“In a quiet surreptitious way I am feeling very pleased with myself”
The above quote perfectly encapsulates the journey Arrowby and I have been on the past fifty pages. Largely because it is a bold faced lie. Let’s rewind.
The few days of slightly cooler weather and traditional London grey skies have set the perfect backdrop for my reading of The Sea, The Sea this week. Arrowby’s tales of loneliness, sorrow, self-hatred and mourning for the past have decorated pages fifty through one-hundred. He has spent the past pages much as he did the first fifty; swimming in icy water (though now with the new addition of a safety rope), eating purposefully ridiculous meals, and doing anything to avoid beginning his autobiography.
What at the beginning seemed to be a habit for purposefully lofty writing, Arrowby’s long descriptions of Shruff End, the town’s inhabitants, and his meals, now appear to be avoidance tactics. He seems to be doing everything in his power to avoid writing his autobiography.
Whilst he provides us with some details, they are continuously vague, and paint no real picture of the man himself. Instead, we receive pages upon pages about the terrible local cider, and the mysterious goings on in his house.
Despite this determination to not write about his past, Arrowby stumbles into revealing personal details eventually, and “quite suddenly” as he knew he would if he “just waited.” He reveals the name of his grandfather, and begins to detail the members of both his maternal and paternal sides.
Arrowby’s familial descriptions are haunted by the ghost of his father. He proclaims him “the gentlest being I have ever known.” These pages are a sort of love letter to the man who raised him. A man who Arrowby found much of himself in.
We learn of his Father’s brother, Abel, and his family, who develop into a reflection of Arrowby’s own. They too are made up of a husband, wife, and only son. Yet, they move through life in an incredibly different manner. Abel’s family move up through society, with their son James experiencing the finest education, holidays, and much to Arrowby’s annoyance, pony riding lessons.
Arrowby reflects the misgivings of his own family onto Abel’s. Through his description of his cousin’s family we see Arrowby’s deep love for his own father, his fear of his strict mother, and his longing for a better education and easier life. In true Arrowby fashion, we find these details between the lines. He continues to be deathly afraid of divulging any specific personal details about himself.
Sure, we learn about his life in the theatre, his torrid relationship with a woman named Clement, and his heartbreaking misuse of Lizzie’s tireless love. But these stories merely feature himself as a caricature. We never learn how he was truly feeling in these moments. We simply hear how people reacted to him. The Arrowby he has constructed is a shell of a man. In fact, it is only on page thirty-seven that we receive a physical description of himself.
I am left wondering what is causing this refusal to truly let the reader in. Is Arrowby so pained by his past that he refuses to even write it down? If so, is it his actions or others that has caused this scarring? Or, is Arrowby so lost, that he doesn’t even know how to describe himself? Has his life in the theatre, endless affairs, and death of his father left him a caricature of himself? A character he cannot connect with?
I cannot decide which of these two options would be more intriguing. Perhaps it is a combination of both.
However, there is some evidence that the latter option is true. Arrowby appears to flip flop between being self aware to the point of deprecation, to being a complete and utter tosser. This is particularly seen in his response to receiving Lizzie’s letter.
We find out that Arrowby and Lizzie shared a relationship many years ago. He was initially attracted to her due to her love for him, as “her love impressed [him], then attracted [him].” Lizzie appears to have spent the majority of their time together in tears, with Arrowby keeping her at arm's length at all times. He uses the excuse of having a deep, childhood love that he is still not yet over, in order to fend off her attempts at marriage and declarations of love.
In his solitude at Shruff End, Arrowby has written to Lizzie offering to meet with her. Her response is seven pages of gut-wrenching emotion. She “cried and cried” as she read his letter and “felt faint with joy and fear.” Lizzie is tortured by her undying love for Arrowby, and years later, is still reeling from their affair. She lives with a friend and has given up all hope of finding love. In her letter, she pleads with Arrowby to either let her go or commit to her completely. She claims, “I love you so much - only I can’t put my head into that noose.”
Arrowby’s response to this is to both recognize his awful actions towards Lizzie, but cruelly joke about her misery. He recognizes that he has “neglected her” and has “even been cruel” but posits this “could be called a sign of love.” He daydreams about the perfect situation for them both, wherein she plays the role of the “ageing ex-concubine in a harem who has become a friend … this need not preclude occasional love-making. In fact, the harem situation would suit me to the ground.”
It is as if he is unsure of how to act. At times, there are glimpses of guilt for his actions. At yet others, he seems to get some kind of perverse joy at Lizzie’s squirming. He even goes as far to ask himself “why do I enjoy writing this down?” in the midst of explaining her sorrow. Arrowby seems entirely confused on what his emotional response would be. How would his character act in this scene? The director has not yet decided.
Ultimately, the next fifty pages of The Sea, The Sea detail the slow descent into madness of a man who was already so far above reality. Arrowby is terrified of his past and completely unsure of his future. He speaks grandly, strongly even, but each sentence is underpinned by a deep fear. Of what? I am not yet sure.Yet I am sure that Arrowby does not know either.
Any appreciation or appeal I found in Arrowby’s character in my last entry has disappeared. His treatment of Lizzie has solidified himself in my mind as a pompous idiot. Whilst his memories of his love for his father softened me slightly, he must serve me a mighty redemption arc if I am to feel pity for him again.
I am filled to the brim with questions for the next fifty pages. Despite my dislike of Arrowby, The Sea, The Sea has completely grabbed me. Murdoch’s writing is rich and delightful. I find myself lost in the world she has created, smelling the mould on Arrowby’s floor boards and the sour taste of his expensive wines.
Where will Arrowby go next? I am unsure. But I am certain it will contain a lot of moping, tinned fish and a string of heartbroken starlets.
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