British and Irish Literature Ian McEwan
by
Peter Childs
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0103

Introduction

Ian Russell McEwan (b. 1948) is an English novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, and librettist. His most critically discussed works are the novels The Child in Time (1987), Enduring Love (1997), Atonement (2001), and Saturday (2005). He first drew attention as a writer with a frank and edgy approach to topics rooted in the intersection between family life, sex, and violence, but he has come to be seen as an anatomist of human nature equally interested in literary heritage and contemporary science writing. Among numerous other awards, he won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam (1998). McEwan is considered first and foremost a novelist, but for the initial dozen years of his writing career this was in no sense the case. After his debut short story collection First Love, Last Rites was published in 1975, he published several more short stories, film and television scripts, a libretto, two novellas, and other works, but his first full-length novel, The Child in Time, did not appear until 1987. To some critics, McEwan remains at his best in the long short story form. For others, his career in fiction has spanned three phases to date: a first period of shorter works that met with shocked responses, from the early stories to The Comfort of Strangers; a middle phase of novels from The Child in Time to Enduring Love that often focused on couples in crisis; and a third stage bearing the hallmark of his mature prose style, from Amsterdam and Atonement onward.

General Overviews

The earliest monograph on McEwan was Kiernan Ryan’s study for the Writers and Their Work series in the mid-1990s, covering his output from the early short stories to Black Dogs. Since then a study has appeared on average every couple of years, adding to the sense of McEwan’s established reputation. These volumes have almost always taken a chronological approach to discussion of the fiction—as is the case in the volumes Malcolm 2002, Childs 2005, Head 2007, and Wells 2010—suggesting there is much remaining scope for analyzing the writing on a thematic basis. It also points to the perception that McEwan is a writer whose work is best discussed in its entirety when considered at length, at least in the sense that, while a number of texts have been more likely to appear in studies or on courses at different educational levels, the ongoing body of work remains important in its totality. While all the studies below emphasize close textual reading as essential to an understanding of McEwan’s densely wrought texts, approaches to that totality have varied from Byrnes’s psychodynamic approach to the ethical readings favored in Möller 2011.

  • Byrnes, Christina. The Work of Ian McEwan: A Psychodynamic Approach. Nottingham, UK: Paupers’, 2002.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An idiosyncratic study of McEwan’s work up to Amsterdam placed alongside his life history, attempting a psychological reading of the creative development of narrative subjects influenced by McEwan’s own experience. Has been supplemented by shorter publications on McEwan’s later work.

    Find this resource:

  • Childs, Peter, ed. The Fiction of Ian McEwan. Palgrave’s Reader’s Guides to Essential Criticism. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2005.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Alongside editorial commentary, this guide to essential criticism weaves together excerpts from book-length studies plus selections from essays and articles, as well as a variety of opinions taken from reviews in newspapers, journals, and magazines.

    Find this resource:

  • Head, Dominic. Ian McEwan. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719066566.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A detailed reading of the novels up to Saturday that pays close attention to style as well as to McEwan’s careful examination of the self and morality. Head places McEwan, in his concerns and approach to fiction, as the natural heir to Iris Murdoch.

    Find this resource:

  • Malcolm, David. Understanding Ian McEwan. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A discussion of the fiction before Atonement, Malcolm’s study traces continuities between texts and links them in chronological groups that respectively treat such subjects as evil, history, and science.

    Find this resource:

  • Möller, Swantje. Coming to Terms with Crisis: Disorientation and Reorientation in the Novels of Ian McEwan. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter Universitätsverlag, 2011.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An approach to McEwan’s writing through postmodernist theory and ethical criticism, this is a long study that helpfully examines how the themes of crisis and reorientation are negotiated in McEwan’s fiction.

    Find this resource:

  • Ryan, Kiernan. Ian McEwan. Plymouth, UK: Northcote, 1994.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Succinct but insightful readings of McEwan’s work up to Black Dogs in terms of an art of unease, including the libretto for Or Shall We Die? and the scripts for Jack Flea’s Birthday Celebration, Solid Geometry, The Imitation Game, and The Ploughman’s Lunch. Establishes the principal themes and techniques of the novels for many subsequent critics to develop or dispute.

    Find this resource:

  • Slay, Jack, Jr. Ian McEwan. Twayne’s English Authors Series. Boston: Twayne, 1996.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Covering the same texts as Ryan’s study, and analyzing the film scripts in detail, Slay provides readings of all the major works but also focuses on key narrative aspects of each, including sexuality, fantasy, time, and political agency.

    Find this resource:

  • Wells, Lynn. Ian McEwan. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2010.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Supplemented by a timeline, biographical reading, and an interview, Wells’s study is one of the most insightful, highlighting the significance of the creative imagination in McEwan’s moral vision and his belief in the ethical role that fiction can play. Also contains sections on the nonfiction writings and on the critical reaction to McEwan’s work.

    Find this resource:

Essays by McEwan

Just as there is as of the early 21st century no biography of McEwan there is also no collection of his essays. However, he has produced a wide range of reviews, introductions, think-pieces, and political interventions. Several throw considerable light on his work but also on the interest and convictions that underpin his writings. Those in his own publication, A Move Abroad, are excellent guides to his early thought, while others on his response to 9/11 have been widely cited. The reasons for McEwan’s interest in rationalism and contemporary science writing are also more often readily apparent in his nonfiction. While the memoir Mother Tongue could be the introduction to an autobiography, McEwan has more commonly turned to public affairs in his essays, looking at 9/11 in Beyond Belief and Only Love and Then Oblivion, at the rival claims of art and science to delineate human nature in Literature, Science and Human Nature, and at nuclear proliferation in the Introduction to Or Shall We Die?.

  • McEwan, Ian. “Introduction to Or Shall We Die?” In A Move Abroad. By Ian McEwan, 3–16. Picador. London: Pan, 1989a.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Provides an excellent introduction to McEwan’s thinking in the 1980s, at a time when he speculated whether people, and men in particular, could ever learn to live peacefully with each other, using the full range of technological resources in harmony with the environment rather than in crude violation of it. The essay serves as a fascinating comparison piece to McEwan’s later views on climate change in the early 21st century.

    Find this resource:

  • McEwan, Ian. “Preface.” In A Move Abroad. By Ian McEwan, vii–xxvi. Picador. London: Pan, 1989b.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    While serving as a preface to the two pieces in A Move Abroad—the libretto to an oratorio set to music by Michael Berkeley, Or Shall We Die?, and the script for Richard Eyre’s film The Ploughman’s Lunch—this essay also provides an invaluable context to the period of transition, or “tactical evasion” of fiction, in McEwan’s career between The Comfort of Strangers and The Child in Time.

    Find this resource:

  • McEwan, Ian. “An Interview with Milan Kundera.” In The Novel Today: Contemporary Writers on Modern Fiction. Edited by Malcolm Bradbury, 205–222. London: Fontana, 1990.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    First published in Granta 11 in 1984, this conversation focuses on Kundera’s writing and politics, but brings out the emphases in McEwan’s interest in the work of the Czech novelist.

    Find this resource:

  • McEwan, Ian. “Beyond Belief.” The Guardian, 12 September 2001a, 2.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    McEwan’s first essay, written as an immediate response to 9/11, invoking the obscene nature of the horror taking place offstage despite the glare of the television cameras, and arguing that for the viewer the nightmare lay in this gulf of imagining.

    Find this resource:

  • McEwan, Ian. “Only Love and Then Oblivion: Love was All They Had to Set Against Their Murderers.” Special Report: Terrorism in the US. The Guardian, 15 September 2001b, 1.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    McEwan’s second 9/11 essay, published a few weeks later. A liberal humanist tract, it posits that those who hijacked the planes lacked “empathy,” “compassion,” and “love,” key components of the imaginative sympathy that the novel frequently seeks to engender.

    Find this resource:

  • McEwan, Ian. “Mother Tongue.” In On Modern British Fiction. Edited by Zachary Leader, 34–44. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A reflective autobiographical piece that focuses on McEwan’s childhood, family life, and his mother’s influence on him and his appreciation of language. The essay ends by considering the decline of Rose McEwan into dementia that her son witnesses as he visits her in a care home in the present.

    Find this resource:

  • McEwan, Ian. “Literature, Science and Human Nature.” In Human Nature: Fact and Fiction. Edited by Robin Headlam Wells and Johnjoe McFadden, 40–60. London: Continuum, 2006.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An essential essay for insights into McEwan’s views on and interest in contemporary science and popular science writing. He also considers science’s claims to explain human nature alongside those of literature.

    Find this resource:

Biographical Writing

Despite occasional flashes of press interest in McEwan’s personal life, there is to date no biography of McEwan or substantial memoir. McEwan has not provided a volume on his own experience like Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie, or produced a synthesis of reflective thought and life-writing such as Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Byrnes 2002 (cited under General Overviews) has come the closest to a book-length study that has attempted to align the work with the life, but there are many overviews and potted histories alongside Interviews that have provided insights into McEwan’s professional career. With good reason, McEwan has also referred to the early writing career of the author Tom Haley in Sweet Tooth as a distorted reflection of his own. The biographical studies cited in this section range from the Fletcher 1983 and Grant 1989 early overviews of a young writer in the 1980s challenging an older guard to the long review of McEwan in Zalewski 2009, showing him as an elder statesmen of British letters with an international profile and a transatlantic reputation as one of the foremost writers of his generation alongside Rushdie and Amis.

  • Clark, Roger, and Andy Gordon. Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love: A Reader’s Guide. Continuum Contemporaries. London: Continuum, 2003.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Offers a reading of McEwan’s novel, its initial reception, and later critical responses, but prefaces this with a twenty-page overview of the novelist.

    Find this resource:

  • Cochran, Angus. “Ian McEwan (1948–).” In British Writers: Supplement IV. Edited by George Stade and Carol Howard, 389–408. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1996.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Illuminating and comparatively substantial critical biography in this series of potted overviews of contemporary writers. Surveys the life and work before Enduring Love.

    Find this resource:

  • Fletcher, John. “Ian McEwan.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography 14; British Novelists since 1960. Edited by Jay L. Halio, 495–500. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Early short overview of McEwan as a promising writer of short stories and novellas.

    Find this resource:

  • Grant, Damian. Contemporary Writers: Ian McEwan. London: Booktrust, 1989.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Slim eight-page British Council study in their Contemporary Writers series.

    Find this resource:

  • Nicklas, Pascal. “Ian McEwan and the Media.” In Special Issue: Focus on Ian McEwan and the Media. Edited by Rüdiger Ahrens, Heinz Antor and Peter Nicklaus. Anglistik 21.2 (2010): 7–13.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A special edition of this English-language German journal of English studies with a wide range of essays on McEwan’s relationship with the media, as well as his novels’ treatment of the topic, particularly in later works, and his own responses to interviewers.

    Find this resource:

  • Walkowitz, Rebecca L. “Ian McEwan.” In A Companion to the British and Irish Novel, 1945–2000. Edited by Brian W. Shaffer, 504–514. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405113755.2005.00040.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A summative critical piece that focuses on aspects of McEwan’s vocabulary and contrasts the “impudence” of McEwan’s subject matter with the polished style of the writing, discerning a concern with “failure” across his fiction. Provides insights into most of the works, but particularly the early short stories and Atonement.

    Find this resource:

  • Zalewski, Daniel. “The Background Hum: Ian McEwan’s Art of Unease.” New Yorker (23 February 2009): 46–61.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Profile that ranges over McEwan’s family, friends, literary development, and writing style. Supplemented by views from other authors and McEwan’s acquaintances, usefully charting his changing attitudes to new age intuition and scientific rationalism.

    Find this resource:

Interviews

McEwan is a generous interviewee and there are many recorded conversations with him in print. A good starting place is the Roberts 2010 collection, which can be supplemented by many more interviews collected on the website he maintains. Though they are included in Roberts’s book, several interviews require pulling out as essential reading, which is the purpose of the list that follows. The interviews vary from the early questioning of McEwan’s shock-lit approach in the short stories and The Innocent in Gonzalez-Casademont 1992, to the career overview found in the interview with Cook, et al. 2009, which both surveys his 21st century themes and draws McEwan back to his days as an M.A. creative writing student at the University of East Anglia.

  • Cook, Jon, Sebastian Groes, and Victor Sage. “Journeys Without Maps: An Interview with Ian McEwan.” In Ian McEwan. Edited by Sebastian Groes, 123–134. Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Continuum, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A three-way conversation with McEwan, inquiring into his views on the role in his writing of the themes of childhood, ideas, and science. Stitches together two interview occasions, one from a conference on McEwan at the University of East Anglia in 2003 and one held at the author’s home in 2007.

    Find this resource:

  • González-Casademont, Rosa. “The Pleasure of Prose Writing vs. Pornographic Violence: An Interview with Ian McEwan.” European English Messenger 1.3 (Autumn 1992): 40–45.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 1989, a useful interview with McEwan that probes the unease in his early stories and The Innocent in particular, with their interest in unusual sexual practices and desires.

    Find this resource:

  • Haffenden, John. “Ian McEwan.” In Novelists in Interview. Edited by John Haffenden, 168–190. London: Methuen, 1985.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Revealing and significant discussion that provides one of the best contexts for McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden, for his short stories, and for his experiments in scriptwriting.

    Find this resource:

  • Hamilton, Ian. “Points of Departure.” New Review, 5.2 (Autumn 1978): 9–21.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Key interview that sketches in the background to McEwan’s early writing, and his adoption by Hamilton as a promising writer, some of whose short stories were first published in Hamilton’s New Review. Reprinted in Roberts 2010, pp. 3–18.

    Find this resource:

  • Hunt, Adam. “Ian McEwan.” B&A: New Fiction 21 (Winter 1996): 47–50.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Conducted during the final stages of Enduring Love. McEwan talks about the effects of the public life on the private and how he is interested in the ways relationships absorb pressure and influence politics and history.

    Find this resource:

  • Noakes, Jonathan. “Interview with Ian McEwan.” In Ian McEwan: The Essential Guide. Edited by Margaret Reynolds and Jonathan Noakes, 10–23. London: Vintage, 2002.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A sequenced discussion of the three texts by McEwan perceived to be the most studied and popular at the date of the interview on 21 September 2001: The Child in Time, Enduring Love, and Atonement.

    Find this resource:

  • Roberts, Ryan, ed. Conversations with Ian McEwan. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Valuable assembly of one new and several existing interviews, including those by Ricks, Hamilton, Haffenden, Noakes, González-Casademont, and the Writer’s Talk.

    Find this resource:

  • Writer’s Talk: Ideas of Our Time. No. 69, Ian Mc Ewan, with Martin Amis. VHS. Northbrook, IL: Roland Collection of Films and Videos on Art, 1989.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    McEwan and Martin Amis in discussion, with particular reference to The Child in Time.

    Find this resource:

Early Work

McEwan’s first publications brought him a certain notoriety among newspaper columnists as a writer of perverse and salacious stories. Up to the end of the 20th century this reputation persisted as his novels almost always contained shocking scenes, from the sado-masochistic acts of The Comfort of Strangers to Otto’s dismemberment in The Innocent. While this perception of McEwan has largely been superseded, it is one that critics of his early writings, then and now, feel required to address. Nearly all the selections listed below, from Ricks’ 1979 interview to Baxter’s 2009 essay thirty years later, attempt to shed new light on both the composition of and the shocked reaction to those early works. Reynier 1994 and Slay 1995 analyze the modernist inflections of an early McEwan short story, told from the perspective of the ape-lover of a woman novelist that reappears in distorted form in Sweet Tooth as a story penned by the young writer Tom Haley.

  • Baxter, Jeanette. “Surreal Encounters in McEwan’s Early Work.” In Ian McEwan. Edited by Sebastian Groes, 13–25. Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Continuum, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This essay employs the works of Bataille to look afresh at McEwan’s first three book publications up to and including The Cement Garden. Considering the disquiet raised in readers by McEwan’s writing, it uses surrealist thought to provide a different context for a discussion of obscenity, transgression, and the pornographic imagination.

    Find this resource:

  • Müller-Wood, Anja. “The Murderer as Moralist or, The Ethical Early McEwan.” In Ian McEwan: Art and Politics. Edited by Pascal Nicklas, 39–56. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter Universitätsverlag, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Müller-Wood primarily analyzes the early story “Butterflies” from First Love and Last Rites (1975), drawing attention to the mode of unreliable narration and its ethical implications. The story becomes more than a presentation of the shocking abuse and murder of a child with its reflection on the responsibilities of the author when writing first-person confessional stories.

    Find this resource:

  • Reynier, Christine. “Psychic Journey into Artistic Creation: a Reading of Ian McEwan’s ‘Reflections of a Kept Ape.’” Journal of the Short Story in English 22 (1994): 115–125.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses McEwan’s early Kafkaesque story from In Between the Sheets, exploring its interest in the creative imagination and the writing of fiction.

    Find this resource:

  • Ricks, Christopher. “Adolescence and After: An Interview with Ian McEwan.” The Listener 101 (12 April 1979): 526–527.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Valuable early interview from the BBC that considers the influence of McEwan’s upbringing, his interest in American writing, his short stories, and their reception as a literature of shock.

    Find this resource:

  • Slay, Jack, Jr. “The Absurdity of Love: Parodic Relationships in Ian McEwan’s ‘Reflections of a Kept Ape’ and ‘Dead As They Come.’” Notes on Contemporary Literature 25.3 (1995): 4–6.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Considers the tangential approach to human eroticism and sexuality in two of McEwan’s early subversive and experimental stories.

    Find this resource:

Later Form and Style

McEwan’s early writing was noted for its influences, from Kafka to American contemporaries, but his style has changed considerably over the years. In the 21st century he has arguably started on what could be considered a new phase of writing, inaugurated by Atonement, during which he has produced novels praised for their prose as much as anything they have to say. These have been written in what has been framed as McEwan’s “mature style” of writing, notable for crafted, detailed, cursive sentences. Critical focus has shifted from a concern with the macabre to a debate over the literary form of the novels, which seem, in readings by critics like James 2003, to draw on modernist (see Edwards 1995 and Marcus 2009) and postmodernist (see Wood 2011) approaches to develop an otherwise familiar kind of realist fiction. For critics—in texts like Knapp 2007, Vermeule 2004, and Seaboyer 2005—McEwan responds to a realist tradition through both aesthetic and ethical engagement.

  • Edwards, Paul. “Time, Romanticism, Modernism and Modernity in The Child in Time.” English 44.178 (1995): 41–55.

    DOI: 10.1093/english/44.178.41Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Edwards considers temporality but also passivity and agency in the novel, offering a reading of the third chapter in the context of British literary responses to modernity, especially those of the poet Philip Larkin (b. 1922–d. 1985) and the poet and critic Donald Davie (b. 1922–d. 1995).

    Find this resource:

  • James, David. “‘A Boy Stepped Out’: Migrancy, Visuality, and the Mapping of Masculinities in Later Fiction of Ian McEwan.” Textual Practice 17.1 (Spring 2003): 81–100.

    DOI: 10.1080/0950236032000050753Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    James takes three of McEwan’s more recent texts to argue that the model of human agency is actively reenvisioned through McEwan’s use of literary realism.

    Find this resource:

  • Knapp, Peggy A. “Ian McEwan’s Saturday and the Aesthetics of Prose.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 41.1 (Fall 2007): 121–143.

    DOI: 10.1215/ddnov.041010121Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Knapp discusses images of the mind and of time in Saturday. She objects to a tendency in ideological critiques to ignore the aesthetic aspect of fiction as art. The essay develops as an attempt to acknowledge both the conceptual nature of sentences (and plots) and the Kantian notion of beauty’s irreducibility to concepts. Knapp explores the problem of aesthetic knowledge by analyzing some sentences from Saturday as images structured rhythmically, rather than solely as propositions to be mined for their lurking ideology. Through this she intimates their claims to the particular kind of knowledge experienced as beauty.

    Find this resource:

  • Marcus, Laura. “Ian McEwan’s Modernist Time: Atonement and Saturday.” In Ian McEwan. Edited by Sebastian Groes, 83–98. Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Continuum, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Marcus discusses how McEwan appears committed to a new way of aligning narrative and mental processes, drawing on his indebtedness to modernists like Woolf but also his abiding interest in science and consciousness.

    Find this resource:

  • Ryan, Kiernan. “After the Fall.” In Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. Edited by Peter Childs, 44–54. London: Routledge, 2007.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In Ryan’s analysis, the quasi-Edenic opening of McEwan’s novel has connections with the narrative archetypes of the folk tale and the fable, but in its portrayal of a harmonious love before Jed Parry’s arrival it may be a “cover story” in which the surface of Joe Rose’s words belies the reality beneath.

    Find this resource:

  • Seaboyer, Judith. “Ian McEwan: Contemporary Realism and the Novel of Ideas.” In The Contemporary British Novel. Edited by James Acheson and Sarah C. E. Ross, 23–34. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Positions McEwan’s longer fiction within the traditions of the realist novel both as a vehicle for portraying contingent reality but also as a way to investigate changing social and personal identities.

    Find this resource:

  • Vermeule, Blakey. “God Novels.” In The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture and Complexity. Edited by Alan Richardson and Ellen Spolsky, 147–165. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses Atonement as a novel about the history, form, and purpose of the novel. Considers the tradition of fiction back to the 18th century and the ways in which Atonement enters into the discussion of the merits of the approaches taken by Fielding and Richardson, as well as later critics like Henry James.

    Find this resource:

  • Wood, James. “Ian McEwan, Atonement.” In The Good of the Novel. Edited by Liam McIlvaney and Ray Ryan, 1–20. London: Faber and Faber, 2011.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A typically astute and insightful reading that ambivalently examines the novel’s success in achieving its apparent aims. Woods details the staged artificiality of the novel and concludes that at one level it is advocating that the novelist can only ever enact and atone for the manipulation of the reader.

    Find this resource:

Narrative

McEwan’s interest in particular aspects of narrative has changed over the course of his writing career, and critical focus has moved from unease and subversion to intertextuality and unreliability. In much of his Early Work, either the time or the Place, or both of these aspects of the setting, could be vague or unspecified. Instead the stories and novels seemed interested in dealing with timeless concerns, presenting as more important than setting an abstract concern with such themes as morality and love, subjectivity and objectivity, psychology and epistemology. Later work from Amsterdam onwards is always rooted in a specific time and place, and this reflects both McEwan’s growing confidence as a writer but also an increased political and historical interest on his part. While an emphasis is placed on unreliable narration in Enduring Love in Randall 2007 and Edwards 2007, the essays below range over the approach to fiction in the early writings (Malcolm 1996 and Bényei 1999) through the discussions in Schwalm 2009 and Ingersoll 2004 of the narrative strategies used in such major novels as Atonement and Saturday.

  • Bényei, Tamás. “Places in Between: The Subversion of Initiation Narrative in Ian McEwan’s The Innocent.” British and American Studies 4.2 (1999): 66–73.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Struck by the fact that in The Innocent the protagonist Leonard chooses the tunnel underneath the city as the place to return to at the narrative’s conclusion, Tamás Bényei discusses the novel’s use of imagery in relation to liminality and the significance of interstitial places. In his discussion he also draws attention to the protagonist Leonard’s feelings about commuting between secret selves.

    Find this resource:

  • Edwards, Paul. “Solipsism, Narrative and Love in Enduring Love.” In Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. Edited by Peter Childs, 77–90. London: Routledge, 2007.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Edwards considers the interest in Enduring Love with a mix of sociobiology, psychology, and philosophy, analyzing the novel’s position with regard to subjectivity and narration. The novel seems to position human beings as subjective creatures, with partial knowledges and motives, trying to establish and agree upon a shared and objective reality but also trying to satisfy their embodied desires and preconceived beliefs.

    Find this resource:

  • Ingersoll, Earl G. “Intertextuality in L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between and Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 40.3 (July 2004): 241–258.

    DOI: 10.1093/fmls/40.3.241Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Picking up on the observation of resemblances to The Go-Between made by several reviewers on the novel’s publication, Ingersoll analyzes the ways in which, in its presentation of Briony, Atonement echoes, alludes to, and repositions the situation of Leo in Hartley’s novel.

    Find this resource:

  • Malcolm, David. “Narrational Strategy, Intertextuality and Their Functions in Ian McEwan’s Early Fiction.” In Approaches to Fiction. Edited by Leszek S. Kolek, 161–177. Lublin, Poland: Folium, 1996.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Also concerned with intertexual connections, Malcolm examines their presence in particular in McEwan’s first two novel(la)s, The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers, the former the subject of a charge of plagiarism or influence from Julian Gloag’s Our Mother’s House, the latter reminiscent of portrayals of Venice from Ruskin to Du Maurier.

    Find this resource:

  • Morrison, Jago. “Narration and Unease in McEwan’s Later Fiction.” Critique 42.3 (Spring 2001): 253–270.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Revisiting the unease in McEwan’s fiction identified by Ryan, Morrison considers how, through personal history and narration, McEwan interrogates the vaster relationships between time, history, and memory in several texts, including Black Dogs and Enduring Love. Also see Morrison’s later discussion in “Unravelling Time in Ian McEwan’s Fiction” (pp. 67–80) in his book Contemporary Fiction, London: Routledge, 2003.

    Find this resource:

  • Randall, Martin. “‘I don’t want your story’: Open and Fixed Narratives in Enduring Love.” In Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. Edited by Peter Childs, 55–65. London: Routledge, 2007.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Randall’s chief interest is in the kinds of narrative that Enduring Love includes, not just in Joe’s storytelling but in the way that McEwan has put the book together. While adumbrating these, Randall details how the novel is intrigued by and composed of competing narratives within the one text; he also shows that one of its fundamental aims is to argue that all narratives are not equal.

    Find this resource:

  • Schwalm, Helga. “Figures of Authorship, Empathy, & The Ethics of Narrative (Mis-)recognition in Ian McEwan’s Later Fiction.” In Ian McEwan: Art and Politics. Edited by Pascal Nicklas, 173–186. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter Universitätsverlag, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Beginning with a review of the qualities said to stand against terrorism in McEwan’s response to 9/11, Schwalm suggests that Axel Honneth’s social philosophy and its key concept of recognition may illuminate the social and political significance of McEwan’s extra- and intrafictional preoccupation with empathy and love.

    Find this resource:

Criticism

Critics have explored McEwan’s work in a number of contexts, including Gender, Place, violence, and politics.

Re-readings of Atonement

Atonement has become one of the two major novels that critics connect with more than any other of McEwan’s works. Atonement’s engagement with the literary canon, with ethical responsibility, and with questions of history has led to fruitful and contentious discussions of contemporary fiction post-9/11. The range of responses is quite broad, covering issues of narration, ethics, and intertextual allusion, leading to the replacement of initial critical commonplaces with a spectrum of opinion that contests not only the novel’s interpretation but its value. Critics thus consider the positioning of the reader in relation to Briony’s text, but have also read McEwan’s novel against Woolf (Adams 2012), Arthurian romance (Behrman 2010), and Poe (Pyrhönen 2012).

  • Adams, Ann Marie. “Mr. McEwan and Mrs. Woolf: How a Saturday in February Follows ‘This Moment of June.’” Contemporary Literature 53.3 (Fall 2012): 548–572.

    DOI: 10.1353/cli.2012.0020Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Saturday, even more than Atonement, takes the original principles of modernism and reapplies them in a complex reworking of Woolf’s approach to fiction exemplified in Mrs. Dalloway.

    Find this resource:

  • Behrman, Mary. “The Waiting Game: Medieval Allusions and the Lethal Nature of Passivity in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Studies in the Novel 42.4 (Winter 2010): 453–470.

    DOI: 10.1353/sdn.2011.0009Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Contends that McEwan does not limit himself just to mining the works of his 19th- and 20th-century predecessors for literary inspiration; he also plumbs the literary productions of an era much more remote: the Middle Ages. The novelist peppers Atonement with references to storied medieval characters found in Chaucer’s oeuvre and in Arthurian romance, such as Troilus and Criseyde, Griselda, and Tristan and Isolde.

    Find this resource:

  • D’Angelo, Kathleen. “‘To Make a Novel’: The Construction of a Critical Readership in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Studies in the Novel 41.1 (Spring 2009): 88–105.

    DOI: 10.1353/sdn.0.0058Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Starting from the fact that Briony is herself a fictional construct, and by emphasizing the reader’s role in the novel in granting or withholding the atonement that Briony seeks, D’Angelo engages broader debates within reader response criticism over the ways in which meaning can or cannot be fixed within a text.

    Find this resource:

  • Jacobi, Martin. “Who Killed Robbie and Cecilia? Reading and Misreading Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 52.1 (2011): 55–73.

    DOI: 10.1080/00111610903380055Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Jacobi takes the novel’s theme of misreading and turns it against reviewers and critics of Atonement who have turned the ambiguity surrounding Robbie Turner and Cecilia into a certainty of their deaths.

    Find this resource:

  • Pyrhönen, Heta. “Purloined Letters in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 45.4 (December 2012): 103–118.

    DOI: 10.1353/mos.2012.0040Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This essay probes the intertexts of Atonement, in particular the links it shares with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” By also drawing on the psychoanalytical context of Lacan’s “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” the essay shows how the theft of a letter affects Briony’s writing, leading to a compulsive attempt to hide her shame.

    Find this resource:

  • Robinson, Richard. “The Modernism of Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 56.3 (Fall 2010): 473–495.

    DOI: 10.1353/mfs.2010.0015Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Robinson asks what assumptions the novel covertly makes about modernism, both as a literary period and a poetics, and what remains of modernism in the finished text.

    Find this resource:

Re-readings of Saturday

Saturday has become McEwan’s most contentious novel and along with Atonement one of the two major novels that critics connect with more than any other of McEwan’s works. Many critics find in it an insular complacency (see Foley 2010) before the problems facing a globalized the world (see Ross 2008), while others take it to be a multilayered exploration of contemporary ethics (see Butler 2011). Questions over reading and misreading dominate the critical conversation but are placed alongside sustained interest in the novel’s concern with neurobiology and a scientific understanding of consciousness. Root 2011, however, argues that the novel appears to be a more complex and inclusive depiction of the relationship between materialist explanation and poetic creativity than is implied by its juxtaposition of literature and science.

  • Butler, Heidi. “The Master’s Narrative: Resisting the Essentializing Gaze in Ian McEwan’s Saturday.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 52.1 (2011): 101–113.

    DOI: 10.1080/00111610903380063Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Butler focuses on Henry Perowne’s objectification of three of the novel’s nonwhite characters. She argues that the novel demonstrates how essentialisms reinforce the “master narratives” of financial wealth, professional success, and family bliss, but, in an unexpected twist, also indicates how such pervasive stereotypes might be undermined.

    Find this resource:

  • Dancer, Thom. “Toward a Modest Criticism: Ian McEwan’s Saturday.” Novel 45.2 (2012): 202–220.

    DOI: 10.1215/00295132-1573940Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Dancer contends that critics of McEwan who accuse his work of being politically conservative fail to account for the effects of his critique of immodesty, which is arguably at the heart of McEwan’s literary project since at least Enduring Love.

    Find this resource:

  • Foley, Andrew. “Liberalism in the New Millennium: Ian McEwan’s Saturday.” Journal of Literary Studies 26.1 (March 2010): 135–162.

    DOI: 10.1080/02564710903495461Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Positions Saturday as a version of the liberal dilemma between tolerance and resisting oppression, between an abhorrence of violence and a need to oppose force, as well as how to balance involvement with the world and individual autonomy.

    Find this resource:

  • Green, Susan. “Consciousness and Ian McEwan’s Saturday: ‘What Henry Knows.’” English Studies 91.1 (February 2010): 58–73.

    DOI: 10.1080/00138380903355114Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Offering an interdisciplinary analysis, using ideas from the cognitive sciences, Green dissects the representation of consciousness in Saturday through a discussion of the combined effects of characterization, focalization, and conceptual metaphors.

    Find this resource:

  • Hillard, Molly Clark. “‘When Desert Armies Stand Ready to Fight’: Re-reading McEwan’s Saturday and Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach.’” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 6.1 (January 2008): 181–206.

    DOI: 10.1353/pan.2008.0008Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the climactic scene in Saturday in which Daisy Perowne fends off the intruder Baxter by reciting Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” The essay aims to demonstrate that McEwan constructs not a nostalgic longing for a Victorian past, but rather one that turns to Victorian reflections upon domestic and foreign politics, history, and the literary form in order to make meaning in a contemporary literary or cultural text.

    Find this resource:

  • Root, Christina. “A Melodiousness at Odds with Pessimism: Ian McEwan’s Saturday.” Journal of Modern Literature 35.1 (Fall 2011): 60–78.

    DOI: 10.2979/jmodelite.35.1.60Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Saturday is simultaneously a realist narrative, committed to exploring contemporary history through the consciousness of the scientifically minded Henry Perowne, and a larger, less strictly rational vision of poeticism and imagination with elements of plot, scenes, and language constructed out of literary texts that hover above the narrative.

    Find this resource:

  • Ross, Michael L. “On a Darkling Planet: Ian McEwan’s Saturday and the Condition of England.” Twentieth Century Literature 54.1 (Spring 2008): 75–96.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses Saturday as a state-of-the-nation novel which restricts the global purview otherwise suggested by the day of its setting, when there took place in London the largest antiwar demonstration ever staged in Britain. Ross traces the narrative approach back to examples of the Victorian condition of England novel.

    Find this resource:

Plays, Screenplays, Libretti

Critical studies have tended either to treat McEwan’s scriptwriting as self-contained work (see Imeson 1983) or as a foil to his novel-writing (see Hayes and Groes 2009), but the consensus appears to be that this “move abroad” allowed him to broaden his social knowledge and source material. The first of McEwan’s several film and television scripts was aired in 1976: “Jack Flea’s Birthday Party,” a half-hour confrontational dinner-party drama directed by Mike Newell. McEwan has said he thinks of it as a part of the stories assembled for First Love, Last Rites. In 1979, an adaptation of one of his best short stories, “Solid Geometry,” was halted by the BBC following concerns over its subject matter (it was later remade for Channel 4), but the new decade saw McEwan’s second original TV script produced: The Imitation Game (1980, published 1981). These were the first texts that appeared to engage with history and broad social themes, as considered in Forbes 1983 and in both Johnstone 1985a and Johnstone 1985b. McEwan also adapted his story “The Last Day of Summer” for television in 1983, but his subsequent scripts have been for film: The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983), an anti-Thatcherite story set at the time of the Falklands, again directed by Richard Eyre; Soursweet (1988), a faithful adaptation of the 1982 novel Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo (born 1950) about a Chinese family in 1960s Britain; and The Good Son (1993), an original script that shares similar themes, from different angles, to many of his novels. McEwan has also written twice for Michael Berkeley: once the words for the oratorio Or Shall We Die? (1983), and then the libretto to the opera For You (2009).

  • Forbes, Jill. “Crossover: McEwan and Eyre.” Sight & Sound 52.4 (Autumn 1983): 232–236.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A contemporary response to The Ploughman’s Lunch examining the success of McEwan’s first foray into writing for the cinema.

    Find this resource:

  • Hayes, M. Hunter, and Sebastian Groes. “‘Profoundly Dislocating and Infinite in Possibility’: Ian McEwan’s Screenwriting.” In Ian McEwan. Edited by Sebastian Groes, 26–43. Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Continuum, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Hunter and Groes position the scripts in dialogue with McEwan’s fiction rather than as a departure, and also as a way for the novelist to gain experience of the world that might be brought to the somewhat isolated experience of writing fiction.

    Find this resource:

  • Imeson, Jo. “The Imitation Game.” Monthly Film Bulletin 50.593 (June 1983): 160–161.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Useful contemporary review of The Imitation Game. Directed by Richard Eyre as a BBC Play for Today, and set at Bletchley Park, this is a story of sexual politics within the English patriarchy during World War II—the title comes from the test by mathematician and Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing (1912–1954) of whether a machine can pass as human.

    Find this resource:

  • Johnstone, Sheila. “Charioteers and Ploughmen.” In British Cinema Now. Edited by Martin Auty and Nick Roddick, 99–110. London: BFI Publishing, 1985a.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Johnstone discusses The Ploughman’s Lunch in the context of history and the British film revival of the mid-1980s, partly in response to the political climate established by the Thatcher government.

    Find this resource:

  • Johnstone, Richard. “Television Drama and the People’s War: David Hare’s Licking Hitler, Ian McEwan’s The Imitation Game, and Trevor Griffith’s Country.” Modern Drama 28.2 (June 1985b): 189–197.

    DOI: 10.3138/md.28.2.189Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    More extended, comparative piece on McEwan’s play script alongside reviews of current work by two established contemporary dramatists.

    Find this resource:

Gender

From the earliest publications, a broad range of critical work has examined McEwan’s presentation of gender and sexuality, from the discussion of “Homemade” in Broughton 1991 to the consideration of the representation of the female artist in McEwan’s more recent work in Childs 2012. While the early short stories seemed to take sexual discussion in fiction into new territories in the 1970s, McEwan was embroiled in controversy again by his normalizing of incest in The Cement Garden and his sexual politics in The Comfort of Strangers. While The Child in Time drew counterblasts for its “new man” approach in critical responses such as Mars-Jones 1990 and Taylor 1989, several more works focused on Enduring Love (as in Knights 1999 and Davies 2003) from the point of view of its presentation of masculinity.

  • Broughton, Lynda. “Portrait of the Subject As a Young Man: The Construction of Masculinity Ironized in ‘Male’ Fiction.” In Subjectivity and Literature from the Romantics to the Present Day. Edited by Philip Shaw and Peter Stockwell, 135–145. London: Pinter, 1991.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In this essay, Broughton is concerned with notions of “purity and corruption”(p. 135) in a feminist reading of “Homemade,” the first story in First Love, Last Rites—but her primary interest is in its construction of gender differences. She also explores allusions in “Homemade” to the tradition of the male sexual quest in writing.

    Find this resource:

  • Childs, Peter. “Ian McEwan’s Venus Envy Revisited.” In Portraits of the Artist as a Young Thing in British, Irish and Canadian Fiction after 1945. Edited by Annette Pankratz and Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz, 169–186. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter Universitätsverlag, 2012.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the context for Adam Mars-Jones’s appraisal in Venus Envy of McEwan’s early sexual politics and explores how McEwan’s position has shifted in his fiction of the 21st century, drawing a comparison between Atonement and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.

    Find this resource:

  • Davies, Rhiannon. “Enduring McEwan.” In Posting the Male: Masculinities in Post-war and Contemporary British Literature. Edited by Daniel Lea and Berthold Schoene-Harwood, 105–123. GENUS: Gender in Modern Culture. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A thoughtful discussion of Enduring Love in which Davies examines Joe’s “script” for his behavior and narration, then dissects the novel’s central relationships between the lovers, the stalker and the stalked, and the storyteller and his audience. The essay is also interested in the allegorical structures that lie behind McEwan’s representation of Englishness and masculinity.

    Find this resource:

  • Knights, Ben. Writing Masculinities: Male Narratives in Twentieth-Century Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Offering a reading more sympathetic to McEwan’s aims, Knights sees The Child in Time as a “green parable” for the 1980s about a society despoiled by patriarchy and the possible consequences for future generations.

    Find this resource:

  • Mars-Jones, Adam. Venus Envy: On Masculinity and its Discontents. Counterblasts No. 14. London: Chatto & Windus, 1990.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Attacks McEwan for attempting to usurp women’s roles in The Child in Time while purporting to present a positive portrayal of the new man. Also accuses McEwan of using misogynistic language and imagery.

    Find this resource:

  • Roger, Angela. “Ian McEwan’s Portrayal of Women.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 32.1 (January 1996): 11–26.

    DOI: 10.1093/fmls/32.1.11Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Roger considers the objectification of women in McEwan’s early work. This reification of the “love object” is exemplified in her discussion of “Dead As They Come,” exploring how the story shows a dysfunctional male sexuality exerting its control by first settling on an inanimate lover, a mannequin, and then satisfying its uncontrollable jealousy by destroying the lover the man has literally “bought.”

    Find this resource:

  • Schoene-Harwood, Berthold. “The U-turn of the Father: Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time.” In Writing Men: Literary Masculinities from Frankenstein to the New Man. By Berthold Schoene-Harwood, 157–169. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An alternative take on McEwan’s novel, but equally critical of his ideological use of fatherhood and the rhetoric of the new man in a text that largely marginalizes the female voice.

    Find this resource:

  • Taylor, D. J. “Standing Up for the Sisters.” In A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980s. By D. J. Taylor, 55–59. London: Bloomsbury, 1989.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    As part of a wider review of writers including Martin Amis, Taylor dissects what he sees as McEwan’s borrowed feminism in The Child in Time. To an extent, Taylor accuses McEwan of posturing in his portrayal of gender but also of time and narrative.

    Find this resource:

Place

Critics have noted that while McEwan has always been adept at descriptions of place, his texts have sometimes left their precise situatedness in the real world in doubt, as is alluded to in the Banks 1982 discussion of The Comfort of Strangers. After the sketchy locations and occasional placelessness of McEwan’s early writing (although see the contextualizations in Brown 1994 and Civelekoglu 2007), specific settings have however become increasingly important to McEwan’s novels (see both Guyver 2009 and Groes 2009), culminating in the specificity of his work from Atonement onwards, but prefigured in the precise descriptions of place in The Innocent and Black Dogs. Criticism has likewise increased the scrutiny of the importance of space and place to later works, with Groes even seeing McEwan’s engagement with London in Saturday as a meditation on the state of the contemporary world. Ingersoll 2005 and Kohn 2004 take somewhat different, more tangential approaches to the significance of place in Amsterdam.

  • Banks, J. R. “A Gondola Named Desire.” Critical Quarterly 24.2 (June 1982): 27–31.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8705.1982.tb01858.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An insightful early discussion (just a year after its first publication) of the mix of sex and violence in an unnamed Venice in The Comfort of Strangers.

    Find this resource:

  • Brown, Richard. “Postmodern Americas in the Fiction of Angela Carter, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan.” In Forked Tongues? Comparing Twentieth-Century British and American Literature. Edited by Ann Massa and Alistair Stead, 92–110. London: Longman, 1994.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A study of the British vision of America in the work of three contemporaries. Curiously, in McEwan’s case it was only with the final, psychosexual story of In Between the Sheets, “Psychopolis,” that a transatlantic sensibility appeared in the early writing of an author steeped in the contemporary American novel.

    Find this resource:

  • Civelekoglu, Funda. “Gothic Literature from a Cultural Ecological Perspective: Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers.” In Nostalgia or Perversion? Gothic Rewriting from the Eighteenth Century until the Present Day. Edited by Isabella Van Elferen, 86–94. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2007.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the mythic revisiting of Venice as a Gothic chronotope in McEwan’s novel in the context of reimaginings of the Gothic since the Victorian novel.

    Find this resource:

  • Groes, Sebastian. “Ian McEwan and the Modernist Consciousness of the City in Saturday.” In Ian McEwan. Edited by Sebastian Groes, 99–114. Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Continuum, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Groes traces some of the debate over the divorce between private and public realms through the intertextual weave of Saturday’s portrayal of London, drawing in references to Kafka, Joyce, Woolf and Matthew Arnold.

    Find this resource:

  • Guyver, Lynn. “Post-Cold War Moral Geography. The Politics of McEwan’s Poetics in The Innocent.” In Ian McEwan: Art and Politics. Edited by Pascal Nicklas, 87–102. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter Universitätsverlag, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Guyver investigates the content and form of the novel to argue that McEwan destabilizes concepts of Britishness by diffusing the binary patterns intrinsic to the form of the spy novel, such as the division between public and private morality.

    Find this resource:

  • Ingersoll, Earl G. “City of Endings: Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam.” Midwest Quarterly 46.2 (Winter 2005): 123–138.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Also interesting in terms of gender and McEwan’s portrayal of masculinity, this is an unusual essay which, using touchstones from narratology and psychoanalysis, sees Amsterdam as a novel exploiting the resources of what Ingersoll calls a “masculine narrative paradigm” (pp. 123–124) in order to argue that the study of narrative can be linked to sexuality and also that concepts of desire in narrative may differ with gender.

    Find this resource:

  • Kohn, Robert E. “The Fivesquare Amsterdam of Ian McEwan.” Critical Survey 16.1 (2004): 89–106.

    DOI: 10.3167/001115704783473568Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Kohn argues that the novel conjures up particular works of literature that convey holiness and connote an inner, spiritual center, making James Dougherty’s monograph The Fivesquare City, which describes a “quadratic geometry” inside of which there is a “fifth point” where access is gained to the divine, a useful model for appreciating Amsterdam.

    Find this resource:

  • Nally, David. “Incorrigible Venice and the War Against Cliché.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 22.2 (2004): 295–312.

    DOI: 10.1068/d336tSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Focusing on Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice and McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, Nally argues that both texts continue an historical practice of framing, ordering, and composing Venice in gendered, heterosexist terms that bolster a series of stereotypes about the licentious behavior of “Orientals.”

    Find this resource:

Violence and Conflict

From his earliest stories, McEwan has been associated with writing about assault, aggression, and antagonism. Critical interest in this, alongside a scrutiny of McEwan’s ethical intent, has continued from his first story, “Homemade,” to the more recent novel(la) On Chesil Beach. Sexual, political, and historical concerns have lain behind the brutality of some of the writing, but the essays selected below show there has also been a clear impulse to consider the provenance of vicious acts alongside a more common human animality, and an extreme cruelty McEwan apparently attributes to a failure of the imagination. Readings vary from the literal-minded that emphasize a perceived gratuitousness to the more nuanced and complex that see the writings as involved in critique or intertextual commentary (see Colebrook 2009 and Mathews 2012). Particularly under scrutiny are the midcareer texts with shocking moments: Black Dogs (Heiler 2009 and Müller-Wood and Wood 2007) and The Child in Time (Slay 1994 and Ryan 1999).

  • Colebrook, Claire. “The Innocent as Anti-Oedipal Critique of Cultural Pornography.” In Ian McEwan. Edited by Sebastian Groes, 43–56. Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Continuum, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Colebrook positions McEwan as a writer who resists fixed and closed readings of his novels by taking apart oppositions between such concepts as innocence and experience, art and science, the adult and the child.

    Find this resource:

  • Heiler, Lars. “Unleashing the Black Dogs: Cathartic Horror and Political Commitment in The Innocent and Black Dogs.” In Ian McEwan: Art and Politics. Edited by Pascal Nicklas, 103–119. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter Universitätsverlag, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Heiler concentrates on the moments of narrative intensity to which McEwan subjects his readers. He thus explores the purpose and effect of using horror as cartharsis in McEwan’s novels.

    Find this resource:

  • Mathews, Peter. “After the Victorians: The Historical Turning Point in McEwan’s On Chesil Beach.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 53.1 (2012): 82–91.

    DOI: 10.1080/00111619.2010.504974Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Referring back to Victorian examples and precedents for the approach taken in On Chesil Beach to the idea of an epoch, Mathews questions the moral implications of the notion of a historical turning point and also perceptions of the novel as an affirmation of the 1960s sexual revolution.

    Find this resource:

  • Müller-Wood, Anja, and J. Carter Wood. “Bringing the Past to Heel: History, Identity and Violence in Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs.” Literature and History 16.2 (2007): 43–56.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that, as a deeply self-referential novel, Black Dogs draws attention to the subjectivity of the historical process and foregrounds the inevitable selection processes of historiography by critically addressing postmodern notions of history and the self.

    Find this resource:

  • Ryan, Kiernan. “Sex, Violence and Complicity: Martin Amis and Ian McEwan.” In An Introduction to Contemporary Fiction: International Writing in English since 1970. Edited by Rod Mengham, 203–218. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1999.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Alongside Amis’s novels, McEwan’s fiction up to The Child in Time is discussed in terms of end-time thinking and a continued cultural mood of horror at the prospect of mass violence at the end of the 20th century.

    Find this resource:

  • Seaboyer, Judith. “Sadism Demands a Story: Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 45.4 (1999): 957–986.

    DOI: 10.1353/mfs.1999.0093Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    While also interested in McEwan’s presentation of the city setting of the novel, Judith Seaboyer reads The Comfort of Strangers as an exploration of the violent psychic dreams through which individuals imagine themselves into existence as gendered subjects.

    Find this resource:

  • Slay, Jack, Jr. “Vandalizing Time: Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 35.4 (1994): 205–218.

    DOI: 10.1080/00111619.1994.9934703Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Slay argues that, like the characters and elements in The Child in Time, science, especially in its associations with the entity of time, is seen metaphorically as a child, which the physicist in the novel Thelma envisions as presenting views and versions of the contemporary world comparable to the representations of time in literary modernism.

    Find this resource:

Politics and Ethics

A concern with the ethical realm of McEwan’s fictional world arose with the often violent and sexual content of the first short stories, but more recently critics have often focused on McEwan’s interest in his later work in ethical reading, empathy, and the social contract. McEwan has said that for him the moral core of the novel lies in inhabiting the minds of others. Critics have therefore scrutinized his representation of interiority (see Schoene-Harwood 2009) against his belief that it is the special province of fiction. Repeatedly studies have also engaged with McEwan’s interest in the ethical qualities of the imagination (see Cormack 2009) and the individual’s recognition of alterity (see Childs 2009) when he argues that people are all on a scale between an icy pursuit of self-interest and being overwhelmed by an awareness of what others think, which is also true of his portrayal of political commitment. Many critics see the concern with ethics as a more prominent component of McEwan’s later writing (see Puschmann-Nalenz 2009 and Winterhalter 2010), while others trace it in earlier texts such as Black Dogs (see Delrez 1995).

  • Childs, Peter. “Contemporary McEwan and Anosognosia.” In Ian McEwan: Art and Politics. Edited by Pascal Nicklas, 23–38. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter Universitätsverlag, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Surveys McEwan’s interest in scientific universalism and the role of self-deception in the ethics of fiction.

    Find this resource:

  • Cormack, Alistair. “Postmodernism and the Ethics of Fiction in Atonement.” In Ian McEwan. Edited by Sebastian Groes, 70–82. Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Continuum, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Considers the argument for positioning McEwan as a realist, and sees Atonement as part of the Leavisite moral tradition from Austen to James. Through a study of the novel’s intertexuality, Cormack also concludes that McEwan is deeply critical of the imagination in this novel, emphasizing its dangers of excess.

    Find this resource:

  • Delrez, Marc. “Escape into Innocence: Ian McEwan and the Nightmare of History.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 26.2 (1995): 7–23.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Delrez offers a sustained critique of the values and contradictions evident beneath the surface of McEwan’s work, including a resigned awareness of its own forced complicity with evil.

    Find this resource:

  • Garrard, Greg. “Ian McEwan’s Next Novel and the Future of Ecocriticism.” Contemporary Literature 50.4 (Winter 2009): 695–720.

    DOI: 10.1353/cli.0.0090Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Considers the then-forthcoming publication of Solar in the light of McEwan’s early interest in climate change in The Child in Time. Garrard is deeply critical of the approach in the earlier novel, an ecofeminist critique of Thatcherism, preferring the implicit critique of many of the major ethical assumptions in ecocriticism that he detects in McEwan’s later fiction.

    Find this resource:

  • Puschmann-Nalenz, Barbara. “Ethics in Ian McEwan’s Twenty-First Century Novels. Individual and Society and the Problem of Free Will.” In Ian McEwan: Art and Politics. Edited by Pascal Nicklas, 187–212. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter Universitätsverlag, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The essay looks at three of McEwan’s 21st century novels to position him in an ethics of fiction derived from such theorists as Wayne C. Booth, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty and Colin McGinn, putting emphasis on the identificatory invitation of fiction and its potential to move readers in ways that may affect ethical thinking.

    Find this resource:

  • Schoene-Harwood, Berthold. “Families against the World: Ian McEwan.” In The Cosmopolitan Novel. By Berthold Schoene-Harwood, 37–65. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748638154.003.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Schoene-Harwood’s analysis of McEwan, and Saturday in particular, foregrounds the conservative aspects of the approach taken in the novels. Schoene-Harwood questions the local and national focus of the characters and the perceived insularity of McEwan’s concentration on a privileged family, since they are presented beside those at the periphery of the text who suggest the cosmopolitanism that Schoene-Harwoodsees in other fiction addressing a globalized 21st century world.

    Find this resource:

  • Weidle, Roland. “The Ethics of Metanarration: Empathy in Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, The Child in Time, Atonement and Saturday.” In Ian McEwan: Art and Politics. Edited by Pascal Nicklas, 57–72. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter Universitätsverlag, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Weidle positions McEwan as a “prepostmodern” author who employs the metanarrational strategies of postmodern writing but not its subservience of characters and plot to textuality. This sees McEwan’s concern with scientific universalism, empathy, and imagination at odds with other more radical literary representations of the self.

    Find this resource:

  • Winterhalter, Teresa. “‘Plastic Fork in Hand’: Reading as a Tool of Ethical Repair in Ian McEwan’s Saturday.” Journal of Narrative Theory 40.3 (Fall 2010): 338–363.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    McEwan blends traditional third-person narration with long passages of free indirect discourse that focalize the scene before us through Henry Perowne’s consciousness. However, it also becomes clear that Henry is a man of limited scope, capable only of glimpsing understandings beyond his systems of thought. Henry thus mirrors the reader’s own processes of distilling meaning from texts both strange and familiar.

    Find this resource:

Self and Belief

From the first, McEwan has been concerned in his writing to explore deception and self-deception, and this interest has proceeded up to his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth. Much of this concern has focused on principles and premises (see Schemberg 2004)—the bases for belief and consequently for ethical action—which vary according to differing worldviews. Enduring Love’s phrase to express these differences in people’s understanding (see Matthews 2007) is “Believing is Seeing”: a reversal of the conventional sentiment that in its revised form draws attention to the role in perception of faith, conviction, prejudice, and perspective. Others have approached McEwan’s ethics through his concern with secularism (Bradley 2009), fictionalization (Finney 2004), and literary history (De Waard 2009).

  • Bradley, Arthur. “The New Atheist Novel: Literature, Religion, and Terror in Amis and McEwan.” Yearbook of English Studies 39.1–2 (2009): 20–38.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that these two authors exemplify the creed of a prominent strand in the contemporary secular novel, with its support for such writers as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins: militant atheism, evolutionary biology, neuroscience and a political conservatism.

    Find this resource:

  • De Waard, Marco. “Agency and Metaphor in the Neo-Victorian Imagination: The Case of Ian McEwan.” In Metaphors Shaping Culture and Theory. Edited by Herbert Grabes, 145–162. REAL (Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature) 25. Tübingen, Germany: Gunter Narr, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses Saturday and On Chesil Beach as palimpsests of the Victorian novel in the context of the contemporary breadth of fiction that revisits or refers back to the 19th century.

    Find this resource:

  • Finney, Brian. “Briony’s Stand against Oblivion: The Making of Fiction in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” In Special Issue: Writing Life/Writing Fiction. Edited by Paula Marantz Cohen. Journal of Modern Literature 27.3 (Winter 2004): 68–82.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Concentrates on the self-conscious use of narrative in McEwan’s novel, and positions Atonement as a work of fiction that is itself from beginning to end concerned with the making of fiction.

    Find this resource:

  • Hidalgo, Pilar. “Memory and Storytelling in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 46.2 (Winter 2005): 82–91.

    DOI: 10.3200/CRIT.46.2.82-91Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Hidalgo considers Atonement to be McEwan’s first successful treatment of history and fiction, the real and the imagined, arguing that he also effectively executes a novel of the kind that the young Briony believes to be no longer possible: one that centers on plot and characters.

    Find this resource:

  • Matthews, Sean. “Seven Types of Unreliability.” In Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. Edited by Peter Childs, 91–107. London: Routledge, 2007.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on Empson’s classic analysis of ambiguity, Matthews offers a detailed reading of the text to inquire into the question of whether Joe Rose is a reliable or unreliable narrator, arguing that the answer to this question is itself unreliable, and the matter of un/reliability is itself deeply ambiguous.

    Find this resource:

  • Schemberg, Claudia. Achieving “At-one-ment”: Storytelling and the Concept of the Self in Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time, Black Dogs, Enduring Love, and Atonement. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Dense analysis of McEwan’s novels in relation to the struggle over identity and the integration of self.

    Find this resource:

Children

McEwan has been said to have been interested in children and childhood from his first short stories and novellas (see Williams 1996). Indeed his treatment of childhood in relation to sexuality in his early fiction was a principal reason for his soubriquet Ian Macabre. However, in McEwan’s fiction in between his first novel The Cement Garden and his first of the 21st century, Atonement, children hardly appear at all as characters in his novels (see Childs 2005, Dodou 2009a, and Dodou 2009b). Despite this, the figure of the child is a perennial absent presence or significant peripheral character in McEwan’s work and critical interest has never waned in his portrayal of childhood and parenthood, while he himself has taken an understanding of human capabilities from studies in cognitive psychology of the way children develop perceptions of other minds. McEwan himself wrote about his interest in how children actually behave in an essay on William Golding, “Schoolboys” (McEwan 1986) while in another piece “An Only Childhood” (McEwan 1982) he discusses his desire to have siblings as a motivator of some of his fiction.

  • Childs, Peter. “Fascinating Violation: Ian McEwan’s Children.” In British Fiction of the 1990s. Edited by Nick Bentley, 123–134. London: Routledge, 2005.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the presence and absent presence of children in McEwan’s fiction of the 1990s against the backdrop of social concern for the safety, disappearance and care for children during the decade.

    Find this resource:

  • Dodou, Katherina. Childhood without Children: Ian McEwan and the Critical Study of the Child. Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala Universitet, 2009a.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Through a detailed discussion of McEwan’s novels, argues for an understanding of childhood separate from children and draws on scholarship from sociology and cultural studies that views images of children as revealing social assumptions. Originally a thesis written for Uppsala University’s Department of English.

    Find this resource:

  • Dodou, Katherina. “Dismembering a Romance of Englishness: Images of Childhood in Ian McEwan’s The Innocent.” In Ian McEwan: Art and Politics. Edited by Pascal Nicklas, 73–86. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter Universitätsverlag, 2009b.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A version of a chapter from Dodou 2009a: in this essay, Dodou argues that childhood is used in The Innocent to interrogate conceptions of national history and identity.

    Find this resource:

  • Mathews, Peter. “The Impression of a Deeper Darkness: Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” English Studies in Canada 32.1 (March 2006): 147–160.

    DOI: 10.1353/esc.2007.0064Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Mathews argues that while the novel demonstrates the potentially tragic results of hasty judgment, its increasing ambiguity self-reflexively turns a logic of shame back on to its reader, so that the novel’s conclusion leaves readers to ponder their own ability as witnesses to testify about Briony’s story.

    Find this resource:

  • McEwan, Ian. “An Only Childhood: Ian McEwan Remembers Growing Up Without Brothers and Sisters.” The Observer, 31 January 1982, 41.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    McEwan discusses his interest in childhood in relation to innocence, guilt, and growing up as an only child.

    Find this resource:

  • McEwan, Ian. “Schoolboys.” In William Golding: The Man and His Books. Edited by John Carey, 157–160. London: Faber and Faber, 1986.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A short essay by McEwan that connects The Lord of the Flies to his own writing and his interest in how children behave and how they are portrayed in fiction.

    Find this resource:

  • Pifer, Ellen. “Reclaiming the Lost Child: McEwan’s The Child in Time.” In Demon or Doll: Images of the Child in Contemporary Writing and Culture. By Ellen Pifer, 189–211. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2000.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discussing Stephen’s inner evolution in terms of a number of journeys in the novel, Pifer discusses how the nine months of the foetus’s gradual development in some way correspond to Stephen’s own slow growth to maturation.

    Find this resource:

  • Williams, Christopher. “Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden and the Tradition of the Child/Adolescent as ‘I-narrator.’” In Atti del XVI convegno nazionale dell’AIA: Ostuni (Brindisi) 4–16 ottobre 1993, 211–223. Fasano, Italy: Schena Editore, 1996.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Williams considers Jack’s narration within the history of literary representations of the adolescent, and finds McEwan’s depiction of the teenager to be somewhat different from previous ones, positioning it as drab and adventureless.

    Find this resource:

Science

McEwan has long held an interest in science and has come to advance a defense of rationalism (Enduring Love), a critique of the excesses of imagination (Atonement), and a novel of consciousness centered on a day in the life of a neuroscientist (Saturday). Recent criticism has subsequently drawn on a number of scientific and philosophical approaches to reflect the interest found in McEwan’s writing in evolutionary psychology, rationalism, and Theory of Mind (see Green 2011). A recurring theme, from essays such as Amigoni 2008 to Thrailkill 2011, has been the relationship between the arts and sciences, a subject of great interest to McEwan and discussed in his own essay “Literature, Science and Human Nature” (cited under Essays by McEwan). Readings of science in McEwan’s work often focus on the mind and cognition, but vary from Amigoni’s concern with Neo-Darwinism to the discussion in Salisbury 2010 of neurobiology, while Thrailkill discusses Saturday in terms of McEwan’s use of consciousness in order to offer a sense of the novel’s reconciliation of the arts and sciences.

  • Amigoni, David. “‘The luxury of storytelling’: Science, Literature and Cultural Contest in Ian McEwan’s Narrative Practice.” Essays & Studies 61 (2008): 151–167.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Amigoni balances off the importance of narrative to science against its equal importance to fiction. He draws on the Neo-Darwinist philosophy of American cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett and reviews perceptions of the current relationship between literature and science.

    Find this resource:

  • Green, Susan. “‘Up There with Black Holes and Darwin, Almost Bigger than Dinosaurs’: The Mind and McEwan’s Enduring Love.” Style 45.3 (Fall 2011): 441–463.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Green discusses McEwan’s novel in relation to the Theory of Mind and theories of consciousness. Green uses this approach to reappraise McEwan’s use of narrative and especially his portrayal of the relationship between Joe and Clarissa.

    Find this resource:

  • Palmer, Alan. “Attributions of Madness in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.” Style 43.3 (Fall 2009): 291–308.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Palmer examines the treatment of madness in fiction from a cognitive perspective by exploring such theoretical issues as narrative thinking (the belief that human beings typically experience their lives as a narrative or story); attribution theory (how attributions of characters’ states of mind are made by narrators, readers, and other characters); and intermental thought (joint, group, shared, or collective thought).

    Find this resource:

  • Salisbury, Laura. “Narration and Neurology: Ian McEwan’s Mother Tongue.” Textual Practice 24.5 (October 2010): 883–912.

    DOI: 10.1080/0950236X.2010.495535Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Salisbury explores the shift in McEwan’s writing from psychological understanding of the human to a use of neurology and particular versions of evolutionary science to suggest species commonality. The article concludes by suggesting that this scientifically underpinned liberal humanism is part of McEwan’s use of the broadly realist novel and his rejection of radicalism.

    Find this resource:

  • Thrailkill, Jane F. “Ian McEwan’s Neurological Novel.” Poetics Today 32.1 (Spring 2011): 171–201.

    DOI: 10.1215/03335372-1188221Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Thrailkill draws on the work of Gerald Edelman in neuroscience and Lisa Feldman Barrett in psychology to explore the interface between self and environment in the works of McEwan, while also examining McEwan’s presentation of a meeting point between art and science in the biological rootedness of storytelling (the centrality of feeling to thinking) and a empiricism that balances human activities of interpretation with testing, calibration, and revision.

    Find this resource:

back to top

Article

Up

Down