The drowning of Chloe and Myles Grace, is alluded to mysteriously in The Sea’s first line: “They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.” Here, Chloe and Myles are referred to as gods, and their deaths described as a departure. The actual event, shown close to the end, is in many ways the climax of the book. Let’s look at it more closely.
At a deeper level of theme, the gods depart to death in the sea after one of them, Chloe Grace, has a sexual experience. This echoes ancient Greek myth where maidens die after experiencing sex. A move from childhood innocence to adulthood, with death as a transition.
I’m thinking here of several mythic stories, the one about Persephone is a good example. A young girl, a child, is at play when she is spotted by Hades, the god of the underworld. He desires her and carries her off—permanently—to his realm.
In The Sea, after an incident of sexual contact involving Chloe, Max, and Chloe’s brother Myles, (yikes!) where Chloe is shown having an orgasm, the young people are discovered by Rose (who is Miss Vavasour) and Chloe runs off toward the sea, Myles following. “Then calmly they stood up and waded into the sea, the water smooth as oil hardly breaking around them, and leaned forward in unison and swam out slowly, their two heads bobbing on the whitish swell, out, and out. We watched them, Rose and I…I do not know what I was thinking, I do not remember thinking anything…They were far out now, the two of them, so far as to be pale dots between pale sky and paler sea, and then one of the dots disappeared…A splash, a little white water, whiter than all that around, then nothing, an indifferent world closing.
“Rose cried out, a sort of sob, and shook her head rapidly from side to side.” Max begins running along the beach, headed to tell Chloe’s parents what’s occurred. “I was running, trying to run, along the beach…Often in my dreams I am back there again, wading through that sand that grows ever more resistant, so that it seems that my feet themselves are made of some massy, crumbling stuff. What did I feel? Most strongly, I think, a sense of awe, awe of myself, that is, who had known two living creatures that were suddenly, astoundingly, dead.”
Well. Here we are presented with an account of a drowning/possible suicide where the witnesses—Max and Rose make no effort to intervene. The adult Max writes: “I would like to ask her (Rose) if she blames herself for Chloe’s death.” But he does not and never questions his own responsibility—either for the sexual act or for passively watching the drownings. Does he blame himself? In many ways, this is the primary act of cowardice and betrayal that Max commits, the act he cannot forgive himself for.
Then the line: “Was’t well done?” What does this Shakespearean quote signify? In Act 5 of The Tempest, it is Prospero’s sprite Ariel who says this to Prospero after she, at his bidding, brings the mariners to him, which leads to the end of the play. It was Ariel, I believe, who created the tempest, the storm that gives the play its name. (Wait—could there be other connections between The Sea and The Tempest? Both focus on the boundary between sea and shore, both involve a protagonist who has a daughter. Whoa! I think we should let the academics tackle this one).
(whiny voice—isn’t sprite a soft drink? How come Prospero’s soft drink can talk?)
But the implication here is that some other-worldly creature has somehow arranged the drowning of Chloe and Myles along with Max and Rose’s reactions, and is presenting the memory to the adult Max. It comes off as a sort of cruel joke, suggesting that these tragic events were a sort of theater. Or perhaps that the book’s recounting of them is a well-done and self-conscious piece of theater. Either way, it seems remarkably cold and empty. Perhaps that’s how Max feels.
After this, a paragraph break, and the adult Max addresses Anna, his dead wife, as “you.” “Why have you not come back to haunt me?…Send back your ghost. Torment me, if you like. Rattle your chains, drag your cerements across the floor, keen like a banshee, anything. I would have a ghost.”
So, Max seems to believe he is deserving of being haunted by his wife’s ghost, deserving because of self-judged crimes. Perhaps the implication is that Max hungers for authenticity through condemnation, but never gets it.
It’s almost as if he’s pre-judged himself as lacking, that the narratee’s judgement is already assumed to be given. At the end, Max passively accepts his daughter taking over his life. He’s to return to Dublin, stop drinking, in general behave himself. His freedom is at an end, as is almost his life.
“Nor did she stop there, but, flushed with that initial triumph, and seizing the advantage offered by my temporary infirmity, went on to direct, a figurative hand cocked on her hip, that I must pack up and leave the Cedars forthwith and let her take me home—home, she says!—where she will care for me, which care will include, I am given to understand, the withholding of all alcoholic stimulants, or soporifics, until such time as the Doctor, him again, declares me fit for something or other, life, I suppose. What am I to do? How am I to resist? She says it is time I got seriously down to work…I suppose I shall not be allowed to sell the house, either.”
The book concludes with his final admission that he was not at his wife’s bedside when she died but had gone outside the hospice for a moment of fresh air. There’s a beautiful connection with the sea, and then a nurse summons Max back inside the hospital.
Max, I think it’s fair to say, experiences himself as inauthentic, as not a real person. He feels he has no home, no career. He lacks authenticity as a husband and father. He lives more in the past than the present. And he relies on The Sea’s literary style to tell his story—more on this next week. Till then.