The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

By Philip Spires February 03, 2018 0

Iris Murdoch’s the sea, the sea is not obviously a ghost story. There are no clichés like clattering chains or bangs in the night, nor even translucent eminences passing through walls. But when Charles Arrowby retires to live alone in a remote cottage on a bluff above an inhospitable sea, he knows that local opinion believes his new home is haunted. A previous occupant, an elderly woman, died there. We must assume that there exist many places on earth where this has happened, so why might this one be quite so special? But, as we progress through the journal-cum-biography-cum-novel that Charles Arrowby writess to record the perceived novelty of his changed life, we are constantly reminded that we hardly need to invent ghosts if our lives are populated by the past. It might be only memories that are needed to haunt us. Charles Arrowby has been in the theatre. His life has been lived in and through the arts. He has rubbed shoulders with actors, even film stars. If he has a weakness, it is not for name dropping. Quite soon after meeting him, one feels that such a character would have a tendency to relive his experiences, to list his successes and deny his failures. But Charles refers only rarely to anything professional, and when he does, it is shot through with merely personal relevance. Eventually we realise that perhaps Charles Arrowby is something of a martyr to his past and that the unfulfilled aspects of his personal life have come to dominate his mind, his present and indeed his future.
He has certainly had many relationships with women, but he has never married. He displays no non-heterosexual inclinations. He claims, however, to have lived a fast lane life, but at the same time there is little evidence of excess in Iris Murdoch’s character. At one stage, admitting he needs a drink, he pours a dry sherry, albeit a large one.
People from the past appear in his life. A neighbour turns out to be an old flame.  Relatives, some long lost, decide to visit. It is almost as if by visiting these people via the pages of his journal Charles Arrowby is conjuring spirits from his memory. Chief among these unexpected encounters, however, is the reappearance of a former lover he suddenly decides has always been his most likely means of achieving happiness. Always he has called her Hartley. Her current husband of decades has always preferred to call her Mary, but Charles persists in using the name he knew her by when they were young and less than innocent, but never consummated.
And it is through this developing fixation on Harley that we begin to appreciate just how unrelenting and unforgiving is the selfishness of Charles Arrowby. He is self-obsessed to the extent that he believes unquestioningly in myths he himself creates, irrespective of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He is dependent on the drug of himself, and seems to need ever-increasing doses to satisfy his obsession. He sees monsters and believes his perception. He is told what is surely true and refuses to accept it.
What becomes so enigmatic about his new life is the fact that people from his past keep reappearing. Some of them try to kill him. Some throw stones at him. Some sleep on his floor and refuse to leave. Some enter his service, and some of those out of spite. Some recall affairs and provoke the stirring of sexual memories. Some demand their pound of flesh for the wrongs he has committed.
All the time, through thick and thin, through contradiction and conflict, however, Charles Arrowby maintains this single-minded devotion to himself and his self-generated need for affirmation. It is almost as if he is captive within his own limitations, unable to break out even when others identify the path or lead the way. And this happens repeatedly simply because he cannot imagine any opinion that might differ from his own conviction.
Perhaps Charles Arrowby’s eventually mundane existence is mirrored in all of us. We believe implicitly in our own sophistication, a quality that others on the outside might not even recognise. We assume our own complexity to the extent that we cannot begin to appreciate another view. But what also arises from this analysis of the self is that when we try to recall the past, we inevitably have to reinvent it. Memory thus becomes imagination and reconstructed reality becomes fiction, but constructed wholly in our own image.


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