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The Sea, The Sea – Andy feels he’s entitled to an opinion, at least…

December 1, 2014

In the ANRC inaugural year, Netty and I, at my suggestion, read Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince. In hindsight the only reason I suggested it, rather than her Booker Prize winner, The Sea, The Sea, must have been that The Black Prince was (marginally) shorter. And again, in hindsight, this might have been a stupid idea. I suspect Netty and I both would have appreciated this one quite a bit more. They are similar, in a lot of ways, but I think Murdoch had perhaps refined some of the ideas she was trying to explore by the time she got to The Sea, The Sea.

One of those ideas, I think, was what is today known as “male entitlement”. This way of understanding sexism and misogyny has probably been around for decades but I’ve only really become aware of it in the past few years. Germaine Greer explains misogyny by saying that every man hates every woman; Naomi Woolf explains misogyny as a function of capitalism. The idea that men simply believe women have particular roles to play in their lives, and that they are entitled, as men, to have those women play those roles, is something that in itself requires an explanation. But as a starting point, it makes more sense than hatred and capitalism.

And as a portrait of male entitlement. I doubt you’ll find anything more eyeboggling than The Sea, The Sea.

theseatheseaFor great swaths of the novel, perhaps its vast majority, its narrator, Charles Arrowby, is delusional. Delusional might be polite. Stark raving bonkers might be more accurate. Much of this delusion has its foundation in his sense of entitlement – mostly towards one particular woman, although his entitlement is not restricted to that one woman. It extends, pretty much, to every woman he’s ever known. But, for the purposes of this blog, one woman in particular: his first (and according to him, his only) love, who, as the novel opens, he hasn’t seen for close to fifty years.

Arrowby is a retired actor/playwright/director; most of his professional life has been spent in the last role. He thinks of himself as famous, and while he is certainly well known he is probably not nearly as big a name as he thinks he is. In retirement, in the mid- to late seventies (the novel was published in 1978) Arrowby buys a dilapidated home on an isolated patch of English coast, expecting to write … something, undisturbed by the past. The past, obviously, has other ideas, and he is disturbed on a number of occasions by former theatrical acquaintances – and ultimately by the reappearance of that first, long-lost love.

Initially I was going to pepper this blog with spoilers, but perhaps I’ll try to avoid them. Suffice to say that Arrowby’s attitude towards Hartley – or Mary Fitch, as she’s known when he finds her again, both of them nosediving towards old age – betrays a breathtaking level of both entitlement and delusion. There was one point, mid-novel, during which he (spoilerish) holds Hartley against her will for a few days, where I had to put the book aside fairly regularly. This is the point at which his lunacy is at its height. His inability to understand how ridiculous his actions are, and the pain he is causing not just Hartley but others, is kind of scary.

There are other elements to the novel, obviously, and as I predicted in my previous post about Murdoch’s The Nice and the Good, “the sea” plays an important role, although I strongly suspect that, like most of her novels, rereading more closely would reveal further depths. For now, though: very early on Charles sees a sea monster rise from the waves as he relaxes on the coastal rocks that surround his home; this sighting distresses him deeply, and makes him wonder if he’s having an LSD flashback. The sea monster reminded me of the UFO the twins see in The Nice and the Good, but in this case I suspect it’s an indicator of Charles’s mental instability (it probably has a deeper philosophical significance, but this was beyond me on one reading). The sea plays another, perhaps darker role, although it’s related – the water is dangerous, and unpredictable, and sometimes lethal. I guess “the sea” as a symbol of the depths of Charles’s delusion is pretty much on the money.

Buddhism is once again referenced here, although I think those who (and they exist) believe this novel is Murdoch giving Buddhism the nod are as wrong as those who read The Bell and think she’s there giving Christianity the nod. She’s not, in either case. She is using different religious beliefs as a way to explore philosophical ideas. There is a character in The Sea, The Sea, Charles’s cousin James, who is very similar to Uncle Theo is The Nice and the Good – both are or have been Buddhist, to one extent other. (Curiously I don’t remember there being anything remotely “Buddhist” about The Black Prince, which Murdoch wrote in between). What I think Murdoch takes from Buddhism is the idea that the pursuit of perfection is pointless. Buddhism takes that further: pursuit of perfection, or indeed any sort of satisfaction, in this life is pointless, and once we have grasped that we reach Nirvana – the perfection of oblivion. I don’t think Murdoch is terribly interested in the spiritual side of these musings.

Hartley – Mary Fitch – is married. Apparently the marriage is unhappy, although given our delusionally unreliable narrator exactly how unhappy is hard to guess. But even taking Charles into account, it doesn’t seem to be the best of worlds. And yet: Hartley, Mary, is inclined to believe that the not-best she has is preferable to the fantasies of Charles’ (and her) adolescence. Charles is convinced perfection is achievable; Hartley knows better.

The novel closes with Charles, rather less mad than for most of what’s come before, striving towards some sort of self-awareness. But he is probably the least successful of all Murdoch’s protagonists in getting to that point, and this is probably her greatest achievement: 500 plus pages of male delusion, and entitlement, almost completely convincing, that, at its end, is still not really resolved.

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