Shifting Women

[an analysis by Hurley Winkler]

Ian McEwan’s story, “Pornography,” follows a man named O’Byrne who works in a pornographic magazine shop with his brother, Harold. O’Byrne just found out that he has gonorrhea, but he isn’t exactly upset about it. In fact, he constantly makes jokes about it with Harold, who is sort of proud of O’Byrne for contracting something sexually-transmitted. O’Byrne reveals that he has been sleeping with two nurses: Lucy, an older, more experienced woman, and Pauline, who has the charm of youth and appeases O’Byrne with her sensitivity. The nurses are hopelessly attached to O’Byrne and know nothing of the other woman. O’Byrne ignores calls from both women for a while until growing lonely and going to Lucy’s house one evening. She excitedly pours him wine and chats with him, later telling him that she has a surprise. She leads O’Byrne into the bedroom, where she ties him to the bed and teases him. O’Byrne is very pleased until a naked Lucy whispers that she and Pauline are going to “get” him. Panicked, O’Byrne tries to escape from the leather ties, but Pauline enters Lucy’s apartment with a sterilizer and various pieces of medical equipment. Lucy and Pauline torture O’Byrne before cutting off his penis.

McEwan takes the reader for an interesting loop in this piece, ending very abruptly and graphically. An element of craft he utilizes to make such risqué material work is his characterization and attention to the smallest details within his characters. This detailing in characterization can be observed in the following passage:

Pauline, short and untalkative, her face bloodlessly pale, intersected by a heavy black fringe, her eyes large, green and watchful, her flat small, damp and shared with a secretary who was never there (McEwan 394-365).

Here, McEwan uses an incomplete and choppy sentence structure to characterize Pauline, the younger, more innocent of the two nurses with whom O’Byrne has sex. McEwan manages to share a physical description of Pauline and a description of Pauline’s flat, her setting, with this sentence. She is characterized as meek and blameless due to her “untalkative” nature, large eyes, and even the small size of her flat. When she begins to cry while she lies in bed with O’Byrne, her innocence is further addressed through the characterization in this sentence.

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