Pictures of Evil: Iris Murdoch's Solution to the "Dryness" of Cancel Culture

Date of Award


Degree Name

M.A. in English


Department of English


David Fine


While Iris Murdoch scholars tend to focus pointedly on her moral quest for goodness, I plan to demonstrate that appreciating her unique brand of metaphysics is not possible without also deciphering her lesser-analyzed philosophy of evil. In "Against Dryness" (1961) Murdoch claims that modern literature "contains so few convincing pictures of evil" and that our inability to "imagine evil" is a consequence of our post-war perception of humanity, which she believed was far too optimistic given the human atrocities committed in the twentieth century. We are thus left with a dangerous fantasy that humans are "totally free and responsible, knowing everything we need to know for the important purposes of life," which is a dry view because it fails to consider that humans are complex, contingent, and morally muddled. I will show how Murdoch's problem of dryness exists in today's pervasive social media practice of "cancel culture" which, like a dry novel, also paints an overly optimistic view of human nature and naively assumes that humans can readily choose acts of good over evil. I will do so by analyzing Murdoch's evil enchanters-particularly a chillingly demonic scene in The Flight From The Enchanter (1956) that involves a dry interpretation of the pornographic photograph surreptitiously taken of Rosa Keepe in which Calvin Blick exclaims: 'This is my eye' . . . 'This is the truthful eye that sees and remembers. The lens of my camera.' Just as Calvin's evil eye judges Rosa within the rigid confines of one snapshot in time, those who participate in cancel culture utilize similar reductive tactics to determine the moral value of a person based upon a sole photo, text, or event and purposefully do not make any space to consider the entire-invariably muddled, flawed, and complex- picture of the life of the individual they contemptuously excoriate and seek to cancel. The solutions to dryness that Murdoch's philosophy intimates are twofold: on the moral side, we must first recognize and accept the patterns of evil that invariably exist within ourselves and others as complex human beings in order to envision a goodness that emanates from Simone Weil's practice of attention and waiting that is also dependent upon sincerely acknowledging the differences of others and approaching them (and their particular circumstances) with a just and loving gaze. On the literary side, I assert that dryness, or our modern inability to attend to the proclivities of evil that exist in everyday man, portended dangerous mainstream ideological movements such as cancel culture, which can only be tempered by moving away from theory and toward the particulars of individual experience. I conclude by demonstrating that Murdoch would instead support the nurturing of a philosophical-literary discourse that is predicated not upon the depersonalization and stereotyping of the individual and the text in favor of group- identity theorizing that today prevails in academic literary critique, but rather upon the Liberal values of viewpoint diversity and robust yet honest debate in the search for truth and The Good, which I assert should supplant the practice of cancel culture.


Literature, Educational Theory, Social Research, Iris Murdoch, Modern Evil, Flight From the Enchanter, A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Against Dryness, Cancel Culture, Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Rights Statement

Copyright © 2022, author