For some people, words are more real than anything else. More real than the things they represent.
A Word Child is a brilliant novel by Iris Murdoch (her 17th, to be precise). Its central character and narrator, Hilary Burde, says of himself:
‘I discovered words and words were my salvation. I was not, except in some very broken-down sense of that ambiguous term, a love child. I was a word child.’ (A Word Child, Iris Murdoch)
By this point in the novel, we already know that he was a love child: ‘the illegitimate offspring of a ‘tart’ and a man he never knew’ (Ray Monk, from the introduction to A Word Child). Hilary is saved from his unsavoury childhood in an orphanage when he discovers his gift for languages, which lands him a place at Oxford.
Around the time that she wrote A Word Child, Murdoch gave a lecture called ‘Salvation by Words’, in which she argued that literature was the art which is ‘the most practically important for our survival and our salvation’. In it, she said ‘Words constitute the ultimate texture and stuff of our moral being…[they are] the symbolisms whereby we express ourselves into existence.’ (Ray Monk/Iris Murdoch, ‘Salvation by Words’)
The words we use don’t just describe our world; they create it, too. Our internal narrative shapes the world around us.
As Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, ‘the limits of our language mean the limits of our world’.
For word children, reality – if there is such a thing – can be a slippery subject. It’s about what happens at the intersection of reality, when the words themselves collide with their meanings. To a word child, reality is as tractable as the language which describes it. It can be nudged and tweaked and twisted into submission.
Hilary’s stories lead him down a pretty shady path. As a young Oxford don, he has an affair with the wife of a colleague. He then accidentally kills his lover in a car accident, when driving like a maniac. Both he and Gunnar, his colleague, are forced to leave Oxford. Twenty years pass. He and Gunnar cross paths again in the civil service, and Hilary embarks on an affair with his second wife. As if that weren’t enough, the second affair results in the second wife’s accidental drowning.
‘He imagines that his love for Kitty is redemptive…in all this, he is fooling himself…the articulate can tell themselves stories that are extremely difficult to distinguish from reality. Words are our salvation when used to describe reality; when mistaken for reality, they become our prison.’ (Ray Monk)
Hilary manages to convince himself, through his internal narrative, that starting up a second affair with the wife of a man he cuckolded and then widowed isn’t a bad idea. He imagines that the symmetry of the story will absolve his guilt.
‘The problem is not that Hilary is incurably wicked, it is that the very liveliness of his intellect renders him perpetually liable to succumb to fantasies of his own making.’ (Ray Monk)
Precisely because he is a ‘word child’, he is vulnerable to temptations to stray from the simple, honest, true path: ‘”word children” have, if anything, more need of simple moral guidance than the illiterate and the inarticulate.’ (Ray Monk)
A Word Child is a testament to the power of the stories we tell ourselves. It is both a warning and a celebration of that power, although Murdoch’s emphasis settles firmly on the warning.
You can read snippets of Ray Monk’s full intro to A Word Child here on Google Books.