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Dora Greenfield arrives at Imber Abbey without her bags, holding only a
butterfly between her hands. She soon realizes her mistake—that she has
left all of her belongings on the train, including her husband’s
irreplaceable notebook—and releases the colorful butterfly.
This is her introduction to her new surroundings, and she seems immediately at odds with the lay community she joins at Imber—whose members are the focus of Iris Murdoch’s 1958 novel, “The Bell.”
The same instincts that attracted her to the butterfly on the train, and made her forget all else, seem irreconcilable with the routine life that those at Imber lead. Dora has come to the Abbey as an outsider—she joins her husband Paul, a scholar who is investigating Imber’s medieval manuscripts. She has no innate religious tendencies.
Dora by nature fears oppression and responsibility (she had briefly left Paul, finding him dour), but her time at the Abbey changes her. By the end of the novel Dora senses that the habitual life of the religious offers her the possibility for an unexpected kind of freedom.
Much has been said (and written) about this book—Murdoch is popular and probably doesn’t need another recommendation. But I think that this book mysteriously seems dowdy to college students, when in fact its images are fresh and impressive to a young reader.
Dora’s character creates an honest picture of the freedom of youth. She instinctually wants to love, to explore, not to think too much about the past or the future, and yet everywhere she turns she also encounters her fears.
She is afraid of imprisonment, as evidenced by her antipathy for the life of the nuns. She is afraid of abstract sermons or classical music. She spends her money on multicolored skirts and jazz records. At one point, she becomes so fed up with the dreary abstemious existence at Imber that she returns to London.
Yet something within her draws her back to the narrow life of the Abbey.
Murdoch expresses this desire to return through a well orchestrated series of images, all of which seem to follow from the original depiction of Dora with the butterfly in her hands.
She flees Imber and finds herself in Paddington Station, and she phones Noel Spens, her former lover. She runs to his flat, where she enjoys a cocktail and a freewheeling dance. Their fun is interrupted, however, when her husband Paul calls.
Though Dora doesn’t talk to him, she is unspeakably moved by the sound of his voice and then the soft song of a blackbird on the other end of the line. In distress, she leaves Noel and goes to the National Gallery, where a Gainsborough painting excites unfamiliar emotions in her. Suddenly disordered and overwhelmed by the noise and jazz of London, and with the blackbird in her mind, she returns to Imber almost involuntarily. There, she feels, she can address her “real” problems.
To talk so much about Dora might be slightly misleading, as she is a part of an ensemble cast. She can hardly even be called the protagonist. In fact, much of the book’s excitement lies in the way it renders characters through their relationships with many others.
But Dora is one good example of what “The Bell” conveys so richly—what Murdoch describes as the “obscure centre of emotional tension” that characterize people’s feelings for one another.
—Staff writer Alexandra N. Atiya can be reached at email@example.com.
By Iris Murdoch
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