Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea


“Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torments of man”, in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche. If there is one literary figure that stood up for what Nietzsche means to say, it is Charles Arrowby, the central character of Iris Murdoch’s 1978 Booker winning novel The Sea, The Sea.

Charles is a demi-god of the theatre and a well known celebrity, who, aged sixty decides to turn away from the whirlpool of celebrity madness to spend the reminder of his life in wise seclusion in his newly bought house by the sea side. And he sits down to write, what he thinks would be his memoir. But very quickly his plans of making peace with himself go wayward.

He’s intimidated by some strange sea monster which he never manages to figure out till the end, if it was a figment of his perturbed imagination or was the sea really haunted. He’s also besieged by the women who were a part of his life at various stages during his celebrity days, including his childhood love, Hartley. The beautiful Hartley has now lost all her charm and is married to Ben Fitch, a brutish ex-soldier. Charles begins to feel it’s up to him to save her from the clutches of her terrible marriage and in the process redeem his lost love. But Hartley has her own plans.

What is astounding about the narration is Iris’ incredibly lucid expression of the muddles a human mind can get into, when it comes to relationships in life. Be it about the women from his past who reenter his life in his seaside house or the people surrounding his relationships, the intensity with which Charles’ mind muddles them up is a harsh but real reflection of the reality. An instance being, when Charles makes Rosina leave her husband, but he in turn leaves her for Hartley, and later feels jealous when he sees Rosina back with her husband. Interestingly enough, the novel has a rather scornful take about marriage.

Every persistent marriage is based on fear. Fear is fundamental, you dig down in human nature and what’s at the bottom? Mean spiteful cruel disregarding fear… As for marriage, people simply settle into positions of domination and submission. Of course they sometimes “grow together” and “achieve a harmony” since you have to deal rationally with a source of terror in your life.

His confounded obsession to marry Hartley is an expression of Nietzsche’s prolonged Hope, which, just as Nietzsche put it, torments Charles. The human mind denies what it sees when the heart is obsessed with a fantasist idea. Iris uses her character to drive home this very point. Even though Charles finds some mental respite with James, his Buddhist cousin, his ego and the fact that James was against his ideas of getting married to Hartley does not let him see things in its real light.

This conversation, after Charles was rescued by James from an attempted murder, shows the depth of Charles’ ego, which is not much different from any average human mind.

James looked at me thoughtfully… “Are you sure (a) that you were pushed and (b) that it was Ben?”.
I was not going to be (a)d or (b)d by James.”I just thought I’d tell you. OK, forget it. So you’re going tomorrow, that’s fine.”

The novel ends with a Post Script titled Life Goes On, which as Charles writes in his memoir, illustrates the impossibility of living happily or virtuously ever after. Towards the end, we are left with Charles out of his seaside seclusion and back among people, back among the thick of relationships, and just as the subtlety of Iris and the confusion of human mind would have it, back into another love.

Behind all the human vanity and jealousy is a secret need for self-satisfaction. The Sea, The Sea is a remarkable exploration of life, from the pain and confusion of misplaced love, to vanity and the secret human need for self-satisfaction.


6 Responses to “Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea

  1. we are getting a little intellectual to boot arent we? nice review. i havent read the book. only heard about it.

  2. 2 N

    Came here through Desicritics. Interesting blog. Will keep coming back.

  3. Kish

    Firstly, Happy Diwali to you :)

    and another great post. Sorry will keep this short as my right eye’s really killing so i can barely see what i’m commenting.

  4. 4 Mariam

    I came across your review when randomly looking for stuff on Iris Murdoch on the internet.
    Wow, I think you really found the words for what I have felt to be some of IM’s core content in her books. I read several (unfortunately not The Sea, The Sea yet) and find her one of the wisest authors I have come across so far. I started reading fiction and essays on morality by her when I was in a more than usual muddled state myself, and she has become so dear to me, that I’m glad she wrote enough to last for a life time of reading:-).
    I never put my reading impressions into words so far, though.
    “The muddled human mind […] the human need for self-satisfaction […] his ego [and wishes] do not let him see things in their real light…”.
    Thanks a lot! Language or words do help in sorting out some part of our muddled minds at least. ;-)
    Mariam, Germany

  5. Nice introduction to the book – now I must must get hold of this!

  6. 6 Kishore

    Nandhu, Mariam, Usha,
    Do get hold of the book!

    Thanks for dropping by, hope ot see you more often.

    :) take care…

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