Ian McEwan: Contemporary Realism and the Novel of Ideas

  • Judith Seaboyer


My concern in this essay is to further an understanding of Ian McEwan’s long fiction by positioning it within the genre of realist fiction in general and the novel of ideas in particular. Of course genres are always already contaminated: speculative and realist modes are conflated in McEwan’s The Child in Time (1987) and an abstract concept of moral evil suffuses the otherwise realist Black Dogs (1992). While recognising this, I will define novelistic realism broadly in terms of a literary historical tradition that goes back to an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century focus on plot- and character-driven narratives, in which psychologically believable individuals function in familiar, everyday worlds rather than in fantastic or allegorical ones. Important generic precursors for McEwan, then, include not only central Modernist realists but, as Jack Slay has noted, the great reformist exponents of nineteenth-century sociopolitical realisms.1 The novels considered here cross a zone of intellectual inquiry that extends over the last two decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, and I am interested in the acuity with which McEwan observes, explores and analyses evolving contemporary subjects. In turn, those subjects serve as analogies for the public sphere as it is evolving in post-industrial British and European societies. This methodology, together with a finely-tuned ethical sense, and a sense of political urgency, recalls similarly analogical observation, exploration and analysis of subjects and society by Modernist reformists of the genre like Woolf, but also Victorian realists like George Eliot.


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For Further Reading

  1. For a hard copy list of Ian McEwan’s work up to 2001, see Contemporary Novelists, ed. David Madden et al., 7th edn (New York: St James Press, 2001). For a more up-to-date list on the internet, see the British Council website: <>.Google Scholar
  2. Levine, George, The Realistic Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).Google Scholar
  3. McEwan, Ian, ‘Interview with Jonathan Noakes’, in Margaret Reynolds and Jonathan Noakes, Ian McEwan: the Essential Guide (London: Vintage, 2002).Google Scholar
  4. Morrison, Jago, ‘Unravelling Time in Ian McEwan’s Fiction’, in Contemporary Fiction (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 67–79.Google Scholar
  5. Slay, Jack, Jr., Ian McEwan (New York: Twayne, 1996).Google Scholar
  6. Wilson, Edward O., Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge (1998; rpt. London: Abacus, Little, Brown, 2001).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Judith Seaboyer 2005

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  • Judith Seaboyer

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