Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book
In this hypnotic tour de force of mood, language, and
psychological revelation, the Irish novelist tells the
story of a bereaved man desperately sorting through the
strands of his memorythe memories of his recent loss
and those of the losses that came before it. Those
various strands are by now so intertwined and tightly
knotted that Max Morden doesn't know which of them
causes him the greatest pain. But as Banville's sinuous
narrative plays out, it becomes apparent that Morden is
in danger of being strangled by his memories, especially
by the ones he has invented. If one theme is most
prominent in The Sea, it's the treachery of
memory and the fluidity of the boundary that separates
recollection from fabrication.
In his late middle age, Morden is a sometime art
historian desultorily at work on a book on the French
painter Bonnard. His wife, Anna, has recently died of
cancer, and although their marriage was based on an
unspoken contract of mutual ignorance ("The truth is, we
did not wish to know each other. More, what we wished
was exactly that, not to know each other," p. 159), he
is now half-deranged by grief. His grief has brought him
back to the seaside village of Ballyless, where he used
to spend summers as a child and where, some fifty years
before, he became involved with a family named the
Graces. Max's parents were poor, but the Graces were
wealthy. They rented an entire house, had their own
motor carwith a touring map of France negligently
displayed on the shelf under the rear windowand treated
each other with faintly sardonic indulgence. Max fell in
love with them.
Or, rather, he fell in love with two of them. The first
object of his desire was Connie Grace, a lush,
overpoweringly sensual woman who greeted her children's
new friend by offering him an apple. Max's contact with
her was limited to heartbroken yearning and guilty
spying. Fulfillment came from her daughter Chloe. She
was his own age, and she was blonde, imperious, and more
than a little cruel. She came with her own attendant
spirit, her mute twin Myles. Chloe gave Max his first
kiss. She introduced him to the rapturous humiliation of
the lover whose love is never fully returned. And
finally, she brought him his first experience of death,
an experience so catastrophic that everything he feels
now may only be an echo of it.
The layers of Max's past do not rest neatly on top of
each other like geological strata but rather shift and
overlap like ocean currents. They coexist with the ebb
and flux of a present in which he drinks too much, fends
off his daughter's attempts at caring for him, and
observes the other occupants of his rooming house, the
same house where the Graces once stayed. Banville's
accomplishment is to orchestrate these currents of
memory and perception as deftly as more conventional
novelists arrange plot twists, using them to reveal his
narrator and lay bare the deceptions that lie at the
heart of his consciousness, and perhaps of all
consciousness. The result is a work of symphonic power
whose structural inventiveness coexists with an oceanic
depth of feeling, and whose prose demands to be read out
The Sea is made up of three temporal
layers: the distant past of Max's childhood, the recent
past of his wife's illness and death, and the present of
his return to Ballyless. Instead of keeping these layers
distinctly separated, Banville segues among them or
splices them together, sometimes within a single
sentence. Why might he have chosen to do this, and what
methods does he use to keep the reader oriented in his
novel's time scheme?
Morden frequently refers to the Graces as gods,
and of course the original Graces were figures in
classical mythology. What about these people makes them
godlike? Does each of them possess some attribute that
corresponds, for instance, to Zeus's thunderbolt or
Athena's wisdom? What distinguishes the Graces from
Max's own unhappily human family? Are they still godlike
at the novel's end?
When Max first encounters the Graces, he hears
from the upstairs of their house the sound of a girl
laughing while being chased. What other scenes in the
book feature chases, some playful, some not? Is Morden
being chased? Or is he a pursuer? If so, who or what
might he be pursuing?
Morden is disappointed, even "appalled" [p. 4], to
find the Cedars physically unchanged from what it was
when the Graces stayed there. Yet he is also
disappointed that it contains no trace of its former
occupants [p. 29]. What might explain his ambivalence?
Has he come to Ballyless to relive his past or to be
free of it? Given the shame and sadness that suffuses so
much of his memory, how is one to interpret his sense of
the past as a retreat [pp. 4445]?
"How is it," Max wonders, "that in childhood
everything new that caught my interest had an aura of
the uncanny, since according to all the authorities the
uncanny is not some new thing but a thing known
returning in a different form, a revenant?" [p. 8]. What
might account for this sense of déjà vu? What episodes
in this novel seem to echo earlier ones, and are there
moments when the past seems to echo the future, as if
time were running backward? In this light, consider
Max's realization that his childhood visions of the
future had "an oddly antique cast" [p. 70], as if "what
I foresaw as the future was in fact . . . a picture of
what could only be an imagined past" [p. 71].
How does Banville depict the other characters in
this novel? To what extent are they, as Max suggests,
partial constructs, as Connie Grace was "at once a
wraith of my imagination and a woman of unavoidable
flesh and blood" [p. 65]? Does Max's voice, wry,
self-reflexive, and resplendently vivid, give these
characters an independent life or partially obscure
them? Are there moments when they seem to peek out from
beneath its blanket and show themselves to the reader?
Throughout the novel Max suffers from an
overpowering, all-pervasive sense of guilt. Is this
guilt justified? What are his crimes, or using another
moral language, his sins? Has he managed to atone for
any of his failures or redeem any of his spoiled
relationships by the novel's end? Is such redemption
possible in this novel's view of human nature?
On learning that she is fatally ill, both Max and
Anna are overcome by something he recognizes as
embarrassment, an embarrassment that extends even to the
inanimate objects in their home. Why should death be
embarrassing? Compare the grown Max's shame about death
to his childhood feelings about sex, both his sexual
fantasies about Connie Grace and their subsequent
fulfillment with her daughter.
Significantly, Max's fantasies about Mrs. Grace
reach a crescendo during an act of voyeurism. What role
does watching play in Max's sense of others? Has
observing people been his substitute for engaging with
them? How does he feel about other people watching him?
And what are we to make of the fact that Max is
constantly watching himselfsometimes watching himself
watching others, in an infinite regress of surveillance
Max is a poor boy drawn to a succession of
wealthy women, culminating in his very wealthy wife. Was
his attraction to them really a screen for social
climbing? In loving Connie and Chloe and Anna, was he
betraying his origins? Are there moments in this novel
when those origins reassert themselves?
Why might Max have chosen the painter Bonnard as
the subject for a book? What episodes from the painter's
life parallel his own or illuminate it metaphorically?
Note the way the description of the Graces' picnic
recalls Manet's Dejeuner sur l'Herbe. What other
scenes in the novel allude to works of art or
literature, and what is the effect?
The Sea has a triple climax that features
two deaths and very nearly a third. In what ways are
these deaths linked, and to what extent is Max
responsible for them? Do you interpret his drunken night
walk on the beach as an attempt at suicide? How does
your perception of Max change in light of Miss
Vavasour's climactic revelation about the events that
precipitated Chloe's drowning?
Just as the critical trauma of Max's life grew
out of a misapprehension, so the entire novel is
shrouded in a haze of unreliable narrative. Max's
memories are at once fanatically detailed and riddled
with lapses. He freely admits that the people in his
past are half real and half made up. "From earliest days
I wanted to be someone else," he tells us [p. 160], and
a chance remark of his mother's suggests that even his
name may be false [p. 156]. Can we accept any part of
his account as true? Are there moments in this novel in
which reality asserts itself absolutely? What effect do
these ambiguities have on your experience of The Sea?
Suggested Reading John Banville, The Book of Evidence, Ghosts,
and Athena; Samuel Beckett, Molloy and
Malone Dies; Willa Cather, My Mortal Enemy;
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground and "A
Gentle Spirit"; William H. Gass, The Tunnel;
Henry James, The Ambassadors and "The Beast in
the Jungle"; D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers;
Vladimir Nabokov, Glory, Lolita, and
Laughter in the Dark; Marcel Proust, Remembrance
of Things Past; W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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