This book focuses on a small lay religious community and the nunnery to which it is attached. The action revolves around the nunnery's plan to install a new bell to replace one which was lost in the neighbouring lake many years earlier, and also around the tensions which stem from the lay community's efforts to establish itself. Sexual tensions, both hetero- and homo-, abound: in particular, the unofficial leader of the community, Michael Meade, struggles unsuccessfully to reconcile his own homosexuality with (what he perceives to be) his religion's disapproval of it. Two temporary visitors to the community, Dora Greenfield and Toby Gashe, also play a central role: Dora is unhappily married to Paul and is temporarily attracted to Toby, whose immaturity, and uncertainty about his own sexuality, lead him into embarrassing situations with both Dora and Michael.
Many people think that this is Iris Murdoch's best novel. I have read around half of her novels and have found them to be of variable quality: some are (in my view) rather trivial, some are worthwhile but not memorable, and a few are first rate. I would certainly put The Bell into this last category. The central characters are well drawn and their interactions with one another produce a series of crises and tensions which maintain interest throughout. I rate The Sea, The Sea as the best Murdoch novel that I have read, but this one runs it close.