The Bell (novel)

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First edition (publ. Chatto & Windus)
Cover artist: Charles Mozley[1]

The Bell is a novel written by Iris Murdoch in 1958. It was her fourth to be published, and is set in Imber Court, a lay religious community situated next to an enclosed order of Benedictine nuns in Gloucestershire.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

Dora Greenfield leaves her husband Paul Greenfield at the start of the novel, but realises that she is more afraid of him when she is away from him than when they are together, so agrees to return to him. During this time Paul has temporarily joined a lay community in the shadow of Imber Abbey, Gloucestershire to work on some 14th-century manuscripts. Dora takes a train to Imber, and on her way she sees Toby Gashe (who is going to stay at the community before he goes to Oxford University) and James Tayper Pace (a member of the community), but does not realise who they are. During the train journey Dora spots a butterfly crawling along the carriage and picks it up to avoid it being crushed. On the station Paul is waiting for Dora, and she is introduced to Toby and James. During this conversation Dora releases the butterfly and they all watch it fly away. Dora, distracted with rescuing the butterfly, leaves the suitcases on the train.

Paul then drives them all to Imber where Dora is introduced to the head of the community Michael Meade, Mrs Mark, Mark, Catherine, Peter Topglass and Patchway. They all attend a small service during which Dora leaves to explore the lake. While doing this she throws her shoes off and forgets where she put them. Shortly afterwards Toby and James volunteer to find them, Toby succeeding in doing so. During that evening Paul tells Dora the legend of the bell and how a nun had a lover but she wouldn't confess when called to do so. Because of this a bishop put a curse on the abbey; the bell then plummeted into the lake. At the same time James and Michael discuss where Toby should stay during his time at Imber. James reluctantly agrees with Michael that Toby should stay with Nick Fawley (Catherine's brother) to keep him company and keep an eye on him as he has threatened suicide in the past.

Dora has a tour of the grounds with Mrs Mark, before returning to the station to collect her luggage. Dora then visits the White Lion pub, again forgetting her luggage, and returns to Imber. Michael takes her back up to the house, and on the journey back they see Toby naked by the lake. The scene is described to us as though it were the garden of Eden. Michael is woken by a nightmare which is repeated later on in the book. A meeting is held to discuss important issues such as the arrival of the new Bell.

During chapter seven we learn of Michael's past homosexual liaisons. As a Schoolmaster he had a relationship with Nick Fawley, whom he first knew as a 14-year-old schoolboy. At the age of 16 Nick eventually told the headmaster what happened, forcing Michael to leave his post and to abandon his dream of becoming a priest. Despite this there is some intimation that Michael is still partly in love with Nick. In this chapter, when Dora expresses her disbelief at Catherine wanting to join a convent, she tells her that often the best things in life are things "one doesn't choose", which Dora interprets as her being forced to become a nun.

Toby decides to explore a new part of the lake and diving to the bottom discovers the old bell. He decides that he will come back at another time to see it in greater detail. Michael then takes Toby with him to go and collect the mechanical cultivator, which is being held for them in Swindon. On the way back they stop at the pub where Michael gets slightly drunk. During the drive back to Imber Michael feels a great deal of responsibility and tenderness towards Toby. When they reach Imber Toby wants to see if human eyes reflect car headlights, but as he reaches the car Michael leans out of the window and kisses Toby. Just after this has happened Nick walks up to see what's going on, before Michael swiftly retreats back to the house, worrying if Nick saw what happened. During the next few days both Michael and Toby are very confused and upset and avoid speaking with each other. Michael then decides to apologise to Toby who in turn agrees to bury the matter. Toby decides to explore the abbey; however he is caught by two nuns who politely show him where the exit is.

In the next chapter Dora decides she will go to London to show Paul that she is an independent woman, and visit Noel Spens. Dora and Noel talk about the events of Imber before they both end up dancing together. Dora then leaves Noel to visit the National Gallery where she seems to have a religious experience when admiring the paintings that have become so familiar to her. Dora then decides to return to Imber but when she returns the community are listening to a Bach recital. Toby sees her outside and comes to join her. Toby then shows Dora the bell who decides that they should bring it to the surface and substitute it for the new bell during the ceremony in an attempt to trick the community that a miracle has happened. Michael preaches his sermon before going to see Nick who is fixing the lorry. The conversation between them is awkward on Michael's behalf as Nick appears to be mocking him. We also get our first inkling that Catherine is in love with Michael.

Toby and Dora meet to haul the bell out of the lake. Toby successfully does this by using the tractor, and drags it into a nearby barn. Toby then embraces Dora and starts to kiss her before they roll into the bell making it ring. Michael is awakened by the noise and goes outside to see what is going on. He meets Paul who is looking for Dora and both go to Nick, who tells Michael that he saw them kissing in the woods.

Noel turns up to Dora's horror intent on doing a report on the new bell shortly followed by the bishop. A small ceremony is held for the community during which Dora breaks out into uncontrollable laughter and drops a note, addressed to Toby which Noel picks up.

Nick stops Toby leaving the house and a short scuffle breaks out, after which Nick explains that he knows what Toby has been doing and that he must confess it all to James.

The day of the ceremony arrives and goes badly. The bell ends up falling into the lake as Nick has sawed through part of the causeway, perhaps to stop his sister entering the abbey. Catherine then runs off pursued by Dora. Catherine tries to drown herself and Dora tries to save her but cannot swim, and both end up being rescued. The Straffords then take Catherine off to a clinic in London.

James tells Michael that Toby confessed what went on between them and that he has sent Toby home. Michael says he will step down from Imber. After this conversation takes place they are alerted to Nick's house where it has soon become apparent that he has shot himself.

The community soon breaks apart until Dora and Michael are the only two remaining. They get on well and Dora decides she will not return to Paul but instead will go and stay with her friend Sally. Michael then leaves, making Dora the last person at Imber.


  • Dora Greenfield, a young, flirtatious woman, who is interested in art
  • Michael Meade, the owner of the court outside of the Imber Abbey
  • Toby Gashe, a young curious boy, who comes to the Abbey of religious vocation
  • Paul Greenfield, a wealthy scholar who comes to the Abbey to do research. Dora's legal husband
  • Nick Fawley, a troubled member of the Abbey
  • Catherine Fawley, a beautiful young lady who wants to become a nun
  • James Tayper Pace, a very religious and austere member of the community
  • Patchway, a gardener
  • Father Bob Joyce
  • Mark Stafford
  • Margaret Stafford, a.k.a. Mrs Mark
  • Sister Ursula
  • The Abbess
  • The Bishop
  • Mother Clare
  • Peter Topglass
  • Sally, a friend of Dora's who lives in London
  • Noel Spens, a reporter who has an affair with Dora

Key to chapters[edit]

  1. Introduction to Paul and Dora Greenfield, Toby Gashe, and James Tayper Pace. Train ride from London to Gloucestershire.
  2. A drive to Imber Court, and introduction to much of the rest of the community.
  3. Paul tells Dora the legend of the bell.
  4. Conversation between James and Michael, and introduction to Nick Fawley.
  5. Dora's tour of the grounds with Mrs Mark, and, with Michael, the discovery of Toby swimming.
  6. Michael's nightmare, his background, and a business meeting at Imber Court.
  7. Michael's history with the Fawleys.
  8. Peter, Toby, Michael, and Dora inspect the birds in the woods.
  9. James' sermon, and a fight between Dora and Paul.
  10. Toby discovers an underwater bell.
  11. Michael and Toby travel to Swindon.
  12. Michael and Toby's individual thoughts on their last encounter, and a walk in the woods.
  13. Toby's thoughts on the walk, and his entry into the abbey.
  14. Dora's sojourn in London.
  15. Toby sees Dora in the window, and later tells her of the Bell.
  16. Michael's sermon, and encounter with drunken Nick.
  17. Toby and Dora raise the bell.
  18. Paul tells Michael part of the legend of the bell, and Nick tells Michael that Dora is having an affair.
  19. Michael receives advice from James and the Abbess.
  20. Noel and the Bishop come to Imber Court to christen the bell.
  21. Nick tells Toby to confess.
  22. Dora overhears Nick's informing Noel, and rings the bell.
  23. The new bell is sunk in the water during a procession, Catherine attempts suicide, and Dora is rescued by Mother Clare.
  24. Paul leaves Imber Court to see to the old bell in London.
  25. James reveals to Michael that he knows about him and Toby. Nick commits suicide.
  26. The community is dissolved, and Michael and Dora work hard together. Michael is in pain. Dora says goodbye to Michael.