British and Irish Literature Ian McEwan
Peter Childs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0103


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.

    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.

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

    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.

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

    DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719066566.001.0001

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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