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Landscapes/Cityscapes Situational Identity in British Literature and Visual Arts (20th-21st Centuries)
Mental landscapes

‘A sudden space began to open out’: Beachscapes and Liminality in Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach

‘A sudden space began to open out’: plages et liminalité dans On Chesil Beach de Ian McEwan
Elsa Cavalié


Cet article traite de la question de la liminalité dans les romans de Ian McEwan, à travers le prisme des paysages de plage. De Dover, à Chesil et Brighton, les paysages de plages occupent la fiction récente du romancier de façon surprenante. Ils offrent tout d’abord une dimension fortement intertextuelle aux romans, en ce qu’ils connectent ces derniers à la tradition littéraire (Matthew Arnold en particulier) de la Grande Bretagne. Ils fonctionnent également comme des espaces liminaux, dont l’hapticité, au sens deleuzien du terme, obscurcit paradoxalement la vision tout en permettant un renouveau identitaire potentiel. Cependant, il semble que dans On Chesil Beach, et dans la fiction de McEwan de façon plus générale, la liminalité ne constitue pas, ou en tous cas pas seulement, le lieu d’un entre-deux positif. Sa permanence paradoxale, reliée à l’impossibilité pour le sujet de franchir certains seuils symboliques, peut suggérer une contre-interprétation de la modernité des années 1960 : un problématique instant de transition dont on ne connaît pas la fin.

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  • 1 As exemplified by the names of the two protagonists, Edward and Florence, distinctly belonging to t (...)

1The critical response to On Chesil Beach has generally been limited, or at least overly focused on its handling of the cultural divide of the 1960s. To quote Dominic Head: ‘On Chesil Beach uses the idea of the seaside as a liminal space to embed, symbolically, its central idea: that one failed wedding night in 1962 can be taken as emblematic of the dividing line between the sexual liberation of the 1960s and the repression that preceded it’ (Head 118). Head thus pinpoints the fact that the liminal space the beach represents is used as a metaphor for the sense of History and the divide between the ‘old’ world inherited from the nineteenth century after the two world wars,1 and the ‘new’ world of consumer society and pop culture. Similarly, Barbara Puschman Nalenz notes that the geographical setting in the novel materializes that rift: ‘the coastline symbolically signifies the watershed between the eras before and after the sexual revolution. Thus, instead of being a merely geographical setting, the borderline assumes a historical meaning’ (287). It thus seems that the coastline’s only function in the novel is to materialize a defining moment in history, a line of analysis often connected to Larkin’s poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’ (1967), in which the poet ironically commemorates the moment of transformation in British society when pop(ular) culture started to permeate high culture and when social as well as sexual mores gradually loosened:

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban
And the Beatles’ first LP. (Larkin 131)

  • 2 The fact that the source of Florence’s inability to connect with Edward sexually is linked to her b (...)

2Yet, as Head perceptively notices, On Chesil Beach is not, or not only, a meditation on changing times: ‘The central characters are not ciphers, playing the roles dictated by that historical moment. They are more complex creations than this implies, with private lives that make the novella’s crisis an emotional (rather than a historical) inevitability.’ (Head 121) What he means here is that Edward and Florence are not only the by-products of their post-war traditional education and upbringing, but that there are other, more intimate sources of conflict within them: on the one hand Florence’s problematic relationship with her father, (incest is indeed heavily hinted at2). On the other, the fact that Edward’s mother, although physically present, is intellectually and emotionally absent because of an accident that has left her brain-damaged (she was hit in the head by a train door while pregnant with Edward’s twin sisters, 70). Consequently, and as is often the case in McEwan’s fiction (one may think of Atonement for instance, or of earlier novels like Black Dogs or The Innocent), the novel hinges on the superimposition of private and collective (or historical) dilemmas, and questions the notion of perception, in its relationship to sensation, vision and memory.

Fictional Spaces and Liminality

3Although the cluster of novels McEwan wrote between 2001 (Atonement) and 2012 (Sweet Tooth) vary greatly in shape and focus, they all explore, in different ways, how individual stories and History are connected while questioning the notion of perception, and its relationship to the problematics of seeing and understanding: Atonement pits Briony’s lack of judgment against the pitiful (in McEwan’s representation of it) Dunkirk retreat, in Saturday the backdrop to Henry Perowne’s considerations about the workings of the human mind is the war in Iraq, while Sweet Tooth’s Serena Froome is a talented spy during the cold war who fails to see that her writer boyfriend has realized who she actually is and is writing a tell-tale novel about her life.

  • 3 One might think about Briony’s connection to Virginia Woolf in Atonement, Henry Perowne’s day in an (...)
  • 4 For a more in-depth analysis of the connection to The French Lieutenant’s Woman, see Barbara Puschm (...)
  • 5 For more on the subject see Janine Utell: ‘On Chesil Beach and Fordian Technique: Intertextuality, (...)

4McEwan’s most recent novels also have in common the fact that they directly address the realist/modernist divide3 but do not only aim at exposing the supposed artificiality of fiction to the reader. Metafiction is rather taken for granted, as if it were now an unavoidable component of 21st century fiction. As David James explains, ‘[McEwan] has come to realize that “you can never quite escape” today the residue of metafictional reflexivity, suggesting that “at best you take it for granted”’ (James 144). In novels that ‘take metafiction for granted’, making sense of the intertext can be puzzling, to say the least. McEwan’s novels abound with more or less open references to other works of literature, whether they be novels, theatre plays or poems. If one only considers On Chesil Beach, interesting parallels have been drawn with The French Lieutenant’s Woman, whose setting (the South Coast of England) and reflection about history McEwan’s novel seem to ponder on,4 or Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, from which McEwan has borrowed his protagonists’ names—Edward and Florence.5

  • 6 One may suggest, that naming the novel ‘On’ Chesil Beach rather than just ‘Chesil Beach’ adds a met (...)
  • 7 The last stanza is especially poignant in that respect:
    Ah, love, let us be true
    To one another! for (...)
  • 8 It is also worth mentioning that the hypothetical happy ending that is just evoked at the end the n (...)

5However, this paper will focus on what may be the most transparent intertext to the novel: Matthew Arnold’s 1851 poem ‘Dover Beach’. First because, the title of the novel is very openly modelled on its Victorian counterpart, although one might wonder why McEwan added the preposition ‘on’ in his contemporary retake.6 Secondly because of the striking similarities between McEwan’s novel and the circumstances of the poem’s composition: ‘Dover Beach’ was written by Arnold on his honeymoon and directly addresses his new bride as the two lovers seem to be stranded on the beach at night (‘The sea is calm tonight/The moon lies fair/Upon the straits’ [Arnold 78]), a situation that McEwan transposes to the two protagonists at the end of the novel. Finally, because the poem’s setting is strongly reminiscent of the descriptions of the beachscape in McEwan’s novel, especially through the emphasis on the shingle on the beach: ‘Retreating, to the breath/Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear/ And naked shingles of the world’ (Arnold 78). But any avid reader of McEwan’s fiction would also remember the fact that in Saturday, ‘Dover Beach’ is the poem that Henry Perowne’s daughter Daisy recites to Baxter (the hoodlum who’s holding the family hostage) and that finally defeats him. The poem is even reprinted in full at the end of the novel, as a sort of coda, resonating through the reader’s mind after the narrative has ended. In this way, ‘Dover Beach’ seems to constitute a ‘hyper’ intertext, for it both connects On Chesil Beach to the literary tradition of the country and to McEwan’s own works. Indeed, the scene described in ‘Dover Beach’, that of a man looking at the sea and melancholically addressing his beloved, pondering on the precariousness of life and love7 is a recurring motif in McEwan’s own œuvre, as several versions of it have been figured in the novels written since 2001.8

6In On Chesil Beach, where the beachscape scene serves as a final act to Edward and Florence’s marital tragedy, the sea seems to represent another antagonist for Edward, as the impossibility of understanding Florence is mirrored in the unresponsive calm of the English Channel, potentially hinting at the traditionally envisioned feminine quality of the sea:

The lower clouds parted again, and though there was no direct moonlight, a feeble glow, diffused through higher strata, moved along the beach to include the couple standing by the great fallen tree. In his fury, he bent down to pick up a large smooth stone, which he smacked into his right palm and back into his left. […] He took a step towards her, with the hand gripping the stone raised, then he spun around and in his frustration hurled it towards the sea. Even before it landed, just short of the water’s edge, he wheeled to face her again. (On Chesil Beach 156)

7In Sweet Tooth, one of McEwan’s most playful novels, the scene takes place on Brighton beach, where Serena Froome meets her lover, Tom Haley, a fledging writer whose reaction facing the sea (throwing rocks at it) seems to mirror Edward’s, albeit in a slightly more positive way, for Tom does not vent his anger but rather reverts to being a young boy:

We went down onto the beach so that Tom could hurl stones into the sea. He was strangely energetic. I sensed again his agitation or suppressed excitement. I sat leaning back against a bank of shingle while he kicked the pebbles over, looking for the right weight and shape. He took little runs at the water’s edge and his throw went far out into the light mist, where the soundless splash was a faint patch of white. After ten minutes he came and sat beside me, breathless and sweaty, with a taste of salt in his kisses. The kisses began to get more serious and we were close to forgetting where we were. (Sweet Tooth 249)

8Although Tom has a distinctly juvenile attitude towards the sea, the reader still gets the impression that it constitutes an unbounded mass, a solid void absorbing sounds (‘soundless splash’) and light (‘faint patch of white’) that vaguely threatens those who look at it. Thus, even at the core of such a joyful scene, the beachscape seems to represent a dividing line between life (the two lovers) and death (the inescapable emptiness of the sea), providing the scene with a mildly elegiac undertone.

9In Saturday, in addition to the intradiegetic inclusion of the poem, another echo of ‘Dover Beach’ sees Henry Perowne having a vision of his daughter standing with her lover on a British beach:

He sees Daisy on a terrace overlooking a beach in summer moonlight; the sea is still and at high tide, the air scented, there’s a final glow of sunset. She calls to her lover. […] Together they listen to the surf roaring on the pebbles, and hear in the sound a deep sorrow which stretches right back to ancient times. She thinks there was another time, even further back, when the earth was new and the sea consoling, and nothing came between man and God. But this evening the lovers hear only sadness and loss in the sound of the waves breaking and retreating from the shore. (Saturday 220)

10Once, again the connection to On Chesil Beach seems to resonate with the last lines of Arnold’s poem, ‘And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night’, pointing at the precariousness of the human condition. The almost Adam and Eve figures that the two lovers represent are faced with the disquieting quality of the sea, connoting a sense of diffuse loss that is part and parcel of the human condition. As Bjorn Thomassen explains, the double nature of the sea has been inscribed in language since the Antiquity:‘The ancient Greeks had two words for the sea. Pelagos was the standard used to refer to the sea as a simple “fact”. Pontos indicated something else: it was the sea facing the human being, a trial to overcome, a threshold to pass, an open sea to be crossed, a danger, a challenge’ (Thomassen 21).

11The very liminality of the sea seems to encapsulate the different dimensions present in McEwan’s recurring scene: the passage from one state to another and from innocence to experience, the sense of ephemerality and insignificance provoked by the immensity of the ocean and the arousal of antagonistic feelings towards a foe that cannot be defeated, whether it be the Unknowability of the Other or, ultimately, a sense of one’s own mortality. As Downey, Kinane and Parker put it: ‘Liminal spaces are those which are, simultaneously, place and space. They are familiar, yet unknown; they are secure, and yet intimidating’ (Downey 3).

12The question can then be: why does this particular scene keep finding its way back to McEwan’s fiction, again and again and why does it seem to represent such an aesthetic and hermeneutic crux, containing many of the issues that have been at the centre of McEwan’s fiction for the last fifteen years? In order to answer this question, the scope of this analysis will be reduced to On Chesil Beach, where the beachscape is essential and constitutes much more than a backdrop to the story. That ‘outer space’ indeed triggers the resolution of Edward and Florence’s marital crisis, as it provides a vanishing point, or even a literal ligne de fuite (‘line of flight/perspective line’), to borrow Deleuze’s term, for the protagonists, while setting up an ambiguous liminal space that both reveals their flawed inner spaces while casting doubt on one’s actual ability to truly know the other.

Towards a Haptic Space

  • 9 The notion of liminality is indeed closely connected to the study of rites of passage. Its first th (...)

13As I have mentioned, critics reviewing On Chesil Beach have generally concentrated on the fact that the description of space in the novel, especially the beachscape, is aimed at materializing a sense of these ‘changing times’ as a form of spatial liminality, connecting Edward and Florence’s wedding night—a rite of passage9—to the overarching shadow of the 1960s cultural revolution. But it could be contended that the role of the beachscape goes much further than just outlining the pre/post 1963 divide. Chesil Beach’s shingle indeed seems to delineate the very passing of time, an almost philosophical meditation about man’s place in the grand order of things, for its virtually infinite space may at first be considered as a ligne de fuite opening up endless potentialities for the individual.

14The beachscape indeed first serves as an escape point, a potential means for Florence to flee her disastrous wedding night: ‘she wanted to run from the room, across the gardens and down the lane, onto the beach to sit alone’ (32). But it also constitutes a ligne de fuite in the Deleuzian sense of it, for the beach is always considered as a direction, rather than the material limit between the earth and the sea: ‘So they were eating in their rooms before the partially open French windows that gave onto a balcony and a view of a portion of the English Channel, and Chesil Beach with its infinite shingle’ (4). In this passage, situated at the very beginning of the novel, the succession of embedded views, or way outs (the balcony, the channel, Chesil Beach, and finally infinity) seems to alert the reader to the possibility that the nuptial bedroom will not constitute a reassuring closed space, a Bachelardian ‘nest’ in which the two lovers could succumb to their animal instincts, but rather a threatening prison cell that the young bride dreams of escaping.

15However, and interestingly enough, even Edward, who has no qualms about the wedding night and the consummation of the marriage, seems to be irresistibly attracted towards the beachscape:

Still, Edward was troubled by the call of the beach, and if he had known how to propose it, or justify it, he might have suggested going out straight away. He had read aloud to Florence from a guidebook that said that thousands of years of pounding storms had sifted and graded the size of pebbles along the eighteen miles of beach, with the bigger stones at the eastern end. The legend was that local fishermen landing at night knew exactly where they were by the grade of shingle. Florence had suggested they might see for themselves by comparing handfuls gathered a mile apart. Trudging along the beach would have been better than sitting here. The ceiling, low enough already, appeared nearer to his head, and closing in. (19)

16Here, the clear opposition with the open space that the beach constitutes, connected to the infinite passing of time, and the sense of imprisonment that the hotel room conveys, might remind us of Deleuze’s distinction between ‘smooth’ and ‘striated spaces’. A striated space is ‘both limited and limiting’, ‘it is limited in its parts, which are assigned constant directions, are oriented in relation to one another, divisible by boundaries, and can interlink’ (Deleuze 382). One cannot but notice how, in the first description, where Florence surveys the bedroom as if looking for an escape route, the indoor space seems to be framed by a series of perpendicular lines that limits the scope of vision. In Edward’s perception of it, it is rather the self that is limited, as the low ceiling in the provincial seaside hotel literalizes the weight of social conventions. As Kevin Meethan explains, ‘[i]n history as well as folklore and popular fiction, the beach has been a place of transgression, [… and] in more modern times a place to escape to, in more than one way as the beach is also the place where inhibitions can be shed’ (Meethan 70).

17For very different reasons, and with very different intents, both Edward and Florence seem to identify the beachscape with a haptic space of freedom: for Florence, fleeing the bedroom entails escaping her wedding night, while Edward wants to be freed from social conventions. The beachscape may be described as a smooth space, in Deleuze’s definition of it: it represents ‘a tactile space, or rather “haptic”, a sonorous much more than a visual space’ (Deleuze 382), ‘directional rather than dimensional or metric’ (Deleuze 479). Directionality is indeed what the shingle and the beach seem to denote and one may notice that it is usually introduced by the preposition ‘along’. As for the sea, rather than being evoked through the classical description of an endless plane of water or of a distant horizon, it is, as has already been suggested, mostly perceived at night through the evocation of its smells and sounds, sometimes in a disquieting and unpleasant manner, for the sea is connected to the trips Florence took with her father (‘Here came the past anyway, the indistinct past. It was the smell of the sea that summoned it.’ [99]) Together, the lagoon, the beach and the sea form an unbounded space whose haptic quality defeats conventional, optical vision: ‘they could see a luminous grey smoothness that may have been the silky surface of the sea itself, or the lagoon, or the sky—it was difficult to tell’ (17-18). For Deleuze this type of ‘space is not visual, or rather the eye itself has a haptic, nonoptical function: no line separates earth from sky, which are of the same substance; there is neither horizon nor background nor perspective nor limit nor outline or form nor center’ (Deleuze 494). One may then question the effect this haptic beachscape has on the inner selves of the two protagonists: does the loss of conventional vision allow for a productive redefinition of the self?

18At first both Edward and Florence seem to feel the call of this open space, whose hapticity and sensuality generates an apt metaphor for the impending sexual revolution (on a large scale) and of their wedding night (on a smaller one), as both are close enough to be felt without actually being seen. Yet, in the following evocation of the landscape before the beach, it is striking how the haptic beachscape we have just described seems to echo the myriad sexual symbols that can be identified in the landscape, which surprisingly might remind the reader of a tropical island such as the one encountered in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, or rather its contemporary rewriting by Michel Tournier—Friday, or the other Island:

They could see the beginnings of a footpath, dropping by muddy steps, a way lined by weeds of extravagant size—giant rhubarb and cabbages they looked like, with swollen stalks more than six feet tall, bending under the weight of dark, thick-veined leaves. The garden vegetation rose up, sensuous and tropical in its profusion, an effect heightened by the grey, soft light and a delicate mist drifting in from the sea, whose steady motion of advance and withdrawal made sounds of gentle thunder, then sudden hissing against the pebbles. (5)

19Here, in the very first chapter of the novel, the almost comically sensual landscape, flaunting its transparently sexual symbols, and the haptic seascape seem to connect and produce liminality, while becoming projections of the characters’ greatest desires (for Edward) and fears (for Florence): their wedding night. As the sky and the vegetation meet, the ‘steady motion of advance and withdrawal’ cannot but remind one of Edward’s obsession with the impending consummation of their marriage (or so he hopes), while the ‘hiss’ is an apt prefiguration of Florence’s reaction to it. It seems that ultimately, the beachscape functions as a dialectic space, revealing the character’s inner spaces to themselves as well as the difficulty in perceiving the other.

Liminal Inner Spaces

20Florence’s inner space, her sense of self and her sensuality, are indeed not so much fractured as they are sealed off: ‘All these years she had lived in isolation within herself and, strangely, from herself, never wanting or daring to look back’ (61). As for Edward, when he discovers that his mother is, as his father puts it ‘brain damaged’, his inner self seems to be split by the momentous revelation, making the invisible visible but opening a rift that probably results in his propensity to physical violence:

The contradiction was now resolved by this simple naming, by the power of words to make the unseen visible. Brain-damaged. The term dissolved intimacy, it coolly measured his mother by a public standard that everyone could understand. A sudden space began to open out, not only between Edward and his mother, but also between himself and his immediate circumstances, and he felt his own being, the buried core of it he had never attended to before, come to sudden, hardedged existence, a glowing pinpoint that he wanted no one else to know about. (72)

21Reading Edward’s musing on the power of language and its ability to make ‘the unseen visible’, one cannot but think of McEwan’s frequent quoting of Conrad in his preface to the Nigger of the Narcissus: ‘You’ve got to make your reader do what Conrad did in his famous preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), you’ve got to make your reader see’ (Reynolds et Noakes 22). But the visual anagnorisis that Edward experienced in his youth, the revelation of his fractured identity caused by the words put on his mother’s condition does not seem to be possible when the two lovers finally have a conversation about what happened to them in the hotel room. It seems that the beachscape and the presence of the sea, far from helping them reveal their ‘true selves’, enforce a mode of interstitial, liminal being in which one is never totally present.

22Faced with the haptic, non-optical space that the beachscape represents, the self seems to be both depleted and intensified, and, in a sense, caught once again in liminality: Edward indeed becomes ‘unreadable, [a] two-dimensional shape’ (154). Thus, vision, especially the vision of the Other, reverts to a fleeting sensation, underlining the essential unknowability of the Other. In the last scene of the novel, Edward and Florence’s symmetrically failed visions echo their unsuccessful attempts at understanding each other:

Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was a blurred, receding point against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light. (166)

She watched him coming along the strand, his form at first no more than an indigo stain against the darkening shingle, sometimes appearing motionless, flickering and dissolving at its outlines, and at others suddenly closer, as though moved like a chess piece a few squares towards her. The last glow of daylight lay along the shore, and behind her, away to the east, there were points of light on Portland, and the cloud base reflected dully a yellowish glow of street lamps from a distant town. (139)

  • 10 ‘La modalité du visible devient inéluctable – c'est à dire vouée à une question d'être – quand voir (...)

23As the characters’ outlines dissolve, they lose their three-dimensionality to become ‘glowing’, or ‘gleaming’ points, for vision seems to become an impressionistic mode of perception. But seeing each other across the beachscape entails, as Didi-Huberman explains, a loss,10 that is also an intensification of perception, as both characters appear to be caught in a fleeting yet timeless moment of being. For Edward and Florence, the proximity of the two spaces, the striated one in the hotel and the smooth, haptic one outside it uncover the fact that their inner spaces are fundamentally flawed, and that ontological liminality, one’s incapacity to adequately perform the rite and successfully ‘crossing’ the symbolical threshold, may be the real danger threatening them. One could argue, after Thomassen in his recent analysis of liminality, that On Chesil Beach, rather than (only) describing a liminal moment of transition between Edwardian pre-lapsarian innocence and 1960s summer of love experience, expounds on how Edward and Florence become ‘stuck’ in the transitional process(es) and how modernity may ultimately be perceived as a ‘peculiar form of “permanent liminality”’ (Thomassen 28), ‘involv[ing…] a constant but also hopeless search for “experience”’ (Thomassen 31). That notion may be confirmed by the flashforwards in the last chapter of the novel, where the reader learns that despite some personal and professional successes (especially for Florence), the two spouses never actually disentangled themselves from the legacy of that failed liminal moment: in the last pages describing the end of Edward’s life, the recurring use of modals and adverbs conveying uncertainty draws attention to the bittersweet tragedy of a life half-lived: ‘he could’, ‘he would’, ‘Perhaps if he had’, ‘he would have been’, ‘he might have’ (165). Indeed, the striking conclusion of the novel, ‘This is how the entire course of a life might be changed—by doing nothing.’ (166) reinforces the notion that in On Chesil Beach, liminal space, far from being a locus of the in-between where potentialities may be developed, becomes a permanent state of paralyzing stasis where rituals cannot be performed nor decisions made.


24One could go back to the ubiquity of the beachscape scene in McEwan’s fiction, for that seminal moment seems to hold many of the aesthetic and ethical tenets of the last twenty years. It first develops a poetics of vision: looking at someone, that is to say trying to capture their truth, entails a double movement of depletion and intensification that is both aesthetically fruitful and ethically questionable. Just like Briony in Atonement, Edward and Florence look at each other in order to see, know and understand the Other. While that possibility seems to be forever out of reach, the attempt is nevertheless aesthetically productive, for the liminal place between vision and understanding is the seat of images and imagination, closely connected to the art of writing itself.

25Furthermore, thanks to the notion of liminality, McEwan has leeway to explore another recurring topic, that of the defining moment in History and individual stories, a threshold that leads to the redefinition of collective and personal identities. But in On Chesil Beach like in other novels (one thinks once again of Briony’s compulsive rewriting of the past in Atonement) liminality is not necessarily a good thing: although the space for redefinition is undoubtedly open for the protagonists, as the literal and metaphorical qualities of the beachscape seem to attest it, that redefinition is by no means always achieved and liminality often becomes a maze of the in-between, where the subject is forever trapped within the endless expansion of possibilities and experiences.

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Andrews, Hazel, and Les Roberts, eds., Liminal Landscapes: Travel, Experience and Spaces In-between, Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.

Arnold, Matthew, ‘Dover Beach’, Matthew Arnold, London: Orion Publishing Group, 1998, 78.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1980, tr. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Didi-Huberman, Georges, Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde, Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1992.

Downey, Dara, Ian Kinane, and Elizabeth Parker, eds., Landscapes of Liminality, Between Space and Place, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Head, Dominic, Ian McEwan, Manchester, Manchester UP, 2007.

Head, Dominic. ‘On Chesil Beach: Another “overrated” novella?’, ed. Sebastian Groes, Ian McEwan, London: Continuum, 2013, 115–22.

Ingersoll, Earl G, ‘The Moment of History and the History of the Moment: Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach’, The Midwest Quarterly 52.2 (Winter 2011): 131–47.

James, David, Modernist Futures: Innovation and Inheritance in the Contemporary Novel, Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2012.

Larkin, Philipp, ‘Annus Mirabilis’, The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, London: Faber & Faber, 2014, 131.

McEwan, Ian, Atonement (2001), London: Vintage, 2002.

McEwan, Ian, On Chesil Beach, London: Jonathan Cape, 2007.

McEwan, Ian, Saturday (2005), London: Vintage, 2006.

McEwan, Ian, Sweet Tooth, London: Jonathan Cape, 2012.

McEwan, Ian, The Children Act, London: Jonathan Cape, 2014.

Meethan, Kevin, ‘Walking the Edges, Towards a Visual Ethnography of Beachscapes’, eds. Hazel Andrews and Les Roberts, Liminal Landscapes: Travel, Experience and Spaces In-between, Abingdon: Routledge, 2012, 69–86.

Puschmann-Nalenz, Barbara, ‘On the Edge of No Place. Liminal Spaces and Fictional Representation in the Age of Postmodernism’, eds. Rüdiger Ahrens and Klaus Stierstorfer, Symbolism 12/13. [Special Focus—Jewish Magic Realism], Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2013, 291–98.

Reynolds, Margaret, and Noakes, Jonathan, Ian McEwan: The Essential Guide: The Child in Time, Enduring Love, Atonement, London: Vintage, 2002.

Utell, Janine, ‘On Chesil Beach and Fordian Technique: Intertextuality, Intimacy, Ethical Reading’, Journal of Modern Literature 39.2 (2016): 89–104.

Tally, Robert T., ‘“A Utopia of the In-Between”, or, Limning the Liminal’, eds. Dara Downey, Ian Kinane and Elizabeth Parker, Landscapes of Liminality, Between Space and Place, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, ix—xv.

Thomassen, Bjorn, ‘Revisiting Liminality, The Danger of Empty Spaces’, eds. Hazel Andrews and Les Roberts, Liminal Landscapes: Travel, Experience and Spaces In-between, Abingdon: Routledge, 2012, 21–35.

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1 As exemplified by the names of the two protagonists, Edward and Florence, distinctly belonging to the Victorian/Edwardian tradition.

2 The fact that the source of Florence’s inability to connect with Edward sexually is linked to her boat trips with her father is casually, but repeatedly mentioned: ‘Here came the past anyway, the indistinct past. It was the smell of the sea that summoned it. She was twelve years old, lying still like this, waiting, shivering in the narrow bunk with polished mahogany sides. Her mind was a blank, she felt she was in disgrace. […] Her only task was to keep her eyes closed and to think of a tune she liked. Or any tune. She remembered the sweet scent of almost rotten food in the closed air of a boat after a rough trip. She was usually sick many times on the crossing, and of no use to her father as a sailor, and that surely was the source of her shame’ (99-100), or ‘Where he merely suffered conventional first-night nerves, she experienced a visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness’ (7), and then later during the wedding night: ‘And there was another element, far worse in its way and quite beyond her control, summoning memories she had long ago decided were not really hers’ (105).

3 One might think about Briony’s connection to Virginia Woolf in Atonement, Henry Perowne’s day in and around London in Saturday (reminiscent of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway), or, more recently the quite transparent rewriting of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ in the final pages of The Children Act.

4 For a more in-depth analysis of the connection to The French Lieutenant’s Woman, see Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz: ‘On the Edge of No Place. Liminal Spaces and Fictional Representation in the Age of Postmodernism.’

5 For more on the subject see Janine Utell: ‘On Chesil Beach and Fordian Technique: Intertextuality, Intimacy, Ethical Reading.’

6 One may suggest, that naming the novel ‘On’ Chesil Beach rather than just ‘Chesil Beach’ adds a metafictional dimension to its title. McEwan’s novel partly takes place on Chesil Beach but it also reflects on what Chesil/Dover/Lyme Regis beach represents.

7 The last stanza is especially poignant in that respect:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. (Arnold 78)

8 It is also worth mentioning that the hypothetical happy ending that is just evoked at the end the novel version of Atonement but very much represented in the film adaptation seems to be yet another take on that seminal scene.

9 The notion of liminality is indeed closely connected to the study of rites of passage. Its first theorist, French sociologist Arnold van Gennep actually coined the notion in a study called Rites of Passage (1909) (Thomassen 23). In the 1960s Victor Turner took up the concept to apply it to the study of Ndembu rituals in Africa in The Forest of Symbols (1967).

10 ‘La modalité du visible devient inéluctable – c'est à dire vouée à une question d'être – quand voir, c'est sentir que quelque chose inéluctablement nous échappe, autrement dit: quand voir c'est perdre. Tout est là’ (Didi-Huberman 14).

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Elsa Cavalié, « ‘A sudden space began to open out’: Beachscapes and Liminality in Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 15 mai 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Elsa Cavalié

Elsa Cavalié is a Senior Lecturer at Avignon University. Her research focuses on Contemporary British fiction and Cultural Studies with particular emphasis on the notions of Englishness and Britishness. She has published several articles on contemporary British fiction (Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Alan Hollinghurst, Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters…) with a special interest in the representation of Englishness in novels revisiting the 1900-1945 period, a monograph, Réécrire l’Angleterre : l’anglicité dans la littérature britannique contemporaine(PULM, 2015), edited a collection of articles on E.M. Forster’s legacy with Laurent Mellet (Only Connect : E. M. Forster’s Legacies in British Fiction, 2017) and recently published a study of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in collaboration with Adèle Cassigneul (Éditions Atlande).

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