Iris Murdoch

The Bell

Copyright © Iris Murdoch, 1958



DORA GREENFIELD left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason. The absent Paul, haunting her with letters and telephone bells and imagined footsteps on the stairs had begun to be the greater torment. Dora suffered from guilt, and with guilt came fear. She decided at last that the persecution of his presence was to be preferred to the persecution of his absence.

Dora was still very young, though she vaguely thought of herself as past her prime. She came of a lower middle-class London family. Her father had died when she was nine years old, and her mother, with whom she had never got on very well, had married again. When Dora was eighteen she entered the Slade school of art with a scholarship, and had been there two years when she encountered Paul. The role of an art student suited Dora. It was indeed the only role she had ever been able whole-heartedly to play. She had been an ugly and wretched schoolgirl. As a student she grew plump and peach-like and had a little pocket money of her own, which she spent on big multi-coloured skirts and jazz records and sandals. At that time, which although it was only three years ago now seemed unimaginably remote, she had been happy. Dora, who had so lately discovered in herself a talent for happiness, was the more dismayed to find that she could be happy neither with her husband nor without him.

Paul Greenfield, who was thirteen years older than his wife, was an art historian connected with the Courtauld Institute. He came of an old family of German bankers and had money of his own. He had been born in England and attended an English public school, and preferred not to remember the distinction of his ancestors. Although his assets were never idle, he did not speak of stocks and shares. He first met Dora when he came to lecture on medieval wood-carving at the Slade.

Dora had accepted his proposal of marriage without hesitation and for a great many reasons. She married him for his good taste and his flat in Knightsbridge. She married him for a certain integrity and nobility of character which she saw in him. She married him because he was so wonderfully more grown-up than her thin neurotic art- student friends. She married him a little for his money. She admired him and was extremely flattered by his attentions. She hoped, by making what her mother (who was bursting with envy) called a “good marriage”, to be able to get inside society and learn how to behave; although this was something she did not put clearly to herself at the time. She married, finally, because of the demonic intensity of Paul’s desire for her. He was a passionate and poetic suitor, and something exotic in him touched Dora’s imagination, starved throughout her meagre education, and unsatisfied still amid the rather childish and provincial gaieties of her student life. Dora, though insufficiently reflective to suffer from strong inferiority feelings, had never valued herself highly. She was amazed that Paul should notice her at all, and she passed quickly from this amazement to the luxurious pleasure of being able so easily to delight this subtle and sophisticated person. She never doubted that she was in love.

Once married and installed in the Knightsbridge flat, in the midst of Paul’s unique collection of medieval ivories, Dora set about the business of being happy, at first with success. But as time went on, she discovered that it was not so easy as she had imagined to grow into being Paul’s wife. She had been beckoned on by a vision of Dora the cultivated woman; but after a year of being Mrs Greenfield she was already finding her ideal too difficult and was even beginning to dislike it. Paul had assumed that she would wish to give up her an studies, and she had given them up with some regret. But since she was lazy, and had in any case shown few signs of talent, she was also relieved. Paul, whose courting had upset the regime of his work, now safely wed resumed his studies with the single-mindedness which Dora so much admired. During long hours when Paul was at the Courtauld or the British Museum Dora found time on her hands. She endeavoured to keep the flat, where she did not dare to disturb any object, meticulously clean. She made long preparations for dinner parties for Paul’s friends; on such occasions Paul usually did the cooking. She enjoyed these things, but without feeling that they were really what she wanted to do. The elated confidence which Paul’s love had given her at first began to ebb. It seemed to her that Paul was urging her to grow up, and yet had left her no space to grow up into. He wanted to teach her everything himself, but lacked the time and the patience to do so. Though a natural devourer of the women’s magazines and an indefatigable tester of “accessories”, she did not even know how to dress herself any more. She abandoned the big skirts and the sandals. But after annoying Paul with a number of mistakes, she purchased one or two safe expensive outfits, which she thought extremely dull, and then stopped buying clothes altogether. Nor was she easily able to spend her money on anything else because of a haunting uncertainty about her taste. She began to suspect that Paul thought her the tiniest bit vulgar.

She liked Paul’s friends though they alarmed her. They were all very clever and much older than her and had clever wives who alarmed her even more. They treated her with a protective bantering condescension. She discovered that one or two of them were under the impression that she had been a ballet dancer, and this seemed to her significant. She was invited with Paul to their houses but never got to know them well. When one man, a violinist, had taken a more personal interest in Dora and had delighted her by asking about her childhood, Paul had been very jealous and unpleasant, and they had not seen the man again. Before their marriage Paul had warned Dora that they were likely to quarrel; but he had added that when one was really in love fighting was half the fun of being married. The quarrels, which began soon enough, brought no pleasure to Dora. They left her humiliated and exhausted.

Dora began to see more of her old friends, especially Sally, a girl slightly younger than herself, who was still at the Slade. She began to feel, half apologetically and half defiantly, that she was still very juvenile. It used to delight her that the art students all called Paul “Sir”; now it seemed upsetting. Sally asked her to join a party going to the Slade dance. Paul detested dances. After some pleading she went alone, and arrived back at six in the morning. Dora was unable to be exact about time or anything else. Paul greeted her with a scene whose violence terrified her. From this moment on she began to be afraid of him. Yet withal she did not judge him. A certain incapacity for“placing” others stood her here in the lieu of virtue. She learned to coax him or to withstand him mutely, cherishing herself, and although she conspicuously lacked self-knowledge, became in the face of this threatening personality increasingly aware that she existed.

Paul wanted children, or at least a child, in the decisive and possessive way in which he wanted all the objects which he drew into his life. The sense of family was strong in him and he preserved an ancestral nostalgia for the dignity and ceremonial of kinship. He yearned for a son, a little Paul whom he could instruct and encourage, and finally converse with as an equal and even consult as a rival intelligence. Dora however was alarmed at the thought of children. She felt in no way prepared for them; though it was typical of the paralysis which affected her dealings with Paul that she made no effort to prevent conception. Had she been able to examine her lot more dispassionately she might have felt that a child would give her an independence and a status in Paul’s entourage which she now sadly lacked. It was in her to become a prompt and opinionated mother to whom even Paul would defer. As a child-wife she irritated him continually by the vitality for which he had married her: motherhood would have invested her no doubt with some more impersonal significance drawn from the past. But Dora had no taste for such genealogical dignities, and deliberately to commit herself thus was not in her nature. Though so much under Paul’s sway, she depended, like some unprotesting but significantly mobile creature, upon the knowledge of her instant ability to whisk away. To have to abandon this animal readiness by becoming

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