In Greek Mythology Psyche, the soul, was represented by butterfly wings because of the myth about Psyche and Eros. In the myth the conflict between mother and daughter-in-law is explored and it follows the progress of Psyche evolving from an unconscious state to a conscious state.
The symbolism of the butterfly is shown within the novel as Dora changes through her contact with the people she meets at Imber Court, and through the events that occur such as Toby and Dora becoming close through the bell, Dora saving Catherine from drowning herself and finally when Dora rings the bell and makes a decision to change her life.
Dora decides to change her life for the better because before she went to Imber and during the times when Paul was around, she felt trapped, just like the butterfly, and could not find a suitable escape route.
In the first chapter of the book, Iris Murdoch introduces us to Dora’s character and the way that Dora feels trapped once she has married Paul. Although she is not physically trapped, Murdoch explains that Dora feels as though ‘Paul was urging her to grow up, and yet had left her no space to grow up into’.
Throughout the novel we come across several events where Dora feels suffocated, especially around Paul, the one person whom she knows at Imber, and the person who should make her feel more herself and at home than anyone else. During chapter 3 of the book, Dora felt ‘flimsy and ephemeral’ and also ‘as if she were merely a thought in [Paul’s] mind’. Dora could feel like the butterfly on the train, which is delicate and short-lived, just as she feels, but the butterfly was also trapped, and Dora herself feels a figment of someone’s imagination, just as the butterfly could have because no-one noticed him except Dora.
As Dora spends more time at Imber she begins to relax and change the way she views things, making herself less trapped and giving herself more freedom than she was before. Her adventure with Toby and the rescue of the bell in chapter 17 became an escape from Paul as she planned early morning rendezvous’ with Toby in chapter 20 through usage of a note ‘Meet Near the Lodge at 2 a.m.’. It would appear to the reader that Dora’s adventure with younger life is something that Dora needs, and appreciates the escape it creates for her from Paul, although when Paul begins to suspect Dora feels trapped even more.
‘…and generally behaved to her as if she were his prisoner.’ shows that she probably feels even more trapped than before her escape, but it is as if she has cocooned herself like a caterpillar waiting and preparing herself to evolve into a butterfly, into freedom when she can fly freely.
In Chapter 23 of the novel, the procession of the new bell is taking place and there are many visitors to Imber Court. Unfortunately the causeway collapses and the bell falls into the lake taking a boy with it. During the commotion Catherine, pushes past Dora and this has a delayed effect on Dora, but one that makes Dora possibly change her views on life. ‘All the same it was no business of Dora’s. Yet she felt anxious and wanted to make sure that all was well.’
Dora’s worries are very similar to those she has on the train when contemplating whether or not to save the butterfly, although at this moment in time, it is not about life or death, though it does become it. Dora’s natural instinct is to follow Catherine, and to save her, just as the reader was shown in chapter 1 with the incident of the butterfly.
The tragedy in the novel of Catherine trying to kill herself caused chaos to the whole of Imber Court and gradually everyone leaves. Before Dora leaves she spends time at Imber changing her life, beginning to paint again, learning to swim and taking control of important things like catering. Dora’s strengths and changes come after Paul has left and she has rung the bell. This is symbolic of the moment when Dora the caterpillar emerges from her cocoon of Imber Court as a butterfly, free and alive to do what she wants and to go where she wants.
Michael also notices the change within Dora and he feels that Imber has helped her to find her path. ‘How wonderfully, Michael thought, Dora has survived’. This shows that her evolution into a butterfly is so great that people around her have noticed it, and maybe Dora will be a much stronger person that the ‘flimsy’ creature she once felt like.
The incident on the train where Dora saves the butterfly is very important and significant because it symbolises Dora herself, and how she needs a helping hand to save her. Dora’s helping hand is Imber Court and her escape is from Paul and most of the life she has led with him, just like the butterfly had to escape death, something that Dora also helped Catherine escape.
The passage with the butterfly helps the reader to get a feel of Cora’s character, indecisive and easily embarrassed. At the beginning of the book Dora feels highly aware of people around her and what they think would be best to do, also their opinions of what she would do. At the end of the book, when Dora returns to Imber on her own, she is making decisions on her own and without hesitating. ‘Then a new idea occurred to her’ Dora has no worries about her new idea, she just does it, and even though there is no-one around to judge her, the Dora from the past would probably not have been so brave to do such a thing as blocking the lake entrance without permission, or guidance.
The incident with the butterfly is very significant, as the butterfly shapes Dora and who her character within the novel is, going through stages of change in her life, and the incident as a whole shapes the character of Dora in the eyes of the reader, giving them an idea of her personality.