“As wise as serpents, as harmless as doves.”
Iris Murdoch’s The Bell is her fourth of twenty-six published novels. It was released in 1958 but takes place in England in the late forties. This is my second Murdoch novel and I found it flows and is much more vivid in detail than her first book, Under the Net.
This story opens with Dora Greenfield, a creative spirit who has trapped herself in a marriage where the husband spends more time degrading her than nurturing her. She ran away and shacked up with another free spirit but this doesn’t last for long and she ends up following her husband Paul, an art historian, to a small community of God-fearing people who have set up a settlement outside a nunnery called Imber Abbey. This group is lead by Micheal Meade, a man with his own secrets and internal turmoil. Micheal owns the land outside the Abbey which the members affectionately call Imber Court. These two seem like the most unlikely duo to establish a relationship with one another but without knowing it they do.
There are a host of other characters that affect their lives in both positive and negative ways. There’s Noel the journalist, Toby the student, Nick the renegade, Catherine the future nun, Murphy the dog, and Gabriel… the bell. A reference to the old church bell buried in the sludge of the lake between the Abbey and the Court is made throughout the book giving it a position of an important character. Dora even suggests as much when the bell is finally unearthed. “She came near to the bell which seemed more and more like a living presence.”
There are a number of strong issues throughout The Bell but the most dominant is religion. This is followed by a healthy dose of homosexuality, marriage and adultery. Some sources site a strong theme of good and evil (probably associated with religious beliefs) but I think evil is really too harsh a term. There are no real evil people or situations in this story. It’s about a group of people trying to make it through this life as best they know how while dealing with the foreseen, unforeseen and exaggerated bumps they encounter along the way. Murdoch does use her philosophical background to insert interesting questions along the way like: “Could one recognize refinements of good if one did not recognize refinements of evil?”
While I felt this book was certainly better than my first taste of Murdoch, it bored the heck out of me for the first three quarters. Seriously, after the first chapter until they brought up the bell I was bored silly. I realized that is quite a subjective statement but if I had not committed myself to reading all her books I probably would have stopped here. Language differences often slow story down: “After breakfast he repaired as usual to the estate office to cast an eye over the day’s correspondence (page 88).” Or just unusual, “From within the dog’s barking was redoubled (page 53).” And while cliché is perfectly understandable to most I think it’s the easy way for someone who was considered such an established writer. Perhaps it is still too early in her works for me to recognize her greatness but it still seems I am one of the few who have not developed a taste for her work.
This review of Iris Murdoch’s book was first posted on 5/24/2008 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.