Classic Literature

“Under the Net” by Iris Murdoch: A Masterpiece Explored

Discover the pivotal characters, central themes, and the profound impact of this literary masterpiece on British literature.

Last Updated on April 26, 2024 by BiblioLifestyle

Exploring Iris Murdoch Under the Net

Iris Murdoch’s debut novel “Under the Net” is a literary masterpiece that demands your attention. In this novel, you can expect richly layered characters and thought-provoking themes. You can also expect a captivating exploration of the human experience and the complexities of relationships.

The first Iris Murdoch book I ever read was “The Sea, The Sea” and it remains one of my all-time favorite novels. “Under the Net” is also another brilliant novel and I immediately fell in love with Murdoch’s writing style and her ability to capture the complexities of human emotions so beautifully on the page. I’ve often recommended “Under the Net” if you’re a beginner to Murdoch’s work, or if you’re simply looking for an intriguing and thought-provoking read.

So in this article, I will share the central themes of “Under the Net” by Iris Murdoch, its pivotal characters, and the novel’s profound and enduring impact on the world of literature and beyond. So whether you’re a Murdoch fan or just looking to dive into the world of British literature, this article is for you.

About “Under the Net” by Iris Murdoch


“Under the Net” by Iris Murdoch is a philosophical novel that intertwines humor, adventure, and introspection, taking its readers on an engaging journey through post-war London. The story is narrated by Jake Donaghue, a struggling writer and translator with a penchant for intellectual and emotional escapades. Jake’s adventures begin with his eviction from a friend’s apartment, setting off a chain of events that forces him to examine his relationships, beliefs, and his pursuit of authenticity. Alongside a vivid cast of characters, including the enigmatic Anna Quentin, Jake’s pragmatic friend Finn, and the charismatic movie star Hugo Belfounder, Jake’s quest leads him into a series of comic situations and existential reflections. The novel explores themes of communication and miscommunication, the complexity of human relationships, and the quest for truth beneath the tangled webs of social interaction. Through Jake’s eyes, Murdoch presents a vibrant, albeit chaotic, exploration of life’s unpredictability and the importance of understanding oneself and others.

Background of “Under the Net” by Iris Murdoch

“Under the Net” is set in the bustling, post-war London of the 1950s, a time of great social and cultural change. This period serves as a vibrant backdrop to the novel, reflecting the chaotic and rapidly evolving nature of the city itself. London’s diverse neighborhoods, from the affluent areas to the more bohemian corners, are not merely settings but integral to the narrative, influencing the characters’ journeys and interactions. The city, with its pubs, theaters, and winding streets, becomes a character in its own right, embodying the sense of freedom and possibility that post-war life offered. This setting also allows Murdoch to explore the complexities of the human condition against the canvas of a society in the throes of recovery and transformation. The historical and cultural context of 1950s London enriches the novel’s exploration of existential themes, making “Under the Net” not only a philosophical inquiry but also a time capsule of a pivotal moment in British history.

Get a copy of Under the Net by Iris Murdoch on Amazon or Bookshop.

Iris Murdoch Under the Net

Pivotal Characters of “Under the Net” by Iris Murdoch

Jake Donaghue

Jake Donaghue is the protagonist of “Under the Net.” A young, intellectual, and somewhat aimless writer, he navigates the convoluted landscape of post-war London with a blend of humor, introspection, and philosophical musing. His character is central to the narrative, offering insight into the novel’s themes of truth, communication, and self-discovery. Throughout the story, Jake’s adventures and misadventures serve as a vehicle for exploring existential questions and the complexities of human relationships. His interactions with other characters are marked by misunderstandings and a quest for authenticity, making him a relatable and deeply human character.

Anna Quentin

Anna Quentin is one of the novel’s most enigmatic figures. A talented singer, she captures Jake’s fascination and serves as one of his primary motivations throughout his journey. Her elusive nature and complex relationship with Jake highlight themes of miscommunication and the elusive nature of truth. Anna’s character challenges Jake (and readers) to consider the barriers we construct in our attempts to connect with others and the realities we choose to accept.


Finn is Jake’s steadfast companion and contrasts starkly with Jake’s more philosophical and less practical nature. He embodies loyalty and a down-to-earth perspective, grounding Jake’s more abstract pursuits and serving as a sounding board for his ideas. Finn’s practicality and simplicity provide a counterpoint to the novel’s more complex characters and themes, emphasizing the value of straightforwardness and fidelity in a world rife with complication.

Hugo Belfounder

Hugo Belfounder, a charismatic and philosophical movie star, emerges as one of the novel’s most pivotal figures. His friendship with Jake is marked by deep philosophical conversations that play a significant role in shaping the narrative’s exploration of communication and misunderstanding. Hugo’s views on truth and language influence Jake profoundly, driving much of his existential inquiry. Their relationship, fraught with unspoken truths and misinterpretations, underscores the novel’s central themes and challenges the reader to question the possibility of genuine understanding between individuals.

These characters, along with a vibrant supporting cast, weave a rich tapestry that explores the intricacies of human connection, the pursuit of authenticity, and the endless quest for understanding in a perplexing world. Through them, Murdoch crafts a narrative that is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining, leaving a lasting impact on the reader.

Get a copy of Under the Net by Iris Murdoch on Amazon or Bookshop.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

Central Themes of “Under the Net” by Iris Murdoch

“Under the Net” by Iris Murdoch is ripe with motifs and themes that provide a deep exploration into the human psyche, relationships, and the quest for authenticity in a post-war context.

The Quest for Authenticity

At the heart of “Under the Net” lies a profound quest for authenticity. Through Jake’s intellectual and emotional odyssey, Murdoch examines what it means to live authentically. Jake’s encounters and reflections serve as a metaphor for the existential pursuit of an unmediated life, free from the nets of societal expectations and personal illusions.

Communication and Miscommunication

Another central theme is the complex nature of communication and the ease of miscommunication among individuals. Through the intricate relationships between Jake, Anna, Finn, and Hugo, Murdoch portrays the difficulties inherent in understanding and being understood by others. The novel suggests that language, often seen as a tool for connection, can also act as a barrier that isolates individuals and complicates their relationships.

The Nature of Freedom

Freedom is explored both as an external circumstance and as an internal state of being. Jake’s physical and metaphorical journeys through London and his interactions with various characters reflect his search for freedom. Murdoch uses these narratives to question whether true freedom is attainable and what it might mean to live freely amidst social and personal constraints.

The Complexity of Human Relationships

“Under the Net” intricately lays bare the complexities of human relationships. Through the protagonist’s interactions, Murdoch explores themes of friendship, love, betrayal, and the perpetual quest for connection. The novel portrays these relationships with depth and nuance, highlighting the often paradoxical nature of human connections.

The Role of Art and the Artist

Murdoch also delves into the role of art and the artist in society. Through Jake’s struggles as a writer and his reflections on his own work and that of others, the novel raises questions about the purpose of art and its impact on the artist and audience alike. This theme is particularly poignant in the backdrop of post-war London, a time of significant cultural and artistic upheaval.

Through these themes, Iris Murdoch’s “Under the Net” challenges readers to reflect on their own experiences of authenticity, communication, freedom, and the complexity of relationships in their lives. The novel remains a compelling exploration of existential themes, as relevant today as it was at the time of its publication.

Get a copy of Under the Net by Iris Murdoch on Amazon or Bookshop.

Under the Net Iris Murdoch

Significance of Language in “Under the Net” by Iris Murdoch

Language emerges as a profoundly significant theme in Iris Murdoch’s “Under the Net.” Through the lens of its protagonist, Jake Donaghue, the novel probes the intricacies and often the insufficiency of language as a medium for authentic connection and understanding. Murdoch ingeniously uses conversations, inner monologues, and Jake’s reflections to underscore how language, while essential for human interaction, frequently falls short of encapsulating the full spectrum of human emotions and truths. The miscommunications between characters, especially between Jake and Hugo Belfounder, highlight the limitations and the sometimes deceptive nature of language. Murdoch posits that true understanding might lie beyond verbal or written communication, in the unspoken or in the realms of action and experience. This exploration invites readers to ponder the essence of communication and the quest for authenticity in relationships, making “Under the Net” a compelling study of language’s role in human connection and the misunderstandings that shape our interactions.

Legacy and Influence of “Under the Net” by Iris Murdoch

In Literature

Iris Murdoch’s “Under the Net” has left an indelible mark on the landscape of 20th-century literature, celebrated for its innovative exploration of existential themes and the complexities of human relationships. Its intellectual vibrancy and philosophical depth have influenced generations of writers, encouraging a more introspective and nuanced approach to character development and narrative structure. Murdoch’s skillful blend of humor, philosophical inquiry, and the examination of the human condition continues to inspire and challenge authors and readers alike, ensuring its place in the canon of English literature.


To the best of my knowledge, “Under the Net” has not been adapted. I understand that to some degree the novel’s introspective and philosophical nature poses unique challenges for adaptation. But with the right screenwriter, I think this could be achieved, whether it stays true to the original narrative or takes a more modern retelling route. However, it’s worth noting that the themes Murdoch explores—such as the quest for authenticity, the complexities of communication, and the intricacies of human relationships—are pervasive in creative works across these mediums.

Society and Culture

“Under the Net” has transcended its literary origins to influence society and culture in broader, more diffuse ways. Its themes of authenticity, freedom, and the limitations of language resonate with contemporary discussions around identity, communication, and the search for meaning in an increasingly complex world. Murdoch’s examination of the human struggle for genuine connection and understanding has found echoes in modern philosophical discourse, self-help literature, and social media dialogues, illustrating the novel’s enduring relevance. The book’s emphasis on the importance and difficulty of authentic living has inspired readers to reflect on their own lives and relationships, making it a timeless piece in the exploration of human existence.

Get a copy of Under the Net by Iris Murdoch on Amazon or Bookshop.

Under the Net

The Enduring Impact of “Under the Net” by Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch’s “Under the Net” stands as a testament to the enduring impact of literary works that dare to explore the intricacies of human nature and the quest for authenticity. Decades after its first publication, Murdoch’s novel continues to resonate with readers and thinkers alike, drawing them into a philosophical reflection on the complexities of life, relationships, and art. Its undiminished appeal lies in Murdoch’s ability to weave together humor, intellectual depth, and existential inquiry in a narrative that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. “Under the Net” not only remains a pivotal work in Murdoch’s illustrious career but also retains its significance as a vital piece of literature that challenges and inspires, proving that its insights into human existence are as relevant today as they were at the time of its writing.

Get a copy of Under the Net by Iris Murdoch on Amazon or Bookshop.

Have you read Under the Net by Iris Murdoch?

What do you think about Under the Net by Iris Murdoch? Is Under the Net on your TBR? Have you read any books by Iris Murdoch? Let’s talk all about Iris Murdoch and Under the Net in the comments below.


A Deep Dive Into Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

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