Seminar Paper, 2009
12 Pages, Grade: 2.0
2. Jack’s description of Julie
3. The family roles of Julie
3.1 Julie as the sister
3.2 Julie as the mother
3.3 Julie as the lover
In [Ian McEwan’s] The Cement Garden a prominent interpretative signpost is bestowed by the literary allusion to the story tradition in which children are put into a situation in which they must fend for themselves. The key reference here is to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a pessimistic tale of savage that emerges within the child when free of social controls.
However, the children in McEwan’s novel are not entirely cut from society. They try to keep their sense of family together by entombing their dead mother in concrete in the cellar of their isolated house. Moreover, all of them are influenced by adult codes of familial behavior. These codes become distorted in their independent existence, a process that culminates in the incestuous involvement of the eldest siblings.
While Sue, the younger sister of the first-person narrator Jack, does not change visibly, Jack himself runs through a metamorphosis in terms of hygiene and outward appearance as such. Tom, the youngest, starts dressing up as a girl and later on behaves like a toddler and Julie, the eldest, takes over the responsibility for the others and turns from sister to mother. At the end of the story, she even becomes Jack’s lover.
The following paper will discuss the different family roles of Julie. First, there will be a chapter on how Jack views his elder sister. This shall function as an overview of Julie’s character. The main part of this paper will present Julie’s changing family roles from sister to mother and finally to lover. The oedipal theme linked to that, will not be made a subject of discussion in this paper. A conclusion will follow the summary in the final chapter.
In chapter two of the novel, the first-person narrator and one year younger brother Jack describes Julie two times. The first is a general description of her talent for sports, her habits and her outward appearance:
During the following year Julie trained for the school athletics team. She already held the local under-eighteen records for the 100- and 220-yard sprint. She could run faster than anyone I knew… He [father] missed the pale-brown, slim legs flickering across the green like blades, or me, Tom, Mother and Sue running across the enclosure to cover Julie with kisses when she took her third race. In the evenings she often stayed at home to wash her hair and iron the pleats in her navy-blue school skirt. She was one of a handful of daring girls at school who wore starched white petticoats beneath their skirts to fill them out and make them swirl when they turned on their heel. She wore stockings and black knickers, strictly forbidden. She had a clean white blouse five days a week. Some mornings she gathered her hair at the nape of her neck with a brilliant white ribbon. All this took considerable preparation each evening… She had boyfriends at school, but she never really let them get near her… Her closest friends were girls, the most rebellious, the ones with reputations. I sometimes saw her at school at the far end of a corridor surrounded by a small noisy group. But Julie herself gave little away, she dominated her group and heightened her reputation with a disruptive, intimidating quietness. I had some status at school as Julie’s brother but she never spoke to me there or acknowledged my presence.
Right from the beginning, Jack shows the reader his admiration for Julie. She is depicted as a self-conscious and successful teenager, successful in terms of her achievements in sports and her reputation among her schoolmates. Nothing is said about her school achievements, which can be reasoned from the fact that she is described from the perspective of another teenager, namely her brother Jack who has other interests than good marks himself.
Julie pays much attention on her outward appearance and although she is not an extrovert person, she seems to be the dominant figure in her group of rebellious girls. She is meticulous in terms of her reputation in her peer group, but in terms of social compliance, that is following school regulations, she is as rebellious as the other members of her group are.
Two pages later, there is another description of Julie. This time, she is described in a single moment first, and then Jack tells the reader about her melancholic behavior and shyness in general:
I was about to move on when the front door opened and Julie slipped out. She wore her black gabardine school raincoat belted tightly about her waist and the collar was turned up. She turned quickly to catch the front door before it slammed and the coat, skirt and petticoat spun with her, the desired effect… Julie could run like the wind, but she walked as though asleep, dead slow, straight-backed, and in a very straight line. She often appeared deep in thought, but when we asked her she always protested that her mind was empty… Her silence made us all a little afraid of her, but again she would protest, her voice musical with bemusement, that she was the one who was afraid. It was true, she was shy – there was a rumour she never spoke in class without blushing – but she had the quiet strength and detachment, and lived in the separate world of those who are, and secretly know they are, exceptionally beautiful.
This passage shows an ambiguity in Julie’s character. Her behavior does not mirror her outward appearance. On the one hand, she has a very self-confident way of clothing and wearing her clothes. Regarding to Jack she is also beautiful, which should be an increasing factor for her self-confidence. On the other hand, Julie is depicted as a shy and introvert person, which often indicates a lack of self-confidence. There are two possible explanations for these contradictory traits of Julie’s character. Either her appearance is a cover for her sensitivity and vulnerability, or she is self-confident but discontented with the world she lives in. That would explain why she is so lost in thought, but not why she always blushes when speaking in class.
 Dominic Head, Ian McEwan, p. 47.
 Cp. ibid.
 Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden, pp. 20-21.
 Ibid., pp. 23-24.
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