"The Cement Garden" (Ian McEwan) - Regression: The "lawless interregnum"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

19 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

1. Ambivalence of regression
1.1 Hobbes’ definition
1.2 Rousseau’s definition

2. Main phases of regression in the novel
2.1 First phase
2.2 Second phase

3. Freedom as a malediction

4. The house

5. The garden

6. The breakdown of the former family constellation and redistribution of the roles
6.1 Julie
6.2 Jack
6.3 Tom
6.4 Sue

7. Oedipal constellations
7.1 The father and Tom
7.2 The father and Jack
7.3 Jack and Tom
7.4 Jack and Julie

8. Specific signs of regression
8.1 Jack’s longing for his sister
8.2 Jack’s bodily neglect
8.1 Jack’s escape into a fantasy world
8.2 Loss of reality
8.3 Loss of the sense of time
8.4 Loss of memory
8.5 Loss of identity
8.6 Tom’s loss of gender identity
8.7 Returning to childhood

9. End of isolation
9.1 Derek
9.2 The police

10. Victory of Hobbes’ view of regression

11. Bibliography

The Cement Garden (Ian McEwan)

Regression: The “lawless interregnum”

A state of wilderness, chaos and the lack of laws: everything is dominated by barbarism. This is the view Hobbes has about regression. In his opinion, regression is something extremely negative. This is the opposite of Rousseau’s definition. He regards regression as an idyllic, harmonious and peaceful state. For him the processes of regression resemble a paradise. In the following essay we will try to find out which view applies more to the processes of regression in Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden - always keeping in mind the two very different pictures of regression by Hobbes and Rousseau . The novel, written in 1978, tells how four children who lost their parents try to cope with the new situation in their very own ways. Therefore the question we ask ourselves is: how can regression be perceived in McEwan’s story? Is it presented like a paradise or rather like a jungle without laws?[1] First of all, we can generally observe that the processes of regression are divided into two main phases in The Cement Garden. The first phase begins directly after the mother’s death. It is mainly dominated by power struggles among the siblings, disorientation and imminent self-destruction. The approximation of Jack and Julie can be seen as the start of the second phase of regression. It is characterized by corporate feelings among the siblings as well as by corporal liberty in general. The latter reaches a sensual and erotic level as McEwan tells us about the incest between the main character, Jack, and his older sister, Julie. This scene is considered a scandalous culmination of regression.[2] In the following we will examine different aspects of regression in detail in order to get a better understanding of the book.

We will begin with the aspect of freedom. Freedom plays an important role in the research of regression. While it is usually perceived as something positive, here is must be regarded as a malediction and the beginning of the end. The children are simply overwhelmed with all the freedom they suddenly have when their parents die. The sudden loss of the parental authority is a mental burden for all of the four children even if they don’t always show it to each other. Before the parents’ death the children were always happy and excited when their parents left the house. Once they had to go to a relative’s funeral. They left some food prepared for their children and even explained to them how to use the cooker. Now, however, the situation is different. Now the parents left without having left anything but a corpse in the cellar. The following quotation by Jack shows how he now perceives this different situation of freedom:

“When mother died, beneath my strongest feelings was a sense of adventure and freedom which I hardly admit to myself and which was derived from the memory of that day five years ago. But there was no excitement now. The days were too long, it was too hot, the house seemed to have fallen asleep. (…) And even while it was hot, the sun never quite broke through a high, yellowish cloud; everything I looked at merged and seemed insignificant in the glare.”[3]

The quotation leads us to the next important aspect: the house. It shows that the parents’ house became a symbol of indifference, emptiness and apathy.[4] There is nothing left of the funny games and the exciting moments when coming home after school and looking forward to meeting each other. You can also observe that the children’s psychological state is now dominated more and more by passivity and the monotony of their daily routine. The house gives us the impression of a prison as almost the whole story takes place in or around it. We never read about neighbours who come by or about friends who enter this stronghold. In the book itself it is called a “castle, with thick walls, squat windows and crenellations above the front door”[5]. However, Ryan Kiernan’s statements rather support the idea of a prison when he says:

“This desolate suburban fortress stands alone on an empty street, surrounded by a wasteland of rubble and burn-out prefabs. Even before the parents expire the reclusive family boasts neither friends nor visitors;”[6]

He even names it a “claustrophobic old house”[7] which gives it a scary touch. After their parents’ death the children seem to “withdraw still further into physical and emotional recesses within their insulated domestic retreat.”[8] However, they regard their house rather as a place of refuge where they can protect their state of childhood. They are afraid to lose this state and refuse to become adult. From this perspective the house has got two seemingly paradoxical functions: it “suffocates them but also secures them”[9] Another important motive which is linked to the house is the garden.

The garden which is traditionally seen as an idyllic place appears as something sterile and anti-paradisiacal in McEwan’s book. Even before being covered by the father who tries to control everything in and around the house, the garden is no place of relaxation. The whole arrangement of it builds counterpart of nature. Everything is planned and constructed. Nothing is just growing as is wants to. At this point the father’s obsessive sense of order becomes visible. Jack describes his father work in the garden with disgust:

“He had constructed rather than cultivated his garden according to plans he sometimes spread out on the kitchen table in the evenings while we peered over his shoulder. There were narrow flagstone paths which made elaborate curves to visit flower beds that were only a few feet away. One path spiralled up round a rockery as though it was a mountain pass. It annoyed him one to see Tom walking straight up the side of the rockery using the path like a short flight of stairs. ’Walk up it properly,’ he shouted out of the kitchen window. There was a lawn the size of a card table raised a couple of feet on a pile of rocks. Round the edge of the lawn there was just space for a single row of marigolds. He alone called it the hanging garden. In the very centre of the hanging garden was a plaster statue of a dancing Pan. Here and there were sudden flights of steps, down, then up. There was a pond with a blue plastic bottom. One he brought home two goldfish in a plastic bag. The birds ate them the same day. The paths were so narrow it was possible to lose your balance and fall into the flower beds. He chose flowers for their neatness and symmetry. He liked tulips best of all and planted them well apart. He did not like bushes or ivy or roses. He would have nothing that tangled. On either side of us the houses had been cleared and in summer the vacant sites grew lush with weeds and their flowers.”[10]

This description shows that in the father’s idea of a garden there is no place for freedom or wild life and nature. With the father’s death, however, this exaggerated control and orderliness disappears and is replaced by the contrary: chaos, negligence, and disorder. Even the father’s subjection of the rest of the family which found its parallel in the submission of the nature in the garden disappears with his demise.[11] However, stability vanishes as well.

Shortly after the parents’ death there is a breakdown of the former family constellation. The father’s abhorred but stable role of the patriarch and the beloved mother’s important role as the householder disappeared suddenly. Before, everybody had his natural role in the family. Now, however, the children attempt to substitute this constellation by redistributing the roles and substituting the missing family members. “Julie adopts the role of the mother” and Jack “plays the part of her adolescent child, but towards the end acquires more respect and affection from her as external threats to their fragile household bind them together like husband and wife”.[12] Jack’s neglect of himself represents this fact very well. We will later come to this point more in detail. At the same time, however, he also wants to occupy the role of the powerful father. It is clear for him that he will rule the house now, but unfortunately, his plan does not work out because Julie’s alliance with her two younger siblings makes it possible to resist Jack’s plan and destroy it.[13] Julie’s attempts to keep up the old rules and structures in the end fail too, however, and end in a total chaos. To complete the new division of the family roles: little Tom remains the small child and refuses more than before to become older and more reasonable. Lars Heiler calls Tom’s childish behaviour a regressive phase which gives him the possibility of staying dependent on his mother as a desirable state.[14] Tom first signs of regression, however, can be observed when he starts fostering his wish of being a girl. The wish is supported by his sisters Julie and Sue who help dressing him up like a girl. This gender mix arose out of the negative experiences at school when he was regularly beaten up by school mates who took advantage of this frail and sensitive nature. As an escape from this brutal destiny of being a male Tom tries to take on the reality of a female. Just to be shortly mentioned at this point: another source of his intensive wish of keeping up such a strong bond between him and his mother is also the oedipal conflict with his father.[15] We will unfold the aspect of oedipal conflicts later. Finally, there is Sue who shows signs of regression by withdrawing herself into the house and writing her feelings into her diary. She continues to be the daughter even though her acting is perceived as more thoughtful as a consequence of the tragic happening. Her behaviour seems to be the most normal one comparing it to the extremes her siblings need to live in order to cope with the situation.


[1] Heiler, p.60.

[2] Ebd.

[3] McEwan, p. 71

[4] Heiler, p. 61

[5] McEwan, p.21

[6] Ryan Kiernan, p.19

[7] Ebd.

[8] Ebd.

[9] Edb., p. 20

[10] McEwan, p.14

[11] Ryan Kiernan, p.54 f.

[12] Ebd., p. 23

[13] Heiler, p.51

[14] Ebd., p.66

[15] Ebd., P.65

Excerpt out of 19 pages


"The Cement Garden" (Ian McEwan) - Regression: The "lawless interregnum"
University of Regensburg  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
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ISBN (Book)
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cement, garden, mcewan), regression
Quote paper
Agnes Schromek (Author), 2011, "The Cement Garden" (Ian McEwan) - Regression: The "lawless interregnum", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/173700


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