Tuesday, November 01, 2011

116. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach (2007; 166) - read for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge - seems to continue from where Thomas Hardy left off with the story of Jude and Sue in Jude the Obscure. In this story, McEwan investigates the changes that was taking place in early 1960s: social, political and economic changes. 

Using the story of Florence and Edward, McEwan writes of how the early 1960s served as the turning point in the century. During this period, the British Empire has started shrinking, with several colonists becoming independent. There was also a change in the landscape with a somewhat rapid urbanisation of rural and peri-urban areas. However, the major change that McEwan concentrated upon is the change in relationships or the idea of what marriage is or should be, the major theme in Hardy's story. He toes Hardy's course, though Florence was much stronger than Sue and Edward more foolish than Jude, for Jude made compelling arguments similar, in content, to Florence's spontaneous speech on the beach. During this period, homosexuals have started living together, though they might not have started pressing home their rights. Perhaps. 

The young man Edward had married Florence and at the night of their honeymoon, for that's the major setting of the story - that one night, they both discovered that they were novices, in the act of marital consummation - sex. Both were virgins. But Edward, in addition, had married Florence for the wrong reasons. All along, he had withheld or controlled his sexual urge for this one night. Florence on the other hand, loves Edward dearly; but not sexually. Yet, because of her love for him and his expectations of her, she had gone ahead to read books on sex, prior to this evening. Yet, on the very night, she found herself to be more clumsy, incapable, and unprepared than she thought she would be. And when she decided to be bold and lead Edward to her sex, all that they had built or overcome - the years of waiting, the hours of apprehension, the fear of failure - crashed upon them. Edward, unable to control himself, had let out his seed on her. And Florence, disgusted, shamed, and absolutely unprepared by this, instantly realised that this is not the love she was looking for. This is not what she called love.

Running from the room and onto the beach, Florence felt in between thoughts: she wanted to leave; but she loved Edward. However, she found that her solace was in her career, in her musical quartet, the 'Ennismore Quartet', when her fingers are moving, when she's recreating or replaying Beethoven, Mozart or Schubert. She wanted to do more with her life. Something wonderful. But Edward followed her onto the beach. He felt cheated, he felt humiliated and words were exchanged. After the cry of a blackbird, which Florence thought was a nightingale and Edward - a historian with a special skill of knowing the names of several birds, plants and flowers - corrected her, they parted. The significance of the blackbird's cry is prominent: why wasn't it a Nightingale singing a song of cares and love (Florence Nightingale?) but a blackbird (doom?). Yet, at its cry, Florence broke out of the societal cocoon with which she was entwining herself. She broke out toward independence, toward freedom, toward her career. And Edward, to whom sex was everything, descended into decadence. The history books he dreamt of writing, remained unwritten. In fact, on Chesil Beach, Florence had come up with an idea that would have benefitted both had Edward not been too infantile in his actions, too silent in his arrogance and too quick with his speech. She says
We love each other - that's given. Neither of us doubts it. We're free now to make our own choices, our own lives. Really, no one can tell us how to live. Free agents! And people live in all kinds of ways now, they can live by their own rules and standards without having to ask anyone else for permission. ... We could be together, live together, and if you wanted, really wanted, that's to say, whenever it happened, and of course it would happen, I would understand, more than that, I'd want it, I would because I want you to be happy and free. I'd never be jealous, as long as I knew that you loved me. [155]
But would or could Edward venture into the unknown? Could he break societal standards and norm? Could he follow his own path? The marriage was dissolved on the ground of non-consummation. And whereas Florence went on to achieve success with her musical career, producing album after album and playing at all the big places, receiving all the great reviews there were, failure beheld Edward, who at age sixty had fathered several children, lived with several women, and had another unsuccessful marriage behind him. With the exception of his balding head, there was nothing worthy, tangible or otherwise that he could show. Ending up living as a tenant in his father's house, Edward became a representation of failure and regret. In his regret, he made it a point to stay away from classical music; though he could not deny his love for Florence and her Classical Music. On the other hand, one could also observe that Edward's failure might not have stemmed from the fact that he divorced Florence, for that cannot stand to any objective and intellectual investigation. What might have caused his descent and failure is a mentality of subtle revenge; of trying to do or get whatever was withhold from him. Thus wanton search for sex took his mind away from the very things he set out to do. Again, he tried to go counter to everything Florence stood for, thus dabbling in the rock music industry, and achieving no measurable success.

McEwan by this very book, shortlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize, provided the nascent stages of the many mini-revolutions that have changed our world in the past half century and which we have now been taken for granted. Another issue that was hinted at, only, was the breakdown of religious fanaticism and the ontogeny of atheism or a thread back to the Age of Reason; however, this was not fully fleshed out.

This is my first reading of McEwan's body of work and I enjoyed it very much. Consequently, I will go ahead to read the other four on my reading challenge. 


  1. I so want to read this book and have been hearing a lot of good things for a long time about it. I am glad to hear that you loved it, and I think you wrote a wonderful review!

  2. Oh! This does sound so like a wonderful book. I am yet to try anything by McEwan.

  3. This is such a thorough and perceptive review! I put On Chesil Beach aside to finish another book I've been reading, but plan to pick it up again very soon.

  4. @Zibilee, it's interesting. I hope you pick it.

  5. @Geosi, Well, I don't know much about his body of work, whether they are all above the average or some are. But I have heard good things about this book and Atonement and to some extent Saturday.

  6. Thanks JoAnn. I hope you pick it up.

  7. I am so not a fan of Ian McEwan's work. I find that the plots cannot be sustain over the length of his novels. That's me and just saying...

  8. @Kinna, this is my first read. May be, since you're more technical than I am.


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