Ian McEwan. The Cement Garden

Shadows on the mind: Urban alienation and the mental landscape of the children in The Cement Garden

by Nick Ambler

It was not at all clear to me now why we had put her in the trunk in the first place. At the time it had been obvious, to keep the family together. Was that a good reason? It might have been more interesting to be apart. Nor could I think whether what we had done was an ordinary thing to do


In this essay I shall be examining the socio-cultural context of The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan (1948 - ). Once placed within context, an examination of the internal worlds of the bereaved children will follow. Attention is given to events from the perspective of Jack, the adolescent narrator and an exploration is made of how the individual interior world of each child fuses into the others and forms a highly alternative and esoteric family culture. A subsequent comparison between the shared psychological network of the children and the outside physical environment will explore the tensions between this dysfunctional family and the wider society from which the children are marginalised. The conclusion will determine how effective the novel is in its portrayal of events within the children's mental world as they endeavour to cope with bereavement in an adult-free milieu.

The novel opens with a sense of guilt and a feeling of unhappy self-containment which introduces the prevailing atmosphere of The Cement Garden. Jack, the fifteen year-old protagonist, with his masturbatory habits, lack of personal hygiene and 'attitude' is arguably fairly typical of a male adolescent. However McEwan distorts this possible normality by focusing on elements of physical bodily functions and darker mental processes which lends the children and the universe they inhabit the feeling of ordinary actions and responses becoming sordid, intense and grotesque.

The first sentence of the novel expresses Jack's feelings of reluctant guilt towards his father's death:

I did not kill my father, but I sometimes think that I helped him on his way. (p.9)

McEwan thus catapults the reader directly into the tormented mental world of Jack. We then only observe the external world of Jack and his siblings from his single viewpoint. All is filtered through his lonely and questionable perception. McEwan thus leaves it to the reader to analyse the action of the novel from the filter of Jack's nave, twisted but prevailing perspective. This creates a sense of the claustrophobia that pervades the boy's world. The discomfort that readers feel parallels and prepares them for Jack's anguished, alienated and contained inner world. The family, even before the parents' death, is divided within itself and isolated from other people. Thus Jack's lonely voice lends the narration an air of obsessive and unhealthy emphasis on the very factors that create, generate and sustain the isolated obsessions dominating this family.

The writer's concentrated narrative makes the cultural and social location of the family difficult to determine. We know they are disassociated from mainstream society as a family unit, but individually they attend work and school, so what makes them different as a group, and in what way is the family different from wider society? We are told that they are a white family living on the decayed outskirts of an unnamed British city. We are not told the father's occupation, but we are told that they had no friends or visitors within the locality. They are possibly a sunken middle class family who have found themselves in a bleak and hostile social environment and so they keep culturally aloof, and socially distant from it. From the domestic family perspective McEwan creates the notion of dysfunction and shared mental distress as he puts each child under the unnaturally intense microscope of which Jack is the lens.

When the reader steps back from the distracting emphasis of Jack's gaze it is apparent that much about him is challenging but relatively normal. He torments his younger brother Tom, is confused by his feelings for older sister Julie, he masturbates copiously and does not get on with his father. He is vulnerable, selfish and unsure - nothing very unusual about this except his and the rest of the family's response to the father's death. Their response to it at an emotional level is disturbingly identified by a textual silence. Indeed at no point during the narrative is the family's mode of bereavement or grieving process discussed. Nor is the impression given by the writer that it has been addressed at all - the family simply carry on without Dad. Thus the family is not only subjected to this unresolved grief but they remain socially and physically disassociated from other people against a decaying and desolate cityscape.

The geographical landscape the family inhabit is not given a specific description but certain aspects of it are implied. The crumbling garden, and the air of urban degeneration gives the atmosphere of a post-modern hotchpotch of weeds, wasteland, modern high rise flats and dilapidated, dated prefabs - a squalid but diverse if sketchily drawn environment. There is no sense of community or continuity, but rather shadowy shops, schools and services which seem to operate from outside the family's world. They have no sense of time or place and have little mention in the text. These allusions to material services and surrounding are the essential but barely visible mise-en-scene, which is purely functional for the characters' existence. Indeed the family could be living in post second world war austerity Britain, or in a post nuclear shambles. This largely implied sense of dereliction reflects the insecurity and desolation that forms Jack's mindscape following the father's death.

Jack is lonely both as an individual and as a family member. He appears to have no friends and he is largely dependent on his sisters, whom he does not really like, for company. His nightmare (p.26) gives a synchronic insight into Jack's interior world. At this point in the novel Jack's father is dead but his mother is still alive. In his dream he is being followed by a nameless human presence with an animal-like entity carried in an open box which the presence wants to show him. Jack is very afraid of what he might see. The captive animal stinks and as Jack does not wash he also smells and so a connection is established between him and the nightmare entity. One possible interpretation is to infer that Jack is the animal and like it he is captive within the static stink of his own environment - to stay is miserable but to leave is terrifying. Thus the animal reflects the sense of entrapment and terror which dictates his life and dominates his mind. This dream sequence is the focal demonstration of the ennui and frustration that haunts his mental world.

Conversely one could construe the human presence as a manifestation of Jack's repressed remorse. The animal is a captive symbol of the dark grief-driven impulses that he wants to share with others and so release his own tensions that the trapped, unnatural animal symbolises. One can argue that his final incestuous act with his sister is a perverted catharsis of his pent-up and confused anxieties in a world where an unnatural nest of bereaved children construct their own subjective normality.

There is no one in whom Jack can confide and it is no accident that McEwan has Jack's mother read him a lecture on the evils of self-abuse. This only heightens his anxiety and so makes his behaviour towards her and everyone else more abhorrent, and thus the behavioural spiral sharpens and the anxiety level rises. One realises that the adult world represented by his mother and late father has never offered him the support that he needs to become less alienated from his peers and more integrated into his albeit isolated family. Jack is trapped in a bulwark of remorse, loneliness, distress and confusion. Thus he is already mentally debilitated and vulnerable to the further trauma of his mother's death.

The other children also have no normal model of grieving processes in which to respond. Therefore it is fear of the unknown, not love for each other which prompts the older children to conceal their mother's corpse to avoid the unknown fate of what they see as a very dark adult world. However the concealment of her body works on Jack at a mental, emotional and cognitive level, and impacts on his brother and sisters in an equally profound and macabre manner.

Ostensibly, Julie, his seventeen year-old sister, seems more resilient than Jack. Although we only see her through Jack's eyes she appears to be both more authoritative and more equivocal than her brother. She assumes the parental role so that the younger children Sue and Tom see her in a maternal role. Tom, the four year-old youngest child especially sees Julie as a mother figure, which as will be discussed later, has very profound consequences for the family. However, despite their differences Jack and Julie become allies in a situation wherein they often also become hostile to each other. Their sense of alienation and fragmentation perversely draws them together because their unique role and loneliness literally pushes them together and becomes their ultimate bond.

The new bereavement now propels Jack into a deeper journey through his own traumatised psyche. His clear mental distress prompts the reader to question how reliable Jack is as a narrator. He is an outsider, even in his own family, and although his perception is very subjective he does show a high degree of self awareness. It is his conscious introspection which persuades or deceives the reader into somehow believing in Jack's story and in his anguished mental world. McEwan hints at Jack's ability to be simultaneously involved and yet removed as a narrator. This is illustrated in a telling sequence where Jack bifurcates himself from himself and so demonstrates that although capable of being spiteful and cruel he is able to see through his own confusion and show some neutral insight. Jack's dual narrative role as that of perpetually distressed youth and occasionally objective observer. There is a passage in which his reflection in a mirror becomes a doppelganger for both sides of his nature. McEwan illustrates this dichotomy:

I stared at my own image till it began to disassociate itself and paralyse me with its look. (p.20)

McEwan affords the reader some clues into Jack's mental state and the structural purpose it serves within the narrative framework. Jack is at once the voyeuristic watcher within the family whose function is to relate the story to the reader. He is also the occasionally objectionable but objective family member who stands back and sometimes invites the reader to judge the common-sense versus the subjective sides of the story. This is exemplified by Jack's mental agony as he deliberates over the normality and morality of his and Julie's actions:

It was not at all clear to me now why we had put her [his mother's corpse] in the trunk in the first place. At the time it had been obvious, to keep the family together. Was that a good reason? It might have been more interesting to be apart. Nor could I think whether what we had done was an ordinary thing to do. (p.81)

As the eldest child Julie becomes the family head following the mother's death. Although she is initially more responsible and level-headed than Jack she is also much less perceptive and analytical than him. As a surrogate mother Julie is clearly out of her depth. The focus of her attention is her demanding four year-old brother Tom, but it is her responses, not his behaviour, which reflects the inner world of the children. If the grieving processes had been unsatisfactory and inadequate following the father's death, the children's secret internment of their mother becomes a grotesque parody of the closure procedures necessary for natural grief.

We cannot enter Julie's world as we only see her through Jack's eyes, but her mindscape is shown by her actions as the unhappy immature mother figure. It is interesting that Julie starts to dress Tom like a little girl before their mother is dead. Jack challenges Julie on thus issue and she is unsure and defensive about it. She is equally confused by her own actions when she starts to make Tom regress into babyhood because she cannot control him. The reader can see why Julie does this but she cannot. Sue, the least featured, quietest and third youngest child, is the one who wants to tell someone about their mother's death. It is Jack and Julie, however, who warn her that such an action would mean them going into an orphanage (p.53). From this point on Julie takes over as the head of the home with very disturbing consequences.

Sue becomes even more introverted and bedroom ridden and Julie quickly tires of Tom's demands. Tom becomes a cross between a wild child and a baby house pet. Jack withdraws further into his shadowed onanistic world. Sue retreats into her bedroom and her books whilst their mother's corpse decomposes and Julie struggles to run the home on her own idiosyncratic terms.

Perhaps most disturbing is Derek, Julie's boyfriend's, impact on the family. By the time Derek enters the household there is a strong dysfunctional culture in place. Each character has a critical part to play and whether a family defender or dissenter they play out their roles. The tension generated between their interior lives and external actions have mutated into a unique, perverted and fragile psycho world that will not tolerate interference.

Indeed so absorbed is Julie into her world that she does not realise what she is doing when she introduces Derek into it. At this point the shared perversity within the family is so strained that they are unable to define reality. In this sense they have become the mental casualties of what they have done. The responses of Jack and Julie have effaced them as people by replacing them with their mental state and actions based on it. Jack and Julie are aware of what they have done but their understanding is not rooted in any form of reality, except for Jack's occasional and ephemeral insight into the situation. They know, for example, what the smell is but can't admit what it is even to themselves. Only Jack has fleeting doubts when he asks Julie, 'Do you think what we did was right?' (p.102). The fabric of their self-deception is so thin to the outsider that Derek is suspicious quite quickly. Interestingly Julie wants to get rid of him but not because of the threat he now poses but because she fears he will usurp her authority. The preservation of the esoteric family culture and her place at its head has over ridden any suspicion that anyone would want to do anything but join it. Thus fear of Derek's rival authority is the issue for her, not the fact that he will betray the family. As she explains to Jack:

He wants to be one of the family. You know, big smart, daddy. He's getting on my nerves. (p.122)

The following sequence which describes the incestuous encounter between brother and sister is not only intense and graphic but cruelly ironic because in the past Julie has been the object of Jack's advances and fantasies but now she seduces Jack. Her response to Derek's interruption and very reasonable objection to this encounter is to tell him, 'Actually, it's none of your business.' (p.124). These words in this situation are absurd and tragic. They sum up the crucial amalgam of the nave, the deviant and the grotesque which makes the novel so deeply disturbing.

In conclusion, The Cement Garden takes four children who are possibly no different to other children and puts their individual and developmental features under close scrutiny so that they appear to be magnified and distorted even before the death of the father which starts the action and reactions of the plot. McEwan then puts the children in an almost impossible position as they attempt to carry on as usual after the death of both parents. McEwan sets the action in an anonymous derelict urban environment which he describes in elliptical terms so that the minimum effective clues are given to the reader to visualise the flat and cheerless area in which the family survives. This landscape reflects the tenebrous confines of Jack's individual mental world and the family's collective and tormented minds. Through this complex filter the reader feels the sadness of the children's fate and the tragedy of the soulless society in which such events can happen.

McEwan, Ian. The Cement Garden. London. Pan Books. 1978

© Nick Ambler, January 2003


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