In On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan creates a tension between Florence and Edward that reflects the tension in 1960s England pre-sexual revolution. Florence and Edward represent the final few marriages before, as Philip Larkin calls it, the “Beatles’ first LP.” Two generations in England (and eventually in the US) were soon to become ideologically separated––the people just a bit younger than Florence and Edward were soon to experience relationships that did not call for “a wrangle for the ring.” Florence has a little book on how to please her soon-to-be-husband on her dreaded wedding night, also known as the night she loses her virginity. The majority of women who were to be married in the late sixties and early seventies were not going to be using this book (though some conservative women were still going to). Edward is a virgin too, but Florence doesn’t think so—and herein lies the crucial problem in On Chesil Beach for Florence and Edward.
Their marriage might have worked out differently if they were able to communicate properly. As a reader, it is frustrating to watch Florence and Edward’s new marriage combust almost instantaneously, as they had a fulfilling relationship outside of their one sexual encounter gone wrong. McEwan makes it very clear with his intense description of their lives and interests, from Florence’s passion with classical music to Edward’s love of history, that their relationship had substance. Sex literally was going to make or break their relationship, and in the end, it broke it. The shame incurred from their one sexual encounter left them unable to go on. They had no previous experience and were told they could not have experience until “the ring,” and it was a horrid and uncomfortable first time because of it.
Due to cultural norms, any talk of sex was absolute taboo. There was so much mystery around the act—if sexual education today is still not comprehensive, it definitely was not back then. The taboo began to fade and sex began to be talked about more democratically as the late sixties came around. The idea of being a virgin at marriage was not so commonly held after “the Beatles’ first LP,” when a reaction against gender roles occurred, and overall, less shame followed with “freeing” acts (expressing one’s sexuality, women wearing pants, having more than one partner). However, Florence and Edward did not exist as characters during this time. In Florence and Edward’s time, Florence would be perceived as “lesser” and “dirty” or “not pure” if she had lost her virginity before marriage. There was shame involved, “a shame that started at sixteen / And spread to everything,” as Larkin reiterates. However, they were completely uninformed and unaware at to what sex was, because it was never talked about.
It is frustrating, as a reader, to have Edward admit at the end of the novel that he loved Florence and had never loved anyone more. They had much more than just that one night.
It is even more frustrating to realize that they were so incredibly close to a sexual revolution, but they crossed paths in a time where sex was an utter mystery. As readers, we are able to analyze the problem and see that the societal constraints around even talking about sex are mainly to blame. Now, there are many more issues that are prominent in On Chesil Beach, specifically McEwan’s misogyny and racist language, which I do not believe we can look past whatsoever. However, McEwan does create a tension that shows how life was so incredibly restricted before a sexual liberation that changed the way we as a society talk about sex. The music of the day went from doo-wop to “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to, eventually, “Let It Bleed.” Cultural norms started to shift and (mostly) “everyone felt the same,” and sex was treated less like the legend of the Loch Ness monster.