Until recently, you could not have described Ian McEwan as a moral novelist. His fiction too often concerned itself with immoral, or positively amoral, perpetrators of murder, rape, incest, and dismemberment, who often survived to the end of the book unpunished. A droll and precise chronicler of psychological and sexual pathologies, McEwan amused himself and his readers with the care and coolness of his descriptions. Characters such as June in Black Dogs or the writer Stephen in The Child in Time may have searched for some better understanding of good and evil, but they remained decidedly in the minority.
More recently, McEwan has suggested that writing itself, the feat of empathy it requires, should be construed a moral act. In a Guardian essay on the events of September 11, he wrote that the hijackers would not have carried out their plan had they “been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers.” McEwan continued: “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”
In McEwan’s Atonement, also published in 2001, a woman attempts to make reparation for a childhood mistake with an extraordinary and heartbreaking display of empathy. She writes a novel reimagining the events of the past, inserting herself into the minds of the people she hurt and writing them the happy ending that life denied them. Similarly, in 2005’s Saturday, literature became the vehicle for another honorable act. Threatened with assault by a nervy felon, Daisy Perowne reads aloud Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” claiming it as her own poem. Hearing it, her attacker desists from rapine. “You wrote that,” he says. “It’s beautiful. You know that, don’t you. It’s beautiful and you wrote it. . . . It makes me think about where I grew up.” In McEwan’s surprisingly kindly vision, even this would-be rapist proves himself capable of compassion.
McEwan carries many of these same concerns over to his new book, and the Arnold poem, too, which echoes in its title, On Chesil Beach. But here McEwan is not so generous with his characters. This slim novel—a novella, really—works as a parable of failed empathy. On a moonlit beach, two lovers turn away from one another, destroying their newly-minted marriage and perhaps themselves in the process. Neither cares to imagine the other’s suffering, so instead of cleaving together, they break apart.
The era, the early ’60s, deserves a share of the blame, according to McEwan. The novel opens with the declaration, “They were young, educated, and both virgins, on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.” The year is 1962, “when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of the cure.” With “the language and practice of therapy, the currency of feelings diligently shared, mutually analyzed,” still many years away, Edward and Florence find themselves each asea in their individual anxieties and fears. The attempted consummation of their marriage goes pitifully awry. Ashamed and terrified, they each respond with recrimination rather than sympathy.
This backward-looking stance, this assumption that the couple may have prospered had they been born a few years later, risks a charge of smugness. It carries more than a whiff of author knows best. The chapters detailing their respective childhoods and schooling sometimes have the same tone, a too-assured intimation that their pasts neatly account for their present difficulties. But such criticisms fall away when McEwan returns to the wedding night itself, scrupulously describing the mordant, melancholy comedy of it, the tragedy it gives rise to.
Everywhere the couple misreads and misinterprets. Edward mistakes Florence’s nervousness for excitement; she confuses his attempts to delay orgasm with consideration for her. As Edward thrusts his tongue into her mouth, Florence groans with nausea: “now she really did think she was going to be sick. When he heard her moan, Edward knew that his happiness was almost complete.” Eventually Edward “arrives,” in the book’s polite parlance, without ever having entered Florence. She believes herself responsible, “If his jugular had burst, it could not have seemed more terrible.” He reads her recoil for disgust at his failure. She “wipes[s] herself frantically” and runs from him.
If at the novel’s denouement the characters cannot summon up compassion, McEwan can—and only an exceptionally hard-hearted reader could fail to pity Edward and Florence. A modern morality tale, On Chesil Beach ends with an honest-to-goodness moral: “Love and patience—if only he had had them both at once—would surely have seen them both through.” On this darkling plain, advises McEwan, they are all that will sustain us.