The novel tells the story of Murphy, whose favorite pastime is tying himself to his rocking chair naked so as to avoid the outside world and retreat into the comforts of his own mind. Contrary to this life’s ambition is his love for Celia, a former prostitute who seeks a life of traditional domestic happiness for them both, which means that Murphy must go out into the big world and get a job or she will have to go back to hers. Murphy is morbidly opposed to steady employment, but guided by the astrological predictions of the swami Suk (“Famous throughout Civilised World and Irish Free State” ), agrees to look for work rather than have Celia leave him. A happenstance meeting with Ticklepenny the drunken bard lands him a position as a male nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat hospital for the deranged, where Murphy admires the isolation of the more severe patients. Separated from Celia, he alienates Ticklepenny and retreats to his room to once again seek solace within his own mind. The novel’s climax comes when Murphy plays one of the patients in chess (Beckett lists their game in descriptive notation with commentary) and is unable to reach an endgame, realizing that he has become disconnected from his loved ones through his own isolation.
Murphy’s withdrawal becomes more understandable when one considers Beckett’s portrait of the world outside; what Murphy’s former teacher Neary (his name an anagram) calls the “big blooming buzzing confusion” (4) where the characters have no one to depend on and personal desires for money and sex drive humanity beyond compassion. Such greed makes Beckett’s world so cut-throat that it borders on the ridiculous. When one of her tenants slits his throat, Murphy’s landlady Miss Carriage (say it quickly!) concerns herself solely with how to obtain assistance without paying a doctor’s fee. Celia cannot disguise the swagger in her hips and is pursued by amorously-disposed lechers on every street corner. As for our eponymous protagonist; simpleminded chandlers ruthlessly mock him when he finally applies for his first job, Miss Carriage refuses to help him obtain extra funds from his generous uncle, and he even hears a cuckoo clock relentlessly crying Quid pro quo! as it strikes the hour. Murphy’s rocking chair, on the other hand, is his dependable haven from the outside, for it is “guaranteed not to crack, warp, shrink, corrode, or creak at night,” as Beckett notes on the first page.
Likewise, the novel’s subplot concerns Neary and another former pupil named Wylie, both of whom desire the carnal affections of the corpulent Miss Counihan, whom Murphy has abandoned in Dublin. To fulfill his sexual obsessions, Neary vows to find proof of Murphy’s infidelity, but Wylie double-crosses him and steals Miss Counihan, threatening to reveal Neary’s whereabouts to his bigamous second wife in London. This is before Miss Counihan double-crosses Wylie and the three turn against one another in their search for the missing Murphy. (If it all sounds confusing, that’s because it is.) Employed to that end is Cooper, Neary’s loyal manservant, whom Beckett introduces in one of my favorite passages:
Cooper’s only visible humane characteristic was a morbid craving for alcoholic depressant. So long as he could be kept off the bottle he was an invaluable servant. He was a low-sized, clean-shaven, grey-faced, one-eyed man, triorchous and a non-smoker. He had a curious hunted walk, like that of a destitute diabetic in a strange city. He never sat down and never took off his hat. (54)
Vocabulary Word for the Day: triorchous (trī-'ör-kis), adj, having three testicles.
(When we were reading Murphy for The Irish Novel, someone asked why Cooper can finally sit down and remove his hat when Murphy is found at the end of the book. “As near as I can tell,” Annabel said, “Cooper parodies the character on a quest in the King Arthur sense. As when a knight cannot marry until he has accomplished his brave deed, Cooper cannot sit down until his query is found.”)
The other characters constantly bully and browbeat Cooper into carrying out their wishes to further demonstrate the cruelties of the big world where other human beings are used only as means to an end. Miss Counihan even treats him as an animal by carrying on amorous displays and changing clothes in front of him, as if he were a being without sexual desire. It is no wonder then, that in such a world without compassion Murphy and Celia’s love stands alone as something special, until her push for him to join the big world forces the two apart.
All told, I find Murphy a complicated but absolutely enjoyable novel whose cartoonish portrayal of the world is not without parallel in our own. If anyone is looking to read something different, I suggest picking this one up.