‘”Without their visits,” said the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first tomorrow, when the bell tolls one.”’
– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)
Today’s image: the bell
I could not go through this post without mention of one of the most famous of all Christmas tales. Recalling the ‘strange inexplicable dread’ Scrooge feels as a forgotten bell begins to swing, then starts loudly to ring, setting off every bell in the house to herald the first ghostly visitor, Jacob Marley.
The bell is a versatile symbol. Its peal can presage or summon the arrival of a supernatural presence, as for Scrooge, or it can be symbolic of peace, freedom, and good tidings. Christmas bells, of course, mark the start of the first services. As was the case for Scrooge, however, it seems that in literature, the bell is more likely to sound a warning than to signify joy.
Below are some more famous bells or bell references in literature.
Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (1831)
For Notre Dame bell-ringer Quasimodo, abandoning the bells, those ‘long morning serenades, which lasted from prime to compline’ for another love, for the beautiful and unattainable Esmerelda, did him no good whatsoever. Seeing his unrequiting love hanged, he chooses to die rather than be without her, the bells eternally neglected.
The Bell by Iris Murdoch (1958)
Based around a centuries-old legend, that bell of Imber Abbey flew from its tower into a lake after being cursed, a young and feckless caste of characters endeavours to recover it and thwart plans to install a new one. After much Murdoch-style partner-swapping, philosophising, and personal drama, original relationships lie broken amidst a tragedy, yet the survivors find a new kind of freedom. Overall, probably the most hopeful of messages from the books on this list.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
Not, in this case, about a physical bell of course, but with a title taken from John Donne’s sermon: ‘…Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ Reminding us we will all die, and, in time, the bell will sound for each one of us. In a sense then, the metaphorical, inevitable, ‘bell’ hangs over Robert Jordan as he experiences the horrific brutality of the Spanish Civil War on the way to his own fate.
The Nine Taylors by Dorothy L. Sayers (1934)
This old-school mystery novel by British crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers opens when her sleuthing protagonist Lord Peter Whimsey (a man of many talents) steps in to help ring the New Year’s Eve bells in the village of Fenchurch St. Paul (i.e. one of those English villages that exists in 1930s mysteries). A series of deaths and a plot that concerns a stolen emerald necklace ensues, with the bell chamber key to solving the mystery. Classic, enjoyable stuff.
Overall, not a particularly cheerful list, perhaps. It makes for a selection of good reads though – especially for anyone feeling a bit ‘bah-humbug’ at the moment.
Photo by 𝓴𝓘𝓡𝓚 𝕝𝔸𝕀 on Unsplash