Iris Murdoch The Sea The Sea

Iris Murdoch's (1919-99) nineteenth novel, The Sea, The Sea (1978), won her the Booker Prize in 1979. Tackling themes such as delusion and the falseness of memory, Iris Murdoch's novel is both humourous and disturbing. This article will summarise and analyse themes, characters, and quotes in The Sea, The Sea.

Iris Murdoch The Sea The Sea Iris Murdoch The Sea The Sea

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Table of contents

    The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch: summary

    The Sea, The Sea is the 1978 novel by the Anglo-Irish novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. The book was Murdoch's nineteenth novel and won the Booker Prize in 1978. The book is considered a psychological novel and follows the egocentric Charles Arrowby and his obsession with a former lover. The novel is written in the first-person and interspersed with diary entries from the playwright protagonist.

    The psychological novel is a narrative genre where the reader is given insight into thcharacters' inner thoughts and psychology.


    The protagonist of the novel, Charles Arrowby, retires from his high-octane life as a playwright in London to move into a house by the sea and write his memoir. He loves William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and presents himself as a Prospero of his time. The house he moves to is an old, creaking cottage that appears to have a sinister side to it.

    Prospero is the protagonist of the Shakespeare play The Tempest (1611). Prospero is a sorcerer who finds himself in exile on a tropical island after being robbed of his dukedom. Arrowby likens himself to the character as he sees theatre as an act of illusion.

    After an uncomfortable situation with an ex-girlfriend from London, Arrowby encounters his first love, Mary Hartley Fitch. The pair have not seen each other since their teenage years when Mary 'jilted' Arrowby after he left to go to a theatre school in London. Arrowby develops an unhealthy obsession with Mary; he romanticises their teenage relationship while demonising Mary's current husband.

    Arrowby attempts to kidnap Mary, but his efforts fail farcically and Mary ends up rejecting him completely. Mary's son, Titus, inexplicably moves in with Arrowby and his life begins to regain composure until one drunken night. On the night in question, Arrowby is pushed into the sea. He is rescued, but only to find out that Titus has drowned.

    Arrowby falsely believes that Mary's husband was involved, and his obsession soon resurfaces. He finds out that it was the ex-husband of another one of his former lovers who pushed him. Arrowby begins to feel increasingly isolated and feels his power over his loved ones is waning. When Mary informs him of her plans to move to Australia, Arrowby decides to return to London, humbled slightly by the blow to his ego.

    Iris Murdoch The Sea The Sea, Coast, StudySmarterFig 1. - Iris Murdoch's novel is centred around a playwright moving to the rural coast.

    Iris Murdoch The Sea, The Sea: characters

    This section will take a look at the more prominent figures that feature in Iris Murdoch's novel.

    Charles Arrowby

    Renowned playwright and theatre director Charles Arrowby buys Shruff End so he can retire and write his memoirs. He models himself as a contemporary Prospero, enjoying exile from his previously hectic life in the city. Arrowby has a desire to better himself after living a previously hedonistic life in London's theatre circle. His extensive egotism can be seen as downright delusional and, as the story progresses, so do Arrowby's delusions. He is incapable of thinking of others and their feelings, leading to his obsession with his first love, Mary Hartley Fitch.

    Hedonism is a theory where enjoying pleasure is a core motivation for human beings. To be hedonistic is to try and experience pleasure as much as possible.

    Mary Hartley Fitch

    Mary was the first love of Charles Arrowby. She is now in her sixties, and she is unrecognisable from the teenager he once knew. She is now a stout woman, who one character describes as 'the bearded lady'; but, her changed appearance does not change Arrowby's desires which he calls 'pure' ('History'). She is unhappily married to a man named Barry, and their occasionally tense relationship drives their son, Titus, out of the house. Mary rejects Arrowby's advances and decides to move to Australia.


    James is Charles Arrowby's cousin and, although only in the book fairly briefly, is an important character in Arrowby's life. After serving in the army and being stationed in Tibet, James returns converted to Buddhism. James is very much the opposite of Arrowby. He eschews sex and materialism and claims he can regulate his own body temperature, which once helped him survive a snowstorm. Arrowby sees James as a somewhat saintly figure.

    The Sea, The Sea: analysis

    Arrowby is a fan of Shakespeare and prides himself on the idea that his self-inflicted exile is like that of Prospero in the Shakespeare play The Tempest (1611). There are similarities between The Tempest and The Sea, The Sea. Prospero is an exiled sorcerer who manipulates the lives of others. Arrowby sees the theatre as a form of sorcery and wishes to control the lives of those around him much like the sorcerer. The sea is also prominent in both the book and the play with narrative importance to both protagonists.

    Iris Murdoch The Sea The Sea, Shakespeare, StudySmarterFig 2. - Shakespeare was a big influence on Arrowby, who prides himself as a modern Prospero.

    The distinction between Arrowby and his cousin James can be seen as a battle of ideals. One character chooses art and decadence while the other chooses religion and chastity. Arrowby's dedication to art can be seen as the root of his inherent 'badness', while James' devotion to a more spiritual life can be seen as a symbol of his 'goodness'. Theatre and the arts can be interpreted as deceptive while Buddhism is a search for a higher truth.

    The novel is written in the first-person point of view from the perspective of Charles Arrowby, and it sometimes switches into diary entries. The subjective nature of the first-person perspective makes it an ideal point of view to present Arrowby's egotism. Arrowby is highly self-involved and gives little attention to the other characters in the book. Rather than take notice of their words and actions, Charles chooses to focus on his fantasy version of the characters instead.

    Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea: themes

    This section will look at the recurrent themes in Iris Murdoch's novel.


    Delusion features heavily in Iris Murdoch's novel and most notably in its protagonist, Charles Arrowby. Arrowby is delusional about himself and those around him. His delusions go as far as envisioning a monster in the sea outside his window. Arrowby believes the monster is a representation of his inner evil. He also has more sinister delusions; he holds his charms in great esteem to the point where he refuses to believe that Mary Hartley does not want to be with him. Arrowby's delusions drive much of the novel's plot.


    Iris Murdoch's book explores ideas about what one remembers and how their memories can change over time. Each character in the book seems to create false memories. Arrowby has moved to Shruff End in order to write his memoirs which also alludes to the book's exploration of memory. Arrowby's nostalgia increases when he encounters his first love, Mary. He creates false memories of the past to imagine an idealised fantasy of his present.

    Saints, sinners and morality

    Much is made of the dynamic between good and evil and the question of morality. Arrowby's cousin, James, is presented as a saint and a symbol of good while Arrowby himself can be seen as a sinner. His actions in the book and what is alluded to about his past life in the theatre suggest that he is deceptive and often unkind. Arrowby's move to the countryside is an attempt to become a better person, but his journey to goodness is often obscured by his own bad behaviour.

    Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea: quotes

    This section will look at some quotes from Iris Murdoch's novel with a brief description of how they support the book's themes.

    Most of what we think we know about ourselves is pseudo-knowledge. We are such shocking poseurs, so good at inflating the importance of what we think we value. ('Prehistory')

    In this quote, Arrowby questions the vanity of humans and their uncanny ability to delude themselves. Where Arrowby is referring to humanity in general it becomes clear as the novel progresses that Arrowby deludes himself more than others.

    What a queer gamble our existence is. We decide to do A instead of B and then the two roads diverge utterly and may lead in the end to heaven and to hell. Only later one sees how much and how awfully the fates differ. ('Prehistory')

    In this quote, Arrowby reflects on the nature of morality. Arrowby recognises previous behaviour as bad and realises that, now he is older, his behaviour could have severe consequences.

    Loose ends can never be properly tied, one is always producing new ones. 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. ('Postscript')

    In this quote, Arrowby discusses how even the past can change. He feels that one's personality changes over time and their reflections on the past will change also. This reflects the book's theme of the inconsistency of memory and how one's opinions of the past can alter.

    The Sea, The Sea - Key takeaways

    • The Sea, The Sea (1978) is Iris Murdoch's (1919-1999) nineteenth novel and won the 1979 Booker Prize.
    • The novel concerns the story of Charles Arrowby who moves to the rural coast to write his memoirs.
    • Charles Arrowby is a retired and renowned playwright who led a decadent life in the theatre.
    • The book explores themes such as delusion, memory, and the question of morality.
    • The novel is told in the first-person perspective to reflect its protagonist's egotism.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Iris Murdoch The Sea The Sea

    What Is The Sea The Sea (1978) by Iris Murdoch about?

    The novel is about delusion, memory and the question of morality.

    What is the plot of The Sea, The Sea (1978)? 

    The plot of the novel is about a playwright who moves to the countryside where he encounters his first love.

    Where is Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea (1978) set?

    The Sea, The Sea (1978) is set in a fictional northern town by the coast.

    When was The Sea, The Sea (1978) published?

    The Sea, The Sea (1978) was published in 1978 and won the Booker Prize in 1979.

    Who wrote the novel The Sea, The Sea (1978)?

    Iris Murdoch wrote the novel The Sea, The Sea (1978).

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