Ian McEwan Long Fiction Analysis - Essay

Ian McEwan Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Like most contemporary fiction, Ian McEwan’s work, too, combines compelling storytelling with literary self-consciousness in the form of overtintertextual references as well as the inclusion of artist figures, often writers, within his texts. Through these metafictional gestures, McEwan invites his readers to reflect on the power and limitations of language to depict reality. He frequently thematizes the difficulties of truthfully representing the past through the use of unreliable narrators, multileveled narratives, and passages focalized through subjective viewpoints. McEwan’s pervasive use of irony encourages his readers to look beyond the surface of the story, and to consider carefully the meanings behind his characters and their actions.

While McEwan’s ironic style remains distinctive, he has experimented with many generic forms, including the spy thriller, the satirical novel, the historical novel, and fantasy. His darkly comic, often grotesque early work focused on scenes of incest, sexual mutilation, dismembered corpses, and violence against women; his early characters were primarily children, adolescents, social outcasts, and deviants. As he matured as a writer, his novels became less insular and more socially and historically conscious, dealing with events from World War II and the Cold War to Thatcherism and London following September 11, 2001. At the same time, the sexual domination and misogyny central to his early work evolved into more nuanced representations of gender relationships, including marriage, parenthood, masculinity, and femininity.

All of McEwan’s work shows a strong emphasis on the moral dimension of fiction. McEwan has stated repeatedly that novels play a valuable role in allowing readers to imagine the world from another person’s point of view—the basis, he claims, of human morality. He frequently places characters in deliberately staged scenes where they are forced to work their way through ethical dilemmas, with the reader as audience and ultimate judge. These dramatic scenes help to create the narrative power that make his work so enjoyable for readers.

The Comfort of Strangers

The Comfort of Strangers perhaps is the most familiar of McEwan’s early novels, and it epitomizes his fascination with dark themes of sexual violence. It is set in a city modeled on Venice, Italy, though without the canals. As British tourists Mary and Colin wander the streets, the labyrinthine urban setting serves as a projection of their growing psychological confusion. They are lured by a local man, Robert, and his Canadian wife, Caroline, into a perverse relationship that ends with the amputation of Colin’s arms and legs, and his death.

While the brutal Robert, with his hatred of feminism, is the novel’s villain, he is able to control the others only because his violence preys on their own repressed sadistic and masochistic desires. Caroline’s desire to be hurt during sex symbolizes the female complicity required for patriarchal domination. The homoerotic victimization of Colin is complicated by his feminine characteristics, which figure in Mary’s fantasies of mutilating him for her own sexual pleasure. The characters’ tendency to objectify each other in visual terms is underscored by multiple images of voyeurism, including Robert’s camera, which he uses to photograph Colin from afar.

Black Dogs

Black Dogs is a thoughtful meditation on the difficulties of knowing the past and rendering it faithfully into language. Like McEwan’s bleakly comical The Innocent, Black Dogs is set partly in Germany, with the central event being the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The history of Nazi totalitarianism haunts the text in the form of a concentration...

(The entire section is 1556 words.)