Warning: this review is full of pesky spoilers
The book begins in the midst of the turbulent, troubled marriage of Dora and Paul Greenfield. A union which clearly doesn’t work – she’s young, free-spirited and evidently not ready for such a coupling; he’s callous, cold and abusive and undeserving of such closeness. The Greenfields shouldn’t be together but there are things which draw them to one another beyond chemistry or kindness – she seems to respect and cherish his professional and social standing and he wants to dominate and consume her being.
According to Murdoch’s storytelling, he ‘loves’ her. But as a reader, I can’t imagine what sort of a love that might be – I could never purport to love someone and then treat them the way Paul Greenfield does Dora. Of course, as Soren Kierkegaard and others have illuminated, subjectivity is key (you only ever really know how YOU feel), so it’s not for me to say what is or isn’t love – that’s up to each of us to decide in our own way. But my interpretation would be one motivated by such elements as kindness, compassion, reciprocity and equality, and these are not evident in the social and emotional exchanges between the Greenfields.
Michael’s the main man
At first I was expecting the main crux of the plot to revolve around these two characters, but the book surprises at every corner; every time I attempted to predict what might be coming next, I was led down a different path – which is just supreme storytelling. The narrative soon envelopes into an exploration of homosexuality and spirituality by uncovering the story of Michael – a man Dora first meets on the train on her way to Imber; the Anglican Benedictine commune which Paul is researching for work. Michael is accompanied on the train to Imber by Toby, a soon-to-be Oxford attendee of spiritual purity, who relishes the opportunity to immerse himself in the dedicated Christian way of life at Imber.
The project at Imber which is led by Michael (we later discover he owns the buildings and grounds surrounding the nunnery) reminds me of something George Orwell writes of at the end of Down and Out in Paris and London – after living on the streets of both cities for a year, Orwell proposes a rather delightful socialist utopia of communes where we all live together and work the land in harmony, living on what we produce and ensuring shelter and nourishment for all. Everyone is looked after, existing on the fruits of their own hard work; living fairly and equally. The commune at Imber revolves around a group of dedicated Anglicans who tend to their vegetable garden and try to live an ascetic, pious lifestyle where they sacrifice much of life’s more superficial advantages in the quest of attaining a spiritual purity.
We learn that Michael, a figure of authority/leadership at the Imber commune, has a sketchy past involving one of the young men also residing there – Nick Fawley. Nick is brought to live in an annexed part of the commune with the help of his sister Catherine, who is due to become a nun (seemingly somewhat reluctantly – she goes on to show increasing signs of mental health issues and eventually tries to kill herself). Nick is also troubled, and this is part of the reason Michael and the other leading figures at Imber are keen for him to be moved on as quickly as possible for fear of corrupting their ascetic way of life. Michael spends much of the book tormented by Nick’s presence for various reasons.
After finishing his studies, Nick descended into alcoholism and professional chaos. And it appears this may be heavily influenced by his past encounters with Michael, who was his schoolmaster when Nick was just a boy. Without wanting to be too harsh or too lenient, Michael essentially abused his position as Nick’s carer and they formed an inappropriate relationship where they spent a lot time together – intimately but without actual sexual gratification of any kind; no sex, not even any real bodily contact. Michael falls in love with Nick and, while the reader never learns what Nick’s true feelings are, one gets the impression based on the amount of time they spend together and the nature of their evening meetings, that Nick reciprocates those feelings.
The great conflict
This, for me, is where the great ambivalence of this wonderful book first takes hold – because I cannot deny my conflicting thoughts on this relationship. As someone who briefly taught young children, I understand that those in such roles have a variety of different functions to perform (feed, teach, inspire, etc), but the most important one is to protect. When you’re an adult looking after children, your primary responsibility is to ensure they are looked after; to care for them, to protect them, and in particular to protect their innocence. And so my immediate feeling is that Michael fails in his responsibility as a caregiver to protect Nick by allowing their relationship to blossom from teacher-student to something beyond that.
As mentioned, there is no implication of sexual gratification but that is irrelevant; one can’t help who they fall in love with, but they can help how they choose to act on those feelings; the relationship which develops between Michael and Nick is inappropriate because of both their respective ages and because of Michael neglecting his responsibilities. As for love though, Michael’s personal emotional wrangling does cloud the issue – because, as I previously said, one cannot help who they fall in love with. Being gay forty, fifty, sixty years ago must’ve been tortuous at times, let alone being gay and deeply religious. So I of course have immense sympathy for Michael’s position and this is something I will go on to explore in more detail. Nick, somewhat surprisingly, decides to report the details of his ‘affair’ with Michael to senior school staff and the latter loses his job – his whole world essentially falls apart; ‘betrayed‘ by the one he loves.
Toby or not to be
Back in the present, Michael develops a fondness for the innocent, young Toby (I assume he’s 18?) and ends up making a pass at him after they spend a pleasant day together which involves a little cider consumption. Toby has a great respect for (and liking of) Michael, as do most of the main players in the story, and so the unexpected incident both causes Toby distress and opens his eyes to different possibilities in his sexual life.
It also leads Michael to do much soul searching and agonising – he oscillates between fearing the damage he might’ve done to his bright, optimistic, green companion as well as for his own future (Michael yearns for a role in the church but – despite his obvious devotion – seems to be held back by the realisation that his homosexuality restricts him). Toby ends up (seemingly to me, anyway) drawn to Dora by an overwhelming desire to prove his heterosexual masculinity (to himself) and define his own sexuality – he clearly finds it difficult to resolve his thoughts on homosexuality (as a young Christian) as being anything other than something ‘wrong’.
Toby discovers an old bell on the bottom of a lake and Dora connects it to an old piece of folklore told to her by Paul. They hatch a scheme to retrieve it and play something of a prank on the people of Imber, who are preparing to install a new bell at the site. This all ends in a bit of a farce – but there is significant damage to be done. Toby and Dora end up fooling around a bit (she has previous with a journalist friend called Noel who she often flees to as respite from Paul) and both Paul and Michael suffer pangs of jealousy.
Nick, who is living in the annex with Toby, discovers Toby and Dora’s plan, knows they’ve copped off and was there to witness Michael making his pass at Toby. And so he demands that Toby tell all to the higher-ups at Imber – thus eventually causing Michael’s world to fall apart for a second time when he is removed from his position of authority and the entire Imber project is wound up. Murdoch then delivers a final telling blow when a gunshot is heard – before the yelping sounds of Nick’s dog Murphy. If, like me, you’re terrible at predicting what happens in stories, you probably thought the seemingly unhinged Nick might be torturing his sorry pet. But, after rushing to the scene, Michael discovers that Nick has killed himself, and thus enters a period of deep despair where he realises just how much he had always loved Nick. He also begins to question his faith and his identity – basically his whole life and everything that has gone before. The incident causes Michael such an indefinite sadness that he effectively renounces his sense of spirituality.
The book ends with Michael staying on at Imber for a short time after it’s dissolution with just Dora for company – they unwittingly act as a support network for one another as Dora finally prepares to leave Paul for good (she attempts to do this throughout the story without success) while Michael mourns the death of Nick and continues his descent into a newfound Godless existence. Dora even manages to fall in love with Michael herself (following both Nick AND his sister Catherine in doing so) but, of course, nothing is to come of that except more sadness for Dora and awkwardness for Michael. This is significant, as it indicates just how charismatic Michael is – he garners a great deal of respect and admiration; he is clearly a wanted man. And yet he never gets his happy ending. One final note – Catherine is at this point in hospital after trying to drown herself and is saved by a combination of Dora and a nun; she is yet to discover the fate of her brother, with whom she shares a particularly close bond.
The postmodern condition
Whilst there are many important themes encountered in the book, such as abusive domestic relationships, mental health issues and the ambiguous laws of companionship, the Booker Prize-winning novelist AS Byatt sums up the most significant of them in the foreword by suggesting the book explores “…the way in which our sense of our moral beings, the imperatives and prohibitions we desire, or agree, to accept, depended on a religious structure which our society as a whole no longer believes in.” This ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ is what French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard insisted was the hallmark of the postmodern condition – the idea that we no longer believe in God, have faith in religion or count on spirituality for a moral framework by which to guide us.
Friedrich Nietzsche of course predicted the arrival of the postmodern condition when he pronounced that “God is dead, and it is us who have killed him” in The Gay Science – without these grand old narratives to give our lives purpose, meaning and direction, we are left to make our own morals – to choose our own will to power. Existentialists that followed Nietzsche, like Jean-Paul Sartre, would be only too happy for us all to assume that responsibility (and freedom) and be the masters of our own morals – while Soren Kierkegaard, who preceded both, was actually a deeply devout religious man who saw passion and commitment to faith as the only way to live authentically and truthfully.
Michael’s commitment to his faith often echoes the Kierkegaardian anxiety and struggle – and I truly believe that is something to be respected. But in doing so, he denies himself the chance to live authentically – he acts in Sartrean bad faith. Because Michael is a homosexual man – he should be free to act upon his homosexual desire to find sexual contentment and, more importantly, love. But the restrictions of his spirituality prevent him from doing so – and this is the greatest sadness of Murdoch’s brilliant work. Why should anyone be denied the fruits of love and companionship? Why, especially, should a religion, which purports to champion and cherish love, kindness, fraternity and companionship, have ever denied people the chance to express their love for one another. So what if they’re the same sex – surely all that matters in the eyes of God is that they a) love him, b) love each other and c) treat everyone else according to the rules of their chosen dogma?
So if there is any lesson to be learned from The Bell, it is the one communicated so articulately through Michael’s story – choose love. Choose companionship. Choose kindness. And be true to yourself. I don’t have a problem with religion – I respect everyone’s right to believe in what they want to with the same passion and commitment that Kierkegaard did. But one has to also respect everyone else’s right to contentment; to be who they are; to be free to make their own choices, to choose their own morals.
Of course, those morals have to align to some extent – we can’t all go around doing whatever we want; there has to be a basic level of respect for one another in which we refrain from causing harm or injury to our fellow human beings. I believe we all have a propensity to kindness within us – a childish, feminine entity which yearns to connect, yearns to protect and yearns to help others. This essence I call Genuinity. It is part Freudian Eros, part Nietzschean Superman, part Sartrean positive existentialism, part Taoist Way, part Kantian duty and so much more besides. It is a will to kindness, a will to companionship and a will to live (harmoniously).
Michael appears rudderless when he realises he no longer has his religion to guide him – but Genuinity can be your guide. Not in a prescriptive, religious, dogmatic way – it’s simply a matter of listening to your true inner self, choosing kindness and doing the right thing; choosing the right Way. I believe Michael’s intentions were always good, but he undoubtedly made mistakes where Nick, and to a lesser extent, Toby were concerned. He should’ve been/felt free to act upon his desires in an appropriate, safe and reciprocal way – he should’ve had the opportunity to find his own happiness. The fact that he, and ultimately Nick, never could is the main source of heartache in The Bell, and exactly the sort of mistake we need to prevent from happening to those around us. We need to choose kindness, cherish love and champion Genuinity.