The Bell (1958)
by Iris Murdoch
Iris Murdoch makes six appearances in the 1001 Books Project, The Bell is her second appearance after her first novel, Under the Net (1954). Where The Bell was a work that drew heavily from recently published books by Samuel Beckett (notably Murphy), The Bell reads like a combination of influences ranging from Thomas Hardy, to D.H. Lawrence to French existentialism. The Bell is set in a lay-religious community where a variety of characters seek different types of spiritual healing.
Dora Greenfield is the central narrator, a former art student married unhappily to Paul Greenfield, a medieval scholar who is in residence in the community as he studies illuminate manuscripts at the adjoining nunnery. Other major characters include the leader of the community, Michael Meade, who convincingly struggles with homosexuality in a matter of fact way that was still rare when this book was published in 1958. Meade is tempted by Tobey Gashe, a 17 year old who is joining the community for the summer before attending university.
In 1958, Murdoch was still ahead of the curve in her frank, no nonsense depiction of the manifold varieties of human sexuality. Even novels that explicitly dealt with homosexuality at this time tended to depict a segregated view of gay relationships. Here, Murdoch paints both gay and straight characters with similar confusions and motivations. She continues to portray a new kind of female protagonist, Dora Greenfield is feckless. She is neither wholly good nor wholly bad, neither a Madonna nor a Magdalene and it is Murdoch's ability to depict the complexity of human sexual relationships that really sets her apart from other writers in the 1950s.