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The Unbearable Lightness of Growth: Ethical Consciousness and Ethical Selection in Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden

Shang Biwu
From the journal arcadia


Typical of McEwan’s “shock of literature,” The Cement Garden not only generates a sense of shock and uneasiness for the reader but also foregrounds a number of ethical issues for us to ponder. Adopting a perspective of ethical literary criticism and its attendant conceptual framework as formulated by Nie Zhenzhao, this paper examines the problems that the fictional figures Jack, Julie, Tom, and Sue encounter. In particular, it argues that owing to the untimely death of their parents, Jack and his siblings have lost their moral models to follow, which makes it difficult to acquire ethical consciousness and formulate ethical norms. In the meantime, the animal factor in Jack and his siblings frequently takes control over the human factors, and they are thus prevented from maintaining ethical consciousness and behaviors based on reason. Taking on inappropriate identities and driven by incestuous desire, Jack and his siblings eventually create an ethical chaos within the fictional world. Viewed in this light, the novel not only reveals the puzzles and difficulties of children’s self-development but also suggests that, after their biological selection, human beings must carry out an ethical selection as well.

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This work was supported by The National Social Science Fund of China, grant number 13&ZD128, 14BWW039.

Published Online: 2015-5-22
Published in Print: 2015-6-1

© 2015 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston