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[724] The Bell – Iris Murdoch

1bell

” He made her talk about herself, and quietly circumvented her clumsy efforts to make him talk about himself. Her unsuspicious and unsophisticated mind harboured of course no conception of his being a homosexual; and although Michael guessed Dora to be one of those women who regard homosexuals with interested sympathy . . . ” (Ch.26, p.316)

For a directly religious novel, The Bell is pleasantly readable and does not get too caught up with tedious pedagogical issues. The novel centers around Dora Greenfield, an erring wife who returns to live with her husband, an art historian conducting research in a lay community encamped outside an abbey. During her stay, it becomes obvious that her effort of reconciliation is futile. She’s plain that things were mostly her fault and that she should never have married Paul at all. She feels intensely the need and somehow the capacity to live and work on her own and become, what she had never been, an independent and grown-up person.

God had created men and women with these tendencies, and made these tendencies run so deep that they were, in many cases, the very core of the personality. (Ch.16, p.211)

The Imber community is small, mostly male, and adjoins a Benedictine abbey of which the nuns are cloistered for life. The community is located on the land owned by family of Michael Meade, the leader, a homosexual who contrives to triumph over his vice and make another attempt at priesthood. The brotherhood is designed to allow laymen to have the benefits of the religious life while remaining in the world. The members are mostly misfits who have withdrawn from mainstream society. Together they tend the estate and cultivate a market-garden and observe 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’s member’s planned installation as a cloistered nun. Both events have gone awry due to a contingency.

Although Dora has remained an outsider, she has “fed like a glutton upon the catastrophes at Imber” and they had increased her substance. The Bell sustains a continuous effort to create a dense, real world of feelings and behavior. It’s a novel about people and their thoughts—how their thoughts change their lives as much as their impulses and feelings do. It’s a novel about goodness, cruelty, and power. The people are neither bad nor perfect, and this is how Murdoch is ingenious. She understands the way in which our sense of our moral beings, the imperatives and prohibitions we desire, or agree, to accept, depend on a religious structure which our society as a whole no longer believes in.

329 pp. Vintage Classics UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[506] The Sea, the Sea – Iris Murdoch

” What shall I do with it, I asked her, what shall I do now with my love for you which you so terribly revived by reappearing in my life? Why did you come back, if you could not content me? What can I do now with the great useless machine of my love which has no wholesome work to do? . . . Perhaps when I was living alone and being everyone’s uncle like a celibate priest I would keep this fruitless love as my secret chapel. ” (456)

In his early 60s, Charles Arrowby retires from theater and pours his entire saving into a seaside brick house where he plans to live a quiet life of meditation and to write his memoir. Despite the meager amenities of the dilapidated house, he is absorbed and contented by this paradise that permits him genuine solitude—but not for too long. A series of strange events and unexpected visitors puncture this retirement regime. The novel-diary, which records his daily routine of swimming in the dangerous sea, buying groceries in the village, and making his obsessively detailed meals, becomes a continuum filled with allusions to myth and magic. The arrival of his guests subjects him to a confrontation of his own vanity, new possibility of romance, and unresolved bitterness.

You’ve lived in a hedonistic dream all your life, and you’ve got away with behaving like a cad because you always picked on women who could look after themselves. And my God you told us the score, you never committed yourself, you never said you loved us even when you did! (183)

Indeed Charles Arrowby is a cold fish with clean hands! He’s free from relationship obligations but memories of his past romances capitulate him. He pines for Lizzie, an actress whom he cares for but can only love dispossessively and platonically. Hartley, his first love from 40 years ago, is the main cause of his discontent in life. She appears in the hamlet where Charles lives, locked up in her own nightmare of a marriage. After the horrid interview with her husband, Charles sets out to rescue her in a campaign that covers long segments of the book. Hartley is haunted by her own demons, her reckless attempts to enrich her married life by adopting a son, which wound up creating only jealous suspicions in her husband’s mind about the child’s paternity She recognizes Charles’ affection for her but she believes she must remain in her marriage not because it’s right but because it defines her.

I’m not calling her a ghost. She is real, as human creatures are, but what reality she has is elsewhere. She does not coincide with your dream figure. You were not able to transform her. You must admit you tried and failed. (349)

In an important sense Charles Arrowby’s is the story of someone who violently and bullheadedly persists in all the wrong directions until time and experience—both under great pressure—and love form an unexpected quarter partially redeem him. Almost the entire novel is a derailment from his original intention—to write about his mentor with whom he had an affair. Clement, so her name was, is a shadow. Charles does not succeed in a renewed affair with Lizzie. He has deluded himself throughout by the idea of reviving a secret love all which all his relationships fail which did not exist at all. He is deeply self-deceived. He is so egotistic that he fails to conceive of a world outside his own head. This book has left me thoroughly divided. It’s as flawd and exhausting as it is exhilarating.

495 pp. Penguins Classics. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]