BORN: 1948, Aldershot, England
GENRE: Fiction, screenplays
First Love, Last Rites (1975)
The Comfort of Strangers (1981) Amsterdam (1998)
On Chesil Beach (2007)
Ian McEwan. David Levenson / Getty Images
Ian McEwan, a contemporary British novelist and screenwriter, is widely recognized for the daring originality of his fiction, much of which delineates bizarre sexuality and shocking violence. Frequently centering on deviant antiheroes, his works explore conflicts between norms and socially unacceptable drives of the unconscious.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood Abroad. Ian Russell McEwan was born on June 21, 1948, in Aldershot, England, to David McEwan and Rose Lilian Violet Moore McEwan. His father was a sergeant major in the British army. McEwan’s childhood was spent in the tracks of his father’s assignments to empire outposts such as Singapore and Libya until the age of twelve, when he was sent to boarding school in England for five years. It was there that he became interested in English Romantic poetry and modern American and English fiction.
New British University Graduate. McEwan entered the University of Sussex in Brighton in 1967 and earned a BA with honors in English in 1970. He then enrolled in the MA program in English at the University of East Anglia, where he was permitted to submit some of his short fiction as part of the requirements for his degree. Under the tutelage of novelist Malcolm Bradbury, McE- wan wrote more than two dozen short stories and earned his degree in 1971.
McEwan is very much a product of the new British universities, popularly known as ‘‘plate-glass universities’’ as opposed to the older ‘‘red-brick universities’’ at which his contemporaries, such as Kinglsey Amis or Philip Larkin, have taught or still work. Built during the 1960s, the new universities set out to revolutionize curricula and the general structure of academic life in Great Britain. To a significant extent they succeeded, and their graduates, such as McEwan, have made a distinctive impact on the cultural life of the United Kingdom.
After a brief foray traveling in Afghanistan after earning his master’s degree, McEwan returned to England and focused on publishing and his writing career. The country he returned to faced numerous challenges in the 1970s. The British Empire had disappeared in the post-World War II period, leaving Britain only with a handful of dependencies with mostly tiny populations and few economic resources. A Labour government replaced the Conservative one in 1974, though the change did little to stem the rapid inflation, labor disputes, and protracted conflict in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants that marked the decade.
From Short-Story Writer to Novelist. Three short stories written for his master’s thesis were included in McEwan’s initial collection, First Love, Last Rites (1975), which won the Somerset Maugham Award and established McEwan as one of England’s most promising young writers. However, many critics expressed discomfort with his portrayal of childhood innocence warped by such anomalies as incest and forced transvestism. Three years later the second collection, In Between the Sheets (1978), appeared. In the same year McEwan published his first novel, The Cement Garden (1978). Its concerns— incest, murder (or at least murderousness), infantilism, and gender confusion—had all been foreshadowed in his stories.
Success as Novelist. The publication of the novel essentially marked the end of McEwan’s career as a writer of short fiction. He has written in a variety of genres since then, including novels, plays, an oratorio, and motion-picture and television scripts, but he has published only a handful of short-fiction works. Critical acclaim for McEwan’s novels began building with the first of four novels to be nominated for a prestigious Booker Prize, The Comfort of Strangers (1981). Set in Venice, Italy, less for its romantic or historic properties than as a place of menace and distortion, it tells about an English couple on holiday. One night they lose their way and fall in with a local man who eventually involves them in his own life and eventually a murder.
New Territories. In the mid-1980s McEwan’s fiction moved into new territory. While traces of his interest in violence and abnormal psychological states remain, these subsequent works express much greater interest in broader questions of politics and history. With each subsequent novel, too, McEwan’s narrators have become more readily understandable and sympathetic characters. They are often artists or writers, in relationships with spouses and children, and they pay attention to world history and politics in ways that the narrators and main characters from the short-story collections do not.
In a 1987 interview with Amanda Smith in Publishers Weekly, McEwan noted that his 1982 marriage to Penny Allen, by which he acquired two stepdaughters, and the subsequent births of his two sons were at least partially responsible for this shift in focus.
Important Later Novels. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, McEwan continued to publish challenging novels. With Black Dogs (1992), the author reflects on the aftermath of the Nazi regime in Europe. The Nazi party ruled Germany in the 1930s, and their aggressive territorial ambitions were a direct cause of World War II. Included in the novel was the fall of the Berlin Wall, a significant milestone in the end of Communist domination of Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War. Amsterdam (1998) describes the moral dilemma brought about by a lingering mental illness. Atonement (2001), regarded as one of McEwan’s best works, is a story told from the point of view of an impressionable young narrator clearly identified as imaginative and inclined to interpret events to suit her penchant for drama. Saturday (2005) is set in the context of the growing opposition to the Iraq invasion. On Chesil Beach (2007) is a story of sexual awakening, as a couple undergoes a difficult but fruitful transition from innocence to familiarity.
Since the early 1980s, McEwan also has increasingly explored forms of writing other than those of the short story and the novel. He has written television plays, movie scripts (both original and adapted from the fiction of others), children’s literature, and the words for an oratorio. He is regarded as one of the most versatile English authors of his generation.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
McEwan's famous contemporaries include:
Margaret Atwood (1939—): Canadian Atwood is a novelist, poet, and short-story writer whose talents lie in exploring the relationship between humanity and nature and scrutinizing power as it pertains to gender and political roles. Her novels include The Handmaid's Tale (1985).
Julian Barnes (1946-): British author Barnes writes novels and publishes crime fiction under the name Dan Kavanagh. His novels include Talking It Over (1991).
Anne Rice (1941—): American author Rice is famous for her novel Interview with the Vampire (1973). In her work, she blends accurate historical elements with such themes as alienation and the individual's search for identity.
Alice Walker (1944-): African American writer Walker first gained success with her novel The Color Purple (1983).
Martin Amis (1949-): British author Amis is a prominent contemporary novelist and son of novelist Kingsley Amis. Martin Amis is lauded for his satirical view of the excesses of youth and contemporary society. His works include Night Train (1997).
Jim Carroll (1950—): American author Carroll is best known for his autobiographical work The Basketball Diaries (1978), which was made into a film in 1995.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
McEwan predominantly focuses on adolescent characters, depicting them as acutely alienated and prone to cruelty or degenerate behavior. Here are some other works that center around conflicted teens:
The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a novel by J. D. Salinger. This novel's main character, Holden Caulfield, is a well- known icon of teenage alienation and defiance.
The Ice Storm (1994), a novel by Rick Moody. This novel centers around two neighboring families and the difficulties both the adolescents and the parents have in dealing with the difficult issues of the early 1970s.
Ham on Rye (1982), a novel by Charles Bukowski. This semiautobiographical work chronicles the coming-of- age of a young man who lives in Los Angeles during the Great Depression.
Lord of the Flies (1954), a novel by William Golding. This story examines a group of schoolboys abandoned on a desert island during a global war and highlights the conflict between the forces of light and dark within the human soul.
Works in Literary Context
Influenced by his interest in contemporary American and British fiction as well as Romantic poetry, McEwan is recognized for the originality of his fiction, much of which features bizarre sexuality and shocking violence.
Unconventional Stories. McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden, exposes a distorted adolescent world. This work examines the deteriorating relationships among four children who are left alone after both parents die. It opens with the death of their father. Attempting to cover the family garden with concrete because he is too ill to tend it, the father suffers a heart attack and collapses in the wet cement. The narrator, a homely adolescent named Jack, maintains a detached voice that casts a numbness over horrifying events.
McEwan’s second short-story collection, In Between the Sheets, flows from realism to fantasy, horror to comedy. Magical realism permeates the stories, which frequently portray peculiar sexual relationships. Thus, destructive sexuality is also a prominent theme. For example, ‘‘Reflections of a Kept Ape’’ is narrated by an ape who contemplates his waning relationship with his owner, a struggling female novelist. ‘‘Dead as They Come’’ portrays a wealthy, egotistical man who becomes obsessed with a mannequin and then destroys her when he believes she has been unfaithful.
Post-War Settings. Many of McEwan’s later novels share a similar setting—the post-World War II era, often continental Europe—and feature stories that are multilayered. The theme of loss is also a hallmark of these books. Black Dogs, for example, explores the crumbling marriage of a couple against the fall out from Nazi rule on Europe. Their marriage falls apart after they encounter a pair of feral dogs which symbolize both the evil that humans, like the Nazis, are capable of as well as the extraordinary acts that people can accomplish when confronting such evil. While Amsterdam has a more contemporary setting, McEwan uses the death of Molly Lane to drive the plot and explore euthanasia issues in Great Britain. Her two oldest friends—a composer and a newspaper editor—make a euthanasia pact at her funeral, and though the pair come to odds, their story ends in Holland where the procedure can be more easily arrange. Atonement begins before World War II is launched when a working class young man, Robbie Turner, is falsely accused of rape on the estate on which his family works. The accusation is a payback for a misunderstanding a young girl sees between the young man and her elder sister. Much of the novel concerns what happens to the characters during World War II, as the young lovers lose each other, and the young girl suffers the loss of respect for herself and from her sister. Robbie goes to prison, but is allowed to serve during the war, bringing the conflict and all the death and destruction to the forefront.
Works in Critical Context
McEwan first came to public notice in 1975, and was immediately recognized as an important new voice on the fiction scene. Having at first achieved fame, or even notoriety, because of the edgy nature of his subject matter, it has also polarized the critical assessment of his work. While some critics have maintained that McEwan is a serious literary writer who addresses challenging issues in his work, others have asserted that he is merely a glorified horror writer who is solely concerned with producing gratuitously shocking prose. Despite these disagreements, McEwan has been consistently praised for his storytelling, characterizations, and adept handling of metaphor and symbol.
The Child in Time. Many critics consider The Child in Time the most complex of McEwan’s works, as it presents a political, personal, and metaphysical exploration of childhood. Based on an actual event, The Child in Time describes the agony of a father whose daughter is kidnapped from a grocery store. Consumed by guilt and grief, he steadily loses touch with reality, believing he sees his lost daughter everywhere.
Many reviewers stressed the novel’s theme of lost youth, pointing to a character named Charles Darke, a successful politician who regresses to his childhood and ultimately commits suicide. Roberta Smoodin stated of the novel, ‘‘A lost childhood, lost childhood hopes and dreams remain present in the seemingly mature adult, McEwan suggests, not only in memory but in a kind of time that spirals in upon itself, seems to be recapturable in some plausible intermingling of Einstein and Proust, quantum physics and magical realism.’’
Also emphasized by critics is how McEwan explores the idea of time, its passage, and how they affect the human condition. As Mike Brett wrote in the English Review, ‘‘McEwan’s great skill here is to explore scientific theory in a way that illuminates the unforeseeable tragic potential in the mundane choices we make on an everyday basis.’’
Responses to Literature
1. McEwan often features adolescent characters in extreme angst. In small groups, discuss McEwan’s comment on adolescence. Stage a debate about your beliefs for the class.
2. McEwan’s work first attracted public attention because it was unsettling and disturbing. Write a short review of his works commenting on his novels’ shock value and literary merits.
3. Choose two scenes from McEwan’s works and write an essay comparing and contrasting their events, styles, and themes.
4. After having read several of McEwan’s stories, what kind of attitude do you think the author has toward the world? In your paper, support your argument with lines from his books.
5. Read Atonement, then view the highly acclaimed film adaptation, released in 2007. In an essay, compare and contrast the two versions of the story. Does the filmmaker fully explore the novel’s themes? What would you have done differently?
Haffenden, John. Novelists in Interview. London: Methuen, 1985.
Ryan, Kiernan. Ian McEwan. Plymouth, U.K.: Northcote House, 1994.
Slay, Jack, Jr. Ian McEwan. New York: Twayne, 1996.
Stevenson, Randall. The British Novel Since the Thirties: An Introduction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.
Brett, Mike. ‘‘Time, Science and Philosophy in The Child in Time' English Review (April 2005): 12.
Byrnes, Christina. ‘‘Ian McEwan: Pornographer or Prophet?” Contemporary Review (June 1995).
Delrez, Marc. ‘‘Escape into Innocence: Ian McEwan and the Nightmare of History.” Ariel (April 1995).
Hamilton, Ian. ‘‘Points of Departure.” New Review (Autumn 1978).
Ricks, Christopher. ‘‘Adolescence and After.'' Listener (April 12, 1979).
Smith, Amanda. ‘‘Ian McEwan.” Publishers Weekly (September 11, 1987).