“I think being a woman is like being Irish… Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the time.”
― Iris Murdoch
Feminism, as is the nature of social movements, is powered by its writers. But what happens when a woman writer is not regarded feminist enough? Iris Murdoch began to get published around the same time second wave feminism took off and she has been accused of not being a woman writer, but a writer who happened to be a woman. While most people would be left wondering about that distinction, it is a very serious accusation in the literary and academic world.
This is probably why I had scarcely heard a mention of Murdoch until this January, when I discovered an academic paper on her. Later on, I picked up Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea on a whim. Actually, not a whim – I picked it up for its title. I love an atmospheric novel and what best to read a chunky book set on a frosty British coast, while battling the humid heat in Chennai. Also, my recent addiction to Booktube might have led me to judge it solely based on its absolutely gorgeous cover.
Charles Arrowby, the protagonist of The Sea, The Sea, is recently retired from the Theatre. He is a celebrity in a world where cinema still lacked the label of serious Art. Though he willfully left the theatre world behind him, theatre was not ready to let him go. His friends keep dropping in and we realize that Charles is romantically connected to almost all the women who appear in the novel. But the turning point in the novel comes when Charles meets Harley, his childhood sweetheart, from before his theatre days. From then on begins an obsession that proves to be the undoing of many.
So why isn’t Murdoch feminist enough? One reason is that Murdoch herself shied away from that label; she didn’t want to be associated with any ‘-isms’. Secondly, her protagonists were all usually male and the female voice isn’t given any particular importance. Her books aren’t Greek myth retellings either (retellings are in vogue again – 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlisted two of those!). But as Murdoch says in an interview, her fiction is about the human condition. If feminism doesn’t figure in the human condition, I don’t know what does. So, I would say that Iris Murdoch is a feminist writer, knowing full well the difficulty of defining those terms satisfactorily.
The novel is about a man so obsessed with a woman that he pulls apart his whole world for it before he realizes the futility of it all. The scared and confused Harley would be the anti-thesis of a ‘feminist’ heroine, but the decision at the end of the novel is solely hers. Staying with an abusive husband might not be the best choice, but it is her choice, regardless. Charles, who sees himself as Hartley’s messiah, is shocked when he realizes that Hartley does not want him. Though the novel isn’t from Hartley’s perspective, Hartley’s will and her voice is more than heard.
The characters, plot and the setting also harks back to a genre called gothic fiction. I believe that The Sea, The Sea can be considered a feminist retelling of the Gothic novel. A literary genre that was extremely popular in the 19th century and the most famous gothic fiction is probably Bram Stoker’s Dracula, followed by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. As the critic Maggie Kilgour explains, gothic fiction is usually identified by its stock properties than by its essence. These novels were set in dark and mysterious places, far removed from anything ordinary – like haunted medieval castles. Similarly, Arrowby’s strange, creaky house and the ocean around it, lend it an air of mystery, danger and isolation. This effect is heightened with the appearance of certain fantastical elements early on in the story. The main consumers of Gothic fiction were women who might have had a sadistic interest in seeing beautiful, virtuous, young women being held captive by ruthless villains, which was a major trope. This is where The Sea, The Sea becomes a rewriting of Gothic fiction. Though a very confused and almost senile Hartley is held captive by Charles for days on end, she never submits to his demands and finally it is the ‘villain’ who gives in. Arrowby, the villain in the juxtaposition is definitely not ruthless, because he is aware of his actions, but tries hard to justify them with his immense love for Hartley. This makes his character ambivalent and therefore unclassifiable as a stock villain.
The novel essentially questions the idea of love and marriage and never for once, glorifies Charles’s obsession. The novel, among other things, frees Hartley from Charles’s rosy, childhood memories and transforms her into a person in her own right. Hartley’s story escapes the trappings of male discourse, the same reason why feminist retellings exist.