A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Ian McEwan's 'The Cement Garden'
‘By stressing the importance of infantile sexuality and Oedipal impulses, and thereby undermining the concept of the “pristine innocence of childhood”, Freud was to provide 20th century writers with new ways of depicting childhood and adolescence. With the removal of Victorian taboos, the child/adolescent in fiction becomes more complex and less lovable.’
Freudian psychoanalysis appears to be endemic in the work of Ian McEwan, which regularly explores themes of trauma, sexuality and sexual abuse. His first collection of short stories, 'First Love, Last Rites', is concerned with abuse and sexual deviance. For example, ‘Homemade’ retrospectively recounts a teenage boy’s rite of passage, his loss of virginity incestuously with his ten year old sister, and ‘Butterflies’, another first person narrative, is concerned with the spiralling chain of events that occur when a paedophile meets a young girl on a walk. McEwan’s second novel, 'The Comfort of Strangers' deals with themes of sadomasochism, which the reader might trace back to Robert’s father’s abuse of his wife and Robert sharing his mother’s bed right up to adolescence. But none of the novels so starkly parallels Freud’s work as 'The Cement Garden', although even here there are apparent inconsistencies that make a Freudian interpretation problematic.
The Oedipus complex, the desire to kill the parent of one’s own gender because you are aware of them as a sexual rival, is alluded to right from 'The Cement Garden’s' opening lines, as Jack, our narrator, claims:
‘I did not kill my father, but I sometimes felt I had helped him on his way. And but for the fact that it coincided with a landmark in my own physical growth, his death seemed insignificant compared with what followed.’
The entire chapter is full of imagery and symbolism that alludes to the son’s murder of the father as part of his own sexual awakening. The father suffers a heart attack while Jack is masturbating in the bathroom, instead of helping to concrete the garden; Jack ‘approached slowly, knowing (he) had to run for help’ and stares at the figure of the dying man. The cementing of the garden is a reaction to Jack and Julie’s challenge to the father’s authority, when they joke about the state of the garden. Jack confesses that ‘the possibility that Julie and I were responsible for the disintegration filled me with horror and delight.’ Finally, with little or no emotion his father’s place in the family is erased from history:
‘I did not have a thought in my head as I picked up the plank and carefully smoothed away his impression in the soft, fresh concrete.’
Symbolism is used later, also, with the death of their mother, as her body is cemented into a trunk in the cellar. Yet again, rather than deal with the pain and reality of death consciously, it is left to the subconscious to resolve. This concept is best expressed in Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley when Tom asks rhetorically:
‘Don’t you just take the past and put it in a room – in the basement – and lock the door and never go in there? That’s what I do.’
A further complication with an Oedipal interpretation is that Jack’s sexual desire is turned towards his sister, rather than his mother. As he rejects the ‘rituals of personal hygiene’ he creates a further separation between himself and his mother:
‘In her quiet way my mother reproved me continuously, but I now felt proudly beyond her control.’
He reminisces about a time when he was little when he came home from school, pretending to be ill, so as to ‘monopolize’ his mother’s attention for the day. But now, when he returns home feeling guilty at his lack of co-operation, he flees from her and the combination of ‘both sadness and menace.’ The menace is one of guilt, as she scolds him for his masturbation:
‘My mother sat in such a way as to trap my arms inside the bedclothes …
“Don’t you think I don’t know what’s going on. You’re growing into a young man now, and I’m very proud you are … these are things your father would have been telling you …” We looked away, we both knew this was not true.
“Growing up is difficult, but if you carry on the way you are, you’re going to do yourself a lot of damage, damage to your growing body … Every time …” She trailed away, and rather than look at me stared down at her hands in her lap. “Every time … you do that, it takes two pints of blood to replace it.” She looked at me defiantly.’
It is his and Julie’s abuse of Sue, an episode that never really ties into the rest of the novel, which excites Jack early on. It appears as if it is only when his mother becomes gravely ill, and Julie assumes more responsibility, that Jack’s attention turns to her. This is illustrated by the almost comic scene on his birthday in which Jack is excited into a wild rendition of ‘Greensleeves’ having watched Julie doing a handstand. However, this would ignore the implied suggestion of attraction whenever Jack describes Julie right from the novel’s start.
Following the death of their mother, a power struggle ensues – Jack believes that he should have equal say in how things are run, as his mother intended. But their bitter arguments could also be regarded as having sexual undertones – flirtation, perhaps. The most dramatic example of this is with regard to Tom, the youngest child. Having been beaten up at school he asks to be made a girl, ‘because you don’t get hit when you’re a girl.’ Julie and Sue decide to dress Tom up in Sue’s old clothes, much to Jack’s disgust:
‘(Julie said) “You think its humiliating to look like a girl, because you think its humiliating to be a girl.”
“It would be for Tom, to look like a girl.” Julie took a deep breath and her voice dropped to a murmur.
“Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it’s okay to be a boy, for girls it’s like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, according to you, because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading.”’
McEwan is almost certainly making further reference here to the role of the Oedipus complex in gender awareness. The theory, espoused by Freud, ‘started out with the notion that until puberty the little girl sees herself as a little man.’ The Oedipus complex is a vital aspect of the phallic stage in determining gender awareness, which in Tom’s case is being corrupted. He is being emasculated, and Jack is too, effectively, as his objection is futile in the face of his sisters’ alliance.
The novel climaxes with Jack and Julie having sex, with Tom asleep in the room. Julie’s boyfriend, Derek, having already discovered their mother’s body entombed in cement, down in the cellar, discovers the brother and sister naked together. However, this is where the Oedipal interpretation becomes truly problematic – the incestuous relationship is between brother and sister, not mother and son. While Julie has steadily assumed the role of mother throughout the novel, Jack has also been forced into the role of father – at least in terms of others’ perceptions of him.
‘ … “You played with her (Mum’s) things?” I asked. Tom nodded and pursed his lips in imitation of Julie.
“We did dressing up things.”
“You and Julie?” Tom giggled.
“Me and Michael, stupid!” Michael was Tom’s friend from the tower blocks.
“You dressed up in Mum’s clothes?”
“Sometimes we were Mummy and Daddy and sometimes we were Julie and you and sometimes we were Julie and Derek.”
While their relationship could be regarded as Oedipal, in the sense that Julie has taken on the mother role, it is only consistent if Jack is subservient to her, which he is not by the novel’s end.
Instead I wish to propose an alternative psychoanalytic interpretation – that McEwan is examining the concept of family roles as interchangeable, rather than defined in the normal sense. That is why Tom and Julie reach an accommodation that she will mother him if he becomes a baby, and why the closeness of Jack and Julie’s relationship reaches its natural conclusion as he and Julie continue to maintain some semblance of family within the roles thrust upon them. For example, within the new family dynamic, Jack begins to assume some of the unconscious elements of the father, such as a jealousy of the attention lavished on the baby. This was also apparent in his own father’s treatment of Tom:
‘Julie had told me recently that now Father was a semi-invalid he would have to compete with Tom for mother’s attention … Later I asked Julie who would win and without hesitation she said, ‘Tom of course, and Dad’ll take it out on him.’
‘(Sue) paused and her eyes ran down several lines. “Jack was in a horrible mood. He hurt Tom on the stairs for making a noise. He made a great scratch across his head and there was quite a lot of blood.”’
This interpretation also acknowledges that there is something strangely touching about this scenario of a family created from the burnt out embers of death and tragedy, however perverse and taboo the resolution. The closing lines describe the family altogether as one, whilst hinting at the coming devastation:
‘Through a chink in the curtain a revolving blue light made a spinning pattern on the wall. Tom sat up and stared at it, blinking. We crowded round the cot and Julie bent down and kissed him.
“There!” she said, “wasn’t that a lovely sleep.”’
Thus a purely Freudian interpretation of 'The Cement Garden' is problematic, although there are constant references and allusions to Freud’s work. The abuse of Sue as a young girl suggests something wrong in the make up of the family from the start – while Jack claims that she enjoyed it she represses her memories of it later. This weakens the strength of thought that the novel is an exploration of the Oedipus complex, as it provides an unnecessary diversion, whilst it damages the interpretation that the incest and other breakdowns in social norms are a result of the removal of the parents from the family hierarchy because the abuse was present before their deaths. Similarly, Julie’s adoption of the maternal role could set-up another circumstance in which Jack could develop an Oedipal infatuation, but McEwan goes to great pains to portray the elder siblings as parental substitutes, thus contradicting such a theory. I feel that the second interpretation certainly makes the work more potent as a work of tragedy, as Jack, Julie, Sue and Tom are therefore victims of their own situation and the breakdown of moral codes inevitable as they struggle to function in a world devoid of exterior influences. Perhaps that is why, in spite of his crimes and egotism, Jack is such a sympathetic narrator and why 'The Cement Garden' has such power – however much we are repulsed, socially, by what happens, on a personal level we can appreciate it as a consequence of what fate has handed them.
The Oxford Companion to English Literature ed. Margaret Drabble (Oxford University Press 2000)
The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud (Penguin Books, 1991)
The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan (Vintage, 1997)
The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan (Vintage, 2001)
First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan (Vintage, 1997)
The Talented Mr. Ripley dir. Anthony Minghella (Miramax Films, 1999)
'Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden and the Tradition of the Child/Adolescent as "I-Narrator"' by Dr. Christopher Williams, (Atti del XVI Convegno Nazionale dell'AIA: Ostuni (Brindisi) 14-16 ottobre 1993, Schena Editore, Fasano di Puglia, 1996: 211-223)
Psychoanalytic Criticism: A Reappraisal by Elizabeth Wright (Polity Press, 1998)