On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beachbook by Ian McEwan

annotation by Ted Chiles

Time should move equally. When the narrative shifts from front story to back-story and then returns, an appropriate amount of time should have elapsed in the front story. Not equal chronological time, but equal narrative time. The alternative is the perception that the characters in the front story have been frozen mid-step waiting for us with glasses raised or forks poised. This equality of narrative time is not maintained in On Chesil Beach, yet we are not thrown out of the narrative. Ian McEwan uses an omniscient narrator to create space in the front story for his extended movements to back-story.

McEwan tells the life stories of a young couple, Florence and Edward, on their wedding night. He focuses on the how life can be altered, not only by what is said and done, but by the choice not to say or do what should be said or done. He uses back-story to explain the reasons of inaction.

Signaling the dominant voice, McEwan begins the novel with the omniscient narrator: “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. But it is never easy,” (1). Once the narrator’s voice and command are firmly established, the book shifts to a scene where the young couple is eating in their room: “The formal meal began, as many did, with a slice of melon decorated by a single glazed cherry,” (5). Time slows in the front story as we learn of his sexual anxiety: “His specific worry, based on one unfortunate experience, was overexcitement … ” (8), and her revulsion at the prospect of intercourse: “She simply did not want to be ‘entered’ or ‘penetrated’ … ” (10). We return to the meal: “They ate the melon in less than two minutes… ” (13), where resumption of the front story is marked by a space break. The exploration of their sexual anxieties has taken two minutes in the front- story and six pages of back-story.

Why doesn’t this inconsistency disconnect the narrative? Does the omniscient narrator, always present, with a dominating voice hold the narrative together? The story is largely interpreted and told by a narrator who is not a character reflecting back on his or her life. This choice of POV allows for a different sense of time because a story told instead of shown, is freed from the restraint of the internal logic of scenes.

Scenes exist but even then the characters’ actions are interpreted for the reader: “But the hand that held the wineglass trembled as he struggled to contain his sudden happiness and exaltation,” (14). Two pages of scene again shift into back-story without a space break: “Edward had a degree … ” (15), and returns to scene, delineated by a space break, when the rest of the meal is served: “The waiters were arriving with their plates of beef, … ” (21), six pages later.
In On Chesil Beach, time belongs to the narrator, not the characters. A story mostly told, not shown, has the freedom to move about time because we mark our movement by the voice of the narrator. When does time stop? When are characters frozen helpless and unable to move? It is when a voice, not of the world but above it, comments on the scene below. This we can accept because with omniscient comes such authority.

Often the first piece of advice given to the novice writer is to show not tell. Later, the writer is told that in fiction you can do anything as long as it works. The omniscient narrator, in the hands of an accomplished writer, works. Time can stand still.

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One thought on “On Chesil Beach

  1. i didn’t really think this was a novel or even a novella. it felt to me like ian mcewan cashing in by having a new book in stores as “atonement” came out on movie screens.

    he’s a gifted writer, but “on chesil beach” felt like more of a working outline of a novel.

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