The Construction Of Meaning In "Black Dogs" By Ian McEwan

Abstract, 2008

8 Pages, Grade: 2,0




Statements, texts and events deliver information and construct meaning. We create meaning every time we speak. The construction of meaning is affected by various parameters, for example to a certain degree by personality. It therefore is seldom, if ever, an objective matter.

Events can be interpreted differently and hence mean different things to people. The interpretation of events is, for example, based on the readers’ as well as the novel’s characters’ experiences and philosophies. Also, the way a novel is composed, i.e. the way it is written as well as its style and wording, has an impact on its interpretation and therefore on the construction of meaning.

In the novel Black Dogs, written by Ian McEwan, June and Bernard have different philosophies of life. Bernard is rational and strongly believes in science and its logic whereas June is rather intuitive, spiritual and has a metaphysical understanding of the world. Part of my work will be to show the impact of different philosophies of life on the interpretation of events, which again causes different meaning. June and Bernard represent diametrically opposed views of the construction and interpretation of meaning. Also, June’s and Bernard’s attitudes and personal experiences affect the construction of meaning.

Furthermore, various textual connections between events and incidents play an important role in the interpretation of the text.

On the basis of the ideas outlined above I will interpret particular passages, identify and analyse the construction of meaning and outline their significance.

Characters’ ideologies affect the creation of meaning

On June’s and Bernard’s honeymoon trip to France June undergoes an inner struggle. She moves from her current notion of life – her passion for Communism and the countryside – towards developing a new meaning of life, a metaphysical understanding of the world. The turning point is the encounter with two black dogs. Two black dogs do not inherently mean anything; they are simply two black dogs. However, a certain meaning is constructed around the encounter and the black dogs in general.

The two black dogs are described as being of “unnatural size” (144) and appearing as “mystical beasts” (144) “bred for aggression” (145). These ‘creatures’, as June calls them, slowly, but steadily move towards June and are insinuated of “having a plan” (149), which means they act reasonably. This is a clear formation of a symbol: for June the two black dogs stand for ‘evil’ and pose a risk. The way the black dogs and the whole the incident are described create a certain atmosphere and construct a very clear meaning. Besides, June is separated from Bernard who, as her husband, should protect and defend her against all dangers. The reader shall be convinced to accept the meaning of June’s encounter with the two black dogs as created upon the incident by June: these two black dogs are not some usual dogs, but they represent evil. But, primarily, June constructs meaning of the situation for herself. She analyses the incident in a very particular way and draws her personal conclusion from the encounter.

Meaning is created by the choice of words and by building up the tension of whether these two “evil creatures” kill June. A person with a different belief and, for example, a more rational attitude towards life might have described an encounter with the two black dogs differently and hence would have created a different meaning.

Bernard’s scientific approach towards life stands in total contrast to June’s:

“Laboratory work teaches you better than anything how easy it is to bend a result to fit a theory. It isn’t even a matter of dishonesty. It’s in our nature – our desires permeate our perceptions.” (89)

And this is exactly Bernard’s view towards June’s ‘story’ of how she has experienced the turning point of her life. June constructs the meaning of the events in that very particular way it suits her best to justify her new spiritual, mystical attitude towards life. Bernard as her human guardian and whom she has called and looked for while facing the two black dogs has not saved her. So, “she tried to find the space within her for the presence of God” (149) and to her, there is no point of discussion that God or some other greater power has responded to her cry for help and has given her the strength and determination to resist evil.

Her construction of meaning justifies her change in life, i.e. the adoption of a mystical word view.

Also, the ‘Dragonfly Incident’ (see passage p. 75 – p. 79) deals with the protagonists contrary philosophies of life. Bernard follows the principle of rationalism and a scientific approach of reasoning whereas June is non-rational and spiritual. On their honeymoon trip to France, Bernard catches a dragonfly. He has June hold it in order to get out the killing bottle and take it home.

To Bernard, the entomologist, the dragonfly is a “beauty”. Dragonflies are genetically clones and hence have no individual rights. His logic as a scientist is that this should be reason enough for him to kill, store and inspect it. June defines the dragonfly as a living being that has the right to live. June, currently being pregnant, stands in for the ‘idea of life’, not only aiming on protecting the foetus inside her but all living subjects around her as well. Also, she fears consequences if she is not able to protect life, for example the dragonfly’s life.

Bernard’s reasoning is somewhat illogical; however, he manages to make June’s statement appear illogical in the way the event is told. Meaning is constructed by telling the event in a certain way. The truth is not in the event, but much more in telling the event. Bernard imposes his will and constructs meaning in the way that it fits what he believes is the truth

June’s ‘idea of life’ and especially her mystical fear of nature’s revenge are strengthened by Jenny being born with a sixth finger. In European arts a dragonfly traditionally symbolizes evil, in contrast to the butterfly which generally stands for goodness. Even though this ‘evil’ creature is killed nature takes revenge. Jenny being born with a sixth finger proves June’s correctness regarding the ‘idea of life’ and especially her spiritualism and mysticism.


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The Construction Of Meaning In "Black Dogs" By Ian McEwan
Dublin Business School
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construction, meaning, black, dogs, by ian, mcewan
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Anonymous, 2008, The Construction Of Meaning In "Black Dogs" By Ian McEwan, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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