On Chesil Beach: Life (and sex)

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.

A relationship formalised when her stroking his penis elicits a marriage proposal from him ends on wedding night when her grasping his penis again makes him come all over her, sending her fleeing in revulsion first to the bathroom and then out of the hotel. She is frigid, Edward tells Florence, running after her. And when she tells him she loves him and that if he really wanted –- she doesn’t say what -– she would never be jealous as long as she knew he loved her, he spits out in cold fury: “You want me to go out with other women!…

“Do you realise how disgusting and ridiculous your idea is?”

Humiliated, Florence leaves the hotel the same night — and Edward doesn’t try to make up with her. Her parents set in motion a divorce on the grounds of non-consummation of marriage.

Unusual as it sounds, Ian McEwan brings this short novel to life with his exquisite prose, which verges on music and photography. He describes scenes and feelings vividly from the act of “self-pleasuring” — “a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body” — to the virgin Florence’s dread of any kind of physical intrusion. She does not like even French kissing, so when out of a sense of duty she starts foreplay with her newly-married husband, it ends in disaster. They have been engaged and fondled and kissed before, but they have never had sex.

Early Sixties

This is England in 1962, memorably described by Philip Larkin in the poem Annus Horribilis:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP

Edward adores his beautiful wife, and she loves him too -– but she is not prepared for this. She has other interests. As a trained classical musician, she is engrossed in her music and her career and has had girlfriends, not boyfriends, before.

McEwan portrays the differences in class and background between Edward and Florence. He is a schoolmaster’s son, a grammar school boy, she is a businessman’s daughter who has had all the privileges.

Starting with the dinner the newlyweds have before they retire to bed with disastrous consequences, the author tells the story flashing back and forth between the past and the present showing the differences between the couple. In the process one gets a picture of early 1960s England.

A day in the life

The story is set almost entirely in a single day, jumping 40 years to the noughties -– the present decade -– in the last pages.

Edward, now in his 60s, looks back on his life and misses Florence, who has become a famous violinist leading her own quartet.

Regrets

He has changed since he was shocked by her suggestion that he could go out with other women. He absorbed the spirit of sexual liberation that came in the late 1960s, had affairs with other women and went through another short-lived marriage. But he feels his life would have been far more rewarding had he listened to Florence and stuck with her.

The last two pages of the novel, filled with Edward’s regrets, are a meditation on the choices we make and their consequences, success and failure. The story ends on an elegiac note in McEwan’s beautiful prose: 

At last he could admit to himself that he had never loved anyone as much, that he had never found anyone, man or woman, who matched her seriousness. Perhaps if he had stayed with her, he would have been more focused and ambitious about his own life, he might have written those history books. It was not his kind of thing at all, but he knew that the Ennismore Quartet was eminent, and was still a revered feature of the classical music scene. He would never attend the concerts, or buy, or even look at the boxed sets of Beethoven or Schubert. He did not want to see her photograph and discover what the years had wrought, or hear about the details of her life. He preferred to preserve her as she was in his memories, with the dandelion in her buttonhole and the piece of velvet in her hair, the canvas bag across her shoulder, and the beautiful strong-boned face with its wide and artless smile.

When he thought of her, it rather amazed him, that he had let that girl with the violin go. Now, of course, he saw that he self-effacing proposal was quite irrelevant. All she had needed was the certainty of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them. Love and patience – if only he had both of them at once – would surely have seen them both through. And then what unborn children might have had their chances, what young girl with an Alice band might have become his loved familiar? This is how the entire course of a life can be changed – by doing nothing. On Chesil Beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. He did not know, or would not have cared to know, that as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice would have been a deliverance, and she would have turned back. Indeed, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was a blurred, receding point against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light.

At last he could admit to himself that he had never loved anyone as much, that he had never found anyone, man or woman, who matched her seriousness. Perhaps if he had stayed with her, he would have been more focused and ambitious about his own life, he might have written those history books. It was not his kind of thing at all, but he knew that the Ennismore Quartet was eminent, and was still a revered feature of the classical music scene. He would never attend the concerts, or buy, or even look at the boxed sets of Beethoven or Schubert. He did not want to see her photograph and discover what the years had wrought, or hear about the details of her life. He preferred to preserve her as she was in his memories, with the dandelion in her buttonhole and the piece of velvet in her hair, the canvas bag across her shoulder, and the beautiful strong-boned face with its wide and artless smile.

When he thought of her, it rather amazed him, that he had let that girl with the violin go. Now, of course, he saw that he self-effacing proposal was quite irrelevant. All she had needed was the certainty of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them. Love and patience – if only he had both of them at once – would surely have seen them both through. And then what unborn children might have had their chances, what young girl with an Alice band might have become his loved familiar? This is how the entire course of a life can be changed – by doing nothing. On Chesil Beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. He did not know, or would not have cared to know, that as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice would have been a deliverance, and she would have turned back. Indeed, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was a blurred, receding point against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light.

Author: Abhijit

Abhijit loves reading and writing.

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