Monday, June 1, 2009

73. The Bell – Iris Murdoch

August 2007
History: Published in 1958.
Plot: 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 in. Dora takes a train to the Abbey, and she meets a couple of members, and accidentally forgets the suitcases. After getting to the abbey, she meets everyone very awkwardly, and they all attend a small service during which Dora leaves to explore the lake. Whilst doing this she throws her shoes off and forgets where she puts them.. During that evening Paul tells Dora the legend of the bell and how a nun had a lover but she wouldn't confess when called to do so. Because of this a bishop put a curse on the abbey the bell then plummeted into the lake. At the same time James and Michael discuss where Toby should stay during his time at Imber. James reluctantly agrees with Michael that Toby should stay with Nick Fawley (Catherine's brother) to keep him company and keep an eye on him as he has threatened suicide in the past.
Dora has a tour of the grounds with Mrs Mark, before returning to the station to collect her luggage. Dora then visits the White Lion pub again, forgetting her luggage, and returns to Imber. Michael takes her back up to the house, and on the journey back they see Toby naked by the lake. The scene is described to us as though it were the garden of Eden. Michael is woken by a nightmare which is repeated later on in the book. A meeting is held to discuss important issues such as the arrival of the new Bell.
During chapter seven we learn of Michael's past homosexual relationships. We then discover that he used to be a Schoolmaster and had a relationship with Nick Fawley. Nick eventually told the headmaster what happened, ending Michael's dream of wanting to become a priest. Despite this we still get the impression that Michael is still partly in love with Nick.
Toby decides to explore a new part of the lake and discovers the old bell at the bottom of the lake and decides that he will come back at another time to see it in greater detail.
Michael then takes Toby with him to go and collect the mechanical cultivator, which is being held for them in Swindon. On the way back they stop at the pub where Michael gets slightly drunk. During the drive back to Imber Michael feels a great deal of responsibility towards Toby, and realises that he is in love with Toby. When they reach Imber Toby wants to see if human eyes reflect car headlights, but as he reaches the car Michael leans out of the window and kisses Toby. Just after this has happened Nick walks up to see what's going on, before Michael swiftly retreats back to the house, worrying if Nick saw what happened. During the next few days both Michael and Toby are very confused and upset and avoid speaking with each other. Michael then decides to apologise to Toby who in turn agrees to bury the matter. During which time, Toby decides to enter the abbey; however he is caught by two nuns who politely show him where the exit is.
Toby then shows Dora the bell who decides that they should bring it to the surface and substitute it for the new bell during the ceremony in an attempt to trick the community that a miracle has happened. Michael preaches his sermon before going to see Nick who is fixing the lorry. The conversation between them is awkward on Michael's behalf as Nick appears to be mocking him. We also get our first inkling that Catherine is in love with Michael. Toby and Dora meet to haul the bell out of the lake. Toby successfully does this by using the cultivator, and drags it into a nearby barn. Toby then embraces Dora and starts to kiss her before they roll into the bell making the it ring. Michael is awakened by the noise and goes outside to see what is going on. He meets Paul who is looking for Dora and both go to Nick, who tells Michael that he saw them kissing in the woods.
Noel turns up to Dora's horror intent on doing a report on the new bell shortly followed by the bishop. A small ceremony is held for the community during which Dora breaks out into uncontrollable laughter and drops a note, addressed to Toby which Noel picks up.
Nick stops Toby leaving the house and a short scuffle breaks out, after which Nick explains that he knows what Toby has been doing and that he must confess it all to James.
The day of the ceremony arrives and goes badly. The bell ends up falling into the lake as Nick has sawed through part of the causeway, perhaps to stop his sister entering the abbey. Catherine then runs off pursued by Dora. Catherine tries to drown herself and Dora tries to save her but cannot swim, and both end up being rescued. The Straffords then take Catherine off to London.
James tells Michael that Toby confessed what went on between them and that he has sent Toby home. Michael says he will step down from Imber. After this conversation takes place they are alerted to Nick's house where it has soon become apparent that he has shot himself.
The community soon breaks apart until Dora and Michael are the only two remaining. They get on well and Dora decides she will not return to Paul but instead will go and stay with her friend Sally. Michael then leaves, making Dora the last person at Imber.
Review: 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?"
Opening Line: “Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him.”
Closing Line: “Tonight she would be telling the whole story to Sally.”
Quotes: “ But the pictures were something real outside herself, which spoke to her kindly and yet in sovereign tones, something superior and good whose presence destroyed the dreary trance-like solipsism of her earlier mood.”
Rating: Very Good

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