On Chesil Beach

By Ian McEwan

It is 1962 England. The sexual revolution is still a few years away. Two young people in love get married and celebrate their honeymoon on Chesil Beach. It is their wedding night and neither of them have had sex before. It is a tortuous, intense situation and who better than McEwan to describe it in his vivid precise manner.

“Why were these lovers in a modern age so timid and innocent?” he asks. It is this question that is at the heart of this novella. “Social change never proceeds at an even pace”, he explains later. And so when the world was rapidly proceeding towards the pill, easy sex, dope and rock and roll, there is this corner in England that remains untouched.

It is a tragedy, because neither Florence nor Edward has gotten over Victorian restraint to make the physical relationship work. They are in love, impatient for their lives to get started and their future is within their grasp. But they flounder. In his exquisite way McEwan asks, “And what stood in their way? Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience or easy manners, then the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself.”

The night is a disaster. Florence’s fear and guilt coupled with Edward’s impatience drive them away from each other. The debacle that would not have seemed one in a few weeks or months had they stuck it out, changes the course of their lives forever. Florence runs away and Edward is too proud to follow. And at the end of an ordinary life, it is left to Edward to reminisce about the girl with the violin he had let go. “Love and patience – if only he had had them both at once – would surely have seen them both through…This is how the entire course of a life can be changed…by doing nothing.” And if only he had known or cared to know…Florence would have been his, if he had only called out to her in her distress.

It is a short tale but quite an evocative one. McEwan tells it with razor sharp precision and unbelievable compassion.


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