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Bookish Thoughts

Book Review: The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch

By March 31, 20112 Comments

Last night I dreamt that the ocean swelled up out of its ranks and came pouring into an apartment which through some inexplicable dream twist, my mother was renting in Philadelphia. It filled the city streets below and swept away cars like in the YouTube video from Japan of the tsunami. My mother seemed certain it would not get inside, but I watched it with horror from the window. This morning on Sanibel the wind is blowing and the sea is rough. Last night at dusk we saw a shark in the water patrolling just off shore.

Before the water started to get rougher, I found it very relaxing to swim out into the ocean and just float there. I imagined if I was very still, a pelican would come and dive for fish right next to me. I got close enough to hear the loud slap as those large birds hit the water at full speed.

My Penguin Classics edition of The Sea, the Sea comes with an introduction which I feel certain would tell me something very important about this novel by Iris Murdoch, but I haven’t read it and am going to at least attempt to make sense of this book without the aide of better informed literary minds.

The novel is a first person account which begins as a memoir and turns into something else, written by Charles Arrowby, a retired and fairly famous London screenwriter. Arrowby has bought an isolated house along the rocky English coast to retire and, well, I don’t think Arrowby is quite sure what’s to happen next. But as the back cover puts it, instead he gets “a series of strange events and unexpected visitors.” I have to say, the back cover of this book is one of the least effective in describing what happens inside that I’ve ever seen. It makes it sound like a supernatural romp, some magical realism-like trip. It is not.

Charles Arrowby is pretty much a first class dick. Maybe even worse than a first class dick. It’s unclear just how dickish he is, because you’re stuck inside his head, with his version of events for the entire 495 pages. He records his conversations with other people, but you have to trust that he hasn’t distorted what they’ve said. And so there you are, inside the head of a fairly odious person for almost 500 pages, watching an odd obsession with his fist love develop and have rather disastrous consequences for some people.

I have no idea if Murdoch intended this or not, but at times this novel becomes darkly comic. Our narrator is hell-bent on prying a woman away from her marriage, willing or unwilling, and he has a houseful of people in various stages of cooperation. When his cousin and imagined nemesis, James, finally gently suggests that maybe he should leave the poor woman alone, you kind of want to laugh.

The sea in this book seems to represent the dark, fathomless insides of human minds and hearts. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying. Destructive, but also full of strange and mysterious creatures. Our narrator imagines in the very beginning of the novel that he has seen some kind of loch ness monster, and my conclusion is that in a moment of stillness, he has seen the dark and frightening ugliness inside himself.

I often like books that assume people are basically good. I like myself to assume that people are basically good, and we like to have our own perspective on the world confirmed as much as possible. I’m not sure what Murdoch’s verdict is at the end. Arrowby seems to have learned something about himself, but not a whole lot. Perhaps he has become the slightest bit more compassionate and less self-absorbed, mainly through the influence of his Tibetan-influenced cousin, James.

Having stated that preference, I have to say it was fascinating to take up residence inside the head of someone who seems so basically shitty as a person. Haven’t you ever wondered what that’s like? What do the people who seem fairly shitty think? How do they see the world? The answer in the case of Arrowby is like a slightly more sophisticated child. Me, me, me, I, I, I, want, want, want, only with a more developed ability to manipulate the world to get those things. Other people have made odious characters central in their novels, but in The Sea, the Sea, there’s no escaping the inside of Arrowby’s head. Murdoch keeps reminding you that he is writing the words you’re reading, that his version of events is often distorted by time (when he wrote them), by his sometimes inaccurate memory, and of course, by the contortion effect of his all-consuming ego. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor, the grandmother is also fairly odious, but you float outside of her head; it’s not first person. In The Sea, the Sea, it’s like you’re shipwrecked on a desert island with Arrowby, and you’re stuck there for quite a while.

I have often felt that each human being is like an infinite universe potentially opening up before you. What Murdoch’s novel makes me think about is what conceit that assumption is based upon. How do we know or guess that each person is like an infinite universe? Because we certainly feel that we, ourselves, constitute a universe. I am infinitely fascinating in my thoughts, so there’s probably something else going on inside other people, as well. We mostly see the surface of that sea inside others, but we sense that there is probably something underneath. By the end of the novel, Arrowby seems a bit more willing to swim outside his own sea, so to speak. But the novel was interesting to me in its exploration of the fine line between being odious, and just being another normally self-absorbed human. If we sat down to write our “memoirs” as Arrowby does at the beginning, what would they sound like? How different are we each from Arrowby in the end?

P.S.  In getting this post ready, I just discovered a completely different cover for this book, and all I have to say is, woah!  That’s a kind of startlingly different direction to go.  Not sure if I would’ve even picked up the book with that cover.  I think this painting is referenced in the book, but I can’t remember what it’s called.  There’s one other cover from Penguin Classics with a bird which I’ve also included.  I feel there’s a whole other essay out there about the evolution of the cover images for this novel.

P.P.S.  As I was reading novel, my husband kept trying to remember who Iris Murdoch was married to.  He thought it was someone crazy.  She was married to John Bayley, an English professor and novelist himself.  I don’t know if he was crazy.  I resisted the urge to find out much about her life because I feel that we’re more tempted to do this with women authors than we are with men, and it seemed I should just let her novel stand for itself.


  • Deborah says:

    I think your husband's almost right – but it was Iris herself who became ill with Alzheimer's and fairly dotty. She and Bayley lived in a kind of intellectual squalor, but he looked after her tenderly until her death.

    She's a difficult writer, at least, I think so. We don't get many conclusive answers in The Sea, The Sea – not even a hint as to the location in England – and it's one of her most accessible novels. But I'm certain the black humour around Arrowby is fully intentional. What you wrote was really interesting, your take on whether the book worked or not, because you came at it entirely freshly – and that's great.

  • Robyn says:

    Deborah, I saw in Googling Iris Murcoch the film with Kate Winslett about her. I'll have to check it out now. I debated about reading the introduction, but even if I had disagreed with everything they'd said, my review still would have become an argument against what they said, rather than my own thoughts about the book. And I like to believe that you don't really need an “expert” opinion to make sense of a book. It certainly is interesting to see what other people have said, but everyone's entitled to their own relationships to a text. I'm also interested to read some of her philosophy, or maybe cheat and just ask my friend whose a philosophy professor!

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