On Chesil Beach

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

On Chesil Beach concerns the wedding night of a young British couple in 1962. As they dine together in their room in an unassuming hotel on the Dorset coast, they are both apprehensive about their first sexual experience but too polite and timid to share their feelings. Before their actual first encounter, which constitutes the heart of the novel, Ian McEwan supplies the reader with the background of both Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew, including not only their personal situations but also the times in which they grew up.

Both born in 1940, Florence and Edward are the children of parents who endured economic depression and world war. They are well behaved and serious. Their careful upbringings have prevented them from anything in the way of sexual acquaintance; there is an almost stereotypical Victorian quality, in fact, to the inhibitions of Florence. Additionally, Florence and Edward come from very different social classes. Florence, a gifted classical musician, is the daughter of a woman who is not only an Oxford don but also a pioneer in what will prove to be a significant reformation of British cookery. Florence’s father, a wealthy businessman, takes an interest in the arts. Edward, on the other hand, is the son of a schoolmaster; his mother Marjorie suffered brain damage in a railway accident involving some possible carelessness on the part of an upper-class businessman. While Florence is well-bred enough to be gracious about Edward’s background, Edward finds Florence’s father competitive and her mother’s cool intelligence unsettling.

On a psychological level, there is a suggestion that Florence’s problems with sexual intimacy may be a consequence of her mother Violet’s reserved and undemonstrative nature, and although Florence forms a close bond with her father, this bond may also be responsible not only for her many intellectual and personal virtues but also for her severe sexual anxieties. Edward, on the other hand, is eager for his honeymoon night and is far more open to the sensual pleasures it promises. His problem is not with sexual inhibition but with anger; the reader learns that Edward is prone to moments of explosive violence. He finds in fighting a sense of freedom and release he experiences nowhere else in his regulated life; but as fulfilling as he finds street fighting, an incident involving the defense of one of his sensitive friends, Harold Mather, allows the reader to understand that his tendency to brawl is alienating him from the more civil side of English life. Sobered by the more self-controlled Mather’s withdrawal from the friendship as a result of his violence, Edward is also tempered by his new status as a student of medieval history at the University of London. Anticipating a more genteel career as a historian, he finds that he is developing interests that are slowly raising and refining his cultural level in a way that would make him a fitting partner for someone like Florence.

Returning to the present moment at their honeymoon hotel, McEwan spends much time on the couple’s awkward abandonment of their unappetizing meal and on their subsequent awkward attempts to consummate their marriage, which is depicted in an excruciatingly protracted sex scene that is at once horrific, comical, and sad. Far from achieving any real intimacy, Edward finds that his worst fears, of “arriving too soon,” are realized, driving a squeamish and panicky Florence away and out into the night.

When Edward eventually follows her down to the long expanse of Chesil Beach, their escalating quarrel, ironically, becomes a time of intimacy greater than any they had previously experienced together. The reader has already learned that Edward is in fact in his element as a fighter, but as each gives vent to their disappointments with the other, their love for each other becomes more tenuous. Florence, who is not afraid to take the initiative when she sees fit, tries to save the day by offering him an unconventional marriage in which he will be free to have affairs, an offer she views as self-sacrificing, generous, and modern. An affronted Edward, however, explodes in righteous indignation at this attempt at negotiation, driving Florence from him. As Florence walks away on her own, Edward stands rigid with anger, watching her recede before his eyes, and although at the same time he senses that she would turn back to him if he simply called out to her, he is too proud and too furious to do so. This small decisionin which Florence turns from him and in which Edward fails to call back a woman who he knows is still in...

(The entire section is 1876 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The Atlantic Monthly 300, no. 1 (July/August, 2007): 134-138.

Booklist 104, no. 3 (October 1, 2007): 73-75.

The Boston Globe, June 3, 2007, p. C4.

Los Angeles Times, June 3, 2007, p. R2.

The New York Review of Books 54, no. 12 (July 19, 2007): 32-33.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (June 3, 2007): 1-13.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 3, 2007, p. F9.

The Seattle Times, June 10, 2007, p. L8.

The Washington Post, June 3, 2007, p. BW15.

Weekly Standard 12, no. 46 (August 20, 2007): 39-40.