Friday, February 18, 2011

Iris Murdoch's The Bell

I just read Iris Murdoch's spectacular novel, The Bell. Inspired by various writers who say that Murdoch's books are classics, I downloaded The Bell onto my Nook. 

This stunning novel could be of any time:  utterly contemporary or of the 19th century. It centers on a new bell at a Benedictine abbey and its meaning to Imber, a lay religious community adjacent to the convent. 

This complex novel is told through multiple points of view.  Murdoch begins the story through the consciousness of Dora Greenfield, an impetuous young woman who has gloriously enjoyed herself during six months of Bohemian life and separation from her strait-laced husband.  Paul, an art historian, courted her as an art student and then, after marriage, became obsessive and possessive. She returns to him mainly out of guilt, joining him at Imber, where he is writing about medieval manuscripts.

She finds Imber strange and repugnant.  As an outsider, it has no meaning to her.  The house, Imber Court, and the Benedictine convent are located on a beautiful lake, but the peace of the community seems artificial and tense.  Dora is repulsed by the smiling prayerful inhabitants, particularly by Mrs. Mark (Margaret), a furry-legged housewife, and Sister Ursula, a spying Benedictine nun.  Murdoch is extremely funny about Dora's impressions of the hippie-ish atmosphere  of this Anglican community, whose members work in their garden and sell produce.

The characters in the lay religious community are wildly eclectic:  Michael, the owner of Imber, is an intellectual, a former teacher, a former aspiring priest, and a homosexual (whom we would label a pedophile); James, a forceful, charismatic, informal preacher, is Michael's macho alter-ego and conscience; Nick is a depressed temporary inhabitant and a former student of Michael's; Nick's twin sister, Catherine, plans to join the convent; Toby, a student going Oxford in the fall, has no idea of his sexual effect on people; Mark and Mrs. Mark are both practical; and Peter is an ornithologist.

Michael, the devout, confused, erudite leader, is one of the most important characters.  He spends most of his time managing community business, and his interactions with others are both controlled and jumpy.  Like an immature teenager, he waits for the romance of life to begin, believing that a sign or pattern will eventually show him life's religious meaning.  His desire to become a priest was thwarted by his obsession with teenage boys.  He rarely acts on these urges, but was fired from a teaching job years ago when Nick reported him at the beginning of a relationship. He is very nervous about Nick's living in the lodge, but Catherine had insisted he was suicidal and needed the community.

Much of the book revolves around the bell.  "The bell is cast," James says.  He believes Imber can use the ceremony of installing the bell to publicize the community. James plans to organize a festival. The other members are equally avid about carrying out the plan.    Michael, ever more passive, is reluctant.

In a speech at a church service, Michael focuses on the symbolism of the bell. He says,

"The bell is subject to the force of gravity.  The swing that takes it down must also take it up.  So we too must learn to understand the mechanism of our spiritual energy, and find out where, for us, are the hiding places of our strength." 

The symbolism of the bell is complicated. In some ways it represents the voices of the powerless, i.e., in this instance, Dora and Toby, the former dominated by Paul, the latter by Michael, who embarrassed him by kissing him.   A legend about the original bell revolves around a nun whose lover died and a Bishop's curse which sent the great bell flying "like a bird out of the tower and fell into the lake."  The nun commits suicide.  When Toby finds the old bell at the bottom of the lake, Dora concocts a plan to substitute it for the new one.  This leads to some extremely funny events, other ominous and tragic events. 

Things seem to happen twice in The Bell.  The legend of the bell is reflected in contemporary events.  The novel is religious, tragicomic, and philosophical.  

AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOTE:  I took my first bike ride of the year.  68 degrees, sunny, 2.3 MPH west wind, air quality GOOD, and many people walking or riding the trails.


Anonymous said...

I am glad that you have discovered The Bell. I first read the novel in 1980 and have probably reread it seven or eight times. It is a book that I have given to many people to read, especially those who have never read a novel by Iris Murdoch. The novel is beautifully written and masterfully structured. All of the characters are flawed in one way or another, which makes their humanity more credible. The Bell is the kind of novel which requires more than one reading in order to completely absorb its meaning.

Frisbee said...

I agree. It's a brilliant book, one I learned about through Susan Hill's Howards End Is on the Landing. I've read two other Murdoch books this year as a result of that recommendation. I love her work!