In On Chesil Beach, McEwanuses a variety of techniques, such as flashbacks, in order to capture thethoughts and feelings that have already passed for the characters. Within thetext, time is expressed both literally in the form of dates and historicalevents, societal norms and expectations, yet also through metaphorical ‘momentsin time’ that the characters remember and reminisce upon.
The setting of the novel is also supported byoccasional references and groundings to actual dates, such as the date ofFlorence’s and Edwards wedding in 1962 and the death of Edwards mother, allimportant to the novel and the time period, so carefully crafted by the writer whichmakes this plot work.First of all, the most significant way McEwan capturesa precise moment of time is through the title of his work ‘On Chesil Beach’,the setting of the novel and the penultimate place in which time forces changeupon the couple, Florence and Edward. The beach, and what occurred there, whenEdward ‘let that girl with her violin go’ (p. 165) is an important indicationby the writer that time itself is coming to a halt, a moment completely overwhelmingthe pair and leaving the characters in a situation that has lasting emotionaldamage.
This climactic moment of their relationship is make or break for them,and in the end, they fail one another. All Florence needed ‘was the certaintyof his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime layahead of them’ however Edward was too forceful and inconsiderate of his newwife’s feeling. The beach isnow associated with tragedy and heartbreak, reminding them of how they couldnot make their marriage work and forcing them to accept that they both wanteddifferent things. The characters may be able to escape their feelings in timebut never the beach- a reminder of the pain and that their lives stopped there.When Florence and Edward meet for the first time, this isalso seen to be a moment in which McEwan’s captures a precise instant of time,presenting the couple as completely intoxicated and where the rules of time aretheir own, showing how besotted they first were with each other. One way inwhich this is achieved is how through the description of Florence when Edwardfirst looks at her, ‘a lovely face, with a sculpted look that in a certainlight brought to mind an American Indian woman, a highborn squaw’ but ‘He had not paused as he enteredthe room’ (p.
48), implying that for him, time slowsdown as he looks at her and consequently, emphasising the attraction betweenthem both. However, the writer captures the precise moment when the couple firstfall in love through a flashback of a ‘snatched Saturday afternoon’ (p. 57), aday they frequently repeat and reminisce over, a now tradition in theirrelationship that only they know, only strengthening their relationship.On the other hand, when Florence leaves Edward for thelast time, this too captures a precise sense of time. McEwan uses simplelanguage, ‘I am sorry, Edward.
I am most terribly sorry’ (p.157) to show the pain and heartache behind Florence’s words, without her reallysaying much at all. Although some would suggest that it’s more what she doesn’tsay and her lack of words that causes the agony. The repetition of the lexis’sorry’ (p. 157) stresses the love she has for Edward, yet she knows she has towalk away from their almost toxic relationship and clashing ideas and feelings.
Florence’s very sincere yet short and formal apology mimics her contrasting feelingstowards Edward and this pain and somber tone created by the writer tinges therest of the novel until the end of their relationship which stays with the readerthroughout. Due to a lack of communication, their unexpressed misunderstandingsof sex and perceptions of relationships between a man and a woman caused tensionwithin the marriage and ultimately lead to their downfall, which is arguablycaused by a wider context of time and the confusions of culture. In this way,McEwan is once again creating a freeze frame of this moment, and all of itscomplexity and ridiculous, contradictorily rules and expectations areshow-cased and incarnated within both of the characters. The old-fashioned, outdated language used by Florenceis another way in which the writer captures a specific moment of time.Similarly, it adds a sense of antiquity to her character. Throughout the novel,it can be seen that her opinions are particularly left-wing, showing a morerebellious and brave side to her character as she goes against the views of hermore right-wing parents and her strict, conservative upbringing.
During the timein which the text is set, the females were ‘still raised in the shadow of holyvirginity’2 and thus,Florence would have had inflexibly high expectations of herself as a woman,highlighting the enormous amount of stress and pressure women and girls wereunder. The language and phrases she uses supports the more literal sense oftimes in other, more metaphorical instances throughout the novel. For example,the definite mention of Florence’s old, sophisticated lexis bare that evenher language is suppressed and trapped within itself. The customs expected ofher as a young woman and the rules and regulations imposed on her trap herwithin a war-like state that she cannot free herself from.Another way McEwan captures a precisesense of time in the novel is through the constrictions and rules shown to be enforcedupon the two characters, Edward and Florence, reflecting the social norms andexpectations of men and women in the late 1950’s and 1960’s and thereforecapturing the time period of which the novel is set. The idea that the couple are’never agreed or voiced’ (p.
21) shows the authority and unquestionable rule ofthe elders in their relationship, as Edward and Florence are only 21 and 26 andit was perceived that they weren’t experienced nor old enough to be trusted,with their sexual desires especially. This is highlighted more specifically inthe characterization of Edward, who representsa period of approaching sexual revolution with his passion and openness tosexual relationship with Florence, where as she is much more reserved. ‘Whenthey kissed she immediately felt his tongue, tensed and strong, pushing pasther teeth, like some bully shouldering his way into a room.
‘ The simile showsthat Florence didn’t want to kiss Edward, in particular, the lexis’shouldering’ shows that it was forced and not out of love and desire.Florence’s character and attitudes convey the strict moral values and rules of the time, when sex was not apleasure but an expectation between wife and husband, and the pair mustmarry before engaging in a sexual relationship.The writer’s accuracy of the telling of the novel’s culture helps to perfectlycapture a precise sense of time for the reader.McEwan also explores Florence’s struggle in terms ofher sexuality, another way in which a precise sense of time is established.Florence ‘suspected that there was something profoundly wrong with her’, shewas afraid of giving herself away, opening up to someone and being afraid ofwhat may come of it in the future, and therefore is scared of having sex withEdward.
At the point of first having sex, time stops, indicating her naivetyand inexperience, yet more importantly, her vulnerability. Her constant worryingallows McEwan to capture and retell how she’s previously worried about this,showing how she cannot overcome her fears and is still infected with theseexact same anxieties. For instance, when reading about sexual organs, ‘she cameacross certain phrases or words that almost made her gag'(p. 7), reinforcing her innocence. Though they only give information of themedical side of sex and inform her nothing of the passionate, romantic side andthis is something Florence fails to understand, she is unaware of the benefitsand positives to having sex with her husband. This memory of reading the book takesaway any chance she had of opening up to Edward, ‘her whole being was in revoltagainst the prospect of entanglement and flesh’, showing that she’s never been able to move past this point in theirrelationship.Florence’s character is presented by McEwan as an exaggerated stereotypeof woman in this specific time period, who is seen to be tied down by her strict,old-fashioned upbringing and the many societal pressures and demands she isfaced with throughout her day-to-day life, helping McEwan further to capture aprecise snippet of time.
‘She was alone with a problem she did not know how tobegin to address’, presenting the many unspoken issues women experienced atthis time, showing how Florence is isolated and left to deal with things byherself. The isolation and loneliness stems from the fact that sexual andpersonal matters were considered extremely private and therefore does not knowwho to turn to for help. Furthermore, she cannot go to Edward for advice or tounload her problems and feelings as at this time, she, and women in general,would not have been encouraged to do so, capturing the problems and downfallsin society during this period. The use of irony throughout the text is another way the writer capturesa sense of time. Numerous historical referencesand profound points in time, in terms of advances in contraception for example,are mocked and turned into, what could be considered, jokes. ‘The Pill was arumour in the newspapers, a ridiculous promise’ (p.
39). The fact that this is scornedand regarded as a ‘ridiculous promise’ ridicules the time period being depictedby McEwan for being outdated, as we know now the success and the great impactthe pill has had as modern readers. Notonly this, it skillfully points out the differences in feelings towardssexuality being portrayed during this time period.
To conclude, McEwan uses various techniques, such asflashbacks, use of language, characterization and a complex and multi-framednarration in order to successfully portray time and capture precise moments.Historical contexts are carefully intertwined within the text to portray the timeperiod in the truest way and resultantly, the culture and the societal views ofthe time are analysed. The roles of men and women are equally questioned andpresented through the characters, Edward and Florence. Both characters areunable to forget about precise moments that will forever haunt them, showinghow the writer captured a sense of time so perfectly. The entire novelrepresents a missed opportunity based on timing and in the end, their marriagefails because of this. Time is also captured through specific instantsremembered by the characters, shown in flashback, in which those times arepresented as brighter, happier times than the rest of their monotonous andlonely lives, showing how the pair simply couldn’t cope with their emotions andthe last night on the beach will remain with them forever.