The Italian Girl is a novel by philosopher Iris Murdoch. This interpretation of the novel will make little sense to anybody who has not read it.
The Italian Girl, by Iris Murdoch (Vintage, 1964) is an allegory not unrelated to Dante’s. Three women are all different styles of Eve and a fourth is the devil’s sister. Apart from the devil, the other two men, like Narciss and Goldmund, could as well be called ‘Pagan’ and ‘Christian’ though both are species of Adam and finally it will be Pagan who is revealed as unable to cope with carnal existence and Christian who must learn to do so on his way to the celestial city. God the Mother is already dead when the tale begins so history must begin again. At first Christian cannot get into the house, which we may take for hell, but the devil suddenly appears and lets him in. Although he instinctively distrusts the devil, he enters. Abandon hope all ye. He has, in his sterile holiness lived a disembodied life and once he does finally make entry everything shocks him. His ineptness in this new environment shows at every turn passing through one temptation after another and he passes each test not through strength and virtue but through his incompetence and foolishness. When he might be implicated in killing, he forgets the appointment. When he encounters the mesh of lies and deceptions that rule the house his well-meaning but gauche attempts gradually precipitate the inevitable crisis wherein all the other characters must face themselves, hell burns and the devil leaves after his sister’s frenzied end. Along the way he encounters the three Eves. The first humiliates him and his attempt to win her trust prove barren. His fumbling approach to her is interrupted by the devil who has occasion to gloat at his expense. The second opens his eyes to the full power of fleshly delights, but he refuses the proffered apple. Finally, he wakes up to the presence of the third Eve and begs the apple from her. By the end of the book he has not yet consumed it, but we know that consummation is at hand and the journey to the celestial city is just about to begin in earnest. In the background of all this is an uncertainty about the ownership of hell itself. Does it belong to Pagan or to Christian? God might have given it to one or other: which has she excluded. In the end we suddenly discover that it has been given into the hand of the last Eve, but she departs with Christian and bequeaths it to Pagan who is left with his own chastened (the first) Eve. Thus the two Adams are each launched upon reformed existences through the catalytic influence of women who, at the outset, had been invisible to them as women. Meanwhile the middle Eve goes back to her homeland to have the devil’s baby.
As with any spiritual allegory much is left for the reader to interpret or, rather, find meaningful through identification. Each of us can relate, no doubt, to all the characters as representing aspects of our being, though we might have blind spots for one part or another. Pagan is always in his night wear, even when it is semi-covered by day attire, is of voracious appetite, skilled when he puts his mind to his craft, but lazy and easily distracts by addictive indulgences. Christian has lived a pseudo-spiritual life by avoidance and has become ‘good’ in a way that inadvertently does save the second Eve, but which is vacuous in terms of real spirituality. Until he passes through the realm of hell the journey to the true city will never be available to him. His pompous innocence is exposed by the first Eve. He is educated by the second and, we assume, will reach a new, though undoubtedly troublesome, consummation with the third. The two devils, brother and sister, are exiles, born of music that no longer plays. One will rise and the other fall.