What McEwan's The Child in Time tells us about the author’s views on human nature and the condition of England


Ian McEwan’s third novel The Child in Time (1987) presents a grim view of England.  As its title suggests, McEwan’s novel deals not only with the emotive story of an abducted child, but also with fundamental truths about the vulnerability of human nature.  McEwan explores time as a multi-dimensional structure, but through the repetition of certain features, also shows time and society as a continuum.  As a commentary to the condition of England, the novel operates on two levels: by providing brief but vivid glimpses of a wider society, and by close examination of the small community of which Stephen Lewis is the central figure.

McEwan also examines the pitfalls of an authoritarian regime by projecting his ideas about the condition of England onto a scenario of the not-too-distant future by ushering current political trends towards their logical and credible consequences.  He presents intensely vivid cameo views of English life that have a cinematographic quality of clarity and immediacy.

From the first chapter we are introduced to a Britain in which licensed beggars have already become a normal part of the landscape.  Identifiable by their ‘bright badges’ and ‘standard issue’ black bowls, these outcasts of society proliferate the novel and apparently every region of the country.  McEwan quotes an article in The Times by Charles Darke, referring to them as ‘the dross of pre-legislation days’ and claims that ‘Tens of millions have been saved in social security payments, and a large number of men, women and children have been introduced to the pitfalls and strenuous satisfactions of self-sufficiency’ [Ch. 2].  Those pitfalls include homelessness, inadequate clothing, regulation delousing and premature death as becomes evident in an examination of the young girl who approaches Stephen at the outset of the novel.  Early self-sufficiency has made her preternaturally cunning and viciously contemptuous of society and presently it robs her of her miserable young life.  A further irony is that the representative voice of the government that has promoted this inhuman social policy, and which describes its success in business terminology, belongs to a man without any real political convictions.  Charles’ switch from publishing to politics amounted to nothing more than a shrewd career move – he could just as easily support the weak as advance the strong, but the latter course assured better personal guarantees, and so he chose to advocate ‘self-reliance for the poor and incentives for the rich’ [Ch. 2], completely dismissing the begging program from his conscience as effortlessly as the plight of the pensioner who died from hypothermia because his electricity supply had been withdrawn.

Self-promotion is the priority of this political regime and its consequent corruption of values pervades the sub-text of the novel.  The Prime Minister’s active pursuit of Charles serves to blur the boundaries of personal and political ambition.  The gender of the Prime Minister provides a carefully deliberate minor intrigue to the story, but such speculation s are clearly not intended to cloud the vision of England that the author wishes to portray.  Irrespective of gender, the Prime Minister, motivated by personal interest, subverts public revenue to the pursuit of a private obsession, while complacently advocating inhumane policies.  The Prime Minister’s unhappy confession to Stephen is as farcical as the existent antagonism between the Head of State and the Foreign Secretary who dips into the former’s pool of drivers to provide himself with transport to visit a brothel.  Along with Charles Darke’s emotional conflict, all these incidents merely affirm the cliché that life at the top is tough, as well as being full of corruption.  Charles Darke’s eventual suicide could be seen as an indictment of the hypocrisy of politics, or of a society bred by such practises.

This society is a two-tiered one, of which Stephen Lewis, through happy accident, belongs to the upper stratum.  The description of the shoppers in the local supermarket confirms the division: the shoppers being ‘divided into two groups, as distinct as tribes or nations’ [Ch. 1].  Stephen’s group own their modernised Victorian terraced houses and can be identified by their dress and companions – or lack of them: partners or au pairs, but rarely children.  Their shopping baskets sport emblematic dietary trophies: fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish – including, like Stephen’s, fresh salmon – as well as wine and spirits.  The other group lives in tower blocks and council estates, and consists of pensioners buying unspecified ‘meat for their cats, biscuits for themselves’ or gaunt young mothers with their fractious offspring in tow, whose baskets are weighted with tinned and frozen convenience foods, low in nutritional value and hazardous to health: ‘white sugar, cupcakes, beer, spirits and cigarettes’ and ‘who sometimes cracked at the checkout and gave a child a spanking’ [Ch. 1].  This view of Stephen’s local supermarket is clearly representative (and disturbingly successful in its endeavour) of the wider society.  The homeless, ostracized ‘dross’ of society are not represented in the supermarket; the child-beggar feasts on discarded chewing-gum, while the sophisticates hold ‘cider and sherry’ parties in the larger railway stations which offer the frugal hospitality of warm gutter-dormitories and the occasional promise of a soup kitchen. [Ch. 1, Ch. 8 and Ch. 9].

The view of rural Britain, however, contrasts strongly with the urban vision.  The country’s promotion of self-sufficiency is abundantly evident in the Kent countryside, where the ‘unbounded prairie of wheat’ and newly-established pine forests (‘uncomplicated by undergrowth or birdsong’ [Ch. 3]), point to a successful, if pragmatic agrarian program.  But all these views of the life and landscape of England are subsidiary to the plot of the novel.  McEwan introduces these background details to provide depth and realism to his emotive story about the vulnerability of human nature and, in particular, that central pillar of society – the family.

Through an examination of family life and its intrinsic values, Ian McEwan exposes the weaknesses of the motivating forces behind societal values.  The nuclear family is revealed as a sham.  The family unit is a fragile structure that is incapable of sustaining too many shocks.  Stephen’s enforced separations from his parents in childhood have created a gulf in his family relations that is painfully evident in adulthood.  When his child is abducted, his family unit breaks down, leaving Stephen with no support within the family.  Children serve the vital function of linking disjointed lives together; they are, according to the Childcare Handbook, ‘more than coal, more even than nuclear power… our greatest resource’ [Ch. 9], yet society mocks their value.  It takes the police only a week to lose interest in the case of Kate’s abduction and the Government advocates a return to Victorian attitudes towards childcare – attitudes that deny the concept of childhood as explicit in the Handbook: ‘childhood is not a natural occurrence’ [Ch. 5].  Education cuts also undervalue ‘our greatest resource’, and result in inadequate facilities and the consequent need to lower the school leaving age.  This hypocrisy affects all aspects of the family.  As Stephen points out to the self-interested Prime Minister ‘you are the upholder of family values’ [Ch. 8], but this inconvenient reminder is easily dismissed on the grounds that, as Charles Darke has no children, his relationship with his wife cannot be called a family.  Ironically, the Handbook, which points out that ‘from love and respect for home we derive our deepest loyalties to the nation’ [Ch. 4], is penned by these two statesmen who both betray these important society values.

Charles Darke’s indulgence in his private fantasy is a dismissal of his responsibilities to his wife and society.  His pastoral illusions depend on a denial of the continual actions of time and therefore of growth and responsibility, through which neither family nor society can flourish in a healthy way.  The optimistic ending of The Child in Time suggests the author’s belief that natural fulfilment can be achieved through the creative unity of the family.  The chasing of chimeras (or illusory timelessness) is not merely an example of human weakness and error, but a destructive form of egoism, of which Charles Darke’s suicide is the ultimate expression.  Perhaps his fate is caused by a fragmentation, an inability to absorb (and even develop) his child self, as Stephen does.

In The Child in Time, McEwan presents a bleak view of society via the prism of domestic life and issues.  He suggests that our values will be eroded by self-serving individualism as we collectively succumb to our individual greed.  When society becomes relegated to second position this way, mere existential dissatisfaction gives way to deep-rooted problems.  Despite being taken to an extreme, McEwan's views are unambiguous.

About the author of this work

Lynette Sofras is a former Head of English at a London High School.  She now divides her work days between editing and writing (mainly) women’s fiction.  You can read about her novels on her website: http://www.lynettesofras.com

Text used was Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, Picador edition.

If you are interested in more information about Ian McEwan why not visit his website?

The Child in Time is available in print, audio and on Kindle from Amazon.

Some further suggested online reading:

The Child in Time made me see the horror in the everyday (Guardian article). 

Thatcherschaft - The London Review of Books

Family in The Child in Time (University of Nottingham) PDF


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