happiness and bumping into and knocking over everyone else in the process.

Of course, Murdoch wouldn’t use a lowly game of Twister as a metaphor. She has much more elevated prose to describe love and uses Dante’s phrase “El...more
Jan 10, 2012 Nathanial added it
Shelves: fiction
More Murdoch! One of her earlier books. Fascinating to see how her central concerns play out in this plot, as the novel was published soon after her philosophical collection of essays, The Sovereignty of Good. Of of the secondary characters in A Severed Head even explicitly declares, "I don't believe that we make moral decisions based on a sudden convulsion of will, but sometimes the moment comes where you really do have to choose." I'm paraphrasing here. What's especially delightful in the narr...more
Khris Sellin
Fun little farce set in London and surrounding areas during the "Sexual Revolution" of the '60s. Martin Lynch-Gibbons, 41, is comfortable with his life - married to Antonia, 10 years older, whom he adores, but also has a mistress, 20-something Georgie Hands. Then his life gets turned upside down when he learns that not only has Antonia been having an affair with her psychoanalyst, Palmer Anderson (a good friend of Martin's), she's planning on leaving him and marrying Palmer. But, they want him t...more
Corey Pung
Without giving too much away (with such a short book, saying just about anything is giving too much away), A Severed Head is a story of a stuffy Englishman who finds himself stuck in a love-triangle when his wife admits her love for her therapist. As the therapist tries to explain to him why he shouldn’t feel remorse, more characters enter into it, and what started as a triangle becomes a square, a pentagon, and a few other shapes before it concludes. It’s a pretty scathing yet funny indictment...more
Richard Kramer
My first Iris! And pretty fucking sublime. Merciless, mordant, rigorous, hilarious, relatively brief. It made me want to read everything she wrote, but it didn't make me want to see that rotten movie again. I will never read everything she wrote. I may read maybe two or more, hopefully while hiking through the Lake District, which at the moment I have no plans to do. Can anyone recommend other gems from the oeuvre? This is yet another bok that makes me want to be the author, although I'd like to...more
Богиня Книдска
Всъщност, пред творбата на Мърдок сценаристите на латиноамериканските сапунки са жалки аматьори. Кратко съдържание на първи акт на Марлезонския балет: имаме мъж и жена. Мъжът има млада любовница. Жената има любовник, който е най-добрият приятел на семейството и по съвместителство психоаналитик /уж, истински, на практика излиза, че и той е аматьор/. Към въпросния любовник мъжът има леки хомонастроения, но се пази. Същият /психоалитикът/ има грозна сестра. Сестра има и нашият герой, също и брат. В...more
J.C. Greenway
It is testament to Iris Murdoch's power as a novelist that A Severed Head is a gripping and enjoyable read, despite its complete lack of a sympathetic character. Managing to combine that very British kind of sex comedy where everyone is with the wrong partner (Lucky Jim would be another, published just seven years earlier) with astute skewerings of the human condition, time spent with this novel will surprise and delight.

A Severed Head perfectly demonstrates that residents of very nice Central L...more
Karlo Mikhail
I found Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head very funny. At the same time, I also found it difficult to write about in terms of more profound observations. Looking for comments on this comic story of adulterous entanglements all I could come up with is the formulaic observation about the way women are denigrated as subordinates of men and mere sex objects under the present social order.

In A Severed Head we have a protagonist who happily kept a mistress outside his legal wife who he assumes to be innoce...more
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Brad Spurgeon
This book had been sitting on my shelf for decades, I think. Last month I picked it up and glanced at the opening page and was immediately hooked by the style, crisp, fresh, clean. And a little warped. It was the first Murdoch I've read, in fact, and I'd always shied away from her because I was under the impression she was heavy and plodding and perhaps too psychological or pseudo-psychological. In fact, it was a light yet profound, and highly entertaining tale of London society and raises inter...more
Bill Delaney
...somehow the word 'savage' comes to mind...at first, i thought this novel about infidelity reminded of graham greene's classic 'the end of the affair' - but that book's catholic undertones and shadows are replaced her by a kind of pagan rite played out among interwoven characters, with very little that love can be - tender, violent, lustful, suicidal, incestuous, just plain nuts - not here/ maybe everything is here but loyalty...

there is a darkness in the book, a relentlessness, that's actuall...more
Kirsty Darbyshire
I loved Iris Murdoch when I first read her, twenty years ago when I was about twenty years old. I loved all the clever characters and their academic musings on life, and everything (not so much the universe if my recall is correct). Now, not so much. This is pretty much a bedroom farce, it starts off silly and gets completely ludicrous towards the end. I ought to draw a diagram to work out which characters didn't end up in bed together, if any. It has lots of angst and clever veneer on top of th...more
Iris Murdock's novels are not for the faint hearted: she populates her books with manipulative and incredibly selfish characters.
I am both fascinated and repulsed.

A Severed Head languished on my bookshelf for a long time before I picked it up . I think the ominous threat of the title and the publisher's description put me off a bit despite my respect for Murdock's work.

Once started, this brief book was hard to put down. I'd liken my reaction to Joseph Conrad's character in The Heart of Darkness...more
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Dame Jean Iris Murdoch

Irish-born British writer, university lecturer and prolific and highly professional novelist, Iris Murdoch dealt with everyday ethical or moral issues, sometimes in the light of myths. As a writer, she was a perfectionist who did not allow editors to change her text. Murdoch produced 26 novels in 40 years, the last written while she was suffering from Alzheimer disease.

"She w...more
More about Iris Murdoch...
The Sea, the Sea Under the Net The Bell The Black Prince The Unicorn

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“To lose somebody is to lose not only their person but all those modes and manifestations into which their person has flowed outwards; so that in losing a beloved one may find so many things, pictures, poems, melodies, places lost too: Dante, Avignon, a song of Shakespeare's, the Cornish sea.” 13 likes
“I feel half faded away like some figure in the background of an old picture.” 11 likes
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