The book ends thusly:
When he thought of her, it rather amazed him that he had let that girl with her violin go. Now, of course, he saw that her self-effacing proposal was quite irrelevant. All she had needed was the certainty of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them. Love and patience – if only he had had them both at once – would surely have seen them both through. And then …. This is how the entire course of a life can be changed – by doing nothing. On Chesil Beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. He did not know, or would not have cared to know, that as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice would have been a deliverance, and she would have turned back. 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.
Excerpt from On Chesil Beach, pgs. 201-203, by Ian McEwan (“Atonement,” “Saturday,” et al.) Nan A. Talese, New York, 2007.
McEwan’s thesis in the novel, which is by turns titillating, slow-paced, and surprising, is common enough – the ending of a marriage – yet his insight as to its preventive is another matter, perhaps too uncommon to gain much thoughtful attention in our move-on world. He boiled it down to its essence as I reflected on my own marriage, a marriage which has, for all its twists and turns and sometimes-tortured dances, moved ahead and endured those difficult roads. Along the way, we’ve learned to talk honestly with each other through the fight-or-flight times, wading through a slough of typical challenges and distractions to get here. It’s not easy, and the path ahead is likely not a golden road without hazards. But it is paved with mutual love, trust, and gratitude in our relationship’s security.
No one wants for theories as to why marriages fail or succeed; such theories abound in the psychological, sociological, theological, and philosophical worlds. In my opinion, McEwan’s analysis above, presented from the advantaged viewpoint of one of his two primary characters, forty years removed from the subject marriage, is on target as it identifies a thoughtful communication that was let go without exercise at the needful time. Or put another way, a thoughtful communication that was overpowered and overshadowed by a thoughtless communication. Edward and Florence, newlyweds on their wedding day, struggled to express their love for each other, yet ended up in an argument over an unfortunate but relatively petty occurrence that was anything but petty in its consequences. True to form among the young and prideful (are not we all prideful at some point or other?), the newlyweds could not see through the fog of emotions and identify, much less vocalize, their true feelings of love and care for each other. They raged (in understated British style) and stormed at each other, then stormed away without reaching resolution. A marriage destroyed by default; destroyed for lack of courage to say what really mattered – that they loved each other and despite what seemed a drastic momentary outcome, they were committed to go on with each other.
“All she had needed …” could have been stated “all he had needed …” with equal effect and truth. Both Florence and Edward needed certainty of each other’s love and “reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them.” Could either of them find the courage to offer those simple statements? In the heat of marital battle, can you find that courage?
Pride carried the day, but lost the life together.
Carpe diem. Vita brevis!
© October 13, 2010, by Michael E. Stubblefield. All rights reserved.