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A reader's guide to On Chesil Beach

Updated Wednesday, 1st October 2008

A couple take their first steps towards intimacy against the sound of the surf crashing on the Dorset coast. It's not as romantic as it sounds...

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When Ian McEwan was planning On Chesil Beach he aimed to produce five chapters, each containing around 8,000 words. This economical, elegant and controlled structure seems somehow appropriate for his finely nuanced story about the relationship between Florence Ponting, a promising violinist, and her ardent bridegroom, Edward Mayhew.

The tale is set in 1962, when the newly-weds are preparing to consummate their marriage in a Dorset hotel. Their disastrous wedding night is at the heart of the text.

Chesil Beach Creative commons image Icon pixelthing under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

The date is highly significant. Later, the 1960s would become associated with a revolution in sexual attitudes and behaviour; but at this particular point in the decade ‘to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure’. Florence and Edward have anxieties and inhibitions that they need to resolve, and are, perhaps, victims of their time, class and culture.

McEwan has spoken of the moment when youngsters cross ‘the Conradian shadow-line’, passing from innocence to knowledge. Although On Chesil Beach is brief and understated, it engages with a universal experience.

Early drafts of the book made it clear why Florence has such a ‘visceral dread’ of the sex act. The author decided to be more ambiguous about this in the finished work.

The narrator describes the events in a measured, subtle and compassionate voice. There is no question of apportioning blame. The fact is that a moment in time completely changes the lives of Florence and Edward.

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