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A Severed Head

3.74  ·  Rating details ·  4,539 ratings  ·  452 reviews
As macabre as a Jacobean tragedy, as frivolous as a Restoration comedy, Iris Murdoch's fifth novel takes sombre themes - adultery, incest, castration, violence and suicide - and yet succeeds in making of them a book that is brilliantly enjoyable. ...more
Paperback, 204 pages
Published November 18th 1976 by Penguin Books (first published 1961)
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Pamela B Great writing, compelling, and totally distasteful to me. This is my fourth or fifth Murdoch. I love her writing but I am done with her. I find her ou…moreGreat writing, compelling, and totally distasteful to me. This is my fourth or fifth Murdoch. I love her writing but I am done with her. I find her outlook on humanity simply depressing.(less)

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Average rating 3.74  · 
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 ·  4,539 ratings  ·  452 reviews

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Adam Dalva
Nov 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Extraordinarily funny, lean novel that somehow manages to be completely cynical while maintaining a belief in the possibility of love. The plot is hurtlingly insane, as the lead, Martin Lynch-Gibbon, and the 5 most important people in his life form an improbable love-hexagon whose Freudian complications are legion. The protagonist knows the least of anyone, which is always fun, and though his behavior throughout the book is repellent, Murdoch accomplishes the difficult task of making him likable ...more
Jun 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: british
An Oh So English Tragedy... Not

I have never met anyone of the types in Murdoch’s The Severed Head. I doubt anyone has. I can only trust her that they have some meaning: those independently wealthy landed gentry who can remain perfectly civil when their best friends run off with their wives. Martin, the husband in question, can in fact maintain that “He’s still my best friend,” about the American cad, Anderson. And Antonia, the out-of-love wife, without the least embarrassment, can say to her soo
Feb 23, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
I had no patience for this.

I appreciate the prose style, and can see that Murdoch makes important statements on sexual liberation, but... It is tiring. All characters are equally unsympathetic, and their lives form a panorama of sexual behaviours that challenged the bourgeois minds in 1976 for sure.

They all consistently made me think of Caravaggio's Medusa, with her outraged expression of injustice done to her while her snake-hair is still dangerously alive and capable of causing major damage
Oct 26, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  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
Apr 16, 2009 rated it really liked it
Reading like an early draft of the 2004 play/film "Closer," this brilliant book was conceived by a woman whose p.o.v. is that of a man, Martin, who experiences degradation and despair, while he seeks sexual specters. It is an exact, almost samurai-sharp (more on that later...) case study of both true incest & a social, more acceptable type of partner swapping.

Let me try to explain the plot (SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER!!): Martin's in love with his wife, Antonia, who is herself having an affair wit
Ian "Marvin" Graye
Oct 02, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: fans of Rikki Ducornet, Angela Carter and Martin Amis
Who's Afraid of Iris Murdoch?

Well, I was for one! I bought this novel in 1980 and only got around to reading it now.

I think I was apprehensive about her formidable intellect and wondered whether the book might be too earnest or a chore to read. However, it was anything but! It takes you on a journey from psychological realism to Freudian satire to outrageous farce.

Female Author, Male Narrator

The narrator is Martin Lynch-Gibbon, the son of a wine merchant and now the proprietor of the family busi
James Barker
Six terribly middle-class central characters play bedroom twister. Does loving many people equate to really loving no-one? It's a question that befits this fickle schoolyard. Martin adores his wife, loves his mistress, has homosexual fantasises about his chum Palmer while simultaneously yearning for Palmer's sister, Honor (noticing Palmer's hairy legs and Honor's hairy lip, he clearly has a hair fixation; both his wife and his mistress have Rapunzel-like hair). Martin's brother, Alexander, is in ...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
Apr 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: BBC Radio Listeners

Description: When Martin Lynch-Gibbon's wife runs off with her analyst and his best friend, Palmer Anderson, the three characters attempt to behave in a civilised manner; but there is the matter of Martin's mistress and Palmer's sister to contend with and undoubtedly the thin veneer of civilisation will crack in Murdoch's witty and wise story.
"You can recognise the people who live for 
others by the haunted look on the faces of
the others."

1/5: Satire on an
Ben Loory
Aug 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 24, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A strange but very readable satire on who you’re supposed to love versus who you actually do. My sixth Murdoch novel, and a very good one for book clubs or for newcomers to start with, I think, given how much it tackles in its just over 200 pages.

Love Triangle

As in Under the Net, we have a male narrator; here it’s Martin Lynch-Gibbon, 41, a wine merchant’s son who’s writing a work of military history. He’s been married to Antonia, five years his senior, for 11 years now. Martin also has a mistre
Oct 11, 2016 rated it liked it
What ties people together when they (by choice or necessity) escape the security of their own habits and find comforts of domestic life insufficient? The author seems to anwser this question in a row of equaly unlikable charachters mixing up together in an accidental way, where no emotion is strong or lasting, no relationship reliable or inconvenient and no thought independent of other people's whims. In a new-found freedom, we don't, as expected, witness autonomos, powerful beings, but the ones ...more
Oct 28, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Aug 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"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?
Currently editing the review with additional observations from my second reading, this December 2020.

From June 2012 — Martin is quite pleased with his situation: a beautiful wife, Antonia, whom he adores and a much younger mistress, Georgie, to keep things that much more interesting and make him feel like a "real" man. But when his wife announces that she's leaving him for her psychoanalyst, Palmer Anderson, who also happens to be Martin's friend, his perfect world suddenly collapses. Only t
Apr 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A severed head is only 200 pages but it’s hard to imagine the novel being any lengthier without ruining it and its compactness just intensifies the tightness of the prose and the tension of the story. In this novel Murdoch goes back to the single narrative voice as in Under the Net and this adds to the intimacy of the book for as Martin’s is the only perspective we get, so the tautness of his emotions and their rollercoaster is on every page.

Martin Lynch-Gibson begins the novel apparently having
Apr 27, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction, 2011, in-en
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
Mar 07, 2011 rated it liked it
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. ...more
Jul 12, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to El by: The Roundtable
Years ago I read Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea which I remember really liking, and yet I don't remember anything about the story. I remember where I was when I read the majority of the book (on the porch of my new boyfriend's house in the gliding chair thing we had just bought together). But that's the only association I really have for that book. I have long meant to read something else by her, if not re-read The Sea, The Sea. One of my book groups here on Goodreads was going to read this boo ...more
Jul 15, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction, feminism
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Aug 17, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1001-books
3 1/2 stars

For a book that has been written in such a calm and usually evenly measured way A Severed Head really does take the biscuit for utter craziness. By the end of the ride my jaw was permanently residing in a dropped open position somewhere around my chest, my eyes were as wide as small cartwheels and I'd been reduced to a half choking/half laughing sort of snort.

I couldn't decide whether it was dementedly brilliant or sublimely insane so I settled on just enjoying the craziness that Iris
Karl Marx S.T.
Mar 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Nate H.
Jun 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: The population of planet Earth.
Shelves: 2019
A marvelous work of art.
Oct 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
Martin is happily married to Antonia but also has a mistress names Georgie. Antonia is older than Martin and undergoing analysis. Suddenly she leaves Martin and moves in with Anderson, her analyst. Anderson's sister Honor tells Antonia about Georgie. Honor is such a truly cracked character that she makes the rest of them look only mildly weird in comparison.

Again a 1961 novel about infidelity. In contrast to Wallace Stegner's A Shooting Star, this one is a breath of fresh air with that almost s
Mar 24, 2009 rated it did not like it
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
Paul Ataua
Jan 12, 2021 rated it liked it
‘A Severed Head’ includes themes such as adultery, incest, betrayal, and suicide, but right from the get go, it really felt like something I might have lapped up in the 1960s or 1970s, but feel indifferent to now. I just kept wondering why she felt this was an engaging story to write—like a modern day bourgeois swing fest with crates of wine for refreshments.
Chris Gager
Feb 22, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've been meaning to read another Murdoch book ever since I read the unsatisfying "Jackson's Dilemma," which may have been compromised by the author's early dementia. Certainly seemed that way to me, anyway.

Started last night when I needed to select a new book. VERY WELL WRITTEN ... smooooth prose.

Moving along as the author continues to work her way towards some deeper level of black comedy(I think). So far there's been a bit of satire in her presentation of upper-class English twits recognizabl
Mar 11, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: british, fiction
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
J.C. Greenway
Nov 04, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-women, 1960s
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
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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.


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