In On Chesil Beach, McEwan
uses a variety of techniques, such as flashbacks, in order to capture the
thoughts and feelings that have already passed for the characters. Within the
text, time is expressed both literally in the form of dates and historical
events, societal norms and expectations, yet also through metaphorical ‘moments
in time’ that the characters remember and reminisce upon. The setting of the novel is also supported by
occasional references and groundings to actual dates, such as the date of
Florence’s and Edwards wedding in 1962 and the death of Edwards mother, all
important to the novel and the time period, so carefully crafted by the writer which
makes this plot work.

First of all, the most significant way McEwan captures
a precise moment of time is through the title of his work ‘On Chesil Beach’,
the setting of the novel and the penultimate place in which time forces change
upon the couple, Florence and Edward. The beach, and what occurred there, when
Edward ‘let that girl with her violin go’ (p. 165) is an important indication
by the writer that time itself is coming to a halt, a moment completely overwhelming
the pair and leaving the characters in a situation that has lasting emotional
damage. This climactic moment of their relationship is make or break for them,
and in the end, they fail one another. All Florence needed ‘was the certainty
of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay
ahead of them’ however Edward was too forceful and inconsiderate of his new
wife’s feeling. The beach is
now associated with tragedy and heartbreak, reminding them of how they could
not make their marriage work and forcing them to accept that they both wanted
different things. The characters may be able to escape their feelings in time
but never the beach- a reminder of the pain and that their lives stopped there.

When Florence and Edward meet for the first time, this is
also seen to be a moment in which McEwan’s captures a precise instant of time,
presenting the couple as completely intoxicated and where the rules of time are
their own, showing how besotted they first were with each other. One way in
which this is achieved is how through the description of Florence when Edward
first looks at her, ‘a lovely face, with a sculpted look that in a certain
light brought to mind an American Indian woman, a highborn squaw’ but ‘He had not paused as he entered
the room’ (p. 48), implying that for him, time slows
down as he looks at her and consequently, emphasising the attraction between
them both. However, the writer captures the precise moment when the couple first
fall in love through a flashback of a ‘snatched Saturday afternoon’ (p. 57), a
day they frequently repeat and reminisce over, a now tradition in their
relationship that only they know, only strengthening their relationship.

On the other hand, when Florence leaves Edward for the
last time, this too captures a precise sense of time. McEwan uses simple
language, ‘I am sorry, Edward. I am most terribly sorry’ (p.

157) to show the pain and heartache behind Florence’s words, without her really
saying much at all. Although some would suggest that it’s more what she doesn’t
say and her lack of words that causes the agony. The repetition of the lexis
‘sorry’ (p. 157) stresses the love she has for Edward, yet she knows she has to
walk away from their almost toxic relationship and clashing ideas and feelings.

Florence’s very sincere yet short and formal apology mimics her contrasting feelings
towards Edward and this pain and somber tone created by the writer tinges the
rest of the novel until the end of their relationship which stays with the reader
throughout. Due to a lack of communication, their unexpressed misunderstandings
of sex and perceptions of relationships between a man and a woman caused tension
within the marriage and ultimately lead to their downfall, which is arguably
caused by a wider context of time and the confusions of culture. In this way,
McEwan is once again creating a freeze frame of this moment, and all of its
complexity and ridiculous, contradictorily rules and expectations are
show-cased and incarnated within both of the characters.

The old-fashioned, outdated language used by Florence
is another way in which the writer captures a specific moment of time.

Similarly, it adds a sense of antiquity to her character. Throughout the novel,
it can be seen that her opinions are particularly left-wing, showing a more
rebellious and brave side to her character as she goes against the views of her
more right-wing parents and her strict, conservative upbringing. During the time
in which the text is set, the females were ‘still raised in the shadow of holy
virginity’2 and thus,
Florence would have had inflexibly high expectations of herself as a woman,
highlighting the enormous amount of stress and pressure women and girls were
under. The language and phrases she uses supports the more literal sense of
times in other, more metaphorical instances throughout the novel. For example,
the definite mention of Florence’s old, sophisticated lexis bare that even
her language is suppressed and trapped within itself. The customs expected of
her as a young woman and the rules and regulations imposed on her trap her
within a war-like state that she cannot free herself from.

Another way McEwan captures a precise
sense of time in the novel is through the constrictions and rules shown to be enforced
upon the two characters, Edward and Florence, reflecting the social norms and
expectations of men and women in the late 1950’s and 1960’s and therefore
capturing the time period of which the novel is set. The idea that the couple are
‘never agreed or voiced’ (p. 21) shows the authority and unquestionable rule of
the elders in their relationship, as Edward and Florence are only 21 and 26 and
it was perceived that they weren’t experienced nor old enough to be trusted,
with their sexual desires especially. This is highlighted more specifically in
the characterization of Edward, who represents
a period of approaching sexual revolution with his passion and openness to
sexual relationship with Florence, where as she is much more reserved. ‘When
they kissed she immediately felt his tongue, tensed and strong, pushing past
her teeth, like some bully shouldering his way into a room.’ The simile shows
that Florence didn’t want to kiss Edward, in particular, the lexis
‘shouldering’ shows that it was forced and not out of love and desire.

Florence’s character and attitudes convey the strict moral values and rules of the time, when sex was not a
pleasure but an expectation between wife and husband, and the pair must
marry before engaging in a sexual relationship.

The writer’s accuracy of the telling of the novel’s culture helps to perfectly
capture a precise sense of time for the reader.

McEwan also explores Florence’s struggle in terms of
her sexuality, another way in which a precise sense of time is established.

Florence ‘suspected that there was something profoundly wrong with her’, she
was afraid of giving herself away, opening up to someone and being afraid of
what may come of it in the future, and therefore is scared of having sex with
Edward. At the point of first having sex, time stops, indicating her naivety
and inexperience, yet more importantly, her vulnerability. Her constant worrying
allows McEwan to capture and retell how she’s previously worried about this,
showing how she cannot overcome her fears and is still infected with these
exact same anxieties. For instance, when reading about sexual organs, ‘she came
across certain phrases or words that almost made her gag’
(p. 7), reinforcing her innocence. Though they only give information of the
medical side of sex and inform her nothing of the passionate, romantic side and
this is something Florence fails to understand, she is unaware of the benefits
and positives to having sex with her husband. This memory of reading the book takes
away any chance she had of opening up to Edward, ‘her whole being was in revolt
against the prospect of entanglement and flesh’, showing that she’s never been able to move past this point in their
relationship.

Florence’s character is presented by McEwan as an exaggerated stereotype
of woman in this specific time period, who is seen to be tied down by her strict,
old-fashioned upbringing and the many societal pressures and demands she is
faced with throughout her day-to-day life, helping McEwan further to capture a
precise snippet of time. ‘She was alone with a problem she did not know how to
begin to address’, presenting the many unspoken issues women experienced at
this time, showing how Florence is isolated and left to deal with things by
herself. The isolation and loneliness stems from the fact that sexual and
personal matters were considered extremely private and therefore does not know
who to turn to for help. Furthermore, she cannot go to Edward for advice or to
unload her problems and feelings as at this time, she, and women in general,
would not have been encouraged to do so, capturing the problems and downfalls
in society during this period.

The use of irony throughout the text is another way the writer captures
a sense of time. Numerous historical references
and profound points in time, in terms of advances in contraception for example,
are mocked and turned into, what could be considered, jokes. ‘The Pill was a
rumour in the newspapers, a ridiculous promise’ (p. 39). The fact that this is scorned
and regarded as a ‘ridiculous promise’ ridicules the time period being depicted
by McEwan for being outdated, as we know now the success and the great impact
the pill has had as modern readers.  Not
only this, it skillfully points out the differences in feelings towards
sexuality being portrayed during this time period.

To conclude, McEwan uses various techniques, such as
flashbacks, use of language, characterization and a complex and multi-framed
narration in order to successfully portray time and capture precise moments.

Historical contexts are carefully intertwined within the text to portray the time
period in the truest way and resultantly, the culture and the societal views of
the time are analysed. The roles of men and women are equally questioned and
presented through the characters, Edward and Florence. Both characters are
unable to forget about precise moments that will forever haunt them, showing
how the writer captured a sense of time so perfectly. The entire novel
represents a missed opportunity based on timing and in the end, their marriage
fails because of this. Time is also captured through specific instants
remembered by the characters, shown in flashback, in which those times are
presented as brighter, happier times than the rest of their monotonous and
lonely lives, showing how the pair simply couldn’t cope with their emotions and
the last night on the beach will remain with them forever.