A Happy Saturday
Ian McEwan in Saturday explores the nature and significance of happiness neither dismissively nor cynically, but rather as a fundamental goal of human life. As the protagonist, Henry Perowne, notes, “for the professors in the Academy, in the humanities generally, misery is more amenable to analysis: happiness is a harder nut to crack.” Saturday functions as a portrait of a man who has genuinely attained a great deal of happiness in his life, and who is deeply appreciative of his good fortune, but who is also constantly aware of the precarious, ephemeral nature of his contentment.
Overall, Perowne enjoys a very happy family life. He is married to Rosalind, a successful newspaper lawyer and the two remain passionately in love. In his children too Perowne finds himself deeply contented, for while they are very different from each other and himself, they are both intelligent, talented, and likeable young people. Eighteen-year-old Theo is a gifted professional blues guitarist, while his twenty-three-year-old sister, Daisy, is a Newdigate Prize-winning poet, who is about to have her first collection of poems published. Perowne remains mindful that Theo will shortly be leaving for the United States where his band has secured a permanent gig, and Daisy will return to Italy and the life of the family as such will be over. Regardless, he does not seem very troubled by this notion.
The other great source of happiness in Perowne’s life is his work as a neurosurgeon. For him, his work is not a matter of daily drudgery but rather a cause of deep personal satisfaction. He is clearly at the height of his powers, a top surgeon whose efforts make a real difference to the lives of his patients. Working on complex operations brings him to a state of “benevolent dissociation” in which he feels “calm, and spacious, fully qualified to exist. It’s a feeling of clarified emptiness, of deep, muted joy”, of “profound happiness.” Yet he knows that in a few years “the time will come when he does less operating, and more administration–another kind of life,” and then only the prospect of retirement, and old age, and perhaps senility. Nevertheless, he remains mostly unbothered by this also.
Saturday explores the question of happiness and its fragility by letting Perowne be a man who is troubled by many things but is still ultimately happy. Is he likable? That’s debatable. But maybe we could all learn something from Henry Perowne’s chin-up mindstate.