As Women’s magazines keep on publishing special issues about marriage, the idea of “门当户对 ” or in English “marry to someone whose house entrance is the same scale as yours” remains the most salient and heated topic. The long history of hierarchical social classes in China permeates into every corner of life and even the entrance door of a house must be built in certain style and scale following one’s social class. “So is marriage!”, the conventional wisdom gave a verdict on this topic as the hierarchical history itself. The other country with such similar ineffaceable memory of social hierarchy is the Great Britain, with its aristocracy as the ceremonial figure and a strong worker union from popular base.
Adding to the abundant literature on love and social class, Ian McEwan’s novella “On Chesil Beach” tries to give a highly vivid and pictorial account of a young couple on their first night of honeymoon trip. This book has no difficulty to reach cross-cultural readers, especially Chinese readers, even though the context is set in 1960s, England. Even more, this book is great for Chinese readers, mainly because the two protagonists, Edward and Florence, with their timid and uneasy first sexual encounter, are identifiable to the mass young Chinese who concern both of social class and intimate relationship on their troublesome puberty to adulthood. However, the kind of suggestion that McEwan is proposing in this coming-of-age story may be uncomfortable to accept for readers who believe in a more deliberate lifestyle and a more dynamic social scenario.
The story is about their first night after wedding. When all their artificial innocence, protected by the pre-verbal age of sex, must be exposed to the sheer reality of consummating the marriage, they failed. Their relationship ends not by the kind of embarrassing or awkward silence in the bed room, but an explosive quarrel that brings out their worst sides and ends abruptly. Flashbacks of their family background and their encounters are woven into the plot of their first sexual attempt, so readers can gain the kind of pleasure of reading similar to detective stories. The plot revolves around solving the case (the failing of consummation), and the trails or clues of the murder (the reasons behind) are unfolded simultaneously with the progress of the story. So, from the flashbacks, readers can quickly learn that Edward has a middle-class upbringing, dwelling in countryside. The rosy picture of a bucolic countryside lifestyle was maintained by Edward’s father, while Edward’s mother was under constant trouble of mental health issue. His admiration for great historical figures and his love for rock music and street brawl all attribute to the image of an ambitious young fellow who strives for a passion that long has been suppressed by his queer middle class family.
On the other hand, Florence is from the upper class near Oxford area, who studies classical music rigorously despite her family’s lack of appreciation. Nevertheless, she disguises her real social and political inclinations from her family, while consciously hides her real sexual orientation facing Edward’s passionate gaze. If love is blind, as romance story tries to convince the world, they should have lived happily ever after. However, in this novella, the blindness of love does not transcend reality but pokes at the painstaking ignorance, generated by their social milieu.
McEwan manages to build the characters not only by episodes from their past, a splendid dynamic plot with collision of space and time (abovementioned), but also through psychological description of the characters, namely the free indirect discourse. We, the readers, can have intimate access to their personal lives via McEwan’s master of this free indirect discourse, an omniscient third person perspective of narrative. For example, we often see Florence from Edward’s eyes, his gaze, by the seamless description of objectives to Edward’s thoughts and sometime, we can see trails of author’s judgment from the wry undertone. As early as in chapter one, passages of Florence practicing the violin manifests this writing skill by shifting from delineation of Edward, to Edward’s thoughts of Florence and then to more objective lines of Florence.
The author first talks about Edward’s college days, giving us information of his admiration for ambitious opportunists in history, so that readers can have a peek of Edward’s hidden passion through the author’s non-approval rendition. Then readers are presented with Edward’s psychological activities during the wedding, which his desire and passion is heightened by this marriage, and swiftly, the scene shifts to Edward gazing Florence. The readers are expected to experience a continuity of Edward’s passion from great men history to marriage, and now to his wife. Therefore, although the language is about Florence’s physical appearance during her practice, it can be traced back to Edward’s deeply skewed psychological condition. Then the story goes on writing Florence’s daily life, but followed by Edward’s confession of love. Often the narrative assumes the function of camera lens, which the kind of shot and reverse shot is made as natural and unaware of as possible so the author can manipulate the readers’ response by this artificial objectivity.
At the same time, it is also problematic. Because the characters are presented with this omniscient narrative, the readers are not expected to practice much interpretation of characters. Especially, when the author tries to depict a young couple who lack of agency, the assertiveness of the language style seems a bit contrary to the characters’ lack of control over their lives. In reality, young people may not be fully aware of their thoughts, desires, and decisions. But we, the readers, are too aware of their “hidden” psychological problems. We knew Edward is desiring Florence because Florence “held herself gracefully, with back straight and head lifted proudly” and Edward could not change her so he “wanted to slap her out of her straight-backed music-stand poise”. And then this direct commentary is given by the author, “And what stood in their way? Their personalities and their pasts……, their Englishness and class, and history itself.” The metaphors are laid out and the motifs are perfectly repeated. Instead of letting the readers have a fuzzier feeling towards the characters and ampathize with their situation, the structure of the text is infused with a more fatalistic atmosphere.
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