The Bell by Iris Murdoch: a Book Review

I first read The Bell years ago and it remained in my memory as an excellent book, but this time round I think my reading tastes have changed because, although I still liked it, I no longer found it so enchanting. Iris Murdoch wrote beautiful English, with detailed descriptions of the location – Imber Court, Imber Abbey and the lake and woods around them. But I just couldn’t work out the layout and that is actually relevant in this book. There was also too much detail about the thoughts and feelings of one of the characters – Michael Meade – for my liking, and yet for all the description he didn’t seem a real person, but more a mouthpiece for Murdoch’s philosophical thoughts. In fact most of the characters, with the exception of Dora, come across more as stereotypes than real people.

A lay community lives next to an enclosed order of nuns, a new bell is being installed and then the old bell, a legendary symbol of religion and magic  is retrieved from the bottom of the lake. The legend of the bell is that it fell into the lake after a 14th century Bishop had cursed the Abbey when a nun was discovered to have a lover and had drowned herself. The various characters include Dora Greenfield who is staying at Imber Court whilst her husband Paul is researching the Abbey archives. Paul is thirteen years older and is an art historian. Dora had left him six months earlier because she was afraid of him and was returning for the same reason. She is a young woman, a rather silly young woman who thinks one thing and immediately says the opposite, but Paul is probably the most obnoxious character in the book – he is a manipulative bully. The other residents at Imber Court are a mixed-up bunch, there for both religious and other reasons. As the date for the installation of the new bell approaches their weaknesses begin to be exposed.

Much of the book is taken up with discussions and examining the thoughts of the characters about the relationship of goodness to power. On the surface everything appeared to Dora to be peaceful, but underneath stresses and strains are causing the community to diverge into two parties. It’s not just a matter of organisation but also of morals and there is an impending sense of evil and menace.  Bearing in mind that The Bell was first published in 1958 this must have been quite a shocking book at the time – about the relationship between religion and sex and the angst and self-denial that it depicts.

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Classics; New Ed edition (2 July 2009)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0099470489
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099470489
  • Source: I bought this book

For a rather more positive view of The Bell see The Senior Common Room.

4 thoughts on “The Bell by Iris Murdoch: a Book Review

  1. Margaret – Isn’t it really interesting how our tastes change over the years? I’ve had exactly the same thing happen to me more than once. I am sorry, though, that you were disappointed in The Bell this time round. I suppose you can put it down to literary growth…


  2. I gave up on The Bell when I tried it years ago and I was going to give it another go as I thought I must have missed something. I’m not going to bother now, thanks to your review – one crossed off the reading list anyway!


  3. I read one Iris Murdoch years ago and decided she was an acquired taste, which I hadn’t acquired. Lately I have been wondering about trying her again because my reading tastes have changed. This certainly doesn’t sound like something I would enjoy though, so maybe I’ll continue to wonder. Lord knows I have enough other books to read.


  4. I like Iris Murdoch’s writing style but she does tend to go into some detail. I’m sorry you weren’t as enchanted with this book this time around. I always find it disappointing when that happens. This book sounds fascinating, though, in terms of the subjects of religion and sex and then the theme of morality and the atmosphere of evil…I think this is one book I might be checking out!


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