Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 29, 2020

The Sea, The Sea, by Irish Murdoch, winner of the Booker Prize in 1978

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

The Sea, The Sea, by Irish Murdoch, won the Booker Prize in 1978.

July 19th, 2003

The narrator of The Sea, The Sea is Charles Arrowby, an unreliable narrator extraordinaire! He’s an aging actor/director, who decides to retire to peaceful solitude by the sea, a fantasy beloved of so many. He buys a horrid little house called Shruff’s End which is besieged by damp and void of amenities such as electricity and heating. Still, in summer the sea is lovely, and the weather is warm, and all seems well…

Murdoch’s specialty is irony, and before long the reader becomes aware of Charles’s egocentric view of the world. It takes only a little longer to realise that he is subject to delusions and powerful obsessions. He thinks that the whole theatrical world will be at his door disturbing him – and when they fail to turn up – he goes up to London to invite them!

Alas, they all come at once, the very weekend he plans to abduct his childhood sweetheart from her husband. Hartley Smith, now Mary Fitch, was as innocent childhood love (or so he tells us), and when she ‘just happens’ to live in the same village, his love for her is rekindled and he determines to rescue her from her ‘brute’ of a husband (who turns out to be handsome, and rather heroic, having done something very brave in the war).

By now, about half way through the book, the reader isn’t sure whether any or all of the visitors are an illusion. Is Hartley real? Is she some other woman he has attached his fantasies to? Absurdity piles up on absurdity. Are we really meant to believe that Charles keeps Hartley locked in one room while he sleeps in another, content with minor fondlings? That James, Gilbert, Lizzie, Peregrine and Titus are all sleeping in serious discomfort in this bizarre household so that they can help him in his crazy conspiracy? And mad Rosina, is she real?

Well, finer minds than mine may make something else of it, but I don’t think so. I think that Charles is down on his luck and can’t afford his old lifestyle as work dries up. He has a romantic view of solitude but loneliness, drugs and cheap wine work together to form a soup of wild delusions. I think he’s incapable of having a relationship with anybody and that it’s significant that most of the characters (if they ever did actually exist) ‘disappear’ one way or another.

Did I like the book? I think it’s a bit long and could have done with some of the editing that Murdoch reputedly resisted. I became rather weary of Charles (as I think I was meant to do) but the interminable conversations with Hartley were irritating, and the ending was disappointing. I’d have liked Charles to get his comeuppance!

I finished reading and journalled this book on 19.7.03


  1. Hi Lisa

    It is a long time since I read this book and I am a big fan of Iris Murdoch, but like you, The Sea, The Sea left me feeling a bit frustrated and in fact cheated by the author. The unreality of it all becomes rather a bore before one is half way through the text. It all fizzles out in the end, with nothing really achieved, not just by Charles, but by Murdoch. This book is always highly rated in Lit. Crit., but I rather suspect the Booker award was more of a career achievement award in a rather thin year of entries. There are at least half a dozen of Murdoch’s books that are far better than this. My personal favourites would probably be The Bell, closely followed by The Black Prince, the latter being a much better example than The Sea, The Sea of writing about people from the past coming back to haunt the main protagonist; however, I must admit I haven’t reread any Murdoch for at least a decade, so I can’t be certain what I would feel today.

    Do keep them coming Lisa; you are always thought provoking.


    • Hello Chris, and thank you!
      By what you say, I’m lucky: I didn’t let this one put me off and went on a quest to find more — which was much harder in those days but I kept haunting the Op Shops — and so ended up reading The Book and the Brotherhood; The Nice and the Good; and yes, The Bell, and I have five more on the TBR including The Black Prince. Obviously I should get round to read it!


  2. I read this book shortly after it won the Booker Prize and I have to admit that I was very disappointed and struggled to finish it. I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember that one critic suggested it should have been called “The Tedium, The Tedium”.


    • Oh that is too cruel…
      I hear what you say, and I bet you are not alone, but sometimes, critics are indulging in a bit of payback against colleagues in the industry when they critique a win… it seems to me that sometimes what they say is more of a criticism of the judges. But it’s also about
      the old chestnut about accessibility and literary merit which was at play with the Booker Prize for a while.
      We in Oz had a little flirtation with that too when booksellers made it onto the judging panel of the Miles Franklin. (There are booksellers and booksellers, of course, and I’d trust the judgement of some, but not of others who are clearly unfamiliar with literary fiction.)
      The sad fact is that awards need sponsors and few sponsors want to be associated with ‘difficult’ books that don’t sell. This is why Gerald Murnane has never won the MF but has won the Melbourne Prize which has a very different stance about the kind of books it values.


  3. I read this in 2003 too, and I have very positive memories of it. One thing I remember liking, besides the writing, was Charles’ self-delusion. I think I like self-deluded characters. (Perhaps you should not enquire too deeply why!)


    • LOL Sue, now you’ve got me thinking!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think I have weird tastes in characters!!


        • I like reading weird and peculiar characters, but not sleazy or vengeful.


          • I don’t mind reading those characters, as long as I don’t have to meet them! :)


            • Hmmm, I don’t like being inside their minds…


              • Fair enough. I’m rather interested in minds so different to my own – but I seem to be able, mostly, to distance myself. There are limits of course.

                Liked by 1 person

                • It depends. If it makes my mind feel soiled, I don’t want to go there. We probably share the same limits: I would never read Mein Kampf or jihadist materials, or anything to do with paedophilia, for instance, not even for research purposes.


                • No, certainly not written by extremists or paedophiles, in which there’s assumption that what they are doing is right, in which there’s glorification in what they are doing.

                  Liked by 1 person

  4. This was the first (and I confess, only) Murdoch I read (and that was a long time ago) but I have memories of thoroughly enjoying it and in fact always kept the copy as a result. I don’t know why I haven’t read more of her work quite honestly. My “too read” list is getting out of control! Like Sue above, I do remember rather liking the main character Charles! (Sue, you’re not alone there!)


    • Maybe one of our English blogging friends will have an Iris Murdoch Week and then we’ll all have a good reason to read more of her.
      Oh wait, was she Irish? Maybe Kim at Reading Matters with her love of Irish Lit will do it?


      • Keep twisting arms Lisa – an Irish Murdoch week would be great!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hmm 🤔 I can’t even manage to participate in other people’s reading weeks much less organise one myself 😆 I’ve not read her before but was tempted by the recently reissued Vintage Classics because they looked so pretty!


        • I’ll take that as a maybe, then?


          • I was actually thinking of doing a Text Classics week as an incentive to read all the ones I have sitting here.


            • Now that’s a very good idea, count me in. I have at least three that I can see on the TBR…


  5. Charles Arrowby is such a delusional character – those meals he concocts that he thinks are wonderful, sound revolting to me. I enjoyed the book, as preposterous as it was ..

    Liked by 1 person

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