The Bell Iris Murdoch

The Bell is a 1958 novel by British-Irish novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. I The novel explores complex human relationships, the struggle between freedom and responsibility, and the clash of the spiritual and the secular. The titular bell becomes a symbolic element in the story, embodying themes of guilt, redemption, and the weight of the past.

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Table of contents

    Below is a summary and analysis of The Bell. You will also find tables of key characters and quotes and an exploration of symbolism in the text.

    Symbolism is when something real is used to represent something other than its original meaning. This symbolic meaning can often be an abstract concept.

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    The Bell by Iris Murdoch: summary

    Summary: The Bell
    Author of The BellIris Murdoch
    GenrePhilosophical novel
    Summary of The Bell
    • The story primarily follows Dora Greenfield, a young woman caught in a miserable marriage, and Michael Meade, the troubled lay leader of the community. The narrative takes a dramatic turn with the discovery of a centuries-old bell in the lake adjoining Imber Court.
    • The ensuing events precipitate a crisis in the community, forcing characters to confront their pasts, their desires, and their moral convictions.
    List of main charactersDora Greenfield, Paul Greenfield, Michael Meade, Nick Fawley, and Roby Gashe.
    ThemesFreedom and responsibility, sexuality, spirituality, guilt, and community vs individualism.
    Setting1950s lay community in Imber Court, England
    AnalysisThe bell itself is a profound symbol in the novel, representing guilt, the weight of the past, and the possibility of redemption. The act of raising the bell from the lake signifies the characters' attempts to confront and resolve their individual pasts. The novel offers

    The Bell revolves around an Anglican community in Gloucestershire in the 1950s. It is made up of Imber Court, where the lay community live, and Imber Abbey, where an order of nuns live, closed off from the world. This novel is a profound exploration of human frailty and the intricacies of relationships, set in a lay religious community.

    A lay community refers to when people are part of a religious group but are not ordained or part of the clergy.

    Two of the central characters in The Bell are Dora and Paul Greenfield, an estranged married couple. Dora used to be an art student, and Paul is an art historian, staying in Imber Court to do research. When readers meet Dora, she is on a train to Imber Court to reunite with Paul, who has convinced her to return to their marriage. Paul is an overbearing and suffocating character who tries to control Dora.

    On the train, Dora meets two other members of Imber Court. One is James Tayper Pace, a senior member of the community, and the other is Toby Gashe, an eighteen-year-old who is spending time there before leaving for university. Upon Dora's arrival, she is immediately uncomfortable with the community, finding it repressive and sexist. Paul is also harsh towards her for leaving their marriage.

    However, Paul does tell Dora a story that strengthens their relationship temporarily and is also key to the story. He tells her that Imber Abbey has been missing its bell for many years. The myth goes that the bell fell into the lake because a nun broke her vow of chastity. The community is planning to replace it.

    The Bell Irish Murdoch, An image inside an Abbey looking fown a dark corridor with light coming in from the cloisters, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Note the contrasts between the communities of Imber Abbey and Imber Court.

    The other characters in the Imber Court community are Catherine Fawley, who is studying to be a nun in Imber Abbey, Nick, Catherine's troubled brother, and Michael Meade, a former schoolteacher who leads the lay community. Nick and Michael have their own complex history. Nick was once a pupil of Michael's, and they had a brief non-sexual relationship. While it appeared reciprocal, Nick eventually told Michael's superiors, which resulted in Michael losing his job. Michael also had ambitions to join the priesthood, which were dashed by Nick's accusations.

    However, Michael once again goes down a similar path. He realises he is attracted to Toby as they spend more time together, and he kisses him. Toby is shocked and horrified. Nick witnesses these events, and it seems he may once again ruin Michael's career by telling his colleagues about his sexuality. The kiss also pushes Toby to think about his sexuality, realising he is attracted to Dora.

    Dora and Toby begin to spend time together when Toby tells Dora he found what seems to be a bell submerged in the lake of Imber Court while on a swim. From Paul's stories, Dora assumes this to be the abbey's original bell. She convinces Toby to help her secretly swap the new bell for this old one, and they succeed in this.

    The day of the bell ceremony is also intended to celebrate Catherine's induction into the abbey, but it soon turns disastrous. Paul and Dora are fighting as their marriage is in disarray. Toby feels very guilty about secretly swapping the bells. He then gets into an altercation with a drunk and angry Nick, who convinces him to tell James about his kiss with Michael.

    During the procession to bring the bell to the abbey, the bridge it is being moved across collapses and the bell falls into the lake. In a moment of panic, Catherine sees this as a sign her path as a nun is doomed and she tries to drown herself in the lake. After her rescue, it is revealed she is struggling with romantic feelings for Michael. She is later diagnosed with schizophrenia. It is discovered that Nick purposefully tampered with the bridge to cause this chain of events. He is clearly troubled, and Michael attempts to reason with him. Upon arrival, Michael discovers that Nick has committed suicide.

    Dora and Michael are the only central characters left by the end of The Bell. The Imber Court lay community has fallen apart. Michael is impacted by Toby's confession but reflects on how he mismanaged his relationship with Nick and seems a better person for this introspection. Dora, on the other hand, gains a newfound sense of agency without Paul and becomes an art teacher.

    The Bell by Iris Murdoch: analysis

    The Bell is a complex novel that tackles spirituality, morals, and sex. These concepts are linked together as the members of the Imber community grapple with them.

    Michael is representative of the themes of sex and sexuality. He is a gay man but closeted, as would have been necessary in 1950s Britain, where homosexuality was illegal. It would have also been controversial for Murdoch herself to write on such a topic at the time. Despite knowing the risks, Michael pursues both Nick and Toby at different times, but it is Nick he is truly in love with. In 1950s society, Michael's actions would have been viewed as shameful and illegal. However, The Bell does not promote these homophobic ideas and Michael is not condemned for his sexuality. Rather, he has lengthy and non-judgemental discussions with the Abbess regarding how he could have loved better, not that his love was wrong.

    Morals and spirituality are linked for many of the characters in The Bell. People go to Imber Court, a secluded, religious community, to escape modern society. This is one of the key aspects that attracts Toby to the community, for example. Members feel they can be more in touch with their morals and values in this spiritual place.

    However, Murdoch shows things are not so simple. At the end of The Bell's narrative, only two characters remain: Michael and Dora. Both have been changed for the better, but neither for specifically religious or spiritual reasons. It is human relations that have changed them. In Dora's case, she has finally found the courage to break free from the suffocating Paul and lead her own independent life. One of the events that pushes her to leave Paul is a visit to the National Gallery in London earlier in the novel.

    The Bell by Iris Murdoch: characters

    The key characters in The Bell are Dora Greenfield, Paul Greenfield, Michael Meade, Nick Fawley, and Roby Gashe.

    Dora GreenfieldDora is a young former art student. She is in a tumultuous and estranged marriage with Paul. She is also an outsider to the Imber community. Paul's domineering nature causes her to feel trapped. The events of The Bell lead to Dora's growth as she gains an individual sense of self beyond any male character. She even attempts to save Catherine from drowning, despite not knowing how to swim. By the end of the text, Dora has her own new life.Youthful. Independent. Courageous.
    Paul GreenfieldPaul is an art historian who is staying at Imber Court to carry out research. He is a harsh character that bullies Dora, who is significantly younger than him. Paul is so cruel to her that she fears him. He also undergoes little development through Murdoch's novel. By the end of the text, Paul is just as controlling towards Dora as ever, but now she has the strength to resist.Cruel. Domineering. Controlling.
    Michael MeadeMichael is a former schoolteacher who once dreamed of being a priest. This dream was dashed after the discovery of a relationship he had with a teenage male student of his, Nick. Michael now leads the lay community in Imber Court. He struggles greatly with his sexuality as he falls for another young man, Toby. By the end of The Bell, Michael is much more comfortable with both his spirituality and sexuality.Spiritual. Conflicted. Introspective.
    Nick FawleyNick is the troubled brother of Catherine, who is preparing to be a nun in Imber Abbey. He is a complicated and disruptive character. By using his sexuality against him, Nick attempts to ruin Michael's career twice. Nick also tries to destroy the bell replacement ceremony, intended to celebrate his sister's induction as a nun. This causes her to attempt suicide. After all the events have occurred, Nick himself commits suicide before Michael can save him.Troubled. Disruptive. Angry.
    Toby GasheToby is a young student who is spending the summer in Imber Court before attending his first year in Oxford. He is attracted by the idea of a secluded community. However, Toby is forced to think about himself deeply while at Imber Court. The kiss he shares with Michael pushes him to consider his sexuality, concluding that he is attracted to Dora who he also kisses. Toby emerges from the events of The Bell relatively unscathed compared to other characters, happily going to Oxford.Idealistic. Carefree. Naive.

    The Bell by Iris Murdoch: symbolism

    The literary device of symbolism is present in Murdoch's The Bell. It is seen in the title of the novel and this can be linked to the central character of Dora. There are not one but two bells in the story, and they can be seen as individually symbolic.

    Dora is informed about the original bell by her controlling and abusive husband, Paul. He tells her of the folk tale in which the bell flew out into the lake because a nun broke her vow of chastity. Paul partly tells this story because he is aware of Dora's adultery. The old bell represents the oppressive religious ideas of the community that Dora is uncomfortable with, and the oppressive nature of her own husband.

    The new bell has a very different symbolism for Dora. It is something that she and Toby discover together. Toby is a man in her life that does not last but treats her much better than Paul. Dora is also in control of the plan to swap the bells, gaining much more agency than she has had before. The swapping of the bells sets a series of events in motion, one of which is Dora leaving Paul permanently. The new bell symbolises independence and control for Dora.

    The Bell by Iris Murdoch: quotes

    Let's consider some important quotes from The Bell.

    'That was marriage, thought Dora; to be enclosed in the aims of another. That she had any power over Paul never occurred to her. It remained that her marriage to Paul was a fact, and one of the few facts that remained in her disordered existence quite certain.'Chp. 1This quote comes at the beginning of The Bell, when Dora is travelling back to Paul. He has given her a warped view of marriage, she believes it to be about control. Dora also sees her marriage as her only option that she has no way out of.
    'Those who hope, by retiring from the world, to earn a holiday from human frailty, in themselves and others, are usually disappointed.'Chp. 6This quote encapsulates The Bell's views on secluded religious communities like Imber Court. It criticises the choice to remove oneself from the world. This goes disastrously for many members of the Imber community.
    '"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!"'Chp. 9Paul's callousness towards Dora is clear. He is comfortable to announce he does not respect her. Their relationship is unbalanced and unhealthy.
    '[Michael] the Abbess had told him that the way was always forward. Nick had needed love, and he, Michael, ought to have given him what he had to offer, without fears about its imperfection.'Chp. 26Readers can see a conversation between Michael and the Abbess about what has happened. There is no judgement for Michael's actions. The Abbess actually advises that he should have helped the troubled Nick more. This is unusual in a society where homosexual relationships were still frowned upon.

    The Bell Iris Murdoch - Key takeaways

    • The Bell (1958) is a novel by British-Irish novelist Iris Murdoch.
    • The novel follows the goings-on of an isolated, religious lay community in 1950s England.
    • Spirituality, morals, and sex are key in The Bell.
    • The main symbol in the novel is the bell which embodies themes of guilt, redemption, and the weight of the past.
    • The Bell takes an unusually accepting stance on homosexuality for a novel written and set in the 1950s.

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    Frequently Asked Questions about The Bell Iris Murdoch

    When did Iris Murdoch write The Bell?


    Who wrote the novel The Bell?

    Iris Murdoch wrote The Bell.

    What is the book The Bell about?

    The Bell is about sexuality, love, and control in a secluded, lay religious community in 1950s England.

    When was The Bell by Iris Murdoch set?

    The Bell is set in the 1950s.

    What did Iris Murdoch criticise?

    As a philosopher as well as novelist, Murdoch criticised other philosophers who presented too unrealistic or idealistic views of the world.

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