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A "troubled marriage of science and literature"

The Depiction of Science in Ian McEwan's 'Enduring Love'

Examensarbeit 2013 54 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Scientific Method and Rationalism in Enduring Love
2.1.Narrative Implementation
2.1.1. Language
2.1.2. Point of View
2.1.3. Reliability of the Narrator
2.2. Testing of Scientific Rationalism - ‘a little cage of reason’ or ‘a route to wonder’? ..
2.2.1. Rational Thought as ‘a wonderful aspect of our natures’
2.2.2. ‘Rationalism gone berserk’
2.3. Science, Literature and the Narrative
2.3.1. Science’s Need for Narration
2.3.2. Science as an Enrichment for Literature
2.3.3. Science Writing
3. Synthesis: ‘Rapprochement of the disciplines’

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

“There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:/ We know her woof, her texture; she is given/ In the dull catalogue of common things./ Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,/ Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,/ Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine -/ Unweave a rainbow” (Keats 320f).

In December 1917, Keats attended Benjamin Haydon’s ‘immortal dinner’ during which Charles Lamb accused Haydon of including Newton’s head in his painting “Christ’s Entry in Jerusalem” (cf. Dawkins 38f). This painting was, according to Lamb, an affront since Isaac Newton “had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colours” (Dawkins 39). Keats agreed with Lamb that a man like Newton would “reduc[e] life to physical organization” (Gigante 442) and therefore bereave the world of its wonders. In 1919, Keats began writing Lamia in which he took up the subject of the difficult relationship between science and literature. The initial quotation promotes the assumption that in Lamia, science is seen as something that strips poetry (and the arts in general) of its “beauty and mystery” (Abrams 307). By “unweav[ing] the rainbow” (Keats/Cook 321) Sir Isaac Newton had presumably destroyed the mysterious nature of the rainbow by means of rationalism as one then knows about its ”woof, [its] texture” (Keats 320). However, one can find ambiguous details in Lamia that put Keats’ position in question. Under Apollonius’ eyes (Apollonius stands for reason and the urge to define everything (Sandy 53)) Lamia’s beauty vanishes and she becomes a serpent again. It could be argued that Apollonius saved Lycius (who is seen as a dreamer and a fantasist) from the sinful and evil snake, rather than depriving him of his lover. Although it might at first seem obvious that Keats is clearly emphatically siding against the scientific position, against reason, this view turns out to be reductive (cf. Midgley 55). Hence, even in Keats’ poetry, which primarily demonizes science and the scientific progress, hints can be found that science is not that devilish after all. The hypothesis that Keats’ view on science was not as exclusively negative as most commonly assumed is further supported by the fact that Keats had studied at Guy’s Hospital and was licensed to work as an apothecary (Keats/Cook xxxi). In himself, Keats internalises the difficult relationship of science and literature.

A few centuries later, Ian McEwan has also taken up the topic of the complex relationship of science1 and literature in his novel Enduring Love. Enduring Love is placed in a “cycle of novel of ideas” (Noakes 84), as McEwan himself calls it. This cycle includes The Child in Time (1987), The Innocent (1990), Black Dogs (1992) and Enduring Love (1997). All four novels deal with systematic ways of understanding the world (cf. Head 124). The focus of this paper will lie on Enduring Love as it serves best to explore the depiction of science (especially evolutionary biology). However, other novels and works in this cycle and the rest of McEwan’s opus will occasionally be consulted to support certain arguments.

As mentioned above, Enduring Love displays a quest for ways of explaining the world. The novel contains an epistemological triangle consisting of Jed Parry, who claims religion as the one and only way of understanding the world, Clarissa Mellon, a firm believer in literature and a sensual, often emotional way of deciphering the world and, finally, Joe Rose, who represents science, reason and the rational side (cf. Childs 16). The key scene of the initial balloon accident kicks off the strife between the different positions. McEwan seems to have purposely chosen a balloon-accident rather than, for example, a car accident. It is the randomness of such an unexpected event that is stressed here (cf. Clark/Gordon 40). Both Joe and Clarissa, whose perspectives will be discussed in this paper, try to make sense of this event within the framework of their respective cognitive and emotional frameworks. A scene written from Clarissa’s perspective (however, it is only Joe retelling Clarissa’s view), portrays the opposing principles of Clarissa and Joe: “Like her, he has reached the senseless core of Logan’s tragedy, but he has reached it unaware. Whereas she wants to lie quietly in soapy hot water and reflect, he wants to set about altering his fate” (EL 83). This depiction, however exaggerated it might be, provides a useful first glimpse at the different positions.

Various situations incite the struggle between the disciplines. First, there is the problem of how to deal with the accident and the knowledge of having been unable to prevent the death of John Logan. Jed Parry and his apparent fanatical love for Joe is another issue that is regarded differently by the two sides. But also topics like the nature of a baby’s smile, self-deception and the potency of narrative lead to discussions (cf. Greenberg 95). In the end, Joe appears to have been right about Jed Parry and the notional threat he poses for Joe and Clarissa all along. Joe finds Jed in his and Clarissa’s apartment threatening Clarissa with a knife (cf. EL 212). Does this fact, together with an analysis of the other factors in Enduring Love, lead to the conclusion that in the novel, science and scientific rationalism are constituted as the best ways of grasping the world? The following paper is going to consider this hypothesis in the light of how science and scientific rationalism are displayed in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.

The focus will first lie on narrative techniques employed in the novel. Since the question is how science is depicted in the context of a novel, it is fundamental to regard factors such as language, point of view and reliability of the narrator. In the chapter on language, it will be analysed in how far Joe, the narrator, is situated in the scientific discourse and what consequences this has for the portrayal of his account of the world. Point of view is a crucial factor in Enduring Love, since the whole novel is written from Joe’s perspective and the reader therefore perceives the events through his eyes. This leads to doubts about objectivity and, above all, the reliability of the narrator. It will be regarded how Joe’s perspective is put in doubt by different sides and what effects this has on the depiction of his scientific approach. In the second part, it will be analysed how scientific rationalism, and especially evolutionary biology and psychology, are tested on a content level. The first perspective that is analysed is Joe’s. It will be considered in how far the novel promotes Joe’s view of science being the adequate approach to face the events in Enduring Love. This view will be contrasted with Clarissa’s (and also Jed’s) perspective which denounces Joe’s scientific account as “rationalism gone berserk” (EL 70). The third part deals with the relation of science and literature. It will be considered if, in Enduring Love, literature and science are seen as “Two Cultures” (Snow 2) standing apart from each other. This will be done by first analysing science’s notional need for narration. It will be regarded if Enduring Love suggests a postmodern view of science as ‘just another narrative’ and in how far Joe acknowledges a certain dependence on the narrative. The next point will consider if science is exhibited as an enrichment for literature. In order to do so, the focus will lie on The Child in Time, as well as on Enduring Love. To conclude the chapter on the relation of science and literature, science writing will be put into the focus of the analysis. With the present days being a “golden age” (Garner) for science writing, especially for the topics of evolutionary biology, it is important to regard this discipline in the context of Enduring Love. As Joe Rose is clinging to a classical scientific method, an understanding of science as “pure” (EL 106) and at best “disinterested” (EL 181), his attitude towards his current profession as a science journalist is highly interesting.

On the basis of the main part, the initial question whether, in the novel, the scientific way of apprehending the world is favoured and how the relation of science and literature is presented, will be raised again in the synthesis and, as far as possible, answered.

2. Scientific Method and Rationalism in Enduring Love

Enduring Love is concerned with […] what philosophers term epistemology, the theory of knowledge, which examines how human beings know about the world, what there is to be known, and how knowledge can be justified” (Clark/Gordon 45). In Enduring Love the reader is confronted with three different ways of knowing and interpreting the world: Jed, the religious stalker, Clarissa, the emotional literary scholar with a passion for Keats and Romanticism and finally, Joe, the rational scientist who sees science as the basis for explaining the world (cf. Childs 16). Each character represents a certain way of making sense of the world - a certain access to knowledge about the world. The character dominating the whole novel is Joe Rose, the narrator and a “representative of a rational scientific mind-set” (Clark/Gordon 28). Joe is a failed scientist turned science writer who yearns for the times when he could still do ‘real’ and theoretical science and research (cf. EL 82). Joe is “an advocate of knowledge based on facts, the traditional empirical sciences (physics, biology, chemistry), traditional logic and reason” (Malcolm 175) and also of the relatively new field of evolutionary biology (cf. Greenberg 114). Joe is not only interested in science and writes about it, it is “the lens of his worldview” (Clark/Gordon 28). The branch of science that is in focus in Enduring Love is evolutionary biology. The main question of the following paper will be, in how far evolutionary biology and its explanations and methods are depicted in Enduring Love as justifiable to explain things like human nature, their behaviour and values and how science is depicted in relation to literature and the narrative in the novel.

2.1. Narrative Implementation

In order to analyse the depiction of scientific method and rationalism in Enduring Love, it is necessary to take a look at certain narrative characteristics. As Jonathan Greenberg states: “McEwan has created novelistic characters rather than the mere mouthpieces of a philosophical dialogue” (Greenberg 98). It can be claimed that Clarissa represents literature and Joe portrays science, but it must be taken into account that both are novelistic characters and therefore progressive and changeable. The following chapter will specifically analyse Joe, the protagonist. He, as the narrator, has tremendous power over the novel and his perspective and account dominate Enduring Love.

2.1.1. Language

In his book Discourse Analysis, Rodney H. Jones discusses the status of language in ‘social practice’ (cf. Jones 38). The basic assumption is that “[l]anguage is seen not just as a system for making meaning, but as part of larger systems through which people construct social identities and social realities” (Jones 38). Jones here refers to Michel Foucault, who has established the view that “discourse is the main tool through which we construct ‘knowledge’ and exert power over people” (Jones 38). As Ruoff has summarized, Foucault regards discourse as the relation of language and reasoning (cf. Ruoff 291). In his work The Archaeology of Knowledge Foucault reasons that different kinds of discourses, such as the “clinical discourse, [the] economic discourse, the discourse of natural history” (Foucault 108), are related to certain ‘systems of knowledge’ (cf. Jones 38). According to Jones, “a discourse is always ‘ideological’, meaning that [a] discourse always has ‘an agenda’, that it always ends up serving the interests of certain people over those of others […]“ (Jones 38). It is therefore interesting to consider how language is used in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love in order to promote certain ‘versions of reality’ (cf. Jones 38).

In Enduring Love, the discourse of science is salient. Joe Rose, a scientist and science writer, extensively employs “vocabulary of scientific fact and certainty” (Malcolm 168) and also ideologically seems to be deeply rooted in the discourse of science. In the initial scene in which the balloon accident takes place, the reader is immediately confronted with Joe’s rational account of the event. He compares the starting scene with the physics of a snooker table:

[T]he convergence of six figures in a flat green space has a comforting geometry from the buzzard’s perspective, the knowable, limited plane of the snooker table. The initial conditions, the force and the direction of the force, define all the consequent pathways, all the angles of collision and return, and the glow of the overhead light bathes the field, the baize and all its moving bodies, in reassuring clarity. I think that while we were converging, before we made contact, we were in a state of mathematical grace (EL 2f).

From Joe the reader gets a rational account of describing a dramatic situation. Rather than speaking of terror, fear and chaos, Joe describes the scene calling attention to angles and force components which add up to a ‘comforting geometry’ and a ‘state of mathematical grace’. When speaking of Logan’s death, Joe describes the process of death as a “closing down of countless interrelated neural and bio-chemical exchanges” (EL 23). And even in a highly emotional and sensual moment, when making love to Clarissa, Joe uses technical language, describing that Clarissa’s “hands were working lightly across [his] buttocks towards [his] perineum” (EL 33). As Schmitzberger points out, the usage of technical language serves to distinguish a character from others (cf. Schmitzberger 142). And indeed, Joe’s rational way of viewing the world would be less obvious if it was not opposed to Jed’s and Clarissa’s account. Jed Parry represents the religious discourse. When regarding Jed’s letters, a dominance of religious terminology and “a fondness for exclamations” (Malcolm 169) becomes evident. Clarissa incorporates the literary discourse. Malcolm observes that in her letters she “writes a rather neutral, educated English” (Malcolm 169).

As will be described further in 2.1.2., almost the whole novel is written in first-person narration, with Joe being the narrator. Recalling Jones’ assumption that a discourse is always ‘ideological’ and that it naturally tends to dominate others, the question comes up whether the dominance of the scientific discourse in Enduring Love implicates that Joe’s ‘ideology’, the scientific view on the world, is ‘the right one’ and that it should be trusted rather than Clarissa’s or Jed’s account of the events. The assumption that this is true is diminished when having a closer look at Joe’s language. One will detect that Joe is not exclusively adhering to a scientific way of expression. He is indeed “capable of some literary, not to say poetic, turns of phrase” (Malcolm 170). On his first encounter with Jean Logan, Joe says: “She looked a long way off, out on her own in unspeakable weather, like a lone Arctic explorer” (EL 108). This strong simile has nothing to do with a rational way of grasping the events. It is a poetic way of describing the scene (cf. Malcolm 170). In another scene in which Joe waits for Clarissa, who has gone out to meet her brother, he contemplates: “I thought of going to find her in the restaurant, but I knew that by now her adulterous brother would have begun the relentless plainsong of the divorce novitiate - the pained self-advocacy that hymns the transmutations of love into hatred or indifference” (EL 46). Rather than Joe, one would expect Clarissa, the Keats-scholar, to verbalize her thought in a highly metaphorical way like this (cf. Malcolm 170).

When analysing Enduring Love, a pattern becomes repeatedly evident. At first glance, science and rationalism seem to be predominant, but when immerging deeper into the topic, this shallow assumption begins to disintegrate.

2.1.2. Point of View

This observation also applies to the analysis of the point of view in Enduring Love which is examined in this chapter. Enduring Love is dominated by one perspective, namely that of Joe Rose. This unidirectional view is primarily attained by the point of view in the novel. Almost throughout the whole novel (except for the letters and the scientific article in Appendix I) first person narration is applied. In detail, there is, in Nünning’s terms, a ‘narrating I’ who participates in the events of the fictional world. The narrator is therefore also an ‘experiencing I’. Joe recounts the events from his point of view and, at the same time, he is directly involved in the events (cf. Nünning 114f).

The ‘narrating I’ in Enduring Love can furthermore be described as an ‘explicit narrator’. Nünning notes that it is a sign for an ‘explicit narrator’ if the narrator contemplates about the process of narration himself (cf. Nünning 123). When Joe acknowledges that “[i]t would make more sense of Clarissa’s return to tell it from her point of view. Or at least, from that point as I later construed it” (EL 79), the meta-narrative level becomes evident. Joe admits that it would be better to pass over to Clarissa and thereby meditates about the act of narration himself. But in fact, it is Joe who interprets Clarissa’s point of view and retells it to the implied reader. Even when explicitly trying to change the perspective, Joe acknowledges that it is only him who can interpret Clarissa’s point of view and retell it. The implied reader can observe the events merely through Joe’s perspective.

Moreover, Joe directly comments on and judges the other characters and their attitudes and manners. This also marks, according to Nünning, an ‘explicit narrator’ (cf. Nünning 123). When recalling the scene in which Joe hands one of Parry’s letters to Clarissa to have her confirm his suspicions about Joe’s madness, he tries to interpret her reaction and tries to bend it to his needs:

At breakfast I had read Parry’s letter, then passed it to her. She seemed to agree with me that he was mad and that I was right to feel harassed. ‘Seemed’ because she was not quite whole-hearted, and if she said I was right - and I thought she did - she never really acknowledged that she had been wrong. I sensed she was keeping her options open, though she denied it when I asked her (EL 100).

Although Clarissa has denied the allegation that she ‘was keeping her options open’ and although Clarissa adds only two sentences later that “[h]is [Jed’s] writing’s rather like yours” (EL 100), Joe tries to convince himself and the implied reader that Clarissa actually ‘said [that he] was right’, or at least he thought so. The fact that “the utterances of other characters are largely contained within this one character’s narration and are under his control” (Malcolm 160) gives Joe, the narrator, great power. All events are narrated through his perspective and all characters and their attitudes and actions are directly or indirectly evaluated by him. As a reader, it might initially seem plausible to trust Joe who, as a man of science, will probably be connected with an objective and scientific way of interpreting the events. But it is not as obvious as that. Rodney Jones agrees with Foucault when claiming that ‘discourses’ can exert tremendous power over us by creating constraints regarding how certain things can be talked about and what counts as ‘knowledge’ (cf. Jones 15). Since Joe is deep-seated in the discourse of science, he might therefore lack a certain field of vision that lies outside this discourse. The question comes up whether a human being can ever objectively interpret events and whether this is, in any event, worth aspiring to. As will become clearer in the course of this paper, although centred in the scientific discourse, Joe needs to include other angles of vision. The same applies to the reader. Despite the dominance of Joe’s perspective, the reader is also faced with Clarissa’s and Jed’s accounts of the world and needs to weigh all perspectives against each other.

Head observes an interesting contradiction concerning the point of view in Enduring Love. He states that “[i]n the case of Joe’s first-person narration, we have a mode that serves to emphasize the individual’s interpretation that so much else in the novel warns us against” (Head 139). In the novel, personal interpretations repeatedly turn out to be wrong (cf. Childs 110). There is Jean Logan, who is certain that her husband must have betrayed her, Jed insists on Joe’s obvious love for him and Clarissa hypothesises that Joe might be mad and have only invented Jed. All these surmises prove to be wrong. In the end, Joe, the rationalist, holds the right version of events. Jed was stalking him and Joe was endangered by his stalker. The word ‘version’ is the hint to this contradiction. In this case, his scientific approach is only his personal interpretation. Viewing events through one person’s perspective can never be objective - even if the person clings to a very scientific way of interpreting the world. And this leads us to doubt Joe’s highly subjective account of the world.

2.1.3. Reliability of the Narrator

Another point that causes the reader to question Joe’s personal interpretation of the events is the fact that “Joe’s narration in Enduring Love is not in competition with another - he does not need to cooperate or consult in telling his story” (Matthews 91). As mentioned before, Clarissa’s and Jed’s world views are present in the novel, but only moderated through Joe’s point of view. The critical reader has to question how reliable Joe, the narrator, is (cf. Matthews 91). Matthews holds that “[o]ur privilege as readers is a critical perspective not only on the narrator’s character but also on the limits of that narrator’s way of seeing and explaining the world” (Matthews 104). It is this narrative characteristic, the reliability of the narrator, that is discussed most in research about Enduring Love.

According to Nünning, the narrator’s limited knowledge implies an unreliable narrator (cf. Nünning 124). Since Joe is a first-person narrator, this is clearly the case. A first-person narrator can never be omniscient. Moreover, Nünning cites emotional involvement in the events as another sign for an unreliable narrator (cf. Nünning 124). And in fact, Joe is gravely emotionally involved in the story. To name only two out of many examples, he fears for his own and for Clarissa’s safety and he is plagued by self-doubt about his guilt in the balloon accident. As a last point, Nünning points to the fact that a narrator’s dubious value system also points towards his unreliablity (cf. Nünning 124). This is the most intricate aspect of the three features and will therefore be discussed in closer detail. Is science in Enduring Love represented as a discipline that entails a ‘dubious value system’ or is it the one we should rely on and through the lens of which we should regard the world? To answer this question, it will be necessary to consider all the factors that will be discussed in the following chapters. Two out of three criteria that Nünning ascribes to an unreliable narrator clearly apply to Joe. The last, the evaluation of the narrator’s value system, cannot yet be explicitly assessed. Is it therefore possible to label Joe an unreliable narrator? Of course it is not quite that easy.

In fact, there also exists the view that Joe is not unreliable after all. David Malcolm calls Joe a “substantially reliable first-person narrator” (Malcolm 160), and argues that “Joe’s view of the world is ultimately endorsed and he is shown to be right” (Malcolm 170). And indeed, in the end, Joe proves to have been right about Jed and the danger Jed has posed all along. However, it is highly problematic to derive from this fact that one can call Joe Rose a ‘reliable first-person narrator’. As this chapter shows, there are many factors that point towards Joe as an unreliable narrator, despite his rightness in the end. As Matthews has explained, it is Rose himself who puts his own interpretation of the events into question (cf. Matthews 95). If we regard the scene where Joe comments on James Gadd’s attempt to race after the balloon, this becomes evident. Joe recalls: “Such is his genetic investment, I remember thinking stupidly” (EL 19). Joe concedes that in such a highly dramatic situation, in which the grandfather desperately tries to save his grandson, such a rational thought - to ascribe his reaction to ‘his genetic investment’ - is clearly inappropriate (cf. Head 128). Even in this early moment in the novel, the reader begins to question whether Joe as the single narrator can be fully trusted. And indeed, Matthews states that “[t]here is […] overwhelming evidence not only of the inherent unreliability of narrative form […], but of the specific unreliability of this narrative and this narrator” (Matthews 95).

Matthews distinguishes between different ‘types of unreliability’2. The term ‘types’ might be misleading. Matthews classifies Joe within all ‘seven types of unreliability’. In this context ‘types’ is used meaning ‘characteristics’. Joe can be ascribed to several ‘types of unreliability’ simultaneously. Within the limits of this paper, the focus is put on three distinct types. Firstly, there is ‘deliberate unreliability’. This form could also be called ‘explicit unreliability’. This type includes the many remarks by Joe himself about the truthfulness of his own narration (cf. Matthews 98). The most notable example for this is when Joe is being questioned at the police station and contemplates the existence of personal objectivity. He reasons:

I felt a familiar disappointment. No one could agree on anything. We lived in a mist of half-shared, unreliable perception, and our sense data came warped by a prism of desire and belief, which tilted our memories too. We saw and remembered in our own favour and we persuaded ourselves along the way. […] We’re descended from the indignant, passionate tellers of half truths who in order to convince others, simultaneously convinced themselves. […] And that was why metaphysics and science were such courageous enterprises, such startling inventions, bigger than the wheel, bigger than agriculture, human artifacts set right against the grain of human nature. But it couldn’t save us from ourselves, the ruts were too deep. There could be no private redemption in objectivity (EL 181).

Joe here admits that even science itself, just like metaphysics, cannot be objective, since it is always undertaken and exhibited by human beings. He does not exclude himself from the fact that “we [as human beings] saw and remembered in our own favour and [that] we persuaded ourselves along the way” (EL 180) and therefore Joe alludes to the fact that even he, as a man of science, can never be objective and therefore, cannot be fully trusted. Secondly, Matthews points out ‘controlling unreliability’. This kind of unreliability comprises “fundamental characteristics of Rose’s organization of the story, the extent to which he manipulates both events and the narrative to his own ends” (Matthews 98). This calls the whole structure of the novel into question, with Joe, the narrator, deciding what is told and how it is told. Sometimes he even explicitly mentions this power over the narrative. He, for example, “freeze[s] the frame” (EL 12) in order to introduce all participants of the balloon accident to the implied reader. Finally, there is ‘psychotic unreliability’. This refers to doubts about Joe’s sanity (cf. Matthews 102). Greenberg remarks that “[a]s the crises in Joe’s life mount […] he appears, both to those in the text and those reading it, increasingly irrational” (Greenberg 102).


1 In this paper, the term “science” stands for the natural sciences.

2 For further information on all seven types of unreliability cf. Matthews.


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depiction science mcewan enduring love



Titel: A "troubled marriage of science and literature"