THE SEA, THE SEA
by Iris Murdoch
Janet Lan, Friday Morning Book Group
2004) The SEA, The SEA, by the prolific novelist Iris Murdoch, is about a 60ish
tyrannical, self-centered, director-playwright, Charles, who buys a house by the
sea for his retirement. Here he hopes to learn to be good, after a life of
egoism and power. The house, his daily life and the sea are described
exquisitely while setting the scene for the many visitors who arrive to join
him and disrupt his solitude and planned reform.
As the plot unfolds we realize that his visitors include former girlfriends, a husband from whom
he has stolen a wife, an important cousin who is a Buddhist, and a former childhood sweetheart
(Hartley) who coincidentally lives in the same small village and is married to an abusive husband.
After much scheming, Charles kidnaps Hartley in order to rescue her and renew what he considers
to be one of the great loves of his life. However, this is done much more to satisfy his own
obsession than to save Hartley. He has not seen Hartley for at least 40 years and she is fat,
ugly and excessively hirsute, but his love is blind. Furthermore we are told that she ran away
from him when she was 18 in order to break her promise to marry him.
To add to the party, Hartley's adopted son appears on the scene, resulting ultimately in tragedy.
Hartley's husband has tormented her for years with his false belief that Charles fathered the boy.
There are schemes of murder and revenge. The story has demons, including a sea monster reminding
one of the sea monster from which Perseus rescues Andromeda.
Our group felt that the house was almost a character in the book and likely was analogous to the
cave in Plato's Republic. We felt that Hartley was typical of many abused women who cannot leave
their abuser and fail to protect their children from the abusive parent. We discussed whether
Hartley felt the same passion for Charles either in the present or when they were teenagers.
Would Charles have noticed had she not returned his platonic teenage love? Now she seemed to
be a damaged old woman, who had let herself deteriorate in her abusive marriage, but Charles was
unable to see that she did not or could not return his passion. Indeed, our discussion included
the very nature of love. Cousin rivalry was also discussed and the possibility that Charles's
Buddhist cousin represented his good alter ego was raised.
Some members had trouble reading the book with its slow, descriptive beginning and others did
not feel that Charles's narrative voice felt like a male voice but overall it was felt to be
an intelligent, well written and interesting book well worthy of discussion.
This is a story about good and evil. At the end there is a Buddhist demon casket, which loses
its lid. Charles asks "Upon the demon-ridden pilgrimage of human life, what next I wonder."
FROM THE EDITORS: Find reviews contributed by other local
book clubs at: www.larchmontgazette.com. We'd love to hear
from other Larchmont book clubs and readers; email us at
Print This Page--For best results, highlight text, then print selection