Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Book of the Month: The Bell

I was very hesitant to pick up a book by Murdoch and read it for the longest time. Byatt loves Murdoch and has published a work of non-fiction on her, and I felt as if my best friend was finally going to introduce me to this friend she had talked about almost every other time we had a conversation but I hadn't gotten around to meeting yet. That is sort of the best way to describe my relationship to Murdoch. Of course, I knew who she was, and I saw the film about her that came out after her death. Well, in my Directed Study last semester, I read Murdoch's Under the Net, her first novel, and I was completely lukewarm about it. Actually, I didn't really like it all. But it felt so good to be able to say that and not feel bad about it. However, this was not the case with reading The Bell, Murdoch's fourth novel, which I fell in love with. I recently finished it, and just felt this desire to talk about it with people. I hate sometimes how the people that I really enjoy reading never seem to find their way onto syllabi, or I just happen to be reading them by myself and no one else can talk to me about them. [I think Chelsea is right when she says reading can be boring.] Nevertheless, the story was very engrossing.

The novel details the events of the summer and the lives of the members of a lay religious community in Gloucestershire. Next to an enclosed order of Benedictine nunnery, the pseudo-Utopian community of Imber Court attempt to live life closer to the Earth and with a more pure existence. Renouncing all past life and prejudices, the members of the community interact with such subtle triangulations that Murdoch deftly crafts a story about sexual desire that is confronted with religious fervor and prejudice, at least that is my own personal spin on the novel. If you could claim a main character or characters for the text, you would most likely choose Dora Greenfield (an (dis-?)illusioned housewife who joins her academic husband at Imber Court) or possibly Michael Meade (the repressed homosexual and leader of the community). Of course a number of other characters hold just as much weight as these two do, and the figure of the bell, Gabriel, is in itself so captivating that its existence remains more intriguing than several of the characters.

I really how the novel made me rethink emotions. Although you might say that the feminist movement has transformed the plight of women a great deal since 1958 when the novel was published, Dora's feelings about marriage and relationships still hold true to day, particularly her analysis of marriage and how, even today, people feel so trapped by it:

"Dora closed her eyes and remembered her fear. She was returning, and deliberately, into the power of someone whose conception of her life excluded or condemned her deepest urges and who now had good reason to judge her wicked. That was marriage, thought Dora; to be enclosed in the aims of another. That she had any power over Paul never occurred to her. It remained that her marriage to Paul was a fact, and one of the few facts that remained in her disordered existence quite certain. She felt no tears and tried to think of something else." (p. 11)

I also think emotions like greed, shame, and jealousy, which the book explores in relation to the Michael-Toby-Nick triangle are particularly interesting. Until people can learn to love their bodies and love the act of sex, there will always be some loathing of the act and of our own bodies. I had always heard that Murdoch's novels were very philosophical, yet I found this book to be very psychological...very emotional. The Bell explored what it meant to have emotions and express them or repress them and the repercussions on acting on these feelings.

Anyways, it was a really good book, and for those of you that are readers, you should add it to your books-I-will-eventually-read list.

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