Ian McEwan Novels: Saturday and Atonement

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  • 0:01 Ian McEwan
  • 0:39 Saturday: Summary and…
  • 2:25 Saturday: Theme
  • 3:08 Atonement: Summary and…
  • 5:42 Atonement: Theme
  • 6:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

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

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.

Saturday: Summary

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.

Saturday: Characters

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.

Saturday: Theme

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.

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