The Bell

The Bell


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A motley assortment of characters seek peace and salvation in this early masterpiece by the Booker Prize-winning author of The Sea, The Sea 

A lay community of thoroughly mixed-up people is encamped outside Imber Abbey, home of an order of sequestered nuns. A new bell is being installed when suddenly the old bell, a legendary symbol of religion and magic, is rediscovered. And then things begin to change. Meanwhile the wise old Abbess watches and prays and exercises discreet authority. And everyone, or almost everyone, hopes to be saved, whatever that may mean. Originally published in 1958, this funny, sad, and moving novel is about religion, sex, and the fight between good and evil.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780141186696
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/01/2001
Series: Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Series
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 379,160
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.73(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Dame Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) was one of the most acclaimed British writers of the twentieth century. Very prolific, she wrote twenty-six novels, four books of philosophy, five plays, a volume of poetry, a libretto, and numerous essays before developing Alzheimer's disease in the mid-1990s. Her novels have won many prizes: the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Black Prince, the Whitbread Literary Award for Fiction for The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, and the Booker Prize for The Sea, The Sea. She herself was also the recipient of many esteemed awards: Dame of the Order of the British Empire, the Royal Society of Literature's Companion of Literature award, and the National Arts Club's (New York) Medal of Honor for Literature. In 2008, she was named one of the Times' (London) 50 greatest British writers since 1945.

A. S. Byatt, novelist, short-story writer, and critic, is the author of many books, including Possession, winner of the Man Booker Prize.

Table of Contents

The Bell Introduction by A. S. Byatt
The Bell

Reading Group Guide


Like the great realists Tolstoy, Eliot, and James, Iris Murdoch is preeminently concerned with the problem of how to live ethically in a world of accelerating change and declining faith. She studied and wrote philosophy as well as fiction, and her novels explore the fate of ideas once they are subjected to the exigencies of daily life. Murdoch's ability to blend social satire with a sharply observant yet compassionate view of her characters is fully displayed in The Bell, often considered her most characteristic and satisfying novel.

The novel begins with Dora Greenfield reluctantly setting out for Imber Court, a fledgling lay community just outside the walls of an Anglican convent, to rejoin her estranged husband, Paul. The spiritual goals of the group gathered at Imber Court enable Murdoch to investigate the question of whether moral absolutes must be modified to accommodate human nature. The community is started by the Abbess of Imber Abbey and Michael Meade, owner of the Imber Court property and a frustrated would-be priest with a checkered career as a schoolmaster. The Abbess proposes the lay community as a "buffer state" between the world and the convent, a refuge for the "half-contemplative" who "can live neither in the world nor out of it" (p. 71). This modified religious aspiration is further diluted by the mixed motives of many of Imber Court's residents, and the community verges on becoming a mere house party. In this light, the admonitions of one of the Court's residents, Mrs. Mark, about following rules have a serious aspect, despite her strident self-importance. As she tells Dora in a rare moment of insight, "trying to live up to ideals does often make one look ridiculous" (p. 224).

The bell that gives the novel its title embodies the emotional forces that both draw people to Imber Court and threaten to destroy it. The bell's meaning and power are ambiguous to the characters and the reader alike, not least because there are two bells—the Abbey's original bell, lost centuries earlier, and the new bell scheduled to replace it. Paul takes satisfaction in telling his adulterous wife the legend of the original bell flying into the lake when a nun at the Abbey refused to confess to having a lover and then drowned herself. When Dora and Toby, the idealistic student who has come to Imber Court to explore communal religious life, retrieve the lost bell from the lake, they discover that its inscription reads "I am the voice of Love" (p. 205). The bell and its legend highlight the struggle between divine and human love that many of the characters, particularly Michael and Catherine—the postulant secretly in love with Michael—experience acutely.

The significance of Dora's plan to secretly switch the old bell for the new one is as ambiguous as the bell itself; whether she wants to "play the witch" (p. 184) to undo the community or "make a miracle" (p. 183) is unclear. But when Dora hears Nick, Catherine's troubled and occasionally malicious brother, telling Dora's lover Noel about the plan, she must weigh her motives against a larger principle. Alone with the bell, Dora sees that her plan may lead outsiders to ridicule the community. She realizes that the bell embodies something larger than her own wishes: "She had thought to be its master and make it her plaything, but now it was mastering her and would have its will" (p. 249). The moment when Dora hurls herself against the bell, summoning the community and ending her plan, marks an epoch in her moral growth.

Scenes like this one, in which we see a character think and change, give The Bell its emotional depth. Besides Dora, Michael is the character who changes most in the course of the novel. Michael is necessarily conflicted, as he seeks to reconcile his desire to be a priest with his attraction to young men; unlike James, the self-made religious social acitivist, Michael cannot see the world in morally absolute terms. Believing that "his religion and his passions sprang from the same source" (p. 94), he wonders whether this undermines his religion or purifies his passions. Michael compares his own sermon, a "commendation of the second best act" (p. 190), when it is what a person's spiritual capacity allows, to James's demand that everyone do "the best thing" (p. 120) in all cases, and fears his sense of moral complexity is a weakness. Michael's past relationship with Nick and his transgression with Toby make him painfully aware of how easy it is to harm without intending to. As the narrator remarks soon after Michael has kissed Toby, "Our actions are like ships which we may watch set out to sea, and not know when or with what cargo they will return to port" (p. 151). Fittingly, the novel's final chapters reveal the consequences of many of the characters' actions.

In The Bell, Murdoch enjoins something of the novelist's art on us all, urging us to imagine others' stories. The defining moral moments in Murdoch's fiction are those in which characters imaginatively change places. Thus, after Michael kisses Toby, he sees "that he had damaged somebody other than himself. He pictured Toby's reactions: the shock, the disgust, the disillusionment, the sense of something irretrievably spoilt" (p. 151). Toby's own moral growth begins in the aftermath of the kiss, as he passes from fury to considering Michael as a person: "He began really to envisage Michael. What was it like to be Michael? What was Michael thinking now?" (p. 148). Murdoch leaves us to weigh the respective claims of moral absolutes and human frailty, but allows no doubt about the obligation to consider others as fully as ourselves.


Born in Dublin in 1919, Iris Murdoch grew up in London. An only child, Murdoch described her father, who discussed books with her from her early childhood, as "the greatest influence in my life." She recalled Treasure Island, Kim, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking-Glass as the first books she enjoyed. She showed an interest in and facility for languages and learned Latin and Greek. She was educated at Somerville College, Oxford, where she read classics, ancient history, and philosophy. After graduating in 1942, Murdoch worked for the wartime British Treasury. In 1944 she took a position with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association, working with refugees and displaced persons in Belgium and Austria. Murdoch joined the faculty of St. Anne's College, Oxford, in 1948, where she taught philosophy until 1963. She married fellow Oxford instructor and writer John Bayley in 1956.

Murdoch's first novel, Under the Net, appeared in 1954. It was followed by twenty-five more, of which The Bell (1958), The Nice and the Good (1968), The Black Prince (1973), and The Sea, the Sea (which won the Booker Prize in 1978) are some of the most celebrated. In addition to novels, she published poetry, plays, and works of philosophy, including Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992), the clearest summation of her own convictions. During her lifetime she was recognized as one of Britain's major novelists, uniquely able to combine realism and myth in narratives that commented upon the times. She was made a Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire in 1987 and died in 1999. That same year, her husband publishedElegy for Iris, a memoir of Murdoch's battle with Alzheimer's disease.

  • When Dora learns that Catherine plans to enter the Abbey as a nun, why does she feel "as if something within herself were menaced with destruction" (p. 63)?
  • Why does James believe that "the study of personality, indeed the whole conception of personality, is . . . dangerous to goodness" (p. 119)?
  • Why does Michael kiss Toby?
  • Why does Noel passionately insist that Dora must not let the people at Imber Court give her "a bad conscience" (p. 170)?
  • Why does seeing the pictures in the National Gallery make it obvious to Dora that she must go back to Imber Court immediately?
  • Why does Dora believe that secretly substituting the old bell for the new one will be "a magical act of shattering significance, a sort of rite of power and liberation" (p. 196)?
  • Why is Michael determined not to confess his relations with Toby to the Abbess?
  • Is Nick's sermon to Toby motivated by concern for Toby or revenge against Michael?
  • Why does Nick kill himself?
  • According to the novel, who or what is responsible for Catherine's madness and attempted suicide?
  • Why does Dora tear up the letters Paul gives to her?

    1. Is it more important to have a clear vision of moral absolutes or an understanding of human complexity?
    2. Do you agree with Michael that spiritual aspiration and passions often spring from the same source? Is it possible to fully satisfy both?
    3. What is the value of a "fugitive and cloistered virtue" (p. 123) based on innocence rather than experience?


    Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (1980)
    Set in a fourteenth-century Italian monastery where Brother William of Baskerville is investigating the murders of seven monks, this novel is both a mystery and a sophisticated exploration of the truths of faith and science.

    Rumer Godden, In This House of Brede (1969)
    When Philippa Talbot, a successful forty-year-old London businesswoman, decides to enter Brede Abbey as a postulant, she must confront tensions in both the convent and herself.

    Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852)
    The fictional Blithedale is based on Brook Farm, the experimental transcendentalist community Hawthorne briefly joined. The novel shows the unraveling of this idealistic commune through intrigue, impracticality, and passion.

    Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers (1857)
    Political maneuvering within the Anglican Church is the focus of this large-scale novel, in which the powerful Mrs. Proudie, wife of the Bishop of Barchester, wages covert but determined warfare against the upstart chaplain Mr. Slope.

    Joanna Trollope, The Choir (1978)
    When the roof of Aldminster Cathedral needs costly repairs, the town is divided between those determined to save the famous boys' choir and those who want to eliminate it—a situation exacerbated by a range of romantic and family complications.

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    The Bell 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    welkinscheek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Good lord, how have I never read Ms Murdoch before. Gorgeous, though the introspective tangents got a little long at times, they were also absolutley charming. Great for anyone who loves Virginia WOlf and George Eliot.
    lilywren on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I hadn't read any books by Murdoch before but she was one of those writers whom I had on my 'must read' list. The Bell shows how the enjoyment of books (as with other creative genres) is so subjective! I could write about the story it involves, that of a community and the people living amongst it, but there are many here who have written about this far better than I could!I have read a lot of reviews that give The Bell high praise indeed, and rightly so. Murdoch's use of language and her ability to draw us into that world through her wonderful descriptive prose is second to none. The description of the community and it's environment is written in such a way that I could almost have been there. In my opinion, it is, first and foremost, a wonderfully descriptive book.However, I did find it tough going at times and, dare I say,*whispers* a little dull. However, as I said, books are subjective and I have had trouble reading ANY book of late. I decided to persevere with The Bell! 'I will not leave yet another book unfinished!' I told myself and in doing so discovered it was the last few chapters that had been worth the wait and perseverence and, as bqsquared said in their review below, I found the arrival better than the journey.Whilst I loved the descriptive elements of the book, I found the chacarters left me a little cold. I found I could not empathise or like any of them which is usually important for me when reading a book. Nor did they hold my interest. Other than Michael, I found them a little 'thin' and one dimensional. Maybe this is deliberate or maybe I was missing something at the time of reading.I hate to give any book a negative review, in fact I rarely do! Authors take so long writing something with so much care, something that I could never do and what I like, someone else will not and vice versa.All I can offer are my own opinions about The Bell which, on the whole, are that it is a wonderfully descriptive book but with characters that were a little one dimensional and self absorbed for my liking and did not hold my interest long enough to actually care. I gave 3 stars purely on the way in which Murdoch writes and how her words flow from the page, not necessarily for the story.
    anthonywillard on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I had never read an Iris Murdoch novel. I remember her being all the rage when she first started publishing them. She's not so often heard of now. Not to say she's unknown : all or nearly all her novels are in print to this day. I remember her being regarded as psychological and difficult. Now that I have read The Bell, I would say she is not difficult. She's peculiar, that's what she is.It's hard to put a finger on the peculiarity. There are no fireworks or eccentricities. She writes cultivated but unadorned English prose. She's not nearly as overtly Freudian as Virginia Woolf. The Bell has a very suspenseful plot. The author has no axes to grind or drums to beat. Still, the novel is sort of weird.It is the story of a summer in the lives of a group of middle-class English misfits who have found themselves members of a so-called lay community attached loosely to an Anglo-Catholic monastery of cloistered nuns living in a restored medieval abbey in the west of England. The nuns, being cloistered, do not figure much in the story. The members of the adjunct lay community, Imber it's called, exhibit various degrees of flakiness, from mild OCD to flat-out lunacy.The Bell is said to be the first of Murdoch's religious novels, but from my point of view it is about ethics, rather than religion as such. Most of the characters share a kind of high-church Anglicanism without too much questioning. And the ones who do question it tend to keep their mouths shut (at least on that topic). The author's interest is in the nature of ethical decision making, and she uses the issues of homosexual child abuse (the children in this case being boys in their mid-teens, not small children), and heterosexual marital infidelity and abusive behavior. None of this ever gets down and dirty, but the thoughts and motivations of the characters involved are explored to a fare thee well. The author looks at all angles and does not take sides. The novel is in some ways a period piece. The author maintains a non-judging approach towards homosexuality, for instance, keeping the focus on the characters' own attitudes: but the unquestioning valuation of homosexual behavior as being obviously wrong, and of homosexual orientation as a personality disorder, is taken for granted by all the characters, including the gay ones. There are other unquestioned assumptions that are vestiges of the 1950's as well, some of which may not be noticed by those who weren't there then.These ethical explorations are hung on a tightly constructed plot which builds to an engrossing series of climactic scenes. It involves a medieval bell with a Gothic legend attached to it, which is said to have been hurled centuries ago into a nearby lake, and to peal on rare occasion to herald an untoward death. The characters with their loves and guilts and neuroses all play into this legend up to the violent denouement. An interesting book. I don't know if I'll read any more Murdoch. You might like it if you like psychological novels or novels of ideas, so to speak. Murdoch was after all on the philosophy faculty at Oxford, and an expert on Sartre. No wonder she could be a little grim.
    jwhenderson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A wonderfully cast of characters, both batty and interesting, converges on Imber Abbey in Gloucestershire. According to a legend, the abbey bell flew into the lake centuries earlier when a bishop cursed the place because of the sexual misdemeanours of one of the nuns. A new bell is to be installed, but Toby and Dora find the old bell in the lake and decide to effect a bell-swap. Chaos ensues in this delightful novel from the pen of Iris Murdoch.
    Kasthu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    The Bell is set in the lay community belonging to Imber Abbey, home to an order of sequestered nuns. The Abbey is about to get a new bell, a time-honored symbol of standing witness. At the same time, there¿s a legend about the old, medieval bell, which is said to ring when death approaches. Imber Court contains a variety of complicated people: Paul Greenfield, whose wife, Dora, comes back to him after running away; Michael Meade, the head of the community, who has an unpleasant history with Nick Fawley; Nick¿s sister Catherine, who is about to enter the religious order, and Toby, a teenage boy who becomes involved with Michael Meade.Although it¿s only February, I can tell that this is going to be one of my top reads for 2012. I loved every bit of this book from start to finish. Although the book is set in a religious, or semi-religious, community, this wasn¿t a particularly religious book. Instead, it¿s about ethics, love, and sex (about which the author was extremely candid, given that the book was published in the 1950s).All of the characters are thoroughly messed up: Paul is selfish and thoughtless, Dora is a bit of a wet blanket, Michael continually struggles with an ethical dilemma, Nick struggles with alcoholism and guilt. For a community that¿s supposedly so religious, all of these characters have vices and flaws! But that¿s what makes them so interesting as characters¿one wonders if Dora, for example, will ever grow a backbone. I grew to care about the characters in this novel, even though I despised a few of them. The only one who didn¿t completely jump off the page for me was Catherine, who seems to be an afterthought. But Murdoch writes in very clear, descriptive prose, and other than my minor criticism, I thought that this was a fabulous novel.
    stephenmakin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I grew up in a cult, so my girlfriend brought me this book. It's a wonderful portrait of a Christian Sect. I find Murdoch paints wonderful pictures of people, always realistic - but not always likeable. I haven't read any Iris Murdoch, but I keep thinking that I should.
    Leseratte2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Several years ago I read [Under the Net] because (a) it was on the Random House 100 Best Novels in English list (b) I'd never read Iris Murdoch and (c) it was short. I barely remember anything about it now, beyond a vague impression of a loosely-constructed, almost plotless novel, populated by fools and jerks, which had failed to live up to its label of "comic." I was not the least bit amused; if anything, I was rather angry that I'd wasted time and money on it.Fast-forward to the present: I decided to give Murdoch another try. For about the first 100 pp. I thought, "Well, here we go again. Another cast of characters Iris didn't seem to like any more than I do. Great." There's something cartoonish and even grotesque about her characters, which sometimes works for me (Barbara Comyns, Charles Dickens) and sometimes doesn't (Ronald Firbank, Charles Dickens). My dislike began to fade once Gabriel, a.k.a. The Bell, entered the picture. At that point I became truly interested and was far less annoyed by Murdoch's stylistic affectations and the fact that there was no one in the book I truly liked. Some of the characters were growing and changing; I found myself wondering how it would all turn out; and I had to admit that even though I wasn't a fan of her style, Murdoch was an exceptional writer. While I doubt that I will ever read another of her novels, I do think that, ultimately, The Bell was worth the time I spent reading it.
    jennyo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    My book group chose this book for our March read and we'll be discussing it in a couple of weeks. I'm glad I'm going to have a little time to let my thoughts percolate before our discussion. This is that kind of book, one that doesn't overwhelm so much with its plot (though it does have one) or its characters (though it certainly has those), but with all the conflicting ideas and ideals presented. If I were to try to tell you what it was about, I'd have to say it's about spirituality, sexuality, "good" and "bad" (though we waver through them being nebulously and strictly defined), and mostly about human frailty.I didn't really like many of the characters, except perhaps for Toby whose innocence makes it hard to dislike him, but they did all seem real to me. Real enough that I often had physical reactions to them. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to shake Dora or beat the ever-living crap out of Paul or yell at Michael to stop analyzing and start doing.I think this is a book I could read again and find more food for thought. It's sort of like Faulkner, not in style, by any means, but in that you read it because it really gets your brain churning, not just because it's a pleasant way to while away a few hours. I may have more thoughts to log about this one later. We'll see.There is much to ponder here. Much to discuss.
    literati238 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This book is troubling, but the pattern of hubris, ordeal, and moral re-creation is omnipresent here. This is what I love about Murdoch . . . suffering always brings perspective. Theologically, I couldn't disagree with her more, but she has a moral thesis that even the most fundamental Christians cannot dismiss.
    thorold on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This book has dated a lot in the fifty years since it was written, of course, but it's still well worth a look. The modern reader will find it difficult to imagine that long-distant period when the Anglican Church was able to get its knickers in such a twist about homosexuality... (no, sorry, scratch that last sentence!).It's an early novel, and it has its faults. Oddly for a woman writer, the female characters often seem to be perilously close to caricatures, whilst the men are much more believable. The book deals with big, serious issues, but it isn't over-serious or pompous in any way. By switching the POV between cynical Dora, naïve Toby, and guilt-ridden Michael, Murdoch prevents us from getting bogged down in one character's set of values, and is able to examine all of them with a certain amount of irony.
    woollymammoth on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This was a gift from my girlfriend because the community is similar in some ways to the one I grew up in. I love Iris Murdoch, she manages to create totally believable characters in very few words.
    AnonMI More than 1 year ago
    I bought this book on the recommendation of a book reviewer I respect. Well, I still respect him, however, I don't agree with him about the excellence of this particular Murdoch book. I found it rather too steeped in religion and some of the characters rather pretentious inner moralizing.
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