suddenly, literally, in the past: The Child In Time
February 3, 2008, 7:15 am
Filed under: chronotopes | Tags: , , , ,

Ian McEwan’s novel, The Child In Time, the protagonist Stephen loses his young daughter in a supermarket, and his response to this trauma is the content of the book.  In an astonishing passage, he finds himself in the past where he encounters his parents in a pub discussing whether or not to abort him.  It is described here by a journalist:

“In the midst of these memories comes the astonishment of chapter three in which Stephen journeys by train to visit Julie months after their separation (Stephen observes architectural styles during the trip from London to the suburbs that signal a movement from the past to the present). Having embarked some distance from her cottage, Stephen walks through a field of wheat, and while doing so, he loses his sense of time. He emerges from the field near a pub located in what he perceives to be an earlier, more rustic English landscape. Here he approaches the pub’s window and sees a young man and woman talking over their drinks. Slowly he realizes that he is looking at his parents at some point in time before his birth. He senses something else in their pantomime and recoils, fleeing from an “infant despondency” (McEwan 65). Later, as if awakening from a nightmare, Stephen arrives at Julie’s where she cares for him and where they later make love. However, the “moment of tenderness” eludes them again as unspoken sadness drives them apart at the chapter’s end”.

~Michael Byrne, Time and the Child in Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time

Non linear time and temporal displacement are used to problematize normal conceptions of time.  A man enters a moment between his conception and birth.  Time here is a dynamic social construction not an intractable reality, according to this quotation from another writer:

“In the chrontopes of postmodern novels, non-linear time and temporal displacement are often integral to the thematic structure and content of the novel:  they are not just stylistic elements of the novel.  Although there are sometimes rational explanations for the reversals of time and time slips in these chronotopes, they are designed to problematize scientific, social and cultural constructions of time, constuctions that are associated with western concepts of reality.  Non-linear time in particular has a number of political and ideological implications in the postmodern novel.  This is most clearly the case in Ian McEwan’s, The Child in Time, where the time of childhood is becoming re-institutionalized as a political act, where one man regresses into childhood, and another man is able to enter a moment of time between his conception and his birth.  This is a political novel, and one that recognizes time as a persuasive social construction rather than the hard-edged and incontrovertible reality that supports the tyranny of the clock.”

~The Postmodern Chronotope by Paul Smethurst

The protagonist is given proof that he had been there, and that his presence influenced his mother’s decision, as described by this writer:

“An even more dramatic result of time’s activity occurs when Stephen, on the way to visit his now-estranged wife (their old intimacy torn asunder by their shared loss), finds himself suddenly, literally, in the past, witnessing a conversation between his courting parents, during which they consider whether or not to abort him. And this experience is not presented as a figment of his torment. Quite the contrary, he is given outside corroboration that he had been, in some sense, there at that time, that his perceived presence was what determined his mother’s decision.

~He Turned Around and She Was Gone, Rebecca Goldstein, October 11, 1987, The New York Times