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The developing of regressive and matriarchal structures in opposition to a patriarchal and authoritative society in 'The Cement Garden' by Ian McEwan

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2007 15 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur



Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden (1978) deals with the children Jack, Julie, Sue and Tom, who after the death of both their parents, slowly develop a microcosm. It shows signs of a matriarchal society and also creates independent authorities.

In the following I will analyse the way in which McEwan transports this political novel and in doing so I will put a focus on the „kultur-und zivilisationskritischen Aspekte“1, who earn the main respect of the novel. By the establishing of matriarchal structures on an individual and also societal level, the children find a way of rediscovering the possibilities of interpersonal communication and by experiencing erotical sensuality , a relationship not only to the outer but also to the inner nature can be newly built, and by this they free themselves of limiting conventions temporarily, nevertheless, the excitement felt at the beginning won't be of long duration.2 McEwan already topicals the „sexuelle- sich-gewahr werden, den erotischen Lustgewinn und die problematische psychische Disposition von Jugendlichen und Kindern“3 in his first two short story-collections First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between The Sheets (1978). In the early literature of the Romanticism and the 19 th century children often functioned due to their uncorrupted moral as a mirror of the society and would show the adults their mistakes. McEwan shows the children neither unguilty nor passive - they are immoral and do not represent abstract moral values; they indexicalize the societal depravity.4

After a short examination and analysis of the main characters under the portent of the later offing regression I will in the second part be more concrete regarding causes and effects of the „matriarchal dreamtime“5.

The family:

The father as a representative of a patriarchal society

The first sentence makes obvious of which kind the relationships are. Not only between the parents but also between the parents and the children:

„ I did not kill my father, but sometimes I felt I had helped him on his way. And but for the fact it coincided with a landmark in my own physical growth, his death seemed insignificant compared to what followed He was a frail, irascible, obsessive man with yellowish hands and face. I am including this the little story of his death to explain how my sister and I came to have such a large quantity of cement at our disposal.“

This statement is made by Jack, the protagonist and first person narrator of the novel. Of special interest here is the fact, that „I“ is not only the first word but is also repeated twice immediately:

The I-narrating speech has a „psychologically mimetic function“6 , by which the implied author gives the recipient oder reader by the I- reporting introduction a direct idea of the family background.

This not only discovers the egozentric attitude, which shows first signs of an isolating, self-centered and anarchic position of the I-narrator, which will be regarded more deeply later again, but it also shows the relation he has to the father, whose death is only mentioned in order to explain the existence of the huge quantity of cement.

Ryan speaks of an „oedipal guilt“7which Jack reveals here. The father is a tyrannic patriarch („tyrannischer Patriarch“8) whose relation to the mother is embossed by a patriarchal role model.

He rules the whole family by his quick-tempered and totalitarian Art and does not allow any contradiction. He controls the family by determing who can make fun of whom.

„There were a few running jokes in the family, initiated and maintainded by my father The laughter was instant and ritual. Because little jokes like this one were stagemanaged by Father, none of them ever worked against him“9

Humour is used by the father as an instrument of power, the laughter assures him of his tyrannical dominance. Slay10interpretes:

„The patriarch a subtle ogre who rules by maintaining a constant pattern of mental abuse; he succeeds only in proving himself totally ineffectual as a father.“

When Jack and Julie stage-manage a joke on their fathers burden

„I saw sometihng out in the garden today that gave me a shock.“„Oh,“ said Julie. „What was that?“

„A flower.“11 he punishes them with total ignorance for days. This shows that he does not own a somewhat natural power, which would make it possible for him to overlook the mutinous jokes of the children, but that his power is more of a weak, artificial nature.

Here shows the core topic which runs leitmotifisch through the novel:

Not only does the cement symbolise the rigid and backward society with all its conventions and traditions, which need to be reformed thoroughly, because its skin already shows rifts, what is symbolized through the description of fathers disease at the beginning as „frail, irascible, obsessive (...) with yellowish hands and face“ (S. 9), and will be in the course of the novel by the rifts of the cement tomb also metaphorical completed: the cement also stands for fathers authority, which he had appropriated by „monologisches Anordnen, fordern und befehlen“12

The unwritten laws of the family are rules, who are to cement his power.13

The role of the mother

The mother is outlined as a soft and tolerant housewife. She forms the perfect match to the authoritative father, as felt appropriate in the occidental culture. Her behaviour is full of awe, suggestibility and forebearingness. The role allocation is traditionally, he takes care of the technical things and

„public“14affairs, the mother takes care of the household and education of the children.

„(...) and yet she is an inadequate surrogate father, a slave (her place is in the kitchen) masquerading, wizhout conviction, „wearily,“ as a master.“15

After the father's death she tries to adapt his role as well as to imitate his strictness but fails at that when she tries to get Jack to stop masturbating , since he can tell she is just pretending to be as rigourous as father. (p.29) After her husband dies, she gets sick too, and, instead of freeing herself of the chains of patriarchate, blossoming again, but follows her husband into the early grave.


From the beginning on, starting with the oedipal intimation „i did not kill my father but i sometimes felt i had helped him on his way,“ Jack shows himself as an inadvertently, and unlikeable, even despictable person. With his refusal of taking more weight of cement of what he considered to be appropriate in comparison to his bodyweight, he takes the risk of giving his father a heart attack. When he later goes to the bathroom in order to masturbate to avoid working, his father dies due to heart failure.

Eventhough he is very well aware of the fact that he has to carry a not insignificant guilt of his fathers death, he doesn't agonize (pity) his death, but states instead:

„(...) fact that it coincided with a landmark in my own physical growth , his death seemed insignificant“.

He acts likewise when his mother dies. He doesn' t mourn her, but complains over Julie ignoring him, beginning „to cry because I felt cheated. My mother had gone without explaining to Julie what she had told me“.

John Calvin Batchelor analyses:


1 Lars Heiler:Regression und Kulturkritikim im britischen Gegenwartsroman. Kulturwissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zu Romanen von Ian McEwan, Jim Crace, Irvine Welsh und Will Self.Erschienen im Narr Verlag Tübingen, 2004

2 comp. ibid.

3 Wolfgang Wicht:Ian Mc Ewan : Der Zementgarten,S. 1146

4 comp. ibid. p. 1149

5 Lars Heiler, S. 39

6 Lodge, David „Double Discourses. Joyce and Bakhtin“ in: Jamse Joyce Broadsheet, No. 11, June 1983, S.2/2. aus Wolfgang Wicht: Von David Copperfield zu Ian McEwans The Cement Garden: Veränderungen im Diskurs der Ich-Erzähler“, p. 312

7 Kiernan Ryan: Ian McEwan, 1994, Northcote House Publishers, Plymouth, p. 20

8 Lars Heiler

9 Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden, p. 14 f.

10 Jack Slay, Jr., :Ian McEwan,1996, Twayne Publishers, p .41

11 CG, p. 15

12 Heiler, S. 47

13 Ebenda

14 Ebenda

15 David Sampson, McEwan/ Barthes, in Southern Review, 17/1 (März 1984) S. 68-80 , p. 70


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
417 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin – Anglistik
Cement Garden McEwan



Titel: The developing of regressive and matriarchal structures in opposition to a patriarchal and authoritative society in 'The Cement Garden' by Ian McEwan