The Sea, The Sea

views updated

The Sea, The Sea

by Iris Murdoch


A novel set on the northern English coast and in London circa the 1970s; published in 1978.


A famous theatrical director retires to a remote house on the English coast where he writes his memoirs and is confronted by his personal demons.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Iris Murdoch (1919-99) was born in Dublin to Anglo-Irish parents, but the Murdoch family moved to London while Iris was still an infant, causing the author to regard herself thereafter as “a kind of exile, a displaced person” (Murdoch in Conradi, p. 10). After studying classics and philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, Murdoch worked as a civil servant during World War II and its aftermath, assisting literally displaced persons in Belgium and Austria before returning to England to teach philosophy at Oxford University. While working in continental Europe, Murdoch encountered the philosophical movement known as existentialism, the main principle of which is “existence precedes essence,” positing the absolute freedom of the individual to create meaning in a world of otherwise absurd meaninglessness. Murdoch took exception to existentialism’s picture of the human being “as a brave naked will” independent of the surrounding world and instead called for a vision of the individual “against a background of values, of realities, which transcend him”; accordingly her novels present each character as “related to a rich and complicated world from which, as a moral being, he has much to learn” (Murdoch in Byatt, p. 8). Iris Murdoch published numerous philosophical articles and books in her lifetime, and also addressed such concerns in her poems, plays, and novels. The Sea, The Sea, for which she won the Booker Prize in 1978, reflects Murdoch’s concern that art express the inherent messiness of reality—what she refers to in her philosophical works as “contingency”; it deals also with what has been identified as Murdoch’s “central preoccupation”—the problem of ethical goodness, which in The Sea, The Sea is explored in relation to the tenets of Buddhism and the quest to escape egoism (Ramanathan, p. 2).

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Changing mores

The novel is set in the 1970s, a time of tremendous social change in England. Observers sometimes characterize this decade as permissive, a conclusion that can be drawn from the range of personal situations in Murdoch’s novel. Several characters are divorced, some are homosexual, and most engage in adulterous affairs with little or no sense of shame or social stigma. Non-traditional relationships are attempted, and women pursue careers and personal happiness outside the scope of marriage, motherhood, and family. Such things were to some extent acceptable when the novel was published in 1978 because of legal and social changes initiated in the 1960s.

A new sexual freedom for women was heralded by two developments in late 1960s Britain affecting women’s reproductive control: the advent of the contraceptive pill and the passing of the Abortion Act. The pill was more reliable than other forms of contraception previously available, and unlike other forms was under the complete control of the woman, giving women for the first time the same kind of sexual freedom as men. It was not until the 1970s, however, that British doctors began to prescribe the pill to unmarried women. The 1967 Abortion Act legalized abortion, giving women even more control over their reproductive life. At the same time, the stigma against unmarried mothers began to lessen, so, although the illegitimacy rate rose in the 1960s and remained high through the 1970s, the number of babies put up for adoption declined.

Another development that transformed English society in the 1970s was the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offenses Act, which partially legalized male homosexual behavior. In a strange twist of the sexual double standard, lesbian sexual behavior had never been outlawed in the first place. In the wake of the new decriminalization of male homosexuality, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) formed in 1970 to promote openness in homosexuality, counteracting a long history of shame in which criminalized homosexuality had necessarily been hidden. As the decade progressed, a much greater openness was achieved, though prejudice persisted. The GLF related their own oppression to that of women, yet the membership of the GLF remained overwhelmingly male, and lesbians found it an unaccommodating environment for their own issues.

One factor that contributed to openness toward homosexuality, and sexuality in general, was the great change in censorship laws of the fifties and sixties. In 1959, the Obscene Publications Act reduced the censorship restrictions on published materials, and by the 1960, cases of criminal obscenity in published works brought to trial before juries were being decided almost entirely in the publishers’ favor. British juries simply refused to ban books. In 1968, the Theatres Act had a similar effect in the theatre world by taking away the Lord Chamberlain’s powers of censorship over stage plays. Prior to the Theatres Act, before any play could be performed it had to gain the approval of the Lord Chamberlain, and he routinely banned plays that made any reference to homosexuality or showed an irreverent attitude towards religion, royalty, or “the family.” The Theatres Act, the Obscene Publications Act, and the more tolerant attitudes of the public meanwhile resulted in less self-censorship by publishers, theatre directors, radio producers, and television networks, who no longer had to worry much about legal prosecution. In this way, the whole notion of what was indecent or offensive changed in Britain.

As the new openness in sexuality gained acceptance, a more relaxed and pragmatic attitude toward relationships also took hold. The Divorce Act, which passed in 1967 and took effect January 1, 1971, marked a significant change in attitudes toward marriage. Before the Divorce Act, divorce was only allowed if one marriage partner could be proven to have committed a “matrimonial offense,” such as desertion, cruelty, or adultery, against the other. If the charge of matrimonial offense was challenged by the accused partner, the matter was decided by a judge through a process very much like a criminal trial with cross-examinations of witnesses. Two people who simply wished to end their marriage amicably could not circumvent this often ugly process; one had to be publicly labeled the guilty party and one the innocent in order for a divorce to be granted. Moreover, if one partner desired a divorce while the other did not, there was no way to force the issue as long as the spouse who wished to stay married could not be shown to have committed a matrimonial offense. The Divorce Act helped make divorce more accessible and more socially acceptable by allowing for “no-fault” divorce and divorce on the grounds of individual or mutual unhappiness.

Women’s movement

One of the major forces of change in the 1970s was the Women’s Liberation Movement, which held its first British national conference in 1970. Although the Movement soon faded as a national organization, unofficially it expanded as individuals and groups pursued feminist objectives and achieved several significant milestones:

1970 Equal Pay Act
Called for equal pay for men and women engaged in equivalent kinds of work

1975 Sex Discrimination Act
Allowed women and men to bring their employers before a special tribunal on counts of sexual discrimination

1976 Domestic Violence Act
Allowed women to seek the arrest of the husbands or boyfriends who beat them

Of course, the impact of these acts depended greatly on the extent of their enforcement. One of the women in The Sea, The Sea speaks of her husband’s abuse to herself and her child, mentioning that a private group, the “prevention of cruelty people,” had come to their home some years ago (Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea, p. 225). Before the Domestic Violence Act, the British legal system left the rescue of abused wives and girlfriends largely in the hands of private organizations. And even after the Domestic Violence Act, many police officers hesitated to enter into what was still frequently regarded as a private matter. Likewise, the Equal Pay Act did little to balance the wages for women’s work and men’s work because women’s and men’s jobs were so deeply segregated at this time. Three quarters of working women in 1971 held traditional women’s jobs—for example, secretary, maid, nurse, hairdresser, waitress, primary school teacher—and these continued to pay less than men’s jobs regardless of the Equal Pay Act.

Likewise the Sexual Discrimination Act did little; placing the onus of proof on the employee, it resulted in only a handful of actions against employers. The act failed as well in its mandate to eliminate differences in educational opportunity based on gender. As in the past, schools en-couraged girls to take “light” courses such as home economics, boys to take career-oriented subjects like science and math. Even educational employment was segregated, with women filling the less prestigious, lower-paying jobs in primary and secondary education while men filled management and university-level positions. Iris Murdoch, in her university post, was an exception to this rule.

Yet despite the failure of these legal measures, they both reflected and helped foster a fundamental change in mores. Britain in the 1970s had become a very different, more “permissive” society than ever before.

The London theatrical world

After the novel’s Charles Arrow by finishes his secondary education, he decides to attend acting school in London. His parents are not pleased. For a long time, acting was a profession held in disrepute in Britain. The public often assumed that pursuit of the acting profession entailed a life of sexual promiscuity, and that the portrayal of characters with low moral standards must redound to the dishonor of the actor.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, people gradually began to think of acting as a reputable profession. The payment of playwrights came to be based on royalties rather than flat fees and hence potentially more lucrative; thus, the profession started attracting members of the middle and upper classes, who wrote plays set in the social milieu with which they were most familiar. The 1860s saw more realistic dramas beginning to be performed on the London stage, characters in the plays of Oscar Wilde and others became more reputable, and so did the actors portraying them (see The Importance of Being Earnest , also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). Also amateur acting gained popularity at the country homes of the upper classes, and at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

In the early 1900s, the first acting schools opened in London, just as members of the middle and upper classes began to view an acting career as a viable occupation for them. From the turn of the century until the end of World War II, actors originated overwhelmingly from the middle and upper classes, and their status certainly did not suffer from the association with the profession. On the contrary, they pursued glamorous, high-status lifestyles, mixing with royalty and aristocracy in London’s fashionable clubs and restaurants. It is during this period that Charles Arrow by moves to London to pursue his acting career, and it is probably with this image of the high-status actor in mind that the husband of Charles’s first love, who, unlike Charles, has not risen above the class into which he was born, rejects a social invitation from Charles, explaining that “We aren’t your sort” (The Sea, The Sea, p. 151).

In the 1930s, theaters began to receive competition from films and, in the 19503, from television. The new mediums took away much of the theatrical audience for light entertainment, and theaters responded by concentrating more and more on serious artistic works. Plays began to portray working-class heroes and heroines, and correspondingly, actors began to be drawn from the working classes. The era of the glamorous high-status stage-actor was over.

In the novel, several of Charles Arrowby’s ex-lovers are actresses. From the seventeenth through the nineteenth century actresses were typically regarded on the same social level as prostitutes. Gradually the status of female actresses improved, but the twentieth century saw continuing inequities. There were generally more than twice as many roles available to men as to women in British theater, and men occupied most of the high-status behind-the-scenes positions as directors, playwrights, and the like. This began to change in the 1970s, as small, fringe touring companies, including women’s theatre groups set out to raise political consciousness by bringing works by female playwrights to the public.

Britain, Buddhism, and Tibet

In The Sea, The Sea, the character James Arrowby is “sent on a secret mission into Tibet to investigate Soviet activity there” following World War II (The Sea, The Sea, p. 64). His involvement in Tibet leads him to adopt the practices of Tibetan Buddhism, the tenets of which held interest for the novel’s author Iris Murdoch.

Tibet, the once independent country that became a part of the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s, is situated between India and Nepal to the southwest, and China to the north and east. Buddhism began in approximately 528 b.c.e. with a young Indian nobleman known as Siddharta Gautama. Siddharta taught a spiritual practice that he called “The Middle Way,” a path between the two extremes of self-mortification and self-indulgence. Siddharta, called the Buddha, taught that ordinary human existence entails a great deal of misunderstanding one must overcome in order to achieve nirvana, a state of bliss and freedom from misery. The Buddha’s teachings, Buddhism, soon became an established dogma, with his students arguing over fine points and eventually forming different schools of Buddhism. The earliest forms of Buddhism are collectively known as Hinayana Buddhism, and focus on renunciation of the world and pursuit of personal enlightenment in monasteries. Around the time of Christ, a new form of Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, was developed. Mahayana Buddhism stresses the importance of living in the world, maintaining social connections and furthering the spiritual evolution of all sentient beings, rather than merely concentrating on one’s own enlightenment. Hinayana Buddhism spread from India to Ceylon and Burma, while Mahayana Buddhism spread to Japan, China, and Tibet. Tibet quickly became a major center of Buddhist scholarship, and Buddhism came to permeate every aspect of Tibetan society. Approximately one third of the male population in Tibet were Buddhist monks, and Tibet was ruled by a Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

In 1720, the Chinese Empire helped Tibet oust Mongol invaders, and in return Tibet be came a part of the Chinese Empire, retaining a separate, but subject, government. At the end of the nineteenth century, under the now not-so-strong Chinese thumb, Tibet became the focus of a rivalry between the three great imperial powers Britain, Russia, and China. In the wake of the weakening Chinese empire, Britain tried to beat Russia to Tibet and sent a diplomatic and military delegation there in 1903 demanding a conference with the Tibetans and Chinese. Both refused British demands, and the Tibetan army attacked the British troops. As violence mounted, the Dalai Lama fled the capital, and the British representative rounded up a few minor government figures and convinced them to sign a treaty with Britain on Tibet’s behalf, making Tibet a British protectorate. A few years later, realizing that Russia hadn’t the slightest foothold in Tibet, Britain acceded to Chinese demands to acknowledge that Tibet was a part of the Chinese Empire. This state of affairs changed yet again in 1914 when, in a moment of Chinese weakness, Britain convinced Tibetan leadership to sign a new treaty granting the British Empire a chunk of Tibetan territory and switching suzerainty from China to Britain. Tibet became a British protectorate, but its status was far from clear. From World War I to beyond World War II, Britain wavered between regarding Tibet as a British protectorate and as a part of China. The British showed little interest in maintaining their hold on Tibet after World War II, when they began dismantling their empire. In 1947 India achieved independence from Britain, and Britain ceded her rights in Tibet to India.

The 1949 communist victory in China inspired Tibet to step up efforts it had already begun to be recognized as an independent nation. Despite U.S. pleas for British intervention, Britain, who did not share the United States’s absolute horror of communism, maintained its distance. India did not wish to risk entering a conflict with China and likewise maintained a hands-off policy. In 1950, Tibet turned to the United Nations for help, but none of the powers proved ready to risk conflict by supporting tiny Tibet. Chinese troops proceeded to establish a garrison in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, claiming the country as a part of the People’s Republic of China. Interested in converting Tibet to a modern Marxist state, the Chinese tried to root out the Buddhism that formed the basis of Tibetan culture. In 1959, after almost a decade of Chinese occupation, Tibetans staged an armed revolt to drive out the Chinese, but it failed. Fearing reprisal, the Dalai Lama and several of his advisors fled across the Indian border, with thousands of ordinary Tibetans following the leader into exile. Some of these exiles brought Tibetan Buddhism to the West.

Meanwhile, in Tibet in 1965 China’s Red Guards embarked on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Inspired by the writings of Chinese leader Mao Zedong, they banned traditional Tibetan ways and attempted to destroy all Buddhist temples and artifacts. The next decade saw a softening in Chinese policy toward Tibet to the point that China even began negotiations with the Dalai Lama. In 1976, after Mao Zedong died, China admitted that it had been brutal in its treatment of Tibet but remained in control of the country, a dominance that would endure throughout the twentieth century.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Charles Arrowby, famous actor, playwright, and director, decides to retire from the London theater world. “I just knew,” explains Arrowby, “that if I stayed in it any longer I would begin to wilt spiritually” (The Sea, The Sea, p. 4). Arrowby is “over sixty years of age,” comfortable but not rich, and single (The Sea, The Sea, p. 3). He has bought a house (“Shruff End”) on a remote part of the English coast, where he wishes to “abjure magic and become a hermit,” searching for that “something” which he has not yet lost, and to this end writing his memoirs (The Sea, The Sea, p. 2). Shruff End is an odd, dilapidated dwelling built near the turn of the century and lacking electricity or gas. Perched on a rocky cliff, it commands an impressive view of the sea, the changing face of which is described in detail at intervals of the novel. The house lies a short distance from Narrowdean, the quaint erstwhile fishing village where Arrowby buys supplies.

The novel is in Arrowby’s voice. It is his “memoir,” which also serves as a diary of daily events at Shruff End. The autobiographical sections interspersed throughout the novel reveal the following: Charles Arrowby grew up in the Forest of Arden near Stratford-Upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare in the English midlands. His father, Adam Arrowby, was a clerk, and the family lived modestly, outshone in every respect by the family of Adam’s brother Abel Arrowby, a successful businessman who married an American “heiress.” Abel Arrowby’s son James, Charles’s cousin, thus enjoyed a more privileged upbringing with ponies, better education, and travel, for which Charles envied him terribly. Throughout his life, Charles has felt condescended to and threatened by James, who “shone” and left Charles feeling like “a provincial barbarian” (The Sea, The Sea, p. 62-63). Only when James decided, after serving in World War II, to make a career for himself in the armed forces, a move judged by all to have been “a wrong turning,” did Charles begin to feel that he would beat James in their lifelong rivalry (The Sea, The Sea, p. 64). At the time of the novel, both Charles’s and James’s parents are dead, but the cousins maintain infrequent communication, mostly on the initiative of James, who has become a Buddhist while serving in the armed forces in Tibet, but is now back in London where he works in the Ministry of Defence and appears to be “a disappointed man” (The Sea, The Sea, p. 57). Although Charles regards his relationship with James primarily as a competition, James seems to feel a deep love for Charles.

The other major figure in Charles Arrowby’s childhood was a girl named Mary Hartley Smith (known to Charles as “Hartley”), whom he considers his first and only love. The two were friends since early childhood and fell for each other at the age of 12. “Ours was a solemn holy happiness,” Charles recalls, “that was love of a purity which can never come again and which I am sure rarely exists in the world at all” (The Sea, The Sea, pp. 79-80). Charles and Hartley agreed that they would marry at age 18. In the meantime, Charles decided not to go to university as his parents expected, but to attend a London acting school instead. From London, Charles wrote Hartley daily and visited her each weekend, but when the time came, Hartley changed her mind about marrying Charles. She gave no clear reason for the break-up, saying only, “I can’t go on with it, I just can’t” (The Sea, The Sea, p. 82). Afterwards, Hartley disappeared, and though Charles searched England for her, he could not find her. He finally learned from a mutual acquaintance that she had married someone else.

In the wake of Hartley, Charles decided he could never truly love again, and focused on his career. He first achieved success as an actor on the London stage then derived more satisfaction from writing and directing his own plays. Charles became quite famous at this. Only later, however, when he became a Shakespearean director did he find his true calling, and it is this aspect of his career for which he is chiefly celebrated at the time of the novel. Despite his self-professed inability to love, Charles had a series of mistresses, all actresses, but in each case Charles remained emotionally detached and ultimately broke off the relationship. First, when Charles was twenty, there was Clement Makin, a glamorous actress twice Charles’s age. Theirs was a relationship that evolved into different configurations until Charles finally became Clement’s caretaker as she died of cancer some time before the novel begins. While Clement was still alive, Charles began a romance with another actress, Rosina Vamburgh, the wife of Charles’s actor friend Peregrine Arbelow. After convincing Rosina to divorce her husband, Charles tired of the constant fights of which tempestuous Rosina was so fond, and broke off the relationship, for which Rosina never forgave him. Next there was Lizzie Scherer, another actress, who fell in love with Charles as he directed her in a series of Shakespearean plays. Although Charles broke off that relationship as well, Lizzie remains devoted to Charles, despite a sort of platonic marriage she maintains with a gay actor friend, Gilbert Opian. At the time Charles comes to Shruff End, he is romantically unattached and ready to pursue hermithood—or so he believes.

Soon after his arrival at Shruff End, and immediately after Charles begins to write his memoirs, he has an experience “so extraordinary and so horrible” that he is shaken to his depths (The Sea, The Sea, p. 1). While gazing out over the sea, Charles sees a giant sea-monster coiling up out of the water. Charles attempts to explain the perception as an LSD flashback from the days he took the drug, but he is unnerved by it for the rest of the novel. Then, disconcerting things begin to happen inside the house. An antique vase and mirror are smashed, seemingly of their own accord, and Charles begins to see faces looking at him through windows. Eventually Charles discovers that he is being “haunted” by his second mistress Rosina Vamburgh, who, in her hatred for Charles and out of jealousy of Lizzie, with whom she believes Charles to be still having an affair, has been entering Shruff End while Charles is not there, breaking things. Charles assures her that there is nothing between himself and Lizzie, and Rosina leaves, after which life returns to normal.

Normality does not last long, however, for one day in the village of Narrowdean Charles sees a “funny old woman” who bears a striking resemblance to his first love, Hartley (The Sea, The Sea, p. 145). Then he realizes that it is Hartley, and he has found his one true love again at last. He approaches her, and she recognizes him, but Hartley, now a stout, ill-kempt, elderly-looking woman, only seems embarrassed and confused at the meeting with her famous first love, as if she would rather have never seen Charles again. Enraptured, Charles tells Hartley, “You are my love,” and learns, to his disappointment, that she is still married (The Sea, The Sea, p. 116). Although Hartley vaguely agrees to contact him in the future, Charles becomes impatient, and begins to visit her and her husband, Benjamin, uninvited, at their cottage in the village. Through a combination of Hartley’s testimony and his own observation, Charles soon discovers that Benjamin is an insanely jealous, abusive husband, and the principle object of Benjamin’s jealousy over the years has been Charles himself. The couple has an adopted son, Titus, and Benjamin believes that Titus is actually the son of Charles and Hartley, refusing to see the absurdity of this suspicion or his unfounded belief that Charles and Hartley have kept up an affair throughout the years of their marriage. Both Titus and Hartley suffered abuse because of Benjamin’s twisted beliefs, and Titus ultimately ran away from home; his parents haven’t seen him for years. Charles’s appearance in the village only confirms Benjamin’s suspicions.

Charles still loves Hartley intensely and wants to save her from the “hateful tyrant” Benjamin, but Hartley shows no inclination to be saved. Then one morning, Titus appears at Shruff End, asking Charles if he is his father. Charles tells Titus the truth, that he is not his son but that he wishes him to be his son, and Hartley to be his wife. Titus, an attractive, intelligent young man who wants to become an actor, decides to stay with Charles and help him win back Hartley, and Charles secretly invites Hartley to Shruff End to see her son. While Hartley and Titus talk in private, Charles sends a letter to Benjamin, telling him that Hartley is with him and Titus and that she wishes to stay. When Hartley learns what Charles has done, she becomes hysterical, and, fearing that she will hurl herself into the sea, Charles locks her in a room, hoping she will come to her senses and realize that she should leave Benjamin.

Soon thereafter Charles receives a flood of visitors, including cousin James and Peregrine Ar-below, from whom he attempts to conceal Hartley’s presence. Despite Charles’s efforts, however, the guests soon learn of Hartley’s captivity and eventually convince Charles to allow her to return to her husband as she wishes. After driving Hartley home, Charles goes for a walk on the rocks and is suddenly shoved by unseen hands into “Minn’s cauldron,” a churning pool of water surrounded by sheer rock walls from which there is seemingly no escape. Charles is, however, somehow rescued, and the next thing he knows he is being resuscitated on the rocks by his cousin James. Charles assumes it was Benjamin who pushed him in as reprisal for abducting Hartley, but finds out eventually that it was Peregrine, who, despite professing friendship for all these years, actually hates Charles for stealing Rosina from him.

Shortly afterwards, Titus drowns in the ocean, and Charles feels responsible for not warning him about the dangers of swimming off the rocks of Shruff End. Charles is devastated by the death, but when he visits Hartley and Benjamin a short time afterwards at their invitation, the couple seem somehow relieved by the death of their adopted son. In fact, the couple appear to be quite happy and loving, and announce their plans to move to Australia.

James comes to visit Charles once more at Shruff End, and for the first time the cousins discuss James’s experiences in Tibet and his Buddhism. James reveals that he has the ability to perform certain “tricks,” like consciously controlling his body temperature. After James’s visit, Charles remembers details about his brush with death in the sea. He recalls that in the sea with him was the sea monster he had seen when he first moved to Shruff End, and he recalls that it was James who rescued him. James had apparently used one of his “tricks,” for Charles remembers him scaling down the sheer rock face of Minn’s Cauldron on hands and knees “like a lizard,” and pulling him to safety (The Sea, The Sea, p. 468). After remembering this, Charles tries to get in touch with James, but learns that his cousin has just died, apparently consciously willing himself to death. James has left his fortune to Charles, who moves out of Shruff End and into James’s London flat, filled with Buddha statues.

In the end, Charles comes to various realizations that have been developing over the course of his stay at Shruff End. Charles regrets that his rivalry with James prevented him from ever truly knowing his cousin. He realizes that he has used his love for Hartley as an excuse to avoid the potential pain of emotional attachment, and that the most important relationship in his life was with Clement Makin. He finally comes to see other people as fully realized human beings in their own right rather than as mere characters in his own life drama. Charles has lost the possibility of Rosina’s love, as she and Peregrine have reconciled and remarried. He has lost Lizzie, who is finally truly happy in her life with Gilbert. And he has lost Hartley again, only this time there is no mystery about her motives, and he must accept that she simply does not want him. At the close of the novel Charles contemplates mortality as he experiences mysterious chest pains, and he gradually settles back into life in London, a somewhat wiser man.

Monsters of the deep

“Out of a perfectly calm empty sea, at a distance of perhaps a quarter of a mile (or less), I saw an immense creature break the surface and arch itself upward. At first it looked like a black snake, then a long thickening body with a ridgy spiny back followed the elongated neck. There was something which might have been a flipper or perhaps a fin. I could not see the whole of the creature, but the remainder of its body, or perhaps a long tail, disturbed the foaming water round the base of what had now risen from the sea to a height of (as it seemed) twenty or thirty feet” (The Sea, The Sea, p. 19).

Since ancient times, people around the world have reported seeing unusually large and monstrous creatures rising from bodies of water. The twentieth century brought what is perhaps the best-known sea monster to public attention, Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster. No scientific “proof has ever been found for the existence of sea monsters, and sightings of such creatures are usually explained as tricks of the eye, basking sharks, or (in the case of sailors) the result of excessive drinking. Sea monsters, then, are frightening creatures of doubtful reality, akin to the apparitions encountered in the post-death experiences Buddhists call the bardos.

Buddhism, along with other non-Western spiritual practices, became popular in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s as young people in particular began to question the traditions of their parents and seek an approach to spirituality more based on personal experience than institutional doctrine. Buddhism is not a religion. The subject of whether or not there is a god does not come up in Buddhist teachings, except when such speculations are discouraged as a waste of time in pursuit of what is ultimately unknowable. The most basic tenet of Buddhism is that there are buddhas. The word budäha comes from the Sanskrit root budh, meaning “to wake up” or “to know,” hence, buddhas are individuals who have become aware of something about which most people are “asleep.” The most basic principle that a buddha realizes is anatman, the principle that there is no such thing as a soul, or self, as it is usually understood. Instead, there are processes, events. Put differently, anatman is the knowledge that “what we call ‘I,’ or ‘being,’ is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect, and that there is nothing permanent, everlasting, unchanging and eternal in the whole of existence” (Rahula, p. 66). The practice of Buddhism involves careful examination of one’s own consciousness, and a complete reexamination of what one has taken for granted about one’s relationship to the external world and to other people. Such an examination, it is hoped, will ultimately free one from the samsaric, or ego-centered, state of mind that attaches one to the world. When Charles contemplates his reasons for seeking “recollection in tranquility” at Shruff End, he suggests that it might be “To repent a life of egoism? Not exactly, yet something of the sort” (The Sea, The Sea, p. 1).

Strictly speaking, since there is no self, according to Buddhism, there is no afterlife per se, and yet Buddhists believe that some part of individual consciousness does survive and undergo frightening experiences, known as bardos, after death. The bardos must be handled correctly for the consciousness to escape the cycle of suffering through rebirth; the Tibetan Book of the Dead is a sort of bardo instruction manual. According to this Buddhist text, in the first bardo one perceives a great light that is the purest essence of one’s psyche. One should recognize this light as the source of one’s own consciousness and merge with it, but most people are unable to do this, and thus pass to the next bardo, wherein one encounters apparitions that are actually manifestations of one’s own consciousness. At first, the apparitions are peaceful deity figures, but as time goes on, they become more and more frightful. The thing to do is “own” the apparitions, for it is only by recognizing them as aspects of oneself that one may become free of the karmic wheel of reincarnation. In the novel, James explains the apparitions of the bardos to Charles as the “attendant demons” that “very few people are without” (The Sea, The Sea, p. 385). Indeed, the novel seems to be very much about the gods and monsters that populate the psyche, and the necessity for individuals to get rid of them in order to see the truth.

In the novel, Charles’s sea serpent is a monster with green eyes who represents the primary green-eyed monster in Charles’s life, the monster of jealousy. Jealousy is the primary motivation behind most of the plot. Charles’s jealousy for his cousin James is the defining emotion of his childhood. It creates the tension in their relationship that prevents Charles from ever truly knowing his cousin, and Charles cites this jealousy of James as the motivation that drove Charles himself to become a success in the London theatre world. It is the jealousy of Hartley’s Ben that makes him a monstrous husband. Jealousy of Charles’s relationship with Lizzie drives Rosina to “haunt” Charles, and jealousy of Charles’s relationship with Rosina drives her husband to push Charles into Minn’s Cauldron. Appropriately, the French proverb, “Jealousy is born with love, but does not always die with it,” is invoked repeatedly in the novel.

The sea serpent is explicitly connected with jealousy in the novel. When Charles looks at Rosina as she explains her intense jealousy of Lizzie, he sees momentarily “a snake-like head and teeth and pink opening mouth of my sea monster” in the place where Rosina’s face ought to be (The Sea, The Sea, p. 105). As a Buddhist, Charles’s brother James represents freedom from the destruction wrought by emotions such as jealousy (represented by the sea monster). Later, on a trip to London’s Tate Gallery, Charles is reminded of his serpent when he sees Titian’s painting of Perseus and Andromeda, depicting the Greek legend wherein Perseus slays the sea monster before it can devour Andromeda. The painting reflects what Charles believes he is doing in rescuing Hartley from Ben, made monstrous through jealousy; it also reflects what comes to pass later in the novel when James saves Charles from the monster in Minn’s Cauldron after Charles is pushed in by a very jealous Peregrine. James represents salvation from the monster of jealousy that torments Charles until the novel’s end, when Charles finally comes to realize, “I let loose my own demons, not least the sea serpent of jealousy” (The Sea, The Sea, p. 492). By the novel’s end, then, he better understands himself, achieving an objective that many in his generation pursue.

Sources and literary context

When Iris Murdoch began writing novels in the early 1950s, a reaction was afoot in Britain against the literary modernism of writers such as Virginia Woolf (see Mrs. Dalloway , also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). Modernism, argued its critics, attended to form and device at the expense of “truth.” Writers of this period, such as Kingsley Amis, John Wain, and C.P.S. Snow, attempted to return to the social realism of the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century English novel, an attempt in which they were ultimately deemed to be not very successful. Murdoch was initially classed with these writers as one of the “Angry Young Men,” or a related group known as the Movement, although her writing betrayed little interest in the social protest for which the Angry Young Men were known. Iris Murdoch herself claimed to be a realist in the tradition of George Eliot and Jane Austen (see Middlemarch and Sense and Sensibility , both in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). But Murdoch’s elaborate (and, as some see them, contrived) plots have caused critics to question the validity of this claim. A more just comparison may perhaps be made between Murdoch’s densely complex fiction and that of nineteenth-


The title of Iris Murdoch’s novel, The Sea, The Sea, is taken trom a poem entitled “The Graveyard by the Sea” by French poet Paul Valéry: “The Sea, The Sea perpetually renewed!/Ah what a recompense, after a thought,/A prolonged gazing on the calm of gods!”

(Valéry, p. 213)

century Russian novelists—especially Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, whom Murdoch so admired.

The Sea, The Sea contains much reference to Shakespeare; it is apparently most connected with The Tempest, Iris Murdoch’s favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. The Tempest is the story of elderly scholar and wizard, Prospero, a deposed duke who retires to an island with his daughter Miranda. The two live here happily for a time, but a shipwreck intrudes a host of other characters into their solitude, including a young man with whom Miranda falls in love. Prospero attempts to thwart the romance, knowing that it will mean separation from his daughter if allowed to progress, but eventually the lovers are successful, and Prospero is convinced to return to civilization with his daughter and new son-in-law. The character Charles Arrowby is likened by critics to Prospero, whom he resembles in his determination to “abjure magic and become a hermit” at Shruff End, only to return to London’s civilization some time later, after a tempest of events has shaken his sense of himself (The Sea, The Sea, p. 2). According to Murdoch, The Tempest “is to do with reconciliation and virtue and the triumph of virtue,” which also describes the essence of The Sea, The Sea (Murdoch in Conradi, p. 232).


Although Iris Murdoch’s novels often received critical accolades and always sold quite well, reviewers, as noted, frequently took issue with what they perceived as the improbability or contrived nature of her novels’ complex plots. Such reviewers, however, typically considered Murdoch’s defects admissible in exchange for “such richness of imagination and such grandeur of intellect” as could be found in The Sea, The Sea (King, p. 17). The novelist Joyce Carol Oates, who was Murdoch’s contemporary, took The Sea, The Sea to task for too many “sketchy characters,” and too many ideas that were “brilliant,” but “inadequately embodied in narrative” (Oates, p. 30). In the words of another reviewer, “Iris Murdoch’s novels are made easy to criticize because she attempts so much and because the things she is good at are so various as to leave awkward spaces in between” (Irwin, p. 345). Still other readers appreciate the magnitude of Murdoch’s novels as approximating the complexity (and often, awkwardness) of reality itself. The Sea, The Sea was proclaimed by several reviewers at the time of its publication to be Murdoch’s best novel so far, and in retrospect to have been her best novel altogether.

—Kimberly Ball

For More Information

Anderson, Walt. Open Secrets: A Western Guide to Tibetan Buddhism. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.

Bright, Charles. Sea Serpents. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991.

Byatt, A. S. Iris Murdoch. Harlow: Longman, 1976.

Conradi, Peter J. Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist. London: Macmillan, 1986.

Grunfeld, A. Tom. The Making of Modern Tibet. London: Zed, 1987.

Irwin, Michael. Review of The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch, Times Literary Supplement, 25 August 1978, 345.

King, Francis. “Love’s Spell and Black Magic.” The Spectator, 26 August 1978, 15-17.

Murdoch, Iris. The Sea, The Sea. New York: Viking, 1980.

Oates, Joyce Carol. Review of The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch, New Republic, 18 November 1978, 27-31.

Ramanathan, Suguna. Iris Murdoch: Figures of Good. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

Shellard, Dominic. British Theatre Since the War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Valéry, Paul. Charms. Trans. David Paul. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.