Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: A Review

After his brilliant novel Atonement (that not even a horrible movie based on it manged to destroy), I was weary of reading anything else by Ian McEwan. You never know if a writer is one of those people who manage to create one great work of literature and then keep trying to feed on its fame. Still, I decided to risk being disappointed with McEwan's On Chesil Beach. It turned out to be one of the best reading decisions I could have made.

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.


Anita said...

Hmmmm...maybe I'll look for it the next time I'm in the book store.
You've convinced me that On Chesil beach is a good read.

Clarissa said...

Thank you, Anita! I'm happy to hear this.

NancyP said...

I just read it, and it seems clear to me that Florence (bride) had been sexually abused by her father. No, it doesn't spell it out in so many words, but her not-very specific memories of dreaded boat trips alone with her father, plus observations made by her fiance while visiting her parents, point in the direction of sexual abuse.

The cultural silence that is most relevant is that around child sexual abuse.

Clarissa said...

I had that feeling too.

There are many layers of meaning in this great novel.

Have you thought about being a literary critic, NancyP? You are obviously gifted in this area.

NancyP said...

Not really. I have plenty on my plate now. I might write history after I retire.

Your New Woman Reader said...

I've found your site yesterday and couldn't stop myself from looking through all the archives.
For introduction: a woman, a Jew, born in east Ukraine like you (mother tongue Russian) and since my early teens have been living in Israel.

Lent this book and read it today. Found it all so sad rather than hilarious. I 100% agree that for me at least there is no love, no desire to live with, kiss (let alone more!) a man I am not very sexually attracted to. No question. However, I don't think the book teaches this lesson in general and would persuade those teens in particular. How can your interpretation explain the following?

"Now, of course, he saw that her self-effacing proposal was quite irrelevant. All she had needed was the certainity of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them. Love and patience - if only he had had them both at once - would surely have seen them through... He didn't know[sic] that as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice would've been a deliverance, and she would've turned back."

In fact, the teens could claim it teaches the opposite [see the bolded part] and be righter than you. Imo, both of you (you & the teens) would be wrong and miss that the main idea of the author is:
"This is how the entire course of a life can be changed - by doing nothing."
McEwan seems to say that those people could've had a great life together. For her - children & beloved spouse in addition to music, for him - life with a meaning and not: "He had drifted through, half asleep, inattentive, unambitious, unserious, childless, comfortable." He strongly implies their sex life could've been great too and they could've had great children. And they lost all of that because of ignorance both about sex and life, lack of wiseness, stubborness... So tragic to see people throw away their happiness like that, when it was in their hands. :(

As for her not being enthusiastic, apart from implied sexual abuse, even without it, I 100% understand why a virgin, raised in sexually repressive times, would be disgusted after reading about "engorged penis" and while feeling she MUST be penetrated at the first night together, when before their physical experementation has been very tame and she is shy by nature. In her place, I too would have been angry ["was she obliged on the night to transform herself for Edward into a kind of portal[sic]?"], afraid and probably disgusted. Even then, in less than perfect situation, she felt something, when he put his hand under her dress. On one site I saw great advice for virgins - "Don't hurry. Nothing bad if first penetration is after a year, not on the first night. You have all your lives." The book seems to show what can happen, if it isn't followed. Being penetrated on the first night together is very brutal for many virgin women, I would want to hurt such a man too.

Clarissa said...

New Woman Reader: Welcome to the blog! What's great about blogging is that it puts one in touch with many interesting people who often live very far away.

I agree with many of the things you say in your comment. However, we have to remember that the belief that they could have been happy together comes from the perspective (through the use of the indirect free style) of Edward. We know from the book that Edward is not e very perceptive person. He is rather self-involved and blind to the needs of others. He wants to believe that happiness was possible for them but whether there is truth in that is very doubtful.

Everything else you say, though, is very true. If only more people knew that!