Sunday, April 13, 2008

On Chesil Beach

Warning: Spoiler ahead.

She watched him, willing him to go slower, for she was guiltily afraid of him, and was desperate for more time to herself. Whatever conversation they were about to have, she dreaded it. As she understood it, there were no words to name what had happened, there existed no shared language in which two sane adults could describe such events to each other.

This section occurs about two thirds of the way through Ian McEwan's novella On Chesil Beach and it really gets to the heart of what the book is about. Edward and Florence are on their wedding night. It's 1962, before the sexual revolution, and things do not go well. Both are crippled by nerves and fears about sex and it is their lack of a shared language to speak about such things that creates a disastrous situation.

On Chesil Beach is a painful reading experience, not because it is badly written at all, but because of the awful awkwardness, fear and shame that both characters feel on their wedding night. On top of their inability to discuss their fears about sex, McEwan also includes a class conflict: Florence is from a batter educated and wealthier family than Edward. This class issue is emphasised during the intense emotion of their first (unsuccessful) attempt to have sex and to my mind, it is partly Edward's feelings of inferiority that mean he cannot understand what Florence is really feeling.

McEwan centres the entire novel around one short evening but this never feels limiting or claustrophobic. This is because he uses the wedding night as a springboard from which to explore the two main characters' backgrounds and childhoods. There is a dark hinting at some sort of sexual abuse in Florence's childhood that helped me to believe in what seemed at first an unreasonable fear of any sexual contact with Edward, who she clearly loves desperately. Edward it seems is determined to do what he feels he is supposed to do, what society expects of him, and thus cannot consider any suggestion of other ways that he and Florence might organise their married life.

It is no surprise then that things don't end well for the couple, although part of me was happy that they were able to go off and explore beyond the confines of what seemed a rather limiting relationship. McEwan describes the rest of Edward's life but I wanted to know more about Florence and whether she ever did have a satisfying sexual relationship, although I suspect she doesn't. Some readers have criticised the lack of historical accuracy in the novel and it does seem lax of McEwan to not get at least the simplest facts correct such as when albums were released and so on, but for me this was not a barrier to enjoying the story. In the end I felt as though he might have exaggerated circumstances somewhat. To my mind, the shame of a failed marriage and divorce would have been a pretty compelling reason for characters as conservative as Edward and Florence to stay together, but on the other hand I can see that they had reached a point of no return.

On Chesil Beach is a reminder of the terrible price of ignorance. I finished this book feeling so thankful that I have grown up in a world that values openness and education about sex so that hopefully none of my peers experience anything like what McEwan's characters go through. Thankfully we now do have that shared language that Florence and Edward so desperately needed.


Dorothy W. said...

This book IS painful, isn't it? I cringed the whole way through, but I did like it and admire it.

Leah said...

I read this on holiday and although in places it was an uncomfortable read, I enjoyed the skill in the writing to pass on those feelings of frustration. I enjoy reading your blog by the way.

Anonymous said...

Agreed it was a cringe worthy read. I really love the detail with which McEwan describes his characters and environment. It almost as if he is savouring the words, rolling them around in his mouth like a piece of fine dark chocolate. I was a little disappointed with the ending though, I really couldn't picture Edward ending up the way he did.

Really like the blog by the way :D

Sabine said...

I am now in the somewhat uncomfortable position of getting to teach On Chesil Beach to a very bright class of 19-year-old ESL students. They simply would not be dissuaded. Even though I'm sure it will lend itself really well to teaching, it's just so embarrassing and cringe-worthy. Oh well.

jess said...

Sabine, I can imagine how awkward this might be! Have fun though, I can see the book has great teaching potential.

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