This essay argues that a critique of epistemological immodesty is at the center of Ian McEwan's literary project. His fiction dramatizes the dangerous and tragic consequences of granting one's own interpretative frameworks a certainty and authority that they do not warrant. Enduring Love's Joe Rose, Atonements Briony Tallis, and Solars Michael Beard, for example, fail not because they rely on their fundamental beliefs about the world but because they do not see that those beliefs are just as contestable and uncertain as the views they reject. Their “immodesty” lies in the power and coercive force they see their views carrying. McEwan's work finds the forms of this immodesty not just in religious or political ideals but in science, criticism, and secularism, the latter perhaps the more concerning because they conceal their immodesty in the allegedly modest forms of “neutrality” and “objectivity.” Critics of McEwan who accuse his world of being politically conservative fail to account for the effects of this critique of immodesty, which calls into question the very definitions of “the literary” and “the political” that are deployed against him. The desire to insert McEwan's work into interpretative frameworks it explicitly rejects exemplifies precisely the kind of immodesty challenged in this work. Moving between readings of criticisms of Saturday and readings of the novel itself, the essay argues that McEwan's work promotes an ethos of modesty, challenging immodest conceptions of public life, politics, and criticism found in science, rationalism, and secularism that rely on and advance restrictive definitions of thinking, argument, and deliberation.
Thom Dancer; Toward a Modest Criticism: Ian McEwan's Saturday. Novel 1 August 2012; 45 (2): 202–220. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-1573940
Download citation file: