Iris Murdoch's richly peopled novel revolves round a happily married couple, Kate and Octavian, and the friends of all ages attached to their household in Dorset. The novel deals with love in its two aspects, the self-gratifying and the impersonal; - the nice and the good - as they are embodied in a fascinating array of paired characters. THE NICE AND THE GOOD leads through stress and terror to a joyous and compassionate 'Midsummer Nights Dream' conclusion, in which the couples all sort themselves out neatly and omnia vincit amor.
On the weekends, he is often found at Gray's seaside home in Dorset, where he mingles primarily with women: Octavian's wife Kate and their teenage daughter Barbie, Kate's long-time friend Mary and her son Pierce, and recent divorcee Paula and her nine-year-old twins. Rounding out the group are Octavian's brother Theodore and a tenant, Willy Kost. Here as well, everyone has skeletons in their closet: why did Theodore leave India? What happened to Willy during the war? How did Mary's husband die? What are the circumstances behind Paula's divorce? How can Kate and Ducane carry on their bizarre, not-platonic-but-not-romantic relationship right under Octavian's nose, and with his full knowledge?
Murdoch uses Ducane to move seamlessly between London and Dorset, while exploring goodness and morality:
What Ducane was experiencing, in this form peculiar to him of imagining himself as a judge, was, though this was not entirely clear in his mind, one of the great paradoxes of morality, namely, that in order to become good it may be necessary to imagine oneself good, and yet such imagining may also be the very thing which renders improvement impossible, either because of surreptitious complacency or because of some deeper blasphemous infection which is set up when goodness it thought about in the wrong way. To become good it may be necessary to think about virtue, although unreflective simple people may achieve a thoughtless excellence. (p. 77)
Well, that's all a bit abstract. If I had been in a more deeply philosophical mood as I read this, I might have formed some profound thoughts about morality. Instead, I just enjoyed the twisting plot and the gradual revelation of secrets. This was philosophical, too, but in a different way: Murdoch's style inevitably involves a lot of personal reflection and talking things out. The denouement was neat and satisfying, with a bit of high drama, characters getting exactly what they deserved, and an air of hope.
Self-examination includes the investigation of motives and evaluation of results of actions and beliefs. It is through reflection that the opportunity for growth exists. But it is a fallacy to assume that just because someone reflects on their life that they will improve. The conclusions drawn need to be acted upon in order to effect change.
Iris Murdoch makes this point rather well in The Nice and The Good. The central character, Ducane, endlessly ponders not only the nature of "good" but also his character and conduct -- which he desires to be good; yet he is almost paralyzed by his persistent agonizing, in the end acting in ways that might be nice but certainly are not good.
She also demonstrates that while "nice" is frequently popular, "good" is not necessarily so.
Now, for all of you thinking that "it sounds like a really boring book; I should remember to give it a miss," let me add that it contains two suspicious deaths and an investigation, government secrets and several love triangles, a daring rescue, flying saucers, puppy love, travel to distant countries and magic pagan rituals, not to mention several different mysteries!
"Theo had begun to glimpse the distance which separates the nice from the good, and the vision of this gap had terrified his soul".
Here, on the second page from the end, is the sentence which really sums up the whole book. Throughout, we see characters trying to be good yet feeling unfulfilled, and characters trying to be 'nice' and failing to be good. Set against the backdrop of a Whitehall thriller, mixed in with murder and the occult, you have 'The Nice and the Good'.
The message is not perhaps particularly inflammatory, yet what Iris Murdoch does is to highlight a group of people and explore how each individual struggles with the conundrum of being 'nice' or 'good'. Some choose to be simply 'nice' - entertaining, pleasant company but ultimately shallow and self-centered - while others attempt to be 'good'. Often they fail, and suffer in the attempt, but they come across ultimately as much more sympathetic.
All the characters, moreover, are fully-formed and believable people. Even the dog and the cat have distinct personalities.
I would definitely read this book again and recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading. It is not too hard a read, nor is it swamped by its message, but it remains with you long after the last page.