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The Sea as a Setting and a Symbol in Contemporary Irish and British Fiction: Dermot Bolger’s Temptation (2000), John Banville’s The Sea (2005), Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (2007)


  • Elena Rein

Summary, in English

This dissertation investigates the function of the sea in contemporary British and Irish literature, focusing on the following three novels: Dermot Bolger’s Temptation (2000), John Banville’s The Sea (2005), and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (2007). The analysis is divided into two main parts, where the sea is considered in its roles as a setting and as a symbol. The former section starts with a subsection on narrative and continues to investigate how the sea functions as a setting for childhood memories and for an escape from civilisation. It shows that the sea operates as a maker of character in all three novels, similarly to sea
adventure fiction of the eighteenth century, whose protagonists also gained strength from it. However, it is the sea itself which stands in focus in contemporary literature, not the adventures set at sea. The section continues with an in-depth analysis of how the sea can mirror scenes of the story time, how it can be indifferent and work both as a positive and a negative force on the characters. Disillusionment, which is found in all the novels, undermines the sea as a solely positive force. It can be said to be both “cruel” and “a realm of escape and renewal” (Raban, The Oxford Book of the Sea 30) at the same time. The next section deals with the sea functioning as a symbol, and investigates the sea imagery of the three novels, personifications of the sea and instances when the sea is given supernatural powers. Moreover, it is concerned with the sea becoming a symbol for the characters, and ends with a discussion on binary oppositions, as the characters repeatedly contrast themselves with the vast sea. Twenty-first century sea fiction imitates earlier sea fiction while maintaining an original frame. The sea is given a major role in the development of the characters, triggers realisations about their lives and makes them leave their temporary retreat by the seaside as changed, strengthened people.


Publishing year




Document type

Student publication for Master's degree (two years)


  • Languages and Literatures


  • Sea fiction
  • function
  • narrative
  • setting
  • symbol
  • personifications
  • binary oppositions
  • modernism
  • Romanticism
  • sea adventure.


  • Birgitta Berglund (FD)