On Chesil Beach

McEwan, Ian

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn
  • Date of entry: Mar-17-2008
  • Last revised: Mar-15-2008


In summer 1962, virgins Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting take their wedding supper in a hotel suite overlooking stony Chesil Beach on the Dorset coast. Married that afternoon, each is thinking of the bed in the next room. With only a little experience, Edward has waited patiently, but looks forward, enthusiasm mingled with apprehension over his performance. Florence however is revolted and even frightened by the thought of sex, but she does not dare to reveal her fears. They are both embarrassed by the hovering staff, and eventually leave the meal unfinished.

They proceed to the bed. Florence takes the lead which pleases and surprises Edward, but he does not know that she is doing so bravely, to confront the inevitable and get it over with. Their individual thoughts forward and backward through time rehearse their meeting, their love, and the awkward encounters with parents.

It does not go well. Florence races out of the room onto the darkened beach. Edward follows her and they try to talk. She suggests a celibate marriage. He is humiliated and angry. She walks away and he does not call her back. The marriage is annulled and in the last few pages, their lives race by--hers to musical success, his with only one regret.


A masterful story that takes place almost exclusively in the thoughts of two people at a pivotal moment in their lives. They come from different classes. Her well-off, intellectual parents Violet and Geoffrey Ponting represent something elite and attractive to Edward. His parents -- Marjorie and Lionel Mayhew—are from a more humble background; worse, his father has been compensating for his mother’s brain-damaged state for many years.

We are closer to Edward’s thoughts than to those of Florence, possibly because she has blotted out her own memories. Her recollections imply that she had a “special” relationship with her father—that he took her on trips, that, although it is never stated, he may have abused her sexually. These veiled and unarticulated allusions operate in the tale like suppressed memory, the kind ascribed to victims of abuse.

The story underscores the great challenges of reconciling differences in class, experience and perception even among confident people who love each other very much.The single moment on the beach determines the shape of their future lives—had he called her back, she would have returned.


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published




Page Count