The importance of pace in Ian McEwan’s "Saturday"

Perowne and Baxter’s first encounter

Essay, 2011

5 Pages, Grade: 1,0


The importance of pace during Perowne and Baxter’s first encounter

“A second can be a long time in introspection” (McEwan 80); these are Henry Perowne’s words in McEwan’s Saturday just before the collision of his Mercedes with the BMW of the petty criminal Baxter. However, not only Perowne experiences this apparent delay of time within the narration, but also the reader stumbles over the “rhythm of the novel” (Knapp 130), when a second is adventitiously extended to several minutes. As a novel of consciousness, Saturday lays great emphasis on the character’s individual thoughts and experience of time. That is why about 279 pages are necessary to describe one day, most of it not spectacular, in the life of the neurosurgeon Henry Perowne. A phenomenon which can be particularly seen during the first encounter between Perowne and Baxter: the event is unfolded on nineteen pages, although the story time is not very long, since Perowne arrives at his squash game only a few minutes later than expected. So, how is it possible to stretch a period of time within a story to fill almost twenty pages with its narration? As Peggy A. Knapp puts it, the “pace of the plot oscillates between the quiet unfolding of memory and reflection and the sudden intrusion of external events” (130). Therefore, the relation between discourse time and story time stands out as an important stylistic devise in McEwan’s Saturday, which is especially striking after the car crash on University Street.

Generally speaking, there are several types of time delays, which are all important means of influencing the reception of a novel. First of all, there is the ‘scene’, in which the duration of the representation is “approximately identical or congruent” (Neumann 73) to the narrated event. Dialogue and the representation of thoughts or feelings, for instance, are typical of the scene (cf. 73), so it better portrays the event and makes the reader feel closer to the characters. However, there is another mode of time delays, the so-called ‘stretch’ or ‘slow-down’, which is even more suitable for representing consciousness. Since it usually takes longer to “verbally express one’s thoughts” (75) than to actually think and feel, it is obvious that in these cases discourse covers a greater expanse of time than the original story time (cf. 67). Slowing down the narration of events is also a factor of suspense, as it embraces the readers’ expectations of how the situation will turn out (cf. 76). Furthermore, the last mode of time delay is when the discourse continues while the story time pauses, thus called a ‘pause’ (cf. 67). During this pause, objects and situations can be explained, commented on and represented in their “spatial rather than temporal existence” (74). For example, past occurrences or anecdotes can be told to hint at the outcome of an argument or even to distract the reader. In conclusion, time delays in a novel do not happen by chance, but serve to shape the reader’s reception of the events.

After the collision of the two cars, there are many stretches which give Perowne and, thus, also the reader time to calculate and contemplate the situation and its possible outcome. Already with the crash, discourse time rapidly slows down. The moment when “there’s silence, and no one gets out” (McEwan 81) takes, according to the narrator, only a “half-minute” (83); however, these thirty seconds in story time are represented on one and a half pages, for which the reader needs far more than some seconds. Nevertheless, due to the shock, there are millions of thoughts running through Perowne’s head, thoughts, which appear quickly and partly at the same time. Apparently, it takes more time to express these thoughts, write them down and read them. What is even more, Perowne is able to examine how his opponents will behave, which gives “the situation a game-like quality” (83). Then, the plot continues hesitantly, but another one and a half pages are needed to describe Baxter’s short way towards Perowne. Their progress is slowed down extremely: it begins on page 83 when Baxter and his companions advance together, pauses on page 84 at the beginning of the second paragraph (“The men have stopped […]”) and the “three men resume their approach” only at the end of page 84; however, they do not “stop in front of him” before the middle part of page 85. Again, Perowne gains time to observe the three men, for the first time expecting “some kind of danger” (84) and considering his chances. Incidentally, the reader feels the dramatic effect, wondering if the upcoming argument will end violently or not. Finally, there is a further, very striking slow-down, which should be mentioned here. After having introduced themselves, Perowne and Baxter shake hands; a gesture, which lasts a whole page from putting “out his own hand” (87) to the moment when “they’ve shaken hands” (88). In the meantime, Perowne analyses the handshake and Baxter’s outward appearance, looking at the “tightness in the fabric round the biceps” (88) and realizing “that if it comes to a scrap he’ll be wise to protect his testicles” (88). The event emphasizes Henry’s extended consciousness, and, due to Baxter’s apparent violent inclination, adds to the suspense as well. To sum it up, stretches during the encounter between Perowne and Baxter all help to lay emphasis on Perowne’s contemplation and to delay the knowledge of what will ultimately happen.

Furthermore, beside the huge number of stretches, lots of pauses can be found in McEwan’s Saturday, especially after the car crash, which distract the reader from what is going on and help Perowne not to lose control. When Baxter stops in front of Perowne, it lasts again two pages until he begins to speak. Most of these pages is filled with Perowne’s analysis of himself, explaining that “unlike some of his colleagues - the surgical psychopaths - Henry doesn’t actually relish personal confrontation” (85) and his assertion that medical science is still vastly ignorant of the brain (85f.). Thus, his thoughts wander off the topic completely, returning to his “‘elemental’ role as a neurosurgeon” (Green 65), in which he feels himself to be more powerful than his opponents. While Perowne already tries to gain control over the situation, the reader struggles not to be lost within his thoughts but to follow the story. Afterwards, story time again stops directly after Baxter has offered Perowne a cigarette, this time to give Perowne the opportunity to comment on Baxter’s behaviour in free direct speech: “Exactly so. This is how it’s bound to start” (McEwan 87). Repeatedly, Perowne appears more secure when he is predicting Baxter’s conduct; the reader, however, almost forgets about the approaching argument. Although there are lots of pauses during the encounter between Perowne and Baxter, the last really striking one is the punch, which starts on page 91 with “such speed” and lands twenty four lines later “on his sternum with colossal force” (92). As Perowne this time notices himself, “there remains in a portion of his thoughts a droning, pedestrian diagnostician” (91), who talks about the impact of complex molecules and neurotransmitters on the human behaviour. He observes, analyses and, in this way, understands what is going on and the reader just has to believe what Perowne is asserting. Nonetheless, this is exactly why Perowne is, in the end, able to diagnose Huntington’s Disease in Baxter. Consequently, pauses are an important stylistic device, since it leads Perowne back to his special field and lays emphasis on the events by making it more difficult for the reader to follow.

In addition to stretches and pauses, there are also some scenes, particularly towards the end of the conflict, which portray realistically how Perowne is able to take over control. Whereas on the first thirteen pages of the encounter between Perowne and Baxter story time mostly slows down or stops completely, so that Perowne can collect his thoughts, the pages 94 to 97 are dominated by dialogue and, thus, scenes, in which discourse time equals story time. The first scene starts “when Baxter speaks at last” (94) after Perowne approached him about his disease, which is more or less the turning point of the conflict with Perowne beginning to be superior. Now, action can be taken in their upcoming argument, as “they are together, he and Perowne, in a world not of the medical, but of the magical” (95). Therefore, it is time that Perowne played the decisive trump card, leaving his thoughts and his consciousness behind. Moreover, shortly thereafter is another scene, when Perowne questions Baxter about his personal life and his doctor’s diagnosis on page 96. Again, Perowne’s superiority becomes obvious, since Baxter has “accepted Perowne’s right to interrogate” (96). Although Huntington’s Disease is not about the brain, Perowne’s speciality, he is still more accomplished in medicine than his opponent, so “they’ve slipped into their roles and Perowne keeps going” (96). After a short stretch, in which Perowne repeatedly analyses Baxter, seeing in him “a sudden avidity, a hunger for information, or hope” (96), he continues talking, since he knows that “he has to come up with a reason for optimism, if not a cure” (97). The following conversation resembles a consultation with his doctor, talking about possible therapies or medicines, so that Baxter is again the subordinate who has to rely on Perowne’s statements. Finally, it has become clear that the solution of the conflict lies within scenic conversation, which appears to be quite realistic, when Perowne at last gains control over the situation.

All in all, Perowne and Baxter’s first encounter in McEwan’s Saturday is a very impressive example of how important the relation between discourse time and story time is. It can be said that the whole episode is characterized by different time relations, stretches as well as scenes and pauses, each of them serving another purpose and shaping the readers’ perception of events. In the beginning, there are a lot of stretches, which add a certain suspense to the events, since, while Perowne is assessing the situation, the reader starts thinking about possible outcomes of the conflict. Furthermore, pauses, which can be found throughout the novel, distract the reader, make it difficult to follow the story, but, on the other hand, help Perowne to again become more self-confident in his special field and not to lose control. Last but not least, there are some scenes when the argument between Baxter and Perowne reaches its critical stage, which makes everything more realistic because it is, more or less, a one-to-one transmission of action. Therefore, this section of the novel contains three different types of time relation, which are all, in a certain way, some very important and striking stylistic devices within the text.

Works cited:

Primary source:

McEwan, Ian. Saturday. London: Random House UK, 2005.

Secondary works:

Green, Susan. “Consciousness and Ian McEwan’s Saturday: ‘What Henry knows’.” English

Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature: 91.1 (2010), pp. 58-73. <> (7 January 2011).

Knapp, Peggy A. “Ian McEwan’s Saturday and the Aesthetics of Prose.” Novel: A Forum of Fiction: 41.1 (2007 Fall), pp. 121-143.

Neumann, Birgit, Ansgar Nünning. An introduction to the study of narrative fiction. Stuttgart: Klett, 2008.


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The importance of pace in Ian McEwan’s "Saturday"
Perowne and Baxter’s first encounter
University of Paderborn
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mcewan’s, saturday, perowne, baxter’s
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Doreen Klahold (Author), 2011, The importance of pace in Ian McEwan’s "Saturday", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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