On Chesil Beach

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On Chesil Beach
Cover of UK hardback
Author Ian McEwan
Cover artist Chris Frazer Smith
Country United Kingdom
Genre Fiction
Publisher Jonathan Cape
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback)
Pages 166
ISBN 0-224-08118-7
OCLC 76797966

On Chesil Beach is a 2007 novel/novella by British writer Ian McEwan. The novel was selected for the 2007 Booker Prize shortlist.

The Washington Post and Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Jonathan Yardley placed On Chesil Beach on his top ten for 2007, praising McEwan's writing and saying that "even when he's in a minor mode, as he is here, he is nothing short of amazing". [1]

Plot summary

In July 1962, Edward Mayhew, a graduate student of history, and Florence Ponting, a violinist of a string quartet, have just been married and are spending their honeymoon in a small hotel on the Dorset seashore, at Chesil Beach. The two are very much in love despite being from drastically different backgrounds.

During the course of an evening, both reflect upon their upbringing and the prospect of their futures. Edward is sexually motivated and, though intelligent, has a taste for rash behaviour. Florence is bound by the social code of another era and, perhaps having been sexually abused by her father,[2] is terrified of sexual intimacy. Florence tries to mentally prepare herself for the inevitable consummation, but the thought of it continues to repulse her.

When the couple are finally about to have sex, Edward loses control and ejaculates on her belly and thighs before intercourse can begin. Revolted, Florence storms out. When Edward follows, the couple get into an argument where Florence makes it clear that she is not interested in ever having sex. Edward accuses her of lying to him during their marriage vows (in which there is a vow of sexual fulfilment), and is further angered when Florence suggests he sleep with other women to relieve his sexual desires. In turn, Florence accuses him of being insensitive and aggressive. The couple separate, and the lack of consummation annuls the marriage.

Edward summarises the following decades of his life. A year after the annulment, he ruminates on Florence's proposal and no longer finds it insulting, though he still refuses to reunite with Florence. He eventually loses interest in writing history books and manages multiple stores. After his mother's death, he moves back home to take care of his ailing father. He enjoys good relationships with his friends and family, and explores other romances including a brief marriage with another woman, though he admits that he never loved anyone as much as he loved Florence. Meanwhile, Florence enjoys critical and commercial success with her string quartet, though Edward does not attend any performance and avoids even reminders of it, unaware that Florence thinks of him after every performance. Edward chooses not to revisit her, choosing to keep his youthful memory of her.

In his sixties, Edward thinks back to Florence again and of the night they separated, wondering what would have happened if they had not separated. He concludes that he and Florence would have enjoyed a loving and happy marriage, that Florence would have been beneficial to his career success, and that with love and patience he might have helped her to open up and enjoy sex. He muses that one's life can be changed by simply doing nothing: Florence had loved him deeply as they left each other, and wanted nothing more than for him to call out for her, at which she would have turned back to reconcile. The novel ends with Edward remembering the sight of Florence walking away before disappearing from his sight.


In a BBC Radio 4 interview, McEwan admitted to taking a few pebbles from Chesil Beach and keeping them on his desk while he wrote the novel. Protests by conservationists and a threat by Weymouth and Portland borough council to fine him £2,000 led the author to return the pebbles. "I was not aware of having committed a crime," he said. "Chesil Beach is beautiful and I'm delighted to return the shingle to it."[3]

After it was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2007, where its entry generated controversy over its length—at 166 pages and fewer than 40,000 words—even the author declared it to be a novella. In the end, the prize went to The Gathering.

Film adaptation

On 17 February 2016, it was announced that Saoirse Ronan, who previously played Briony Tallis in the film adaptation of McEwan's Atonement, would star in On Chesil Beach.[4] On 22 August 2016, Billy Howle was announced to play the role of Edward Mayhew.[5] Dominic Cooke would be making his film directorial debut. The film was released in May 2018.[4]


  1. ^ Yardley, Jonathan (2 December 2007). "Jonathan Yardley". Washington Post. Retrieved 29 January 2019.
  2. ^ Mary Ward, The Literature of Love (Cambridge University Press, 2009; ISBN 0521729815), p. 61: "the author hints earlier in the novel that Florence may have been abused by her father. McEwan had stated in a pre-2008 Booker prize interview: 'In the final draft it's there as a shadowy fact for readers to make of it what they will. I didn't want to be too deterministic about this. Many readers may miss it altogether, which is fine.'"
  3. ^ Maev Kennedy in The Guardian, Friday, 6 April 2007
  4. ^ a b Dana Rose Falcone (17 February 2016). "Saoirse Ronan to star in film adaptation of Ian McEwan's on Chesil Beach". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 23 August 2016.
  5. ^ Joe McGovern (22 August 2016). "Billy Howle joins Saoirse Ronan in Ian McEwan adaptation on Chesil Beach". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 23 August 2016.

External links

  • An excerpt of the book in The New Yorker
  • A review in The Economist
  • The On Chesil Beach section of McEwan's website
  • A review by Ted Gioia, Blogcritics
  • A review by Tim Adams in The Observer of 25 March 2007.
  • [1] A humorous summary from The Guardian.
  • Audio: Ian McEwan reading from On Chesil Beach at the 2007 Key West Literary Seminar
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