Dame Iris Murdoch: The Bell

Iris Murdoch and her husband, John Bailey

The last time I visited Auntie’s in Spokane, I nearly ran into a pillar.  Thankfully, no one seemed to be watching.  Also, that pillar was covered with staff-recommended books.  The one closest to my head, which would have left its imprint on my forehead if I hadn’t snapped out of my daydream in time, was The Bell by Iris Murdoch.

I’d seen the movie Iris a couple of times (it features three of my very favorite actors–Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, and Jim Broadbent–who were, incidentally, all nominated for Oscars for their performances in this film) but had never encountered any of Dame Iris’s books before, so naturally I was curious.

For a book written by a noted philosopher, The Bell is surprisingly easy to read.  The prose bears the marks of its time (some overwriting, adjective stacking, etc.) and at times, Murdoch does use some of the trademark tools of the philosophical novel (long speeches delivered by characters, stretches of philosophical internal monologue).  But overall, she lets the reader figure out the message for him/herself–and I appreciated that.

The novel begins with Dora Greenfield, an erring wife who is set to return to her husband.  To her surprise, her husband is not at home in their London flat, but spending a few weeks in a lay religious community in the country, sorting out historical documents.  She is forced to return to him there, in an environment completely foreign to her.  This alone would be enough for the novel, but Murdoch doesn’t stick with a single point of view or philosophical perspective.  She switches over to the perspectives of a young boy, also a visitor in this religious community, and to the community’s leader.  Every member of the community is well drawn and deftly linked throughout the story.  Each of them tries to answer the same question, which is (so I read) typical of Iris Murdoch’s work: What does it mean to be good?

The book’s plot revolves around (as the title suggests), a bell–or two bells, actually.  One was lost in the lake long before the novel began; the other is ordered and delivered to the nearby abbey over the course of the story.  But this is not a book about a bell, really–it’s about the people around it.  A lot of people.  It’s the large number of characters that, toward the end of the book, might be its downfall.  Having pursued so many threads throughout the novel, the last pages race to wrap them all up, without as much depth or detail as is found in the previous two hundred pages.  This was disappointing to me, since I had so enjoyed languishing in the world of the book up until its climax.  It’s a common problem with novels, but disappointing all the same.

One of the most interesting things about my experience in reading The Bell was that I had seen the movie Iris before I read the book.  Knowing something about the author made me read the characters a certain way, gauging them against what I knew of Murdoch and her husband and her life.  I started to wonder what elements of the story were bits of her own experience, and how those experiences translated on the page.

As a writer, I’m always interested not just in books, but in who wrote them.  I’m fascinated to learn anything I can about writers’ lives.  I realize that watching movies like Iris or Sylvia (about Sylvia Plath) doesn’t necessarily give me a clear window into these writers’ lives, but it certainly makes it more fun to read their work.


  • Shira Richman says:

    This is a lovely review. I feel like I get a good sense of what the book is like and you make me want to read it. I’m especially interested in checking out Murdoch’s work in light of what you say about her ongoing exploration of “What does it mean to be good?” Thanks!

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