At least since Freud proposed that Hamlet delayed the murder of his uncle because of an unresolved Oedipus complex, Shakespeare’s play has been seen as a psychoanalytic chamber piece. For modern readers, the fact that Hamlet is about a difficult moment in a royal succession pales next to the adultery, the betrayal and revenge, and the love turned sour. The drama began long before the curtain went up on the “enseamed bed / Stewed in corruption.” And perhaps for this reason, the two women in the play—quiet, sorrowful, empathetic Ophelia and concupiscent, unrepenting, immovable Gertrude—are its enigmas. Isn’t Ophelia, to whom Hamlet had professed his love, disloyal to her feelings when she lets her father watch her return Hamlet’s love letters? How could Gertrude not know her first husband and Hamlet’s father was murdered? While Hamlet often finds himself soliloquizing his own motives, even at the end of the play, he and the audience are still unclear as to what these two women’s are.
In retelling the story of Hamlet from within its adulterous mother, Ian McEwan’s new novel Nutshell literally climbs inside one of the play’s enigmas. Set in the wealthy neighborhoods of London, Nutshell makes the Oedipus complex biological rather than mythical: Hamlet becomes the helpless unborn child of a marriage that’s breaking apart. He is trapped inside a mother he cannot be sure loves him and bequeathed to a stepfather who’s already worked out how to hand him off. Drunk on his mother’s glasses of Sauvignon, he listens with growing disgust as they plot the murder of his father, worry about Europe’s existential crisis, and obsess over fluctuations in London real-estate values. It is perhaps no surprise then that Nutshell Hamlet thinks the anxieties of the modern age are antithetical to family life. “So bleak, so loveless,” he mourns from in utero. “We’re alone then, all of us, even me, each treading a deserted highway, toting in a bundle on a shouldered stick the schemes, the flow charts, for unconscious advancement.”
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McEwan has long been interested in questions of lineage, parentage, and corrupted innocence. His first novel, The Cement Garden, which he published in 1978, follows four orphaned children who sink their dead mother into cement in the hope of preserving a semblance of their lost family life. His third novel, The Child in Time, documents the disappearance of a young girl during a mundane trip to the supermarket and then slips back in time to a moment when her father’s parents discuss having him aborted. And McEwan’s last novel, The Children Act, centers on the moral and legal quandaries of parental responsibility, following a childless High Court judge who is deciding on whether to defy a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses and force a blood transfusion on their nearly 18-year-old son.
McEwan’s plots turn (and twist) smoothly; his research is almost always deep and detailed. But his technical mastery is so often in the service of the most banal, and even pernicious, ideas about family life in our times. The appealing and sometimes naive romance of Atonement and Sweet Tooth aside, at the core of most McEwan novels is a fear that the nuclear family is done for. Families don’t always break apart in McEwan’s novels, but there is always a midcentury sense that the traditional family can be the place of an individual’s salvation, rather than a more contested, Freudian site of blame and responsibility. When the serial adulterer and misanthropic physicist in Solar is tricked into fatherhood, it has the effect of compensating for his faults, even humanizing him. In the middle of the climactic burglary scene in Saturday, Daisy, the pregnant daughter of Henry Perowne, comes to everyone’s rescue by reciting Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” And in Atonement, while Briony Tallis destroys her older sister’s happiness by placing her lover at the scene of a rape, she is the only one that can make amends, of a kind, by writing her sister a happy ending she didn’t get in life. In McEwan’s fictional universe, only the family destroys and only the family saves.