Ian McEwan’s Short Story "First Love, Last Rites" as a Story of Initiation and Adolescence

Essay, 2010

9 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Initiation: The Rite of Passage to become an Adolescent / Adult

3. What is an initiation story? – Typical Characteristics – Definition

4. “First Love, Last Rites”
4.1. Summary
4.2. Analysis

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“A young boy, determined to cleanse himself of the embarrassing stigma of his virginity, seduces and beds his 10-year-old sister. A husband, who treasures a nineteenth-century criminal’s penis in a jar, “disappears” his wife into a surfaceless plane. A man revenges himself by pouring a pan of boiling oil into the lap of an antagonizing co-worker. An Aunt forces her nephew to don dress and blonde wig before coming down to dinner. Welcome to the world of Ian McEwan” (Slay 9).

Ian Russell McEwan was born on the 21st of June in 1948 in Aldershot, England, as the only son of David and Rose McEwan. He spent most his childhood in military outposts such as Singapore and Libya because his father was a soldier of the British army. After having attended a boarding school in Suffolk, he enters the University of Sussex in 1966 where he began writing fiction and also achieved his BA degree in English literature in 1970. One year later he obtained his MA degree at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. In 1975 he published his first short story collection, First Love, Last Rites, which was his Master thesis in the subject ‘creative writing’. The shocking stories that are arranged in First Love, Last Rites brought him immediate critical compliments and he won the Somerset Maugham Award for their intelligent skills and originality. Most of these stories deal with abnormal sexuality, disorganized family life or claustrophobic tales.

In his Short Stories, McEwan wrote at the beginning of his career, the protagonists are mostly children or young persons who tell the stories as first person narrators. Wolfgang G. Müller says in his interpretation of the Short story First Love, Last Rites that “the attention is drawn to the developmental stage of adolescence with its psychological problems that are especially linked to the first sexual experiences and to the search of gender identity”[1] (translated from Müller 266). Ian McEwan became well known for his “new way of dealing with the topic of initiation where he places special emphasis on transgress and perverse sexual behaviour and also on criminal aspects”[2] (translated from Müller 266).

In this term paper the title story First Love, Last Rites will be analysed in the context of initiation and adolescence. Hereby, I will firstly introduce some important terms so that I can go on with explaining what an initiation story is. The last part then will be about the short story itself where I will summarize and analyse First Love, Last Rites.

2. Initiation: The Rite of Passage to become an Adolescent / Adult

Before I start analyzing the short story in context of initiation and adolescence, I will first of all make a distinction between the three terms adolescence, initiation and, rites of passage which are closely connected to each other. This distinction is very important as an initial point for the literary analysis of the short story.

To begin with the term adolescence it derives from the Latin word ‘adolescere’ which means ‘to grow’. Webster’s dictionary writes the following: “The state or process of growing up: the period of life from puberty to maturity terminating legally at the age of majority.” (Webster’s 28) So it “literally means ‘to grow into adulthood’, although some dictionaries define the term as ‘to come of age’.”(Jaffe 19) But what is meant by saying terms like ‘adulthood’ or ‘maturity’? What skills are expected from people who are in the process of adolescence or from those who have finished the process? Jaffe explains the following: “To be mature implies that someone is a complete person […] ready to take on adult roles and responsibilities. Being mature implies that someone has the social, cognitive, and emotional resources that we expect to find in an adult.” (Jaffe 19) Hence, adolescence is a process of ‘growing up’ but not only in the sense of physical growing but also in the sense of intellectual and mental growing.

To move on with the term initiation, Webster’s dictionary gives the following definition: “[…] 1b (2): the ceremonies and ordeals with which a youth is formally invested with adult status in a primitive community.” (Webster’s 1164) Referencing to this definition it is obvious that initiation contains certain rituals for the transition from childhood to adulthood. These rites are called the “rites of passage”. “Primitive cultures – in fact all cultures – have developed rituals to help in times of passage.” (Roberts 24) The rites of passage “give some form and structure […] some guidance” (Roberts 24) “[…] to help to make clear to young people and others what will be expected of them as they take on adult roles and responsibilities.”(Alsaker, 1995 qtd. in Jaffe 21)

“Now while initiation is a temporary limited ritual in anthropology which will be activated because of its outer (physical) appearance of sexual maturity or puberty and after its finishing produces the complete belonging to the society of adults, adolescence is more a process of becoming mature, an over a longer period of time extending phase of life of passage.”[3] (translated from Bergmann 41)


[1] „Die Aufmerksamkeit gilt dem Entwicklungsstadium der Adoleszenz mit seinen psychischen Problemen, die vor allem in Zusammenhang mit den ersten sexuellen Erfahrungen stehen und mit der Suche nach geschlechtlicher Identität verbunden sind.“ (Müller 266)

[2] „…in seiner neuartigen Behandlung der Initiationsthematik zu sehen, wobei er transgressives, perverses sexuelles Verhalten oder auch kriminelle Aspekte in den Vordergrund stellt.“ (Müller 266)

[3] „ Während also die Initiation in der Anthropologie ein zeitlich eng begrenztes Ritual ist, das aufgrund des äußeren (körperlichen) Anscheins der Geschlechtsreife, also der Pubertät, ausgelöst wird und nach seiner Vollendung die vollständige Zugehörigkeit des Initianden zur Gesellschaft der Erwachsenen herstellt, handelt es sich bei der Adoleszenz um einen Reifungsprozess, eine sich über einen längeren Zeitraum ersteckende Lebensphase des Übergangs.“ (Bergmann 41)

Excerpt out of 9 pages


Ian McEwan’s Short Story "First Love, Last Rites" as a Story of Initiation and Adolescence
University of Trier  (Anglistik)
British Short Stories
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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452 KB
mcewan’s, short, story, first, love, last, rites, story, initiation, adolescence
Quote paper
Nina Jungmann (Author), 2010, Ian McEwan’s Short Story "First Love, Last Rites" as a Story of Initiation and Adolescence, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/173118


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