Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“First Love, Last Rites” is one of Ian McEwan’s few optimistic stories in which characters succeed in achieving a stable love relationship. Like many of his stories, this one contains characters who are adolescents. To McEwan, adolescents are extraordinary individuals who are close to childhood and, at the same time, are bewildered and frustrated by their initiation into adulthood. The narrator and his girlfriend, Sissel, are adolescents who find themselves in a world that is fundamentally threatening and realize that survival comes from their union to protect themselves from the cruelty and insensitivity of the world.

McEwan typically sees the city or the immediate surroundings as an irritant or hindrance to the lovers’ progress. In fact, the environment becomes an antagonistic character in the story. The growing disorder in their room and the acrid odors from outside reflect the collapse of their relationship and the growing distance between them. They lie in the piled-up rubbish, unable to bring themselves to carry it out. No longer interested in cleaning the room or making eel traps, the narrator goes on long walks.

The lovers’ environment is further complicated by the frequent visits of Adrian, Sissel’s brother, who is desperately trying to escape the unpleasantness at his home. Adrian is at a loss to understand the change in Sissel, wanting to fight with her as they did in former days. The plan of Sissel’s father to sell eels exhausts the narrator’s resources, necessitating Sissel’s taking a job.

The lovers’ estrangement is emphasized by the narrator’s inability to pick out Sissel in the crowd of women leaving the factory. He realizes they are no different from any other striving couple. Sissel’s dreary job and her initiation into the drab workaday world suggests a paralyzing conformity to the narrator that denies the worth of their relationship.

The creature’s scratching inside the wall is more insistent, and it is at this point that the narrator attempts to break the bonds of the ensnaring surroundings. They kill the mysterious creature, a rat living in the wall, destroying their own fears and uncertainties. With love and determination, the couple demonstrate their ability to escape the destructive forces around them.