On Chesil Beach


The novella is vintage McEwan, for good and ill. The good is his usual brilliance as a wordsmith - the gorgeous yet precise prose style; the by-now-predictable genius for summoning up compelling inner lives. (Not to mention vivid set-pieces: The ill-starred marriage bed of the book's young newlyweds joins the road to Dunkirk in Atonement and the balloon-invaded field in the opening scene of Enduring Love on the list of memorable McEwan landscapes.) The bad is the touch of chilly, faintly-misanthropic micromanagement that often mars his works. On Chesil Beach is better in this regard than the rancid Amsterdam and the overschematized Saturday, but the reader still too often has the sense that the characters are just chess pieces pushed around by the author's heavy hand, and that their unhappy fate is more the result of literary predestination than free choice. (I sometimes think that McEwan is never surprised by his characters, which is the sign, perhaps, of an author a little too much in control of his stories.) The novella's tragedy grows organically out of the protagonists' weaknesses, no doubt, but I still didn't quite believe in it, and if you asked me, the moment after I finished reading the novella, why it happened the way it did - why, in particular, the newlyweds let the opportunity for happiness slip through their fingers - I would have answered "because McEwan wanted it that way."

Then there's Damon Linker's argument that On Chesil Beach, by dramatizing the plight of sexually-inexperienced young people in a Puritan culture, demonstrates the bankruptcy of conservative nostalgia for Ye Olde 1950s. In the struggles of McEwan's star-crossed newlyweds, Damon descries an indictment of an entire social order, and of the "impotent cries of moral fuddy-duddies" who would lament its passing. And he is of course right that some social conservatives exaggerate the horrors of the Sexual Revolution and minimize the problems associated with a more repressed era, though by the same token many social liberals do precisely the reverse - for instance, by suggesting (as Damon does) that the revolution in sexual affairs swapped the horrors of "physical and psychological suffering" for a more manageable set of "complications and confusions," when obviously there's plenty of "physical and psychological suffering" associated with a more latitudinarian sexual framework as well. (It just tends to fall on inner-city children rather than upper-middle class twentysomething newlyweds.)

More importantly, though, the book itself teaches no such easy lesson. "They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night," McEwan begins, "and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible." But then he adds, as if in a pre-emptive rebuke to anyone who wants to read their sexual politics into his story: "But it is never easy." And to interpret On Chesil Beach as the story of two kids who just needed better sex ed, some hookups and maybe a serious relationship or two before they tied the knot and settle down is reductionism of the purest and silliest sort. Yes, McEwan's novel highlights serious problems with the pre-1960s sexual order, and yes, by all means, social conservatives ought to acknowledge that all was not sweetness and light before the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP. But On Chesil Beach also suggests that these two young virgins might well have lived happily ever, despite their deplorable lack of premarital sexual experience and all the "physical and psychological suffering" of their wedding night, if they'd been just a bit more charitable and forgiving to one another. As Damon himself puts it, of the tragic ending:

Yet it is also clear that McEwan considers this conclusion a terrible waste. In a brief coda to the novel, in which the narrator quickly fill us in on crucial details about Edward's and Florence's separate futures, we learn that they continued to love each other--or at least their memories of each other, and what might have been between them--from a distance for the rest of their lives. We also learn that the world in which the failed lovers soon find themselves, one marked by "the sudden guiltless elevation of sensual pleasure," has problems of its own. Edward spends much of the '60s, for instance, like a "confused and happy child," both delighted and bewildered by the "uncomplicated willingness of so many beautiful women." Yet his prolonged childhood ultimately issues in a form of maturity that men in earlier ages rarely achieved--a healthy appreciation for the intense, intimate pleasures of sex, along with a balanced and modest perspective about its proper place in a fulfilling human life. (emphasis mine)

All true, except for the last bit. Apparently Damon and I read different versions of On Chesil Beach: In the novella I read, Edward ends up unmarried, childless and alone, haunted by thoughts of what might have been had he been more forgiving on the fateful wedding night. He may have gained a "healthy appreciation for the intense, intimate pleasures of sex" and a "balanced and modest perspective about its proper place" by slipping free of his catastrophic wedding night and going on to a more swinging '60s lifestyle, but McEwan implies - in my reading, at least - that he lost the love of his life in the process. Which, like at least some of the bargains associated with the Sexual Revolution, hardly seems like a fair trade.

Photo by Flickr user Andy G used under a Creative Commons license.