On Chesil Beach is a fantastic novel. It tells the story of two newlyweds who, on their wedding day in the summer of 1962, are preparing to have sex for the first time in both of their lives. Neither of them knows what sex is like, they are both scared, and the bride finds the idea of having sex with the groom extremely disgusting, in spite of thinking that she "loves" him. The couple's lack of knowledge about sex turns their wedding night into an unmitigated disaster.
Now, this might sound like a pretty depressing topic, but the book is absolutely hilarious. I tried reading it while administering an exam to my students but had to give up on this idea. It simply isn't nice to laugh out loud and bang your head against desk becuase of the hilariousness of the reading matter while students are struggling with their exams. The following, for example, is the description of the marriage proposal:
When they were alone one afternoon in late March . . . she let her hand rest briefly on, or near, his penis. For less than fifteen seconds, in rising hope and ecstasy, he felt her through two layers of fabric. As soon as she pulled away he knew he could bear it no more. He asked her to marry him. He could not have known what it cost her to put a hand - it was the back of her hand - in such a place. She loved him, she wanted to please him, but she had to overcome considerable distaste. . . She kept that hand in place for as long as she could, until she felt a stirring and hardening beneath the gray flannel of his trousers. She experienced a living thing, quite separate from her edward - and she recoiled.If it seems surprising to you that in 1962, of all times, anybody would be naive enough to mistake something like this for love and even want to get married on the basis of such an evident lack of physical desire, think about how many people buy into the religious propaganda of abstinence before marriage. Imagine how many people - even today - are going through the following self-torture for the sake of some vaguely defined social requirements:
They whispered their 'I love yous.' It soothed her to be invoking, however quietly, the unfading formula that bound them, and that surely proved their interests were identical. She wondered if perhaps she might even make it through, and be strong enough to pretend convincingly, and on later, successive occasions whittle her anxieties away through sheer familiarity, until she could honestly find and give pleasure.It becomes clear soon enough that where desire is lacking, there can be no love. Physical desire is the foundation of love within a couple. The struggle to understand the other person, resolve problems, forgive, try to figure things out is fruitless if people do not experience a powerful physical attraction to each other. If this kind of desire is lacking, the motivation to keep trying is just as big as the one a person would have with a neighbor or a simple acquaintance. (I can't even say a roommate because these characters have never tried living together, so their bond is even more ephemeral.) As a result, Florence and Edward discover that their relationship dies a painful but a very fast death in the first few hours of their marriage.
I believe that instead of filling the heads of adolescents with idiotic pro-abstinence propaganda, any sex ed in high schools should begin by an obligatory reading of On Chesil Beach. There are so many people even today who screw up their lives completely because they mistake simple friendship for love and try to force a romantic, physical relationship where there is no foundation for it in actual physical desire. There are many people who, like Florence, force themselves to suffer through sexual acts with people they find repulsive for the sake of this castrated definition of love. How much self-violation could be avoided if people were to recognize that sexual desire is not supposed to serve their social expectations. When you try to make your body comply with what you think is prestigious, this poor, violated body of yours will make you pay dearly.
As hilarious as this book is, it also raises some very important issues. On Chesil Beach is one of the most insightful things I have read in a long time about the crippling nature of the puritanical understanding of love.