The Sea, The Sea has become one of my top five favorite books and Iris Murdoch one of my favorite authors.
In The Sea, The Sea, we meet arrogant, snobbish Charles Arrowby, a retired London theatre director. Charles has recently bought a house by the sea where he hopes to finish his pretentious autobiography. Many things happen, however, to disrupt this enterprise.
First, Charles discovers that one of the small town's inhabitants is his very first love, a love who disappeared from his life in his teens. Believing her to symbolize his lost youth and innocence, Charles becomes obsessed with her almost to the point of madness.
Iris Murdoch's books are all excellent studies of relationships and The Sea, The Sea is certainly one of her best. In it, the character of Charles lies at the center of a vast network of complex relationships and interpersonal interactions. Much of the novel is an exploration of how we, ourselves, influence what others eventually come to see about people and how they relate to them.
Although relationships take center stage in this novel, there is much symbolism and even a little of the supernatural. The sea is so ever-present in this book that it almost seems to be a character in and of itself. Charles reacts to the sea in many ways, some benign, some not so benign. The sea, itself, is portrayed as something that is untimately not able to be understood or controlled, much as is life.
Although this book is passionately moral, it is definitely not a treatise on how to behave in a moral fashion. In fact, many of Murdoch's characters could be said to be anything but "moral." The values and consequences portrayed in this book are done with such a skillful hand, that The Sea, The Sea sits head and shoulders above Murdoch's other books, good as they are.
Just like the theatrical world it explores, The Sea, The Sea, is a showy, dramatic and powerfully effective book. It is Iris Murdoch's masterpiece and a huge reward for any reader.