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The Sea, The Sea

About the Book

The Sea, The Sea

"We are all such shocking poseurs, so good at inflating the importance of what we think we value."—Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea

Around this barb of (unheeded) reflection swirls the rich maelstrom of fantasies, plots, delusions, mind games, and awakenings that makes up Iris Murdoch's popular 1978 Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea, The Sea. As both a philosopher and a novelist, Murdoch always concerned herself in some way or another with the struggle to develop moral goodness and the concomitant effort to vanquish obsessive self-regard. In The Sea, The Sea, she dramatizes this characteristic moral concern to great effect on a stage crowded with self-absorbed artistic Londoners out of their element in a small seaside village.

As she explores the potent mixture of power, illusion, and self-delusion in retired actor, playwright, and theater director Charles Arrowby, Murdoch weaves a rich tapestry of startling events: old love affairs revive and die again, friendships sour into attempted murder, hallucinations (or are they?) portend ominous happenings, and the drowning embrace of the sea waits restlessly in the background. As Charles negotiates the turbulent swirl of events, an intricate portrait develops of a man bewitched and bewildered by his own powers of self-promotion and manipulation.

In an imaginative style at once realist and gothic, modern yet hearkening back to the age of the grand novel, The Sea, The Sea charts a person's journey toward becoming a virtuous, spiritually mature human being. Taking up the moral development of the individual in a novel rather than a philosophical tract might strike some as a hazardous project, one that could mar both the clarity of thought so necessary for good philosophy and the narrative enchantment so integral to a good novel. And yet it was precisely in her novels that Murdoch so successfully discussed the vital issues of the moral life. Despite this marriage of philosophy and fiction-writing that is so prominent in her work, she always resisted the label of "philosophical novelist," refuting any suggestion that her books might be merely anemic shufflings of philosophical positions by consistently delivering vibrant characters and powerfully effective plots in the realist tradition of such great nineteenth-century novelists as Dostoevsky and George Eliot. The Sea, The Sea is no exception in either the profound issues with which it grapples or in the richness of its fictional world.

By the time she came to write The Sea, The Sea, Murdoch had already published eighteen novels and several times been short-listed for the Booker Prize. Concentrating her well-honed talents on the tenacious demon of egotism, The Sea, The Sea lays out an absorbing world of magic, illusion, and power—supernatural as well as theatrical, spiritual as well as worldly. Charles, in turning his back on the dazzling world of theater and retreating to a house by the sea to take stock of himself, write his memoir, and make a lasting testament, believes that he is eschewing the vulgar, self-absorbed power plays that constituted his adult life as a director. He believes that he is learning to be good. But self-regard and the manipulation of others are not so easily dispensed with. His egotism follows him—as do the many people that he has pulled under his spell over the years, such as his ex-lover Rosina, the ferociously glamorous actress whom he stole from Peregrine (her husband and one of Charles's friends); the mysterious Buddhist cousin, James, who for years served as the linchpin for the elaborate network of envy that Charles carried with him from childhood into adulthood; and Lizzie, another actress and ex-lover whom Charles found "surprisingly easy to leave...when the time came." Each steps into Murdoch's dizzying and humorous narrative with a segment of Charles's past, revealing him to have been a self-absorbed manipulator ignorant of his own motivations.

Echoing the prominent place that romantic love and sexual obsession often play in Murdoch's novels, the greatest obstacle to the self-understanding and maturity that Charles so falteringly strives for proves to be his accidental meeting with his first love, Hartley, who, after her abrupt cessation of their chaste yet intoxicating relationship, became a rather ordinary housewife. Contrasting the thoughts and motivations of Hartley and her all-too-banally brutal husband Ben with those of Charles and his many neurotic visitors, the novel descends into a whirlpool of opposing wills and thwarted stratagems. With a morbid fascination brought about by Murdoch's nimble control of this cast of idiosyncratic characters, we watch as serene reflection eludes Charles and he desperately grasps at the unrealistic phantoms spawned by the long lost object of his unconsummated childhood infatuation—leaving many victims in his wake. Throughout the novel, theatrical illusion, Tibetan magic, unconscious projections, supernatural interventions, and overripe fantasies all skew clear perception, distorting the characters' awareness of events and entangling them in a confused web of self-centered power relations, even as they try to be virtuous.

In intricately charting the multifaceted deceptions of Charles Arrowby with stunningly subtle black humor, Murdoch adeptly elaborates on a motif that followed her in her lifelong concern with Good, with Love, and with Freedom: to be good one must transform the personal into the impersonal, one must escape one's private self and concern oneself with others. Inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest and echoing Prospero's attempt to transform magic into spirit, The Sea, The Sea brilliantly depicts the risks and self-deceptions of the spiritual life, the precarious and important distinction between imagination and fantasy, and the vital importance of negotiating these dangers.

The Sea, The Sea
by Iris Murdoch

  • Publication Date: March 1, 2001
  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics
  • ISBN-10: 014118616X
  • ISBN-13: 9780141186160