The Bell ~ Iris Murdoch


For reasons it’s far too complicated to go into, our Monday Reading Group this month discussed Iris Murdoch’s 1958 novel The Bell.  I went through a Murdoch phase a couple of decades ago and read her first three novels, but got distracted at that point and so never reached this, her fourth novel, described to me on Monday as ‘the first one with real people in it’.  Perhaps that is a clue as to why I gave up on her previously.  I really can’t remember.  For most of the group, however, this was at least a second and in one case, a fourth read and having spent last weekend in Murdoch’s enclosed lay community at Imber, I can see why.

After a couple of false starts last week with novels where the writing was either so ordinary or so sloppy that I simply couldn’t go any further, to enter a world so precisely and so effective described as the one we are introduced to here was a sheer joy.  I don’t think you would ever call Murdoch a poetic writer, but there is an almost mathematical definitiveness in the way in which she lays out her setting and her characters before the reader.  As someone remarked, you could walk the paths around the lake which is central to the novel without any fear of getting lost and if you ran into one of the characters in the course of your walk you would know exactly who it was you had met before you even spoke to them.

Imber is an enclosed lay community attached to an Abbey of Medieval foundation and it is towards this claustrophobic environment that Dora, one of the two protagonists, is travelling as the book opens.  Dora, a young woman in her early twenties, is returning to her estranged husband, Paul, several years her senior, who is researching in the Abbey’s archives.  Dora is young not only in years but in maturity – witness the fact that she is returning to Paul rather than ditching him completely.  Dora may be a blunderer who does wrong things even if for the right reasons, but she does not deserve Paul who is manipulative and in many ways an inadequate human being.  The word that is used most often in relation to him is ‘violent’ and although he is never physically so, mentally and emotionally he is a bully.

If Dora is always acting before really thinking, then the other chief protagonist, Michael is the exact opposite.  Many of the disasters that occur during the course of the novel might have been avoided if only Michael, the putative leader of this group, had acted rather than thought so protractedly about whether or not he ought to act.  In a weekend spent considering the role of equivocation in Macbeth, Michael was yet another character who was persistently saying one thing while meaning something else, although in the main the person he was trying to fool was himself.

One of the questions we inevitably found ourselves posing on Monday was whether or not the book had dated and while I think that would be too harsh a criticism, it is true that Michael’s dilemma must have been viewed in a very different way by the original 1958 readers to that which is likely to pertain today.  At the time the book was written both the social and legal attitude towards homosexuals was different to today, even if we may not have progressed as far along the road in terms of rebuffing any prejudice as we might like.  Michael’s sexual orientation torments him, especially as his greatest desire is to enter the priesthood.  As far as we are aware he has done nothing about fulfilling his sexuality until he is trapped by a fourteen year old boy in the school where he is teaching.  There is no doubt that Nick is the one who does the seducing and who then, seemingly for the pure pleasure of destroying another human being, denounces Michael as his lover.  Ten years on, Nick, who now seems bent on destroying himself through drink, is sent to the community in an attempt to save him from his inner demons and Michael is now forced to face again the reality of who he is in the midst of a world that will condemn what lies at the core of his identity out of hand.

During the few summer weeks that the novel’s plot spans both Michael and Dora have to learn certain harsh truths about themselves and, like the bell which gives the book its title, they have to recognise that brilliantly projected new starts are rarely able in reality to live up to the promise of the dream.  I can certainly see why some of the other members of the group had returned to this book more than once and I’m very glad that I have been reintroduced to Murdoch’s work.  I shall definitely be going back for more.


13 thoughts on “The Bell ~ Iris Murdoch

  1. Murdoch is a writer I’ve long been interested in yet have never read. Her name comes up in a lot of the work on ethics and fiction that I’ve looked into for research purposes. One of my problems was not really knowing where to start. Would you recommend The Bell for a first-timer, then? Your phrase “mathematical definitiveness” reminds me of Ian McEwan, whose prose always strikes me as so compellingly precise–do you think there are stylistic similarities?

    1. Rohan, from our discussion I would say that this is a very good place to start because the implication was that this is the point at which she begins to both develop ideas more thoroughly and become more complex in the way she introduces ethical discussion. As to a comparison with McEwan, I only know his later work and I would say that ‘The Bell’ has what I can only call a greater fluidity, but I could see where you might make a case for similarities. Do try Murdoch. I was checking last night and most of her work is available of e-reader, which is good as I have had to commit to no more bought fiction. I’m running out of space. Actually, scratch that. I ran out of space some time ago!

  2. Oh Alex, this sounds wonderful. I read her book The Sea, the Sea a number of years ago and liked it very much and while I have managed to collect a few other of her books since then I’ve not managed to get to them. Will have to see if this one is on my shelf and if not get a copy and read!

    1. Stefanie, I think this is a good book with which to reacquaint yourself with Murdoch’s novels. I know it’s ignited my desire to read more of her work. I would also like to explore some of her philosophical work, which wasn’t easy to get but is now available through Kindle.

      1. Oh yes, I’m interested in her philosophy too. I am pretty sure I have at least one of her philosophy books, don’t ask me which one. She turns up from time to time at a secondhand shop I like to go to.

  3. I first read The Bell years ago and it remained in my memory as an excellent book, but when I re-read it last year I found that my reading tastes had changed because, although I still liked it, I no longer found it so enchanting. And unlike you I had difficulty in visualising the layout and that is actually relevant in this book. I read this with my local book group and others commented that they could – so I’m in the minority and probably am guilty of reading too quickly. I also thought there was too much detail about the thoughts and feelings of one of the characters – Michael Meade – for my liking, and yet for all the description he didn’t seem a real person, but more a mouthpiece for Murdoch’s philosophical thoughts. In fact most of the characters, with the exception of Dora, came across to me more as stereotypes than real people.

    The book group also discussed how it would have been received when it was published and we thought it must have been considered quite a shocking book at the time – about the relationship between religion and sex and the angst and self-denial that it depicts.

    I do like Iris Murdoch’s books, despite what I’ve written about this book!

    1. Margaret, it would be a very dull world if we all responded in the same way to the same book:)

      I’m sure it must have been seen as very shocking at the time. I meant to go back and see if any of the early reviews were available but life got in the way.

  4. I tried to read ‘The Bell’ with my book group a few years ago, but I couldn’t get on with it at all. Your review makes me wonder if I was a bit hasty – perhaps it was just a case of the wrong book at the wrong time.

    1. That can happen, Karen, can’t it? We read a Doris Lessing a couple of months ago and I was very reluctant after some bad experiences. Now I can’t wait to read more.

  5. In 1958 Murdoch must surely have been acquainted with Existentialism and those dilemmas surrounding thinking and acting sound very Sartrean to me. Yay, so glad you liked this, as I have it to read. I have mixed fortunes with Murdoch. Loved The Enchanter, loathed The Sea, The Sea. But definitely ready to try her again.

    1. I think she is a writer who can chime with a mood you happen to be in to such a degree that there are some books that it just isn’t possible to read at particular times in your life. I know this was the case when I tried to read ‘The Black Prince’. That’s one of the unread books sitting on my shelf about which I need to make a decision. Perhaps I should read it and then let it go.

  6. Alex, I read The Belll this last year after reading Susan Hill’s Howards End Is on the Landing and very much enjoyed. Hill introduced me to Murdoch again after years and years of not reading her. At a certain point I had stopped reading Murdoch, because her books are so intense, odd, philosophical, and sometimes almost unlikable, and, as you say, “there is an almost mathematical definitiveness.” I’m not always ready for that.

    Perhaps your thoughtful review will get me back to reading her.

    1. As I said in response to another comment, Frisbee, I think many of Murdoch’s books are so psychologically accurate that if you happen to stumble on one that touches where you are at the time they can be very disturbing and certainly unlikable. There are several that I need to return to because I know that I tried them at the wrong moment.

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