Reflections upon Childhood and Adolescence - Intertextual Dialogue in "The Cement Garden"

Thesis (M.A.), 2011

91 Pages




CHAPTER 1: Modern Castaways

CHAPTER 2: Terror of degeneration: Gothic markers in The Cement Garden

CHAPTER 3: Parody of a Bildungsroman





Within the full spectrum of various literary theories offered by modern criticism, the theory of intertextuality deserves a particular attention. This ambitious concept, proposed by Julia Kristeva in the 1960’s, shed new light on the understanding and approach to a literary text. Influenced by Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism, the French scholar suggested a new model of communication which consists of two axes: horizontal, involving communication between subject and addressee, and vertical which is in an interaction between a text and a context. The two axes, as she claimed, coincide which stresses the fact that “each word (text) is an intersection of word (texts) where at least one other word (text) can be read” (Kristeva in: Allen: 2000, 39). She further drew a conclusion that “any text is constructed like a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another” (Kristeva in: Allen: 2000, 39). Consequently, we can assume that any literary text does not exist on its own, but is rather in various ways linked with other literary texts.

Barthes further develops Kristeva’s original concept and states that:

[…] a text is […] a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. Text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centuries of culture […] (Barthes in Allen: 2000, 13).

The text exists only in respect to other, prior literary texts, called intertexts, with which the new text enters into a discourse. Literary plots, genres, stylistic devices, different cultural symbols and images, methods of narration and many other aspects of a literary work already existing in the literary tradition become a part of new text. (Allen: 2000, 11) In this way a new literary text is always enriched by its intertexts which complement the new text and shape its meaning. Intertextuality, thus, can be understood as a study of those aspects of a literary work which indicate a great dependence of both creation and reception of a given text on the whole network of the literary tradition (Nycz: 1995, 62 ).

Another important facet of the theory of intertextuality is strictly connected with an active role of the reader. As “the act of reading plunges us into a network of textual relations” (Allen: 2000, 1), a considerable competence of the reader is required. In order to grasp a full potential of the text, the readers should be aware of the rich literary discourse which takes place in the text. In this way the process of reading becomes a fascinating journey among the texts (Allen: 2000, 1). We may assume that the reader metaphorically becomes a space in which multiple discourses and various relations intersect (Barthes in: Allen, 2000,). The reader’s task is not only confined to his/her ability to notice often extremely complex correlations between the texts, but also to discover the meaningful ways in which these texts interact. It is vital to see how the text is shaped by the intertext and what semantic qualities does the text acquire thanks to this relation (Głowiński)

The theory of intertextuality finds its reflection particularly in postmodern literature (Nycz: 1995, 61). Postmodern authors are deeply aware of the influence the whole literary tradition offers. They consciously enter into a dialogue with prior literary works either belonging to the literary canon or remaining outside the canon (Nycz: 1995, 67). On many occasions does such a dialogue enable the author to present, for instance, stylistic aspects, themes or literary motifs from a different perspective. They consciously “borrow” certain elements belonging to the “already - written” (Barthes in: Allen: 2000, 6) and incorporate them into a new, fresh context. Consequently the old components may assume new forms and acquire transformed, enriched meaning (Głowiński). Various allusions, strong references to another text or generally to the literary tradition semantically enrich the work and its reception. Due to the intertextual discourse, a text acquires new meaning and gains new dimension. (Głowiński) Intertextuality in its broad sense involves a variety of relationships occurring among various literary texts. Intertextual studies mainly concentrate on the interconnectivity and mutual influences among the literary texts. Apart form a wide range of literary themes, motifs and symbols, genres constitute an essential part of a literary text. Due to the presence of numerous conventions, a work of literature acquires features of a particular genre. Each and every text follows a certain set of conventions determining its final form. There are no texts which do not belong to any genre, therefore, each literary text is generically marked (Nycz: 1995, 68-70).

Such a generic distinction of a text may also be considered an intertextual attribute. We may assume that there is a particular group of texts (intertexts), considered “already written” archetexts, which share particular set of generic qualities, both structural and semantic, with a given text. These intertexts constitute a basis for the generic classification of a given text. Moreover, the intertextual discourse can be perceived not merely as a dialogue with one particular work of fiction, which complies with the generic set of conventions, but with a whole group of intertexts sharing similar conventions with respect to the genre (Nycz: 1995, 69). What belongs to the familiar category of the “already written”, “already read” constitutes a frame of reference to the generic categorization of a text (Nycz: 1995, 69-70). Playing with the generic conventions the authors establish a fascinating discourse with the tradition.


The thesis is devoted to the intertextual analysis of The Cement Garden, the first novel of a famous postmodern British novelist Ian McEwan. In the following chapters I shall prove that the novel exhibits both intertextual relations with particular works of fiction and also enters into a discourse with the generic archetypes.

The first chapter refers to the intertextual relation “text-text” and concentrates on the profound interconnectivity between McEwan’s The Cement Garden and Golding’s Lord of the Flies. The focus is also placed upon depiction of childhood and, in a more general sense, human nature by both authors in relation to the literary tradition. The chapter traces various techniques employed by McEwan in the novel, in order to refresh the “already read” and provide a modern vision of childhood and adolescence.

The second and the third chapters are devoted to the intertextual discourse with the generic literary tradition, namely Gothic fiction and psychological novel of development. Both chapters depict the ways generic conventions are used in The Cement Garden, but also portray the author’s deliberate departure and inversion of particular attributes of the genres. The author either provides the parody and inversion of the generic conventions, or employs particular generic aspects in order to effectively express and emphasize certain issues brought about in the novel. Thanks to the skillful use of the genres and their conventions, McEwan achieves an extraordinary effect and invites the reader to explore a complex network of literary allusions.

CHAPTER 1: Modern Castaways

Intertextuality has gained an enormous popularity in recent years, therefore various literary critics employ this modern literary theory in a variety of ways. One approach differs from another to a greater or lesser extent; however, what constitutes a steady and unchangeable foundation of the theory, is its primary focus on the discourse in which the analyzed text enters with both other literary texts - intertexts, and the complex literary tradition.

Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden is one of the postmodern novels which evidently enters an intertextual dialogue with the literary tradition. The Cement Garden distinctly establishes connections with the tradition of, so called, island novels (Volkman, 2003, 311)[1], such as Treasure Island (1883) , Swallows and Amazons (1930), The Coral Island (1857), and in particular William Golding’s masterpiece Lord of the Flies (1954) which serves as a vital intertext to McEwan’s novel (Slay: 1996, 36).

The Cement Garden continues the tradition of abandoned children who, separated from any kind of authority or guidance, find themselves in highly unfavorable circumstances which force them to fend for themselves in order to survive. What constitutes a vital foundation of that particular type of literature, is a still a relevant question of human nature. What is the real nature of a man? Are human beings naturally good or do we come to the world infested with “the germs of evil” (Pifer: 2000, 22)?

This question also seems to constitute an essential background to McEwan’s novel. By establishing connections with the literary tradition and, in particular, drawing extensively on the Lord of the Flies the author enters into a complex discourse with the “already-written” and “already-read” (Barthes in Allen: 2000, 6) and daringly rewrites the previous literary models of human nature and childhood.


Throughout the centuries a whole variety of various concepts and images concerning human nature and childhood have appeared. Christianity has introduced a dogma of Original Sin according to which each new born child is affected by sin due to Adam’s Fall. Augustine (354-430) assumed that even children are endowed with a corrupt nature and they can only regain their divine innocence through baptism.

As Augustine introduced the idea of a corrupt nature of man from birth, Rousseau (1712-1778) came up with a completely different approach. Instead of Original Sin he proposed an idea of Original Innocence. Rousseau claimed that people coming to the world are good by nature, however, with the passing of time this impeccable nature is gradually being spoiled by society and civilization. "There is no original perversity in human heart" (Rousseau in: Beiner: 2010, 210), but becoming a part of a society a man is exposed to all kinds of moral evils which unavoidably affect him.

Romantics shared Rousseau’s views and were also deeply convinced of the innocent, almost divine nature of children. They believed that children belong to “a transcendent realm” (Pifer: 2000, 20) and it is a realm which adults no longer have access to (Pifer: 2000, 20-21). Children’s innocence and purity stands in contrast with adults’ corruption. Therefore the process of growing up implies a loss of this immaculate condition (Sky: 2002, 372).

Nineteenth century literature further developed this sentimental view of childhood. Literature of that time often expressed adults’ longing for the passing childhood (Williams: 1993, 211-214). Famous Dickens’s children serve as a foil to the adult society and become “vehicles through which the question of man’s fallen state is discussed […]” (Pattison: 2008, 93).

In the twentieth century, Freud's psychoanalytic approach shed new light on the matter of this constant battle about the question of the true human nature. His theory of infant sexuality brought a blow to the Romantic concept of children's innocence and purity. Freud introduced a theory that already children "bring germs of sexual activity with them into world" (Pifer: 2000, 22). He claimed that children are dominated by id and adolescents are “slaves to powerful, indomitable sexual urges which can only be ‘disguised’ as civilized behaviour” (Violato, Wiley: 1990, 253).

Over the years all these theories and conceptions found its reflection in various literary texts, as literature has always been offering the most profound and versatile analysis of human nature. Literary tradition placed special interest on children as they are close to nature and the least affected by the social influence:

As human beings partially formed - half dressed, if you will - by culture they hold out the tantalizing if illusory promise of exposing human nature in its nakedness (Piffer: 2000, 19).

The works of literature in which children find themselves free from the constraints of civilization and governed by their instincts, have to fend for themselves, have often appeared in literature. Already mentioned R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1857) sets a good example of this type of fiction. The novel describes adventures of three English adolescent castaways who successfully manage to establish rules and order on the island .

The twentieth century brought another prominent novel, namely William Golding's Lord of the Flies, which follows the familiar plot line and offers an in-depth analysis of human nature . McEwan openly admits his fascination with Golding’s novel:

What was so attractively subversive and feasible about Golding was his apparent assumption that in a child-dominated world things went wrong in a most horrible and interesting way (McEwan in: Slay: 1996, 37).

In this amazing novel a bunch of English boys suddenly finds themselves on an exotic island. Far from civilization, they face the challenge to take care of themselves in order to survive; thus, all sorts of instincts are revealed in these extraordinary circumstances. Golding presents the reader a completely different story in contrast with R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island. Here, a paradise turns into a nightmare. Far from social rules and constraints the boys show their real, animal-like nature. They join in a competition for power which echoes Darwin’s famous theory of survival of the fittest. The seemingly civilized boys, coming from best British families, are overcome by extreme brutality and savagery. The children serve Golding as perfect examples to show that beneath the cover of modern civilization and humanity, there lurks violence, beastliness, greed and the most primitive savagery. Golding strips human nature of all humanity, and portrays man's closeness to barbarism (Head: 2007, 47; Malcolm: 2002, 53; Slay: 1996, 37).

McEwan emphasizes that Golding’s masterpiece became a cornerstone for his first novel The Cement Garden. The author seems to be, to a great extent, influenced by the image of adolescence and human nature Golding provided in Lord of the Flies. Just like Golding uses “the long established literary method of examining human nature and human polity in microcosm […]” (Boyd, 2008, 30), McEwan chooses four orphaned children as the main characters of the story, and follows the same pattern by placing the children in an extreme situation which becomes a testing ground for the characters. The children, in the similar way as in Golding’s novel become, in fact, completely separated from the authority and try to adjust to the new parentless reality. After the death of both parents children are left totally alone. Nobody visits them, they have no friends, no relatives or neighbours. Even though they live in a modern city, it seems they are abandoned on an urban island. Minimizing the social influence on children enables the author to examine the children’s reactions and their development as if through a magnifying glass. Again, put into special circumstances, human nature is given an occasion to manifest itself. (Muzina in: Granofsky: 1990, 50)

However, McEwan does not strictly follow the convention and endows the story with a surprising dimension. The author introduces the familiar plot line into a modern, domesticated setting. Unlike Lord of the Flies the action of The Cement Garden is not confined to an exotic island, but takes place in a modern city amidst the population (Slay: 1996, 37-38;Volkmann: 2003, 311; Malcolm: 2002, 53). There is neither exoticism nor extraordinariness. The novel provides the reader with a plain, grey, concrete reality surrounded by decaying ruins:

Now it [the house] stood on empty land where stinging nettles were growing round and torn corrugated in. The other houses were knocked down for a motorway they had never built (CG, 21).

The Cement Garden abandons exoticism with its paradise-like islands. Although the characters neither have to strive for food nor shelter in the jungle, they still have to fight for survival in this seemingly ordinary environment. The action is placed in the more or less recognizable urban setting, however, we cannot precisely define the place which would endow the novel with more universal dimension. What the author seems to convey is the idea that the exotic landscape and especially the dark jungle are no longer necessary to raise the most basic drives. Placing the action on an urban island surrounded by modern waste land, McEwan successfully shows the essence of human nature, which proves to be equally shocking as the one depicted by Golding. Ordinary, mundane setting can sufficiently provide frightening overtones. The horror of Jack's family does not take place on a distant continent, on the contrary, it may happen next to us. As Malcolm suggests: “[…] the heart of darkness is fully here and now […]” (Malcolm: 2002, 53).


Just like The Lord of the Flies, the atmosphere of The Cement Garden begins with a sense of freedom and adventure which seizes the children in the absence of grown-ups. After the death of their mother Jack, who is the narrator, reflects:

When Mother died, beneath my strongest feelings was a sense of adventure and freedom which I hardly dared admit to myself and which was derived from the memory of that day five years ago (CG, 64-65)

Jack experiences an excitement which strongly resembles that of Golding’s children, who start playing “a wonderful game under perfect conditions in perfect surroundings […] which can go on all day with no interference form grown-ups” (Kinkead-Weekers and Gregor: 1967, 21-22 ). Jack remembers a similar sense of adventure when their parents left them alone in the house for the first time. The kids were freely playing for a few hours and in their happiness totally forgot about the passing time. As Jack recollects "this time seemed to occupy a whole stretch of my childhood" (CG, 64). The absence of parents seems to give Jack an opportunity to enter careless game of living free from all sorts of obligations and constraints.

Both authors tend to observe in children certain patterns of behaviour: some naturally emerging feelings which at first are closely connected with fun and sense of adventure, but then, quite suddenly, are replaced by other, much more alarming emotions. In both novels the sense of excitement turns out to be temporary and unexpectedly fades away. Golding’s joyous adventure yields to an overwhelming fear of the beast which pushes the boys to perform acts of primitive savagery and blind cruelty. The Cement Garden presents the reader a different scenario. The characters are not going to be affected by an oppressive hostility and growing beastliness, but by a sort of lethargy. After a brief moment of freedom Jack observes: “But there was no excitement now. The days were too long, it was too hot, the house seemed to have fallen asleep.”(CG, 65). Strange sense of sleepiness penetrates the house and infects the children. All four of the children fall into a sort of apathy. Jack spends all days on masturbation, sleeping and scrutinizing his body:

I masturbated each morning and afternoon, and drifted through the house, from one room to another, sometimes surprised to find myself in my bedroom, lying on my back staring at the ceiling, when I had intended to go out into the garden [...] I could not bear to remain on the bed, and yet any activity I thought of disgusted me in advance. (emphasis mine) (CG, 67-68).

Jack gradually loses energy and willingness to do anything. Masturbation becomes a mundane habit and no impulse can force him to take any action. Similarly Sue locks herself in her bedroom and reads books or writes a diary. Tom either plays with his friend or comfortably sinks into babyhood, whereas Julie takes over a role of a head of the family and spends her time with her boyfriend Derek. Nothing happens, nobody comes to visit them. All of them abandoned school. It is a hot summer and everything seems to be paralyzed, covered with black dust. Time, as if, slowed down and the children lost control over it:

I said, 'Except for the times I go down into the cellar I feel like I'm asleep. Whole weeks go by without me noticing, and if you asked me what happened three days ago I wouldn't be able to tell you.' (CG, 123)

The children cannot even tell one day from another. They lead a monotonous existence as every day is similar to the previous one. Julie notices:

'It's funny, 'Julie said, 'I've lost all sense of time. It feels like it's always been like this. I can't really remember how it used to be when Mum was alive and I can't really imagine anything changing. Everything seems still and fixed and it makes me feel that I'm not frightened of anything. (CG, 123)

Julie has an impression that nothing has changed. She does not even remember how their life looked like when the mother was alive. The children have fallen into a state of a light doze and lost their sense of the passing time. Instead of adventure the children discover stagnation and gradually, along with the surrounding decay, fall into deterioration.

The excitement Jack experiences at first is just a façade behind which completely different emotions are hidden. The Cement Garden establishes a clear discourse with both Golding’s novel and the model proposed by e.g. Balantyne’s in The Coral Island. After being free from all social constraints they neither become little, wildly screaming brutes with painted faces overwhelmed by blood thirst, nor continue to maintain and cultivate social norms and values. Jack’s family experiences boredom, stagnation, slow deterioration and gradual distortion. As Slay suggests, “where other writers find savagery and violence beneath the trappings of civilization McEwan discovers a vast and aching nothingness” (Slay: 1996, 37). McEwan seems to provide a vital modification and a fresh insight into familiar models of human nature and adolescence. Famous visions of a childhood idyll seem to be fake. The original innocence and human natural goodness promoted by Romantics, or sentimental pictures of children so popular in the nineteenth century prove to be no longer valid and rather inadequate in the modern world.


The Cement Garden provides a thoroughly shocking picture of the children who create their own claustrophobic world. They strive to maintain the, so called, family unit and continue their everyday existence. McEwan’s story seems to structurally follow its intertex - Golding’s novel. The two novels depict similar patterns of children’s behaviour. The characters inhabiting the desert island at first try to establish some rules, such as maintaining the fire on the mountaintop, gathering food and building shelters, yet without any guidance the children start to lose all sense of order and control:

“The rules!” shouted Ralph, “You’re breaking the rules!”

‘”Who cares?”

‘Ralph summoned his wits.

‘”Because the rules are the only thing we’ve got!” ‘But Jack was shouting against him.

‘”Bollocks to the rules! We’re strong - we hunt! If there’s a beast we’ll hunt it down. We’ll close in and beat and beat--“

‘He gave a wild whoop and leapt down to the pale sand. At once the platform was full of noise and excitement, scramblings, screams and laughter. The assembly shredded away….” (Lord of the Flies, 100 )

The children seem to “exchange one kind of ‘play’ for another” (Kinkead-Weekers and Gregor: 1967, 36) but the scene already acquires some very frightening overtones. Jack’s “beat and beat” foreshadows the future, the terrible turn of events. In a relatively short time the children’s world changes into a nightmare dominated by fear and chaos. The children start to play a game of hunters which dangerously becomes the reality (Kinkead-Weekers and Gregor: 1967, 49). Golding provides the reader with one of the most powerful and, at the same time, terrifying scenes in which a pretended ritual dance of killing a pig leads to a savage murder of one of the boys. The boys gradually fall in sort of a trance and lose themselves in the experience. When Simon enters the stage the boys are engrossed in the ritual to such an extent that they recognize him as a Beast and, in a sort of amok, kill him. The ritual dance of killing the pig transgresses the borders of pretence and becomes tragically real. The boys are not even aware that they are losing themselves in the game. Suddenly “their standards have fallen […] and they accept this situation as normal” (Kinkead-Weekers and Gregor: 1967, 39-40). What at first seems to be a play turns into a real horror.

McEwan’s children try to adjust to the situation the best they can. Though they are separated from the society and are generally isolated from the outside influences, they still attempt to follow once learnt social rules and roles in order to maintain the family unit. In this new situation they subconsciously try to establish familiar patterns which will help them survive. However, without any support and guidance from the outside world, the situation slips out of control. Julie answers to the role of a mother and tries to be the head of the family. At the end of the novel Jack joins her and becomes a ‘daddy’. Tom's game of mummies and daddies now becomes real and is not a game anymore. Their game in establishing new relationships and role playing ends in incest. Again, a border between a game, pretence is blurred and the outcome is as horrifying as in Golding’s novel.

Employing similar laws that start to govern the children, McEwan follows the model provided in Lord of the Flies. At first, the characters subconsciously treat their new situation as an undisturbed fun. Gradually they start to apply some sort of rules copied from the world of adults. However, both authors; though in different ways; distinctly illustrate that in the world governed solely by inexperienced children things are doomed to fail. In both cases children devoid of standards and values are practically unable to pass from childhood to maturity in a healthy, normal way.


Children’s failure is also strengthened by a distinct depiction of the setting. Illustration of the natural environment by both authors may again constitute an interesting intertextual aspect which binds the two novels. Though, at first glance the two may seem entirely different; as Golding places the action on an exotic island, whereas the plot of The Cement Garden takes place amidst the urban sprawl; what brings the two authors closer is their rejection of certain traditional patterns of presenting nature and their endowment of landscapes with rich, metaphorical connotations.

Golding, in his novel, provides an extensive, rich in details description of the exotic island and its vivid nature. The natural surroundings serve Golding both as a perfect location for an experiment, which is based on the children’s adaptation to the reality without adults, and, at the same time, constitutes a vital background for the events that are to follow. Along with the development of the action nature gradually acquires certain symbolic connotations and parallels the boys’ state of mind (Dickson: 1990, 14).

As it has already been mentioned, at the outset of the Golding’s novel the children find themselves in the situation which they consider the beginning of a great adventure. Glorious nature seems to confirm their assumptions. The image that is provided in the early chapters presents the island as a real paradise. The island with its tropical weather, surrounded by blue lagoon and sandy beach abounds in animals and fresh fruit. However, as the boys rejoice in the morning bright sun, with the fall of night this idyllic scenery turns “into a nightmare landscape of imaginary horrors” (Dickson 1990: 14): “when the sun sank, darkness dropped on the island like an extinguisher and soon the shelters were full of restlessness, under the remote stars” (Lord of the Flies, 130). Fun is quickly ‘extinguished’ and fear easily sneaks up and enwraps the children.

The first image of an island as a perfect habitat proves to be deceptive. The island at night becomes unfamiliar and scary to the children. Close to the Rousseau’s ideals, return to the state of nature, which implies lack of toilet facilities and wholesome food makes the littluns “filthily dirty” and affected by a “sort of chronic diarrhea”

(Boyd: 2008, 32). Eden like space shifts to the nightmarish environment predominated by darkness and savagery. As one of the critics suggests:

The tropical island of Golding’s novel, which seems to the boys a paradisal in its unspoiled wildness, proves to be an inferno, a sort of pressure-cooker heated by a vertical sun which aims blow at the boys heads in its violent intensity, which fires ‘down invisible arrows’ like an angry malevolent god. (Huxley in Boyd: 2008, 31)

In the course of the novel nature gradually becomes more and more threatening. The jungle, which occupies the major part of the island, acquires sinister qualities. It is a place filled with an overwhelming “darkness of the forest proper” (Lord of the Flies, 10) and suffocation: “the forest […] was thick a woven like a bird’s nest” (Lord of the Flies, 128) (Redpath: 1986, 79). Unspeakable darkness arises fear and instills an idea of a beast hidden in the jungle. “The boys attitude of childish abandon and romantic adventure changes to a much sober one when the possibility of a beast is introduced” (Dickson 1990, 14). Along with the development of events the island becomes a centre of fear and death. The boy “with a mark”, presumably the first dead corpse, goes missing after he was last seen entering the forest. The island quickly turns into an ominous place, where one cannot feel safe:

‘If you’re hunting sometimes you catch yourself feeling as if - ‘He flushed suddenly.’ ‘There is nothing in it of course. Just a feeling. But you can feel as if you’re not hunting, but - being hunted, as if something’s behind you all the time in the jungle” (Lord of the Flies, 57).

The boys are increasingly overwhelmed by fear which inspires in them the most basic instincts - they become a part of the island’s darkness: “darkness poured out, submerging the ways between the tress till they were dim and strange as the bottom of the sea” (Lord of the Flies, 62). Darkness that flows out of the jungle symbolically alludes to the evil, which eventually spreads to almost every boy on the island. The jungle becomes an “area of physical conflict, of hunting, darkness and pigs” (Redpath: 1986, 79). The boys transform the island into an arena of a bloody hunting and life- threatening jeopardy. The blissful images form the beginning of the novel are replaced by those presenting a hostile, “full of claws, and full of the awful unknown and menace” (Lord of the Flies, 108) island, which tellingly reflects evil that is present in human hearts and their natural inclination to “savagery, bestiality and destruction” (Dickson: 1990, 15):

Within the diamond haze of the beach something dark was fumbling along. Ralph saw it first, and watched until the intentness of his gaze drew all eyes that way. Then the creature stopped from mirage onto clear sand, and they saw that the darkness was not all shadow but mostly clothing. The creature was a party of boys […] (Lord of the Flies, 20-21).

This passage offers one of the numerous images which present the boys as animal-like, wild creatures. The boys from a choir resemble black, dark animal-like creatures which symbolically implies their cruel and violent nature. As the plot develops, animal metaphors start to dominate the text, which significantly indicates the boys’ gradual regression and dehumanization.

Lord of the Flies provides the reader simultaneous images of a heaven like island, a place which children dream to find themselves in, and a devilish and thoroughly terrifying place. The former images of the scenery are quickly replaced by the latter: “The description of the pleasant Coral Island fantasy world quickly dissolves into the images of darkness, hostility and danger” (Dickson: 1990, 14). In a blink the ‘civilized boys’ are able to turn a pristine island into a hellish nightmare. Golding rejects the idealized image of nature which dominated in the previous literary epochs. He mocks Romantic views of nature which assumed that, since nature is pure, innocent and uncorrupted by civilization, it should be considered children’s natural habitat (Boyd: 2008, 31). Natural surroundings serve the author as a neat device to expose true human nature. The setting, which seems to be rather neutral at the beginning, filtered through the boys’ emotions and experiences acquires very clear, symbolic connotations. The image of the island closely corresponds with the boys’ state of mind and their actions. The impenetrable jungle becomes a vital background for the boys savage conduct and their loss of innocence. It is due to the boys descent into primitivism, their bestial behaviour marked by blood thirst resulting in Simon’s and Piggy’s death, that the island is transformed into a home of fear, destruction, evil and death. The scenery, at the end of the novel, becomes a key metaphor for the boys’ true nature and the potential for evil present in the society. Finally, the horrifying reality the boys created on the island, represents the outside, war ridden adult world in miniature.

As Golding endows his nature with the symbolic connotations, McEwan’s also skillfully uses the scenery to convey his message. Imagery of landscape, especially of the family garden, bears important metaphorical meaning in the novel.

Similarly to Lord of the Flies, the nature in The Cement Garden, to a great extent, parallels the characters’ situation. The first image presented in the novel is a garden, however, this garden is far from being a traditional one. In literature or, in a broader sense, in the western culture a garden frequently functions as an oasis, fertile place full of life. A garden is usually associated with a paradise, Eden - an ideal habitat for human beings who peacefully live surrounded by pure nature. As it has already been mentioned, nature has often been identified with purity and harmony and, consequently, it has also frequently been connected with children. Especially in the Romantic period garden always constituted a paradise “quasi-magical place” (Neubauer 1992, 64) for children. In literature one of the most outstanding examples of a novel which places garden in the central position is The Secret Garden by M.H. Burnett. Burnett used the traditional symbolism of a garden, and built the whole plot of the novel around this place. She endowed the garden with healing powers which had an ability to transform the characters. The secret garden serves as a means to restore the family life (Gunther: 1994, 161).

What the readers witness in The Cement Garden is a completely reversed situation. Though the novel also uses garden as one of its central themes, the traditional meaning of the symbol is completely reversed. The cement garden is far from being a paradise. On the contrary, it rather resembles a wasteland. At first the garden is a realization of the plan of a psychotic father who “chose flowers for their neatness and symmetry” (CG, 14) and detested everything that tangled. The whole area surrounding the house is supposed to be in a perfect order and symmetry. A single weed would violate the impeccable image. The father treats the garden as his own creation and a small masterpiece. He does not allow Tom to play because he did not intend this garden to be a playground. He scolds Tom when the child tries to use a stone-path as a flight of stairs. This garden does not serve as an Arcadia for the children. In fact, the children are preferred to keep off the garden as they might spoil the perfect design. This garden is an artificial creation which does not resemble in any way lush, fertile nature. It is rather a fabricated system of neat paths and elaborate flowerbeds.

After the first heart attack, unable to keep up the garden the father, decides to cover it with cement:

Shortly after the cement came the sand. A pale -yellow pile filled one corner of the front garden. It became apparent, probably though my mother, that the plan was to surround the hose, front and back, with an even plane of concrete. My father confirmed this one evening. “It will be tidier”, he said. “I won’t be able to keep up the garden now”

He was so convinced of the sanity of his ideas that through embarrassment, rather than fear, no one spoke against the plan. In fact, a great expanse of concrete round the house appealed to me. It would be a place to play football. I saw a helicopter landed there.


[1] Volkmann refers to a generic distinction observed by Jack Slay in the work entitled Ian McEwan (1996, 36-37)

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Reflections upon Childhood and Adolescence - Intertextual Dialogue in "The Cement Garden"
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British literature, intertextuality
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Anna Wilczewska (Author), 2011, Reflections upon Childhood and Adolescence - Intertextual Dialogue in "The Cement Garden", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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Title: Reflections upon Childhood and Adolescence - Intertextual Dialogue in "The Cement Garden"

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