Black Dogs

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Many of the themes explored in Ian McEwan’s previous fiction are treated anew in Black Dogs: the pain and isolation of childhood, as in The Cement Garden (1978); the inexplicable, violent nature of evil, as in The Comfort of Strangers (1981); and the effect of political, social, and psychological forces on the individual, as in The Innocent (1990). Black Dogs combines these subjects with religious and political beliefs and the history of twentieth century Europe as McEwan creates another original view of contemporary chaos.

Jeremy, the narrator, grows up in London longing for replacements for his dead parents. Living with Jean, his older sister, Harper, her loutish husband, and Sally, their neglected daughter, Jeremy spends considerable time with his friends’ parents. He hopes to find the stability, comfort, intellectual stimulation, and love missing from his life—except for the affection he attempts to provide to Sally, his honorary fellow orphan.

Jeremy remains partially dissociated from life until he, at the age of thirty-seven, marries Jenny Tremaine, adopting her parents as his own. June and Bernard Tremaine are Communists when they marry in 1946, but on their honeymoon in France, June undergoes a spiritual crisis. Although the couple remain in love until June’s death in 1987, their philosophical differences mar their relationship. Bernard leaves the party after the 1956 Hungarian uprising, writes a well-received biography of Gamal Abdel Nasser, becomes a frequent guest on radio and television broadcasts, and is elected to Parliament in 1964. June lives in France most of this time, writing about wildflowers and mystical subjects.

When June’s health forces her into an English nursing home, Jeremy visits her for interviews upon which he will base a memoir. McEwan offers only brief glimpses of the pivotal event in June’s life until he presents Jeremy’s memoir as the fourth and final major section of Black Dogs. By that time, he has masterfully created a mythic significance for June’s battle with two black dogs.

Black Dogs is compelling on several levels. One is as a portrait of June, Bernard, and their unusual marriage. June’s sensibility dominates the novel, with Jeremy almost as much in love with her, despite her difficult personality, as with Jenny, her daughter and his wife. Jeremy and June disagree about the focus of the memoir during the interviews, June wanting him to write a biography, Jeremy having in mind “more a divagation” in which she will be central but not dominant. In writing about June, Jeremy says as much about himself, tries to explain to himself the nature of evil and the spirit of his times.

Contributing to Jeremy’s obsession with his mother-in-law is a photograph taken the day she and Bernard became members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Jeremy seeks the woman’s character in the picture, the woman she is to become. He wonders at how June could have been so profoundly altered by time, her face becoming long, her nose lengthened, chin curved, forehead amazingly creased. The wrinkled June resembles the elderly W. H. Auden: “In repose her face had a chiseled, sepulchral look; it was a statue, a mask carved by a shaman to keep at bay the evil spirit.” Jeremy thinks that June’s face changed to accommodate her belief that she has been tested by evil. Attracted to the younger June, he sees in her older self something “extraordinary.”

Jeremy describes June’s life as a spiritual quest, but Bernard, evolving from Communist outsider to liberal politician, is almost her opposite. Bernard is also a man of contradictions. Although a socialist, he disdains the working class. When a taxi driver attempts to enter his and Jeremy’s conversation about the state of Europe, Bernard rudely ignores the man. In justifying his lack of a common touch by explaining that he is a man of ideas, Bernard illustrates the rationalism June abhors. The difference between the two is clear even while June is confronted by the dogs. Bernard is three hundred yards away, sketching caterpillars: “Bernard did not derive pleasure from sketching, nor did his drawings resemble what he saw. They represented what he knew, or wanted to know.”

McEwan presents this marriage as one in which the partners share little but their love. June constantly ridicules Bernard to Jeremy, considering him “unreflective, ignorant of the subtle currents that composed the reality he insisted he...

(The entire section is 1858 words.)