Iris Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea

The Sea, the SeaThe Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The pointlessness of art is not the pointlessness of a game; it is the pointlessness of human life itself, and a form in art is properly the simulation of the self-contained aimlessness of the universe. Good art reveals what we are usually too selfish and too timid to recognize, the minute and absolute random detail of the world, and reveals it together with a sense of unity and form.
—Iris Murdoch, qtd. in Genese Grill, “On the Way to the Fen, Ethical and Aesthetic Quandaries Arise”

Doktor Grill quotes from Iris Murdoch’s philosophy to pour cold water on our time’s inflamed public passions. This 1978 Booker-wining novel, often acclaimed as Murdoch’s fictional masterpiece, makes literal my liquid metaphor, if more on the personal and spiritual than social or political plane: its turbulent, overspilling narrative dissolves the dangerously outsized ego of its narrator and submerges him in his world.[*]

To accomplish her task, Murdoch must immerse the reader too. I found her earlier works, The Bell (1958) and A Severed Head (1961), too schematic to fulfill the expansive anti-modernist mandate for fiction Murdoch proposed in the 1950s in essays like “Against Dryness” and “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited,” a credo summed up in the demand, “A novel must be a house fit for free characters to live in.” The Sea, the Sea puts this concern to rest—even if it raises the ire of Goodreads reviewers—when it opens with a 20-some page description of its setting, both house and environs, itself just the portico of the text’s almost 90-page prologue, labeled “Prehistory,” as opposed to the “History” chapters that follow. At 500 pages, this will be a novel big enough for the author, the reader, and the characters to inhabit.

Our hero and narrator is Charles Arrowby, an actor, playwright, and theater director in his late middle age. He has decided to retire from the stage and from London and has come to live in Shruff End, an isolated house overlooking the sea, where he plans to write his memoir—the very book we’re reading. Dithering in recall, he first treats us to lengthy descriptions of the ocean, the landscape, the house itself, and the meals he fastidiously prepares there, though from the first page (“something happened which was so extraordinary and so horrible that I cannot bring myself to describe it”) there are hints that all will not be well in his retirement. For one thing, he believes he sees a serpentine monster rear itself out of the water; he eventually explains this vision away as the residuum of an ill-advised acid trip back in the ’60s, during which he saw, he recollects, a horror both metaphysical and psychological:

It was something morally, spiritually horrible, as if one’s stinking inside had emerged and become the universe: a surging emanation of dark half-formed spiritual evil, something never ever to be escaped from.

He also hints at regret for his chosen occupation, deriding the theater itself as a place of lies—not the truth-telling fictions of proper art, which he assigns to Shakespeare alone among playwrights, but the straightforward and self-serving lies we tell in everyday life, to ourselves and to others:

Emotions really exist at the bottom of the personality or at the top. In the middle they are acted. This is why all the world is a stage, and why the theatre is always popular and indeed why it exists: why it is like life, and it is like life even though it is also the most vulgar and outrageously factitious of all the arts. Even a middling novelist can tell quite a lot of truth. His humble medium is on the side of truth. Whereas the theatre, even at its most ‘realistic’, is connected with the level at which, and the methods by which, we tell our everyday lies.


Of course most theatre is gross ephemeral rot; and only plays by great poets can be read, except as directors’ notes. I say ‘great poets’ but I suppose I really mean Shakespeare. It is a paradox that the most essentially frivolous and rootless of all the serious arts has produced the greatest of all writers.

We can detect Murdoch, over Charles’s shoulder, vindicating her chosen form, even as she exempts Shakespeare from her Rousseauist or Tolstoyan strictures against the theatrical masquerade, both in Charles’s own judgment and in her Tempest-inspired narrative design. For the retired magician Charles’s isolated house, like the exiled mage Prospero’s sparsely-populated island, soon becomes an almost comically crowded meeting place.

Charles had planned to focus his memoir on his long affair with the late Clement Makin, a woman almost twice his age who made him her protégé when he’d first arrived in London after his provincial upbringing, but he finds himself dwelling instead on his first love, Mary Hartley Smith. They’d shared a romantic but platonic idyll in adolescence, until she mysteriously broke off their relationship and disappeared when they were on the cusp of adulthood. In the first of the novel’s many astounding coincidences, Charles finds out that Hartley lives in the town near Shruff End, a discovery that causes him to pursue her obsessively. He hopes that they can finally consummate their relationship and live happily ever after, despite the obstacles of her marriage to a gruff and possibly abusive husband named Ben; the recent disappearance of her and Ben’s adopted son, Titus, now an adult trying to make his own way in the world; and her own insistence on maintaining a life and a marriage whose merit Charles can’t understand.

When Titus comes to Charles and asks if he is his real father—a suspicion Ben himself had long nursed, unconvinced by Hartley’s truthful protestation that she and Charles had never made love—he decides to adopt the boy and to plot with him how to get Hartley from what both take to be Ben’s cruel clutches. By the novel’s midpoint, they have essentially kidnapped Hartley and hold her hostage in an upper room of Shruff End. To recount the novel’s entire plot would take a book in itself, but in its second half, the isolated house by the sea fills up with all the people Charles had thought to leave behind in London: his ex-lovers, Lizzie and Rosina; Rosina’s jealous ex-husband Peregrine; the gay actor Gilbert, who loves both Charles and Lizzie; and most importantly, Charles’s cousin James, a shadowy military man and Buddhist whose glamorous and short-lived American mother Charles had been infatuated with in his youth.

Those who persevered through the novel’s long, slow overture are rewarded with the extravagant action of the third quarter, from the kidnapping and return of Hartley, one of the guests’ nearly successful attempt to kill Charles by pushing him into the water, and Titus’s eventual accidental drowning. Through it all, the sea sounds and resounds as a reminder of the transience, violence, and grandeur that is our native element. As the early appearance of the hallucinatory monster intimates, not to mention the resonance of Shakespearean romance, Murdoch, like so many novelists of her time, takes her realism with a strong dose of magic. Was there really a sea monster? Is Shruff End haunted? Did James use mysterious techniques learned in the East to save Charles from drowning—did he, in fact, supernaturally arrange Charles’s and Titus’s meeting? (And, though this occupies one line and is more incidental to the plot, why does James have a tulpa in his apartment? He casually confesses this to Charles, but Charles confuses “tulpa” with “sherpa” and fails to be shocked, whereas the reader might be wondering if James didn’t conjure Titus out of thin air.)

Magic is not only the novel’s mode, however, but one of its themes. As a director who favored the spectacular, Charles was a magician of the stage; yet his tendency to impose his vision on reality becomes malign when he uses it on real people to serve his own ends. He tries to convince Hartley of his intention to “rescue” her for her own sake, but she didn’t ask to be rescued, and he comes to understand his actual motive as an aging man’s regret for his lost youth, the ardor of innocence that vanished when his aunt died, when Harley broke off their relationship, and when he went away to London to become a professional liar. During her imprisonment in Shruff End, Hartley, herself somewhat visionary and histrionic, suggests a counter-magical ethic:

‘Well don’t tell me you propose to redeem Ben by love! I’m getting sick of Ben. What about redeeming me?’

‘No one else will redeem him, no one else will love him.’

‘Jesus will love him.’

‘No, you see, for Ben, I’ve got to be Jesus.’

‘This is mad talk, darling, really mad. Just try to think a bit. Doesn’t it occur to you that Ben would heave a sigh of relief if you left him? Damn it, you’ve left him already. You aren’t all that necessary. He mightn’t want to send you off, but he’ll be jolly pleased now you’ve bolted.’

‘You want to make him unreal, but he’s real.’

Hartley here advocates submitting oneself to the obdurate reality of others no matter the hardship involved, a saintly standard Murdoch found in Simone Weil. Every other character in the novel reminds Charles that he has behaved selfishly throughout their acquaintance—as in his toying with Lizzie’s affections or his deliberate destruction of Rosina’s and Peregrine’s marriage—and that they were attracted to him mostly because of his power and charisma, or the charisma of his power as high-powered writer and director. The Buddhist James, who eventually talks Charles into giving Hartley up, similarly says,

‘[Hartley] is real, as human creatures are, but what reality she has is elsewhere. She does not coincide with your dream figure. You were not able to transform her. You must admit you tried and failed.’

The magician must submit to reality lest he destroy what’s real in attempting to bend it to his will. But even before his re-encounter with Hartley, in the early pages of his memoir when he was tranquilly describing his surroundings and his background, Charles worries about capturing reality faithfully rather than creating a spectacle; he asks himself, for example, of the portrait he’d painted in introducing James into the narrative, “Is it true however? Well, it is not totally misleading, but it is far too short and ‘smart’. How can one describe real people?” And what are the novel’s almost exhaustively detailed opening pages for if not to slow us down and make us pay attention to reality in all its teeming detail?

Enormous yellow-beaked gulls perch on the rocks and stare at me with brilliant glass eyes. A shadow-cormorant skims the glycerine sea. The rocks are thronged with butterflies.

Charles even receives this truth—that reality in its grandeur is superior to the ego’s wishes and projections—in a vision he receives while sleeping outdoors and looking out over the ocean:

The sea had fallen dark, in submission to the stars. And the stars seemed to move as if one could see the rotation of the heavens as a kind of vast crepitation, only now there were no more· events, no shooting stars, no falling stars, which human senses could grasp or even conceive of. All was movement, all was change, and somehow this was visible and yet unimaginable. And I was no longer I but something pinned down as an atom, an atom of an atom, a necessary captive spectator, a tiny mirror into which it was all indifferently beamed, as it motionlessly seethed and boiled, gold behind gold behind gold.

The universe is so much larger than even the grandest human ego that our attempts to force ourselves on reality, as Charles forces himself on Hartley, count not only as sinful but as stupid, as hubris inviting destruction. Charles learns this hard lesson when the sea itself compels Titus—who’d modeled his incautious gambols on his would-be father’s rashness in the water—to submit to its killing power.

Yet, as neatly as we can phrase her seeming judgments, Murdoch has a problem of her own—a problem faced, incidentally, by other major novelists who favor religion and morality over magic and art, such as Cynthia Ozick, Vladimir Nabokov, Leo Tolstoy, and the mother of them all, Jane Austen. Novels, with their patient accretion of detail and ability to represent complex human entanglements, may be truer than the showy simplifications of the theater, but a novelist is a kind of magician too. If reality is all and the imagination nothing, then art itself is vain, both an imposture and an imposition—especially art as fantastical and involuted as Murdoch’s, who is hardly a Tolstoyan realist even if she can sometimes be a Tolstoyan moralist (and Tolstoy famously did not exempt Shakespeare from his own severe censure of idolatrous art). James, arguably the novel’s moral center, laments,

‘All spirituality tends to degenerate into magic, and the use of magic has an automatic nemesis even when the mind has been purified of grosser habits. White magic is black magic. And a less than perfect meddling in the spiritual world can breed monsters for other people. Demons used for good can hang around and make mischief afterwards. The last achievement is the absolute surrender of magic itself, the end of what you call superstition. Yet how does it happen? Goodness is giving up power and acting upon the world negatively. The good are unimaginable.’

From this follows the impossibility of true goodness except for those, like Simone Weil, literally willing to die rather than participate in the incorrigible act of will that is living. Hartley’s own seeming death-in-life of a selfless marriage doesn’t quite meet this standard, even if her character, which remains opaque throughout the narrative, has something of the otherworldly and “impossible” about it. The alternative if not the solution, unsatisfying to the purist, is to live as best one can, with as little magical thinking and willing as possible. Magic might alone prove useful—the way it does in the art of Shakespeare, the greatest writer and the only legitimate playwright—if the mage can create an artistic illusion complete enough to convince us that reality churns and roars just beyond the shore. This wild, capacious, briny, foaming, uncanny novel more than answers the charge.


[*] Murdoch takes her beguiling title from several sources, according to Wikipedia, most prominently from the Ancient Greek historian Xenophon, who depicts an army on the march shouting “The sea! The sea!” when they came in sight of water. A more relevant source is Paul Valéry’s poem “Le Cimetière marin,” whose third line begins, “La mer, la mer,” and which has a number of stanzas with themes and images that recur in the novel:

O pour moi seul, à moi seul, en moi-même,
Auprès d’un coeur, aux sources du poème,
Entre le vide et l’événement pur,
J’attends l’écho de ma grandeur interne,
Amère, sombre, et sonore citerne,
Sonnant dans l’âme un creux toujours futur!

Oh for me alone, to me alone, in myself, near to a heart, to the poem’s sources, between the void and the pure event, I wait for the echo of my inner greatness, bitter, dark, and sonorous cistern, sounding in the soul an always hollow future.

And while the Penguin Classics edition has a fine original painting by Rachel Salomon, one extremely evocative of the novel’s eerie atmosphere, the first edition joins the sea imagery to the Eastern motif represented by James’s spiritual ambitions with a reproduction of Hokusai’s Great Wave.