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The Sea Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

At the beginning of The Sea, first-person narrator Max Morden, an aging art historian, stands looking out to sea, which throughout the novel acts as an anchoring point between the past and the present. After losing his wife Anna to cancer, Max feels the compulsion to return to Ballyless, the site of an important childhood summer. It was in this seaside village that he first encountered the sophisticated Grace family and fell in love with both daughter and mother. The children, web-footed Myles and Chloe Grace, are psychically connected twins. Their mother, Connie Grace, is beautiful, and their father, Carlo Grace, represents the god Bacchus—drunk, fat, all-seeing, and fully aware that the pubescent Max is smitten with his wife. The family travels with a teenage governess named Rose. Since Max’s own home life is a shambles, he spends every minute he can with the fascinating family. Sandwiched in between his recollections of his distant past are Max’s memories of a more recent event, the prolonged death of his wife Anna.

After fifty years, Max finds that the Grace’s summerhouse, called the Cedars, has become a boardinghouse run by a Miss Vavasour. In an attempt to grapple with his memories and mourn his loss, he rents a room there. Despairing of ever finishing his monograph on the artist Pierre Bonnard, he has come to live among the rabble of his past, as he puts it, and ponder the idea that by devoting as much time as possible to recollection, he can perhaps live his life over. He drinks heavily.

Max soon realizes that the past is indeed not wholly what one remembers, the present is not entirely what one thinks, and the line between remembrance and creation is thin. Banville insists that memories are illusions. Like many of Banville’s narrators, Max says that everything is something else, and he is correct. In time, Max realizes that his memories are mere perceptions and are recalled invariably in error. He recollects the first kiss he shared with Chloe; the surging sexual excitement when her mother opened her lap; the sad events surrounding the Graces when the twins drowned. He also understands that his life with his photographer wife Anna also was fraught with illusion.

In time, it becomes clear that Miss Vavasour is really the teenage governess Rose and that the affair Max imagined between Mr. Grace and Rose was really an affair between Mrs. Grace and Rose. For Max, everything in his life has been something else, which explains his failure, or perhaps his inability, to ever fully connect with another person.

Extended Summary

John Banville's The Sea is a novel in the spirit of C. S. Lewis's A Grief Observed, a study in grief, loss, and recollected loves. Banville's main character is Max Morden, an art historian, who has recently suffered the death of his beloved wife Anna. It is a journey back down the earliest roadways and alleys of the Max's memory, a return to his origins and a place the author equates with growth, innocence, youth, healing, and sexual exploration--the sea. It is also a confrontation of pain and suffering caused by the loss of his wife and the profound absence left behind with him.

The story is about Max Morden, a sixty-ish Irishman who has recently lost his wife and returns to a small Irish seaside town where he spent the summers of his youth. Structurally, the novel is made of two main chapters; each of these two chapters have many shorter entries. Such organization allows Banville to jump from past to present mid-chapter and illustrates rapid shifts in thought, emotion, and experience. Banville's writing is beautiful, stylistic, and at times poetic.

At the beginning of the first chapter, we are introduced to the location and the family that will figure so predominantly in his future and his memory. The place has a jumbled look of the place but early on, the Cedars was a summer house with different and frequent visitors. The Graces arrive; Max vividly remembers the large black car, Chloe's voice, and...

(The entire section is 1,499 words.)