Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 606
Staring at the Sun is divided into three main sections, preceded by a very short preface. Section 1 is concerned with the life of Jean Serjeant from early childhood to her wartime marriage, ending with her appallingly unsuccessful honeymoon and loss of virginity. Section 2 appears to be directly consecutive but in fact skips over the twenty years of Jean’s marriage in a few pages, beginning once more to be detailed when, in quick succession, Jean becomes pregnant late in life, makes up her mind to leave her husband, does so, has her baby, and then concentrates for a while on bringing up her son, Gregory. The most striking scenes of this section, however, are those in which Jean—by this time in late middle age—encounters a radical feminist named Rachel, who tries to enlighten or awaken Jean’s deep-buried political sense and even to convert her to lesbianism. The section closes with the death of Uncle Leslie, whose strange and eccentric behavior has been a topic in the novel from the first few pages. Section 3 then very surprisingly moves on to the year 2020, by which time Jean is almost one hundred years old. In this section, the author, without losing sight of his previous concerns, naturally has to spend much time in imagining the future society of the next century, writing, in fact, a form of science fiction.
It will be seen that this novel takes great liberties with the handling of time. Other works have followed characters almost as long-lived or have told the stories of entire families; they are, however, usually much longer. What Julian Barnes does to save his novel from being a mere paraphrase of a life is to concentrate on what Jean calls “Incidents,” taking pages to describe an event which is very often trivial at first sight. This exercise is made possible largely by the fact that Jean’s life, in contrast to many, is virtually incident-free. Apart from the abortive affair with Rachel, in which Jean does not seem sexually aroused at all, Jean has only one lover, her conventional and boring husband Michael. She has no. career. She never achieves anything outwardly significant. Yet, Barnes insists, by the act of writing the novel, that her life has something vital and individual to communicate.
It is this urge to individuality which makes Staring at the Sun repeatedly approach one novelistic subgenre or another, only, in the end, to refuse its conventions and its conclusions. Jean’s story could be taken, for a while, as another life designed to illustrate a feminist thesis. It contains a telling scene in which her husband—furious because Jean has suggested that he, rather than she, may be responsible for their infertility—hurls at her the ultimate insult, the word “woman,” a word “beaten and sharpened until it had an edge for slashing with.” Thereafter, Jean’s life follows a familiar paradigm: liberation from the male tyranny realistically detailed in section 1, single parenthood, contact with radicalism, and exposure to an ideology capable of explaining her previous experience. Jean rejects this ideology, however—or rather, shows complete lack of interest in it. Rachel drops out of her life, and the feminist theme is discarded, as if it were a distraction from some greater concern. The same could be said of the venture of section 3 into science fiction. Its picture of a country dominated by the General Purpose Computer is interesting in itself, but it is there only to show the characters continuing their restless, private search for something else, something individual, something which the whole novel is too short to define or particularize fully.
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