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The Sea, the Sea (1978)

by Iris Murdoch

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
3,318893,389 (3.94)2 / 440
Iris Murdoch's extraordinary exploration of human nature shines with intricate detail. WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY JOHN BURNSIDE When Charles Arrowby retires from his glittering career in the London theatre, he buys a remote house on the rocks by the sea. He hopes to escape from his tumultuous love affairs but unexpectedly bumps into his childhood sweetheart and sets his heart on destroying her marriage. His equilibrium is further disturbed when his friends all decide to come and keep him company and Charles finds his seaside idyll severely threatened by his obsessions.… (more)
  1. 21
    The Bell by Iris Murdoch (Booksloth)
  2. 32
    Kim by Rudyard Kipling (thorold)
    thorold: Two books that demonstrate that it's possible to use a Buddhist holy man to power the plot of a complex modern novel without getting all mystical and Hermann Hesse.
  3. 01
    Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (PilgrimJess)
    PilgrimJess: Another book that looks at obsessive love.

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» See also 440 mentions

English (82)  Dutch (2)  Spanish (2)  Hebrew (1)  French (1)  All languages (88)
Showing 1-5 of 82 (next | show all)
“Time, like the sea, unties all knots. Judgments on people are never final, they emerge from summing up which at once suggest the need of reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend to console us.”

Protagonist Charles Arrowby, in his sixties, is a retired actor, playwright, and theatre director. He has purchased Shruff End, a home in a small isolated English town by the sea. In an unusual coincidence, he runs into his first love, Hartley, who lives in town with her husband, Ben. He claims that he has born a torch for Hartley for many years. Charles is writing a memoir in which he describes his many lovers, jealousy, search for perfection, and how he has often “stolen” women away from someone else. The storyline quickly focuses on Hartley, and how Charles plans to win her back, thus repeating a pattern he has exhibited for years. A few friends, his cousin, Hartley’s son, and a couple of former paramours find Charles at Shruff End and add to the mayhem.

I interpreted this book as a story of narcissism and self-deception. It quickly becomes apparent that Charles is a narcissist, though the term is not used. He convinces himself that he is still “in love” with Hartley, even after decades have passed and he does not really know her anymore. Charles is the epitome of an unreliable narrator. He writes his view of events, only to contradict himself a few pages later. He says he is going to “try to be good” but rarely succeeds.

I found it intriguing that Charles seems to be trying to fashion his own life into a play, casting himself as the hero, and Hartley as the hapless victim needing to be rescued. Of course, real life does not normally cooperate with such artificial manipulations. And here, the best laid plans are bound to (and do) go awry.

I am surprised at how much I enjoyed this rather lengthy and densely written book, filled with unlikeable characters. Toward the end, the characters respond in unlikely ways to major events, but I was not sure whether these responses were supposed to be real or just the unreliable narrator’s interpretation.

I recommend it for the author’s creative use of language and a convincing portrait of a narcissist. It is probably a “love it or hate it” type book. I am not sure how I missed out on reading Iris Murdoch before now. She was a prolific writer, and I plan to read more of her work.
( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
I’m fairly certain no one writes, or ever has written, exactly like Iris Murdoch. Reading her prose is like listening to Frank Sinatra sing--you might have heard the song before, but never like that. In the first 200 pages of this book, I could not decide where it was going. Charles seemed an egocentric misogynist, not worthy of the interest I was showing in him. The plot seemed desperately thin and a bit all over the place, but the writing was exquisite, the descriptions were musical, and there was something fascinating that meant I never thought of putting the book down.

Then, with a suddenness that was surprising, all the bits began to fall together, Charles became someone intricate and complicated and the plot started to develop into a gripping story of love, obsession, misdirection, mystery and human foibles. Minor characters took on hidden meaning and became central to the story and Charles became someone you could laugh at and cry for simultaneously. I succumbed to emotions that bubbled up like the surf of Murdoch’s raging sea. I felt the tension of the situation, I struggled to think how it could be resolved and leave anyone intact, I worried for the sanity of everyone involved, and I mourned for the things that might have been if any of these characters had lived life with their eyes open. If there is one thing I could say is unique in Murdoch’s writing, it is that you feel her story as much as read it.

”It’s not an eternal thing, nothing human is eternal. For us, eternity is an illusion. It’s like in a fairy tale. When the clock strikes twelve it will all crumble to pieces and vanish. And you’ll find you are free of her, free of her forever, and you can let the poor ghost go. What will remain will be ordinary obligations and ordinary interests. And you’ll feel relief, you’ll feel free. At present you’re just obsessed, hypnotized.”

How much of life is exactly that? Obsession and invention. How often in life do we substitute our realities, our possibilities, for dreams, which are unreachable? Is it worth anything to us if we recognize the truth of love when life is all but done? And how much like the ever-changing, unfeeling, often cruel sea, is life? Charles romanticizes both, and plays a dangerous game with both, and each of us must decide for himself if the price Charles pays is worth the knowledge he gleans.

Charles is a complete character. He grows and morphs, despite all his efforts not to. And, while he is growing, so do we. This is the only Murdoch I have ever read, but I have no hesitation in labeling her “genius”.

( )
  mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
Bleurgh. This is both good and awful at one and the same time. Charles Arrowby has retired from the stage to a coastal house (in my head Cornwall, but it's not made explicit). He intends to write his memoires in some form, and starts with writing a diary. We hear a reasonable amount about the women in his life, from his first love Mary (called Hartley to distinguish her from the many other Marys in the class) through Clement, Rosina, Lizzie and others. In this sense he is a thoroughly bad hat. Just when you think that you're going to read his memoirs, the diary format gets derailed by his coming across Hartley, a now married woman who has also retired to the same locality. At this point he conceives the idea that he still loves her and the rest of the book is a set of ridiculous attempts to win her back (he fails, as he dammed well deserves to). He is pretty thoroughly unlikeable. He takes it into his head that Hartley's marriage in unhappy and that she is a fantasist, I think the pot is calling the kettle black there. In my estimation, Hartley is the only woman who left him, he seems to have tired and moved on from all the others, and this is at the root of his scheme.
He ends up alone, and deservedly so.
Having said all that, the writing and description is really impressive. The descriptions are vivid and she really gets inside Charles' head - it's just not a very nice place to be. He was a chore to read, the prose less so. A compromise 3 stars. ( )
  Helenliz | Apr 21, 2022 |
Review at 74%:

Astaga. I've had this book on my curiosity list for awhile and read some reviews. I've expected it to be great but I've never anticipated the madness after madness I'd be presented with. Ini salah satu, kalau bukan fiksi paling racun dan psycho yang pernah aku baca. Hampir semua tokohnya miring dan ganjil dengan caranya masing-masing (kecuali barangkali Titus). Frustrasi parah bacanya. Sebagai pembaca biasa aku cenderung mengharapkan bahwa protagonis memiliki kualitas-kualitas redeeming. Perasaan mendukung protagonis untuk meraih tujuannya biasanya adalah salah satu pendorong utama aku untuk terus mengikuti cerita sampai akhir. Jarang-jarang aku baca cerita dengan anti hero sebagai tokoh utama. Tokoh yang sintingpun sering kali masih cukup menarik simpati untuk didukung. Tapi bagaimanakah Iris Murdoch bisa menawan pembaca dengan tokoh utama Charles Arrowby yang begitu egois, narsis, kurang ajar, delusional, manipulatif, tukang bohong, jumawa, senang membendakan wanita, dan hobi memaksakan kehendak? Awalnya aku tersentuh dengan kedalaman cinta Charles untuk salah satu tokoh, tapi itupun dimanifestasikan dengan beracun. Jujur, sepanjang membaca aku senantiasa mencibiri pilihan-pilihan Charles dan terheran-heran dengan kelakuan SEmua orang, tapi aku selalu penasaran kebejatan apa dan siapa lagi yang akan terjadi. Buku ini hampir hampir alien dan jarang relatable, sekaligus sangat realistis, karena seberapapun aku ingin menyangkal, pada kenyataannya semua orang sedeng dengan cara yang berbeda-beda.

Review at 100%:

GILA. Satu hal, aku merasa sangat terpikat sekaligus ga nyaman sama ceritanya karena hubungan antara tiap-tiap tokoh adalah mimpi buruk aku tentang kehidupan sosial. Sering banget di tengah aku baca aku membatin 'takut banget ( )
  qonita | Mar 21, 2022 |
Can't believe I'd never read an Iris Murdoch novel before this one. It was better than I could have imagined. It is very funny, the descriptions of Charles's mad meals and various farcical situations he gets into. The characters are colourful and unpredictable and the whole thing thing just plays out wonderfully.

I re-read this after 5 years and it was still marvellous. Charles is such a monstrous character, so self-centred. But then all his friends are fairly awful too, but all oh so entertaining. This is a new copy after my tatty second hand one fell lost its cover and fell apart. ( )
  AlisonSakai | Nov 8, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 82 (next | show all)
The book that finally won Iris Murdoch a Booker is at least as ludicrous as it is brilliant...The surprise isn't so much that she failed to scoop the prize three times in a row, but that a jury managed to unite behind one of her books – especially one as variously sublime, ridiculous, difficult, facile, profound and specious as The Sea, the Sea....So there it is, a book that has left me thoroughly divided. It's as flawed as it is wonderful and it took a brave jury to give it the prize. Or, at least, a very forgiving one.

» Add other authors (18 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Murdoch, Irisprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ascari, Fabriziosecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Baena i Garcia, LauraTraductorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Barrs, NormanNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Burnside, JohnIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Guastavino, Marta I.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jacobi, DerekNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Johnson, DaisyIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kinzie, MaryIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kiuchi, TatsuroIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sutherland, JohnIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vance, SimonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Windfeld-Hansen, KarinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Rosemary Cramp
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The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine.
The chagrin, the ferocious ambition, which James I am sure quite unconsciously prompted in me was something which came about gradually and raged intermittently.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English


Iris Murdoch's extraordinary exploration of human nature shines with intricate detail. WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY JOHN BURNSIDE When Charles Arrowby retires from his glittering career in the London theatre, he buys a remote house on the rocks by the sea. He hopes to escape from his tumultuous love affairs but unexpectedly bumps into his childhood sweetheart and sets his heart on destroying her marriage. His equilibrium is further disturbed when his friends all decide to come and keep him company and Charles finds his seaside idyll severely threatened by his obsessions.

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Book description
Charles Arrowby, leading light of England's theatrical set, retires from glittering London to an isolated home by the sea. He plans to write a memoir about his great love affair with Clement Makin, his mentor, both professionally and personally, and amuse himself with Lizzie, an actress he has strung along for many years. None of his plans work out, and his memoir evolves into a riveting chronicle of the strange events and unexpected visitors-some real, some spectral-that disrupt his world and shake his oversized ego to its very core.
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Legacy Library: Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch has a Legacy Library. Legacy libraries are the personal libraries of famous readers, entered by LibraryThing members from the Legacy Libraries group.

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