The Weight of Sincerity
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Iris Murdoch grips her pen a tad firmer than most writers. You sense the strain it requires to anchor her novels with weight. What might be called an unironic seriousness. Or even a sternness. For some readers, this weight might feel like a paradox, as her novels are nearly always comic—with characters forever scurrying about, busy with capers, coincidences, absurdities. But this isn’t much of a paradox: Murdoch knows that the comic is her best route toward the tragic.
The Bell, which she published in 1958, has an undercurrent of sincerity that few contemporary novels even attempt; we find an absence of winks, a strange lack of raised eyebrows. Instead, we are left with the sense—and this will shock the 21st Century reader—that Murdoch believes she can invigorate her readers.
What’s immediately noticeable in all Murdoch novels is how every character lands on the page primed with a foundation—an underlying philosophy that drives and restricts choice. In The Bell, we have wise nuns and grim academics and doubting believers and condescending preachers and smug fundamentalists and, unforgivably, a lapsed painter. Nothing but the capacious for Murdoch. Nothing less than a crowded stage. Even the bit parts—such as her jolly Bishop—arrive fully formed. What we don’t have are characters without a purpose, even if some characters don’t quite know their purpose, or have found their purpose to be, in Murdoch’s judgement, lacking. Here is a severity of action rather alien to most contemporary literature and, not at all incidentally, alien to most contemporary readers.
Thus characters in Murdoch novels are only permitted explosions of emotion. Why write just one adjective when seventeen are available?
Toby stood still on the balcony, tense and irresolute. He was extremely disturbed by what he had overheard and by having overhead it. The simplicity and curiously pure charm of the scene had disappeared in an instant. He now felt extreme disquietude at the thought of living in the lodge. On the other hand, he felt very flattered as well as startled at the confidence that was being shown in him, and excited as at the prospect of an adventure. His thoughts were in a turmoil.
Toby is standing, he’s disturbed, in extreme disquietude; until he is, and do remember to take a breath, flattered and startled and excited. Yes, it is a turmoil.
They went out of the gate. Dora turned to take one last look at the figure under the net. At the news which she had just heard she felt a horrified surprise, a curious sort of relief, and more obscure pain, compounded perhaps of pity and of some terror, as if something within herself were menaced with destruction.
With a final look Dora is surprised, relieved, in pain, possibly feeling a mix of pity and terror, and here at the turn is the always present potential for destruction. Murdoch doesn’t strive to pinpoint emotions with a precise word. She works, instead, toward a more centripetal description: each sentence inches us closer and closer to the true sensation.
A vague sense of social inferiority, an uneasy lack of savoir faire, was normal to her. But what she felt at Imber was deeper, in a way which she at times resented. Often it seemed to her that the community were easily, casually even, judging her, placing her. The fact that so little was expected of her was itself significant. This was distressing. The sense that the judgement occurred without their thinking about it, that it happened automatically, simply as it were by juxtaposition, was still more distressing.
We start with inferiority, but it is deeper, it causes resentment, comes about from judgement; Dora is distressed, she examines it more, and this augments the distress. These aren’t static emotions, they shift with time, then redound to new conclusions. There are enough onion metaphors to make every reader cry, but the point behind them all is that each layer is peeled slowly, separately, studied individually.
He felt irritated and confused and upset. Yesterday he had felt shock and a sort of horror, and then that feverish need to talk to Michael. But at least yesterday he had felt detached, yesterday he had been a spectator. Today he felt involved.
Try to picture this state. Imagine the flutter of moods. Most people can recognize what is described; they’ve felt and observed these changes. If they attempt to explain this sweep of sensations, however, they might say “confused” and struggle for more words. In Murdoch’s description, we have reversals and fluctuations and evolutions, which, in the end, makes these characters feel all too human.
A brief coda:
First, there isn’t a shortage of Iris Murdoch novels. Some are worth reading again and again; others are best left on the shelf. The Bell is somewhere in the middle, and not the best introduction to a writer worth meeting.
Second, this is taken from The Bell: “Dora, who had clearly got no conception of how…” Did you falter over that discordant got? That got should send shutters through every composition teacher. So what is Oxford lecturer Iris Murdoch doing with it in 1958? It’s a good reminder that the language is forever shifting underneath our feet. Feel comfortable with the wonderfully disjointed position that learning the rules is important and that the rules will always change.