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(Un)veiling Gender

‘Please, look at me’: Masculinity, (In)visibility and Vulnerability in Ian McEwan’s Tale of Madness

« Please, look at me » : Masculinité, (In)visibilité et Vulnérabilité dans le récit de folie d’Ian McEwan
Diane Gagneret


Enduring Love d’Ian McEwan (1997) met son protagoniste Joe Rose, fervent rationaliste, face à la folie d’un autre homme dont il devient l’obsession. Bien qu’il demeure le plus souvent une présence invisible dans le roman, Jed Parry y occupe une place tout aussi centrale ; et si sa version des faits est reléguée aux marges du récit par la voix narrative, presque entièrement monopolisée par Joe, ce dernier ne parvient cependant pas à le réduire au silence. Comme l’explique Guillaume Le Blanc, toute personne vulnérable court dans nos sociétés le risque de l’invisibilisation ; or dans Enduring Love, devant Jed, Joe se trouve souvent dans l’incapacité de détourner le regard. En mettant la folie masculine, encore rarement explorée, au premier plan, le roman compte à la fois rendre visible des masculinités souvent marginalisées, et dévoiler la face cachée des masculinités hégémoniques ainsi que leurs soubassements narratifs. Cet article se propose d’étudier les effets de la vulnérabilité contagieuse de Jed dans un récit qui à la fois reproduit et rejette les procédés courants d’invisibilisation et de silenciation des malades mentaux, et de mettre au jour les dynamiques visant, à travers la confrontation des deux protagonistes, à (dé)masquer la masculinité.

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Texte intégral

Men’s behaviour is somehow invisible; we don’t see ourselves as having a behaviour that is identifiably male—we’re just human.
McEwan in Roberts 2010, 33)

  • 1 Critics have frequently focused on the author’s repeated involvement with issues of gender, and sev (...)
  • 2 These four categories of masculinity were initially outlined by R.W. Connell in 1995 and, as summed (...)

1Ian McEwan’s early observation on the paradoxical invisibilisation of individual men by patriarchal systems in which masculinity becomes a universal, normative standard, may well explain his much discussed ‘interest in rewriting, or at least in intervening in, popular discourses of masculinity’ (Davies in Lea & Schoene 2003, 106).1 Hailed by some as ‘a writer who seeks to unmask hegemonic masculinity’ (McLeod in Rowland et al. 1998, 243), he indeed seems committed throughout his fiction to revealing hidden facets of the experience of men both in the centre and on the margins of society, as exemplified by his 1997 novel Enduring Love. It may well be argued that no other McEwan narrative—although many of his later works do strive for the ‘exposure of the invisibility through which men’s “behaviour” is naturalized’ (James 2003, 82)—foregrounds the links between masculinity and invisibility to such an extent. By pitting its narrator, arch rationalist Joe Rose, against a madman who turns out to be a stalker—that is, the very incarnation of an invisible presence—the novel simultaneously makes traditionally marginalised and/or subordinate forms of masculinity visible, and sheds light on what often remains invisible behind the façade of hegemonic and/or complicit masculinities.2

2This paper therefore focuses on the specific ways in which the representation of Jed’s madness (at the heart of a narrative which both repeats and repeals traditional processes of silencing and invisibilisation of men with mental illness), leads to a breakdown of hegemonic and complicit masculinity by making the vulnerability of both outsiders and so-called insiders visible. A novel saturated with visual language, Enduring Love lays considerable emphasis on what is seen and not seen by its two male protagonists, as well as the process of gazing and the power of the (male) gaze. After dwelling on the dialectics of visibility and invisibility in McEwan’s tale of erotomania, and the deeply ambivalent nature of the relationship that develops between bearer and object of the gaze, we will take a closer look at the conflicting narratives of masculinity at play in a novel which, to a certain extent, makes alternative masculinities seen and heard.

Madness and the (In)visibility of Men

  • 3 As highlighted by Christina Byrnes, ‘McEwan’s later novels, particularly Enduring Love . . ., show (...)

3It should perhaps be no surprise, in a narrative so replete with visual metaphors and references,3 that issues of visibility and the act of gazing itself should be so central. Arguably more surprising, is the fact that Enduring Love reveals invisibility to be a condition not exclusive to Jed, the predictably marginal madman, but extended to Joe, who so far seemed to uphold heteronormative standards of masculinity; and that Jed’s gaze, however destabilizing, is often returned, making Joe not merely the object of another man’s desire and obsession, but a man obsessed himself—whose desires might even deviate from the dictates of heteronormativity.

A Tale of Invisible Men

  • 4 In the wake of Michel Foucault’s seminal statement that Cartesian rationality has ‘exiled’ madness (...)
  • 5 The very first word of Chapter 7 position Parry as the perpetual outsider: ‘[o]utside our apartment (...)
  • 6 ‘[L’invisibilité sociale] désigne tout d’abord le processus de marginalisation d’une vie progressiv (...)

4Experiences and representations of madness—whether in society or in literature—very often unfold on the margin, to the point that the equation of madness with marginality has become something of a commonplace of critical discourse.4 In Enduring Love Jed Parry, relentlessly standing or waiting outside the narrator’s home from Chapter 7 onwards,5 is indeed quite literally presented as the very figure of the outsider. As Joe sums up in Chapter 17, ‘just as routine as the letters was Parry’s presence outside the building’ (McEwan 1998, 142, our emphasis). For most of the narrative (as becomes a stalker), Jed remains on the edge, ‘constantly present, but just out of view’, as Davies very adequately puts it (2007, 72–73). When Joe believes Parry to be his ‘tormentor’ in the London library, he describes him as ‘invisible behind the magazine rack’ (1998, 42); and to Joe’s partner Clarissa, Jed remains unseen: ‘“Joe!’ she shouted. “You say he’s outside, but when I go out there’s no one”’ (148). Marginality therefore constantly seems to verge on invisibility; as conceptualised by Guillaume Le Blanc, invisibility as a social and symbolic condition comes in three main forms, the first of which stems precisely from being marginal.6

  • 7 ‘L’invisibilité sociale [est] commencée avec le processus de la perte de la voix’ (Le Blanc 21).
  • 8 Joe’s description of Jed’s voice in the opening chapter is unmistakably derogatory, carrying traces (...)

5Interestingly, the process of invisibilisation starts with losing one’s voice,7 which is exactly what happens to Jed over the course of a narrative relegating him not only to marginal spaces, but to the margins of discourse. His words are more often read than heard by Joe, whose monopoly on narrative voice allows him to confine Jed’s version of the story—expressed through letters, i.e. the written instead of spoken word—to two chapters and the (quintessentially peripheral) second appendix to the novel. Parry’s voice—which, significantly, sounds displeasingly dissonant to Joe when he first hears it8—is only actually heard in Chapters 2, 3, 6 and 7 (twice directly, in conversation, twice indirectly, over the phone), and not again until the final confrontation, in Chapter 22. At first reading, it would thus seem that Enduring Love repeats traditional processes of silencing and invisibilisation, with a man of reason as main protagonist, occupying a central position, and a madman exiled to the margins, mostly unheard and unseen. Yet the novel also reveals Joe to be less rational, and more marginal than he may initially seem. For all his ‘effort of appearing sane and judicious’ (1998, 46) he is described, or even describes himself on more than one occasion, as ‘unhinged’ (1998, 46, 150), ‘disturbed’ (102), ‘manic’ (8, 102, 139, 217) and ‘slightly’, even ‘completely mad’ (67, 35). Although they may, and have legitimately been described as polar opposites, the two men—perhaps doubles rather than nemeses—may indeed partake of similar experiences of invisibility and marginality. Under Jed’s gaze, which he suffers yet often returns, Joe is faced with the gradual unravelling of his carefully performed gender identity; over the course of the narrative, this disruptive exchange of male gazes may lead readers to see his allegedly secure masculinity in a different light.

Male Gazes: A Different Look at Masculinity

6As announced by its intriguingly ambiguous title, McEwan’s sixth novel is a story about love and more specifically, what both Joe and the fictional authors of Appendix One refer to as ‘pathological love’ (1998, 28). De Clérambault’s syndrome, also known as erotomania, is presented in this elaborate pastiche of a psychiatric case study, as a condition whose ongoing redefinition impacts traditional (pre)conceptions of gender: ‘as more cases are described, there has been a tendency both to broaden and clarify the defining criteria: not only women suffer, not only heterosexual attraction is involved. At least one of de Clérambault’s patients was male, and more male sufferers have been identified since’ (235). Although Jed’s madness does seem to put him in a traditionally female position, it turns out that its effect on Joe, too, is what Davies calls ‘an onslaught of feminisation, which not only emasculates him but moreover threatens to dissolve the very foundations of the self’ (in Childs 2007, 72)—and those of hegemonic masculinity as a social and symbolic construct.

7Davies has compellingly underlined the disruptive power of Parry’s gaze, which ‘reverses the traditional male/female dichotomy and puts Joe firmly in the object position of the spectacle’ and by the close of the narrative, ‘has completely penetrated Joe’s myth of superiority, sanity and control’ (in Childs 2007, 70, 72). Other critics have also commented on the way ‘Jed’s attentions have turned Joe into a passive victim, if not actually feminizing him then at least depriving him of masculine power, [which] sounds like an exchange of a feminine situation for a masculine situation’ (Clark & Gordon 2004, 50-51), and concurred that ‘McEwan reverses the usual gender dynamic in terms of power . . ., [and] here makes the man the object of desire’ (Wells 2010, 69). In this singular tale of male erotomania, the male gaze famously discussed by Laura Mulvey is indeed directed at another male instead of a female, and to a certain extent, gender roles are undeniably reversed, and traditional subject/object or active/passive dichotomies disrupted. However, although Joe’s unease and occasional restlessness under Parry’s gaze may confirm that ‘the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification’, his behaviour simultaneously contradicts one of the main principles of the ruling ideology as stated by Mulvey, that ‘[m]an is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like’ (1975, 810). Long before Jed’s ‘honest supplication’ (‘Joe, please, look at me’ [1998, 65]), Joe finds himself either returning, or even initiating the gaze with—if not outright admiration—a certain measure of appreciation:

I was looking at Parry as though for the first time. He stood with his hands resting on his hips staring not at Logan, but at me. Even then, he was more interested in me. . . . He was tall and lean, all bone and sinew, and he looked fit. . . . His knuckles brushing against his leather belt were big and tight-knobbed under the skin which was white and stretched tight. The cheek bones were also tight and high-ridged and together with the pony tail gave him the look of a pale Indian brave. (24)

  • 9 Joe’s significant misinterpretation of Jed’s invitation to pray by John Logan’s dead body, conjurin (...)
  • 10 At several points in the narrative, the relationship between Joe and Jed—in spite of radical differ (...)

8Described in turn as pitiful (‘like a dog about to be punished’, 20) and powerful in the dramatic scene of their first encounter, first a vulnerable figure then the very archetype of the warrior, Jed inspires mixed feelings from the start. Yet in the mix is a hint of attraction, an undeniable appeal reflected both in the words themselves, and the play on alliterations (most saliently on [b] and [l]). This already points to the central role language itself will play in the gradual unravelling of conventionally established gender identities. Joe may either see Jed, in these ambiguous first moments, as a model or projected ideal of masculinity, or even experience a desire he is quick to repress for this young man he depicts first as ‘fit’, then ‘irresistible’ (26).9 As Roger Clark and Andy Gordon rightfully point out, ‘perhaps surprisingly, there has been relatively little discussion of there being a homoerotic, homosexual (or even homophobic) subtext to the novel’ (2004, 70) in spite of the many hints that Joe’s feelings for Jed might be deeper, and more nuanced, than he is willing to admit or consider. Although Clarissa initially calls her partner’s relationship with his stalker ‘a secret gay love affair with a Jesus freak’ as a joke, she writes later on, in all seriousness, ‘I can understand how he might have formed the impression that you were leading him on’ (1998, 57, 217); as for the policeman Joe tries to report Jed’s actions to, he is quick to make assumptions about the narrator’s sexual orientation: ‘“Are you a psychiatrist, Mr Rose?”/“No.”/“But you are a homosexual?”’ (155). It seems the connection between two men described in the novel’s incipit as ‘rushing towards each other like lovers’ (2) cannot easily be dismissed, as Joe himself acknowledges in a passage where the weight of realization is materialized by the use of italics: ‘[a]s I went out into the hallway, back towards the answering machine, I thought, I’m in a relationship’ (1998, 73).10

9By his own admission, Joe soon feels ‘as if [he] had fallen through a crack in [his] own existence, down into another life, another set of sexual preferences’ (67), even marvelling at how effortlessly he steps into this new gender role:

I had fallen into a life in which another man could be saying to me, We can’t talk about it like this, and My own feelings are not important. What also amazed me was how easy it was not to say, Who the fuck are you? What are you talking about? The language Parry was using set off responses in me, old emotional sub-routines. . . . In part, I was playing along with this domestic drama, even though our household was no more than this turd-strewn pavement. (67)

10Parry’s language seems to contaminate Joe’s on several occasions: while at the close of this excerpt, he uses terms traditionally coded feminine (‘domestic’, ‘our household’), he then makes the word of Jed’s letters his own through free indirect speech: ‘I was a tease, a coquette’ (141). Not only does he thus accept, however cynically, a sexual objectification which consequently seems less of a burden: he also agrees to his own feminisation as sealed by the suffix. Therefore, not least through a subtly subversive linguistic encoding of gender throughout the novel, both his and Jed’s masculinity come to ‘coalesce with [the feminine]’, as is the hallmark of marginalised as opposed to hegemonic or complicit masculinities according to Daniel Lea and Berthold Schoene (2003, 9).

  • 11 Significantly, Joe’s tendency to see Jed everywhere—although on one occasion, all he actually glimp (...)

11What Jed’s gaze reveals are cracks in the heteronormative façade of Joe’s identity, and failures in his performance of a rational man in control of his life, emotions and desires, and compliance with certain masculine standards. As the story unfolds, and Joe’s obsession with Jed often seems to match Jed’s with Joe,11 alternative visions keep conflicting with more traditional, even stereotypical versions of masculinity, unmasking if not unmaking them through the interplay of conflicting narratives.

(Un)masking Masculinities

  • 12 ‘The connection of femininity with emotion and masculinity with rationality is traditional and conv (...)

12Although the narrative (or narratives) in Enduring Love do display masculinity in crisis,—that is, caught in a perhaps perpetual process of redefinition—critics have often debated the extent of McEwan’s engagement with progressive or transformative gender politics in the novel. While according to Clark and Gordon, the author ‘may be accused of simply endorsing gender stereotypes’ (2004, 49), and in Davies’ words, ‘a reader welcoming the influence feminist thought has undeniably had on McEwan’s development might be tempted to condemn [him] for this clichéd portrayal of masculinity and femininity’ (in Childs 2007, 69), they nevertheless agree that he goes beyond the mere repetition or re-inscription of clichés.12 As well stated by Jago Morrison,

[o]n a simple level, Enduring Love narrates the triumph of an orthodox masculinity in restoring the protagonist’s own identity and position within the nuclear family. At the same time, however, it also illustrates the breakdown within a text of the narratives of legality and mental health of which the professional, rational, solvent male is supposed to be the subject. (2001, 258)

  • 13 As stressed by David James, McEwan’s fiction consistently engages with ‘the problem of remapping ma (...)

13McEwan’s far from simple or straightforward use of stereotypes, be it for constructing plot or character in Enduring Love, may (at least in part) be a strategy to lift the veil on the hidden workings of hegemonic masculinity—thus exposed as a quintessentially narrative construct, whether or not the novel fully succeeds in rewriting masculinities.13

‘A dark, distorting mirror’: Dismantling Clichés

14To Joe’s remark that Clarissa’s brother Luke, who left his wife and twin daughters to live with an actress he met three months ago, ‘must be living inside a hard-on’, she immediately retorts: ‘he’s living inside a cliché!’ (1998, 52). The dynamics of this short excerpt, wherein a certain type of male behaviour is simultaneously condoned and condemned, and the stereotype immediately exposed as such, may well reflect one of the main discursive strategies implemented in the novel. As McEwan stated when discussing his 1981 play The Imitation Game: ‘I think people objected to the idea that it was possible to make stereotypes out of male behaviour. . . . So the cry goes up that you cannot caricature men like this, and that men are more complicated, and my reply is that of course I have a polemical purpose’ (in Roberts 2010, 33). Clichés and caricature are therefore to be considered as building blocks for a critique of normative or prescriptive standards of masculinity, as is the case in another most certainly ‘polemical’ passage in the narrative where ‘[a]ll through lunch a colleague complained that her husband was too gentle with her in bed and lacked the necessary sexual aggression to overpower her and deliver the quality of orgasm she knew she deserved’ (1998, 80). Far from an anecdotal inclusion or easily dismissed detail, these few lines significantly focus on one of the main cornerstones in the (e)valuation of virility—sexual performance –, pointing in lexical terms to how paradoxical this (de)valuation system is, promoting aggression and lamenting gentleness in male sexual behaviour. However familiar such a hypallage might be in stereotyped stories and discourses of masculinity, its function here seems more subversive than normative: by underscoring the discrepancy between expectations and experience, this excerpt moves beyond conjuring up a common cliché and contributes to its deconstruction. The demystifying power of caricature is best exemplified in the novel by Jed himself.

  • 14 ‘What was so exhausting about him was the variety of his emotional states and the speed of their tr (...)

15The narrator’s assessment of erotomania as ‘a dark, distorting mirror that reflect[s] and parodie[s] a brighter world of lovers whose reckless abandon to their cause [is] sane’ (128) also applies, on another level, to its sufferer—as the recurrence of one crucial word, parody, indicates when Joe describes one of their first encounters: ‘Parry crossed his arms and adopted a worldly, man-to-man tone. I thought perhaps I was being parodied’ (64). The alliterative effect in the second sentence would tend to confirm Joe’s suspicions, inviting him to take a second look at his own image in the ‘distorting mirror’ Jed holds up. ‘Wordly’ masculinity is not the only one to be performed and parodied by the latter: ‘[e]ven before I had finished he laughed, or rather he whooped and slapped his thigh, cowboy-style. . . . He was almost shouting in his joy’ (130). The element of exaggeration inherent to the caricaturing process here serves to underline how artificial, or forced, certain performances—and how absurd some stereotypes of masculinity—can be. To a certain extent, Parry’s madness is an invitation to step through the looking glass and see what lies behind appearances—what remains once men drop the act. The fact that Jed does indeed ‘reflect’ archetypes or stereotypes of hegemonic masculinity at several points in the narrative, stems as much from his occasional—and short-lived—performances as from Joe’s projections of masculine fantasies of fallacies onto him, as is the case with the aforementioned figure of the Indian warrior in their first encounter, dismissed in the second as a ‘farce’. ‘[N]o longer the sleek Indian brave’ (61), Jed does not conform to dominant masculine norms for long, or fit the stereotypes he thus debunks both by reflecting and rejecting them. Whereas traditional gender boundaries put men on the side of reason, and women in the realm of emotion, Jed gives in to his feelings and embraces a vulnerability that Joe seems determined to resist, and therefore deems ‘a sorry sight’ (1998, 61).14

16However, his increasingly desperate, even frantic attempts to hold on to his rationality, his growing defensiveness, and perception of Jed’s behaviour and language as a threat not merely to himself but to his ‘embattled masculinity’ (Morrison 2001, 255), clearly belie his early assertion that he has ‘no feelings to control’ (1998, 64) and prevent a straightforward reading of Enduring Love as another standard narrative of the triumph of a male hero.

Rewriting Masculinities

  • 15 To a certain extent, the story is told by a professional narrator, whose work as a scientific journ (...)
  • 16 Stefan Horlacher rightfully insists on how interrelated narrativity and normativity are: ‘narrative (...)

17Enduring Love’s highly reflexive opening sentence (‘[t]he beginning is simple to mark’ [1998, 1]) is only the first of a myriad of references to stories and storytelling in a novel where mise en abyme, far from a literary conceit, is an overall design rather than a mere device.15 The narrative should be singled out not solely for its questioning of the foundations and functions of narration in general, but for its (de)construction of the narrative underpinning of hegemonic masculinity.16 The much acclaimed first chapter sets the perfect scene for a sensational display of male heroism: upon hearing the shouts of a man whose grandson is being carried away by an untethered hot-air balloon, five men, Joe and Jed included, start running towards the centre of the field to grasp the ropes and bring it safely down. Of all these potential heroes, all expected to demonstrate the extent of their strength and courage in a story with such a beginning, only one hangs on, and ends up falling to his death. As Joe comments, ‘in John Logan, husband, father, doctor and mountain rescue worker, the flame of altruism must have burned a little stronger’ (1998, 15); yet there is no ultimate triumph or happy ending for this model of a man who, as this enumerative introduction well suggests, seemed to fulfil every requirement on the list.

  • 17 ‘In the second or two it took for Logan to reach the ground I had a sense of déjà vu, and I immedia (...)
  • 18 Vulnerability itself is traditionally associated with femininity instead of masculinity, as Jean-Mi (...)

18The beginning of this story may be ‘simple’ to recognise, but the ending is far less familiar and clearly traumatic for all involved, Joe in particular. What dies with John Logan is a certain (pre)conception or standard of heroic masculinity based on narratives of action, strength, courage and sacrifice—with most actual men falling short of such expectations, and their individual stories contradicting what the novel demonstrates to be a metanarrative of sorts. Logan becomes no more than a ‘little stick figure’ (19), significantly robbed of substance; yet the death of this potently symbolic ‘falling man’ (16), and demise of hegemonic masculinity, brings up long buried anxieties and insecurities for Joe. Far from proving his strength, the accident reveals the extent of a vulnerability he had managed to repress for years when once again, he ‘experience[s] [the] emotional wash’ of an old dream17—and a triad of feelings typically seen as antithetical to masculinity:18 ‘terror, guilt and helplessness’ (18). Yet such emotions may be new building blocks for a representation of masculinities based on experience rather than expectation. In spite of the narrator’s observation that ‘the moment Logan hit the ground should have been the end of this story rather than one more beginning’ (18), the narrative does start again after dismantling stock endings and fallacies of the supermale, and offers not one, but several alternative stories of masculinity.

  • 19 ‘My sense of failure in science, of being parasitic and marginal, did not quite leave me. It never (...)
  • 20 Interestingly, this is how Joe, in his own words, ‘reconstruct[s] [him]self in [Clarissa’s] own gaz (...)

19Joe’s version of the story (no matter how prominent due to his status as sole narrator) and vision of masculinity conflicts both with Jed’s and Clarissa’s; and in spite of his attempts to represent himself as consistently rational, and regain a form of control or mastery of events both through action and narration, his own account is full of contradictions—and the resulting depiction of how men should or do act and what they should or do feel, far more complex than it might initially seem. In the aftermath of the accident, adequately described as ‘a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes’ (1998, 3), the narrator can no longer ignore a sense of failure he both confesses and combats for the remainder of his story, oscillating to an extent between (at least) two narratives of masculinity—one in tune with a vulnerability which may call for nourishment instead of banishment, and the other still struggling to fit into hegemonic moulds or patterns. Under Jed’s relentless gaze, Joe looks at himself in a different, increasingly unflattering light, foregrounding both his intellectual and physical insecurities: his self-portrait as ‘a parasite’, ‘an outsider to [his] own profession’ (75, 77),19 and ‘an oversized average-looking lump’, ‘oafishly large and coarse’ (103, 140),20 sheds a particularly harsh light on insecurities undoubtedly made worse by unrealistic standards of masculinity. He nevertheless tries to meet such standards, make up for his earlier lack of grandeur and take the fallen hero’s place, in a plot which seems more suited to a traditional action novel or thriller: in Chapter 21, convinced of Jed’s potential for violence and dangerousness, Joe buys a gun he is indeed led to use in Chapter 22 against the latter, who has taken Clarissa hostage in the couple’s London apartment. Once again, however, although Joe succeeds in warding off the threat, the outcome is far from matching expectations—for reasons he is striving to explain:

In a world in which logic was the engine of feeling, this should have been the moment when Clarissa stood, when we moved towards each other and folded into each other’s arms with kisses and tears and conciliatory murmurs and words of forgiveness and love. . . .
But such logic would have been inhuman. . . . The narrative compression of storytelling, especially in the movies, beguiles us with happy endings into forgetting that sustained stress is corrosive of feeling. (1998, 213)

20Narrative constructs such as the grateful, besotted damsel in distress and the righteous, brave male saviour are exposed along with certain aspects of the process of narrative construction, or ‘compression’, itself. In spite of his acknowledgment that logic cannot always prevail, Joe does not yet seem ready to forsake a masculinity mainly fuelled by logic and embrace one fuelled mainly by feeling—of which Jed offers an instructive, albeit extreme, embodiment and example. The marginal madman, by becoming central in Enduring Love, makes the core vulnerability of the man of reason, and the man of action, visible. ‘Happy endings’ in Enduring Love—for there are, indeed, several endings to several stories in this layered tale of men’s madness—are elusive at best, and their absence or ambiguity encourages (if not achieves) a rewriting of masculinities in which, adding a final twist to Joe’s concluding remarks, feeling is the engine of logic.

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1 Critics have frequently focused on the author’s repeated involvement with issues of gender, and several now define his fiction as a series of reflections on a masculinity in constant need of redefinition—since as Rhiannon Davies observes, ‘masculinity in crisis pervades the McEwan canon’ (in Lea & Schoene 2003, 107). John McLeod’s statement that ‘McEwan’s work persistently examines the psychic and social articulations of masculinity’ (in Rowland et al. 1998, 221) is echoed by David James when he underlines that ‘[a]cross his later oeuvre McEwan . . . questions repeatedly what “masculinity” means to those caught within its social and psychic fabric of dour resistance and recuperation’ (2003, 82). The recently published Cambridge Companion to Ian McEwan even boasts a chapter entitled ‘Masculinities’, in which Ben Knights describes his novels ‘as stepping stones in a prolonged enquiry into the narrative formation of masculinities’ (in Head 2019, 120).

2 These four categories of masculinity were initially outlined by R.W. Connell in 1995 and, as summed up by McLeod, ‘[h]egemonic masculinities function to legitimate the dominant social position of men and women’s resultant subordination. Subordinate masculinities deal with the unequal relations between men of different gender identities, such as the material subordination of gay men in relation to heterosexual men. Complicit masculinities are the possession of men who uphold the patriarchal status quo without seeming to embody the worst aspects of hegemonic masculinity. Marginalised masculinities are those which are demonised by the operations of social power’ (McLeod in Rowland et al. 1998, 222).

3 As highlighted by Christina Byrnes, ‘McEwan’s later novels, particularly Enduring Love . . ., show a clear emphasis on visual imagery’ (2002, 176), as exemplified by the sensational opening chapter of the novel, in which the reader is given a literal bird’s eye view of the scene of the balloon accident, replayed ‘from [a] buzzard’s perspective’ (EL 2). In addition, the first and following chapters are dotted with references to visual arts, genres and techniques (‘let me freeze the frame’ [12]; ‘I was in a soap opera. . . . It was intimacy, a tight two-shot’ [21]).

4 In the wake of Michel Foucault’s seminal statement that Cartesian rationality has ‘exiled’ madness (‘[d]ésormais la folie est exilée’, 1972, 70), and his description of the madman’s double bind (‘[s]ituation symbolique et réalisée à la fois par le privilège qui est donné au fou d’être enfermé aux portes de la ville: . . . [i]l est mis à l’intérieur de l’extérieur, et inversement’, 26), many critics including Shoshana Felman (1978, 13) or Marie-Pierre Bouchard and Vicky Pelletier (2009, 9) have emphasized the kinship between madness and marginality in modern Western society, philosophy and arts.

5 The very first word of Chapter 7 position Parry as the perpetual outsider: ‘[o]utside our apartment building, running straight on rising ground, was an avenue of plane trees just coming into leaf. As soon as I stepped out on to the pavement I saw Parry standing under a tree at the corner’ (1998, 61). This same adverb subsequently seems to preface almost all of Parry’s appearances in the story: ‘[a]s I turned away from paying off the driver I saw Parry waiting for me outside the apartment building, right by the entrance’ (71); ‘[e]very hour or so I went into the living room to check, and he was always there, staring at the entrance, like a dog tied up outside a shop’ (77); ‘[h]elp! There’s a man outside offering me love and the love of God!’ (135).

6 ‘[L’invisibilité sociale] désigne tout d’abord le processus de marginalisation d’une vie progressivement effacée du socle commun des existences du fait qu’elle est une vie marginalisée : l’invisibilité n’est pas une donnée immédiate de la vie ordinaire mais un effet de la marginalisation . . .; l’invisibilité sociale se comprend alors comme le fait d’être marginal’ (Le Blanc 2009, 6).

7 ‘L’invisibilité sociale [est] commencée avec le processus de la perte de la voix’ (Le Blanc 21).

8 Joe’s description of Jed’s voice in the opening chapter is unmistakably derogatory, carrying traces of condemnation or contempt for its betrayal of a form of vulnerability (and vulgarity, perhaps) at odds with its bearer’s overall masculine looks: ‘[h]is appearance was striking, even slightly threatening, but the voice gave it all away. It was feebly hesitant, neutral as to region, but carrying a trace, or acknowledgement, of Cockney—a discarded past or an affectation. Parry had his generation’s habit of making a statement on the rising inflection of a question—in humble imitation of Americans, or Australians, or, as I heard one linguist explain, too mired in relative judgements, too hesitant and apologetic to say how things were in the world’ (1998, 24).

9 Joe’s significant misinterpretation of Jed’s invitation to pray by John Logan’s dead body, conjuring up scenes of sexual deviance, suggests that he might be fighting off unconscious, potentially shameful impulses: ‘“It’s something we can do together?” he said as he looked about for a suitable place on the ground. The wild thought came to me that he was proposing some form of gross indecency with a corpse. He was lowering himself, and with a look was inviting me to join him. Then I got it. He was on his knees’ (1998, 25).

10 At several points in the narrative, the relationship between Joe and Jed—in spite of radical differences between them—seems to hinge on conflation rather than confrontation.

11 Significantly, Joe’s tendency to see Jed everywhere—although on one occasion, all he actually glimpses is a pair of shoes, and on another, he mistakes a stranger for his stalker (1998, 44, 172)—may be one indication of his obsession with the latter.

12 ‘The connection of femininity with emotion and masculinity with rationality is traditional and conventional . . . . Such a reading of Enduring Love is possible . . . but McEwan is arguably doing something more complicated—and more interesting—than merely underlining stereotypes’ (Clark and Gordon 2004, 49); ‘[h]owever, the situation soon turns out to be far more complicated, as the reader begins to realize that all is not as Joe would like to make us believe: it is in fact Joe who is conjuring these gendered visions’ (Davies in Childs 2007, 70).

13 As stressed by David James, McEwan’s fiction consistently engages with ‘the problem of remapping masculinities’ and ‘[w]hile his answers are often inconclusive’, there is considerable value to ‘his negotiations of fictional technique as oppositional critique’ (2003, 83, 82, 85). For John McLeod, ‘McEwan is a writer who . . . uncovers [the] hidden designs [of hegemonic masculinity] and points out its flaws, taking a stern if fascinated view of its material effects on the lives of men and women . . . . Yet, for all of this, hegemonic masculinity is never fully dislodged’ (in Rowland et al. 1998, 243–244). As for Rowland, Liggins and Uksalis, they proceed with caution in their assessment since ‘in McEwan’s fiction, while sensitive New Men are beginning to recognise and value their feminine side, this has the potential danger of collapsing back into a patriarchal vision where a ‘complicit masculinity’ threatening the female with elision prevails’ (1998, 20).

14 ‘What was so exhausting about him was the variety of his emotional states and the speed of their transitions. Reasonableness, tears, desperation, vague threat—and now, honest supplication’ (1998, 64).

15 To a certain extent, the story is told by a professional narrator, whose work as a scientific journalist makes it both his obligation and occupation ‘to spin a decent narrative’ (1998, 75).

16 Stefan Horlacher rightfully insists on how interrelated narrativity and normativity are: ‘narrative constructions . . . of masculinity, albeit all of them necessarily fictional and/or performative constructs, have a normative function, directly influencing the character traits and modes that specific cultures identify as masculine’ (2011, 3–4).

17 ‘In the second or two it took for Logan to reach the ground I had a sense of déjà vu, and I immediately knew its source. What came back to me was a nightmare I had occasionally in my twenties and thirties from which I used to shout myself awake. The setting varied, but the essentials never did. I found myself in a prominent place watching from far off the unfolding of a disaster . . . . Life was revealed as cheap; thousands of screaming individuals, no bigger than ants, were about to be annihilated and I could do nothing to help. I did not think about the dream then so much as experience its emotional wash—terror, guilt and helplessness were the components—and feel the nausea of a premonition fulfilled’ (1998, 18).

18 Vulnerability itself is traditionally associated with femininity instead of masculinity, as Jean-Michel Ganteau notes when observing that ‘when vulnerability is evoked in a contemporary context, its feminine content and feminist origins are recalled’ (2015, 8). As he reminds us, however, vulnerability is now considered as consubstantial to subjectivity, and therefore ‘as defining the human’ (2) beyond sex or gender. Ganteau’s depiction of it as ‘common property’ (5) echoes Le Blanc’s notion of a shared stock of vulnerability (‘un fond de vulnérabilité commune’ [2011, 16]), paving the way for a deeper and wider understanding of human nature. It should therefore be seen as strength rather than weakness, “a dynamic force” (Ganteau 10) in the redefinition of masculinity, among other possible fields of application.

19 ‘My sense of failure in science, of being parasitic and marginal, did not quite leave me. It never had really. My old restlessness may have been brought afresh by Logan’s fall, or by the Parry situation, or by the fine crack of estrangement that had appeared between Clarissa and me’ (1998, 99).

20 Interestingly, this is how Joe, in his own words, ‘reconstruct[s] [him]self in [Clarissa’s] own gaze’ (1998, 140).

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Diane Gagneret, « ‘Please, look at me’: Masculinity, (In)visibility and Vulnerability in Ian McEwan’s Tale of Madness »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 61 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2021, consulté le 28 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Diane Gagneret

Diane Gagneret has completed a PhD at the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon under the supervision of Vanessa Guignery. She is a member of IHRIM (Institut d’Histoire des Représentations et des Idées dans les Modernités). Her research, drawing mainly on works by Jenny Diski, Janet Frame, Sarah Kane, Ian McEwan, Anthony Neilson and Will Self, focuses on the links between madness and issues of genre and gender in contemporary English literature. Other articles on Ian McEwan’s work include ‘“The Tangled Confluence”: Hybrid Accounts of Madness in Will Self’s The Quantity Theory of Insanity and Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love” (2017), and “‘Rationalism Gone Berserk’: Madness and the Scientific Mind in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love” (in Reading Ian McEwan’s Mature Fiction: New Critical Approaches, 2021).

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