Iris Murdoch has the habit of seizing upon her material with a grasp so vigorous and complete that she is capable of an amazing variety of effects—joy, farce, grotesquerie, wit, violence, tenderness—always with shrewd insight into the oddities and frailties of the human animal. The result is that her novels exhibit a kind of thoroughgoingness rare in contemporary fiction, where most writers are satisfied to present only a fragmented view of experience or to achieve a picture of life in one of its familiar but flattish aspects such as social criticism, character painting, psychological analysis, symbolic context, or another of the well-charted courses that the novel has followed in the two-hundred-odd years of its history.
Because she is able to surround a subject rather than approach it, it is safe to say that Murdoch is the only writer among her English contemporaries who could have written a novel as richly detailed, as complex in theme and symbolism, and, in the final analysis, as completely satisfying as THE BELL. First, the book is remarkable for its weaving in of fourteenth century legend, which brings medievalistic overtones of faith, damnation, and doom to the modern situation. Second, it is a novel of brilliant wit, a work in which the spirit of comedy presides, aloof and impartial, over the efforts of some earnest but misguided souls to find their way to the good life in a world where escape into a William Morris Utopia is no longer...
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