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The Bell by Iris Murdoch

The Bell (original 1958; edition 2004)

by Iris Murdoch

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1,520314,857 (3.84)2 / 239
Title:The Bell
Authors:Iris Murdoch
Info:Vintage Classics (2004), Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Bell by Iris Murdoch (1958)


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Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
This very clever novel has to be read with the knowledge that it was published in 1958, a time before I was born that was vastly different in attitudes and morals to the world of today. The most clearly drawn character for me was Dora, the wife of Paul. We never get in to Paul's head but he is shown as a hateful and controlling bully who makes Dora very unhappy. She does leave him at the beginning of the novel but returns while he is working at Imber, a lay community next to an Abbey. Dora is young, lively and curious and struggles to fit in to the grown up role society expects of her. Iris Murdoch takes us into the thoughts of other characters. Michael is the leader of the lay community and his past gradually unfolds. Michael is gay and in 1950s England this was considered at best a transgression against the normal and as a teacher he sought an unsuitable relationship with a teenage boy, Nick, who has now arrived at the community and is an alcoholic. This feels like the theme of the novel, the actions and unintended and unpredictable consequences of those actions and whether as humans we can decide if an action is made through real love. The novel follows action with reaction in a string of events that is very clever. The novel has thoughtful and introspective characters who suffer and more carefree characters who seem to be almost untouched by the events they have put in motion. Nora finds the old bell, that had seemed to be just a legend, in the lake with Toby, a young man who is spending his summer at the community before university, and hatches an ill thought out plan to surprise the community by revealing this bell. Of course, this all goes awry and has massive consequences but yet at the end of the novel, Nora rows on the lake, 'From the tower above her the bell began to ring for Nones. She scarcely heard it. Already for her it rang from another world.' By contrast, Michael is left grieving and numb and unable to believe in god, 'he looked about him with the calmness of the ruined man', at mass he is an observer, rather than a celebrant. The dragging of the old bell from the lake is a dramatic moment, when the 'immense bulk rose slowly from the lake' like a monster. ( )
  Tifi | Feb 17, 2017 |
Murdock is sort of mix of Muriel Spark and Evelyn Waugh, but has a unique voice all her own. Symbols and characters clash to show us the interplay between motive and action. Like Spark, her novel can be read on several levels. ( )
1 vote dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
Listed in the 1001 books you must read before you die http://www.listology.com/list/1001-books-you-must-read-you-die

This is a different class again! Now I see what all the fuss is about Iris Murdoch: beautiful writing, characters really well drawn/realised, beautiful use of language as well (had to look up a couple of definitions yesterday - feel quite ashamed of my vocabulary now!). Interesting period piece as well. Similar in that respect to Agatha Christie in that it holds up a mirror to the times. Written in 1958 it's interesting to see 'women's place in society', men's attitudes to women, attitudes in general to homosexuality.... and I'm only 100 pages in!

So, without giving away too much of the plot etc. The story is based around a Lay community attached to an Abbey in Imber. As each character is introduced and takes centre stage we find out more about them, why they are at Imber and discover each is slightly 'damaged' in some way. The Community runs a small market garden to support itself and is preparing for a new Bell to be delivered and installed into the Abbey. The old Bell disappeared in the mists of time in mysterious circumstances and there are many fables and portents of doom surrounding it. so there is some trepidation about what a new Bell may bring. On top of this, we see the relationships develop between the various members. As all the various strands of their stories come together, there is the inevitable unravelling of personalities and relationships and you wonder what will happen to all these people as their lives continue beyond the end of the book.

It's testament to Iris Murdoch's writing and carefully crafted characters, that you feel involved with these people and care about what may happen to them, even Dora: a most unsympathetic character at the beginning!

However, I do feel that I have to say something about chapter 11, it so dates the book and whilst I would never condone a re-write of a book to be more PC, there were a few things in there that made me wince: One character is referred to as having been "working like a black"! Then there's the amount of alcohol consumed before driving and the phrase "he knew he'd be alright: the driving would sober him up". How times have changed!

I read this book because a friend is doing a project in association with the Iris Murdoch foundation and has been asking Book Groups to volunteer to read The Bell and then answer a questionnaire. (see: http://libroediting.wordpress.com/irismurdochproject/) so I recommended it to our book group & we agreed that some of us would read it. I'm delighted that we did, as I thoroughly enjoyed it,and will definitely read some of her other work. ( )
1 vote Cassandra2020 | Jan 24, 2016 |
This is my first Iris Murdoch. First I finished, at any rate. It takes place (and was written) half a century ago and the things people worried about seem kind of ancient. Perhaps the things people worry about now will seem that way in 50 more years. The people were very real and I wanted to pull them out of time into the present and tell them they needn't worry so much about those things. Mother Claire, the aquatic Nun seemed to be relatively untroubled. Maybe it was the middle state, halfway between religious and secular, that caused the characters so much trouble. Toby seemed to work it out by becoming secular. Michael came to some sort of relative peace--better than he started out. Dora, at least, left Paul, but I wonder if she's going to be OK.

There's something tragic about a world where, with few exceptions, the faithful are so quick to condemn and the worst crime is love (though the Abbess says the opposite and I agree.) ( )
1 vote Gimley_Farb | Jul 6, 2015 |
I wanted to get to this book all year and I truely saved the best for last it appears. This is a great story, good character development and an interesting story. The book is published in 1958 and to some extent that is obvious but it also is not dated in many ways. The story is set in a lay community outside of an abbey of cloistered nuns. A new bell is to arrive for the nunnery and thus the title of the story. There is also a myth about the past bell which is said to be lost in the lake and if you hear its ring there will be a death. The characters are all misfits in someway and thus they are drawn to this lay community because they don't fit in. Three people are merely visitors to the community, The errant wife, the cruel and cold husband and the boy who is heading off to engineering college. The reformed homosexual leads the community, there is the novice who has schizophrenia and the innocent youth and the alcoholic. The themes is the struggle of sex and religion.
A quote, pg 165 "Our actions are like ships which we may watch set out to sea, and not know when or with what cargo they will return to port".
Also another book with some psychiatric history. This book is written in 1958. It mentions insulin shock treatments and even mentions that "insulin was making her fat". It also mentions drugs and it was about this time that Thorazine was being used. ( )
1 vote Kristelh | Dec 28, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 31 (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.
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Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him.
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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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0141186690, Paperback)

A lay community of thoroughly mixed-up people is encamped outside Imber Abbey, home of an order of sequestered nuns. A new bell is being installed when suddenly the old bell, a legendary symbol of religion and magic, is rediscovered. And then things begin to change. Meanwhile the wise old Abbess watches and prays and exercises discreet authority. And everyone, or almost everyone, hopes to be saved, whatever that may mean. Originally published in 1958, this funny, sad, and moving novel is about religion, sex, and the fight between good and evil.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:08 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

The story of a lay community of mixed-up people encamped outside Imber Abbey, home of an enclosed order of nuns, including Dora Greenfield, an erring wife who returns to her husband, and Michael Meade, who is confronted by his homosexual former lover.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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