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“I Know the City Well”: The Metaphysical Cityscape in Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net

Jamieson Ridenhour

Although Under the Net is Iris Murdoch’s first novel, evidence of later themes is already present. Her preoccupation with solipsism as a hindrance to the just and loving gaze of true morality is starkly if comically drawn in the character of Jake Donoghue, the book’s picaresque protagonist, who suffers considerably from his faulty net of perception before finally starting on the slow road towards the good. Under the Net is also the first of many explorations of London by Murdoch. Using the city as a metaphorical foil for her protagonist’s metaphysical struggles, Murdoch creates a travel guide to self-absorption, giving the twisted ramblings of Jake’s moral journey a physical form huge and labyrinthine — the form of London itself.

Early in Under the Net, Jake analyzes his own tendency to vacillate between motion and stillness: ‘When I am fixed I am immobile,’ he says. ‘But when I am unfixed I am volatile, and then I fly at random from point to point like . . . one of Heisenberg’s electrons until I settle down again in another safe place’ (32). As a description of his own character and a presage of the physical and philosophical territory of the novel, Jake’s statement borders on the axiomatic. Under the Net is the story of Jake’s attempts to make sense of his relationships with those around him, hindered by his misconceptions of what those relationships actually are and by his own at times overwhelming solipsism. Jake is intelligent and self-absorbed (prerequisites for solipsism), and he is also parasitic, living in a series of flats owned by friends who display a varying degree of tolerance for his squatting. The precipitating incident of the novel is Jake’s eviction from one of these situations. This is also the cause of Jake’s becoming ‘unfixed,’ spending most of the novel in frenetic motion.

Jake’s ‘fly[ing] at random’ from self-absorption towards Murdochian Goodness (a journey we do not see him actually complete) is mirrored by his journeys through the streets of London. Murdoch makes frequent use of London in her work, employing a specificity of detail and geography that points to both a celebration of the city and an awareness of its reflection of the motives and actions of its inhabitants. Within the world of Under the Net, London features as prominently as any character and serves as the physical metaphor of Jake’s tangled worldview. But before we consider the city as a metaphor, we must first examine the philosophical points that it is a metaphor of.

Murdoch reveals Jake’s profound egocentrism as early as the first few pages of the novel, where Jake describes his companion Finn as ‘an inhabitant of my universe’ (9). He adds that he cannot imagine a universe of Finn’s that could contain Jake likewise. This decided and self-admitted refusal to acknowledge Finn’s autonomy is indicative, as Lenora McCall points out, of ‘self-absorption so intense that the narrator denies the independent existence of his best friend’ (15). We also learn in these opening pages that Jake is given to ‘morbid self-scrutiny’ (7) and has a ‘complex . . . and highly differentiated’ inner life (9). It is this inner life, in which he is the star of a sort of ongoing soap opera, that torments Jake throughout the novel while acting as the stimulus for most, if not all, of his actions. He believes that the people he is in relationship with either depend on him for their own reality (Finn), base their motives on reactions to his own actions (Hugo), or are in love with him (Magdelen, Sadie, Anna). That he is nearly one hundred percent wrong in his suppositions is a signpost to an important point that Murdoch makes in the novel.

Jake’s view of the world as a solar system of which he is the sun is a false perception, but it is one which Murdoch uses repeatedly to indicate her conception of morality. In ‘The Idea of Perfection,’ Murdoch describes her conviction that the ‘characteristic and proper mark of the active moral agent’ is attention, a word which she borrows from Simone Weil and defines as ‘a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality’ (34). Specifically, movement along a continuum towards perfect Goodness is accomplished by turning this sort of attention on something outside of oneself — on another person or ideal ‘lovingly without the blur imposed by the insatiable ego’ (McCall 7). In such a system, the ultimate sin is egoism. Jake eventually makes a step towards the other end of the spectrum by taking a job at a hospital and immersing himself in work with the patients there. The novel’s (and Jake’s) seemingly tireless motion is oriented towards this moral betterment.

The false perceptions that Jake holds about his world and its denizens inhibit this progress. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Iris Murdoch’s one-time teacher Ludwig Wittgenstein describes how our perceptions are imposed on reality in ways which create patterns:

Let us imagine a white surface with irregular black spots on it. We then say that whatever kind of picture these make, I can always approximate as closely as I wish to the description of it by covering the surface with a sufficiently fine square mesh, and then saying of every square whether it is black or white. In this way I shall have imposed a unified form on the description of the surface. The form is optional, since I could have achieved the same result by using a net with a triangular or hexagonal mesh . . . The different nets correspond to different systems for describing the world. (67-68)

This sort of imposition does not necessarily impart the truth of the reality being perceived; Wittgenstein goes on to say that ‘describing a picture like the one mentioned above with a net of a given form tells us nothing about the picture’ (68). One conclusion reached through this line of thinking is professed by Hugo Belfounder in Under the Net — that language (itself a form of net used to describe reality) is ultimately incapable of depicting truth, and therefore that silence is preferable to speech, action to dialogue. The novel’s title is a reference to the characters’ desire to get at the reality beneath the imposed pattern, to get ‘under the net.’

Under the Net is founded on this philosophical premise. Jake spends much of the book suffering from his misguided understanding of the motivations and intentions of those around him — both a symptom of a misplaced focus on the self over the other and an arbitrary ‘net’ that provides him with a distorted vision of reality. If the real world has patterns, they are decidedly not the ones which Jake has created. Jake’s false belief that Hugo has been harboring a festering anger over his (Jake’s) appropriation of the two friends’ philosophical discussions for his book The Silencer has led to years of shame and guilt. When Jake finally re-encounters his friend, Hugo’s almost offhanded praise of The Silencer as an original work of deep interest is shocking, partially because it shows that Jake’s belief was unfounded, but more so because of the years of friendship thrown away due to the depth of this belief. Likewise, Jake’s conviction that Hugo is in love with Anna is broken when he discovers that Hugo actually loves Sadie. This is in fact one strain too much on Jake’s net of perception; when he learns how wrong he has been, he tells us that ‘a pattern in my mind was suddenly scattered and the pieces of it went flying about me like birds'(225).

Numerous other examples abound: Magdelen is far from the naïve girl Jake takes her for, the hack author whose work Jake has spent years translating into English turns out to be a world-class novelist, and most tellingly, Finn leaves for Ireland where he hopes get back in touch with religion, proving at last that he does inhabit his own universe. Even the protracted episode involving the kidnapping of Mr. Mars shows how essentially unobservant Jake is — nearly ten pages of painstaking effort is needed to open the dog’s cage because Jake and Finn do not take the time to properly look for the latch. In short, there is not a single conclusion reached by Jake that turns out to be true. Jake’s attempts to sort out the real from his own illusions result in his ‘volatile’ and ‘random’ movements in the physical and moral space of the novel. And it is here that London becomes important.

As stated above, London does more than provide a setting for Under the Net. The great city here becomes the geographic representation of the way Jake views the world — the first of many times Iris Murdoch uses London to signify the difficult moral passages of her characters. Christine Sizemore posits that Murdoch’s representation of London is most often expressed as a labyrinth, an image which is related to that of the net or web but emphasizes ‘intricacy and irregularity of the pattern, unlike the pattern of a net, which is often regular’ (9). Another difference between the net and the labyrinth, according to Sizemore, is that the labyrinth traditionally has danger at its center: ‘at the center of the labyrinth is the Minotaur, and even spiderwebs in Murdoch’s works might well have poisonous spiders at the center’ (120). For purposes of Under the Net, however, London can be considered analogous to the net or web, representing the patterns Jake tries to force upon the world. Whether or not these patterns are ‘regular,’ they depend upon specific points of intersection between disparate strands. Even Sizemore admits that ‘when Murdoch extends the image of the labyrinth to relationships as well as to the city, she illustrates that her labyrinth is nonetheless related to Drabble’s network and Woolf’s web’ (120). Web, net, or labyrinth, the London of Under the Net is a complex warren of streets and houses presented in precise detail.

This precision of geography is a striking feature of the novel. Jake’s wanderings through London are given in such concrete terms that it is perfectly possible to trace on a map any one of his journeys. The path taken by the truck which carries away Anna’s things from the Riverside Theatre (in which Jake stows away) is given so explicitly that a determined reader can pinpoint the intersection where Jake gets off (where the Brompton Road meets Knightsbridge by Hyde Park). This is typical of all the many scenes of travel through London. Hugo’s avoidance of Jake after the escape from the hospital at the end of chapter eighteen is given in almost painstaking detail, the names of each street and alley recorded and traceable. The pub crawl in chapter seven, closely followed by the walk to the Thames by way of the General Post Office, reads like a guidebook. Readers know the street names for every residence of a character no matter how minor: Sadie lives in Welbeck Street, David in Goldhawk Road, Hugo near the Holborn Viaduct, Madge in Earl’s Court Road. Why this focus on specificity? Why do we need to know that Mrs. Tinckham’s shop is near Charlotte Street or that Jake used to live in Battersea and meet Hugo on the Chelsea Bridge?

One reason is because it matters to Jake. Jake is a Londoner through and through; his ‘dark London childhood’ (24) has created a character so steeped in the city that upon his returning from a trip to Paris we are told that ‘until I have been able to bury my head so deep in dear London that I can forget I have ever been away I am inconsolable’ (7). Jake’s identification of his life with the city is so complete that when he takes a taxi to Hugo’s flat at the end of the novel in what he describes as his ‘last act’ before a ‘long agony of reflection,’ he sees ‘London [pass] before [him] like the life of a drowning man’ (238). He tells us that he ‘knows the City well’ (93), and that it is ‘invisible in its familiarity’ (238), an integral part of who Jake is. Jake significantly remains in London, apart from his brief sojourn in Paris on Bastille Day. Most of the other major characters leave: Hugo moves to Nottingham to study with a watchmaker, Anna launches a singing career in Paris, Sadie sets off for a film career in America, Finn returns to Dublin. The fact that Jake remains strengthens his connection to London, deepening the reader’s sense that Jake’s condition is somehow tied to that of the city.

As important as Jake’s connection to London for sentimental reasons is his connection on philosophic grounds. If London functions as a labyrinth or net in the novel, one result for the reader is the highlighting of Jake’s Wittgensteinian net of perception, which to Jake is as concrete and irrefutable as the urban landscape around him. Jake can rely on his knowledge of the city just as he feels he can rely on his informed and reflective worldview. Jake’s recitations of the landmarks and patterns of the city are like arcane knowledge — incantations against the unknown: ‘There is always someone in Soho who knows what one wants to discover’ (32); ‘[i]f you have ever tried to sleep on the Victoria Embankment, you will know that the chief difficulty is that the seats are divided in the middle’ (155). Again, Jake ‘knows the City,’ a statement true whether the ‘C’ is capitalized or not.

Jake himself tells us, early in the novel, that his net of perception is inextricably tied to his knowledge of London:

There are some parts of London which are necessary and others which are contingent. Everywhere west of Earl’s Court is contingent, except for a few places along the river. I hate contingency. I want everything in my life to have a sufficient reason. (24)

This division of the city is as arbitrary as any other net thrown over any other concept, and there is evidence that it is just as false. Several pivotal events occur in ‘unnecessary’ parts of the city. Jake initially dislikes David Gellman’s flat because of its location in ‘contingent’ Goldhawk Road, but it is there, at the hospital next door, where Jake first finds the ability to step outside of himself and focus on others. And the lack of ‘sufficient reason’ applies to actions that occur in ‘necessary’ London, such as the pub crawl starting from Hugo’s Holborn flat and the kidnapping of Mr. Mars from Sammy’s Chelsea address. A look at some of the specific locations in the novel may help to elucidate the relationship between Jake’s worldview and his geography.

The various picaresque episodes of Under the Net occur in very specific places. Nowhere in the novel can be found an ambiguous location. As stated above, the evocation of specific addresses becomes almost totemistic in the novel. But despite Jake’s confident insistence on giving exact points of reference, his own beliefs and desires are repeatedly shown to be inaccurate. A case in point is Sadie’s flat in Welbeck Street. Sadie, a rising film star, has a desirable address in Mayfair: Welbeck Street is just south of Regent’s Park and adjacent to Oxford and Baker Streets. Jake’s two visits here are disastrous. At first excited about landing an easy job as Sadie’s bodyguard in a posh flat, Jake finds himself literally trapped when Sadie locks him in — one of several instances of being trapped or caged in the novel that reflect Jake’s being trapped in his own cage of false truths. He requires David and Finn to break him out. When Jake returns later in the novel to eavesdrop on Sadie and Sammy, he finds himself in a situation even more uncomfortable when he is observed on the fire escape by two char women in the opposite house:

‘Better call the police, if you ask me,’ said the char. ‘Better to have the police deal with them kind,
I always think.’
The house opposite stood on one side of a wide cobbled lane which gave on to Queen Anne Street. At the corner of this lane I now saw that a small crowd was collecting, attracted by the drama on the fire escape.
. . . Then the char, who had retired for a moment, reappeared armed with an extremely long cobweb brush. ‘Shall I poke ‘im with my brush and see what ‘e does?’ (119)

Jake’s actions here come into collision with the perceptions of others, with embarrassing results.

Similar, if not quite so extreme, situations occur in other locations: eviction and a humbling encounter with Sammy at the Earl’s Court flat, the drawn-out kidnapping at Sammy’s Chelsea flat culminating in Mr. Mars’ release from the cage at a warehouse in Hammersmith, the riot and explosion at Belfounder Studios in south London (where ‘contingency reaches the point of nausea’) (139). In each instance Jake attempts to take a decisive action based on his understanding of the state of things, and in each instance he miscalculates to the point of embarrassment. The specificity of the locations reminds the reader of Jake’s convictions (he knows his worldview the way he knows London) while at the same time leaving a traceable trail of false truths — Chelsea is where Jake couldn’t unlock Mars’ cage, Hammersmith is where he missed Anna, etc.

This is most graphically demonstrated at the point in the novel where Jake, David, and Finn attempt to find Hugo in the pub near his flat. The trio have visited Hugo’s rooms and found a note saying ‘Gone to the Pub.’ They decide to search for Hugo. Here Jake’s misinterpretation of Hugo intersects directly with his confidence in London’s topography:

‘Which way?’ asked Dave.
I know the City well. We could either go westward to the King Lud and the pubs of Fleet Street, or we could go eastward to the less frequented alley-twisted and church-dominated pubs of the City. I conjured up Hugo’s character.
‘East,’ I said. (93)

Near the end of the novel Hugo tells Jake he had been in the King Lud that night.

In contrast to the specific locations where episodes occur in Under the Net are the journeys between these points, the threads between intersections of the net. Murdoch gives the routes Jake uses to traverse the city in as fixed and distinct terms as the addresses; the novel is one of motion and kineticism delivered with a concreteness that leaves nothing to the imagination. Peter Wolfe finds this to be a shortcoming of the novel, noting that in her later work Murdoch is able to ‘[represent] life as transient and unstable without including such an abundance of physical motion’ (64).

Wolfe has failed, however, to make the connection between Jake’s negotiation of his perceptions of reality and his frenetic roaming through the city. The ‘abundance of physical motion’ in the novel is the natural expression of the constant re-evaluation of his stance that Jake undergoes with each awakening to a new misunderstanding. Jake spends the novel in actual and metaphysical motion, reshaping his ideas as he races to the next location. Often it seems as if the act of moving creates new convictions in Jake’s mind. He frequently, while wandering the streets, feels a sudden and unexplained urge to see Hugo or Anna: ‘When I left Goldhawk Road I had no intention of looking for Anna, but by the time I was passing Bond Street it really seemed that there was nothing else in the world that was worth doing. Indeed, it was unclear to me how I had managed to exist without her for so long’ (32). The novel contains several long journeys, some in vehicles (the trip from Riverside to Knightsbridge in the moving truck, the taxi ride to Hugo’s flat at the novel’s end), but mostly on foot — the interminable trek from Belfounder Studios along Old Kent Road, for example. The novel opens with Jake walking up Earl’s Court Road, just having arrived back from France. His later trip to Paris to look for Anna is a long meander that ultimately leads to his realization that Anna is lost to him.

The most overt example of this highly detailed wandering occurs during the search through the pubs for Hugo in chapter seven. We are given a meticulous recreation of the streets and pubs visited:

From the darkness and shade of St. Paul’s Churchyard we came into Cheapside as into a bright arena, and saw framed in the gap of a ruin the pale neat rectangles of St. Nicholas Cole Abbey, standing alone away south of us on the other side of Cannon Street . . . As we passed St. Verdast the top of the sky was vibrating into a later blue, and turning into what used to be Freeman’s Court we entered a Henekey’s house. (95)

This sense of constant motion is the strongest impression of Under the Net. Murdoch’s desire to physically express the labyrinthine turnings of Jake’s journey towards selflessness finds few resting places. Jake spends nearly the entire novel wandering London, leading some critics to compare him with Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus in the streets of Dublin (Wolfe 63). But there is at least one resting place, one place of refuge for our hapless protagonist.

Jake has told us that when unfixed he flies around like ‘one of Heisenberg’s electrons until [he] settle[s] down again in a safe place’ (32). But where is a safe place for Jake? We have already seen that most of the locations in the novel are merely sites of embarrassment or disillusionment. In fact, there is only one site in London that is a recurrent place of sanctuary for Jake — Mrs. Tinckham’s shop ‘in the neighborhood of Charlotte Street’ (15). The mysterious Mrs. Tinckham, confidant, keeper of belongings, loaner of money, receiver of mail, is the closest thing to a truly Good character in Under the Net (Hugo doesn’t fit this description for a variety of reasons, not least his selfish attachment to Sadie). Mrs. Tinckham repeatedly gives assistance, advice, and rest to Jake while asking nothing in return. It is in her shop that Jake makes his final discovery of his literary vocation (in another Dedalus-like moment); it is Mrs. Tinckham who confirms Finn’s independent existence when she is revealed as his confidant as well as Jake’s. Indeed, Mrs. Tinckham’s shop appears to exist mainly for the benefit of people like Jake; he has never seen her sell any literature even though has ‘spent many peaceful hours’ there (16). Jake returns to her shop at the end of the novel as if returning home, and Mrs. Tinckham welcomes him in a mysterious manner more befitting a deity than a shopkeeper:

Mrs. Tinckham’s voice came to me out of the wreath of tobacco smoke.
She seemed to have been expecting me. But then she always expected me. I sat down at the little table.
‘Hello, dearie,’ said Mrs. Tinck, ‘you’ve been a long time.’
‘It took a long time,’ I said. (245)

If Jake’s frenzied travels are symbols of his struggles with the fruits of self-absorption, Mrs. Tinckham’s shop is the slightly higher plane he has reached by the novel’s end. Jake is not a paragon of Murdochian Good at the book’s close, but he is somewhat better off, as evidenced by his joy in anticipating his new writing career and his intention to work part-time in a hospital. The trials of Jake’s London explorations seem to finally be worth something in the end.

Works Cited

McCall, Lenora Clary. ‘The Solipsistic Narrator in Iris Murdoch.’ Diss. University of South Carolina, 1990.

Murdoch, Iris. ‘The Idea of Perfection.’ The Sovereignty of Good. New York: Schocken, 1971.

—, Under the Net. 1954. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Sizemore, Christine Wick. A Female Vision of the City: London in the Novels of Five British Women. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. 1921. Trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness. London: Routledge, 1961.

Wolfe, Peter. The Disciplined Heart: Iris Murdoch and Her Novels. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1966.

To Cite This Article:

Jamieson Ridenhour, ‘”I Know the City Well”: The Metaphysical Cityscape in Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 1 Number 1 (March 2003). Online at Accessed on [date of access].