On Chesil Beach

by Ian McEwan
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1183

Chesil Beach, where Edward and Florence spend the first (and last) night of their marriage, is on the English Channel. The beach is distinctive for its “shingle,” or pebbles washed up along its eighteen miles, graded by the sea with larger ones to the east. Locals claim they can identify where a pebble was found by its size.

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When the novel appeared, McEwan indicated he had a few Chesil pebbles on his mantle and immediately gained notoriety as a “pebble snatcher” in the London tabloids, facing a $4,000 fine. American filmmakers in England to produce a short promotional film for the novel generously offered to film the safe return of the pebbles. The media attention did nothing to hurt the fame of the novel, soon becoming the bookmakers’ favorite to win the Man Booker Prize for 2007. (The prize, however, was awarded to The Gathering by Anne Enright.)

On Chesil Beach begins with the lines, “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.” Readers unaware of McEwan’s other fiction might well expect a brief and racy read, harking back to D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the present time of On Chesil Beach is 1962, three years after the unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was judged legal to sell in the United States and two years after the United Kingdom followed suit. “Annus Mirabilis,” a poem by the English poet Philip Larkin, has been much quoted by reviewers because the “remarkable year” he celebrates is 1963, the beginning of the Sexual Revolution. The poem opens: “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three . . . / Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.”

The novel’s present comprises no more than twelve hours in which Edward and Florence eat a heavy, unappealing dinner; attempt unsuccessfully to consummate their marriage; argue on the beach, where he follows her after the failed attempt at sexual intercourse; and then separate. Interspersed with passages of the present, in which the narrator switches back and forth from the consciousness of first one and then the other newlywed, are flashbacks to the past year, in which the couple met, fell in love, and married. Both are bright, well-educated young people with promising futures. Florence is a gifted violinist who aspires to lead her string quartet into fame and fortune. Edward completed his studies with a “first,” or “A,” in history and aspires to write short biographies of semifamous people. They are very much in love.

Still, there are intimations that their marriage is a misalliance, especially in the United Kingdom, where social class is important. Florence’s family is upper middle class: her father is a prosperous businessman, her mother, a professor of philosophy at Oxford. Edward’s father is a beleaguered elementary school principal, who must manage the household because a freak accident has left his wife brain-damaged.

The misalliance is not only social but sexual. At twenty-three, Edward is a virgin because he has found “easy” girls unappealing. Like Florence, he has grown up in a culture of sexual repression, in large part because of the unavailability of reliable means of contraception and the stigma of unwanted pregnancies or hasty marriages. In 1962, the birth control pill is still only a rumor. For Edward and Florence, sex is simply not a topic for discussion. Edward anticipates marriage as the venue for licit sexual intimacy and waits impatiently for his “due” as an attentive but not aggressive suitor. He practices “self-pleasuring” daily, but its gratification is laced with guilt and the sense of having to resort to a poor substitute for intimacy. Because he is a virgin, he has anxiety about his performance when it is finally legitimized, and he prepares for the wedding night by abstaining from solitary pleasures for a week.

Florence has refused to confront her repugnance toward physicality. Her sole source of information is a marriage manual, which only makes matters worse with terms like “glans” and “penetrate,” the latter suggesting she is like a drawing room that Edward will “enter.” Even the presence of Edward’s tongue in her mouth can threaten nausea. Several reviewers have directed attention to a brief memory of Florence: As a girl of twelve or thirteen, she shares the cabin on a ship crossing the Channel with her father. There is no evidence of unfatherly attention, merely the sounds of his removing his clothes for bed, but the smell of the sea from the honeymoon site on the Channel may recall the incident.

Much as the disaster of intimacy is difficult to represent without veering into off-color humor, the novel leads readers through the painful episode with admirable restraint. Florence steels herself to “perform,” but she has only to touch Edward’s genitals for him to ejaculate over much of her body. His embarrassment is followed by her disgusted and frantic efforts to wipe away what he had been scrupulously saving for her before she runs out onto the beach. The narrator offers an admirably evenhanded representation of the newlyweds, making it possible for both female and male readers to understand the characters and to feel the pain of two people who love each other. Love seems insufficient, however, to overcome their inexperience. Anger and recrimination replace the understanding of a more experienced couple, who might laugh at the mess they have gotten themselves into and agree to give themselves a second chance the next morning.

The shortness of the novel—even the author refers to it as a “novella”—and the limited space of the honeymoon suite make for an intensity and claustrophobia readers may long to escape. Even more, readers are likely to read faster in the hope that Florence will return after she leaves Edward, or that Edward will run after her to save their relationship. Florence herself offers the astounding proposal of an “open marriage,” a decade before the term became current; Edward can love her as his wife and have sexual relations with other women. In his inexperience, however, Edward is insulted by this immodest proposal, and the future of their marriage evaporates.

In the few pages remaining, the novel goes from low gear to overdrive with an epilogue moving the characters into the twenty-first century. Florence achieves artistic success but never marries again because she still loves Edward, while he “drops out” and moves from one relationship to another, accomplishing little.

On Chesil Beach may be painful, even for readers in the new millennium, in which many believe that they are light years away from poor Florence and Edward. McEwan confronts the downside of the privacy most people require for sexual intimacy, which is the isolation and ignorance of the success and failure of others’ lovemaking. It has been suggested that the aged Edward may be writing this novel to explore a moment of personal failure that stunted his fulfillment. The notion may not be so far-fetched, given the ending of Atonement.

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