THE SEA, THE SEA by Iris Murdoch

Janet Lan, Friday Morning Book Group

The SEA, The SEA(May 27, 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."


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