Jo's Reviews > The Red and the Green

The Red and the Green by Iris Murdoch
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really liked it

I had heard from our read along group that this novel was a departure from Iris Murdoch’s previous novels in that it is set in 1913 at the time of the Dublin uprising and has a real historical event at its center, rather than some country house or mansion with characters who appear isolated from anything but their own petty lives. However, in many ways this has many of the same elements as the eight novels that come before it; there are still several weak male characters, the set piece scenes of women in gardens, elaborate plans that go awry, secrets and affairs and claustrophobic drawing rooms.

Ironically, despite the fact that the novel is by far the most political of Iris Murdoch’s I’ve read and takes place not only at the time of World War One but of the Easter Uprising, this novel doesn’t seem any more dramatic than many of her others until the very end. There is still suppressed anger and desire, several instance of love declarations and some wrestling and accidental injuries but the drama seems a little more toned down than say in The Unicorn, perhaps because it focuses on real events.

The beginning of the novel is actually quite humorous as Andrew and his mother Hilda, scoff at the Irish and Ireland being particularly appalled at family members adoption of Catholicism and seeing this as a distinct character flaw. Despite both of them being Anglo-Irish Hilda takes the Irish to task as well as members of the family like Kathleen and Millie who do not fit her idea of what women should be. Murdoch clearly portrays Hilda as ridiculous in her prejudice and it stands in contrast to the extreme patriotism of Pat who values and reveres Ireland above almost everything except his brother and mother.

Pat himself is an interesting character, practically sociopathic and almost asexual or even ascetic in his obsessive focus on the fight for a free Ireland yet everyone, including Andrew, seems drawn to him. He stands in contrast to Andrew who although a ‘real’ soldier in the British Army, seems most ambivalent about his position and more concerned about how he looks in his uniform and the romantic connotations of his role. Andrew also looks down on women despite being almost engaged to Frances who, along with his mother, is the only slight exception to this condescension. Murdoch writes that Andrew ‘saw men as inherently dignified animals and women as inherently undignified animals,’ and in his abhorrence of sex, though for different reasons than Pat, we have to wonder if he is barely suppressing a queer identity.

Andrew is very much the wet Murdochian male, even Barney whose tortured musings on what his life could have been and his obsession with Millie are tiresome, is more courageous than he. Millie herself is more courageous than them both, a woman who combines both male and female stereotypical qualities; she flirts and she shoots guns. She is at one extreme of the feminine spectrum as a kind of femme fatale, outrageous and outspoken and even described at one point as a Circe, a witch, while Kathleen is the shabby, religious, aesthetic one and Frances the youngest of the two is somewhere in between. Frances is the one who narrates the epilogue of the story, an inclusion that is something else which sets this aside from other Murdoch novels and injects that more conventional note to the book.

Religion plays a large part in the novel, not in the political sense as such but in both the humor and the angst for Barney in particular, and as in The Bell the soul searching became somewhat tedious. There is also the somewhat confusing and uncomfortable incestuous ‘relationship’, if you can call it that, between several of the characters that only seems shocking to others in the novel because of their previous attachments, not because of the closeness of their relation to one another.

Murdoch writes her usual beautiful descriptions of the countryside and of gardens although here the focus is on the seas and the sky rather than the land and I imagine if you know Dublin well then her descriptions of the city would be even more appreciated. The political and historical side of the book is something I wasn’t very familiar with but I waited until after reading the novel to find out more so it wouldn’t spoil the plot and I don’t think you need to know the ins and outs of the history to still appreciate the book.

Despite a promising beginning, this isn’t one of my favorite Iris Murdoch novels but I really enjoyed the setting of Ireland and the discussion of the politics. Despite the religious discussion occasionally bogging down parts of the novel, it was otherwise very readable and was a welcome relief from the country home intense dramas of The Unicorn and The Italian Girl. It’s hard when reading one of these novels every month, not to see some similarity between the books and in its familial relations this one reminded me most of An Unofficial Rose while its relationship swopping and incestuous nature was reminiscent of A Severed Head. This may have been a departure for Murdoch but it was one that in the main was a successful one for this reader.
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Reading Progress

July 14, 2018 – Started Reading
July 14, 2018 – Shelved
July 18, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Peter (new)

Peter Boyle Super review, Jo! I never knew Iris Murdoch wrote a novel set during the Easter Rising. Think I'll have to track this one down.

message 2: by Jo (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jo Peter wrote: "Super review, Jo! I never knew Iris Murdoch wrote a novel set during the Easter Rising. Think I'll have to track this one down."

It’s funny Peter, I started this one after you asked me for a recommendation and I immeaditely thought of you and the Irish connection. Would definitely be interested on your take on this as it might have more resonance for you.

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