An analysis of three Ian McEwan novels

In literary theory, there is a distinction between modernism and postmodernism.  Both terms are associated with specific literary features.  For example, a modern text tends to focus on the experience of an individual as part of society, whereas a postmodern text tends to remove any explicit reference to society.  It is difficult to identify when modernism stops and when postmodernism begins, since the two terms belong on either end of a continuum.  In fact, the difference is more to do with attitude than with any particular literary feature.  A modern text belongs to the tradition that views the history of mankind as a steady march of progress; a postmodern text does not belong to this tradition.

In this article I discuss the modernism-postmodernism distinction in relation to three works by Ian McEwan: The Cement Garden (1978), Saturday (2005) and Enduring Love (1997).  Marcus (2009: 98) writes that McEwan started as a postmodern writer and has moved closer to the modern movement with his later publications.  I argue for the opposite position, by highlighting modern elements in McEwan’s early writing as well as postmodern elements in his later writing.  I conclude that the modernism-postmodernism distinction has no real substance.

1. The Cement Garden

Four siblings live with their parents in the middle of nowhere.  First the father dies and then the mother.  The children bury their mother underneath the house without telling anyone, to save the youngest child from a life of foster homes.  The novella describes how the children fend for themselves.  It also focusses on a number of disturbing issues, in particular the incestuous relationship between the older siblings, Jack (aged 15) and Julie (aged 17).  The novella ends with the sound of police sirens approaching the house, as the teenagers are together in bed.

The novella has certain features that mark it out as a postmodern text (Cuddon 1999).  There is no tradition and no obvious sense of time or geographical location.  In fact, there are no historical or cultural reference points at all; the plot unfolds entirely within its own bubble.  Perhaps more apparent, however, is the contentious subject matter.  We are forced to face difficult questions that concern the lines we draw between the personal and the social, and between what is right and wrong (Childs 2006: 33).

‘I had an idea that in the nuclear family the kind of forces that are being suppressed – the oedipal, incestuous forces – are also paradoxically the very forces which keep the family together’ – McEwan in Hamilton (1978)

It is possible to understand Jack’s desire for his sister in pseudo-Oedipal terms.  The basic idea is as follows.  Jack lusts after his mother and not his sister. This desire is suppressed, in that as his mother is buried beneath the house.  This reading does not, however, account for the parental influence that persists throughout the novella.  In fending for themselves, the children assume the roles previously assumed by their parents.  The incest may be shocking for some (see Childs 2006: 33) but I see it as an attempt by Jack and Julie to cling on to a nuclear (i.e. two-parent) family structure (cf. Roger 1996).

There is evidence to suggest that the sex is symbolic and not merely shocking.  McEwan documents the lives of his characters in an unsentimental way, which makes the novella refreshing and even believable (Childs 2006: 33).  I think that this functions as a subtle warning to the reader: for him or her not to react too strongly to the subject matter.  Do not forget that McEwan’s characters have economic independence, which means that they are essentially adults in miniature.  The children in McEwan’s novella are free to act outside of the constraints placed upon young people by society.

Callil & Töibín (1999: 113) agree that Jack and Julie are simply striving to recreate the familial environment with which they are accustomed.  The authors even claim that the children’s world ‘has been so perfectly created that you feel miserable at the prospect of it being broken up’.  After all, Jack and July barely talk to each other before they have intercourse, which occurs at the very end of the novella.  I conclude from this that normality was only restored at the end of The Cement Garden.  McEwan is in fact talking about the omnipresence of the nuclear family structure (Groes 2009: 8) and this resonates well with the modernism movement.

2. Saturday

Saturday is the most recent of the McEwan’s books that I am considering in this essay.  It concerns an affluent neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne (aged 48), who lives in London.  Unable to sleep, Perowne witnesses a plane crash in the early hours of the morning and this weighs heavily on his mind throughout the day.  On his way to play squash, he is involved in a minor traffic dispute.  The other driver, Baxter, is a violent man and threatens to lash out.  Perowne takes one look at the man before diagnosing him with Huntingdon’s, whereupon the aggressor flees the scene.  Baxter shows up later, however, at the Perowne household during a long-awaited family reunion.  He and an accomplice force their way in, armed with knives.

The intruders force Perowne’s daughter (Daisy) to take off her clothes and this reveals her secret pregnancy.  The men also force her to recite a poem of her own composition.  But Daisy chooses another poem and her recital prompts a fit of remorse from Baxter.  This wave of regret sedates Baxter for long enough so that Perowne and Perowne’s son can knock him unconscious.  Later, Perowne is called to the hospital to perform life-saving surgery on Baxter.  Perowne realizes that he has the power to enact dreadful revenge, but he chooses instead to save the man.

In Saturday, McEwan pays homage to two modernist texts.  Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, too, begins at daybreak with a harrowing realization.  And the protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway spends her time preparing for a dinner party, which culminates in an epiphany.  McEwan echoes these modernist authors intentionally: it is no accident that many of McEwan’s characters are themselves writers (Joe in Enduring Love, Stephen in The Child in Time, Vernon in Amsterdam and Jeremy in Black Dogs).  The fact that so many protagonists are themselves writers is an extension of the modernist preoccupation with experimental literary form.

There is a more specific way that McEwan pays homage to these Modernist writers.  He employs the stream of consciousness technique that is most associated with Mrs Dalloway.  The technique aims to capture thoughts and feelings as they pass through the mind of the protagonist (Cuddon 1999: 866).  The idea is that an internal monologue injects subjectivity into an otherwise prosaic narrative.  Like Clarissa in Woolf’s novel, Perowne in Saturday is searching for an element of truth in his life: some vindication for both his upper-middleclass existence as well as his role as a father.

A familiar theme in McEwan’s work is the balance between faith and reason, between subjectivity and rationalism.  Perowne is a man of science, but his daughter is a poet and his son is a blues musician.  For McEwan, the practicality of the modern era is perfectly compatible with the idealism of the postmodern.  This observation, of course, challenges Marcus’ general transition hypothesis.  Perowne, observing the far-away plane crash, feels strangely connected to it, as if it was happening purely for his benefit.  At that point, Perowne senses that ‘Whatever the score, it is already chalked up’ (McEwan 2006; 19).

‘Henry thinks the city is a success, a brilliant invention, a biological masterpiece – millions teeming around the accumulated and layered achievements of the centuries . . . nearly everyone wanting it to work’ – McEwan (2006)

Even this description of London bridges the modern / postmodern divide.  First, the city is the crowning jewel of the postmodern era, with its purchase power excesses and the stark disparity between rich and poor.  But, to Perowne, London is more of an organism than a commodity: it is essentially the coming-together in one place of many individuals’ work.  This compromise between modern and postmodern aspects appears throughout Saturday.  Any rationality Perowne expresses when diagnosing Baxter is balanced by any irrationality he expresses when observing the plane crash: both are complementary and both play an equally important role in our lives.  But perhaps subjectivity triumphs in McEwan’s novel: after all, no amount of rational discussion can spare the family from their ordeal at the hands of Baxter.

3. Enduring Love

Joe and Clarissa are enjoying a romantic picnic when they are interrupted by cries for help.  Joe rushes to the scene of a grandfather trying to regain control of his hot-air balloon.  Passers-by cling to the basket in an attempt to save the small child on board.  They all let go in time, however, except one man who dies.  At the scene, Joe comes into contact with Jed, who suffers from erotomania.  Jed is under the impression that Joe is in love with him but is scared to admit it.  Jed’s fascination with Joe grows to dangerous levels over the course of the novel.  But Joe can never convince Clarissa (or, for that matter, the police) that something is wrong.

‘Jed thinks Joe does not realize that he really loves Jed, and Joe thinks that he understands Jed’s delusion as a medical condition, while Clarissa, the Keats scholar, is eventually exasperated by Joe’s attempted rationalization of emotion’. (Ridley, 2009; vii)

The novel ends when Joe (having acquired a gun out of desperation) returns home to find Jed sat on the sofa with Clarissa.  Jed holds a knife to his own throat so Joe shoots him, in so doing preventing Jed from committing suicide.  Ultimately, however, things between Joe and Clarissa cannot return to normal and they separate.  Jed remains uncured of his condition.  Joe is a science writer while his partner, Clarissa, is a 19th-Century poetry scholar (it is no coincidence that she shares her name with the protagonist from Mrs Dalloway).  There is overlap between these two traditions.  (Joe is particularly enamoured by Einstein’s theory of relativity but argues that it gained so much support due to its inherent beauty and not its inherent truth).

McEwan wrote Enduring Love as a response to (read rejection of) the long-standing literary tradition of celebrating emotion (Reynolds & Noakes 2002: 17).  McEwan takes the sentimentalism away from the novel by limiting the amount of sympathy we have for each character.  There are essentially three counter-points: Jed, Joe and Clarissa.  The reader is supposed to side with Clarissa, the heart-over-head poet who is unable to accept the scientific explanation for Jed’s behaviour.  But, just like the police, she is proved wrong in the end.  The novel acts as a subtle reminder that we cannot always trust our intuitions.  It seems, then, that McEwan is commenting in society and not appealing to either the modernism or postmodernism tradition.

Though they are partners, Joe and Clarissa are polar opposites who represent two fundamentally different ways of viewing the world.  There are a number of ways in which this dichotomy is played out: (i) between Jed’s religious evangelism and Joe’s scientific certainty; (ii) between psychiatric and emotional explanations for Jed’s condition, or (iii) between Joe’s scientific and Clarissa’s literary interests (Childs 2006).   When Joe tries in vain to convince Clarissa that he has become the unwilling object of an intense infatuation that soon turns to obsession, neither can persuade the other of the right course of action to take, or indeed whether Joe really has a stalker at all.

The pathological extensions of love not only touch upon but overlap with normal experience, and it is not always easy to accept that one of our most valued experiences may merge into psychopathy’ – Mullen, P E and Pathe, M. (1994)

We must find a happy compromise between rationality and subjectivity in our daily lives.  At first blush, it may appear doubtful that Jed exists at all.  McEwan tells us of the similarity between Joe’s and Jed’s handwriting, for example.  Joe does not even remember making the decision to help in the balloon scene (McEwan 1997; 1).  Moreover, he has an account of the restaurant shooting that seems to differ from that of the other bystanders.  I think that McEwan does this, not for us to doubt Jed’s existence, but rather to question our attitudes towards rationality.  Rationality may not play a smaller role in our lives that we think; many of our reactions are based on intuition.  This is the conclusion McEwan comes to in Enduring Love.  The novel is about the co-existence of faith and reason and, by extension, of the merging of modern and postmodern elements.

4. Conclusion

The terms modernism and postmodernism are useful benchmarks when discussing literature.  If a novel is modern, we expect it to foreground individual creativity and perception.  There is often also a preoccupation with the use of language and/or the writing process (Barry 2002: 1999).  Many of McEwan’s characters, including Joe and Perowne’s daughter, are writers.  Others, like Clarissa, study how we perceive the world (through poetry) rather than how the world really operates.  But if a novel is postmodern, we expect its critics to focus on the ‘disappearance of the real’ (ibid: 91), on fragmentation and loss of certainty in society.  These positions are not extremes, but rather they exist on a continuum.  The distinction is largely one of attitude and not of substance.

There are postmodern elements in a wide cross-section of McEwan’s writing.  McEwan is not interested in presenting relationships that workInstead, he has succeeded in presenting to us loneliness, fragmentation and loveless sex (Noakes 2001).  Amsterdam focusses on loneliness; Black Dogs highlights struggles between men and women as well as parents and their children; Enduring Love is about obsession and the breakdown of scientific rationalism.  While at first glance his catalogue may seem bleak, McEwan’s work has always been an accurate reflection of our need for serious moral thought and philosophy.  Childs (2006; 6) tells us that, since 1975 and the publication of his first collection of short stories, McEwan has looked ‘unflinchingly’ at obsession, anxiety and the events that constitute our experiences in Western culture.


Callil, C. & Töibín, C., 1999. The Modern Library. UK: Picador

Childs, P., 2006. The Fiction of Ian McEwan: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism. UK: Palgrave Macmillan

Cuddon, J A., 1999. Dictionary of literary terms and literary theory. UK: Penguin Books

Groes, S., 2009. Ian McEwan: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. UK: Continuum International Publishing Group

Hamilton, I., 1978. Points of Departure.  Interview with Ian McEwan. In Roberts, R., ed., 2010. Conversations with Ian McEwan. U.S.: University of Mississippi Press

Haffenden, J., 1985. Novelists in Interview. UK: Methuen Publishing Ltd

Marcus, L., 2009. Ian McEwan’s Modernist Time: Atonement and Saturday. In Groes, S., ed. Ian McEwan: Contemporary Critical Persp.ectives. UK: Continuum International Publishing Group

McEwan, I., 1997. The Cement Garden. UK: Vintage

McEwan, I., 1998. Enduring Love. UK: Vintage

McEwan, I., 1999. Amsterdam. UK: Vintage

McEwan, I., 2006. Saturday. UK: Vintage

Mullen, P E. & Pathe, M., 1994. The Pathological Extensions of Love. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 615. p. 614-623

Reynolds, M. & Noakes, J., 2002. Ian McEwan: The Essential Guide. UK: Vintage

Ridley, M., 2009. Foreword: Ian McEwan and the Rational Mind. In Groes, S. [ed.] Ian McEwan: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. UK: Continuum International Publishing Group

Roger, A., 1996. Ian McEwan’s Portrayal of Women. Forum for Modern Language Studies. January. 32:1. p. 11-26


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