The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch (1978)

The Sea, The Sea - Iris Murdoch

The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch (1919 – 1999) was the prolific British author’s nineteenth novel. Following is a review and analysis from 1978, the year in which it was published.

The story of Charles Arrowby, a self-involved and egotistical retired theater director begins as he is setting about to write his memoir. To focus on this task, he secludes himself in a house, not surprisingly, near the sea. He muses:

“Then I felt too that I might take this opportunity to tie up a few loose ends, only of course loose ends can never be properly tied, one is always producing new ones. Time, like the sea, unties all knots. Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend in order to console us.”

As he looks back over his life, he encounters his first, adolescent love, now much older and hardly recognizable. This upends his quiet plans as he grows obsessed with her, and sets off some farcical situations.

The Sea, The Sea was critically acclaimed and won the 1978 Booker Prize.

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Iris Murdoch at her desk, photo by Steve Brodie

Learn more about Iris Murdoch
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A 1978 Review of The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

From the original review of The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch by Lorna Sage in the Observer Sun, London, August 27, 1978:

“Those who want to be saved,” wrote Iris Murdoch in her book on Plato, “should look at the stars and talk philosophy, not write or go to the theatre.”

It’s a fair summary of the plot of this novel. Not the message, of course. She is adept as ever at keeping her philosophy and her fiction in their separate realms, and The Sea, The Sea is inventive, gossipy, and fantastic, not at all preachy.

Nonetheless she has lumbered her characters with some of the more choice (i.e. insoluble, fascinating, humiliating) problems her philosophical alter ego has been exploring lately.

Charles Arrowby, renowned theatre director

The hero, Charles Arrowby, is a retired and celebrated theatre director and, it goes almost without saying, a sentimental cynic and a monster of egotism.

He sets out to write his memoirs from his seaside retreat with a cozy reminiscent sense of achievement — modestly comparing himself to Prospero, abjuring the old magic, etc. — only to be stopped in his tracks by a dreadful and spectacular haunting he has not, for once, engineered.

The life he’d foreseen — the windy, wave-beaten promontory, the sketchy “nature study,” the small gourmet treats (Iris Murdoch does wonders of sneaky characterization by having him gloat over his solitary, greedy, unappetizing menus), the lighthearted pleasure of torturing infatuated ex-mistresses — all begins to disintegrate, as people and nameless things from the past crowd into his field of vision.

A first love reappears

The most embarrassing of his apparitions is a Loch Ness-style sea monster fainting in coils; the most unlikely his first and lost love, now a shy, lumpy 60-year-old who turns out to be living in a twee bungalow round the corner with her equally substantial husband.

Shaken but undefeated (indeed, rather roused by the challenges — this is where the real fun starts), Charles takes them all on, and tries mightily to fashion them into an Arrowby production.

Hartley, the lost love, he casts in the role of an aging Andromeda; himself, of course, as Perseus. Her husband, Ben, is obviously the sea beast, though he can’t swim.

And this is only one of many ingenious ploys; ‘resting’ actor friends who visit out of curiosity, and stay out of malice, get fitted in, too, like sad Gilbert, who thinks he’s in the Tempest plot, and saws wood in great quantities to prove it.

A change of tone from funny to strange

So far, the book is very funny, and exactly conveys the tone and feel of a theatre world where people become, as it were, addicts of illusion, accustomed to manipulate or be manipulated.

When Charles steps decisively over into reality, though, and kidnaps Hartley, the tone changes: he comes up against a level of living, of sheer, mysterious ordinariness he knows nothing about. Her marriage may be stuffy, changeless, tasteless, even unhappy, but it’s real, and Charles can only eavesdrop on it, obscenely, like a Peeping Tom.

At this point, he starts to get the queasy feeling Iris Murdoch’s egotistical characters all dread: “I had lost control of my life and of the lives with which I was meddling … I had awakened some sleeping demon, set going some deadly machine.”

A breathless climax and an epiphany

His personal sorcery suddenly fails to work, the forces of necessity (chaos, the amorphous surrounding sea) take over, in one of those manic, violent, coincidental climaxes that leave the characters (and the reader) breathless. Death, along with marriage, is an inevitable touchstone of reality for Murdoch.

Charles sees for perhaps the first time in his life round the edge of his own fantasizing ego, beyond the picturesque intrigues and passionate delusions that have been the stuff of his personal and professional life. He learns, in short, to look at the stars and talk philosophy.

And this is where Murdoch’s Platonic dialog with herself comes to the foreground. What fascinates her and irritates her more than anything is the wasteful paradox of self-knowledge — the fact that we can truly know ourselves only by the crashing messily not the limits of our freedom.

A melding of fiction and philosophy

This book has a saint, in the unlikely person of Charles’s cousin James, an ex-Army man who discovered Buddhism while engaged in Tibet, and who performs several startling miracles to rescue the others from their nightmare. James, though, is thankfully a minor character, a mere catalyst.

Charles is the hero because his theatrical memoir-scribbling existence is the best (i.e. most problematic) metaphor for how most of us function. By the end, of course, he has mostly mislaid his momentary vision, and is back playing games.

I suppose this is what Iris Murdoch means when she distinguishes between philosophy and fiction — that what the novel does superlatively is mirror our continuing confusion and muddle.

The Sea, The Sea, certainly manages an exhilarating, and occasionally dreadful anarchy. Her habit of inventing golden boys, for instance, and then killing them off as symbols of lost dreams (Beautiful Joe in Henry and Cato; equally beautiful and doomed Titus in this book) is getting to be worrisome in a way that I don’t think has much to do with Plato.

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Iris Murdoch - The sea, the sea

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Quotes from The Sea, The Sea

“The theatre is certainly a place for learning about the brevity of human glory: oh all those wonderful glittering absolutely vanished pantomimes.”

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“I’ve felt as if I didn’t exist, as if I were invisible, miles away from the world, miles away. You can’t imagine how much alone I’ve been all my life.”

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“There was something factitious and brittle and thereby utterly feminine about her charm which made me want to crush her, even to crunch her. She had a slight cast in one eye which gives her gaze a strange concentrated intensity. Her eyes sparkle, almost as if they were actually emitting sparks. She is electric. And she could run faster in very high-heeled shoes than any girl I ever met.”

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“I felt a deep grief that crouched and stayed still as if it was afraid to move.”

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“I ate and drank slowly as one should (cook fast, eat slowly) and without distractions such as (thank heavens) conversation or reading. Indeed eating is so pleasant one should even try to suppress thought. Of course reading and thinking are important but, my God, food is important too.

How fortunate we are to be food-consuming animals. Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger.”

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“What a queer gamble our existence is. We decide to do A instead of B and then the two roads diverge utterly and may lead in the end to heaven and to hell. Only later one sees how much and how awfully the fates differ. Yet what were the reasons for the choice? They may have been forgotten. Did one know what one was choosing? Certainly not.”

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“However life, unlike art, has an irritating way of bumping and limping on, undoing conversions, casting doubt on solutions, and generally illustrating the impossibility of living happily or virtuously ever after.”

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