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The Bell (1958)

by Iris Murdoch

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,819427,148 (3.85)2 / 253
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY A. S. BYATT Dora Greenfield, erring wife, returns to live with her husband in a a lay community encamped outside Imber Abbey, home to a mysterious enclosed order of nuns. Watched over by its devout director and the discreet authority of the wise old Abbess, Imber Court is a haven for lost souls seeking tranquility. But then the lost Abbey bell, legendary symbol of religion and magic, is rediscovered, and hidden truths and desires are forced into the light.… (more)
  1. 20
    The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch (Booksloth)
  2. 00
    Shirley's Guild (Capuchin Classics) by David Pryce-Jones (Lirmac)
    Lirmac: Both novels are explorations of religious revival in a rural English setting, and share a tone of mystery. The authors are both exceptional stylists.
  3. 00
    Next to Nature, Art by Penelope Lively (edwinbcn)
    edwinbcn: Both books are about a commune, the book by Murdoch explores this in more detail and depth.
  4. 00
    The Courage Consort: Three Novellas by Michel Faber (Booksloth)
  5. 01
    Going Buddhist: Panic and Emptiness, the Buddha and Me by Peter J. Conradi (JuliaMaria)
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» See also 253 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 41 (next | show all)
There is something about Iris Murdoch's novels that haunts me in a rather profound way. It has to do with being British. At the time of writing this, it has been 196 years since my ancestors left South West England to push out to Australia, and this sense of separation from the motherland is a strange, raspberry-coloured strain of my personality. I am not English, but I relate to that culture more than to any other (aside from my own Australian one). So when I read "The Bell", sixty years after its publication, I am struck by how familiar and yet eerily unfamiliar everyone feels. I understand what is being said, and what the characters are feeling, but at the same time I really, really don't. What I mean is - it's not just time. When I read Australian novels from the 1950s, I get the characters in a way that I don't entirely get these ones. Most people are thicketed by their culture (to use a Murdochian word) to the extent that it bursts out of them without realising it. Turns of phrase, implications of word choice, what we see and hear and what we feel.

All of which is to say that Murdoch's novels might be more descriptive than I would like in the twentieth century (very Zola), her characters prone to outbursts with origins I can't fully comprehend, and her sense of plot sometimes grinding mercilessly over her forever maudlin figures, trapped in an aspic-like web of memory (in How Fiction Works, James Wood paints Murdoch as a "poignant figure" because - as she herself admitted - she could never create fully psychologically independent characters, like Shakespeare could, but instead despite her best efforts, her characters were in some ways extensions of herself), but what distances me from the novel most is a sense that I'm not quite with the characters in this lay religious community.

In spite of all this, it might actually be impossible to get bored during a Murdoch novel. She weaves around you. She might be - as Wood argues - rehashing nineteenth-century styles and ideas with a twentieth-century melodrama facade, but I still think she's pretty damn good, and I'm haunted by that bell. As I wrote in my rather underwhelmed review of The Sea, The Sea, Murdoch was prolific, one of the last survivors of an age when "literary" writers could churn out stories without undue pressure that every work had to be a masterpiece. I don't actually expect every book to be a masterpiece, and I would much rather we return to a mentality when we can just enjoy works, great or minor, as stories.

Which is a needlessly lengthy way of saying that I enjoyed the book, I didn't love the book, I'm intrigued by Murdoch's characters, I'm disconnected from her characters, I'm haunted by that bell, and I also think that people whose lives are so fixated on a church bell need to consider other avenues of intellectual stimulation. That's clear, right? ( )
  therebelprince | Oct 5, 2021 |
My first Iris Murdoch novel, read for book club. As it started it was a bit confusing to see where it was going but I got very engrossed in the stories of both Dora and Micheal. I am not sure I am really supposed to sympathize with either of them because they are portrayed as weak or even not particularly clever or mature but I did feel a great deal for both of them. Dora is trying to find her way into an adult world and deals with a cruel bully of a husband in ways that are so deeply frustrating but I really do like her for trying anything at all. She lands in Micheal's spiritual community but Micheal is struggling with his own issues, a deeply personally closeted gay man in a time when it was both illegal and found repellent by many people. Micheal seems a hopeless case and lets himself be controlled by many other forces swirling about him but there seems a kindness in him. A kindness that perhaps he might never get to express. The other characters seem mainly there to be foils for these two and some I just never worked out who they were but Nick, Toby, and Catherine are the most real ones. The spiritual themes didn't resonanate as much for me but the return to the land nature of the Imber community was intriguing. Despite the religious notes everywhere, it didn't feel that much of spiritual work to me. I'll be interested in what book club thinks.
  amyem58 | Sep 8, 2021 |
A sense of ennui prevails and clouds over The Bell despite its seemingly unshakeable spiritual sentiments. Murdoch's lucid prose baffles, tempts then almost seduces innocence to destroy itself at the surge of forbidden desire. She makes independence toil to discover its own worth against the deceitful freedom that both religion and marriage can promise; caging instead of emancipating. A friction between a "calling" and a "passion". The Bell resounds at a distance — hauntingly and tearfully. It drowns in its subtle dissonance almost to a dying shrill before pushing itself up for air; gasping. Then it resounds, faintly, rings, cautiously of hope, in time. And this takes time. However burdening guilt, regret, grief, and rejection may be, there is a place somewhere for everyone not only to nurse but also to heal. People also break each other's hearts in this compelling tale of brooding faith and disbelief. They break even their own. Though none of Murdoch's characters are completely likeable, they manoeuvre in a reality glaringly familiar with all of us: the struggle with knowing and accepting one's flawed self; and most powerful: the forgiveness of mistakes, the unalterable past, and our ever changing selves. Sometimes you have to put and think of yourself first.

"With strong magnetic force the human heart is drawn to consolation; and even grieving becomes a consolation in the end."

A delightful, effectual read amidst its little spells of tragedy. ( )
2 vote lethalmauve | Jan 25, 2021 |
I enjoyed this very much—such a good balance of plot and detail, with some non-trite ruminations on character, religion, sexuality, and power imbalances (I was going to just say relationships, but let's call 'em as Murdoch saw 'em). The whole effect was very propulsive, and the setting kept me Googling photos of English country houses, which is never a bad thing. Good fun without being silly at all. ( )
1 vote lisapeet | Jul 14, 2020 |
“Remember that all our failures are ultimately failures in love. Imperfect love must not be condemned and rejected, but made perfect. The way is always forward, never back.”

This material may be protected by copyright.It reminded me a lot of Murdoch's 'The Unicorn' though of course this one was written first. Since giving the book a four star rating this morning, I've been unable to get these characters out of my head. I think of them as very real people. Possibly a five star book once I manage to reread it. ( )
  proteaprince | Dec 18, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 41 (next | show all)
Dora, a young, irresponsible art student, marries Paul, who is thirteen years older, and finds him decisive, possessive, authoritative and violent: 'Something gentle and gay had gone out of her life'. She leaves him and 'passed the summer drinking and dancing and making love and spending Paul's allowance on multi-coloured skirts'. She then decides to return to him, and goes by train, very nervous. On the carriage floor she sees a butterfly crawling; picks it up and holds it safely until the train stops and she gets out and meets her husband who finds she has left his property on the train, and 'His face was harshly closed'. He asks her why she is holding her hands so oddly, and she opens them 'like a flower'; the butterfly 'flew away into the distance'.
Clearly this is a butterfly highly charged with symbolic value.
added by KayCliff | editThe Indexer, Hazel K. Bell (Oct 1, 1992)
 

» Add other authors (14 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Murdoch, Irisprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Byatt, A. S.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Peccinotti, HarriCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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TO JOHN SIMOPOULOS
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Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him.
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It might be thought that since Nature by addition had defeated him of Nick, at least by subtraction it was now offering him Catherine: but this did not occur to Michael except abstractly and as something someone else might have felt. (p.98)
Dora's ignorance of religion, as of most things, was formidable. She had never in fact been able to distinguish religion from superstition, and had given up her own practice of it when she discovered that she could say the Lord's Prayer quickly but not slowly.
At last, obeying that conception of fatality which served her instead of a moral sense, she left him.
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WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY A. S. BYATT Dora Greenfield, erring wife, returns to live with her husband in a a lay community encamped outside Imber Abbey, home to a mysterious enclosed order of nuns. Watched over by its devout director and the discreet authority of the wise old Abbess, Imber Court is a haven for lost souls seeking tranquility. But then the lost Abbey bell, legendary symbol of religion and magic, is rediscovered, and hidden truths and desires are forced into the light.

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