In this lesson, you'll hit the highlights of two important novels by British writer Ian McEwan. You'll learn what happens in the books, who the main characters are, and which big ideas McEwan develops.
Ian McEwan is a 66-year-old English novelist and screenwriter who has been publishing since the mid-1970s. His dark early work earned him the nickname 'Ian Macabre,' but he's best known for his more recent novels, in particular Saturday and Atonement. Atonement has won several major awards and was named the best book of 2002 by Time Magazine. In addition to attracting positive attention for his writing, McEwan has drawn his share of controversy over his views on politics and religion.
Ever had a day go from bad to worse? Of course you have, but hopefully your day was nowhere near as bad as the one in Saturday, a novel that spans only 24 hours in the life of the main character. The day in February 2003 starts out like any other but takes a terrible detour. The main character is a neurosurgeon, a doctor who specializes in diagnosing illnesses of the brain and treating them through surgery. He leaves home to play squash, a game like racquetball, with a friend, runs into a massive war protest, gets on the wrong side of a violent street thug, and bad things start happening.
The book's central character is Henry Perowne, a successful neurosurgeon in his late 40s. To really get a feel for the mindset of a neurosurgeon, McEwan spent time shadowing and talking with one. He wanted to see how such a well-educated, intelligent man approached life in a time when the world seems full of uncertainty. During his single day in the novel, Perowne is forced to confront a series of modern problems - aging parents, violent crime, the pressures of an impending war in Iraq, and the sighting of a flaming plane streaking across the sky - not knowing if it's caused by an accident or terrorism.
Baxter, an aggressive thug who assaults Henry Perowne, brings most of the conflict to the novel. He attacks Henry towards the beginning of the book, and later in the novel, armed with a knife, he crashes Henry's family reunion with more violence on his mind. Henry notices some telltale signs in Baxter's behavior and diagnoses him with Huntington's disease, a disorder that leads to mental and physical problems.
One of the main ideas that McEwan explores in this novel is rationalism, a belief that actions should be based on thought rather than emotions or religion. While Henry Perowne is no Mr. Spock, he does view the world through the lens of logic. Perowne, at one point in the book, even looks down on literature, wondering if stories with magic or supernatural characters have any value. Perowne's educated mind correctly diagnoses Baxter's illness, but it takes Perowne's daughter, a writer, to calm down the savage criminal by reciting a poem. In that scene, McEwan shows that we need science but that stories and imagination are also vital.
Atonement: Summary and Characters
Saturday focuses on a single day in the main character's life; in contrast, Atonement is a novel that spans over 40 years and examines the long-term effects of terrible mistakes. The word 'atonement' refers to the act of trying to make up for something, a wrong that's been done. Ever wished you could have a do-over? Well, this book is all about one serious wrong that was done, what happens as a result, and the desire for a do-over.
The main character, Briony, is a 13-year-old, well-off, British girl with an active imagination and a talent for writing. Her older sister, Cecilia, is home from college along with her friend. Robbie is the son of the family's housekeeper. The older two discover an interest in each other, and when Briony catches them getting intimate in the library, she misinterprets it as rape. Later, Lola, a member of the household, is attacked, and our main girl assumes that Robbie did it, even though he and Cecilia have run off together. Robbie gets busted for rape, based on the eyewitness testimony of Briony, and he spends some time in prison.
Later, Robbie joins the British army in World War II, and Cecilia enlists as a nurse. They have an awkward reunion before Robbie goes to war, but they get together at the war's end and refuse to forgive Briony for what she's done. Or do they? In a crazy twist, the fourth part of the novel reveals that the whole opening bit has been the book Briony has written about the mistake she made. Robbie and Cecilia never reunited; they died. Briony just wanted to atone for her mistake and to create a happy ending, even when one never really came about.
There's also a wicked sub-plot. See, Briony thinks she remembers the guy who attacked Lola. She knew it wasn't Robbie, and she figures out who it must be, this guy named Paul Marshall, the guy who eventually marries Lola. Once Briony puts the pieces together, she also knows that her accusation will never stand up in court, since Paul and Lola are now married! In the final section of the book, it's revealed that the now-old Briony was waiting for Paul and Lola to die because she knew the book would be a scandal to them. In a tearjerker of a final scene, Briony makes one last attempt to atone by publishing her novel anyway, with the knowledge that she's already dying of dementia, a severe decline in mental ability.
The most important theme in the novel gets top billing in the book's title - atonement. Briony's need to atone for her mistake drives the plot of the book, and through that plot and her character, McEwan explores guilt and how it affects a person's life. This is a modern novel, though, so there are no easy answers. Briony's traditional sense of guilt pushes her to attempt to atone to Robbie and Cecilia in the only way she can, through a novel, since both of them have passed away. She tries to right her wrongs by telling the story of the real rapist, Paul, but McEwan leaves it unclear as to whether her attempts to atone have left her in peace. The reader never knows whether Briony's novel was enough to calm her crushing guilt.
To further muddy the waters, what about the real rapist, Paul? He never shows a bit of remorse, and he goes on to live a happy life. Also, don't the adults and investigators deserve some measure of guilt? They took the word of a teenage girl who claimed she saw a man's face - in the dark! McEwan leaves the reader thinking about the causes and long-term effects of guilt, but he doesn't offer any clear advice.
Ian McEwan has written a string of successful novels, and two of his best-known works are Saturday and Atonement. Saturday tells the story of a neurosurgeon and a violent man with a mental disorder. The whole book takes place in a single day, and the author uses the book to get the reader to think about the balance between logic and imagination.
Atonement, from the title alone, is about the effects of guilt and the desire for forgiveness. In that book, a teen girl mistakenly accuses her sister's boyfriend of rape and ruins their lives. She tries to find atonement by righting her wrongs in a novel, but it's never clear whether she's successful. In both books, McEwan tackles serious ideas and leaves the reader to come to his own conclusions.
Look at this lesson in preparation to:
- Relate the background and accomplishments of Ian McEwan
- Discuss the novel, Saturday, including its main characters, plot, and themes
- Discover the way in which McEwan explores guilt in Atonement