20th century, Arts

The Real and the Good: Iris Murdoch’s Philosophy in Fiction An examination of The Bell

By Minocher Dinshaw

Iris Murdoch is now best known to us as a novelist; it is easy to forget that her undergraduate study at Oxford was in classics, her postgraduate studentship at Cambridge was in philosophy, and that during her time as a Fellow at St. Anne’s (1948-1963) she also taught the subject. Her first publication was not a work of fiction but a study of Sartre, and she went on to research and write in the area throughout her life including, unsurprisingly, on the philosophy of aesthetics and literature. Her novels, then, should be seen not only as literary exercises, but as ways for her to hypothesise moral dilemmas and ethical evolutions, both as experimentation for herself and, practically, as Trojan horses for those who read fiction but might flinch from an academic treatise.

One question which Murdoch returned to over the course of her life and writings might be seen as the most basic question of human experience–how can one be good? She has treated this from both literary and philosophical perspectives, insofar as the two can be seen as separate, and shown in these how questions of ‘the good’ cannot be dealt with in isolation. These concerns must be treated in the context of questions about the real, about religion and human belief, about human interaction. Her most obviously relevant books dealing with such questions include The Sovereignty of Good, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, and, when the theory is transposed to life in the novels The Good Apprentice, and The Book and the Brotherhood. The Good Apprentice shows a young man leaving his modern world of university, sex and drugs after accidentally causing the death of his friend to travel to an isolated, spiritual commune. The Bell is a second novel where the search for goodness and spiritual purity is strongly related to place, and travel, and uprooting.

Goodness is a quality that the inhabitants of Imber Court of The Bell are struggling to define, some by adherence to simplified rules (“Truth is not glorious but enjoined, sodomy is not disgusting but forbidden”), others by pure escapism, a desire to be freed from the post-war world’s challenges and corruption; the recurring debate over the purchase of the agricultural cultivator is emblematic of this pitfall. Those who pursue spiritual goodness with too much zeal cannot long retain a hold on ‘real’ life, like the unhappy Catherine Fawley, “almost a saint”, but condemned to lunacy when denied an Ophelian death. Genuine religious fulfilment appears static by contrast, with the Abbess of Imber living as a walled nun, a figure whose serene detachment and emotionally uninvolved wisdom recalls a pagan sibyl; the characters who maintain their stability and the sympathy of the reader, Dora and Toby, are shielded by youthful egotism. Murdoch’s novels suggest that she is perhaps ready to accept the beautiful as the moral, but also that the ‘good’ is inevitable caught up in the question of the real. However, this link may not necessarily be drawn in the positive, causal connection most often assumed.

Dora Greenfield in The Bell is characterised as lacking the articulacy and intelligence that the narrative voice assumes in the reader (Dora “was stupid and could see only one thing at a time”). As The Bell is principally seen through Dora, as well as the schoolboy Toby and the insecure Michael Meade, this deliberately raises problems of veracity in the structure of the novels; either Dora’s mental state must undergo some kind of redemption, or the integrity of what she sees may be under threat. Dora quite simply misses the point, suspecting the homosexual Michael of being in love with Catherine Fawley, and ignoring Catherine’s fragile mental state in her preoccupation over this female rival’s looks:

Perhaps [Catherine] was not really beautiful at all, Dora thought with relief. There was something timid and withdrawn in her gaze which prevented it from being dazzling. Her smile was warm yet somewhat secretive. Her large eyes, of a cold sea-grey colour, did not sustain Dora’s stare.

All the same, when Catherine’s mental distress drives her to an attempted drowning, Dora’s reaction is instinctive and altruistic. “Without hesitation she plunged through the greenery and gave another scream as she felt the ground give way beneath her.” Prone to hasty, scarcely-considered action (the kind that leads her and Toby to unearth and ring the Abbey’s old bell), she possesses an incautious courage, driven by goodness, which is beyond her ability to reason.

These traits become more understandable in contrast to her arid husband, Paul, who co-operates more rigidly than Dora with the letter of Imber Court’s rules while ignoring Christianity’s teaching of repentance and forgiveness (“Your escapades have diminished you permanently in my eyes”). When Paul accuses Dora of actual madness (“I’m beginning to wonder whether you aren’t mentally ill”), this seems more like an accolade, testifying to her spiritual health. Dora achieves catharsis in some way, staying at Imber to help the ruined Michael and taking over a traditional female role, that of the nurturer. “She kept the house clean and the office orderly and searched the gardens to find…michaelmas daisies and aromatic chrysanthemums which brought back to Michael memories of childhood holidays spent at Imber”.

Dora at the beginning of The Bell is wholly lacking in affinity for the past, probably because she associates it with the tyranny of Paul, an architectural historian who treats historical events as if they rebound to his own glory (“He was looking up at the house with satisfaction, as if had built it himself. ‘A pupil of Inigo Jones,’ he said”). Dora responds to this restricting, classifying intelligence by refusing to accept the past at all – “The past was never real for Dora.” Simply looking at the character of Dora, the question of ‘good’ becomes confused, just as the question of instinct has been. Dora is instinctively good when she rescues Catherine, but as her attitude to history shows us, her ‘natural’ interest in something can be dulled or brightened partially dependent upon her own moods. Murdoch’s characters are both victims of time and their circumstances, and able to make the smallest differences, a philosophy which can apply equally to their moral abilities.

Iris Murdoch – Under The Net, The Bell