The Sea, The Sea (1978) – Iris MURDOCH

Another review so soon?! Clearly I have nothing better to do than avoid studying for exams – reading is definitely the best way to do this. I picked this up based solely on the fact that it was a pretty Vintage Classic, and it had won the Man Booker Prize. That, and it had been sitting on my shelf for an age. Is that a good way to choose? I don’t know…

Charles Arrowby, that famous playwright, has finally retired, and to celebrate, he’s moved into a dilapidated cottage on the coast of England. Even though he wants a quiet, peaceful time, writing his novel-memoir, a series of events are about to change that. When he meets his first love – his lost love – in the village nearby, his actions thereafter will have consequences not even he could dream of.

The word ‘odious’ does not, I think, get the credit it should these days. For if there is one word to describe Charles Arrowby, this is it. It’s been a long time since I’ve hated a narrator this much. Seriously, this man is an insufferable, pretentious bore, and misogynistic to boot. And yet, you just have to keep reading. Because, as a reader, it’s pretty clearly signposted that Charles’ actions are wrong, and his friends surrounding him keep telling him. You keep reading to see the spectacular fall, to see this man kicked to the ground for being such a douche.

‘Obsession’ is another good word. Charles has retired, so he’s not young. And yet, for the last forty years or so, he has been pining for a girl he went out with for a few years as a teenager, hoping that she would one day return to him, and sweep him away. This image of their relationship in his head drives him to kidnap her, and lock her away in his tower, in the hope that she will eventually come around to his way of thinking, even though she is going through her own stuff. Hartley – the woman in question – has been married to an ex-soldier, Ben, for a long time, and together, they have adopted a son, Titus. This family, while clearly dysfunctional, has somehow managed to survive, and yet Charles is so blinded by his obsession for a memory of something that happened forty years ago, that he cannot see Hartley as anything other than the battered wife, who needs rescuing by a knight-errant. And he thinks he is that knight. He is not.

This question of memory and history, together with obsession, formes the backbone for the novel, with Charles’ past coming to haunt him again and again. When his ‘old crowd’ from London come down to visit him – it seems, at first, a giant coincidence that they manage to arrive together – to see what he has done to himself, he cannot shake his memories of the past to see that people might have changed from what he once knew. He cannot see that Lizzie, for example, might still love him, despite having broken her heart years ago; that Peregrine might still blame him for his marriage’s disintegration’ or that James, his cousin, might actually be a much better person than he once thought. His relationships with women define Charles, and the three or four that are vital to this novel show him to be someone that does just use them for his own purposes, and then never thinks of them again. Unless, of course, they are Hartley.

Of course, everything has its time, and when the kidnapping incident is finally over, Charles finally begins to question his values and his lifestyle. Granted, the murders of a few people, and his own near death experience bring this somewhat to a head, but when he accepts that he must let Hartley go, things begin to turn in his head. Apparently Murdoch was heavily influenced at this time by Buddhist ideals, and this is very clear in the latter parts of the novel. And it’s not subtle, I should warn you – the Buddhist messages are rather like being hit over the head with a baseball bat. And for a while, you wonder where on Earth this has come from. And then, it begins to make sense – questions of reincarnation, of renewal, of moving forward, are very important in this conclusion, and I do think that, in the end Charles has learnt something from his experiences. But is this enough at this late stage? Personally, I don’t think so. But we’ll never know.

The Sea, The Sea, I must warn you, does have the most irritating narrator known to man. He’s not exactly unreliable, but after a while, you know exactly what is actually going on, and what he’s trying to tell you. This interplay alone makes for fascinating reading, but on the whole, this is an excellent novel that does deal with a lot, for the most part, quite successfully.

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4 thoughts on “The Sea, The Sea (1978) – Iris MURDOCH

  1. whisperinggums says:

    Hi Matt

    I really enjoyed this book when I read it and so thought I’d dig up some comments I made in another forum (way before I was blogging) when I read it in 2003. Here were my first comments on it:

    “I loved the voice – I tend to enjoy ‘unreliable narrators’ and Charles is no exception. The gradual unfolding of his character, particularly through the Prehistory section was just delightful – and brought a smile to my face. (I couldn’t help thinking of Stephens in ‘Remains of the day’ – of course Charles came first, but I read him second!)

    Murdoch’s control of language is spell-binding…it is subtle and yet obvious at the same time so that you are aware you are being led up garden paths, and in and out of crevasses, but you don’t feel it’s forced or overdone. You are aware that the sea is a powerful symbol throughout for a wide range of emotions and events (after all, it’s there on every page, pretty well) but it never seems heavy-handed. In fact, you look for it.

    The only times the novel faltered for me – and it faltered very little, really – were in some of the more histrionic dialogues between Charles and Hartley. I think at times Murdoch lost a little control – but perhaps I’m being over-sensitive.”

    BTW As I recollect from way back then I agree that his enlightenment was probably too little too late. BUT this is a pretty delicious Murdoch I think. I’ve read 4 – this is probably the one I like best, closely followed by The bell (I think that’s its name)

    • matttodd says:

      What you said.

      You’re right about the histrionics, too – by the end, they did feel a bit repetitive. But there you are.

      • whisperinggums says:

        BTW Good luck with the exams. Both my kids finished work for their degrees last Monday – one here, one in Melbourne but both finished on the same day. We are all relaxed here!!! Hope you will be soon too.

  2. Julia says:

    I loved this book, although probably not for the right reasons. I loved the descriptions: the sea, the old crumbling house, the pebbles he collected and, seemingly, every meal he ate, followed by a justification for why pickled herrings are better than fresh…or what not. Brilliant. And I found the obsessiveness of it so fascinating; I think I found Charles less loathsome than you. It reminded me of the Collector by John Fowles in a way (although in reverse I suppose, with the middle class ‘collecting’ the working class); this inexplicable, illogical obsession. And the part where Gilbert becomes his manservant is quite amusing, too.

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