Monday 3 June 2019

The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

The hardest part about writing a review more than a week after finishing the book is trying to make sense of my notes and markings and trying not to get my current reads mixed up with the old book. So to help me get everything straight in my head, I'll start with the housekeeping.

The Sea, The Sea was my fifth book in Liz @Adventures in Reading great Iris Murdoch Readalong, where she is reading (or more accurately rereading) ALL 26 of Murdoch's books in chronological order over a 2 year period. There are now only seven more books to go - of which I have only one on my TBR pile - The Book and the Brotherhood. Although I'm tempted to source Jackson's Dilemma before December so that I can be in at the end.

My edition of The Sea, The Sea was the 1999 Vintage one with an Introduction by John Burnside. He focused on the seventies provenance of this book and the 'spiritual awakening' happening at that time in the Western world - the interest in Eastern philosophies and ideas about 'mercy, compassion and right action'. He also alerted me to the fact that Charles Arrowby, our flawed protagonist, had bought into the whole 'Romantic, theatrical myths' idea of retreating, hermit-like to the coast to ponder his life, to get back to nature and surrender his 'worldly powers'.

Burnside warned me about the negative view of marriage that permeated the entire book before going off on an excursion into Milarepa country at the end. Who, I hear you ask?

Milarepa was a Tibetan poet mystic who managed to achievement Enlightenment in one lifetime. The two things I took out of Burnside's discussion of Milarepa - to be kept in mind as I read - was that the spiritual life led 'not to transcendence, but to a fuller expression of one's true nature' and 'we cannot change ourselves utterly; we can only change how we are in the world: how we see, how we act, how we tell our stories.'

I give you all this research because I have discovered over this past year that Murdoch's books not only improve when read in company, but furthermore they improve with knowledge. Murdoch wrote intelligently, coolly passionate and intense, with literary and philosophical references throughout her work. Watching her subtle clever ways at work as you read, is one of the pleasures of her work. There are times when she falls short, comes up clunky or heavy-handed, but then there are times when she soars. Despite liking very few of her characters (and actively disliking an even larger number) her books have insinuated themselves into my psyche, I suspect forever.

Murdoch gets inside the heads and hearts of her main characters. Since I tend to read for character development more so than an action-packed plot, it's understandable why she affects me so deeply. Whether you like them or not, Murdoch's characters go on a journey, both internal and external. I'm still not sure Charles Arrowby's journey resulted in him learning anything or changing anything though. I suspect he will always be a pompous, self-righteous, arrogant, control freak. Which is why the end annoyed me.

Liz loved the ending, claiming it was one of the best Murdoch endings ever. But it left me scratching my head as it seemed to take off in a new direction entirely. Any future drama that Arrowby inflicted on himself and others could now be blamed on the demons set loose - just another cop out for a man unable to face his own demons and accept responsibility for his own actions!

Arrowby is the classic Peter Pan figure - a man who never grew up, constantly searching for an all-forgiving, unconditional loving mother and stunted by a failed teen romance. He idealised women, pursued them relentlessly, before withdrawing his love and affection when he discovered they were not perfect. He lived his life in a heightened state of absurd melodrama and self-made confusion. As the narrator of his story, he is highly unreliable. The reader doubts his motivations, questions his hold on reality and suspects his memories have been twisted to fit his preferred version of events.

I couldn't understand why this master manipulator had so many friends who wanted to stay in touch with him, even when he moved off to the ends of the world, and why on earth all those ridiculous women kept coming back for more. There must have been an hypnotic charm to his personality that he was unable to reveal in his writing.

As with most of Murdoch's books, inanimate objects become personalities in their own right. In this case, the sea and the house, Scruff End, that Arrowby moved into take on a life of their own, full of unknown, possibly monstrous or magical beings. There was a constant threat implied - mother nature was not to be the solace or calm retreat that Arrowby was seeking.

I had also been reading the book for a few days before I noticed the discreet green detail in the wave design on the cover of the book, that was not a wave. Jo Walker had carefully, gracefully inserted a tendril - Arrowby's unknown, dream-like sea creature's tentacle - lurking amongst the waves. Nice!

Other Murdoch tropes popped up including caves, caverns, towers, magnifying glass, pools, bogs, moss, fog, windows, stones, rocks, pebbles, shells, vase, monsters, faces, letters, rope and field glasses, just to name a few.

Many of the themes were pure Murdoch too - goodness, obsession, limitations of the human soul, success, rational thought, truth and imperfection.

A number of quotes about marriage bear repeating for how disturbing they truly were. Is this Murdoch's view I wonder, or just Arrowby's?

Marriage is a sort of brainwashing which breaks the mind into the acceptance of so many horrors.
Every persisting marriage is based on fear.
People simply settle into positions of dominion and submission. Of course they sometimes "grow together" or "achieve a harmony", since you have to deal rationally with a source of terror in your life. I suspect there are awfully few happy marriages really, only people conceal their misery and their disappointment.
I had to struggle here with my own superstitious horror of the married state, that unimaginable condition of intimacy and mutual bondage.

I finished the book not only doubting Arrowby's chances of enlightenment but also his ability to self-reflect or change. He claimed that the least he could do was, 'live quietly and try to do my tiny good things and harm no one.' I seriously doubted his ability to harm no one and any good he attempted was designed to help himself first and foremost. As for living quietly, the entire story is about Arrowby's complete inability to live a calm, quiet life.

Photo by Sketch the Sun on Unsplash

Favourite Character: The sea, the sea! So many glorious Murdochian descriptions of the sea during all weathers, seasons and times of the day.

Favourite Quote: I had three.

  • one of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats
  • if there is art enough a lie can enlighten us as well as the truth
  • they yearn to believe, and they believe, because believing is easier than disbelieving

  • Winner of the 1978 Man Booker Prize.
  • The title could be a reference to Xenophon's Anabasis - where 10 000 Greeks, after marching and fighting in a foreign skirmish, called "thalatta, thallata" (the sea, the sea) when they realise they'd been saved from certain death and had made it home to safety (this phrase was also referenced by Jules Verne in Journey to the Centre of the Earth and James Joyce in Ulysses).
  • or more likely it was a nod to Paul Valery's poem, La Cimetiere Marin and the lines "la mer, la mer, toujour recommence" (the sea, the sea, forever restarting) which Murdoch also referenced in The Unicorn chapter 4.
  • The Sea, The Sea was a modern homage to Shakespeare's The Tempest (theatrical illusions, magic, betrayal, revenge, family, morally ambiguous, power, obedience, monstrosity, cruelty).

Books in Books:

  • Odyssey
  • Lord Jim
  • Wings of the Dove
  • Hamlet

Previous IM Posts:


  1. "Despite liking very few of her characters (and actively disliking an even larger number) her books have insinuated themselves into my psyche, I suspect forever." - aha, we've got you! As long as you don't mind disliking characters, Murdoch has so much for so many people.

    Re the ending, I'm not sure I like the fact of the ending itself, but the closing sentences are just so marvellous and a bit scary! I also love the tendril in the sea, which I only noticed when I put the book down one day, very nice touch (I do like these covers and it's a shame they didn't do them all in this edition). The quotes on marriage are pretty horrible, aren't they: I noticed them more this time, in my now-married state, and it will be interesting to reflect on how this re-reading for the first time since being married has been different.

    I look forward to you reading The Book and the Brotherhood (plenty of horrible people but some great ones, too) and do get a copy of Jackson, although it's tough and sad reading.

  2. Yeah Charles...*slaps forehead* what a prig, with not the least right to be. Still, I loved this book. I hadn't noticed that detail on the cover either...LOVE THAT.


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