In the story, the people of a small town can hear a sound like that of a church bell. Nobody knows precisely where the sound is coming from or what is making it. Many people search for the unseen bell but fail to find it. The story concludes when two boys, one the son of a king, the other from a very poor family, both discover the true source of the sound at the same time.
Every evening, the people of a small town hear what sounds like a church bell. The sound appears to be coming from the forest, although the townspeople are not aware of any church there. One day, the people of the town decide to go into the forest to look for the bell. Nobody finds it. Some people claim to have walked out of the forest and to have still heard the sound of the bell coming from far away. Most people soon stop searching when they get to a grove and sit down on the grass instead. The town candy maker sets up a tent in the grove and decides to stay there permanently. Although the bell is not found, all the townspeople agree that they have had a pleasant day out.
The Emperor hears about the unseen bell. He declares that whoever finds out where the sound is coming from will be given the title "Bell Ringer to the World". The title is eventually bestowed on a man who concludes that the sound is being made by an owl hitting its head against a hollow tree. However, the quest for the mysterious bell continues.
After their Confirmation, a large group of children hear the bell. The majority of them decide to go into the forest to look for it. Three of them do not go, including one boy from a very poor family who has to immediately return the clothes that he borrowed for his Confirmation. The large group of children searching for the bell gets steadily smaller. Some go home, some decide to play instead, some stop at the candy maker's tent. Soon there are only five children who are still looking for the bell.
The five children find a small hut which has a little bell on it. Most of the children believe they have found the mysterious bell. One boy, the son of a king, thinks that the bell on the hut is too small to be heard in the town and that it does not sound like the bell which he heard before. He leaves the other children at the hut and continues his search. After a while, he meets up with the boy from the very poor family. The poor boy has returned to the forest to look for the bell after having changed into his regular clothes. The king's son suggests that they search together. However, the king's son believes that the sound of the bell is coming from one direction and the poor boy is convinced that it is coming from the opposite one. For that reason, they go their separate ways.
As the sun begins to set, the king's son reluctantly stops looking because he will not be able to find the bell in the dark. He decides to climb some rocks to watch the sunset. From the top of the pile of rocks, he is able to see beyond the forest and out to sea. He watches the colors of the sea and the sky merge together and continues to watch as the stars come out, enjoying the beauty of nature. The poor boy reappears. Although they followed two different paths, the two boys have both come to the same place and have both reached the same conclusion about the bell. They realize that the entire world is one enormous temple and that the bell which they can hear is an invisible and holy one from above.