Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Horror, the Horror

I read Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea upon the recommendation of my brother. At the time I was interested in 1970’s England and was looking to inhabit that world through the literature it produced. I’d also been wanted to balance my reading list as it was (and always has been) populated with male authors (New Year’s resolution).

The Sea, the Sea is dense, the first third especially. We are joining Charles Arrowby who’s now retiring from a life balanced between writing for the London theater scene and Hollywood. He has settled in a small English coastal village in a somewhat stark cottage overlooking the sea. Murdoch quickly portrays Arrowby as relentlessly self absorbed as evidenced by his deprecating treatment of the visitors from his old theater life and his obliviousness of the barely veiled contempt that his fellow villagers have for him.

Also during this early phase of the book, Arrowby sees what he believes is an enormous sea serpent rising out of the sea and the reader is left to evaluate whether this is a hallucination or real. It is a bit of an harbinger as shortly after this incident, Charles becomes reunited with a childhood love, Hartley, whom he happens upon in the local village. Incredibly, she has settled to this seaside town as well.

Charles begins to become obsessed with Hartley who, unlike the young beautiful theater women who still flock to Charles, is his own age and rather ordinary. Slowly, Murdoch begins to transform Charles from a self centered romantic into something far more sinister. The theater friends who continue to cling to Charles, likewise see this transformation and are quite unaware of what to make of it. Ultimately, the reader aches to know how this transformation will resolve. Eventually, I found myself concerned about what Charles might do next and became upset when the other characters left him alone. Suddenly the self indulgent artist who annoyed you begins to scare you.

Readers are likewise left to try and understand what the sea is meant to symbolize. Murdoch consistently places the sea and its ever changing temperament into each phase of the story. The sea has drawn Charles to this new phase in his life. Why? One theory (not my own) is that the sea is meant to symbolize life itself: enduring, unpredictable, ceaseless changing and somewhat uncaring.

Another theory (again, not my own) is that the sea is the human mind, filled with unexpected pitfalls and containing demonic monsters which can arrive without warning. Charles’ retirement at that seaside cottage is his time to step away from the career that defined him and confront something. Is the unsettling affection he’s pouring out to Hartley genuine or just a manifestation of something else?

The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch is available from Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics. The image above was scanned from a first edition hard-cover copy I got from my local public library.

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