Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

McEwan’s desire to shock his readers is an integral part of his fiction. He wants readers to be uncomfortable in his depictions of the brutalities of everyday life lest they become immune to them. McEwan suggests that acknowledgment is the first step toward combating the sordidness and filth of the real world.

In “First Love, Last Rites,” McEwan’s style is intense, and, combined with his disturbing images, is aimed toward portraying the world as a threatening place. The creature heard scratching behind the wall represents the narrator’s anxieties about fatherhood and eventually comes to embody both lovers’ doubts and apprehensions. The narrator’s fantasies about the creature extend to believing that he and Sissel are characters in the slime, overwhelmed by the uncertainty of their future, parenthood, and their relationship.

The narrator’s anxiety is exacerbated by his realization that he and Sissel are no different from any other couple. The horror of sliding into a worthless conformity, recognized by him when he was unable to locate Sissel in the crowd of women workers, apparently resolves him to attempt to break free from their situation.

The act that sets the lovers free is the killing of the rat living in the wall of their room. In an act of aggression that startles even him, the narrator kills the charging rat, only to discover a pathetic pregnant creature. The lovers’ fears and anxieties are eliminated as they realize they can control their own lives and not be victims of the imaginary restraints imposed on them.