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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Bell

Iris Murdoch

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To purchase The Bell

Title: The Bell
Author: Iris Murdoch
Genre: Novel
Written: 1958
Length: 316 pages
Availability: The Bell - US
The Bell - UK
The Bell - Canada
Les eaux du péché - France
Die Wasser der Sünde - Deutschland
La campana - Italia
La campana - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B : solid enough, but not quite up to her usual very high standards

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 16/3/2012 Patrick Gale
The NY Times . 23/10/1958 Gilbert Millstein
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/10/1958 A.R.Graham
Sunday Times . 2/11/1958 Richard Mayne
Time . 27/10/1958 .
The Times . 6/11/1958

  From the Reviews:
  • "Like the best of Murdoch's novels, The Bell is about love and freedom, the interplay between the two and the destructive force of love-gone-wrong. (...) But on another level she's writing about the only things that matter -- love, goodness and how to be happy without hurting others -- and, like her hero Plato, is using a seductively "easy" medium to bring us to deeper understanding." - Patrick Gale, The Independent

  • "(T)his intricately plotted novel really is a chronicle of disillusion." - Gilbert Millstein, The New York Times

  • "With The Bell, her fourth novel, the gifted Iris Murdoch finds her true voice. She is a versatile, unpredictable, indeed experimental writer. her control is firm over the difficulties presented by this tragi-comedy -- a book satirical and funny but with tragic aspects." - A.R.Graham, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Make no mistake: The Bell finally establishes Miss Iris Murdoch in the forefront of living English novelists. (...) No summary could compass the whole of this tightly-knit and resonant story, or more than hint at the subtlety of its symbolism . It remarkably balances its imaginative portrayal of a religious community with a necessary wit, irony, and even revulsion: its dice are not loaded either one way or the other. Moreover, what might have been a mere intellectual game in the Gide manner is here imaginatively realised and integrated into a solid background, with real people living through a real autumn, tangible and important." - Richard Mayne, Sunday Times

  • "This is conceivably the only novel ever written in which a boy tries to seduce a girl in a recumbent church bell. (...) Author Murdoch mitigates the sordid in her story with a flow of wit that is civilized, unobtrusive and sometimes lethal. The novel achieves distinction in a series of brief sermons and reflections on the nature of God and the good that ought to make many an orthodox pulpit- pounding clergyman blush in envy. Yet the meaning of The Bell is muffled in final ambiguity, as the colony goes under in a tidal wave of newspaper scandal. With its strange but oddly exciting characters, its limpid prose, its sly wit and its ethical in sight, The Bell unquestionably tolls, but it is never clear for whom and for what." - Time

  • "Her novel, indeed, is written on several layers of action and significance; the threads that form the richly involved pattern are varied and intricate, and always there is Dora, the bell, and the legend of the bell. (...) Perhaps there is a little too much symbolism in The Bell, perhaps there is a little too much of everything, but it is, at any rate, a joy to read a story which is running over with purpose and intelligence, Miss Murdoch goes on for a little too long and is inclined at times to explain exhaustively rather than to indicate imaginatively, but The Bell is a strong, positive book written in prose it is a delight to read." - The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Bell opens strongly:

Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.
       Dora had met husband Paul as an art student. He is an art historian, thirteen years her senior, and seemed a fine match and catch for her -- not least: "because of the demonic intensity of Paul's desire for her". True, "Paul had warned Dora that they were likely to quarrel" .....
       In fact, they seem quite ill-suited for another; one exchange late in the books sums it all up quite well:
     'You don't respect me,' said Dora, her voice trembling.
     'Of course I don't respect you,' said Paul. 'Have I any reason to ? I'm in love with you, unfortunately, that's all.'
       For all that, he's not particularly devoted or attentive to Dora, either.
       When Dora returns to Paul it is not to their London home but rather Gloucestershire where he had been working for some months, and she travels there to join him. He is a guest of a lay religious community, living in the house they use, Imber Court, which is next to a strict Anglican convent, Imber Abbey, "an enclosed order of nuns. No one goes in or comes out".
       The Abbey once had a famous bell -- "but no one knows what happened to it". Paul has come across an old legend about it -- where: "the great bell 'flew like a bird out of the tower and fell into the lake'", and he also notes: "there is a story about the bell ringing sometimes in the bottom of the lake, and how if you hear it it portends a death" (uh-oh ...). A large new bell is being cast, and is to be installed soon, with much ceremony and celebration -- the novel naturally moving towards that event.
       The lay community is still very new -- "in its present form had existed for just under a year" -- and is still at "an experimental stage". They grow some produce which they sell locally, but are still struggling to find their footing, financially and otherwise. One of their members, Catherine Fawley, is to go into the Abbey in the fall; her twin brother, Nick -- "he's a bit gloomy at times. He's had a difficult life" -- also comes to stay with the community (though they house him somewhat outside of it, with soon-to-be Oxford student Toby, who had petitioned to be allowed to experience this kind of life over the summer, before heading off to university).
       Michael Meade is the somewhat reluctant unofficial leader of the community -- Imber Court was a family property, though he had never lived there before repurposing it to house this community --, while James Tayper Pace is more obviously suited to the role but prefers taking a bit of a back seat. Michael and Nick have some history: some fourteen years earlier Nick had been a fourteen-year-old schoolboy and Michael "a young schoolmaster of twenty-five" and they had gotten rather too close and intimate. Nick had eventually gone to the headmaster and told him what was going on, leading to Michael being forced to leave the school (and dashing his hopes of ordination). A somewhat tortured homosexual, Michael soon finds himself slipping similarly with young Toby -- himself somewhat confused, but also drawn to the simple and willing Dora.
       It is Toby who, while swimming, comes across what clearly is the long-lost bell in the lake. The only one he reveals his discovery to is Dora, and they soon hatch a plan to surprise everyone with it when the new bell is to arrive. Quickly, then, however, this plan and pretty much everything else goes awry, the novel accelerating to a rush of accidents of various sorts, physical as well as personal, that shatter the community as well as various lives and relationships.
       The set-up isn't so much slow but feels a bit too obviously put in place, piece by piece, to then allow for the comic-frantic-hysteric series of events to come together and unfold in the novel's conclusion. From the heavy-handed bell-to-do to mentions of Dora being unable to swim and her affair with journalist Noel -- who, of course, comes to cover the bell-installation and interview some people for his newspaper (to which Dora's husband responds: "'Well, I'm going to interview him,' said Paul. 'I'm going to give him an interview he won't forget !') -- quite a great deal is, in one way or another, foreshadowed. As so often in Murdoch's novels, there is a large cast of busy characters, but she spreads herself a bit thin here, not devoting sufficient attention to some of them, with the story drifting rather too jerkily from one focus -- Dora, Michael, Toby -- to another; the later, more expansive novels take their time much better with this sort of thing. Here, for example, after the strong Dora-focused beginning, she's kind of lost for much of the story, before coming again to the fore. It can feel like Murdoch wasn't sure whose story she wanted to tell, shifting especially between Dora and Paul's and Michael's but without comfortably weaving them together into the novel as a whole. (Toby, on the other hand, is quite well used, involved with a variety of the characters and situations.)
       The Bell does come together quite enjoyably, and much along the way there is very good -- Murdoch is a pleasure to read, with so many of the descriptions and events so well and tightly expressed, and with a humorous edge to much of it. The mediocrity of the characters, as people, is a bit off-putting, and, while Murdoch often explores questions of faith in her novels, this one is much more overtly and thoroughly steeped in religiosity than most of them -- an interesting reflection of the times it was written in, but not much more than that.
       Despite not being one of her longer novels, I found The Bell somewhat of a slog; I don't think it's ever taken me as long to get through one of her books. Given the generally high regard it's held in -- beginning with by A.S.Byatt, who provides the Introduction to the current Penguin and Vintage Classic editions -- I might be missing something, but to me this is a lesser Murdoch -- still very engaging and much of it, bit by a bit, a great pleasure to read, but a bit too simple and too quickly heaped together. Like the lay community Murdoch describes, much of the novel has the feel of being at "an experimental stage", with many clever ideas (plot- and otherwise) and concerns which do come together in a solid conclusion (in the dissolution of the community ....), but too much of it more rickety.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 March 2024

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The Bell: Reviews: Iris Murdoch: Other books by Iris Murdoch under review: Books about Iris Murdoch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) studied at Oxford and Cambridge, and was a fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford. She published twenty-six novels and won the Booker Prize in 1978.

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© 2024 the complete review

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