Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history.

In this lesson, we will explore about the story, themes, and characters of McEwan's 'The Cement Garden.' Then we will learn about how critics and scholars have interpreted the novel.

Cult Classic

Critics simply called it 'macabre.' The Cement Garden (1978) is a mash up of Poe's Fall of the House of Usher and Hitchcock's Psycho. It combines the style of D.H. Lawrence's sexual curiosity with the themes of survival and savagery found in William Golding's Lord of the Flies. The Cement Garden, British author Ian McEwan's first novel, became an instant cult hit.

This lesson introduces the story, themes, and significance of McEwan's The Cement Garden. It's a short, easy read that deals with heavy psychological issues related to adolescent longing, incest, death, and sibling rivalry.

Psycho meets Lord of the Flies

The Cement Garden mixes together two different genres with a complex narrative perspective and a host of intricate themes.

First, it's a Gothic horror novel. These stories usually feature darkly romantic plots and spooky ambiance. Edgar Allen Poe was the king of Gothic horror, along with Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and Henry James (Turn of the Screw).

Common themes in Gothic horror include cemeteries, death, and the supernatural

Second, it's also a psychological drama, a genre that often employs aspects of horror and thrillers - think Hitchcock's Psycho. But the main point in psychological drama is to explore complex minds, unconscious desires, and internal conflicts. In 14-year-old Jack, the book's narrator, McEwan presents a protagonist rife for psychoanalytic interpretation.

A Family of Orphans

The Cement Garden is set in post-WWII England. Just as Brits were learning how to overcome the travesties of war, a cultural revolution was overtaking the nation. The novel focuses on a middle-class family in the throes of this unique situation. Jack, Julie (17), and their younger siblings Sue (13) and Tom (6), live a quaint existence in a ramshackle home somewhere in England.

In the opening scene, Jack and his father resurface the pavement in the backyard. When Jack runs off to masturbate in the bathroom, leaving his father to do the heavy lifting, we get the first of many indications that Jack is a little perverted and irresponsible. In Jack's absence, his father suffers from a heart attack and is carted away to the hospital.

Jack's mother's health also suffers. Under the pressure of trying to run the house all by herself, she falls ill and suddenly dies. But the kids don't mourn. Afraid that they'll also be carted away like Father, Jack leads the bunch into the basement. They use the remaining cement from the resurfacing project to entomb their mother's body in a makeshift coffin.

Now orphans, Jack and Julie take on the roles of mama and papa to Sue and Tom. But a household made of children quickly descends into chaos and squalor. Jack and Julie take on roles as the new heads of household, and in the process brother and sister develop an incestuous sexual relationship. They become intimate lovers.

Things get even more complicated when Julie invites the boy she's been dating, Derek (23), over for dinner. Jack fears that Julie likes Derek more than him. When Sue and Tom also warm up to Derek, Jack takes it as an insult and a provocation. The novel ends on an odd, unfinished note: Jack and Julie consummate their incestuous affair at the same moment that Derek discovers the truth hiding in the basement.

Style and Narration

If The Cement Garden were told from an omniscient, third person perspective you might expect to learn more about the parents, gain a sense of shame over Jack and Julie's inappropriate relationship, and feel a deep loss over the deaths of their mother and father. In fact, readers would probably intensely dislike Jack: bad hygiene, perverted, undisciplined, indifferent to social customs.

McEwan complicates matters by telling the story through Jack's point of view. He's an unreliable narrator, meaning that he speaks in the first person while viewing the events that take place in a stubbornly subjective way, so his account of events isn't necessarily objectively accurate. He doesn't allow readers to understand what the other characters might be feeling.

Critics note Jack's 'laconically efficient', 'spare, rather grey prose.' It's even mechanical at times. Jack makes observations with clarity and precision. In fact, his apparent lack of emotion should make readers wonder what's really going on in his head.

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