Short Essay: Contemporary English Literature



Ian McEwan: “The Child in Time”

What tendencies of contemporary society are highlighted in The Child in Time, and how are they judged?

This essay analyses the tendencies of contemporary society as highlighted in “The Child in Time” (hereinafter referred to as the novel).  While this essay will consider how they are judged, it will argue that they are more pessimistic than optimistic.  In accordance with this, it will be stressed that a significant focal point of the novel is Childhood and Time.  A great deal of emphasis should be placed on these two factors as an explanation for the outcome of events, particularly for our protagonist Stephen Lewis.

K. Stephen (1987: 36-38) explains that the theme of the novel centres around a parent’s view of the challenging responsibilities towards protecting his child, in a society plagued with criminal activity.  This is introduced by the novel’s thesis which highlights the devastation faced by our protagonist Stephen Lewis when his three year old daughter Kate, disappears after a journey to a South London supermarket with her father.  The incident is based on a true story narrated to Ian McEwan (the author) by his parents from an occurrence they witnessed in a German military supermarket, where a child vanished – presumably grabbed by an unknown person.[1]

Since the novel reflects on factual experience, the reader can identify more closely with the plot.  Similarly, as if travelling through time, the novel invites us to a stimulating journey through the history of Stephen.

R. Goldstein (1987: 9) suggests that a sensitive consequence of time’s action is shown where Stephen, while mourning the loss of his daughter, together with his wife, is presented to us as being in the past.  Stephen appears to be observing a dialogue between his parents, where it appears that their conception of him was unexpected and therefore, ask whether he should be aborted.  This is not a figment of his imagination.

Rather, this incident determined his mother’s decision to marry Stephen’s father.[2]  Although quite prevalent throughout the centuries, abortion is ever more controversial today in our modern our modem twentieth century.  For during contemporary times this medical practice has been legalised.  We praise Stephens’ parent’s decision to have the child, from a moral and religious perspective.

M. Kakutani (1987: 14) points out that while constantly thinking of Kate’s disappearance, Stephen is confronted with memory lapses and hallucinations from various periods of his life.  Here, we are introduced by the author to Stephen’s childhood.  His father was an R.A.F. officer.  We are also told about the dilemma his mother faced about whether to abort him or not.[3]  What then, of the professional aspect of Stephen’s life.  As an employee of the Commission of Childcare, we are introduced to both his attitude towards the state and its competency as a child carer.

M. Neve (1987: 94) points out that our hero, Stephen Lewis, casually passes his time near the heart of power, particularly at Whitehall, while hearing the deliberation of the Official Commission on Childcare.  This is an occupation where his colleague Charles Darke helped him to acquire, and most of the novel is centred around these two characters.  Therefore, a thorough discussion of the two will be provided later.[4]

Furthermore, M. Neve (1987: 947) suggests that the author has written a novel where family life has a persecution complex about a dominant government, particularly in England, where childcare is mainly the government’s responsibility.  The preservation of a well maintained childhood and consequently your own child is an issue which must be addressed by it.[5]  We are introduced by the author to the incompetency of the state.  This is shown in its distancing from pragmatic problems faced by individuals (such as Stephen) in contemporary society.

M. Kakutani (1987: 14) highlights the fact that, several outstanding scenes in the novel, like Stephen’s attempts to deal with the responsibilities for his position in the Official Commission on Childcare, his difficult meetings with the Prime Minister, and his crash with a truck on a deserted road, all reflect a similar plot.  They highlight the author’s two major points of focus - childhood and time.[6]  While trying to be objective it is difficult not to mention the stress placed on mental health by many individuals in our contemporary times.  This is expressed in both Stephen and his companion Charles Darke.  This situation is judged as both harmful to the two characters and presents them as pitiful.

Furthermore, M. Kakutani (1987: 14) suggests that Stephen’s difficult mental condition is reflected by the fact that he is incapable of connecting the childish perspective of his nature with the complex worldly problems facing him as an adult, and this is foreshadowed in the insanity of Darke.[7]  We are also told by M. Wood (1990: 24) that Stephen’s companion Charles Darke, is driven insane, since he cannot comprehend and accommodate the differences of his childhood and his hectic public life as an adult.[8]  On the other side of the same coin one asks – what significance does time have in the novel?  How does this calculation affect the literature of the text and why is the main character (Stephen Lewis) influenced by it in a negative manner.

A further notable point presented by M. Kakutani (1987: 14) is that as the novel progresses it depicts the character and eventuality of time.  Was the major event, the loss of the child, the result of a violent crime, or was the child lost in time?  This is reflected in the subconscious of our protagonist Stephen.[9]  This can be seen as a double-sided form of writing which in the case of the reader is interpreted as schizophrenic literature, as highlighted by J. Fletcher (1983: 496).[10]

A significant point of focus made by M. Kakutani (1987: 14) is that the narrative preceding the kidnap focuses on the distorted psyche of the father, Stephen Lewis, an established author of children’s books, who is transformed by the disappearance to the point of loneliness and suffering.  We sympathise with Stephen as he is overwhelmed by his loss.[11]

Similarly, M. Kakutani (1987: 14) states that, the child appears in the title, whose disappearance formulates the emotional rhythm of the story.  Yet, what is the significance of time?  The message here is quite detailed and requires some analysis.[12]  In the opening pages we find the following by Ian McEwan (1988: 8):

            ...Kate’s growing up had become the essence of time itself...without the fantasy of her continued existence he was lost, time would stop...[13]

What strikes us as significant here is that Stephen would possibly never have enjoyed the sight of his daughter as a child growing up and being nurtured into a woman by him.  As this process had ceased, so did time.

The loss of his daughter occurred only because he decided at one point not to have sex with his wife but to take his daughter to the supermarket instead.  Therefore...

            …Stephen was to make efforts to re-enter this moment, to burrow his way back through the folds between events, crawl between the covers, and reverse his decision.  But time – not necessarily as it is, for who knows that, but as thought has constituted it – monomaniacally forbids second chances.  There is no absolute time, his friend Thelma had told him on occasions, no independent entity.  Only our particular and weak understanding...  I. McEwan (1988: 14)[14]

A point not previously mentioned is that in many societies, including contemporary, one cannot avoid the changes of time.  Some alterations can be beneficial, in this instance we are confronted with two factors.  Firstly, that our protagonist, Stephen, realises his loss and error, and secondly, that he is powerless to rectify his situation.

The tenets of contemporary society as asserting that children (and childcare) is equal in value to other state responsibilities, is basically incompatible with the views of Ian McEwan.  In the light of this, perhaps radicals such as the author oppose twentieth century oppression, which does not merely assign a fixed and subordinate role to childcare, and children, but denies the value of their function in society.  Perhaps, also these government policies are one of the agents by which society can protect itself against depriving attention to other key areas of political endeavours, and represent a set of values which do not belong, completely, to the nurturing of children.


1.         Fletcher, John, “Ian McEwan”, DLB: 14, pp.495-500, 1983.

2.         Goldstein, Rebecca, “He turned around and she was gone”, N.Y. Times Book Rev., 11 October 1987, p.9.

3.         Kakutani, Michiko, “Childhood and Time”, New York Times, 26 September 1987, p.14.

4.         McEwan, Ian, “The Child in Time”, London, Pan Books Ltd., 1988.

5.         Neve, Michael, “Possible Futures” TLS 4405, 4-11 September 1987, p.947.

6.         Stephen, Kathy “The Bright Young Man Grows Up”, Sunday Times, 16 August 1987, pp.36-38.

7.         Wood, Michael, “Well Done, Ian McEwan”, London Review of Books, 12: 9, 10 May 1990, pp.24-26.


[1]        Kathy Stephen, “The Bright Young Man Grows Up”, Sunday Times, 16 August 1987, pp.36-38.

[2]        Rebecca Goldstein, “He turned around and she was gone”, N.Y. Times Book Review, 11 October, 1987, p9.

[3]        Michiko Kakutani, “Childhood and Time”, New York Times, 26 September 1987, p.14.

[4]        Michael, Neve, “Possible Futures”, TLS, 4405, 4-11, September 1987, p.947.

[5]        Neve, op cit, p.947.

[6]        Kakutani, op cit, p.14.

[7]        Ibid.

[8]        Michael Wood, “Well Done, Ian McEwan”, London Review of Books, 12:9, 10 May 1990, p.24.

[9]        Kakutani, op cit, p.14.

[10]       John Fletcher, “Ian McEwan”, DLB. 14, 1983, p.496.

[11]       Kakutani, op cit, p.14.

[12]       Ibid.

[13]       Ian McEwan, “The Child in Time”, London, Pan Books Ltd., 1988, p.8.

[14]       McEwan, op cit, p.14.