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Achieving ‘At-one-ment’

Storytelling and the Concept of the "Self</I> in Ian McEwan’s "The Child in Time, Black Dogs, Enduring Love</I>, and "Atonement</I>


Claudia Schemberg

Ian McEwan’s novels are characterised by innovative forms of plot-oriented storytelling that combine a pronounced interest in contemporary (British) culture and (recent) history with a concern for social and ethical questions. Novels like The Child in Time, Black Dogs, Enduring Love, and Atonement draw the reader’s attention to the difficulty, complexity, and relativity of value commitments in a world where prescriptive master narratives and old essentialisms have been debunked. This book undertakes to incorporate the discussion of storytelling and the concept of the self into the discourse of values revived by ethical critics at the turn of the millennium. Bringing together findings from philosophy, psychology, literary and cultural studies, the study introduces a concept of the self that acknowledges our ineradicable need for structures of meaning and orientation while taking into account the plurality and heterogeneity of postmodern ways of life.


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1. The Storied Self in Moral Space 1.1 The Ethical Turn in Literary Criticism, or: Essays in Retrieval Storytelling is a mode of "world-making"17 unique to the human species, facilitated by an evolutionary increase in hominid brain size, the development of an innate language faculty, and a mimetic sense that empowered early man "to re-enact or imitate events in the present or past."18 In the course of human history, the social practice of storytelling proved an indispensable vehicle for "passing on a culture's ways"19 and became a useful means of educating people into the moral values of their respective societies. In Western culture, the link between ethics and aesthetics dates back to Antiquity and the portrayal of heroic virtues in the Sagas of the Norsemen and the Homeric poems of ancient Greece.2° The moral conflicts staged in Sophoclean tragedy, the descriptions of the ideal polis in Plato's Republic, and Aristotle's account of the virtues in his Nicomachean Ethics, are instances of a budding literary-ethical tradition that continued to flourish in the Christian Middle Ages, throughout the Renaissance, and well into the seventeenth century.21 With the founding of academic history in the late seventeenth century, "morality" was allowed a cultural space of its own and the ties binding the ethical to the aesthetic began to loosen.22 When ethical norms and textual meaning gave way to the free play of difeance in the literary movements of deconstruction and post-structuralism in the 1960s and 1970s, approaching literature from an ethical...

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