the sea


The repetition of the title holds its brilliancy, expressed boldly in the routine which is outlined close to the beginning of Iris Murdoch’s novel – each morning the protagonist, Charles Arrowby, drops off a cliff into the sea.His isolate nakedness, the plash and tor of water is captured with a tone of reflectiveness which allows us to know that Arrowby will rise again out of the waves, repeat the cycle. After all, The Sea, The Sea is a novel concerning being trapped in routines whilst simultaneously  being confronted, even tempted, by the possibilities for escape strewn around us. As a novelist, Murdoch is not unacquainted with introducing the paradoxes and conflicts of life to her readers, as in her first novel –  Under The Net.  Her novels highlight entrapment yet simultaneous exploration, a gradual process of exploring and unfolding. Murdoch was nominated for The Booker Prize four times before finally winning it with The Sea, The Sea, her 19th novel, in 1978.

Although The Sea, The Sea holds key aspects of melancholy, as can be expected, it is also deeply, often amusingly, satirical. The first person unreliable narrator and protagonistl Charles Arrowby is a fascinatingly pompous figure who is difficult to dislike. Indeed, difficult to dislike, but also difficult to love. This is shown in that although he, an ex-theatre director and what would be constituted a ‘success’, has escaped to the isolated coastal house of Shruff End, he is haunted by his last relationships. In effect, his presence is eroded by the tides of the past – like a continuing process of dissolving or digestion. At multiple instances, the dreamy fluid narrative is interrupted by Arrowby’s own accounts of the food he cooks for and eats himself – pasta layered in oil and herbs, bread with cheese, meals increasing in size, bulk and complexity. It is this sheer physical presence which marks a discomfort within the beauty, even suggesting the compromise of the human body.

Here a man who has arrived for spiritual escape, and his body has betrayed him.

After all, Arrowby seems a character rather incapable for accepting the full moral authority for his actions. In eating he is feeding, feeding the ego which so dominates the narrative. This is a somewhat obvious metaphor; Murdoch’s presentation of character therefore may be regarded as flawed by some, but perhaps it is intended to be. As well as a novelist, Murdoch was also a philosopher, keen in emphasizing the importance of the ‘internal life’  to moral action. Although  regards himself as in control, Arrowby, in effect, allows his life to be overtaken by his connections to others.

For example, in becoming acquainted with Shruff End, he co-incidentally catches a glimpse of his long-lost, long-term love, Hartley. It is somewhat unusual that she is not mentioned before his actual physical sighting of her, now an aging woman as he is an aging man – but this can be seen as a strategic part of using unreliable narrators and actually highlighting his lack of human empathy. It could also be seen that Arrowby treats people, especially those he is romantically interested in, like oranges – an assumed solitary pleasure, something to turn over in his mind, his hands, aiming to gain control, to touching each segment. This want for control is demonstrated in that he baits Hartley to his house under the premise of her long-lost son being there; Arrowby is capable of feeding other peoples’ human empathy to make up for the complications within his own.

These complications are seemingly exacerbated by the interspersing of friends and acquaintances throughout Arrowby’s narrative account, including the bachelor Peregrine, and the seemingly overblown Buddhist (and possibly gay) cousin, James.  This compiling of characters – current loves and ex-lovers, friends and family gives an almost claustrophobic effect which is quite remarkable given the protagonists attempt to escape from social obligation into isolation. Only he can’t, and the sea reminds him of this – its beautiful turbulence reflecting back what Murdoch has captured so deliciously within a novel – the beautiful turbulence of life.

The Sea, The Sea is a novel of conflicts, of love and love, passion and resent – the changing tide of human emotions which is difficult to capture. Murdoch could appear to be trying too hard to capture it at times, with repeated clichés and perhaps some element of the stock character, but perhaps this is the point: we cannot escape our flaws, just as Charles Arrowby cannot escape or cleanse himself of his, no matter how many times he jumps off a cliff and into the sea.



Emily Oldfield



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