On Chesil Beach

While on a backpacking trip I read a short, wonderful novel by Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach. (http://www.amazon.com/Chesil-Beach-Ian-McEwan/dp/0307386171/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1247087868&sr=8-1). The plot put me off: two talented and naïve college graduates who, virgins on their wedding night, make a terrible mess of their first attempt at lovemaking. But McEwan is so good at passionate if misguided characters that this minor tragedy gripped me. I have been thinking about the book ever since. (That’s three whole days.)
The novel is set in in the early Sixties (that recently, really?), when nice young English people, perfectly irreligious, didn’t have sex before they were married. Much of these lovers’ troubles rise from their ignorance, their fear of the unknown, and their lack of a way to talk about it with each other. They are groping in the dark, with all the monsters of desire and terror that our sexuality can arouse.
The novel is utterly believable in its portrayal of that ignorance and fear of sex, so that readers are compelled to say to themselves, “Thank God we have risen above such medieval behavior.” Only some religiously devout people find themselves in that kind of difficulty today. The ease and frequency with which sex is talked of—let alone experienced—has changed so utterly in just fifty years that On Chesil Beach, while set in the era of the Beatles, seems to come from a Thomas Hardy novel.
I expect many will read On Chesil Beach through a lens of self-congratulating modernity. A closer reading will reveal, however, that McEwan does not let anyone off the hook as easily as that. For what is really at stake in the two characters’ tragedy is not (finally) ignorance or fear, or even a vocabulary to talk honestly about sex. What they need most of all is not experience or information or vocabulary but the ability to put aside anger, to appeal to each other, to treat each other graciously and to see sexual frustrations as our problem rather than yours or mine. Nobody has taught them the vocabulary of grace.
As McEwan puts it in the first sentences of the novel, “They lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.” And then, in the novel’s last paragraph, “This is how the entire course of a life can be changed—by doing nothing.” By “nothing” McEwan means not calling out to each other, not pursuing but standing in “cold and righteous silence” while watching the one we love recede into the distance on Chesil Beach.

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2 Responses to “On Chesil Beach”

  1. Anthony dela Fuente Says:

    the deeper issue of intimacy, and grace is a more difficult language to speak, i guess – while the ambivalent attitude toward sex often leads to difficulty, it is more often than not a symptom of the inability to truly love. mcEwan’s characters are almost always believable, and somehow victims of unfortunate events – this is what i like/dislike about his work. thanks for this post, tim.

  2. Anna Broadway Says:

    The interesting thing this raises, I think, is that with ease in talking of sex can come a tendency to see it as disconnected from other realities and in fact so important that it must always be THE point, rather than one of many ways various relational dynamics reveal themselves. Mel Gibson’s movie “What Women Want” is one of the only films I know where a sex scene is actually used to show something both to a character and about him — in this case, his selfishness. Maybe if more scenes of intimacy written to such effect, we wouldn’t be so blind to themes like those you highlight here.

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