Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3488
Much of McEwan’s early career was shaped by the stories he wrote while a student of the British novelist Malcolm Bradbury. McEwan’s interest in the grotesque and perverse encouraged reviewers and critics to dub him “Mr. Macabre.” In “Solid Geometry,” for example, a man keeps a pickled penis in a jar on his desk, and in “Homemade,” an adolescent loses his virginity with his ten-year-old sister. The publisher Secker and Warburg encouraged him to expand “Homemade” into a novel, and there are similarities between the story and McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden, a macabre tale of children who bury their widowed mother’s corpse in the cellar. In his later work, McEwan’s attraction to the macabre gave way to a deeper psychological exploration of his characters, yet some of the earlier interest in the bizarre persists. In Amsterdam, for example, the two main characters murder each other in the name of euthanasia.
The critical consensus is that The Child in Time was McEwan’s breakthrough novel. Because the setting is a few years into the future, it might be classified as dystopian fiction. The abduction of his three-year-old daughter has turned Stephen Lewis, a writer of children’s books, into a zombie. Stephen serves on a subcommittee of an ultraconservative government bent on imposing its notion of child care. It is a meaningless position, obtained through his friend Charles Darke, who wrote the subcommittee’s report before it met. Darke is regressing to the age of ten with the approval of his physicist wife, Thelma. As a result of a reconciliation, Stephen’s wife, Julie, becomes pregnant and he delivers the baby, compounding the themes of innocence and time.
The Innocent, set in the Cold War Germany of 1955, has elements of the thriller and the macabre, such as the cutting up of a corpse by an engineer who is in Berlin doing American and British intelligence work. Black Dogs (1992) is told by Jeremy, a politically motivated man, who became estranged from his wife after she underwent a religious conversion, associated with black dogs. Both novels mark McEwan’s increasing interest in history.
Enduring Love is typical of a narrative structure to which McEwan has been increasingly attracted: the story of how lives are altered by a single event. In Enduring Love, the narrative is set in motion when Joe, a science writer, is about to propose marriage to Clarissa on a picnic; impulsively, he joins several men attempting to hold down a hot air balloon with a boy in its basket that the wind is blowing away. Joe and the others struggle in vain to hold the basket down, and one by one let go, except for a physician, who holds on too long and falls to his death. Jed, one of the failed rescuers, begins a long and futile campaign to persuade Joe that he is in love with Jed, a campaign that almost destroys Joe’s relationship with Clarissa and leads Joe to shoot Jed after Jed attacks Clarissa with a knife. The novel’s action is bizarre but engrossing in its psychological implications, and it excels in demonstrating how a brief event can have a huge impact on one’s future.
McEwan’s readers noted an increasing philosophical and psychological depth in the novels written after Enduring Love. He is preoccupied with innocence in a violent world, especially the recognition that the innocent have no special protection from destruction. These novels, such as Atonement, reveal how dangerous the innocent can be. McEwan has also become preoccupied with time, both as a theme and as an element in narrative technique. The latter is apparent in the severely restricted time spans of his novels. Each section of Atonement, for example, takes place in fewer than twelve hours, as does the main section of On Chesil Beach (2007); Saturday (2005) takes place on one day, Saturday, February 15, 2003. Such time compression enhances dramatic intensity but also focuses on the “moment,” often a brief experience that changes a character’s life.
First published: 1998
Type of work: Novel
After composer Clive Linley and newspaper editor Vernon Halliday agree to perform euthanasia if a fatal disease makes it impossible for either to ease his own passing, the two have a falling out and end up killing each other.
Despite mixed reviews—The Washington Post thought it a “minor work,” while the Christian Science Monitor called it “a deadly little masterpiece”—Amsterdam won the prestigious 1998 Man Booker Prize for the best British Commonwealth or Irish novel of 1998.
At the funeral of their former lover, Molly Lane, Clive Linley, a composer, and Vernon Halliday, a London newspaper editor, are so frightened by the horror of suffering a slow death from a fatal disease with no one to assist their suicide that they agree to be each other’s Dr. Death, if needed. Aware of Molly’s infidelity with Vernon (and Clive), her husband, George, offers Vernon photographs of Adrian Garmony, an ultraconservative foreign secretary with ambitions of becoming prime minister. George assumes Molly took photographs of Garmony in women’s clothes and expects Vernon to embarrass Garmony by printing the photographs to boost circulation. If there is a backlash against Vernon for exposing Garmony, George will be avenged on both.
Struggling to complete a “Millennial Symphony” he expects to cap his career, as the Ninth Symphony capped Ludwig von Beethoven’s, Clive goes to the Lake District. There, he encounters a couple having what he initially thinks is a rural assignation but eventually recognizes as an attempted rape. When he refuses to intervene because he is about to grasp the musical theme to complete his great symphony, guilt causes Clive to lose it anyway, even though he deludes himself into believing that he has grasped it. Later, his symphony is panned as an embarrassing imitation of Beethoven’s Ninth.
After the photographs of Garmony are published, Garmony’s wife lies to the press about her husband’s cross-dressing, claiming that she knew about it and loved him enough to let him enjoy himself. She attacks Vernon for having the “mentality of a blackmailer and the moral stature of a flea.” As Clive is embarrassed that his last symphony is panned, Vernon is ridiculed for his smear campaign. To make matters worse, Clive sends Vernon a postcard applauding Mrs. Garmony’s attack, and Vernon returns the favor by reporting Clive as a material witness in the Lake District rape.
After the former friends arrange each other’s “mercy killing” in Amsterdam, the narrative returns to a conversation between Molly’s husband, George, and Garmony, who bears George no ill will, since he has become an object of public sympathy. George reveals himself as the master plotter behind the publication of the cross-dressing photographs, complimenting Garmony on surviving a scandal that would have forced lesser men to hang themselves. Internally, George compliments himself; he missed Garmony, but paid back Vernon, and Clive, whom he appears not to have targeted. The perverted comedy of “getting even” and “getting away with murder” may take an even sicker turn if George kept Molly alive, not because he could not let her go but because her wanted to make her pay for her infidelity.
First published: 2001
Type of work: Novel
On the day Robbie Turner falls in love with Cecilia Tallis, he is falsely accused of rape and sent to prison, where his sentence is commuted after he volunteers to fight in World War II.
For many, Atonement is McEwan’s best novel. The reviews were positive, with some grumbling about the ending. Atonement contains three parts—the first set in1935, the second two in 1940—followed by an epilogue occurring in 1999.
Part 1 opens in the country home of the Tallis family. It includes the “Old Man,” as his children call their father, absent in London, perhaps preparing for war or evading the wife with headaches; his son, Leon, twenty-three; daughter Cecilia, twenty-two; and daughter Briony, thirteen. The family almost includes the cleaning lady’s son, Robbie Turner, because the “Old Man” virtually adopted him after Robbie’s father ran off when Robbie was six. Mr. Tallis paid Robbie’s way at Cambridge and may send him to medical school. Like Cecilia, Robbie is an English major, and he finished his degree with a “first,” or “A,” compared to her “third.” The Tallises are presently hosting Mrs. Tallis’s niece, Lola, fifteen, and twin nephews, whose mother ran away with another man. Leon has invited his friend, Paul Marshall, heir to a chocolate factory, to visit. When Cecilia strips to her underwear to retrieve the missing piece of a Meissen vase from the garden fountain, Robbie suddenly falls in love with her.
In the letter he writes to declare his love, Robbie makes a disastrous Freudian slip by referring to Cecilia’s genitalia with a word he had just read in D. H. Lawrence’s notorious novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). To compound his tragic error, he enlists Briony as the letter carrier; she reads the letter and later witnesses Cecilia and Robbie in the library, making love so passionately that she misinterprets it as rape. Searching for the missing twins that night, Briony encounters Lola and a rapist, whom she misidentifies as the insatiable Robbie. Robbie is tried and condemned to a long prison sentence.
Part 2 jolts the narrative forward to World War II, when Robbie, now a soldier, is part of the British retreat to Dunkirk. Amid incredibly realistic wartime reportage—remarkable because, like Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage (1895), McEwan never was a soldier—the narrative focuses solely on Robbie’s consciousness and his memories of Cecilia. These memories keep him alive, especially those of love-making in the library, interrupted by Briony’s intrusion. The scene of passionate sexual initiation has been praised by the American novelist John Updike and the English critic Terry Eagleton as the most beautifully erotic scene since Lawrence.
In part 3, Cecilia works as a nurse in London, living with a recuperating Robbie. Briony is also a nurse in London, and she is now willing to testify that Robbie was not a rapist. After Briony visits Cecilia and Robbie, she attends the wedding of Cousin Lola and Paul Marshall, where it is revealed that Marshall was the man who raped Lola. Most readers are unprepared for the next jolt, as part 3 ends with the words, “BT, London, 1999.”
The “BT” is Briony Tallis, a successful novelist, who is seventy-seven years old in 1999. She, not some unidentified third-person narrator, has been telling this story.
The epilogue takes place in a few hours as Briony prepares for a birthday party at Tallis House, now a hotel, where the dinner guests are to assemble in the library. After Briony introduces several unimportant relatives, she reveals the novel’s major epiphany: The ending to “her” novel in part 3 was pure fiction. Robbie actually died of blood poisoning in Dunkirk, and Cecilia died in a London bombing three months after Lola and Paul Marshall’s wedding. After many drafts of the novel, this is the version she will publish once the Marshalls have died, the only version with a happy ending, which she thinks is the best form of atonement for her false accusation that Robbie was the rapist. Soon, all the “real” people will be dead, but Robbie and Cecilia will live out the ages in Briony’s novel, reunited in the end.
First published: 2005
Type of work: Novel
After neurosurgeon Henry Perowne collides into Baxter’s car, Baxter, seeking revenge, breaks into Perowne’s home, threatening the family with violence.
Saturday takes place on a single day—Saturday, February 15, 2003. Before dawn, Henry Perowne, a prominent neurosurgeon, watches a plane crashing toward London, possibly a terrorist attack. The plane foreshadows how Perowne’s day of playing squash with a colleague, shopping for a family dinner, and visiting his widowed mother will be interrupted by an automobile collision with Baxter, who is driving with two other young thugs. Perowne escapes being beaten to death by quickly diagnosing Baxter as having Huntington’s disease and offering help.
Later, Baxter and his buddy, Nigel, invade the Perowne home, where the family has gathered to celebrate the publication of daughter Daisy’s first volume of poems and to reconcile Daisy with her maternal grandfather, also a poet. Baxter forces Daisy to strip naked and read one of her poems, while he holds a knife at her attorney mother’s throat. When Daisy complies, the plot offers an epiphany by revealing that Daisy is pregnant. The stakes are now raised because violence to her body could precipitate a miscarriage and the destruction of a genuinely innocent life. Instead of desecrating one of her own poems, Daisy recites Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Luckily, Baxter is even less familiar with poetry than Daisy’s father and seems moved by the sentimental, Victorian poem.
Baxter makes good on threats of violence by breaking the jaw of Daisy’s grandfather. Sensing the need to do something, Perowne lures Baxter upstairs to his study, where he tells him he has information about Baxter’s medical condition. After Perowne and his son’s effort to subdue Baxter leads to the invader’s tumbling down the stairs and Nigel flees, Perowne reveals himself as a dedicated professional by performing emergency surgery on Baxter before this Saturday ends. The semblance of domestic tranquillity is restored. However, like other families who have experienced burglaries or other home invasions, the Perownes are unlikely to recover their earlier sense that their space is inviolable.
On Chesil Beach
First published: 2007
Type of work: Novel
In the summer of 1962, Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting spend their disastrous wedding night in a seaside hotel and separate the next morning, never to see each other again.
Chesil Beach, where Edward and Florence spend the first (and last) night of their marriage, is on the English Channel. The beach is distinctive for its “shingle,” or pebbles washed up along its eighteen miles, graded by the sea with larger ones to the east. Locals claim they can identify where a pebble was found by its size.
When the novel appeared, McEwan indicated he had a few Chesil pebbles on his mantle and immediately gained notoriety as a “pebble snatcher” in the London tabloids, facing a $4,000 fine. American filmmakers in England to produce a short promotional film for the novel generously offered to film the safe return of the pebbles. The media attention did nothing to hurt the fame of the novel, soon becoming the bookmakers’ favorite to win the Man Booker Prize for 2007. (The prize, however, was awarded to The Gathering by Anne Enright.)
On Chesil Beach begins with the lines, “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.” Readers unaware of McEwan’s other fiction might well expect a brief and racy read, harking back to D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the present time of On Chesil Beach is 1962, three years after the unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was judged legal to sell in the United States and two years after the United Kingdom followed suit. “Annus Mirabilis,” a poem by the English poet Philip Larkin, has been much quoted by reviewers because the “remarkable year” he celebrates is 1963, the beginning of the Sexual Revolution. The poem opens: “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three . . . / Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.”
The novel’s present comprises no more than twelve hours in which Edward and Florence eat a heavy, unappealing dinner; attempt unsuccessfully to consummate their marriage; argue on the beach, where he follows her after the failed attempt at sexual intercourse; and then separate. Interspersed with passages of the present, in which the narrator switches back and forth from the consciousness of first one and then the other newlywed, are flashbacks to the past year, in which the couple met, fell in love, and married. Both are bright, well-educated young people with promising futures. Florence is a gifted violinist who aspires to lead her string quartet into fame and fortune. Edward completed his studies with a “first,” or “A,” in history and aspires to write short biographies of semifamous people. They are very much in love.
Still, there are intimations that their marriage is a misalliance, especially in the United Kingdom, where social class is important. Florence’s family is upper middle class: her father is a prosperous businessman, her mother, a professor of philosophy at Oxford. Edward’s father is a beleaguered elementary school principal, who must manage the household because a freak accident has left his wife brain-damaged.
The misalliance is not only social but sexual. At twenty-three, Edward is a virgin because he has found “easy” girls unappealing. Like Florence, he has grown up in a culture of sexual repression, in large part because of the unavailability of reliable means of contraception and the stigma of unwanted pregnancies or hasty marriages. In 1962, the birth control pill is still only a rumor. For Edward and Florence, sex is simply not a topic for discussion. Edward anticipates marriage as the venue for licit sexual intimacy and waits impatiently for his “due” as an attentive but not aggressive suitor. He practices “self-pleasuring” daily, but its gratification is laced with guilt and the sense of having to resort to a poor substitute for intimacy. Because he is a virgin, he has anxiety about his performance when it is finally legitimized, and he prepares for the wedding night by abstaining from solitary pleasures for a week.
Florence has refused to confront her repugnance toward physicality. Her sole source of information is a marriage manual, which only makes matters worse with terms like “glans” and “penetrate,” the latter suggesting she is like a drawing room that Edward will “enter.” Even the presence of Edward’s tongue in her mouth can threaten nausea. Several reviewers have directed attention to a brief memory of Florence: As a girl of twelve or thirteen, she shares the cabin on a ship crossing the Channel with her father. There is no evidence of unfatherly attention, merely the sounds of his removing his clothes for bed, but the smell of the sea from the honeymoon site on the Channel may recall the incident.
Much as the disaster of intimacy is difficult to represent without veering into off-color humor, the novel leads readers through the painful episode with admirable restraint. Florence steels herself to “perform,” but she has only to touch Edward’s genitals for him to ejaculate over much of her body. His embarrassment is followed by her disgusted and frantic efforts to wipe away what he had been scrupulously saving for her before she runs out onto the beach. The narrator offers an admirably evenhanded representation of the newlyweds, making it possible for both female and male readers to understand the characters and to feel the pain of two people who love each other. Love seems insufficient, however, to overcome their inexperience. Anger and recrimination replace the understanding of a more experienced couple, who might laugh at the mess they have gotten themselves into and agree to give themselves a second chance the next morning.
The shortness of the novel—even the author refers to it as a “novella”—and the limited space of the honeymoon suite make for an intensity and claustrophobia readers may long to escape. Even more, readers are likely to read faster in the hope that Florence will return after she leaves Edward, or that Edward will run after her to save their relationship. Florence herself offers the astounding proposal of an “open marriage,” a decade before the term became current; Edward can love her as his wife and have sexual relations with other women. In his inexperience, however, Edward is insulted by this immodest proposal, and the future of their marriage evaporates.
In the few pages remaining, the novel goes from low gear to overdrive with an epilogue moving the characters into the twenty-first century. Florence achieves artistic success but never marries again because she still loves Edward, while he “drops out” and moves from one relationship to another, accomplishing little.
On Chesil Beach may be painful, even for readers in the new millennium, in which many believe that they are light years away from poor Florence and Edward. McEwan confronts the downside of the privacy most people require for sexual intimacy, which is the isolation and ignorance of the success and failure of others’ lovemaking. It has been suggested that the aged Edward may be writing this novel to explore a moment of personal failure that stunted his fulfillment. The notion may not be so far-fetched, given the ending of Atonement.