What does the language and structure of the opening sequence of ‘On Chesil Beach’, reveal about the two protagonists characters.
The initial information that we learn from Ian McEwan in the opening paragraph, about the two protagonist characters in ‘On Chesil beach’ is that they are newlyweds on their wedding night, and that they are extremely inexperienced of anything remotely sexual and are both fairly ignorant of the subject. The phrase, ‘They lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible’ describes how one of the factors of their ignorance is the time period that they live in, the 1960’s, perhaps can be called the beginning of the ‘sexual revolution’. However, the two characters, Edward and Florence, are either approximately 22 or 23 years of age, so they would have clearly grown up around people and in an era when the subject of sex was simply unheard of and most probably wasn’t thought of a form of entertainment, but as an act that had to be done to bare children.
Especially throughout Florence’s family, who seem to be of a higher class and perhaps stereotypically are fairly repulsed by the subject and never talk about it. This leads the reader to believe that Edward and Florence are both stereotypical of the time frame that they are living in. This supposed normality of the two characters and their parents also leads them to have the clichéd wedding, no abnormalities, structured format of the occasion along with the hotel reception and the typical ‘mid July’ wedding.
The structure of the first paragraph also seems to gradually reveal the social classes and wealth of the two families, with as mentioned Florence’s family being the higher class, providing the car and perhaps the hotel reception as we learn that Edward ‘had never stayed in a hotel before’ therefore immediately relegating Edwards family to a lower class standing, along with his quite unpredictable mother and her trait of forgetting ‘the purpose of the occasion’. The idea of this information being structured this way in the opening paragraph is to be very direct to the reader, ‘both virgins on this, their wedding night’ perhaps shocks the reader, especially younger readers, to how forward McEwan is being.
The words ‘both virgins’ and ‘sexual difficulties’ almost certainly foreshadows to the reader how voyeuristic and sexually orientated the book is going to be. So in a way, the opening passage is a warning to the reader, bracing them for what difficulties are to be imposed upon Edward and Florence. The structure of the opening sequence also perhaps expresses strong similarities between the two protagonists, both being ‘young, educated and both virgins’, both of approximately the same age and both experiencing the same distinguishing changes in their life, suggests that they will be the perfect people for each other, but in reality, this leads to them having separate views, described through McEwans language.
Although the structure sets the scene for what sexual inexperience and difficulties lie ahead for Edward and Florence, the actual language techniques that Ian McEwan uses throughout the opening sequence, really brings the characters to life an gives an extremely vivid image to who the two protagonists actually are and most importantly, their underlying emotions to the subject of sex. First of all, McEwan uses harsh, coarse and direct words to vividly express how fearful Edward and Florence feel about engaging in physical contact for the first time. For Edward, the words ‘absurdity’, ‘disappointment’, ‘over-excitement’ and ‘failure’ lie heavy on his shoulders to how apprehensive he is about not satisfying his partner, or as McEwan interprets it, ‘arriving too soon’.
However, for Edward, his problems are purely mental issues, the only thing making his experience nervous is his own mind, and even then it is described that ‘his eagerness – for rapture, for resolution – was far greater’, so therefore he is determined to overcome his apprehension and is more than ready to engage with Florence.
On the other hand, ‘Florence’s anxieties were more serious’; they were far more real in other words. As her problems are mainly physically, and as a result of this she has developed very unnerving mental images much like Edward. The words used are to emphasise how fearful Florence is of the pain she will feel due to these sexual acts. ‘Testicles, pendulous’, ‘engorged penis and ‘penetration’, all these words give reference to how uncomfortable she feels both mentally and physically, and a certain amount of empathy is meant to be felt by the reader, both by making the reader slightly uncomfortable in a sense due to the extreme directness of the terms used and by the information that she is a virgin that we are given.
Florence also refers to it as a ‘surgical procedure’, this again refers to the fear of pain that she is expecting to feel but also could be interpreted to a major change in her life, such as she will never really be the same person again, much like a surgical procedure is designed to change a person and leave them slightly different to what the once were.
Going even deeper into the meaning of the phrase, a surgical procedure is sometimes used to extract something very significant from the body, just in the same sense that Edward will be probing Florence’s body to remove her virginity from her. McEwan also uses alliteration to emphasise how disgusted she feels and how the idea of sex makes her ‘gag’. The words ‘mucous membrane’ and ‘glistening glans’ portray rather guttural sounds of the ‘m’ and ‘g’ that hang uneasy and deep in the stomach.
Finally, they are both extremely infantilised by the language that McEwan uses to represent both the two protagonists and also their parents, although mainly Florence’s mother in particular. The language in the opening paragraphs makes it clear that although Edward and Florence are adults and getting married, they are still emotionally controlled by their parents and live in fear that Edward’s mother may ‘significantly misbehave’ and that Florence’s mother may frown upon their actions on this occasion. For example, they received a ‘raucous’ send off from their school friends and ‘her parents had not condescended to this’, suggesting that Florence is still controlled by her parents, in the same way they had ‘driven away in a small car belonging to Florence’s mother’, indicating that her mother feels she is inclined to have her input in Florence’s life, thus subjecting the two protagonists to the role of two children.
Edward and Florence’s controlling parents come into effect very emotively and this linked in with their inexperience of any sexual activity, their ‘nervous’ and ‘tentative’ feelings towards the subject and particularly Florence’s repulsive feelings of the physicality of having Edward ‘entering’ her, really does categorise their role of children in the opening sequence. This infantilisation seems to have prevented them both from conforming to gender roles, much as children are generally unaware of the opposite sex at a young age, which could explain their apprehensive feelings towards sex, and each other.
Courtney from Study Moose
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