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.
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...
(The entire section contains 1183 words.)
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