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(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

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 possible. Third, THE BELL is an excellent example of the planned novel; themes and motifs appear early in the story, only to be dropped and later resumed, like the motifs of a fugue, with each development of the plot related by some recurring emotion or observation. Fourth, the novel is a work in which secondary and multiple meanings, reflected in imagery and symbolism, give the story its depth and weight of philosophical and moral seriousness.

If the real qualities of Murdoch’s art were not apparent in her earlier novels, the reason was that they seemed, on a superficial level, a form of academic entertainment—in other words, the kind of novel that one might expect from a young woman of intellect and wit who lectured in philosophy at Oxford University. Also, in Under the Net, there was a suggestion of Kingsley Amis and John Wain in her picture of a romantic-minded young man who finally comes to commonsense, if rather irreverent, terms with his cultural environment; the end result suggested a blend of English-bred existentialism and social satire. THE FLIGHT FROM THE ENCHANTER fared little better. It was read and praised without real appreciation of the paradox it presented in the writer’s handling of the problem of evil and the subtlety of her defense of God’s ways to man. THE SANDCASTLE was the novel that won critical acclaim and public response for Murdoch. A gentler book than its predecessors with fewer effects of the symbolic and the bizarre, it was no less rigorous as a study of the romantic idealist confronted by truth and forced to accept the responsibility it imposes. It is now apparent that through these novels Murdoch was developing her command of humor, symbolism, character insights, and philosophical concept, qualities which in THE BELL bring her into the front rank of her literary contemporaries.

The central situation of this novel reveals a mixture of the touching and the ridiculous. At Imber Court, a Palladian mansion located across the lake from Imber Abbey, which houses a group of Anglican Benedictine nuns, a group of social and spiritual misfits have set up a community of their own. Their reasons for withdrawal from the world are at least valid, a fact recognized by Mother Clare, abbess of the cloister of Anglican nuns, who says that there are many people in the world today who can neither live in it nor out of it. Soul-sick, they find no real home for their disturbed souls. The trouble is that the members of the Imber Court community represent the spiritual ruling caste that...

(The entire section is 1,381 words.)