Women’s Spiritual Journeys in Literature (and Life) Inspired by the Sea

The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch

This musing on women’s spiritual journeys inspired by the sea is excerpted from the essay “Women Who Swim” by Evan Atlas. Featuring the iconic real-life swimmer Gertrude (Trudy) Ederle, it moves into parallels with Marian Taylor in The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch, and Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin:

The sea appears as this powerful source of perfection and self-transcendence in The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch (1987), whose character, Marian, is the subject of a sea-inspired spiritual journey. She arrives in an unfamiliar setting, immediately noticing that something is off:

“She found the vast dark coastline repellent and frightening. She had never seen a land so out of sympathy with man.”

She is to stay at a castle called Gaze (a symbol of Land, Order, Man — especially in the Gothic fiction Iris Murdoch draws from, with modern parallels in stories like Sleeping Beauty), to be a companion to another woman, Hannah, who never leaves the castle. Soheila Farhani Nejad writes:

“The name ‘Gaze Castle’ places a double emphasis on the idea of entrapment. As the staple architectural enclosure for Gothic fiction, the castle typically incarcerates its inhabitants or any character who enters it. The psychoanalytic notion of ‘the gaze’ as developed by Lacan, can be used to describe the way Hannah’s entrapment in Gaze empowers the onlookers while it signifies Hannah’s ‘otherness.’ As the lady of ‘the Gaze Castle,’ Hannah is the target of everybody’s obsessive ‘gaze’… 

Almost everyone in the novels treats her as a beautiful object. She seems to exist for the purpose of satisfying the other characters’ idealistic fantasies and their delight in myth and legend … Projection of male fantasies on women is a recurrent theme in Murdoch’s fiction. This often leads to the loss of individuality on the part of female characters… That is to say that in these novels, the male power figures pose as romantic lovers who impose their own notions of ideal feminine identity on their victims.”

It’s important, therefore, that Marian questions her hosts about the sea, but is warned away from it:

       “‘Are there good places to swim?’ said Marian. ‘I mean, can one get down to the sea?’  
         ‘One can get down to the sea. But no one swims here.’
         ‘Why not?’
         ‘No one swims in this sea. It’s far too cold. And it is a sea that kills people.’
          Marian, who was a strong swimmer, privately decided to swim all the same.”

From the moment of her arrival, her existence, agency and spiritual potential are eroded by men or male-coded symbols like Gaze itself. She ventures out to the sea anyway, but is overwhelmed by it:

“She did not know what was the matter with her now. The thought of entering the water gave her a frisson which was like a kind of sexual thrill, both unpleasant and distressingly agreeable. She found it suddenly hard to breathe, and had to stop and take deep regular breaths. She threw her bag down on the sand and advanced to the edge of the sea… It was a matter of pride; and she felt obscurely that if she started now to be afraid of the sea she would make some crack or fissure in her being through which other and worse fears might come.”

Through the rest of the novel, she does not return to swim in the sea. The Castle Gaze and its garden (a symbol of Nature restricted by Man) assert themselves over Marian — removing her from contact with the sea, with her potential source of wholeness:

“The garden was thick and magnetic behind her. Her desire to go out was gone. She was afraid to step outside.”

In the symbol-story complex, this is a warning not to lose touch with the those things which are sources of spiritual power. The estrangement can become permanent through an extended impoverishment of self-transcendence.

. . . . . . . . . 

The awakening by Kate Chopin cover

Analysis of The Awakening by Kate Chopin
. . . . . . . . . 

In another woman’s dramatic encounter with herself, Edna Pontellier, the heroine of The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899) is spiritually transformed by the sea, yet experiences social powerlessness. Like Murdoch’s story, it is a conflict of the social and spiritual quests, which we must now reconcile. 

Not just for women, who can come into closer contact with more perfect versions of themselves, but in turn for us all, who until then suffer a society which is less than what we know it could be. Carol P. Christ observes in Diving Deep & Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest:

“Edna’s suicide is a spiritual triumph but a social defeat. In it she states, even if only partially consciously, that no one will possess her body and soul, and affirms her awakening by returning to the sea where it occurred … But Edna’s suicide is also a social defeat in that by choosing death she admits that she cannot find a way to translate her spiritual awareness of her freedom and infinite possibilities into life and relationships with others. From this stand-point the real tragedy of the novel is that the spiritual and social quests cannot be realized together.”

Therefore, we can live in one of two worlds. In the first, “spirituality” makes women and girls think of religion in the sense of a patriarchal God. “Self-transcendence” sounds like something a charming cult leader would want you to do. And swimming is just one of the low-prestige sports women can participate in while men are honored and paid disproportionately for their athletics. Nobody in this world would have any reason to think that swimming had a deeper significance to women’s social-spiritual quest.

Alternatively, we can live in a world in which our symbol-story complex feeds forward, giving meaning to experiences like swimming in the sea. And the ritual of swimming-to-self-transcend feeds back to our stories and symbols. In this mutual strengthening, swimming becomes the radical act of asserting the need for a society with both justice and enlightenment. 

. . . . . . . . .

Gertrude Ederle
Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle,
the first woman to swim the English Channel (1926)
. . . . . . . . . 

It is both self-evidently beautiful and highly practical. All we need is a less haphazard approach — to bring the connection between swimming and social-spiritual growth to the surface. A young Trudy Ederle, in this world, would tell people how she loved the sea, and felt at one with it, and there would be people around her (parents, teachers, etc.) who could help her connect the dots. 

The symbol-story complex would complement her joy of swimming and turn it into something greater, more significant. She would learn to connect it to the spiritual quest, which she understands as the sister-struggle of women’s social quest. This is why the “strong swimmer” like Marian in fiction or Gertrude Ederle in real life, is an archetype of spiritual fulfillment. 

Women who dive and surface become more fully themselves, and with this inner strength they are more capable of extending enlightenment to others and advancing the social causes which affect us all, and women most acutely. And a stronger social movement, continuing the feedback loop, creates conditions for women to direct more attention beyond basic needs and towards greater wholeness.

Read the full essay, “Women Who Swim” here.

Contributed by Evan Atlas. Evan is a writer and political philosopher from New York’s Hudson Valley. His work confronts our most significant challenges, and develops a theory of change for the 21st century that is unlike anything you’ve heard before. He believes that the future of humanity can be more loving, more free, and more beautiful, but that this future is in danger. Join him at evanatlas.com and help create a more beautiful planet. 

. . . . . . . . . 

Iris Murdoch - The sea, the sea
You might also like:
The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *