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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Sea, the Sea

Iris Murdoch

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To purchase The Sea, the Sea

Title: The Sea, the Sea
Author: Iris Murdoch
Genre: Novel
Written: 1978
Length: 502 pages
Availability: The Sea, the Sea - US
The Sea, the Sea - UK
The Sea, the Sea - Canada
The Sea, the Sea - India
La mer, la mer - France
Das Meer, das Meer - Deutschland
Il mare, il mare - Italia
  • Awarded the Booker Prize, 1978

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Our Assessment:

B+ : much of it well done and well told, but doesn't fully convince

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 1/1979 Phoebe-Lou Adams
Christian Science Monitor . 8/1/1979 Alexandra Johnson
The Economist . 18/11/1978 .
FAZ . 14/11/2000 Harald Hartung
New Statesman . 25/8/1978 Malcolm Bradley
The NY Rev. of Books . 8/2/1979 Rosemary Dinnage
The NY Times Book Rev. B 17/12/1978 Martin Greenberg
The Observer . 3/8/2013 Sophia Martelli
Saturday Review . 6/1/1979 Margaret Drabble
Time . 30/10/1978 .
TLS . 25/8/1978 Michael Irwin
Yale Review . Spring/1979 Maureen Howard

  From the Reviews:
  • "Doch was folgt -- immerhin gut 500 Seiten --, demonstriert zwar Iris Murdochs Virtuosität, ihre Fähigkeiten, Knoten zu schürzen und zu sprengen, Fährten und Spuren anzulegen und wieder zu desavouieren - aber eine tiefere Teilnahme will sich nicht einstellen. Selbst die Szenen des äußersten Schmerzes, ausgelöst durch den Ertrinkungstod eines Jungen, sehen uns als distanzierte Betrachter. Warum läßt mich das kalt ? fragt man, während man nervös, zwischen Unlust und Spannung, weiterliest." - Harald Hartung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Is it a genuine voice ? Not enough of one, I fear. Arrowby's dryness is really an unconvincing literary device. (...) The Sea, the Sea tends toward the doughy. There is the genuine weight of obsession in Arrowby's narrative, but also the mere weight of iteration and ingenuity." - Martin Greenberg, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Murdoch's subtly, blackly humorous digs at human vanity and self-delusion periodically build into waves of hilarity, and Arrowby is a brilliant creation: a deeply textured, intriguing yet unreliable narrator, and one of the finest character studies of the 20th century." - Sophia Martelli, The Observer

  • "The author renders her immorality play with painstaking attention to atmosphere: the changing hues of the waves, the slippery amber rocks, the strangely damp house are all made palpable. The old scandals are shrewdly reexamined, and Murdoch's style is as saline as the sea below. Still she remains better at surfaces than at sounding depths." - Time

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Sea, the Sea is told by Charles Arrowby, a sixty-something actor, director, and playwright of some renown, recently retired. He has bought a place by the sea -- Shruff End, "upon a small promontory" --, hoping to abandon his old world and life. Writing is part of his escape: he pens his memoirs cum diary, recounting past and present. Past, it turns out, intrudes into present far more than he hoped.
       The house he bought is solitary and dilapidated. There isn't even any electricity. But it suits his purposes.
       Two things, above all else, preoccupy him: the sea (a central character throughout), and food. Many a menu is described by the would-be gourmet, though Arrowby's tastes differ greatly from most who highly value their food. But he enjoys himself.
       Arrowby never married (though there were quite a few women in his life) and he has almost no family. He does have quite a few friends, however, and ex-lovers, who aren't quite willing to let him fade from view. A steady stream of visitors eventually makes its way to his house; there are even a few bottlenecks, as Murdoch crowds the scene.
       The most significant person, however, is one who had disappeared from Arrowby's life long ago: his lost first love, the woman he wanted to marry but who fled. It turns out that she -- Mary Hartley -- lives nearby. She is married, to Ben, but Arrowby believes she can not be happy with this simple man and becomes obsessed with saving her. A further complication arrives in the form of Titus, Ben and Mary's adopted son -- who Ben believes is actually Arrowby's son. Titus ran away from home and school, but reappears on the scene.
       Arrowby doesn't fit in particularly well among the town people, but he prefers to live in his odd isolation anyway. Still, he can't quite let go of his past -- even before he stumbles across Mary -- and his past won't let go of him either. Lovers, friends, and others come to bother him. He does his best to shoo them away, but the house fills up steadily. One friend -- Gilbert -- even becomes his "house-serf", which proves quite convenient.
       Among the visitors -- occasional and repeated -- there are also the devoted (and occasionally obsessive) Lizzie and Rosina. There is Peregrine -- like most of the rest also an actor. And there is Arrowby's cousin James, an unlikely military man who is also a Buddhist.
       Arrowby's own obsession, with Mary, becomes the driving force to all his actions. He won't accept that they can't be together, and an odd psychological drama plays itself out. Arrowby, who usually can get any woman he wants to do his bidding, finds he has a harder time here.
       The sea is nearly ever-present -- at least as background, and occasionally as foreground. Characters do fall (or are pushed) in. Monsters are seen. Life is lost. And it is even responsible for re-births, of sorts.
       Actor Arrowby finds drama high and low -- and melodrama, and farce. Shruff End turns out only to be a stage for all this to be played out on, over the course of a few acts; at the end Arrowby shuffles off and retires from it as well.

       The Sea, the Sea is an odd tale, veering dangerously towards the melodramatic. Arrowby's passion for Mary -- now plain, and settled in a different lifestyle, decades removed from the girl he loved -- comes very close to being beyond believable. Much of the action is slow, the drama somewhat artificial -- though admittedly reasonably done by the stage-managing Arrowby, who once wrote plays, who achieved fame for his direction. But he almost always only played bit parts in his greatest success, and here he is at the centre.
       Arrowby writes grandly much of the times -- Murdoch the stylist does not disappoint -- but parts of the story are a bit much for this character to carry. There are interesting scenes and characters (though some of his actor-friends are a bit rich). Parts of the novel are superb: the beginning, the toned-down postscript, and bits throughout. But the centre, Arrowby's obsession with his old flame and the actions it causes him to take, does not fully convince.
       The Sea, the Sea is a fine novel, if ultimately somewhat disappointing. It does have a great deal to offer, but isn't a full success.

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The Sea, the Sea: Reviews: Iris Murdoch: Other books by Iris Murdoch under review: Books about Iris Murdoch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
  • See Index of Philosophy under review

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About the Author:

       Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) studied at Oxford and Cambridge, and was a fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford. She published twenty-six novels and won the Booker Prize in 1978.

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