Book Specs

Author: Iris Murdoch
Publisher: Vintage
Publishing Date: 1999
Number of Pages:  502 pages
Genre: Psychological Fiction, Philosophical Fiction


The sea: turbulent and leaden; transparent and opaque; magician and mother.

When Charles Arrowby, over sixty, a demi-god of the theatre – director, playwright and actor – retires from his glittering London world in order to ‘abjure magic and become a hermit’, it is to be the sea that he turns. He hopes at least to escape from ‘the women’ – but unexpectedly meets one whom he loved long ago. His Buddhist cousin, James, also arrives. He is menaced by a monster from the deep. Charles finds his ‘solitude’ peopled by the drama of his own fantasies and obsession.

My Thoughts

When I have resolved to dedicate September as my Man Booker Prize Month, the first book that came to my mind was Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea. I experienced difficulties in availing a copy of the book but I never relented because it is one of those books that I am very eager to delve into. I barely had any iota on what the book was about back then! But why do I want to avail a copy of the book? Well, after encountering the book in numerous must-read lists, my curiosity was inevitably piqued. Thankfully, earlier this year, my search finally paid off as I was able to purchase a copy of the book through on online bookseller.

To be honest, my expectations of the book were quite high even though it barely hit the 4-star mark in Goodreads. So as not to spoil myself, I didn’t read any of the reviews before reading (which is something very usual with me, all things taken into consideration). My impression of the book is that it would be a fancy tale about the sea. But barely did I know that I was pretty much off the mark. Here is my take on Murdoch’s anus mirabilis.

“Time, like the sea, unties all knots. Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend in order to console us.” ~ Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea

The Sea, The Sea relates the story of Charles Arrowby. After years of working in the theater, he finally decided to retire from the glittery world of the theatrical arts and retreated to Shruff’s End, a house on the coast that he purchased with his very meager savings. He was hoping to enjoy the tranquility while enjoying his retirement. But his peace is short-lived as one unexpected event after the other kept taking place. It is just that he cannot escape his past. The biggest wager was when the only woman he loved appeared after she abandoned him when they were still young. And then everything started going south.

For a start, I was astonished at how completely different the plot was from what I imagined it to be. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant surprise because it was deeper than I thought. Obviously, the centrifugal point of the story is its main narrator, Charles Arrowby. Over sixty-years old, he was  narrating the story in a diary form in his own perspective, writing events as they occur. This form is maintained until the end of the story and is one of its more important facets.

As the focal point of the narrative, Charles Arrowby is a despicable character, an uncle that you would rather avoid because of his idiosyncrasies. There is no superlative that can describe his narcissistic tendencies and his delusional antics. He is insouciant to the opinions of the people around him and too adamant. He continuously kept on building a wall of lies and delusions to enable his deepest fantasies. His ego brought him on the verge of his sanity. He was living in a fantasy that his personal obsession drove him into. To say the least, Charles Arrowby is an intriguing character.

“One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats, and if some of these can be inexpensive and quickly procured so much the better.” ~ Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea

Beyond Charles and his delusions, the plot is filled with thought provoking subjects that veer on the psycho-spiritual. It is a healthy and beautiful mix of contrasting subjects like cruelty and narcissism and acts of supreme generosity; murderous tendencies and spiritual awakenings; and invectives and tender exchanges. The novel is filled with a plethora of subjects that has the tendency to drive the reader into a deep introspection, an examination of himself. I believe that is the beauty of the story. Charles represents everything that we hate about ourselves, the personification of opposite side of ourselves we rarely let others see.

The novel is filled with a lot of melodrama and introspections without being noxious. The superficiality of the theater was transferred to Shruff’s End. Comic and philosophic breathers were interspersed in the narrative to give it a different texture without greatly altering its context. The contextual references between the depth of the sea and the character are obscured but once dived into, it makes reader realize the ingenuity of the novel. Moreover, the way that Iris Murdoch gave life to Charles Arrowby is an art in itself. She concocted a character that is despicable on the surface but as one dives deeper, one can begin to understand his motivations.

One point in the story that I found appalling is how Charles abuse every woman that loves him. In spite of this, the women he left behind kept coming back at the most inopportune times. Towards the end, everything took shape and eventually I understood this agog behavior. The spiritual and moral awakenings of the characters is one of the novel’s highlights. As the story draws to a conclusion, the narrative percolates into a conclusion where one realizes that in order for one to be good, one must go beyond the selfishness of one’s private self and concern one’s self with others.

With the moral complexity and the depth of the novel, what shines the most is Iris Murdoch’s magnificent story-telling. She was able to take on a different persona and in the end, was able to deliver a narrative that is more than deserving of the 1978 Man Booker Prize Award. The intriguing and deep plot was supplemented by the set of characters who were carefully developed; each possesses a depth that adds up to a wonderfully written masterpiece. Because of this depth, you want to slowly go through the motions to enjoy the waves of emotions and experiences that the novel convey.

“How different each death is, and yet it leads us into the self-same country, that country which we inhabit so rarely, where we see the worthlessness of what we have long pursued and will so soon return to pursuing.” ~ Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea

The Sea, The Sea was contrary to my expectations but it more than lived up to its billing. It is a compelling tale about a flawed and absurd character who, on the deeper end, represents the pits of our own personas. In a sense, the lives we are all living are theaters where everyone plays a role. It is a thought-provoking masterpiece that is packed with critical subjects and the themes. Its exploration of human nature makes one ask what lies beyond the calm surface of the sea. It is a difficult read but it is a very fulfilling one.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Recommended for readers who are looking for a deep and meaningful read, readers who enjoy reading books that explore different aspects of human nature and different personas, readers who like books with psycho-spiritual themes, stories told in the first-person point of view, books set near the sea, and books with absurd characters.

Not recommended for the impatient readers, and readers who prefer shorter stories.

About the Author


(Photo by National Portrait Gallery) Dame Jean Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin on July 15, 1919 of Anglo-Irish parents.

She went to Frebel Demonstration School and, later on, in Badminton School, Bristol. In 1938, she went to Somerville College, Oxford where she started reading classical literature. During the Second World War, she served as the Assistant Principal at the HM Treasury, and then worked with UNRRA in London, Belgium and Austria. After the war, she studied philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge. In 1948, she returned to Oxford, where she became a Fellow of St. Anne’s College.

Iris Murdoch has written twenty-six novels, debuting in 1954 with Under the Net. The book was selected in 1998 as one of Modern Library’s best English -language novels of the 20th Century. She has also written the Booker Prize-winning The Sea, The Sea (1978), The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), The Good Apprentice (1985) and, most recently, The Green Knight (1993) and Jackson’s Dilemma (1995). She has also won several literary awards including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Black Prince (1973) and the Whitbread Prize for The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974). Murdoch has also written several plays including The Italian Girl (with James Saunders) and The Black Price, adapted from her novel of the same name.

In 1976, Murdoch earned a designation as Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Eleven years later, in 1987, Murdoch was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the New Year’s Honours List. Murdoch also received the Gold Pen for Distinguished Service to Literature in the 1997 PEN Awards.

Until her death in February 8, 1999, she lived with her husband, teacher and critic John Bayley, in Oxford.