In Saturday by Ian McEwan, Perowne believes that literature serves no purpose, that life can be explained and improved through science. My questions are how the novel explores this idea and does he learn that he’s wrong? Does he come up against the limits of science as a way of explaining the world? Is science adequate as a way of dealing with the daily and shifting threats to our well-being? Does it explain aberrant behavior, like terrorism and crime? Give examples in the story.
Ian McEwen is known for exploring difficult subjects in his novels; in fact, one of his favorite authors is Edgar Allan Poe, and we all know that Poe's stories are filled with disconcerting topics and uncomfortable commentary on various aspects of human nature. I imagine terrorism is a tough subject to talk about; you ask whether science explains aberrant behavior. My answer is that science can provide a construct for understanding human behavior but it falls far short of explaining human motives adequately, unless the absolute values of right and wrong central to most of the world's religions take their place within the construct. As the debate continues to rage regarding the place of religion in the world of science, I will leave this discussion to braver souls. Let's discuss Perowne and how this man of science views terrorism and life.
Perowne is the protagonist of the novel Saturday. He is a prominent neurosurgeon. On February 15, 2003, he sees a burning airplane streaking across the sky, hurtling towards Heathrow Airport. February 15, 2003 is actually the date of one of the biggest English demonstrations against the war in Iraq. The news reports regarding the plane keep changing; we don't know whether the plane crash is an accident or an act of terrorism until later on. Although Perowne has a great relationship with his wife and two children, he laments “how easily an existence, its ambitions, networks of family and friends, all its cherished stuff, solidly possessed, could so entirely vanish.” This proves to be true as the novel progresses, especially when he is faced with a home invasion. Science can explain biological processes perfectly but it is limited in its ability to explain circumstances in human events.
The plane crash starts off the day for Perowne; he plays squash, meets with an accident (he only manages to escape being robbed by the other driver, Baxter, by distracting him with a discussion of Baxter's illness, Huntington's Disease), visits his mother who is suffering from vascular dementia, and buys some fish from a local fishmonger for dinner. Later that evening, Baxter (the other driver) and an accomplice force their way into the Perowne home armed with knives. Baxter orders Daisy, Perowne's daughter, to strip. It is only then that Perowne notices that Daisy is pregnant. As a man of science who believes in saving lives, he knows that if Daisy is hurt, a miscarriage would be very likely. He is terrified at the thought but keeps calm. Baxter asks Daisy to recite a poem, a skill she excels at. She recites "Dover Beach" and this seems to mollify Baxter. When Baxter's accomplice flees, Perowne and his son Theo overpower Baxter and in the process Baxter is knocked unconscious as he falls down the stairs. That night, Perowne operates successfully on Baxter. The novel ends after Perowne has returned from the hospital and made love to his wife.
Despite trying out his daughter's suggestion to read great literature as a way to make sense of the world, Perowne does not find the great works of literature adequate in explaining why things like terrorism happen. Perowne doesn't want to have the "world reinvented; he wants it explained."
..."under instruction from his daughter he read both Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary but could not accept their artificiality, even though they dwelt on detail and ordinariness."
We see that Perowne's compassion is what compels him to want answers as a man of science. He does not want to "be a spectator of imaginary lives," the kind of lives that the characters in literature live. Perowne finds that he has to live the reality of life and grapple with its troubles while issues like terrorism and global violence hover menacingly in the periphery of his existence. He faces a home invasion, a terrorist act on a local level, which threatens the lives of his family. As a father and husband, he must use every tool available to him in order to keep his family safe. Yet Perowne can see both sides of the argument; while he understands his children's concerns about the Iraq conflict, he also understands how Iraqis have suffered under Saddam Hussein. His friendship with an exiled Iraqi professor informs him of the totalitarian rule of Hussein and he can't help but sympathize. As a man of science, he is torn between his science and his pragmatism. When he goes to purchase fish for dinner, he questions whether he should stop eating fish because scientific research has drawn attention to the "greater consciousness" of fish. (You might be interested in the book Do Fish Feel Pain? by a marine biologist, Victoria Braithwaite.) Likewise, he has to balance the pragmatism of using his medical knowledge to preserve the lives of his family and his belief in the Hippocratic Oath to first do no wrong.
Science has tried explaining terrorism by citing the dogmatic ideologies of terrorists, the utopian worldview of their beliefs and even the individual psychology of terrorists. Today, scientists are citing the impact of social media and social influences in the promulgation of terrorism. The psychosocial impact has now become extremely crucial as we see the sophisticated social media navigation of a terrorist organization such as ISIS.
So, Perowne's character invites us to ask questions of both science and religion. Does his science explain everything? No. Does Perowne's intelligence make him more self-aware? Yes. Perowne's character is a rich tapestry of doubt, compassion and pragmatism. If anything, as man of science, Perowne invites us to ponder the fragility of life.