Loss and Metamorphosis in Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time
A little girl gets kidnapped from her father’s side in a busy supermarket and this sudden loss causes an unbearable burden in the parents’ souls which they are forced to carry until the day of forgiveness. This one statement is able to summarize the main essence of Ian McEwan’s novel The Child in Time, although the book has much more inner messages than just the miserable picture of a broken, mourning couple that embellish the story. The interesting relationship between childhood and adulthood and the role of time are as important as the function of the main character’s, Stephen’s visions while he is trying to become reconciled to his daughter’s disappearance. Without a doubt, it is essential to see through these motifs clearly if the reader wants to understand the leading values of McEwan’s work. However, there is one equally necessary point we can easily forget to observe: the character development. This process is uniquely individual for each person in The Child in Time, therefore there are many significant moments during the novel which represent this metamorphosis in every main character’s life.
On behalf of creating an appropriate observation of the main characters’ significant personal evolutions in this book, we have to examine closely the features of Stephen and Julie Lewis, the parents of the lost child, Kate, from the very beginning to the end. Furthermore, we should take the affective factors within the novel which are coming from the outside into consideration. With the direct assistance of actual quotes from McEwan’s work and from two critical articles, we are eventually going to notice all the essential hints about their metamorphosis. To start with, we can divide their lives into four parts: firstly, their true, pure happiness before the abduction; secondly, their immediate behaviour after it; then those two years when they are dealing with their inner feelings separately and lastly, their hopeful reunion which closes the whole story.
Although it is true that the readers do not get much information about the young, married couple before their crash, it is plainly written that they “share a powerful love” (Slay 215) and live in peaceful harmony with their little, three-year-old daughter. “They had been married six years, a time of slow, fine adjustments to the jostling principles of physical pleasure, domestic duty and the necessity of solitude” (McEwan 14). The unexpected collapse comes when the father does the usual shopping in a near supermarket with Kate where as a result of an inattentive second, someone kidnaps the girl from behind her dad’s back. “He took it and turned. Kate was gone” (McEwan 16). That one blink causes almost three years of miserable suffering for the couple and this accident with its consequences, according to Jack Slay’s article, is one of the most significant matters during the book. “McEwan’s novel concerns a child’s sudden and mysterious disappearance and the painful ordeal that the parents must endure to accept their daughter-less, and seemingly hopeless, lives” (Slay 205). However, the husband names the time itself as “the ultimate kidnapper of his only child” (Slay 208), instead of the actual abductor or even himself, the search for the culprit is not necessary for the parents at all.
Their own inner sorrow after Kate’s disappearance becomes painfully real bringing up different reactions in them and this individual behaviour is “forcing them further and further apart” (Slay 215). Stephen doesn’t give up the search for their daughter and stubbornly tries to do his best to find her while he impedes the acceptance of his loss with this act. In the contrary, Julie falls into silent emptiness and passes herself to complete grief as a truly honest reaction from a mentally collapsing mother. “Whereas Julie allows the traumatic shock of Kate’s disappearance to hit, engulf and totally possess her, Stephen attempts to emerge from it before it has properly sunk in, purposely evading an emotional response that would break his pose of masculine resilience and effectively stop him dead in his track” (Schoene-Harwood 162). Despite having the same tragedy within themselves, they cannot cooperate as a wife and a husband or as a mother and a father, because their separately treated anguish makes them unable to discuss the whole situation or their wounds at all. The inability of communication between man and woman leads to a seemingly insolvable problem which buries the once shared love. “The nuclear-family bliss of mother, father and child is irreparably shattered and superseded almost immediately by the ancient charade of man and woman misunderstanding and failing to communicate with each other” (Schoene-Harwood 157). From this point, they even become irritating for each other, for example “they could no longer bear to eat together” (McEwan 24) and the reason for this is not just their opposing responses: facing with the other would force them to face with their unacceptable loss and broken family, too. “A meal together would have implied a recognition and acceptance of their diminished family” (McEwan 24). For Stephen, this would induce an inevitable depression from which he could not escape anymore, but before it can happen, Julie, who embodies the confident power in their still standing marriage, saves their relationship by leaving her husband alone. This drastic movement does not seem a helpful act resurrecting their darkened love, though it will be the true, honest essence that “allows them to reunite” (Slay 215) since “the love that Stephen and Julie once shared and, for much of the novel, believe to be buried beyond recovery is, nevertheless, always between them, ready to resurface at the slightest coaxing” (Slay 215). Julie’s leaving also contributes to the really first step of Stephen’s mental recovery by giving him strength to deal with his grief. “Only once his wife has left the house and vacated her position of inward gazing meditation does Stephen feel ready to sit down, reflect on what has happened, and start mourning” (Schoene-Harwood 159).
Apart from their other half, the characters continue their mourning, but while Stephen “immers[es] himself in the meaningless, everyday life of television and committee meetings” (Slay 215), Julie behaves more sensibly. She still suffers from the permanent absence of her girl and wants to get her back, nevertheless she also knows that she has to deal with the fact of moving on if everything remains the same. “I had to stop running after her in my mind. I had to stop aching for her, expecting her at the front door, seeing her in the woods, or hearing her voice whenever I boiled the kettle. I had to go on loving her, but I had to stop desiring her” (McEwan 213). With time, Stephen also starts to process the accident by accepting time “as an ordinary aspect of an extraordinary world” (Slay 213) and recognising the child beneath his adult self. “Accepting the child within himself helps him to bear the loss of his daughter; in essence, the child within him is an embodiment of Kate, allowing her to love and grow always beside her father” (Slay 211). Although, visiting Julie occasionally leaves more good effects on his mental condition. Firstly, it seems that they can easily fall in love for each other again, “however, their reunion in the present is short-lived as Kate comes irrevocably, inevitably between them” (Slay 216). Their short, significant meeting, when they make love, starts with the possibility of a gentle reuniting and continues like a mentally harmless pastime until Kate’s constant presence comes to the surface from their minds. “They were talking freely, but their freedom was bleak, undergrounded. Soon their voices began to falter, the fast talk began to fade. The lost child was between them again. The daughter they did not have was waiting for them outside” (McEwan 65). After the awkward situation, together they “realize that each as an individual must learn to accept Kate’s disappearance before they can accept that perpetual emptiness in their lives as a couple, a whole” (Slay 216).
Almost nine, nearly lifeless months pass without each other, then Julie suddenly phones Stephen for the reason of a truly honest discussion about their feelings. The woman confidently reveals her pregnancy and lets her husband to inspect her healing progress after their daughter’s loss. “I tried not to shy away from the thought of her. I tried to meditate on her, on the loss, rather than the brood on it. After six months I began to take comfort from the idea of the new baby” (McEwan 214). Their satisfaction coming from the image of their new child helps them in talking Kate and her disappearance over which makes them capable of reunite. “(..) Stephen and Julie deliver their new child together and emerge from the experience as a newly born couple” (Schoene-Harwood 167). Not just the intimate conversation supports their never passing love to come to the surface again, but also the wonder of becoming parents for the second time assists them to regain their desired life together. “Through the life that they have created, Stephen and Julie are given a second chance; essentially, they, too, are reborn with this child” (Slay 216). Julie’s pregnancy and then her childbirth gives the couple the reunion as a happy family and this returning for their real selves signifies the end of their metamorphosis.
In a person’s life there will always be something that seems to function like a crack in his/her whole existence; however, it would be a mistake to consider these difficulties just cruelties from the makers of our destinies. Through the novel and this essay we can observe how Stephen and Julie developed as an individual and as a couple with the help of their inner strength during reconciling their daughter’s loss and their meaningless lives. Instead of being stuck in their grief for decades, they recognised the true message of this horrible accident: there exists an escape from every affliction we just have to find a way to reach it.
McEwan, Ian. The Child in Time. London: Pan Books, 1988. Print.
Slay, Jack. “Vandalizing Time: Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 35. 4 (1994): 205-218. Print.
Schoene-Harwood, Berthold. “The U-Turn of the Father: Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time.” Writing Men, Literary Masculinities from Frankenstein to the New Man. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2000. Print.
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