In the novel Saturday, author Ian McEwan explores the internal and external life of protagonist Henry Perowne, following him over the course of an eventful day. McEwan effectively illuminates the duality of human existence; with the still-fresh events of September 11, 2001 serving as an emotional and thematic backdrop, McEwan’s tale explores the way violence and conflict –on both a personal and a public scale- resonate as events in themselves as well as becoming incorporated into the personal narrative of the main character. In Saturday, Perowne crosses paths with the violent Baxter; the massive, world-shattering violence of the September 11th attacks, as significant as it is, becomes a dull throb compared to the sharp immediacy of the pain wrought by Baxter.
The third-person, present-tense structure that pervades Saturday dictates that any character study based on anyone but Perowne will be, at best, rather limited, As with the bulk of the book’s details about settings, events, and other people, we see Baxter through the eyes of Perowne. Understanding Baxter requires understanding what Perowne’s encounters with Baxter mean to Perowne. With this device, McEwan nicely captures the internal monologue that characterizes human existence. To some degree, everyone we meet become characters in our personal dramas; McEwan’s characterization of Baxter perfectly and ably demonstrates this.
The fact that we see Baxter as a character in Perowne’s personal drama in no way lessens his significance as a character. It is Perowne’s relationships to others –his wife, his son, his daughter, his there-but-not-there mother- that provide the forward momentum of the story. It is his interactions with these characters that carries him from his peaceful, contemplative mood as he “wakes to find himself already in motion” (pg 1) towards a violent collision with Baxter. The juxtaposition of Perowne’s peaceful moments with the jagged edges of Baxter’s character that pierce that peace are mirrored in other parts of the story, as calm and calm-interrupted appear again and again throughout the story.
The opening pages of Saturday show Perowne waking in preternaturally good spirits as he contemplates the day ahead; work is behind him for another week, and his beloved daughter is set to return home later in the day. Even as he looks back over his work week Perowne does not succumb to anxious recitation of the details, but seems entirely at ease with what he accomplished. “His obligation is to be useful,” writes McEwan (pg 10), and he is certainly that, having saved several people from the ravages of brain tumors in his role as a surgeon.
This peaceful contemplating is suddenly interrupted by the sight of a burning airplane racing across the sky. Instantly Perowne recalls the events of September 11th, remembering “the unseen captives driven through the sky to slaughter” (pg 15). Along with the recent past, the likely events of the near future weigh over the story, as the threat of war with Iraq quickly slides from possibility to probability. There is little that Perowne can do about what is to come, and he will later avoid an anti-war demonstration nearby. Perowne’s feelings about the coming war, like so many elements of the story, are measured by their dual nature; he can well understand opposition to the war, just as he can understand what drives those who wish to intervene in the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Time and again, McEwan weighs one thing against the other, allowing the reflections of each to tell the story of the other. Perowne is deeply in love with his wife, so much so that he lacks the capacity to be interested in other women. He is not a faithful husband because he fears the consequences of infidelity, but simply because it would never occur to him to be attracted to anyone but his wife. While many women might find this an admirable, and even a desirable, trait in a husband, Perowne secretly worries that his lack of interest in sexual adventure is indicative of a missing piece of masculinity.
Shifting from the present to the past as he goes through his day, Perowne recalls his mother’s efforts to teach him to swim, and how he disliked the “edge” between the air and the water; passage from one element to another was entirely displeasing. Perowne may fear that his love for his wife defines him as not-entirely-masculine, but he has no interest in changing this elemental nature. The temporal shifts as Perowne’s thoughts travel from the present to the past, the contrast between his nature and that which he fears he has missed, the vivid description of his early swimming lessons, his internal and external worlds; all are examples of McEwan’s ability to make his characters and events literally multidimensional.
Any honest discussion of the events of 9/11, and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by the U.S. and coalition forces, must account for those who died in those invasions. Author Judith Butler addresses this topic in a series of essays published together as “Frames of War.” In one of her essays, she discusses the difference between the “grievable life” and the “ungrievable life” (pg 15); the latter is the life that begins and ends, but never matters. Those who wage war, Butler asserts, choose to do so in defense of those living grievable lives; those who are killed, the others, are ungrievable lives. Like McEwan, Butler shines a light on life by examining it from two different perspectives.
In “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim,” author Mahmoud Mamdani examines the way the Western world often vies those of the Muslim faith; Muslims are little more than a monolithic bloc, a homogenous group that largely rejects modernity as typified in the West. This perception is, of course, entirely inaccurate; Islam is as much a world religion as is Christianity or Judaism, and Muslims live in nations all over the world. The divide between what many Westerners believe to be true about Muslims and the objective truth is, in some cases, a seemingly-unbridgeable chasm. Mandami seeks to reconcile the two with a discussion that separates culture from politics, and from territorial boundaries.
Throughout the story the big violence of terrorism and war colors Perowne’s thoughts, disrupting his day as he is slowed in his travels by the edges of an anti-war demonstration. McEwan’s novel is, in its way, a discussion of the post-9/11 world: a scholar such as Mahmoud Mamdani may analyze this world through the lens of politics or other overarching paradigms; McEwan analyzes it by examining how those events colored one man’s world. This too serves as an example of McEwan’s ability to uncover and illuminate the duality of an event like the 9/11 terrorist attacks: yes, they affected the entire world, but they did so one person at a time.
Issues about masculinity, and what it means to be masculine –as typified by the idea that “masculinity” equates to “strength,” pervade McEwan’s novel. Baxter’s masculinity, exemplified in his brutality, is driven by a simple medical condition. In a sense, his strength is actually a weakness, a mere symptom of his disease. Perowne, by habit unsure of his own masculinity, is in the end able to overcome the more “masculine” Baxter. It is Perowne’s understanding of medicine that allows him to understand Baxter’s illness, and his facility as a surgeon that allows him to operate on Baxter. In the end, he returns home to make love to his wife; this is an overt act of masculinity, and one that is not predicated on the brute force that typifies so many people’s conception of masculinity.
Butler, Judith. “Frames of War.” Verso Publishing. Brooklyn, NY. 2009.
Mandami, Mahmoud. “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim.” American Anthropologist. V104 N3. September 2002.
McEwan, Ian. “Saturday.” Random House Publishing. New York NY. 2005.