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Enduring Love Summary and Analysis

by Ian McEwan

Chapters One and Two

Summary

Enduring Love begins with the protagonist, Joe Rose, describing the beginning of the story he is about to tell. He and his girlfriend of seven years, Clarissa Mellon, are on a picnic. She is handing him a bottle of wine—a 1987 Daumas Gassac—when they hear a shout of panic. Unthinkingly, Joe rises up and dashes across the meadow to save whomever needs help. Four other men are also running from different directions: John Logan, an athletically fit 42-year-old doctor with a wife and two children, Joseph Lacey and Toby Greene, two middle-aged farm hands, and Jed Parry, an unemployed 28-year-old living on an inheritance. Joe reflects upon their actions with a buzzard’s point of view, trying to understand their seemingly coincidental collision with fate while hinting at his imminent and destructive relationship with Parry. The men are running towards a boy stuck in a hot air balloon and a pilot with his leg stuck in the rope, trying to stop the balloon. They are James Gadd (the pilot and grandfather) and Harry Gadd (his grandson).

Joe then reflects back on the actions that have led up to this moment. Clarissa has been on sabbatical looking for the Romantic poet John Keats’ lost love letters. Joe and Clarissa have been apart for six weeks and he is excited to see her. He prepares a picnic while thinking about the present he got her and he goes to the airport. He contemplates universal human emotions while at the airport, finds Clarissa, and thinks about her beautiful pale skin and green eyes. They enjoy the surrounding nature and each other’s company while Clarissa tells Joe all about her research in Keats’s love life. She is convinced that Keats, while dying of tuberculosis in Rome, wrote his lover Fanny Brawne several letters that somehow got lost. Joe explains to the reader that Clarissa is in love with the 200-year-old, dead Keats. In his head, Joe interprets her interest in the letters as being about their own relationship, explaining her conviction that love could only be perfect if it could be perfectly expressed in a letter.

Joe flashes back to the picnic and tells of how he ran after the balloon. The men reach the balloon and attempt to save the man and the boy but the confusion and lack of leadership hinders them. They free the man but the boy is paralyzed out of fear and shock. Two large wind gusts sweep the balloon up and, panicked, all of the men let go of the ropes except for John Logan. Joe remarks upon the age-old biological and moral conflict: "me" or "us." The wind sweeps Logan up a hundred feet into the air, and, after dangling there for a couple of minutes, Logan plummets to the earth. Joes says he’s “never seen such a terrible thing as that falling man.”

Joe begins the next chapter by trying to slow down his story, thinking about whether this is the beginning, and contemplating the artificial nature of beginnings. He hints that the balloon tragedy is only the beginning of the tragic story, while recalling the nightmares he had as a child of helplessness in the face of large disasters and the cheapness of human life. Joe is in shock and ignores Clarissa, who is drying her tears on Joe’s back, and smiles at Jed Parry, who also seems to be in shock. He hints that Parry takes his smile the wrong way. High on adrenaline, Joe calls the police and decides to go “help” the clearly dead Logan and asks Parry to help him. He walks down the hill by himself, his courage quickly leaving him, and he approaches Logan’s body, which is sitting upright although clearly broken. He compares Logan’s shattered face to a Picasso painting when Parry catches up with him. Parry is tall and thin, wearing new white shoes with red laces. Staring at Joe, Parry tells him in a voice that rises at the end of every sentence, “Clarissa’s really worried about you? I said I’d come down and see if you’re all right?” Parry asks Joe to pray with him and Joe, an atheist science journalist, refuses. Parry asks why he’s so reluctant to pray and Joe responds, “Because, my friend, no one’s listening. There’s no one up there.” The cops arrive and the people disperse.

Analysis

Chapters One and Two set up the conflict of the novel by introducing the Jed Parry plotline through the balloon accident. As an introductory single event that brings together several strangers, the balloon accident is characteristic of McEwan’s writing. McEwan explains why he chose this beginning: “[He] was looking for a device to bring together complete strangers, and to bring them together in a kind of emotional heat.” McEwan uses the ballooning accident’s heightened emotion, vulnerability, and fatal nature to pressure-cook the relationships between Joe, Clarissa, and Jed. The accident sets a tragic foreshadowing tone for the rest of the novel as Jed’s obsession increases.

Joe’s narration during the first two chapters tries to negotiate the theme of “beginnings.” In his difficulty in assigning a beginning point to his story, Joe reveals the inherent arbitrariness and artifice in narrative. He concludes, “What recommends one [beginning] over another is how much sense it makes of what follows,” connecting the themes of beginnings and making sense (pg 17-18). We can see Enduring Love both as a story of a man and a woman trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy (Logan’s death) and a senseless love (Parry’s) and as a story that attempts to make sense of the larger themes McEwan is investigating (love and selfishness, the problem of knowledge, stories and storytelling, etc).

Joe’s recognition that Enduring Love is, in fact, a story characterizes it as postmodern literature. Although postmodern literature has many different definitions, Jean-François Lyotard, a French postmodern philosopher and literary theorist, defined it loosely as “incredulity towards metanarratives,” where metanarratives are the master human progress narratives like history or science. Postmodern literature is critical of these narratives, aware of the fact that they are merely constructed stories, not objective truth. In response, postmodern literature is often self-reflexive, frequently reminding the reader that it is merely a story. Enduring Love is filled with references to storytelling, including Joe’s search for a beginning and Clarissa’s work as a literary scholar.

At the end of Chapter Two, Joe and Jed have a conversation about religion, with Jed asking Joe to pray with him and Joe refusing, claiming, “There’s no one up there” (pg 26). This helps set up the conflict between meaning and chaos that religion and science pose. For Joe, there is no God, no one “up there” controlling events on earth. Narratives, which work to give meaning, are false, comforting lies—something he recognizes in his constant reflection on his “story.” Joe tells himself the story that he didn’t let go of the balloon first so that he isn’t responsible for Logan’s death. Religion is a narrative, but, as Joe later recognizes, so is science. When confronted with Logan’s senseless tragedy, Joe retreats into science to analyze it. He compares the men’s behavior to evolutionary human nature, constantly pulled between “me” and “us.” He blames the tragedy on the inherent and biological human desire to survive at any cost. Joe tells himself this narrative of science in order to absolve himself of Logan’s death, and yet he recognizes the falsehood of it by pointing out that what he is telling is merely a “story.”

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