First Love, Last Rites

by Ian McEwan
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706

“First Love, Last Rites” is told by an unnamed narrator who lives with his girlfriend in a quayside apartment in England. Both are seventeen or eighteen years of age. It is early summer, and the lovers, filled with youthful passion, make love regularly on a mattress-covered table in front of a big, open window. Once, while they are lying on the table, the narrator becomes aware of clawing sounds behind the wall; shortly afterward, Sissel also hears the noise.

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Sissel’s ten-year-old brother, Adrian, comes to visit them. The narrator becomes acquainted with Sissel’s father, and together they plan to catch eels in the river and sell them live in London. The narrator and Sissel’s father spend two months making eel traps and placing them in the river.

The narrator and Sissel continue to lie on the mattress-covered table, talking and making love. Sissel develops foot rot, the smell mingling with the smells of mud and seaweed coming in through the window. The narrator hears the creature in the wall and imagines it is his own creature in Sissel’s body—one of feathers, claws, and gills. Sissel hears the creature also, and her lover thinks the scratching sound that grows out of their lovemaking is part of her fantasy also.

By mid-July, the lovers touch less, no longer enjoying their room. Adrian comes to visit them every day and wants to fight with Sissel as in former days. He is sincerely disgusted when the lovers touch. No breeze comes through the window—only heat, flies, and odors of dead jellyfish. The food tastes like the river, and the floor is covered with greasy sand. Sissel’s foot rot spreads to the other foot and contributes to the stench in the room. Every night the couple is awakened by the scratching behind the wall. The rubbish gathers around them, and the narrator finds himself unable to carry it out. He takes long walks along the river.

Sissel gets a job at a cannery, removing rotten carrots from a conveyor belt. On her second day at work, the narrator waits for her at the factory gates. As the women leave the factory, he tries unsuccessfully to see Sissel, convinced that if he could not, they were both lost and their time together worthless. When he arrives home, Sissel admits that she saw him at the gate but could think of nothing to say after her shift.

Two days later, Sissel and the narrator bait the eel traps and place them on the river bed, marking each with a buoy. The next day, when he and Sissel’s father row out to pull the traps in, they have trapped one eel and most of the traps are missing. They return to the hotel where the father is staying and eat breakfast. They do not discuss the lost traps, pretending they would be found. Sissel’s father proposes a new scheme to make money on shrimp.

Back at their room, the narrator finds Sissel sitting on the bed staring toward a corner where the creature is crouching behind some books. At that moment, it runs across the floor, a huge gray rat dragging its belly on the floor. Adrian enters the room noisily. Using a coat hanger, he drives the rat from behind the chest of drawers as the narrator attempts to strike it with a poker. The rat charges them, its teeth bared. The narrator throws the poker at it and misses.

Again, Adrian drives the rat out, and the narrator splits it with the poker. A small purple sac containing the rat’s unborn young slides onto the floor. Sissel kneels and pushes the sac back inside the mother rat and closes the rat’s fur over it.

The lovers deposit the rat carefully in the dust bin outside their room and go for a walk. The narrator returns the trapped eel to the river as Adrian departs for a holiday. Sissel resolves to give up her job at the factory. It is autumn, and the lovers lift the mattress onto the table as they did in early summer. They agree to clean up the room and go for a long walk later that afternoon.

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