115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Buried in Cement: Ian McEwan's Exploration of the Transnormative Family

Alessia Ursella, University of Guelph (Canada)

The aim of my paper is to explore the role of Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden in starting his conversation on new forms of families or reactions to the absence thereof. Lack of viable networks and communities creates the ground for doubtful moral choices. The plot and discursive aspects contribute to the interrogation of ‘normative’ families, pushing the reader to challenge that paradigm.

Proposal: 

The aim of my paper is to investigate the role of McEwan's The Cement Garden (1978) in establishing his premises for reconceiving the family. Despite its canonical framework (a white, middle-class, male narrator), the novel is successful in its disruptiveness:  it presents the disintegration of a family and the consequences for its members, from unconventional and problematic sexual explorations to the murder of their mother. The dismissal of the death of their father, the murder, the final incest scene and the youngest child experimenting with his sexuality (from getting dressed as a girl to playing family with his friend), all point to a family that has lost its identity and is struggling to find a new one.

The role of the first-person retrospective narrator is crucially unreliable; while he initially dismisses the importance of events leading toward dismantling the family, the attentive reader comes to reconsider his judgment.

In recent comments connecting The Cement Garden with his latest novel The Nutshell (2016) as further investigation on the theme of innocence, McEwan shows how the “Innocent is an ironically sinister figure, capable of doing great harm in his ignorance” (Beha). The dissolution of the family in The Cement Garden, where there is no other community or network capable of providing support to the children, creates a post-familial context where its members, isolated and without supervision, lose guidance and their presumed innocence, which should have been preserved by their parents. The open-endedness of the novel leaves the reader without answers, while questioning the moral choices of its characters: this strategy represents McEwan’s path to reflecting on new, transnormative families, an approach that started with The Cement Garden and continues in The Nutshell where postmodern communities engage with a traditional oedipal script that leads to the death of the protagonist’s father, a foil for King Hamlet, through death by poison-laced smoothie.

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