The Bell explores themes of sexuality and power, like most of Iris Murdoch’s novels, and this time it is set against a religious backdrop. When Dora Greenfield leaves her domineering husband Paul, he escapes to Imber, a lay religious community in the countryside. As a guest he receives food and lodging, and a place to focus on his academic research. Dora later decides to attempt reconciliation, and joins Paul at Imber. On her way she meets Toby, who plans to spend the summer at Imber before leaving for university.
The Imber community is small, mostly male, and adjoins a Benedictine abbey whose nuns are cloistered for life.. Imber’s leader is Michael Meade, whose family originally owned the estate. The other members are mostly misfits who have withdrawn from mainstream society. Together they tend the estate and the market garden, and organize daily worship activities. The community as a whole is looking forward to two significant events: the ceremonial installation of a new bell at the Abbey, and one Imber member’s planned installation as a cloistered nun. Dora and Toby both assimilate into the community to varying degrees. Dora, by association with Paul, is always a bit of an outsider and finds the group’s customs a bit awkward. Toby is young and impressionable, finding spiritual fulfillment in Imber’s natural beauty.
I first thought The Bell would be about Dora and Paul’s relationship, but it is much more about Michael and his inner struggles with sexuality and faith. It turns out Michael is gay, and suffered early in his career when his orientation became known to others. He also knows that a faith community will not be sympathetic. Murdoch, on the other hand, is sympathetic, which likely went against the grain of British society when this novel was published in 1958. Michael tries desperately to keep his desires at bay even in the face of temptation, and conceal his true self from the rest of the Imber community. Sometimes this is almost comic, but at the novel’s climax it becomes gut-wrenching, such that what happens to Dora and Paul is almost ancillary.
This novel was full of symbolism and imagery around the bell itself, and I felt as if Dora was meant to be the heroine, but for me Michael’s story was more central and had greater impact.