Matthew Arnold in Ian McEwan’s Saturday

What should we make of the references to Matthew Arnold (yes, I am excited to discuss another Victorian reference) in Ian McEwan’s Saturday? I’m thinking, of course, of the dramatic shifting point when Daisy reads Arnold’s “Dover Beach” as if it were her own poem for Baxter. What is so interesting about the scene is that her reading of Arnold’s poem actually does produce results: it tames the violent threat coming from Baxter (perhaps just as Arnold was hoping to react to and tame the threat of mob mentalities in Victorian England). Do Arnold’s words really cause this effect, is it Daisy herself, or is it somehow a physical shift brought on by Baxter’s disease, as Henry suggests?

We also need to consider that in pacifying Baxter, Daisy creates a new dilemma. Baxter keeps repeating: “You wrote that,” and out of fear Daisy refrains from admitting her lie. In reading the novel and rooting for the family, I certainly had the initial response that Daisy’s lie is justified because it produces such important results. And really, she never states that the poem is hers, but she merely implies that it is and then refuses to admit the truth. But, then what of the power of Arnold’s message – that important message that served, as we just saw, to produce positive transformative change in Baxter? Arnold’s poem states or pleads rather: “Ah, love, let us be true/ to one another,” as if attempting to be honest and genuine with other people is the only foundation on which to build life on “a darkling plain.” Is Arnold’s message negated by Daisy’s lie, or is it an acceptable exception? Or is that plea for truth between people as “hopeless” as Henry hears it to be?

This dilemma seems relevant to all of our policy discussions, considering first of all how involved Arnold was in policy making. It also seems urgent for the policy-making arena as a scenario that questions the real value of attempted truths and the philosophy that ends justify means. (Even Henry, a responsible surgeon, is compelled to tell Baxter medical lies in order to produce necessary results.) Of course the novel’s dramatic scenarios amplify this situation, but what of truth and ends justifying means when we’re dealing with real-life policies, doctors, and patients? Do people need to be completely truthful, or should they do what is necessary to produce effects regardless of being truthful and forthright?

Erin Spinka


~ by erinspinka on April 15, 2009.

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