What Do I See in The Sea, the Sea?

Author Iris Murdoch loved art.  In fact, she often incorporated it into her writing.  I just finished reading The Sea, the Sea this morning, and this novel was no exception: she mentions two paintings in particular.  Both paintings are in London’s The Wallace Collection.  The first is Franz Hal’s The Laughing Cavalier who is not really laughing, of course, but is certainly smiling.  The second is Perseus and Andromeda.

While it may appear that the first painting is mentioned only as a reason for the main character, Charles, to having visited the museum, in fact it is as evocative as the second:

Besides not really smiling, in all likelihood, neither was the subject a cavalier.  Charles, the protagonist of this novel, is a retired actor, thus he is used to “being” something he is not as well. That is probably the theme of this book: things are never what they appear to be.

The second painting, then, is this:

In the story, Charles sees a sea monster. He wonders if it is merely a flashback from an LSD trip, but he’s not sure. The question is, who is the monster? Who needs saving? Who is the one doing the saving? I think Charles would think HE is the one trying to save Hartley, the woman he loved and lost when he was young. When he moves to the seaside, he inexplicably encounters this woman after decades of no contact. She is married and has clearly moved on. Hartley has aged, and she is not the sort of woman Charles has been known to date. Charles, despite his age, is still a sought-after man.

There is this cycle of love where a person loves someone who loves someone else, which sounds a bit like a Shakespearean play. Fitting, isn’t it, for a stage actor?

Longing builds this novel, and I couldn’t resist blogging on it because it is such a direct example of ekphrasis. I really can’t say much more, in case you haven’t read the book. But think on these things, think about the paintings, and know that’s what Murdoch wanted you to do.

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