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[506] The Sea, the Sea – Iris Murdoch

” What shall I do with it, I asked her, what shall I do now with my love for you which you so terribly revived by reappearing in my life? Why did you come back, if you could not content me? What can I do now with the great useless machine of my love which has no wholesome work to do? . . . Perhaps when I was living alone and being everyone’s uncle like a celibate priest I would keep this fruitless love as my secret chapel. ” (456)

In his early 60s, Charles Arrowby retires from theater and pours his entire saving into a seaside brick house where he plans to live a quiet life of meditation and to write his memoir. Despite the meager amenities of the dilapidated house, he is absorbed and contented by this paradise that permits him genuine solitude—but not for too long. A series of strange events and unexpected visitors puncture this retirement regime. The novel-diary, which records his daily routine of swimming in the dangerous sea, buying groceries in the village, and making his obsessively detailed meals, becomes a continuum filled with allusions to myth and magic. The arrival of his guests subjects him to a confrontation of his own vanity, new possibility of romance, and unresolved bitterness.

You’ve lived in a hedonistic dream all your life, and you’ve got away with behaving like a cad because you always picked on women who could look after themselves. And my God you told us the score, you never committed yourself, you never said you loved us even when you did! (183)

Indeed Charles Arrowby is a cold fish with clean hands! He’s free from relationship obligations but memories of his past romances capitulate him. He pines for Lizzie, an actress whom he cares for but can only love dispossessively and platonically. Hartley, his first love from 40 years ago, is the main cause of his discontent in life. She appears in the hamlet where Charles lives, locked up in her own nightmare of a marriage. After the horrid interview with her husband, Charles sets out to rescue her in a campaign that covers long segments of the book. Hartley is haunted by her own demons, her reckless attempts to enrich her married life by adopting a son, which wound up creating only jealous suspicions in her husband’s mind about the child’s paternity She recognizes Charles’ affection for her but she believes she must remain in her marriage not because it’s right but because it defines her.

I’m not calling her a ghost. She is real, as human creatures are, but what reality she has is elsewhere. She does not coincide with your dream figure. You were not able to transform her. You must admit you tried and failed. (349)

In an important sense Charles Arrowby’s is the story of someone who violently and bullheadedly persists in all the wrong directions until time and experience—both under great pressure—and love form an unexpected quarter partially redeem him. Almost the entire novel is a derailment from his original intention—to write about his mentor with whom he had an affair. Clement, so her name was, is a shadow. Charles does not succeed in a renewed affair with Lizzie. He has deluded himself throughout by the idea of reviving a secret love all which all his relationships fail which did not exist at all. He is deeply self-deceived. He is so egotistic that he fails to conceive of a world outside his own head. This book has left me thoroughly divided. It’s as flawd and exhausting as it is exhilarating.

495 pp. Penguins Classics. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

5 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Passionate for Culture and commented:
    I adore Iris Murdoch.

  2. “This book has left me thoroughly divided. It’s as flawd and exhausting as it is exhilarating.” Matt, that’s exactly how I felt when I read this! I actually just bought a copy from a book fair the past weekend because I wanted to reread it sometime. The copy I read a few years ago was borrowed from the library. I wasn’t jumping up and down after reading the book but I guess it stayed with me enough to want to read it again and uncover many more of its mysteries.

    • I enjoy the story with his beloved Lizzie and Hartley but I was a bit overwhelmed by his dream-like ramblings. Iris Murdoch is a wonderful observer and I’m planning to read more of her.

  3. […] Echoes A Full Circle in Sep… on [505] The Stranger’s Chi…A Full Circle in Sep… on [504] If Beale Street Could Ta…A Full Circle in Sep… on [503] Auntie Mame: An Irrevere…Matthew on [508] The Housekeeper and the …Matthew on [507] The Chaperone – La…Matthew on [506] The Sea, the Sea –… […]

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