“Meaning”: Ian McEwan, The Children Act


She thought her responsibilities ended at the courtroom walls. But how could they? He came to find her, wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.

I love reading Ian McEwan’s prose. It’s so satisfyingly meticulous, every word the right one, every one placed just so. It’s not that he’s a relentlessly spare or minimalist stylist: he likes a detailed description, an apt but surprising simile, even the occasional conspicuous flourish, like the Bleak House allusion that opens The Children Act: “London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather.”

But that allusion was just the first of many aspects of The Children Act that I found puzzling. Is it an interpretive hint or just a literary nod? What does this novel ultimately have to do with Bleak House? Both books have a dying child at their moral center, I guess, so that’s something. There’s Chancery Lane, too, and the whole legal context, but is Adam Henry’s case to be read as a metaphor for a broader social catastrophe, the way Jarndyce v. Jarndyce is? In Bleak House the legal system is a black hole into which not just money but lives, loves, good intentions, kind hearts, hopes, dreams are all inexorably drawn. The family court over which Fiona Maye presides certainly seems like a similar vortex of unreason and despair:

The new coinage was half-truth and special pleading. Greedy husbands versus greedy wives, maneuvering like nations at the end of a war, grabbing from the ruins what spoils they could before the final withdrawal. Men concealing their funds in foreign accounts, women demanding a life of ease, forever. Mothers preventing children from seeing their fathers, despite court orders; fathers neglecting to support their children, despite court orders. Husbands hitting wives and children, wives lying and spiteful, one party of the other or both drunk, or drug-addled, or psychotic; and children again, forced to become carers of an inadequate parent, children genuinely abused, sexually, mentally, both . . . And beyond Fiona’s reach, in cases reserved for the criminal rather than the family courts, children tortured, starved or beaten to death, evil spirits thrashed out of them in animist rites, gruesome young stepfathers breaking toddlers’ bones while dim compliant mothers looked on, and drugs, drink, extreme household squalor, indifferent neighbors selectively deaf to the screaming and careless or hard-pressed social workers failing to intervene.

In Bleak House Jo’s plight comes to represent that of all the children failed, not just by their parents, but by a state that proclaims its patriarchal authority but has abandoned its paternal responsibilities — more than that, the inability, or unwillingness, of anyone in power to save him is a symptom of a moral decay infecting the whole nation. “And dying thus around us every day,” charges the narrator, implicating his entire audience. England itself is the real “Bleak House” — and Esther, of course, is its symbolic housekeeper-savior. McEwan too shows us a world that is spectacularly failing its children, its dysfunctional families a sign of a society come unmoored.  But from what? Not from religion, which features in several of Fiona’s cases as just another source of conflict, one powered by its own forms of irrationality. Against its destabilizing power is set the organizing intelligence of the law: Fiona’s work is to wrestle all the chaotic elements into order, to sort and weigh and evaluate and ultimately rule, with the “welfare” of the children her top priority — which, compared to Bleak House at least, seems like progress.

And yet The Children Act is surprisingly equivocal about both law and religion. I say “surprisingly” because McEwan is well-known to be one of Richard Dawkins’s “brights,” that is, an atheist, and The Children Act seems perfectly set up to enact a decisive confrontation between the sacred and the secular. Fiona’s ruling on Adam’s case was just what I expected — well, I couldn’t have filled in the specifics in advance, but the decision itself seemed predictable, and yet it is also eloquent:

his welfare is better served by his love of poetry, by his newly found passion for the violin, by the exercise of his lively intelligence and the expressions of a playful, affectionate nature, and by all of life and love that lie ahead of him.

Adam, too, is initially converted, embracing his new chance at life and rejecting the rule of the “tooth fairy.” He sees Fiona as his savior:

You were calm, you listened, you asked questions, you made some comments. That was the point. It’s this thing you have. It added up to something. You didn’t have to say it. A way of thinking and talking. . . . It wasn’t about God at all. That was just silly. It was like a grown-up had come into a room full of kids who are making each other miserable and said, Come on, stop all the nonsense, it’s teatime! You were the grown-up.

Indeed she was, so why is this not the happy ending, for Adam and for the novel?

ChildrenAct-542x800The loose thread that unravels this tidy resolution is Fiona herself, who is not an abstraction, a theoretical embodiment of law or principle, but a person preoccupied by the fraying edges of her own once-elegant life: a discontented husband looking for the passion they no longer share; discontent of her own about her lack of “significant relations defined above all by love,” including having no children of her own (“Her failure to become a woman, as her mother understood the term”); doubts about the efficacy of her work, for which she has given up so much else (“she belonged to the law as some women had once been brides of Christ”). When Adam seeks her out as a … what? mentor? teacher? guru? sponsor? … she’s uncomfortable, understandably, as his impetuous proposals cross boundaries between the personal and the professional, between her public role as a judge and her private life:

I love being ‘young and foolish’ and if it wasn’t for you I’d be neither, I’d be dead! I wrote you lots of stupid letters and I think about you all the time and really want to see you and talk again. I daydream about us, impossible wonderful fantasies, like we go on a journey together around the world in a ship and we have cabins next door to each other and we walk up and down on the deck talking all day.

“I want to come and live with you,” he says; “I could do odd jobs for you, housework, errands. And you could give me reading lists, you know, everything you think I should know about.” Is it his failure or hers that, with the whole world now open to him, Adam sees in it only Fiona — or, at any rate, sees Fiona as the only source of wisdom and guidance? “Without faith,” she thinks later, when — turned away, or turned loose, by Fiona, Adam has made a drastic return —

how open and beautiful and terrifying the world must have seemed to him. . . . Adam came looking for her and she offered nothing in religion’s place, no protection, even though the Act was clear, her paramount consideration was his welfare. How many pages in how many judgments had she devoted to that term? Welfare, well-being, was social. No child is an island. She thought her responsibilities ended at the courtroom walls. But how could they? He came to find her, wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.

Is that the message behind Adam’s sad fate, that something needs to fill the gap left by religion’s absence? If so, why is it Fiona’s individual responsibility to provide it? Or is the failure a collective one — or is Fiona falling, at Adam’s naive prompting, into solipsism, imagining that somehow she (the “grown-up”) has all the answers, when the responsibility really lay with Adam to embrace his hard-won independence and make meaning for himself?

McEwan doesn’t make the novel the polemical knock-down case he surely could have against Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular or religious believers more generally; The Children Act is a less schematic novel, I think, than Saturday, in which the contest between artistic and scientific worldviews plays out in a clear, if not quite clearly resolved, counterpoint. But neither does he concede that religion is a particular force for good, or a particular good source of meaning. Does he mean to leave us agnostic? “Why replace one tooth fairy with another?” asks Adam, to which Fiona replies, “Perhaps everyone needs tooth fairies.” It’s a bit of a let-down, not to mention a rather big concession to the tooth fairy crowd, if the novel’s best idea is that everyone needs something to believe in.

And what is the connection between this contest (if that’s what it is) and the details of Fiona’s personal life? Is her faltering marriage another symptom of the need for some more enduring belief, or some governing authority? Or is it just further evidence that the world is “open and beautiful and terrifying” depending on our own choices? Is it human love that should provide what Adam is looking for? Or perhaps is it music, which plays a large part in Fiona’s story? Walking to work Fiona mentally practices the Bach partita she has been memorizing:

The notes strained at some clear human meaning, but they meant nothing at all. Just loveliness, purified. Or love in its vaguest, largest form, for all people, indiscriminately.

 The novel’s climax is her triumphant performance with a fellow lawyer, a singer, in which they “entered the horizonless hyperspace of music-making, beyond time and purpose” — but the promise of this moment, that here, somehow, is the transcendence we all need, is undermined by Fiona’s lurking conviction that “something waited for her return.” She walks out on their standing ovation and returns home to the devastating news of Adam’s death, her failure in one realm overwriting her success in another. That’s life, I suppose, and perhaps that’s what we’re left with, what we have to make our own meaning out of. Amid the resulting emotional morass Fiona’s marriage “uneasily resumes,” and she and her husband lie “face to face in the darkness.”

6 thoughts on ““Meaning”: Ian McEwan, The Children Act

  1. Matías Prieto September 5, 2016 / 4:56 pm

    Rohan, I just finished the book, and while looking for comments I found yours. Thanks, they are interesting and made me think.
    The book caused me deep impression. I think Adam gave Fiona “meaning” as well. She was mad at her husband because he wanted to have an affair with a young girl, and without looking for it she was caught in the same trap… that is the paradox McEwan is insinuating… she fell in love with a young, handsome, enchanting boy, in a beatifull way though: her heart was captured through poetry and music, … but she could never face it, like may people would never face an impossible love. And by not accepting the truth, whimsical fate, she failed in reaching her ultimate purpose in life: Adam hapiness and welfare!
    English is not my first language, so apologies for errors.


    • Rohan Maitzen September 6, 2016 / 9:06 pm

      Thank you so much for your comment, Matias. I like your point about Fiona also having “meaning.” I always admire McEwan so much for the degree of thought you can feel motivating his novels.


      • Matías Prieto September 7, 2016 / 8:27 am

        Thanks Rohan. ¿Cuál es tu libro favorito de McEwan? I put it hard for you…


        • Rohan Maitzen September 7, 2016 / 9:03 am

          Definitely Atonement. My admiration for it has grown the more time I’ve spent with it (including assigning it a few times in a literary survey class, where it is a great text to use to discuss Modernism).


          • Matías September 7, 2016 / 9:10 am

            Thanks, I will read it then.


  2. Juliette February 24, 2021 / 11:23 am

    I wonder if Ian McEwan’s atheism is reflected in specific scenes or characters, in the novel ‘The Children Act?’. Myself I believe that there is evidence of it, for example in Fiona Maye who as a judge does not get influenced by religion.


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