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"First Love" and "Last Rites"

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The “First Love, Last Rites” is a story by McEwan. The story is a story about Sissel and Joey who live together in a shabby room in the forth floor of an empty harbor building somewhere in an industrial city in England. Joey and Sissel share an unappealing one room house. They spend most of their time talking, asking questions about their pasts-and above all exploring each others bodies in bed. The only interruption in their rustic affair comes from Adrian, Sissel’s younger and lonely brother. Annoyed by his noisy presence, whenever the couple wants to get rid of Adrian, they start stripping and making love.

Their relationship later begins to founder reaching its high point when a big rat comes through the wall into their dirty and untidy room. The narrator killed the rat, an action that seems to mark a significant change in their lives. “First Love, Last Rites” is a collection of very traditional, rather conservative stories as depicted by the kind of events it depict, the characters involved, and the issues generated by the relationships. The kind of events depicted in the story is traditional. The story depicts the fascinating character of the adolescents. They are close to childhood and yet are constantly baffled and irritated by the initiations into what the adulthood entails.

The Concept “First Love”

In McEwan's short story “First Love, Last Rites”, he uses the two main characters Joey and Sissel to build the theme of love. By using the term first love, the author of the story refers to the initial sexual encounter between the two teenagers in the story (McEwan 117). The two are in the prime of lovemaking to an extent that they are not even able to clean their house. The concept of the “first love” refers to the fact that the act of lovemaking was absolutely new to the adolescents. In fact Sissel actually admits that, “Everything about women was new to me”. It was thus his first experience with sexuality. She says: “it was new to me, all this” .

The thrilling and exciting experience of their love makes them exult in each other’s bodies. They make love passionately until their bodies are slack with this romantic encounter and discovery (McEwan 86). The true meaning of this first love can be pictured and so precisely illustrated by the fact that two spend all their time in making love with no work or school responsibilities (Jungmann 4). All they do is sharing a steamy romance in a lazy shack. They seem lost in their own private universe, moving through day-to-day life permanently joined at the hand and often mouth. They seem oblivious to the fact that they share the planet with other people. The only thing these lovers are able to see is each other. The scenes spend plenty of time with the young lover to create an intense atmosphere of infatuation. Joey is a Brooklyn native who has left his home for Louisiana may be because he was kicked out of the borough for not developing an accent. Sissel also comes from a broken family. Her mother and father have split up for unspecific reasons.

Joey plays Sissel with a mysterious detachment and a knowing whimsy that things won’t last long, but the true motivation are never developed. Later, the two characters become unable to communicate with each other resulting in a heavy symbolic climax with a pesky rat. The book gives an intimate drama about the idyllic romance of two misfits and its inevitable sad aftermath. Dissecting on the essential and universal ingredients of first adolescent love, “First Love” is good at illustrating how initial thrills of freedom and lust gradually turn into confusion, fear and anxiety, particularly when the grand amour concerns innocent young stars. The effects of divorce on both parents and children are also conveyed effectively. The young “couple” is used effectively to show the fine line between intense and quiet feelings, sexual desire and alienation.

The concept of Last Rites

            The word “rite” in the title can be taken to allude to the “rights of passage” that describes some rituals which help young persons in the process of initiation to take an adult status or adult roles (Jungmann 4). “Last Rites” is represented in McEwen’s story by two aspects. The first aspect is the fact that the narrator is experiencing sexuality for the first time. This reveals individual attempting to negotiate the tricky passage into sexual and social maturity (Ellam 11). The second is depicted in the transformations that occur in the actors’ ways of life. These aspects depict an initiation that seems to take the narrator and his friend from the adolescent to adulthood. From the beginning of the story the young lovers seem neither aware nor care about their external world. They isolate themselves in a room with no responsibility.

All they care for is making love. However, they experience a significant change about their knowledge in the world and that of themselves and begin to adjust to fit in the society. “First Love, Last Rites” is told by a narrator at the brink of adulthood. They are at the age of eighteen and nineteen though with no responsibility. The narrator confesses that even the act of lovemaking was absolutely new to him. In fact Sissel also admits that about women was new to her. It was thus their first experience with sexuality. She says: “it was new to me, all this”.

However, the major transformation in his relationship with the silent, guarded girlfriend later becomes strangely stagnant.  The two lovers in “First Love, Last Rites” start to live in a simultaneously inert and decaying world. The narrator reports that Sissel grew tired of her records, and her foot rot spread from one foot to the other worsening their already smelly room. Their room begins to stink and they make love less. The rubbish from milk bottles, grey sweating cheese, butter rappers, yogurt cartons, over-ripe salami that they could not bring out themselves to carry away gathered around them. This condition brought us to a subplot about a large rat scratching on the wall of the lovers’ apartment, threatening to burst through at any minute. The rat can be interpreted to represent Joey’s doubts about his relationship with Sissel.

This means that at the end of the story, when he kills the rat, he is destroying his personal fears. The turn of events that leads to the transformation of the characters began when the couple begins to argue with one another. The feeling of mistrust and mutual frustration later tarnishes their passionate affair. Before long, Joey and Sissel stop making love and cease communicating on any level. However, the two seemed to have learnt after their encounter with a pregnant rat. Their transformation into adult world is revealed when the two later seem to be ready to take on their responsibility as adults and members of the larger society.

Though Sissel is estranged from her parents, she now wants Joey to meet her father, Henry, a talkative Vietnam vet. She also cleanses their room which is a sign of taking on responsibility. Joey also agrees to meet Sissel’s father who insisted on knowing whether he sleeps with his daughter. Somehow, the two men became partners in a bizarre eel-catching business. This is a major transformation as the initially irresponsible and isolated adolescent takes on the role of the young adult. He begins to be responsible becoming relevant in the larger society. For a moment he found meaning to life and was excited.

Generally, most of the stories in “First Love, Last Rites” can be described as stories of initiation. It is certainly the narrator’s fist experience of sexual intercourse in “Homemade” and “Butterflies.” The same is the case in Henry’s induction into the confused world of adult games and sexuality and also in childhood friendship in “Disguises.” Even “Last Day of Summer” depicts a further initiation of the protagonist-narrator into the world of sadness and loss. All these descriptions point to a form of passage of rites.

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