“The Sea, the Sea” is a novel by Iris Murdoch about successful English actor, playwright and director Charles Arrowby who retires from London to a dilapidated house (Shruff End) on the North Sea with a vague plan to write his memoirs. Published in 1978, it won the Booker prize for fiction. The story unfolds as a first person narrative by Arrowby.
Instead of writing his memoirs, Arrowby coincidentally stumbles across his childhood sweetheart for whom he believes he has been searching ever since she left him when they were teenagers. Mary Smith (or “Hartley” as he knew her) is now a somewhat frumpy, middle-aged woman stuck in what Arrowby perceives to be a loveless marriage to jealous and psychologically abusive Ben Fitch. Arrowby embarks on a campaign to free Hartley from her marriage and rekindle the romance of their adolesence. There is one problem however – it is not clear that Hartley wants to be rescued. When pressed by Arrowby for an explanation of why she didn’t want to marry him years ago, Hartley says, “… we were too much like brother and sister and you were so sort of bossy and I decided I didn’t want to.”
Arrowby is a narcissist, obsessed with the past and his notion of the purity of first love. Despite his delusions, he has had several affairs with actresses and even broken up a marriage along the way. At the outset, he says he will write of Clement Mackin, his first mistress whom he met in London when he was 20 and she was 39, but he never does. Other actresses from his past like Lizzie Scherer and Rosina Vamburgh arrive at Shruff End during the course of the story, but Charles single-mindedly sticks to his plan to rescue Hartley. Gay actor Gilbert Opian (Lizzie’s roommate) takes up residence as Charles’ butler and accomplice, and Charles’ cousin James (to whom Charles always felt inferior because James’ parents were so much more affluent and bon vivant than his own austere parents) arrives on the scene as does Rosina’s ex-husband Arbelow Peregrine.
Among the implausible coincidences in the novel is the sudden appearance of Titus (Hartley’s adopted son) who seeks to answer the nagging question of whether Arrowby is his biological father – the jealous Ben Fitch imagines that Hartley and Arrowby actually had a child together (although in reality their youthful romance was entirely chaste). Arrowby tells Titus the truth (that he is not his father) but befriends the boy and manipulates him as bait to attract Hartley to Shruff End where he literally keeps her captive while trying to convince her to leave her husband. Ultimately, an intervention by James, Titus, Peregrine, and Gilbert is required to convince Arrowby to return Hartley to her husband and apologize for his behavior. The story doesn’t end there however, and Charles remains, nearly to the end of the book, staunchly oblivious to his misplaced obsession with reclaiming the one pure love of his youth.
One of the interesting things about the novel is the reliability (or lack thereof) of the narrator, especially in regard to his relationships with women and his assessment of Hartley’s marriage. While some of the related events (such as a conversation between Ben and Hartley overheard by the eavesdropping Charles) do confirm the jealousy of Mr. Fitch, it is not clear that Hartley is hopelessly unhappy with her situation. Likewise, Arrowby describes himself as not having a particularly high sex drive, yet some of his previous conquests and the comments of women like Lizzie and Rosina suggest otherwise. Although comic in many ways, the book can be seen as a tragedy in terms of Arrowby’s inability to see things as they are and the way he tramples on the lives of his friends in his delusional quest to reclaim Hartley. It is beautifully written, but rather long (almost 500 pages) and sometimes tedious to read – mainly because one is apt to become aggravated with the narrator after a while.
This is my first Iris Murdoch novel, and it will not be my last. The theme, plot and characterzation of lost love, revenge and strength through suffering was something I could identify with. There is an almost ethereal quality to Murdoch's writing. Her characters: Charles, James, Titus, Lizzie, Rosina, Hartley, etc.. are colorful, but yet they are ghostly, wraithlike. You can't have a physical grasp on them; they will not allow it. The only thing that Murdoch allows you is to share in her … more
This is my first Iris Murdoch novel, and it will not be my last. The theme, plot and characterzation of lost love, revenge and strength through suffering was something I could identify with. There is an almost ethereal quality to Murdoch's writing. Her characters: Charles, James, Titus, Lizzie, Rosina, Hartley, etc.. are colorful, but yet they are ghostly, wraithlike. You can't have a physical grasp on them; they will not allow it. The only thing that Murdoch allows you is to share in her character's … more
I was invited to join Lunch by one of the developers, who apparently read some reviews I posted on Library Thing. My interests are books, music, and movies. I enjoy both classical and contemporary fiction, … more
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First published in 1978, this is the story of Charles Arrowby who, retiring from his glittering London world in order to abjure magic and become a hermit turns to the sea: turbulent and leaden, transparent and opaque, magician and mother. But he finds his solitude is peopled by the drama of his own fantasies and obsessions,