Iris Murdoch’s Swan Song: Jackson’s Dilemma Book Review

It was with considerable apprehension that I approached Iris Murdoch’s last novel Jackson’s Dilemma, but that’s the feeling I get whenever I encounter a great artist’s late work.Sometimes I revere an artist so much that I don’t want to see what they created when their age caught up to them. For this reason, to this day I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch any of Alfred Hitchcock‘s films post-Marnie. Similarly, one of my all-time favorite novelists is Leo Tolstoy, but I dread the thought of reading his late work What is Art, where he purportedly rambles on about how Hamlet and even Anna Karenina are not art. Sometimes, late work will go in the opposite direction. Some artists give bravura performances near the end of their lives. Such a case would be Saul Bellow, who wrote Ravelstein two years before his death, and I’d say that novel is better than some of what he wrote while in his prime. Iris Murdoch’s case is different. Jackson’s Dilemma is the last book she wrote before she sadly succumbed to Alzheimer’s and we lost another great mind to that horrible disease. I feared that the early symptoms of her condition might have affected her storytelling facility for the worse. In short, I was wrong.

Jackson’s Dilemma is actually a perfectly fine, if short, novel. I was frequently amazed by how well Iris Murdoch juggled different subplots without losing any of them. In keeping with so many of her novels, Jackson’s Dilemma is a comedy of errors that combines the large casts you’d expect from Shakespeare with the light philosophizing you’d find in Moliere.

The story begins shortly before a young couple are to be wed. Edward, the groom, is a kind yet stuffy Englishman while his bride-to-be, Marian, is a repressed young woman on the verge of becoming a free spirit. When their marriage dematerializes early on in the story, both of their lives take very different directions. The book is not just about this pair of jilted lovers though. As you continue reading, the cast becomes larger and larger as many of the main wedding guests’ lives are also delved into, and the reader gets a panoramic view of romance in all of its different stages.

The master of ceremonies of this masquerade is Jackson, a former homeless man who is now the caretaker of a large estate. In the course of the story, he meets every character and finds some way to try to help them. As a character, Jackson is sort of like a mixture of Ariel and Caliban. He possesses Ariel’s magic (albeit a more subtle variety) and Caliban’s mysteriousness (although he’s infinitely nicer). He provides the novel with a center, and as Yeats tells us, if the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed on the world. As the reader, I had to cheer for Jackson for everyone’s sake.


I have written my own comedy of manners titled A Rapturous Occasion. It’s about a middle-aged couple’s fear of the Apocalypse, and how their fear changes their family in unexpected ways. If this sounds like something you’d like to read, please visit the Amazon product page, where it’s available in paperback and as an ebook.


I have so far read five novels by Iris Murdoch. I only discovered her work this year. Out of the five, I’d say I found Jackson’s Dilemma to be more satisfying than The Italian Girl, Under the Net, and A Severed Head, although my favorite of her work would still have to be A Fairly Honorable Defeat (which I’d highly recommend). At 250 pages, and set to a brisk pace, Jackson’s Dilemma is a quick read, and is more than worth the time it takes to complete.


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