Iris Murdoch, The Bell

The BellThe Bell by Iris Murdoch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bell is Iris Murdoch’s fourth novel. I had never read the celebrated 20th-century British philosopher and novelist before and decided to start with this 1958 book because it is often said to be her first novel that is characteristically “Murdochian” and also her first that makes a claim to greatness.

The novel has an immediately appealing premise. It is set at a remote Court or country house in England near Imber Abbey, where an enclosed order of nuns has existed since the Middle Ages. The Court has been in the family of Michael Meade for centuries, and he decides, after consulting the Abbess, to set up a lay community of believers and devotees who can live and work for the greater good of the Abbey and exist apart from the increasingly complex and alienating modern world:

…the Abbess imparted to Michael the idea of making the Court the home of a permanent lay community attached to the Abbey, a ‘buffer state’, as she put it, between the Abbey and the world, a reflection, a benevolent and useful parasite, an intermediary form of life.

Michael is one of three characters through whose eyes we see the growth and eventual dissolution of this lay community, as it is riven by the human (above all sexual) frailties of its members and visitors over the course of one late summer and early autumn.

Our other two protagonists are Dora Greenfield and Toby Gashe. Dora is an educated young woman adrift; she comes to the Imber community to follow her overbearing and older husband, the art historian Paul Greenfield, despite her own recent affair and the seeming collapse of their marriage. Toby is a much younger man, an aspiring engineer who intends to live at the Court before going up to Oxford because he wants to find a purer way of life. Whatever salvation Dora and Toby hope to discover, however, proves elusive as the plot becomes a tragic farce of hapless love affairs, misunderstandings, schemes, and accidents.

For one thing, Michael makes an odd leader for the community; less commanding than his lieutenant, James Tayper Pace, he is also a closeted gay man whose teaching career was ruined years before by a student named Nick, with whom he’d had the chastest of affairs. When Nick’s sister shows up at the Court, in order to prepare to join the nuns and enter the cloister, a dissolute Nick follows, and Michael must reflect on how to save the young man from his own addictions and self-hatred. A further complication is that Michael is beginning to have feelings for Toby as well, while Toby, a complete sexual innocent (to a somewhat hard-to-believe extent, in fact), is puzzled by his own sexuality and harbors complicated feelings not only for Michael but also for the alluring and flighty Dora.

While this suspenseful soap opera is transpiring, the titular bell (or rather, bells) furnishes a symbol for the moral problems of the individual. The Abbey’s original bell fell into the lake between the Abbey and the Court in the Middle Ages, as a result of a supernatural punishment for a nun’s sexual transgression. That bell was never recovered, but the Abbey is scheduled to receive a new bell at the end of the summer. In the meantime, Toby, diving in the lake, whose mystery, murk, and beauty also represent the mess of the human condition, discovers the old bell in the water and schemes with Dora to reveal it spectacularly.

The Bell is not just soap operatic, however; Murdoch, a philosopher, liked to use novels as Platonic dialogues, as A. S. Byatt explains in her excellent introduction to this Penguin Classics edition, and this novel’s sometimes over-the-top episodes pose questions about faith and doubt, the nature of morality, and the role of art, sex, and religion in our lives.

The moral question is the novel’s main one. Murdoch provides us dueling sermons, each with the bell as organizing metaphor. The robust James Tayper Pace, a character that Murdoch gives little space as she seems to think he is too strong to be interesting, advocates following simple moral precepts rather than examining the conscience. He preaches thusly:

‘A bell is made to speak out. What would be the value of a bell which was never rung? It rings out clearly, it bears witness, it cannot speak without seeming like a call, a summons. A great bell is not to be silenced. Consider too its simplicity. There is no hidden mechanism. All that it is is plain and open; and if it is moved it must ring.’

Michael, by contrast, advocates a recognition of human complexity and the exploration of that complexity over simple moralism:

‘I will use here, again following the example of James, the image of the bell. The bell is subject to the force of gravity. The swing that takes it down must also take it up. So we too must learn to understand the mechanism of our spiritual energy, and find out where, for us, are the hiding places of our strength.’

Whereas James, without knowing anything about Michael’s sexuality, had said in his own sermon that “sodomy is not deplorable, it is forbidden,” thus to remove the appealing glamor from sin, Michael reflects inwardly during his own sermon:

He did not in fact believe it was just forbidden. God had created men and women with these tendencies, and made these tendencies run so deep that they were, in many people, the core of their personality.


It was complicated; it was interesting: and there was the rub. He realized that in this matter, as in many others, he always engaged in performing what James had called the second best act: the act which goes with exploring one’s personality and estimating the consequences rather than austerely following the rules.

While Murdoch doesn’t quite use Michael’s homosexuality as a metaphor for generalized outsiderdom, she does seem to suggest that the most moral people are not the best rule-followers or the devoutest believers but are rather those who have distance from conventionality forced upon them and who consequently have to make their own moral way with their own inner resources. This struggle is writ large in the lay community as they argue how much space to keep between themselves and the outer world without regressing into a kind of irrelevant neo-medievalist unreality. That Michael praises this struggle as “interesting” brings us out of the world of ethics and into that of aesthetics, and we can’t help but notice that Michael’s recommendation of the free exploration of personality echoes the priority of the novelist.

The Bell is a very briskly-written series of escalatingly intense dramatic incidents and confrontations (many of which are also very funny), but it is more notably illuminated by Murdoch’s old-fashioned essayistic analyses of her characters’ thoughts and feelings, calling to mind writers like George Eliot and Leo Tolstoy. In fact, Murdoch believed in the superiority of the 19th-century novel over the 20th-century novel; modernism, she thought, had in its formalism and nihilism evacuated the novel form of its ethical mission to represent human beings and human society in grounded and granular detail, this so that we may understand our fellows better and, more importantly, treat them better.

In his essay on Murdoch collected in The Broken Estate, James Wood sketches a little literary history that explains Murdoch’s intent for the novel as a literary form:

Of all the postwar English novelists, she had the greatest intellectual range, the deepest rigor. She takes her place, however awkwardly, in a tradition of flexible, homemade English Christian Platonism which includes Ruskin and George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Woolf, in some ways, was the rebel who had to overthrow her father’s moral Platonism and make the Good an aesthetic category only, and one discoverable only by a highly aestheticized fiction. Murdoch may be seen as the rebel to Woolf’s rebellion, closing down Bloomsbury’s aesthetic mysticism (art is never for art’s sake, always for life’s sake, she has written) in favor of a moral, “hard idea of truth.”

I understand the need to rebel against one’s immediate forebears very well, but still, I am with Woolf here. As much as I enjoyed The Bell for its well-constructed plot, its assured pacing, and its sheer intelligence of analysis, I would have enjoyed it more had Murdoch displayed any greater gift for imagery or description, any richer way with words. So much of the novel is straightforward character analysis. I’m not saying “show, don’t tell” is a rule that came down on tablets of stone (hell, it probably came from a CIA memo!), but I might have preferred more freedom of my own to reflect on the fable without having Murdoch’s interpretation always in front of me. Art requires a little mystery, which fact Murdoch seems to resent, and she seems to resent, too, readers’ potential to miss her point. Given the urgency of her sense of the novel’s mission, I understand her anxiety. Wood quotes her statement of what fiction is fundamentally for:

Art and morals are…one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality…. The enemies of art and morals, the enemies that is of love, are the same: social convention and neurosis….Fantasy, the enemy of art, is the enemy of true imagination: Love, an exercise of the imagination…. (Wood’s ellipses)

That this is a paraphrase of Shelley’s own Platonist tract, “A Defence of Poetry,” doesn’t dispel some of the problems with the argument. For one thing, I have always found pain a far more reliable reminder than love that something other than myself is real. Also, anyone who denies that hate is also “the perception of individuals” has never hated intensely enough, and is therefore perhaps to be envied: you study your enemies even more closely than your lovers, because your life depends on it. Love, anyway, relies on a certain saving idealization, lest you perceive too many of the beloved’s flaws too closely.

As for “fantasy,” the plot Murdoch cooks up in The Bell, while it never takes leave of the possible, departs so far from the probable that she obviously had a guiltily-nurtured gift for this most crucial tool of any artist. Without fantasy, reality likely can’t be discovered at all; what would be the motive to explore, except for a fantasy of what might be found? And you don’t need to be a Marx to know that reality isn’t just there to be discovered but also to be transformed. Anyone who has ever cooked a dinner, let alone written a novel, surely grasps this.

Murdoch grasps it too. Midway through The Bell, Dora flees what she sees as the moralism of the Court and ends up in the National Gallery of London where she experiences a revelation before “Gainsborough’s picture of his two daughters” (see here for the image):

She marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they [the paintings] were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect. […] [She] felt a sudden desire to go down on her knees before [the painting], embracing it, shedding tears.

The work doesn’t teach her anything in particular about reality, still less morality, but exists itself in reality, as a reality, as an instance of the beauty that is and a promise of beauty that may yet be. This epiphany sends her back to Imber, if only because it chastens her desire for an escape, but it does not necessarily make her more moral, only more alive.

“Revelation,” “epiphany.” Let’s add “incarnation.” Here is A. S. Byatt in her introduction to The Bell:

Her own desire to make a world in which consciousnesses were incarnate, embedded in the stuff of things, might seem to derive from George Eliot, who wrote movingly of her wish to make pictures, not diagrams, to “make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate”. Eliot, like Murdoch, was a European intellectual who had also a very immediate sense of human bodies, encounters and absurdities. They shared a preoccupation with the tensions between the formal complexity and design of the work of art and the need to give the characters space, freedom, to be people, not only to represent ideas or classes. It may be that Murdoch thought that Eliot had failed. She asked me once what I thought was the greatest English novel. Middlemarch, I said. She demurred, looking disapproving, and finally said that she supposed it was hard to find which one of Dickens’s novels was the greatest, but that surely he was the greatest novelist…Eliot began, in English, the elegant patterning with metaphor and leitmotiv that Murdoch, who believed that novelists were first and essentially storytellers, sometimes saw as a trap. (Byatt’s ellipses)

In his classic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946; English translation 1953), a book roughly contemporary with The Bell, Erich Auerbach writes of how Christ’s incarnation, God’s interpenetration with not only humanity but with common (as in lower-class) humanity, breaks the aesthetic hierarchy of the ancient world and sets in train the cultural process that will lead to the triumph in the 19th century of the realist novel, which confers what Auerbach calls “tragic seriousness” on everyday life. What Murdoch resents in the agnostic Eliot is Eliot’s sense that, with God gone from the picture, art will have to take his place. If the novel becomes a matter of aesthetics, does it thereby lose its capacity for ethics?

Despite that religious quandary, Murdoch does not make an assertion of faith. The Bell is not quite a Christian novel. It ends on the note of a declaration from Michael: “there is a God, but I do not believe in Him.” This, with its echo of Kafka’s “plenty of hope but none for us,” is the opposite of the problem Nietzsche diagnosed in us, whom he addressed as “we moderns,” “we knowers”: we still believe in God, he said, because we still believe in grammar. That is, we are officially secular, often officially atheistic if we are modern intellectuals, but we do not realize how many forms of order we take for granted or wish to preserve actually depend on the tacit presumption of monotheism’s assurance of ultimate significance. Murdoch does understand this dilemma and seeks to circumvent it by writing, in a sense, as if there were a God. “[T]he mass existed and he existed beside it,” we read of Michael at the conclusion. We moderns aren’t ready to believe in the mass beyond its bare existence; still, if it exists, who knows but that its ultimate addressee might exist as well?

A novel this intricately conceived is not to be taken lightly, and I will certainly be reading more Iris Murdoch in the future; but the modernist intuition that a novel must live in its own right rather than just pointing us toward some external source of meaning is neglected to this novel’s detriment. If Murdoch recalls her forebears Eliot and Woolf without equalling their achievement, this painful self-mortification must be the reason why.


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Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Gilead (Gilead, #1)Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead (2004), to be literally stunning. That is, every time I picked it up to read a few pages I would become dazed with boredom or would even fall asleep, knocked out by the novel’s descriptive vagueness and tonal self-effacement. This is a beloved book, a contemporary classic, as we are told, so I’m sure this reaction marks me out as a bad person—but if you’ve been reading these reviews for any length of time you already knew that about me. Anyway, this novel is not against bad people per se; it even quietly argues that, in unheroic times, bad people might be the only people with spirit enough to be heroes. This is an insight pursued in major Christian fiction from Stowe and Dostoevsky to O’Connor and Coetzee, but Robinson’s choice to narrate this tale of sinning one’s way to Jesus in the voice of a quietly good, heroically unheroic man mutes the paradox and weakens the irony.

Gilead is set in 1956 in the eponymous Iowa town (Robinson’s invention) founded by Christian abolitionists before the Civil War. Its narrator is the Congregationalist minister John Ames, an old man nearing death. Ames has found romance and marriage with a young woman late in life and Gilead takes the form of a letter for his son to read when he comes of age. Given this structure, Gilead is a very expository and seemingly even aleatory novel, its narrator following chains of association as he writes every day to an imagined interlocutor—his son as he will be as an adult. Ames details his daily life, reminisces about his past, tells stories about his family and friends, and vouchsafes his thoughts on theology.

Gradually, though, the novel reveals itself to be less Ames’s story than the story of two other, more active characters: his long-deceased grandfather, a fiery and fanatical prophet-like old preacher who helped to found the town and who was the comrade of John Brown, and Ames’s namesake and godson John Ames (Jack) Boughton, the prodigal son of the old man’s best friend who has returned to Gilead from a long and mysterious period of wandering. While Robinson certainly invites readers to admire Ames’s humility, his diffidence, his reticence, his devotion to the commonplace, his readiness to praise others, his gratitude for his good fortune in having found the love of a good woman in the twilight of his life, his humane religiosity, the novel remains an elegy to the vanished heroism of his grandfather’s generation, who fought to free the slaves, and a paean to the rising generation represented by Jack, who risks all, we learn at the novel’s climax, for interracial love.

Like Robinson’s nonfiction, such as the drubbingly tendentious and self-righteous essays collected in The Death of Adam, Gilead presents us with a moral history of the United States whose collective protagonist is the Puritan diaspora of Calvin’s Geneva and Winthrop’s Boston, those Christian radicals who founded the Midwest as a bulwark against slavery and built modern liberalism from Calvinist doctrines of individual perfectionism and mutual aid.[1] It is almost too easy to complain about how much is left out of this story—Catholics and Jews, as William Deresiewicz points out; or the agency and independent political thought of black people, who figure in Robinson’s historiography largely as index and object of Calvinist morality; or even the inner complexities of Puritanism and its legacy themselves, Jonathan Edwards’s assurance to his fainting congregation that God hates them or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s need to abandon the pulpit. For the purposes of literary criticism, though, Robinson should be granted her historical and political donnée. The problem with Gilead is not necessarily its message, which seemed so timely in 2004, but its message’s vehicle: prose too devoted to the Protestant plain style, to my mind, to bring a fictional world alive.

It is not that the novel simply argues a thesis; it is as irony-rich as any serious fiction needs to be. For one thing, Ames is clear enough that the moral fanaticism of his grandfather came at the cost of any practicable or peaceable social life, and also that the white abolitionists’ quest had an element of quixotism in it—a comic episode in the novel, wherein one of the abolitionists’ underground railroad tunnels collapses under a horse, leading the only black man in Gilead to flee for fear of his would-be saviors’ incompetence, makes the latter point. Ames’s father speaks up for pacifism, and Ames himself laments that, since the Great War, “we have had war continuously,” thus calling into question his grandfather’s belligerence even in a good cause.[2]

Similarly, we are led for much of the novel to see Jack Boughton as a menacing, Stavrogin-like figure, a charming atheist and predator: his youthful mischief is described with hints of sociopathy and, after Ames reveals that Jack fathered a child on a very young and impoverished woman whom he later abandoned, we begin to worry with Ames about what is portended by Jack’s attention to Ames’s young wife and son.

In short, it is precisely because Ames’s grandfather and his godson were and are so ill-adjusted to the ordinary—unlike the supremely quotidian Ames himself—that they were and are able to advance, however problematically, the causes of justice and faith. Abraham and Isaac are alluded to, just so we know what story is being avoided, what Kierkegaardian existentialism and extremity are being evaded. There is no sense here, as there is in The Idiot or Wise Blood or The Schooldays of Jesus, that faith might be inhuman, desolating, shattering.

I even dallied with the idea that Gilead should be understood as a Nabokov-like or Ishiguro-like novel of morally unreliable narration, a Browningesque dramatic monologue whose speaker stands inadvertently self-condemned: Ames the impotent, too well-behaved to be good and so obscurely evil, contemptible in comparison to the Civil War generation:

They had been to Lane and Oberlin, and they knew their Hebrew and their Greek and their Locke and their Milton. […] Still, they were bodacious old men, the lot of them. It was the most natural thing in the world that my grandfather’s grave would look like a place where someone had tried to smother a fire.

I gather that Robinson’s later novels in the Gilead saga, which I do not care to read just now, make at least a gentler version of such an interpretation available.

But Gilead is too rhetorically invested in Ames’s praise of the everyday for readers to come away with anything other than conviction that Ames is right: the evidence of grace and the warrant for faith is the beauty of the ordinary rather than any extravagant gesture of nonconformism or annihilating experience of the divine. The problem is that this beauty is asserted more than it is described in the novel. While Ames does not really write like a man of his age, background, and time period would write such a letter to his son—he writes, in fact, like a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in fragmentary epiphanies destined not for family but for a literary journal—Robinson’s concession to verisimilitude is that Ames is no shimmering stylist. If I am to be convinced, though, that the loveliness of the world is justification enough for faith, I am going to need prose more precise and intense and alive than this:

Sometimes the visionary experience of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time. For example, whenever I take a child into my arms to be baptized, I am, so to speak, comprehended in the experience more fully, having seen more of life, knowing better what it means to affirm the sacredness of the human creature. I believe there are visions that come to us only in vision, in retrospect. That’s the pulpit speaking, but it’s telling the truth.

Gilead has far too much of this abstract pulpit language for a novel ostensibly about beauty. There are memorable descriptions throughout—fireflies rising from a field, a stream near a farm, the baptism of cats—but Ames’s tone is so rambling and ingratiating, the language so bereft of any dazzle, that I just never became absorbed in the novel or persuaded by it.

Gilead felt urgent upon its publication, hence the gratitude in its reception, evidenced by the breathless blurbs that adorn the paperback. Robinson implicitly promised nothing less, in the midst of what Philip Roth once called “the ministry of George W. Bush,” than a reclamation of Protestantism or even Christianity itself from the preachers of the prosperity gospel and the masters of war. Whether or not the novel’s polemical calm in the midst of crisis can survive its moment, though, I for one tend to doubt. Gilead defends the local from the imputation that it is parochial, and its concluding benediction—”I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country”—makes of Gilead the microcosm of the nation; but prose as plain, a voice as muted, as that of John Ames may not be saved even by such authorial self-defense. Maybe reading Home and Lila, if ever I do, will change my mind, but I found Gilead, thirteen years after its publication, unable to transcend its place and time.

[1] Now that the first accounts of alt-right thought are being written, it is worth noting that the thesis of contemporary American liberalism’s direct and linear descent from Calvinism is the key historical claim of neoreaction as elaborated in the political philosophy of Curtis Yarvin and Nick Land. Marilynne Robinson and Mencius Moldbug: strange bedfellows, to say the least.

[2] When the novel was published, fanaticism for freedom leading to emancipatory war would have been associated in the minds of the liberal literati with George W. Bush’s destruction of Mesopotamia, hence the political need for Robinson’s irony about the quixotic abolitionists. It was only during the Obama administration that the myth of the good war was redeemed for liberalism by a shift in the focus of historical memory from World War II, tarnished by its constant rhetorical use as a war-justification from the 1980s through the 2000s, to the American Civil War, understood as the second American Revolution and absolute sine qua non of African-American freedom. One need not hedge about the justice of defeating both the Nazis and the Confederacy, however, to allow that the question of whether democracy can or should be brought to recalcitrant territories at the point of a gun remains open.


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