On Chesil Beach, McEwan

You may remember the series of posts on writing sex scenes I did some time ago. I think I have to revisit one of the topics I took on back then. Specifically I looked at scenes from three novels: Jenny Crusie’s Faking It, Scott Spencer’s Endless Love, and Paulo Coehlo’s Eleven Minutes.

The first two are examples of successful, skillfully written sex scenes in which the sex itself is not good, for one reason or another. The last example was of a sex scene that was simply badly written. I remarked at the time that there aren’t many examples out there of sex scenes in which one or both of the characters are unhappy. In this case it’s important to note that I’m talking about consensual sex between adults. Writing sexual violence is very different, and I leave the topic aside for the moment. And maybe forever.

[asa left]0385522401[/asa] A reader emailed me to say that McEwan’s On Chesil Beach included an example of sex between consulting adults gone wrong. I got hold of the book quickly and read it in one sitting — it really is more of a novella than a novel — and then I tried to figure out how to compare this novel to the others I’ve mentioned. It’s not a matter of one scene in Chesil Beach; the whole novel centers on one sexual act between newlyweds in 1962 England. Both of Edward and Florence are virgins; both had the enthusiastic support of their families. But the bride has worried about the wedding night from the moment she agreed to marry, and she worried in graphic terms. Her distaste is almost palpable as she considers words like enter and penetrate.

On the other hand, the groom cannot wait for the wedding night. He has given up masturbation for a few weeks in order to be really ready (I don’t know if anybody else laughed at this, but I did.) She has been skittish about all physical matters since they first started dating, but he expects all those reservations to be put aside because they are now Married.

McEwan writes about the wedding night in great detail, most particularly about the train of Florence’s thought. How she lectures herself about duty and what is owed to Edward, how she struggles to overcome her distaste for the very idea of intercourse. The detail continues along as the couple move forward and away from the bed in a dance that might have been funny if the author had tweaked it just a little. He wasn’t looking for funny, I know. But what was he looking for?

The sex goes very badly. So badly that the marriage is never really consummated, in spite of the fact that Florence has finally managed to find some interest in the process. Her interest coincides with Edward’s ueber-interest, and horrified, she runs away, out of the room to walk along the beach. In the long conversation Edward and Florence have on the beach, we learn a lot about both of them. When that conversation is done, they agree to have the marriage nullified. The rest of the story is almost exclusively about Edward, who goes on to lead a mediocre life far different than the one he was headed for when he first married.

I can ask a clinical question: was the sex scene itself well written? My take: it felt off balance to me. We are mostly in Florence’s thoughts, but get little hint of her physical reactions. But all in all, the scene was adequately handled.

Here’s the bigger question: does thie story succeed with one sexual act as its cornerstone? With a wider perspective, it might have been interesting in a novel that explored sexual mores in 1962 England, rather than focusing on the lives of two young people. As it was, I found the story disappointing. A couple get married; it turns out that they are sexually incompatible; they separate immediately. If the idea was to explore how this tainted Edward’s life, then we would have been better off starting at the moment they decided to separate. But that’s not what McEwan did. Everything leads up to the sexual act, and then falls away from it. So in this case, I can’t really talk about how successful a scene involving sex is. Instead I have to think about how this material, which is very promising, got pummeled to the point of milk toast: maybe there’s something in it that’s good for you, but it’s a bland and unsatisfying meal.

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4 Replies to “On Chesil Beach, McEwan”

  1. I have not finished reading all the posts you’ve written about sex scenes, but the ones I have are very interesting. You’ve made some great observations. I also rattled about my own dungeon trying to spot how I feel when I read sex scenes–and write them–which I avoid when possible. What are my hangups versus a well-written scene that’s important to characterization and plot?

    Last night, after a very long day at a college football game in heat that would fry okra, I read John Grant and Angie’s ‘meeting’ on the sofa. It struck me, before I zapped out like a blown lightbulb, the key to a well-done encounter is POV. Not that this is a huge revelation, but this scene was a good example. How many ways can you describe the same old mechanics? You didn’t. You told us about the character’s internal experience, the slight clumsiness of finding all the right rhythms–physical, mental and talk–and the humor of getting ‘it’ together. I like humor. Make me laugh and I’ll follow you anywhere.

    Since I was hanging onto a drained consciousness at the time, I’ll have to reread that part of the chapter again, but the scene worked.

    What would you say is the biggest hurdle to making a sex scene come alive? How do you avoid writing a how-to manual, but still communicate the passion, the importance of why you included it in your story? How do you know when you’ve gone over the top?

  2. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the story, although I take your points. I suppose it could feel somewhat unsatisfying, but for some reason it really stayed with me. I was struck by the power of not doing and not saying and how sad that really can be. Very interesting take. Thanks for reading it anyhow — I feel like I owe you a refund!

  3. Lisa — goodness, it’s not your fault. I’m glad I read it, because it made me think and I learned something.

    And you were right, it was a very good example of a sexual encounter gone really, really wrong.

    If I had to issue refunds for every book I’ve recommended that fell flat, I’d be broke. So don’t hesitate to make recommendations, okay?

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