The Sea, the sea – Iris Murdoch

1978 Booker Prize winner, The Sea, The Sea is my first introduction to the Irish author, Iris Murdoch. To tell the truth, I chose it as my first read because it won the prize so I could kill two birds with one stone: Read Iris Murdoch as well as reading a Booker Prize-winning novel. I’m so pleased that it worked well for me. Not only I enjoyed the novel, I also found an author whose writing is such a pleasure to read.

The Sea, The Sea narrates the story of a vain egoist, Charles Arrowby, who retires from his job as a theatre director and settles in a house near the sea. His retirement project is to write his memoir in the quiet seaside house, but both his present and past interfere with him and disrupt his plan. Acquaintances, mistresses from the past, his strained relationship with his cousin, and an obsessive illusory love of the past test his selfish self in more ways than one. Loss, grief, and loneliness teach him the lessons of redemption. Although a full transformation is not in line with the character of Charles Arrowby, the learning acquired through pain helps him to reflect on his many flaws and change as much as he humanely can.

The protagonist, Charles Arrowby, is not an easy character to like. But surprisingly, I didn’t quite dislike him. Perhaps, it was her amazing writing skill that helped me overlook his egotism and his self-centered destructive conduct towards others. This doesn’t mean that Murdoch deliberately mitigated his flaws through her writing; on the contrary, she presents him as truthfully as possible. But somehow, the Charles Arrowby stemming from Murdoch’s pen was not completely despicable. This was a relief because the entire story is closely knitted around him. Arrowby was the central and key figure of the story, and the rest were minor characters. However, the minor characters contributed significantly to the story so as to balance the effect of the protagonist’s overbearing actions. Murdoch’s writing and the supporting characters held the thread tight not giving any room for Charles Arrowby to snap it with his unpleasant actions. Murdoch doesn’t wholly absolve Charles which I thought was suitable because we humans cannot ever forgo our flaws completely even though we strive to reform through lessons we learn in life.

The book’s credit goes much to Murdoch’s polished writing skill as well as her philosophical reflections on life through Arrowby’s character. There are religious, social, and political that run subtly underneath the story which were quite intelligent. I found them interesting and thought-provoking. Murdoch’s writing is rich and poetic. The description of the sea setting was so magnificently and picturesquely done that the reader can visualise it through her words. Her writing utterly captured me. It smoothed my reading journey through some of Charles Arrowby’s revolting actions. In truth, Murdoch’s writing helped me endure Charles Arrowby and look beyond him to the story that is being told.

A significant contributor to the story, apart from its human actors, is the sea. The sea and the protagonist, Charles Arrowby, are closely linked. The sea brings calamity, destruction, and grief to Arrowby as well as healing and peace. The symbolic role played by the formidable sea reiterates the power of nature to both destroy and salvage.

Needless to employ more words to say how much I enjoyed reading this splendid novel though it is by no means a happy story. Sometimes, there is beauty in sorrow.

Rating: 4/5

About the author

Piyangie Jay Ediriwickrema is an Attorney-at-Law by profession. Her devotion to literature has taken shape in reading and reviewing books of various genres set in different periods of time. She dabs at a little poetry and fiction of her own and hopes to share her work with the readers in the future.