Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1556
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 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 camp visited by the main character, Jeremy, and the titular black dogs, associated with Gestapo atrocities against women.
The novel is written as Jeremy’s first-person memoir, recording not his own life but those of his in-laws. In a preface, Jeremy describes Bernard and June Tremaine as extreme opposites, a rationalist versus a mystic, whose views of the world, and memories of the past, are always in conflict. June’s traumatic attack by two dogs in the French countryside as a young married woman takes on immense symbolic importance for her, while Bernard denies that the event ever took place and rejects her spiritual interpretation of the attack. Jeremy’s goal as memoirist is not so much to reconcile these points of view but rather to give them equal voice. By listening carefully to and recording both perspectives, Jeremy recognizes and respects each individual’s unique experience, a demonstration of compassionate understanding that is the antithesis of mass oppression.
Amsterdam is a tightly constructed English comic novel in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. The third-person narrative voice creates a wry, ironic tone, and the book’s ending has a delicious sense of moral inevitability as the two main characters, composer Clive Linley and tabloid editor Vernon Halliday, kill each other through their own selfish vindictiveness.
Like The Child in Time, Amsterdam reflects on the neo-Conservative period in England under Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major. This is a fallen world characterized by greed, ambition, and heartless opportunism, and the physical setting, a trash-strewn London spreading its pollution into the Wordsworthian countryside, reflects the social decay. Clive and Vernon embody a kind of romantic, masculine, self-destructive egotism common in McEwan’s novels, while the female characters, mostly off stage, represent a feminized ideal of compassion unheeded by the men. The staged scene in which Clive must choose between finding inspiration for his symphony and helping a woman being raped is one of the most dramatic ethical encounters in McEwan’s fiction, while Vernon’s decision to put personal gain above concern for the other in publishing salacious photographs of a prominent politician is the sort of moral lapse that the author takes open delight in punishing.
Unquestionably, McEwan’s most famous novel, Atonement, is also his most densely intertextual and intricately constructed. Beginning with an epigraph from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817) about the dangers of being carried away by a literary imagination, McEwan weaves a tale about a young girl, Briony Tallis, whose sense of her own powers as a writer leads her to falsely accuse her sister Cecilia’s lover, Robbie Turner, of raping her cousin, Lola Quincey. This event is described in the novel’s first section, set on the Tallis estate in 1935, from a seemingly omniscient narrative perspective.
The second and third sections of the novel leap ahead to World War II and relate Robbie’s grueling experiences during the retreat to Dunkirk and Briony’s service as a ward nurse in a London hospital, respectively. Again, these sections have the pretense of narrative objectivity, yet their gritty historical realism is shadowed by a peculiar sense of fantasy. Only after Briony has been reunited with Cecilia and Robbie in London, and has agreed to confess to her youthful crime, does the reader become aware that all that he or she has read to that point has actually been a novel written by Briony.
The novel’s final section, set in London in 1999, provides a comic denouement, with the family’s descendants reunited and Briony’s literary career celebrated in her old age. However, McEwan leaves his reader wondering whether Briony, by giving a false happy ending to Cecilia and Robbie, both of whom she admits were killed during the war, has truly atoned, and whether her writing is just as much an act of childish self-indulgence as her original accusation.
Saturday is McEwan’s most topical novel, dealing with contemporary issues such as the anxieties of living in a major city after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The novel includes symbols that recall the attacks, including a burning plane streaking toward Heathrow Airport and a glass-paned tower (the British Telecom Tower), and McEwan deepens the political context by setting the action on Saturday, February 15, 2003—the day of the mass protest in London against the imminent invasion of Iraq by the United States and allies.
The novel is structured as an allegory of the confrontation between the West and the forces of terrorism. Henry Perowne is a successful neurosurgeon with all the advantages of his culture; he comes into conflict with Baxter, a mentally ill street thug, who represents the unruly outsiders, be they Islamic extremists or London’s poor, who threaten the doctor’s domestic security. Baxter’s invasion into the Perowne home replays the horror of September 11, but he is ultimately vanquished and returned to the streets to die.
While Saturday is a deeply political novel, it is also very literary. It is openly modeled on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and James Joyce’sUlysses (1922), both texts played out during one day and centered on urban wanderers whose inner thoughts make up the narrative. Saturday is told entirely through Henry’s point of view, which includes his preference for scientific analysis over artistic imagination. McEwan paints Henry as what Matthew Arnold called a middle-class philistine, one who rejects the civilizing power of art. However, the text has the violent Baxter subdued by a reading of Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” leaving the reader to ponder the novel’s ultimate message about the ethical effect of all literature, and this piece in particular. Is the reader meant to identify with and celebrate Henry’s triumph over the outsider, or to see in the novel’s artificially happy ending an ironic message about the need to change Western attitudes to prevent future conflict?