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.
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!
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.
Octavian and his wife Kate are wealthy, with a small estate in the countryside outside London. Ducane is, in addition to being Octavian’s subordinate at work, a family friend, so he often visits the Gray household, which supports a menagerie of people. (One of the aspects of the novel that makes it intriguing for American readers is seeing a mode of life that we have no analogue for, and that perhaps no longer exists in England either.) A family friend, Mary Clothier, lives at the house and helps out, almost like a servant. She is a widow, and is in love with Willy Kost, a Holocaust survivor who lives in a cottage, away from the main house. However, Willy seems too emotionally damaged to reciprocate Mary’s love. Mary’s son, Pierce, has grown up in the house. Pierce is infatuated with Barbara, the daughter of Octavian and Kate. She has just returned from finishing school in Switzerland, having blossomed into a nubile young lady, but she treats Pierce with callous disdain. At some level, Barbara realizes that she is being cruel to Pierce, but she is having trouble navigating the loss of innocence that becoming an adult entails: “When I was younger, when I read in the papers and in books and things about really nasty people, bad people, I felt so completely good and innocent inside myself, I felt that these people were just utterly different from me, that I could never become bad or behave really badly like them. …I’m afraid it’s all turning out to be much more difficult than I expected” (63). Another frequent visitor to the Gray household is Paula, a brilliant classicist who has a pair of preternaturally bright, pre-pubescent twins, Edward and Henrietta. Paula is divorced from Richard Biranne, who works in the same office with Octavian and Ducane. Biranne is known to be a rake, so everyone assumes that Paula divorced him. In fact, Biranne’s vices were part of his appeal to Paula: “Chaste Paula, cool Paula, bluestocking Paula, had found in her husband’s deviously lecherous nature a garden of undreamt delights” (147). The cause for the divorce was actually Paula’s affair with another man, Eric Sears, which ended so disastrously that Eric fled the country. But Eric has written that he is coming back. Paula does not want him to return, and she is now in a whirlwind of uncertainty about how to deal with him.
Ducane himself is pursuing a relationship with Kate Gray. This relationship is not an affair as we would think of it, though. It is more like a Platonic love in the truest sense of that term, and the two never do more than kiss: “The wonderful thing about Kate was that she was unattainable; and this was what was to set him free forever” (104). Moreover, Octavian is fully aware of Ducane’s relationship with his wife. In fact, we learn that Kate and Octavian are titillated by her flirtations with other men, so much so that discussing it is part of their foreplay. Ducane’s relationship with Kate is complicated by the fact that Ducane himself has been trying to end a relationship with Jessica, an art teacher much younger than himself. Jessica’s “integrity took the form of a contempt for the fixed, the permanent, the solid, in general ‘the old’, a contempt which, as she grew older herself, became a sort of deep fear. So it was that some poor untutored craving in her for the Absolute, for that which after all is most fixed, most permanent, most solid and most old, had to express itself incognito” (84). Ducane became for her that Absolute, and she loves him to the point of idolatry. However, Ducane does not reciprocate her love. Ducane himself is, in many ways, a good man, but he faces “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 is thought about in the wrong way” (77). Well, that will do for now. There are more characters, but the preceding are most of the important ones, and the others I cannot explain without giving away plot points.
As its title suggests, one of the themes of the novel is the distinction between being nice and being good. Ironically, even though the setting of the story is so quintessentially English, this particular theme is an especially important lesson for us Americans to learn. Someone once said that the true religions of the American people are optimism and denial. We so often confuse being “positive,” “nonjudgmental,” “easy to get along with” – in a word, “nice” – with being a good person. But the two are not in any way the same. Kate is very nice, but that niceness has an intrinsic element of falsity. Ducane says, “Her idea is that our relationship is to be simple and sunny, and simple and sunny I must faithfully make it to be” (138). If the Devil exists, he is no doubt very nice: all the better to seduce us into wrongdoing. Good people, in contrast, are sometimes gruff, sometimes blunt, sometimes cruel in order to be kind. (Contrast the television characters House and Chase. Which is a nicer person? Which is a better person?) Murdoch also teaches us that to be good is not to be perfect. Willy Kost rebuffs Barbara’s request to tutor her: his motive is good, but it is good because he is aware he must protect her, and himself, from other motives that are not good (182-185).
If there is any flaw in this jewel of a novel, it is that its ultimate conclusion is perhaps overly sanguine. This might sound like a strange critique of a novel so focused on human frailty in the face of temptation. The novel is filled with dalliances. Sometimes they have catastrophic consequences, but one is left with a sense that this is inevitable, and everything will turn out fine as long as we forgive each other: “All we can do is constantly notice when we begin to act badly, to check ourselves, to go back, to coax our weakness and inspire our strength, to call upon the names of virtues of which we know perhaps only the names. We are not good people, and the best we can hope for is to be gentle, to forgive each other and to forgive the past, to be forgiven ourselves and to accept this forgiveness, and to return again to the beautiful unexpected strangeness of the world” (198-199). We humans are just as weak, and forgiveness just as beautiful as the novel suggests, but one wonders whether these truths have become rationalizations that are ultimately enervating. As Willy warns someone, “…in hell one lacks the energy for any good change. This indeed is the meaning of hell” (283). (Murdoch’s own personal life perhaps illustrates this danger. See the moving film Iris .)
One of the wonderful things about Murdoch was her openness to religious traditions as sources of spiritual inspiration, whether one is a believer or not. So it is not out of place to end this review by recalling that Jesus saves the adulteress from being stoned to death by challenging the crowd, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (the forgiveness that comes with love). But let us also not forget that his final words to her are, “Go, and sin no more” (the strictness that comes with the law).
"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.