Iris Murdoch presents The Sea, the Sea to us in the form of a journal. The author, Charles Arrowby, is one of those lonely, socially upward men that lately J.M. Coetzee has excelled in describing; he is a somewhat famous actor and director who has retired to a creaky old house on a rocky promontory next to the sea. He tells us that he had decided to get away from London life once and for all, and to simply watch what remains of his life unwind before him. (Arrowby’s friends have their doubts that he can do it.)
He also has vague ambitions to write a memoir, but his jottings start out unserious. For about 50 pages he muddles around, discussing his difficulties climbing out of the water and onto the steep, tide-battered rocks, the physical attributes of his new home and its environs, and his mother and father. In this section, Murdoch is admirably true to the journal form that she has selected. Rather than jump into a narrative, she gracefully dangles a few questions before us (most notably, an actress hopelessly in love with Arrowby and some mysterious, idolized love from his youth) while giving her narrator enough room to thrash around and become bored. A lovely example of this comes near the beginning, when Arrowby sets out to describe his new home, but then gets entangled in ramblings on his culinary preferences:
It gradually became clear to me that guzzling large quantities of expensive, pretentious, often mediocre food in public places was not only immoral, unhealthy and unaesthetic, but also unpleasurable. Later my guests were offered simple chez moi. What is more delicious than fresh hot buttered toast, with or without the addition of bloater paste? Or plain boiled onions with a little corned beef if desired? And well-made porridge with brown sugar and cream is a dish fit for a king. Even then some people, so sadly corrupt was their taste, took my intelligent hedonism for an affected eccentricity, a mere gimmick.
These unformed, early sections connote the drift of Arrowby’s life and feel true to a retired man who has suddenly found the urge to write about himself. They make clear that Murdoch has done more than simply frame her book as a journal; she is dedicated to miming the look and feel of such an artifact and exploring how the people who write journals interact with them and how the form shapes whatever narratives they contain.
Importantly, these early sections present Arrowby to us without the life baggage that we will soon find out about—we are given a chance to get comfortable with Arrowby as a somewhat particular but nonetheless enjoyable man before Murdoch unleashes certain facts that will put him into a much darker light. The passages where he goes on about the virtues of simple cooking are almost cute, as is Arrowby’s awareness that all his friends gently mock him for being so particular. It’s important that Murdoch start out by presenting Arrowby like this, because as The Sea, the Sea progresses our tolerance for Arrowby is significantly tested; in my reading, without this initial getting-to-know-you my tolerance for the narrator would have been broken.
Inevitably (this is, after all, a novel) Arrowby’s journal becomes a chronicle of the new course he sets his life on. It’s not long before he receives a letter from Lizzie, an actress slightly younger than him whom he has been stringing along for some time now. It turns out that at some point before the story begins Arrowby tugged the string a bit with a letter to her. Two important things are revealed when Arrowby gets the letter—first, he is far more interested in seeing it than he’d like us to believe, and secondly, Lizzie’s letter is significant because it offers (after nearly 50 pages) our first view of Arrowby from the outside.
In her letter, Lizzie bares her struggles to silence her love for Arrowby, and we can be quite confident our aging actor disdains her outpouring as gushy and feminine even as his ego is massaged by her clear need for him. Lizzie also says a number of things that Arrowby has never implied about himself; notably, she paints him as a womanizer, at one point declaring “you know you can’t keep your hands off women,” which conflicts sharply with Arrowby’s own claim that he has always treated the other sex fairly and is an “unsexed” individual.
Unreliable narrators are of course to be expected in the first-person and even more so in a book like The Sea, the Sea since it comprises a written account that is subject to whatever Arrowby’s sizable ego and fragile memory can do to muddy the waters. Nonetheless, Lizzie’s letter brings up just how crucial unreliable narration is to the fabric of Murdoch’s story. Up to this point Arrowby has alluded rather romantically and deterministically to a first love named Hartley who he idolizes as his only true love. He tells us that when he lost Hartley, all his future chances at happiness in a loving relationship were destroyed as well. He has a number of other women, but they are all sham relationships compared to the incandescence of his love for Hartley.
Shortly after Lizzie’s letter, Arrowby tells us the full story: after several years of an adolescent relationship, this love ended when, at 18, Arrowby was left by Hartley for no apparent reason. Not long after Arrowby makes this admission, he dramatically discovers that by moving to his present home by the sea, he has unwittingly moved virtually next door to Hartley—and her husband of many years.
What occurs next, and what makes up the bulk of The Sea, the Sea is a protracted, slightly bizarre, attempt by Arrowby to break up the marriage and draw Hartley back. Arrowby’s justification relies in large part on his belief that he has proven that Hartley’s husband is a tyrant who keeps her locked into an abrasive, failed marriage. Once again unreliable narration becomes crucial. Though we only know the marriage based on what Arrowby—who has a well-known weakness for jealousy—chooses to tell us, it is nonetheless necessary that we decide the truth about Hartley’s marriage and determine our sympathy for Arrowby’s subsequent actions. How much of Arrowby’s harassment is permitted by the unhappy marriage justification? Do we believe that Arrowby has included everything he knows in his narrative (which is being written as it unfolds)? Has he accurately represented the marriage? Can he even know the full truth about it? These questions are crucial, as they mean the difference between a protagonist as home-wrecker and one who is somewhat justified, although still on shaky moral ground.
For much of this story, our lack of knowledge is paralleled by Arrowby’s. Jealous egotist that he is, he does at times question whether his manner of stealing Hartley is justified and whether he even knows the truth about Hartley’s marriage. Certainly he is working with limited information: Hartley gives him precious few details about her own life; moreover, she steadfastly (but in a manner that perhaps implies domination by her husband) refuses to leave her marriage.
Here is the crux of The Sea, the Sea: Does Arrowby’s imperfect information plus his pre-existing weakness for leaping to conclusions let us conclude that he’s a fundamentally decent person whom we are seeing at his absolute worst? Or, is Arrowby simply a malignant old man trying to steal someone else’s happiness?
Regardless of where one comes down on this question, it is true that Arrowby will test a reader’s sympathy. He is certainly one of the more disagreeable narrators I’ve read of late, and one of the challenges that Murdoch has as a novelist is staying true to Arrowby in all his distastefulness while leaving enough room for us to like him and keep him on as a narrator. (At one point, despite Murdoch’s lovely prose and engaging plot twists, I was on the brink of putting the book down and forever concluding my relationship with Arrowby.)
There’s also the fact that The Sea, the Sea is more tragedy than comedy. In a burlesque we might simply laugh at Arrowby and not care how scummy he is, but here Arrowby’s life is set as tragic. We have to care enough about him that his suffering is poignant, otherwise Arrowby’s story is simply ugly. I think that in the end Arrowby just barely remains sympathetic through the worst he can show us, and after that nadir he manages to sufficiently redeem himself to let us like him in a certain manner and let Murdoch conclude the novel.
In a way, The Sea, the Sea is simply “about” deciding whether or not we like Charles Arrowby and watching Murdoch keep us off balance long enough that we get to find out, but in another way this novel is a thorough explanation of the way love perverts one’s life.
In her letter to Arrowby, Lizzie tells him that after a difficult personal struggle she has finally managed to quiet her love for him. She is deeply afraid of letting that love rise again and begs Arrowby not to impose himself on her. She knows that it will waken “forces which I commanded to sleep.” Yet, she can’t simply leave Arrowby alone: she hopes that they can “love each other, but not in a way that would destroy me.”
The obvious irony here is that the old cad Arrowby gets a dose of his own medicine when his love for Hartley is awakened and almost destroys him, but I think in her exploration of love Murdoch is after more here than this simple demonstration of the Golden Rule. Arrowby’s and Lizzie’s stories have one important difference: whereas Lizzie’s entrapment is designed and provoked by Arrowby, Arrowby’s own entrapment comes about by an astonishing coincidence: he happens to move right next door to Hartley. This is so amazing that, in fact, it strains credulity. How could it be that Arrowby, who searched in vain for Hartley for years after she left him, would just happen to move next door to her late in life? Is it coincidence or fate? Much in The Sea, the Sea points toward the latter.
Throughout this novel there is a strong current of mysticism, although it is a very skeptical mysticism, one that is always quickly, but not convincingly, discounted. Early in the story, Arrowby records that he becomes terrified when he sees coil up out of the sea a horrible monster that looks like a giant, 30-foot eel. Eventually he puts it down to a flashback occasioned by his use of LSD once when he was younger, but the impression of something else remains. (Moreover, there is later evidence that the creature may exist.) Later, Arrowby is half-convinced there’s a poltergeist in his home when items start mysteriously breaking, but this turns out to be an old flame entertaining herself with a bit of playful malarkey.
As these instances of something otherworldly slowly pile up like parts of some neo-Gothic novel, Arrowby’s older cousin James arrives at the house to bring the greatest mystical heft into the novel. James has spent a great deal of his live traveling through Tibet while in the military; a Buddhist, he is deeply enmeshed in the ancient religious traditions he discovered there (his collection of artifacts is coveted by English museums), and yet he also says that things like the Indian rope trick or being able to change body temperature by force of will are simple “tricks” that anyone can learn. At one point the sea almost claims Arrowby’s life—it is James who saves him, and Arrowby’s clouded memory of the event leaves open the possibility that James utilized some sort of supernatural intervention.
Seen in the light of all these instances of possible mysticism, one can choose to believe that the amazing coincidence of Arrowby moving next door to Hartley is yet another one of these ambiguous brushes with the mystical. It’s possible that what appears to be a clunky coincidence—the one flaw in an otherwise marvelously structured novel—is in fact quite purposeful. Perhaps in making Arrowby’s rediscovery of Hartley inexplicable, The Sea, the Sea is telling us that there are certain things about love that we simply can’t know. The novel may be positing love as a force with its own logic, a logic of which we only see a small part, just as we only see a limited part of the mind that comprises Arrowby.
In addition to telling Arrowby about the Indian rope trick and Tibetan mysticism, James also tells him about bardo, a sort of otherworldly holding pen for souls in between their trips on the wheel of life. It’s pretty explicitly stated that Arrowby’s life in between leaving London and re-discovering Hartley is a sort of earthly version of bardo, one that applies to lovers in between trips on the “wheel of love.”
In other words, when we find Arrowby at the start of The Sea, the Sea, he is in a lonely, painful sort of place that he is destined to eventually be released from. This isn’t the only indication of bardo in The Sea, the Sea. At the novel’s end, after a short period of quiet solitude after Hartley, there’s some indication that Arrowby will again take another ill-fated venture on the wheel of love. Also, over the course of the narrative a number of other of Arrowby’s friends (the most obvious of whom is Lizzie) all travel along their own arcs, falling in and out of love
If one takes the parallel between the wheel of life and the wheel of love seriously, then this is further evidence that something is manipulating Arrowby’s love behind the scenes. Perhaps it is something mystical, but perhaps it is simply the unseen logic of a world too complicated for any one person to comprehend. All the arcs of love that occur throughout The Sea, the Sea are linked; all are dependent for their own completion on the actions that other people make while completing their own circuits. In that light, there is the possibility that the coincidence that brings together Hartley and Arrowby is mystical or earthly. In this beautiful, richly complex novel, Murdoch leaves open the possibility for either or both, but I wouldn’t say she leaves open the possibility for neither.
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