The Sea, The Sea

By Iris Murdoch; @ 1978; Penguin Books; 502 pages.

The Sea, The Sea

This is fast becoming monsters week (literary, that is). I think Charles Arrowby has got to be considered a monster, both to himself and to the ones he “loves.”

I picked this one up a few times—and put it down.

They say the best way to establish rapport with your reader is to write in the first person. So, Charles Arrowby, famous playwright and director (and our protagonist) is writing his diary/memoirs (in the first person, of course). He has just ended a brilliant career in the theatre. He is in his sixties and has retired to an isolated area by the sea somewhere in Great Britain where he has purchased a weird little house from a Mrs. Chorney. Charles bores us with his very particular ideas about food while risking his life and hypothermia by swimming in the sea, often having trouble climbing back out—without clothes, of course.

It occurred to me while reading this that when writing in the first person, if you are too convincingly smug or if your character is too self-deluded, you risk alienating your reader. Charles isn’t someone I want to hang out with for 500 pages, so around page 20, I started asking myself if I should go ahead and purchase War and Peace.

But this book is supposed to be “compelling, very funny” so I read on.

By page 50, I’m singing a different tune. Iris Murdoch has hooked me. Once Charles starts talking about the theatre, his passion takes over the page. I am amazed at how well Iris is able to write in the persona of a man. I am thoroughly convinced.

I feel sorry for her too, because she must have known someone like Charles to be able to write his character so well. Past 60 and he is still playing these games with women. How horrid! But as a character in a novel, Charles, at a safe distance (after all, he is fiction), is intriguing.

It’s interesting, too, how Iris gains our interest in Charles. By showing us Lizzie, a woman who is desperately in love with him but for whom he is luke warm, we see someone desires him; therefore, he must be desirable. He must also have options since he can cast her aside so easily.

I had just about written Charles off for being an incredibly self-centered bore. But I feel for Lizzie. She doesn’t want to be manipulated, and yet she can’t help but respond to Charles.

Charles did love someone once: Hartley.

The rest of the book is like watching a train wreck. Turns out that Hartley (now called Mary by everyone since Hartley is her middle name) lives with her husband in the same village where Charles has moved, by the sea.

Charles, so enthusiastic over meeting Hartley again, does not take it slow. He is determined to have Hartley in his life again and insists that she and her husband come to his house for drinks.

As Hartley hides in their little bungalow (they are not as affluent as Charles), her husband lets Charles know what’s what:

‘Listen, it’s not on, sorry, we don’t want to know you. Sorry to put it like that but you won’t seem to take a hint. I mean, there’s no point, is there. All right, you knew Mary a long time ago, but a long time ago is a long time ago. She doesn’t want to know you now, and I don’t want to start, see….


Charles Arrowby is a wonderful example of an unreliable narrator. I feel sorry for him. He’s so caught up in his emotions and so very horribly deluded. He’s also callously insensitive to people who say they love him. Terribly wounded, he goes his whole life without being able to have an honest relationship with a woman.

The rest of the story becomes laughable. What choice does Iris have?

Charles can either wake up to how abysmal he is being or embrace it. One choice ends the story as a tragedy. The other keeps it going as a farce. As it is, Charles becomes creepier and creepier.

After scheming and manipulating Hartley to stay the night as his house by the sea, Hartley wakes up and says she needs to go home. She hasn’t brought anything with her, not a bag or her makeup:

I could see that for her, it might matter however. In the bleak drained light which filtered in from the window which gave onto the drawing room, she looked terrible. Her face was puffy and greasy, her brow corrugated, lines of haggardness outlined her mouth. Her tangled hair, dry and frizzy, looked like an old wig….And as I thought to show her how little I minded her shabby helplessness, my titanic love could even have wished for greater odds.”

The tension in the story comes from watching Charles obsessively pursue something we know he doesn’t want.

My favorite quote from the book isn’t that hard to translate. It is “Sic biscuitus disintegrat.” (That’s how the cookie crumbles.)

Overall, this is a good book to read for prolonged, extensive inner dialog. While Iris Murdoch describes her characters thoughts and motives very thoroughly, by the end of this book, I wanted to throw the lot of them into the sea.

Iris Murdoch attended Oxford and Cambridge. She studied classics and philosophy. Her other works include Bruno’s Dream, A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Henry and Cato, The Italian Girl, The Nice and the Good, The Sandcastle, A Severed Head, Under the Net, and A Word Child.


3 thoughts on “The Sea, The Sea

  1. Sic biscuitus disintegrat…love that. Writing a first person piece, but stair-step it with past references in the third person to change up every other chapter…with inserted news clippings to really create a variety. A teacher friend of mine used to obsessively search out effective third person voices to get students off the first person obsession. How many books other than “Bright Lights, Big City” work in second person?


    1. That’s a cool question. I think I have only read one other 2nd person book: Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins. My teacher always taught us not to ever use the 2nd person, but I really like it in Half Asleep. I’ll have to check out Bright Lights, Big City. Thanks for the tip.


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