Literary Criticism and Significance

John Banville's novel The Sea was the winner of the 2005 Booker Prize. Banville had written thirteen other novels before The Sea.Additional literary accomplishments include two other Booker prizes (1989 and 2007), the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and a Lannan Literary Award for fiction among others. Banville has written seventeen novels to date, with his most recent being The Infinities (2009).

The reviews are mostly positive for this novel and it was more than well-received. David Grllys notes the many allusions to classical and modern literature, celebrates  the "sensuous phrasing, and pungent observation of human frailty," but ultimately sees the novel as disappointing. Adam Phillips, in The London Review of Books, sees the novel as an utterly absorbing novel about the "strange workings" of grief, and  proof that for "those for whom the gods have departed—memory has become redemptive." Many critics and reviewers equate Banville's cold, crisp, writing style with that of Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov's writings border on the picturesque and the imagery in this novel is very similar. Nabokov and Banville paint pictures using their words and present a picturesque landscape for the reader to explore with all of their senses. Nicholas Lezard sees Banville's book reminiscent of Proust, Beckett, and Henry James. The New Yorker, too, sees the novel as having minimal plot, but instead the novel's drama "takes place in Banville's remarkable imagery." This novel, with its focus on grief, suffering, and spiritual redemption is in the spirit and tradition of C. S. Lewis's A Grief Observed.

Like works by Beckett, Proust, Dostoevsky, and Nabokov, Banville's The Sea is concerned with the existential isolation of the individual. In his grief, Max tries to reconcile his past and present existence. He paints his memory on the canvas of the page, with hopes that such an act will solidify his understanding of suffering and help to move towards a feeling of healing and "home." At times, Max wrestles with the concept of being alone and concepts of Sartrean authenticity. After Anna's death, he must reformulate his concept of self and self-perception. Who he is is no more and he must make a conscious effort to wrestle with his ghosts and come to greater self awareness.

Psychological critics, too, will find much to discuss in Max Morden. Max is delicately portrayed as the inconsistent, grief-stricken widower who suffers bouts of nostalgia, restlessness, anger, and consolations of the bottle. Psychoanalysts might consider his dreams of winter nights and travel, of his attraction to the sea and why he feels the "womby warmth" of its presence nearby. He is a case study for Freudian critics who might consider the sexual attractions he feels as a boy toward first the mother, then the daughter.  Mythical critics might interpret Max's experience as a heroic journey:  with Anna's death, Max suffers a fall from grace and he is exiled from his homeland.  Max attempts to regain the kingdom and claim the boons so necessary for his survival.