The Sea, the Sea; A Severed Head

The Sea, the Sea; A Severed Head


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These two major novels—by one of the most influential British writers of the twentieth century—are ferociously dark comedies that combine playfulness with profundity.

A Severed Head (1961) is one of Iris Murdoch’s most entertaining works, tracing the turbulent emotional journey of Martin Lynch-Gibbon, a smug, prosperous London wine merchant and unfaithful husband, whose life is turned inside out when his wife leaves him for her psychoanalyst. The story takes bedroom farce to a new level of sophistication, with scenes that are both wickedly funny and emblematic of the way momentous moral issues play out in everyday life.  

The Booker Prize–winning The Sea, the Sea (1978) is set on the edge of England’s North Sea, where egotistical Charles Arrowby, a big name in London’s glittering theatrical world, has retreated into seclusion to write his memoirs. Arrowby’s plans begin to unravel when he encounters his long-lost first love and finds himself increasingly besieged by his own fantasies, delusions, and obsessions.
Both novels are tragicomic masterpieces that brilliantly dramatize how much our lives are governed by the lies we tell ourselves and by the all-consuming need for love, meaning, and redemption.

Introduction by Sarah Churchwell

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101907665
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Pages: 696
Sales rank: 533,463
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

IRIS MURDOCH (1919-1999) was born in Dublin and brought up in London. She studied philosophy at Cambridge and was a philosophy Fellow at St Anne's College for twenty years. She published her first novel in 1954 and was instantly recognized as a major talent. She went on to publish more than twenty-six novels, as well as works of philosophy, plays, and poetry.

SARAH CHURCHWELL is Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of East Anglia. She is the author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe and Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby. She writes regularly for New Statesman, The Guardian, and The Times Literary Supplement, among other publications.

Read an Excerpt


In Iris Murdoch’s 1973 novel The Black Prince, a popular writer named Arnold Baffin defends his regular production of books he knows are not as good as he’d like them to be: ‘Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea. The years pass and one has only one life. If one has a thing at all one must do it and keep on and on and on trying to do it better.’ Character here presumably speaks for author, although one also suspects that poor silly Arnold Baffin’s platonic conception of a perfect idea is probably less perfect than he thinks. It’s a good bet that Iris Murdoch’s perfect ideas were better.

A published philosopher whose first book was the first book in English on Jean-Paul Sartre, Iris Murdoch wrote novels of ideas about love, as well as the occasional love letter to ideas. Obsession is everywhere in her fictional landscape, but characters are as likely to be obsessed with art as with sex. Adulteration is the game: nothing remains pure, certainly not fidelity to other people, or to social conventions, even the most deeply held. Her characters are most faithful to their conceptions of themselves, which are almost never shared by those around them. In her essay ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited’, Murdoch wrote that the most important thing for a novel to reveal, ‘not necessarily the only thing, but incomparably the most important thing, is that other people exist’. It was a point she made repeatedly outside her fiction: ‘In the moral life the enemy is the fat relentless ego,’ as she wrote in ‘On ‘‘God’’ and ‘‘Good’’ ’.

Although Murdoch consistently denied that her novels explored her philosophical preoccupations, the project of forcing flawed protagonists to see beyond the blinkers of their own egotism defines most if not all of her twenty-six published novels, among which two of the best are A Severed Head (1961) and The Sea, The Sea (1978). Both are narrated by self-regarding middle-class men with aspirations to aesthetic mastery. Fastidious and complacent, less wise and less kind than they like to think, they find their lives thrown into turmoil by their inability to recognize the agency, and desires, of those around them. These desires are always in part, but never exclusively, sexual: they are also a will to power. ‘Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,’ Murdoch declared in her essay ‘The Sublime and the Good’. ‘Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.’

But Murdoch’s novels are not merely cerebral exercises in ideas about moral philosophy, ethics and aesthetics, although those ideas shape her fiction. They are also shot through with the dark energies of occult forces, variously figured as Eros, the id, the unconscious, the repressed, the monstrous, the supernatural, the libidinous: all that the conscious mind cannot comprehend stalks her hapless protagonists, as their precarious fantasies of control are exposed for the delusions they are. Murdoch’s fictional experiments, as admirers like A. S. Byatt have written, fuse realism with the mystical, producing a very English magical realism at the point where nineteenth-century realism meets myth and fable. The cosmos of Murdoch’s fictional world does not remain mapped out in neat constellations, but magnetically contracts into accidental formations that bear a suspicious, if factitious, resemblance to myth.

Pattern comes through myth and symbol, as well as through the symmetries of plot that Murdoch loves: her characters dance an eighteenth-century minuet, promenading, dividing, recombining, and dividing again. If the presence of occult forces implicitly resists verisimilitude, so do her configurations. Murdoch’s books are metafictional in their insistence upon their own fabricatedness: her voice does not intrude, but her patterns bewilder and amuse, estrange and surprise, reminding us that realism is not the same as the real, but something more artful, systematic, arranged. Harkening back to Shakespeare and Restoration comedy, her carefully ordered plots suggest we are all marionettes on a string, playing our part in foolish charades. People spin, entangle, loosen, but are rarely freed from the Gordian knots their desires create. What feels to the characters like the forces of contingency battering away at them is just as likely to be their author’s implacable design, creating ruthless comedies of manners, and various manners of comedy. Around her intricate plotting orbits satires of art and morality, accountability and guilt, ethics and erotics.

Truth is not the same thing as realism, Murdoch tells us again and again: ‘People lie so, even we old men do,’ as the narrator’s cousin tries to tell him in The Sea, The Sea. ‘Though in a way, if there is art enough it doesn’t matter, since there is another kind of truth in the art.’ But pattern may also have its own immanent truths, a hierophant’s sense of the divine made manifest.

For Murdoch, artistic form was a temptation and compensation, a remedy for the contingent messiness of life, but also a consolatory falsification. She wrote that the novel was caught between the ‘journalistic’ and the ‘crystalline’, the loose baggy monster that Henry James saw in the nineteenth-century novel, and modernist experiments in controlled, limited artifice. Form, for Murdoch, is a kind of totem for modernist art, a guardian spirit which cannot be lost but must not be fetishized, and never mistaken for truth: form is the shadow on the artist’s cave. Plato’s prisoners watching shadows dancing in the back of a cave may come to admire the dark beauty of the shadows themselves, terrible as a revelation. Artistic design creates a bulwark against erotic extravagance; it produces a kind of moral blueprint, a metaphysics that can imagine, without believing in, necessary gods.

Murdoch has been compared to Henry James more than once in her interest in the moral consequences of relationships, of romance and society. Her sense of social and psychological satire owes much to his, as when her protagonist in The Sea, The Sea chooses The Wings of the Dove to read, ‘another story of death and moral smash-up’. But James’s careful social realism is quite alien to Murdoch’s sense of the ludicrous in her plotting, the sheer pleasure she takes in her own designs, while her willingness to tell her story from the viewpoint of her protagonists’ immoral casuistries is like reading The Portrait of a Lady from the perspective of Gilbert Osmond.


One such figure is the appalling Charles Arrowby, the complacent centre of The Sea, The Sea, which won the Booker prize in 1978. A failed playwright and actor, the tyrannically selfish Charles only found success in the theatre as a director, when he could exert his will over those around him (indeed he announces early on that any director who isn’t dictatorial isn’t doing his job). Charles fancies himself a Prospero, an old sorcerer abjuring a life of power and magic, but Murdoch gradually reveals that his most successful tricks were practised on himself. Charles has retired to a house by the sea, where he intends to write his memoirs. Insisting upon his need for solitude, he is irked when no letters come from his friends, and decides with characteristic high-handedness to summon a former lover, Lizzie, who once played Ariel to his Prospero, to keep house for him. He treats women as useful labour-saving devices, explaining, for instance, that he never learned to drive as long as he had girlfriends around: ‘Why keep bitches and bark yourself?’ He confesses that he has been accused in the press of being a ‘power-crazed monster’, a charge of which he sounds slightly proud. Like the narrator of A Severed Head, Charles is convinced of his own tenderheartedness, but Murdoch carefully shows the rage, misogyny, and jealousy that fuel his self-absorption.

Charles is obsessively logical, he thinks, but his conclusions are always absurdly flawed, because they are based on false premises – usually, his own centrality or infallibility. He reminds some readers of Edgar Allan Poe’s narrators, whose compulsive attention to detail at first appears rational and only gradually reveals itself as a species of madness. That Charles is trying not to see something grotesque in himself is signalled from the book’s opening page, as he sits self-importantly pondering what form his book should take: is it a memoir, an autobiography, a journal, a diary, philosophical musings? ‘To repent of egoism: is autobiography the best method?’ Charles wonders, like a man staring in the mirror to determine whether he is narcissistic. He describes his book as ‘this creature to which I am giving life and which seems at once to have a will of its own’. The will of others is something to which Charles can never reconcile himself, and it erupts in the fantastical vision of a sea serpent, reminding Charles of a bad LSD trip he once had. An indescribable vision appeared, something that ‘concerned entrails’, and was ‘morally, spiritually horrible, as if one’s stinking inside had emerged and become the universe: a surging emanation of dark half-formed spiritual evil, something never ever to be escaped from’. Charles’s own half-glimpsed, half-formed and not-quite-repressed darkness will drive the tale to come. Readers argue over what the serpent represents: is it his own monstrous egotism, the reality principle, the truth he denies? But that’s the beauty of symbols, even monstrous ones, the way they can multiply, rather than reduce, meaning. Some might even think that’s the only kind of symbol worth bothering about.

One by one characters from Charles’s past intrude upon his present, demonstrating a persistent sense of autonomy and agency that he finds deeply irritating. They all inform Charles at various times of precisely what his problem is, but his inability to recognize their accuracy is symptomatic of his failure: ‘You don’t respect people as people,’ Lizzie bluntly informs him early on, ‘you don’t see them, you’re not really a teacher, you’re a sort of rapacious magician.’ That ‘rapacious’ is crucial. Charles announces that, like Prospero, he will ‘abjure magic’, but what Shakespeare’s Prospero abjures is ‘this rough magic’. Charles never sees the roughness and rapacity in his will to magic; because his facile identification with Prospero consistently ignores the disquieting, unscrupulous aspects of Shakespeare’s magician, he never owns the darkness that Shakespeare’s Prospero must acknowledge for the story to end: ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’

Once Charles discovers that his long-lost love Hartley, with whom he has remained obsessed for the forty years since she left him (he admits with a pride some would consider misplaced), lives with her husband just up the road, he is overwhelmed by the compulsion to reverse the past. He becomes a kind of demented Jay Gatsby, determined to undo the choices of the woman he is certain must still love him, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. What he calls loyalty, others would call mania – not to mention stalking, breaking and entering, and even kidnapping: when Hartley resists his efforts at rescuing her, Charles simply locks her up.

During her captivity Hartley reasonably observes that Charles’s professed adoration for her is actually just rage that she left him: what he has been nursing is not devotion, but a grudge. ‘It’s resentment really,’ she points out, ‘otherwise you wouldn’t be so unkind.’ His response is to tell her that she has forced him into ‘a position where I have to play the bully, which is the role I detest most of all’. Charles Arrowby may be the biggest bully in the twentieth-century English novel. When he finally realizes he shouldn’t have kidnapped Hartley, it is only to conclude that his mistake was in locking her up: it was a strategic error, not a moral transgression. Charles’s solipsism is universalizing, embracing all before it: ‘What we talked about I will now recount, since some of it is relevant to my situation,’ he explains at one point, before adding: ‘Indeed, now I come to think of it, nearly everything in the world is relevant to my situation.’

The question Murdoch leaves the reader with is whether Charles ever undergoes what The Tempest calls a sea change, and finds redemption. Charles believes he does, and some critics have followed suit: but Charles has rarely been right about himself before. And, tellingly, his ‘memoir’ has become a novel: ‘So I am writing my life, after all, as a novel ! Why not? It was a matter of finding a form, and somehow history, my history, has found the form for me.’ Perhaps because everything Charles thought he knew about his world was always his own fiction. He has taken refuge in the fantasy of control that is magical thinking: otherwise known as fiction, making people up. As his cousin James wisely remarks: ‘We cannot just walk into the cavern and look around. Most of what we think we know about our minds is pseudo-knowledge.’ And at the edge of the known world, there be monsters.


Another self-satisfied male narrator opens Murdoch’s earlier novel, A Severed Head, contemplating the perfection of his life: Martin Lynch-Gibbon believes himself ‘the luckiest of men’.He has a wife, Antonia, whom he loves, an elegant house they have created together that he treasures, and a younger mistress, Georgie, of whom he is certain his wife is unaware.  Antonia is seeing a therapist, and Martin returns home from a liaison with Georgie to discover that Antonia has been seeing the American psychoanalyst Palmer Anderson in more senses than one: she is leaving Martin for him. Palmer and Antonia’s union proves merely the catalyst of a series of symmetrical couplings and recouplings, as nearly every heterosexual pair in the novel gets a chance to come together, and a poisonous sibling rivalry is mirrored by intense incestuous desire. Although the comedy of both novels plays games with Freudianism, A Severed Head burlesques it.

But it is also, with far less irony, impelled by post-Freudian understandings of human drives and perceptions, as libidinous and uncanny forces are unleashed. Soon Gothic energies infuse what opens as drawing-room comedy (as happens to a lesser degree in The Sea, The Sea). A sense of mysterious or even sinister foreboding gradually develops; domesticity becomes nightmarish, as erotic tension swings into physical and emotional violence; figures associated with enchantment and spells bring the grotesque and demonic into the tale. In the case of A Severed Head these energies come with an anthropologist named Honor Klein, Palmer Anderson’s half-sister, whom Murdoch once described in an interview as a ‘power character’, an image of the ‘demonic energy’ she often saw in the world: ‘there is a great deal of spare energy racing around, which very often suddenly focuses a situation and makes a person play a commanding role. People are often looking for a god or ready to cast somebody in the role of a demon . . . I think people possessed of this kind of energy do come in and generate situations.’

The situation that Honor Klein – a name that means little honor – generates is the liberation of Martin Lynch-Gibbon’s primal instincts: hatred, fear, lust, rage, the need to dominate. Murdoch represents Honor always enshrouded in darkness, and the titular severed head is associated with a ritual sword Honor keeps on hand, suggesting the Medusa’s head, as Martin’s brother Alexander, a sculptor who specializes in heads, explains: ‘Freud on Medusa. The head can represent the female genitals, feared not desired.’ Martin demurs from such popular Freudianism, retorting: ‘Any savage likes to collect heads.’ The joke, of course, is that Alexander, a sculptor, Honor Klein, an anthropologist, and Palmer Anderson, a psychoanalyst, are all head-hunters. The highly ‘civilized’ world of bourgeois England is savagely collecting scalps, too; primitive desires and fears have not been eradicated, the unconscious has not been tamed; neither totems nor taboos suffice to control the primal. The severed head thus also suggests the ghost in the machine, the Cartesian cogito that cannot be separated from the darker forces of unconscious will and desire. The rational self cannot operate apart from the irrational, despite Alexander’s fantasies of artistic control: ‘All the same, heads are us most of all, the apex of our incarnation. The best thing about being God would be making the heads.’ Martin disagrees, seeing not godlike but monstrous forces at work. Looking at his brother’s embryonic sculptured heads, Martin reflects: ‘This particular moment has always seemed to me uncanny, when the faceless image acquires a quasi-human personality, and one is put in mind of the making of monsters.’

Some of the images Murdoch uses in 1961 for the savage and exotic forces that run as an undercurrent through domestic English life will work less well for audiences today than for Murdoch’s original readers. The most obvious of these is the way in which much of Martin’s initial distaste and ultimate desire for Honor Klein is refracted through her Semitism, so that Martin often pictures Honor in terms of supposedly Jewish features: ‘Her short straight oily hair, a lustrous black, sat like a cropped wig about her pale rather waxen Jewish face.’ Honor’s Jewishness functions as a sign of her dark exoticism, the mystical aura of the occult and demonic that she brings into Martin’s ordered life. But it also becomes a kind of fetish, a textual tic: ‘Only the curve of her nostril and the curve of her mouth hinted, with a Jewish strength, a possible Jewish refinement.’ It is hard to know how Jewish strength or refinement is meant to differ from other kinds; reading A Severed Head fifty years later makes one conscious of the degree to which such easy, even cosy, anti-Semitism has been gradually undomesticated and estranged since the novel’s publication.

Like his brother, Martin has his own fantasies of rational control. He has decided to be ‘virtuous’ about the breakup of his home, but as Georgie soon informs him, he is being what today we would call passive aggressive. ‘I suspect you of wanting to play the virtuous aggrieved husband so as to keep Palmer and Antonia in your power,’ she tells him. Honor Klein sees the same motivation at work: ‘You are heroic, Mr Lynch-Gibbon. The knight of infinite humiliation.’ But Martin’s fury keeps erupting: he hits Georgie, reflecting afterwards that he had never before hit her in anger, which might leave us wondering what other moods he’d hit her in. He attacks Honor, in a blind (if allegorical) rage, and then writes three versions of his letter of apology, one of which he promises to keep short: ‘It is enough to have assaulted you without boring you into the bargain.’ With his saving grace of self-deprecating humour, Martin is probably the more likeable of the protagonists in these two novels, which may be why he is  awarded a happier ending. Martin has a persistent, wry awareness of other people, as when he facetiously laments the inconvenience of others’ agency: ‘What I really wanted most just then was to put Georgie in cold storage. It is unfortunate that other human beings cannot be conveniently immobilized. Do what I might, Georgie would go on thinking, would go on acting, during my absence and my silence.’ Charles Arrowby, for instance, never quite realizes as much.

Attention, awareness, the simple recognition of the existence of the other, comes to seem a form of love, and thus a form of morality. Inattention is not quite a sin, for this is a world in which such concepts are meaningless, or at least superseded: ‘I cannot imagine any omnipotent sentient being sufficiently cruel to create the world we inhabit,’ declares Martin, speaking, one suspects, on behalf of his own creator. But if not a sin, inattention, like projection, is a form of moral misprision.

And it is a misprision by which the cultural memory of Iris Murdoch has increasingly been shaped. As a cultural figure, Murdoch has shared something of the posthumous fate of writers like Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf: the drama of her life contends in the public imaginary with her own work. Memoirs by her husband John Bayley and Richard Eyre’s film Iris, in particular, defined her life around the poles of her defiant insistence upon following her sexual desires where they took her, and the later years in which her great mind was shattered by Alzheimer’s. The cerebral image of philosopher-author is first subverted by the erotic exhaustiveness of her life, before the final, tragic twist of the assault by dementia, destroying her at the very source of her power. There is something mythical about such a fate, the terrible black poetry of it, which might almost belong in one of her novels, and reverberates out.

But her art teaches us to continue to recognize her selfhood, the mystery and irreducibility of it, and to see morality in such an effort. All of her novels explore the contest between love and art as conduits to truth, and the ways in which contingency contends against form. Does art redeem? Does love? Or do we keep confusing our misunderstandings with metaphysics? Contingency is frightening, as all Murdoch’s characters know, capricious, unpredictable; but it is in the hazards of the fortuitous that life reveals itself. Love is also contingent, unpredictable, hazardous. Good art, Murdoch also said, is ‘the highest wisest voice of morality, it’s something spiritual – without good art a society dies. It’s like religion really – it’s our best speech and our best understanding – it’s a proof of the greatness and goodness which is in us.’ Although Murdoch parses the grammar and traces the limits of love, she never stops believing in its moral force, or the spiritual potential of art. Art is impossible, so is love. And the only possible moral choice is to continue trying to achieve both, knowing that they are  impossible. Despite our perplexities, our deceptions and blindnesses, we can faintly apprehend something more, something greater and deeper than the shadows on the cave. And one of the places we can find it is in the best novels of Iris Murdoch.
SARAH CHURCHWELL is Chair of Public Understanding of the Humanities and Professorial Fellow in American Literature at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

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