The short story “Pornography” opens Ian McEwan’s second collection of short stories, In between the Sheets (1978). The story returns to the familiar themes of McEwan’s earlier collection of stories, First Love, Last Rites (1972), with its focus on the relationship between sexuality and violence.
The main character, O’Byrne, works in his brother Harold’s pornography shop in London. O’Byrne resents his older brother and works listlessly for him as his brother updates his shop to focus on selling American pornography, more lucrative than its British equivalents. O’Byrne spends his free time drinking with his brother’s friends and visiting the flats of two nurses, both of whom work at the same hospital but in different wards. Pauline, in the children’s ward, is passive and quiet; Lucy, from the other side of the hospital, leads O’Byrne into increasingly unusual sexual games and activities, including an episode in which she urinates on him as he achieves orgasm. O’Byrne, despite his initial distaste for such activities, eventually submits and begins to enjoy them. Infected with a venereal disease at the opening of the story, O’Byrne knowingly spreads it to both nurses. He suspends both relationships during the two weeks he receives medical treatments, which sap his sexual desire. When he returns to Lucy’s flat for a prearranged assignation, she plies him with food, wine, conversation, and sexual titillation. She ties him up on the bed, and O’Byrne prepares for a new game of domination and submission. Instead, Pauline arrives at the fl at, and the two nurses begin sterilizing surgical equipment, preparing to castrate O’Byrne. He struggles desperately against his bonds, though he seems perversely excited at the prospect of his own castration, and manages to free one hand in the story’s final paragraph. The story’s concluding lines, however, suggest that his sexual excitement will not allow him to escape, and the final line of dialogue from Lucy indicates that the operation has begun.
Narrated in spare, unemotional prose, the story depicts a set of characters who use other human beings as they use their sexuality: as means to pleasurable ends, with little consideration for the effects of their actions on others. Harold uses his customers for their money, which buys him expensive clothing, O’Byrne uses Pauline and Lucy for his sexual pleasure, and they do the same to him. No character in the story has any redeeming qualities; at the warehouse O’Byrne visits to purchase pornography for the shop, the workers, whose evident distaste for their own product might render them morally sympathetic, are presented as physically repulsive creatures.
Like much of McEwan’s early work, including his two collections of short stories and his first several novels, “Pornography” contains some elements of postmodernism in its unflinching and uncritical depiction of seemingly horrific subject matter. But the story contains none of the self-conscious or playful narrative style usually associated with postmodernism, and in that respect it may be aligned more closely to a stark, gritty form of realism. The focus on violence and sexuality in stories such as this one invites comparison to the short fictions of Martin Amis published around this same time.
McEwan, Ian. In Between the Sheets, and Other Stories. London: Cape; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978.
Ryan, Kiernan. Ian McEwan. Plymouth, England: Northcote House in association with the British Council, 1994.
Slay, Jack, Jr. Ian McEwan. New York: Twayne; London: Prentice Hall, 1996.