Katherine Bailey on Books
Book Reviews, Literary Essays


Reviews: Past Books The Sea,The Sea by Iris Murdoch

Intellectually Adventurous and Morally Serious.

Iris Murdoch, the dame of British fiction, published more than 20 novels between 1954 and 1987. A unique writer who ignored commercial appeal, she created a fictional world completely her own. Masterfully, her works engage our intelligence and imagination, not just our curiosity. She uses intricately developed plots and complex relationships among her characters to examine the emotional, spiritual an intellectual pursuits of well-educated, upper-class Britons. Though her fiction is primarily realistic, many of her novels contain metaphysical events that underscore her ambitious themes. While granting that novels should reflect life, Murdoch believed that life should be like her novels – intellectually adventurous and morally serious.

Added to her remarkable talent for faultless observation of settings and people is her gift for weaving themes of substance into the very texture of her novels. Murdoch’s writing sheds light on the nature of morality; on love in its many guises; on fantasy vs. reality; and on the fallibility of memory. In The Sea, the Sea she illuminates the theme of jealousy. Her novels often feature two main characters who act as foils to each other, the saint and the artist. She consistently offers readers ideas about human power and manipulation as well as about the impossibility of one person ever really knowing another.

The Sea, the Sea, which won the Booker Prize in 1978, is about a man who never grew up, a man fixated on an adolescent romance. It is the self-told story of Charles Arrowby, a prominent London theater director who at age 63 retires from the limelight and moves to a remote house on the sea called Shruff End. There he attempts to write his memoirs. Murdoch filters the novel through Charles’s consciousness, a device that results in an impressive immediacy. From the start we understand that Charles is an attractive man, worldly, articulate and witty. He is full of theater gossip and London stories, and he never equivocates about his likes and dislikes. And from the start we understand that Charles is a manipulator who busily interferes with the lives of his acquaintances.

As the novel opens in early summer, traces of gothic melodrama help set the tone. Charles is terrified when a mirror in his hall shatters without provocation; when a valuable vase, for no reason, crashes to the floor from its pedestal, splintering into a thousand pieces; and when at different times he sees a sea monster and a dim ghost.

Somewhat arbitrarily, Charles has decided that he would like to resume an affair with ex-actress Lizzie Scherer, one of his countless former mistresses. Charles never married, preferring the magic of assignations and rendezvous and the exciting drama of break-ups to the tedium of marriage. It would not be an exaggeration to label him “sexually promiscuous.” But Lizzie is living happily, if unusually, with Gilbert Opian, an elderly, gay actor who is also a friend of Charles’s. Charles has almost convinced Lizzie to leave Gilbert for him when he discovers that Hartley, his first real love, a woman he had dated for years some 45 years ago, is residing in the tiny village near Shruff End. Promptly forgetting Lizzie, Charles becomes romantically obsessed with Hartley and endeavors to rescue her from her long-standing marriage to Ben Fitch, a retired fire-extinguisher salesman whom Charles perceives as a bully.

In his memoir, which becomes more of a diary, Charles relates that several times he has glimpsed a woman he recognizes as Hartley. He writes: “I saw a stout elderly woman in a shapeless brown tent-like dress, holding a shopping bag and working her way, very slowly…along the street. This figure, which I had so vaguely, idly, noticed before was now utterly changed in my eyes.” A vision from the past of a “slim long-legged girl with gleaming thighs” hovered in his mind. He relates that as soon as he saw her that “old, wicked, possessive urge jumped inside me for joy.”

Indeed, his further physical description of Hartley makes us question his obsession all the more. He tells us that her face is “haggard and curiously soft and dry…There were magisterial horizontal lines upon the forehead and long darkish hairs above the mouth. She was wearing a moist red lipstick and face powder which had caked here and there. Her hair was grey and neat and conventionally waved.”

The contrast between the force of Charles’s love and its object is striking. At first we are led to believe that the frail, unattractive Hartley might still love him, but we gradually understand that she does not, although he arouses other emotions in her – guilt and pity for sure. Hartley is no longer sure exactly why she broke up with Charles, but she does remember that she found him “sort of bossy” and that she did not want her boyfriend mixed up with the theater. Reminiscing, Charles recalls, “I craved glitter, movement, acrobatics, noise.”

As one plot twist prompts another, Hartley’s adopted 18-year-old son, Titus, arrives on Charles’s door step. Titus has not seen Hartley and Ben for two years. By this time there is an assortment of houseguests at Shruff End -- all Charles’s former theater associates from London. With this colorful group under his roof, Charles uses the presence of Titus to lure Hartley to Shruff End where, in effect, he holds her hostage in an upstairs windowless room. Now and then Hartley has outbursts of resentment. At times she weeps uncontrollably. “The tears of age,” Murdoch wisely writes, “are not the tears of youth.” Charles unkindly demands, “Stop crying, Hartley. You look like the pig-baby in Alice [and Wonderland.]”

Most of the novel’s middle section is devoted to his fruitless attempts to convince the timid and tentative Hartley to leave her husband, of whom Charles is absurdly jealous. He fills his memoir with thoughts about “the raging bitterness of jealousy” that infects him. Murdoch voices her insights on the subject through her protagonist’s memoir: “Jealousy is perhaps the most involuntary of all strong emotions. It steals consciousness, it lies deeper than thought. It is always there; like a blackness in the eye it discolors the world.”

Charles hopes that Hartley has married an insignificant little man, “But Fitch,” he admits, “was somehow, I could not think why, not insignificant.”
Another person who shows up unexpectedly at Charles’s seaside home is not from the world of theater. Indeed, he could well be from another planet. It is Charles’s cousin James, Murdoch’s signature saint. Charles is, of course, her artist. James is a recently-retired army general in his 60s who spent many years in Tibet. Murdoch endows James, a practicing Buddhist, with a mysterious, even supernatural aura. At the end of the novel, when James dies alone in his exotic London flat, Charles theatrically (and incorrectly) fantasizes that he is really not dead, that he has gone underground as a British spy in the East. James’s presence calms and cheers not only Charles, but also Titus and the other houseguests. In fact he is for them “a center of magnetic attraction.”

In the hands of any other novelist the character of James Arrowby would be implausible. In Murdoch land, however, he is entirely credible. As Murdoch scholar Peter Conradi points out, James is comically shocked occasionally that his cousin has never heard of gannets, cannot distinguish a shag from a cormorant, and has failed to notice a guillemot-covered rock. James displays throughout a talent for sharp perception, memory and discrimination, for which ornithology stands as an emblem. “Obsession,” Conradi notes succinctly, “narrows Charles’s focus; virtue widens James’s.”

Murdoch has created in James an eccentric character. She drops hints of his supernatural powers. For example, when Charles, on one of his rare trips back to London, unexpectedly spots James at an art gallery, James’s appearance is heralded by a sound resembling the wooden clappers used on the Japanese Noh stage to increase suspense or announce doom. The realistic hammering of nearby workmen quickly snaps Charles out of his fantasy. And James’s rescue of Charles from Minn’s Cauldron, a lethally enclosed deep whirlpool with steep and polished 20 feet sides, is unmistakably metaphysical. James makes use of his two sets of prehensile toes to cling to the chasm. His powers of levitation allow him to counter the centrifugal force as he pulls Charles up and out.

Fittingly for a “saint,” it is James who persuades Charles to return Hartley to her home. With Peregrine, one of Charles’s peculiar, former-actor houseguests and a menacing figure, at the wheel of his white Alpha Romeo, Hartley, accompanied by a stressed and somber Charles, as well as James and Gilbert, is driven back to her tawdry bungalow. Hartley’s release to her husband fails to dampen Charles’s passion for her.

Illustrating Charles’s skewed self-regard is the letter that he writes to Hartley the day after he returns her to Ben Fitch: “My dearest Hartley, my darling, I love you and I want you to come to me…But first there are things which I must tell you, things which I must explain. The chance which has brought you back to me has come like a storm into my life…It may seem to you that I belong to some other world, to some ‘great world’ of which you know nothing, and that I must have in that world many friends, many relationships. It is not so. In many ways my life in the theater now seems like a dream, the old days with you the only reality…Will you not come, will you not escape to me, to be with me inseparably for the years that remain?

He goes on to reassure her that if he thought that she had even a moderately contented life, he would not meddle, but “gaze at you from afar and turn away.”

It takes the Fitchs’ speedy, furtive and dramatic move to Australia to finally squelch Charles’s obsession. Charles writes that Ben is mentally undistinguished, without wit or “spiritual sweetness.” He describes him unfairly as “a shut-in with no sense of the joy of life.” Later he characterizes Ben as “ugly, charmless, brutal and dull.” To be sure, Charles’s perception of Ben is pure fantasy. The reality is that Ben is a man with whom Hartley is content – content enough to emigrate with him.

Two disasters befall him soon after he releases Hartley, disasters that comprise the novel’s climax. Describing the first mishap as “a primal experience of total loss of hope,” Charles portrays the late midsummer evening in which he narrowly escapes death: “I reached the bridge over Minn’s Cauldron and paused there…to look down into the smooth pit where the waves of the incoming tide were lashing themselves in a foaming self-destructive fury…I looked down and it was like looking into a deep, dark-green glass. And then – suddenly – somebody came up behind me and pushed me in.”

Just days after Charles’s near murder Titus drowns in the sea. A group of tourists swimming from the rocks in a bay near Shruff End, seeing his lifeless form being carried out by the waves, swims out and pulls his body ashore.

As the finality of Hartley’s departure sinks in Charles replaces her in his mind with thoughts of a deceased former mistress named Clement Mankin. We are prepared for his reflections because he has referred to Clement affectionately from the outset of his memoir. A celebrity in the London theater world, Clement was twice Charles’s age. Their affair occurred soon after Hartley broke up with him, when Charles was in his twenties and Clement in her forties. In musing about his time with Clement, he decides that his relationship with her was his main achievement in life. Clement suffered from a painful and fatal disease and died in Charles’s arms. He tells us that it was Clement who dominated his life and “about whom this book should be written.”

Following the death of Titus and the vanishing of Hartley, Charles has no stomach for Shruff End. He returns to London, takes up with former acquaintances and seriously contemplates an affair with an 18-year-old girl.

To be sure, on one level Charles is a cad, but undeniably Murdoch has constructed a complex protagonist, one with strong and intelligent aesthetic sensibilities. She writes breathtakingly beautiful seascapes that accurately sketch the look of the sea as it changes moment by moment. By presenting these descriptions through Charles’s perception, she is, of course, endowing him with an appealing aspect. Consequently Murdoch’s descriptive powers contribute to her delineation of character.

Near the end of the novel Charles details his walk along the coast to the nearby Raven Hotel; “It was a warm cloudy day and a little wind was tossing bits of white foam off the many-capped wavelets in Raven Bay. The sea was in a restless fussy mood, dark blue in color, that grim cold northern blue which even in summertime can convey a wintry menace. The sky too had its northern look, a pallid cool blue between compact and very white fast moving clouds. The sunlight came and went as I walked along the familiar road, and the big round boulders of the bay leapt out into a surprising variety of grotesque stony shapes, pitted with shadows and blotched with old seaweed stains and eyes of brilliant yellow lichen, then quietly faded again as the light was dipped.”

On Charles’s final night at Shruff End he sleeps outdoors in his yard, on the wet, dewy ground high above the sea. In the morning as he shakes and folds his blankets he hears a sound coming from the water, “a sudden and quite loud splashing, as if something just below the rock were about to emerge, and crawl out perhaps onto the land.” He writes: “I had a moment of sheer fear as I turned and leaned towards the sea edge. Then I saw below me, their wet doggy faces looking curiously upward, four seals, swimming so close to the rock that I could almost touch them. I looked down at their pointed noses only a few feet below, their dripping whiskers, their bright inquisitive round eyes, and the lithe and glossy grace of their wet backs. They curved and played a while, gulping and gurgling a little, looking up at me all the time. And as I watched their play I could not doubt that they were beneficent beings come to visit me and bless me.”

This was Charles’s first sighting of the seals, although all his houseguests had had the good fortune of seeing them. More conventional novels depict a protagonist’s moral transformation through the operation of the plot and the interactions of the characters. While Charles’s observation of such a pleasant natural occurrence has no moral implications, it marks a transformation of a different kind. A man basically miserable for the duration of a summer becomes a happy man.

Displaying her penchant for intellectual adventure, Murdoch sprinkles her text with delightful allusions to Helen of Troy and Shakespeare. More importantly, she underpins The Sea, the Sea with a marvelous dramatic irony. From the start readers pick up on the fact that Hartley was never really the defining person in Charles’s life. She was never more than his teen-age sweetheart. Murdoch has created the quintessential solipsistic, and therefore unreliable, narrator. She employs her protagonist’s late-life, jealous delusion as the organizing principle of her novel. Also, impressively underpinning the plot and giving the book unity is the consistent alternation between what happens and how it feels to the characters – action alternating with reaction.

Murdoch wrote seven more novels after The Sea, the Sea, each characteristically preoccupied with the moral realm. None was as good. None sold as well.