Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420
Imber Court is a religious community created for people who want to experience the devout lifestyle without becoming ordained clergy in the Anglican Church. The owner and de facto leader of the community, Michael, opened his childhood home to anyone yearning to draw nearer to God without totally abandoning a worldly life. Many of the residents of the community express a desire for a moral consistency that will bring solace and wholeness to their lives. Dora, as a somewhat Godless outsider, does not have this same spiritual yearning when she first arrives at Imber. However, Dora soon discovers that she does long for some deeper understanding of her life and the world around her, suggesting that even those who do not have overtly religious desires oftentimes still long for a sense of purpose and meaning. The complexities of the modern world have left many of the characters feeling disaffected and directionless, and Imber Court provides a tangible refuge from the onrush of secular innovation and the post-war social upheaval.
From the outside, Dora appears to be unscrupulously sinful, abandoning her husband and having affairs. Despite this, Dora cares deeply for others, even when they treat her cruelly. On the other hand, Michael seems perfectly virtuous, but he struggles to reconcile his faith with his sexuality. Murdoch portrays Michael’s character as sensitive and just, someone who takes responsibility for his actions and worries about the people who entrust their spiritual guidance to him, even as he is tortured by his own indecision. Ultimately, virtue is not as black and white as many believe, and people can be both flawed and virtuous at the same time.
The novel’s most pressing theme seems to be self-discovery. The protagonist is Dora Greenfield, an unsatisfied, indecisive young woman who often makes immature and impulsive choices. Dora vacillates between submitting to her controlling husband and rebelling against his influence. She becomes entangled with other men, like Noel, who also want to control her in some respect. Dora is unable to assert herself until she finally discovers what she wants in life. After spending time alone with Michael at the Court, Dora’s journey toward independence is finally finished. Her spiritual yearning, symbolized by her obsession with the bell, leads her to understand what she really wants out of life—to be her own person without bending to another’s will. In this way, the novel suggests that finding oneself is something that can only be achieved through inward reflection, not outside intervention or advice.