Joe Rose and his wife, Clarissa Mellon, are having a picnic. They’ve journeyed to the Chilterns, a hilly region in southeast England, to celebrate Clarissa’s return from a long trip abroad. Joe hears a shout and a child’s cry from across the field, and he immediately begins to run toward the source of the noise. As Joe recounts this story for the reader, he imagines not only his own figure, but also those of the four other men who run with him toward the shouts and cries. Joe envisions the five of them converging on the center of the field as if viewing them from the perspective of a buzzard flying overhead.
McEwan’s opening lines present the reader with crucial characterization of Joe, the novel’s protagonist. With careful attention to detail, Joe attempts to establish precisely when (at what “pinprick on the time map”) the novel’s story began. Similarly, he sees the five men rushing toward the balloon in rational, scientific terms. Even while telling his story in retrospect, Joe explains its events in a scientific and rational way that is true to his character.
As Joe recalls this moment, he pauses to consider what Clarissa is doing at the same instant. Joe reveals that Clarissa walks (but does not run) toward the field’s center and is thus “well placed as an observer” of what happens next.
The novel will frequently share Clarissa’s perspective with the reader along with Joe’s. Though readers sometimes receive Clarissa’s own words, her experience here is explained by Joe.
After setting the scene in such a way, Joe finally reveals what the characters are running toward: a massive hot-air balloon in whose basket a boy, Harry Gadd, is trapped. Joe describes the balloon as a “furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes.” From its basket dangles a series of ropes, and clinging to one is Harry’s grandfather, James Gadd, who is trying desperately to prevent the wind from carrying the balloon away.
Joe’s technical and scientific description of the balloon not only reveals his rational thinking but provides powerful foreshadowing, as well. One of the fates Joe references is his own. Because the novel is narrated retrospectively, Joe always knows more than the reader does about the events that will follow.
Here, Joe pauses, explaining to the reader that he is intentionally holding back information for a time in order to first recount the circumstances that brought him and Clarissa to the Chilterns in the first place. Clarissa, the reader is told, has been in America for six weeks researching the poet John Keats. Joe recalls picking up food and wine for the picnic, taking delivery of Clarissa’s belated birthday present, and journeying to the airport to get her. “Less than an hour later,” the pair have made their way to the field where they intend to picnic. Having never been apart for so long before, the two of them are thrilled to be reunited.
Joe’s decision to intentionally delay his narrative occurs in part because McEwan wants to increase the story’s tension and further establish Joe’s commitment to detailed, unemotional storytelling. Yet it is also true that Joe wants the audience of his tale to understand its characters as fully as possible. The reader sees in the particular details Joe offers the strength of his and Clarissa’s relationship, as well as Clarissa’s passionate personality.
As Joe describes unpacking the picnic lunch, he summons again the moment in which he first hears the cries for help. The balloon from which those cries issue is “the size of a house,” and the man trying to secure it, James Gadd, is being “half dragged, half carried across the field.” As Joe springs into action, running toward the balloon, the wind drops for a moment, and Joe slows his pace. Yet John Logan, another of the men rushing toward the balloon, continues running at full speed. John Logan knows something, Joe alerts the reader, that Joe doesn’t yet realize. What Joe does understand, however, is that a “whole stage” of his life is closing as he makes the decision to run toward the balloon.
Joe’s rationalism depends on his ability to make choices informed by reality, so his incomplete knowledge of what’s happening in these paragraphs is crucially important because it forces him to act instinctively rather than on the basis of reason, pulling him out of his comfort zone in a moment that is already extreme. While he sees in retrospect that a “whole stage” of his life closed at this moment, he lacks awareness of that fact until much later.
Sure enough, the wind “renew[s] its rage” before Joe can take too many more steps. Joe begins to run again but is beat to the balloon by John Logan, who takes hold of another of the dangling ropes. When Joe finally arrives at the center of the field, he is met by the remaining men: Jed Parry and two farm laborers, Joseph Lacey and Toby Greene. The four men join John Logan and James Gadd among the ropes, and each takes hold of one of them as James Gadd shouts orders.
By emphasizing the unpredictability of the wind, McEwan stresses the power of nature over people, which ties into Joe’s eventual refusal to acknowledge his emotional experience during the accident, preferring to describe rationally and scientifically what has happened. Joe also alerts the reader to the fact that James Gadd’s shouted orders did nothing but increase the chaos at the scene, making successful cooperation from the men very difficult.
Though James Gadd attempts to direct the men to whatever strategy he has in mind, he is “exhausted and emotionally out of control,” and the others ignore him. Instead, they begin to pull “hand over hand” on the ropes in an attempt to bring the basket to the ground. Beside them, however, is a dramatic slope, in which the field “drop[s] sharply away at a gradient of about twenty-five percent” before “level[ing] out into a gentle slope toward the bottom.”
Joe continues to prepare the reader for the idea that the men were unable to work together because of their inherent selfishness. This problem is exacerbated by the appearance of a dramatic slope. Like the wind, this element of nature forces itself into the men’s plans.
Throughout these pages of recollection, Joe is clear that the men are “never a team”: the situation is too chaotic, the group has no clear leader, and each man attempts to tell the others what to do. Making matters worse, the endangered child, Harry Gadd, has ceased to respond to instructions and has instead entered “a state known as learned helplessness.” Terrified and paralyzed, the boy is unable to participate in his own rescue.
By pausing his narrative to make this point, Joe makes it clear that he believes teamwork (or loyalty to one another) is the crucial missing ingredient in the attempted rescue. Joe’s diagnosis of Harry Gadd's condition further illustrates his intelligence and education, as well as his tendency to find a scientific or rational explanation for people’s actions rather than an emotional one.
As the men bicker and curse, a great gust of wind cuts through the air again. Once more, Joe pauses his narrative to set the scene more precisely. According to his telling, the men have come to the edge of the slope. Beside Joe is John Logan, whom Joe now reveals to be “a family doctor from Oxford” and a member of a mountaineering club. Further along is Joseph Lacey, an older farm laborer, and beside him is his friend Toby Greene. The next man in the makeshift semicircle is James Gadd, and immediately next to him—across from Joe—is Jed Parry.
The clarity of Joe’s memory illustrates his commitment to rational thinking. In Joe’s descriptions of the other men present at the scene, the reader sees the precision of Joe’s thinking even in a moment of chaos. Yet, about Jed Parry, Joe tells the reader almost nothing. This may serve as one of Joe’s first admissions that Parry’s character and motives are a mystery to Joe.
Joe emphasizes the chaos with which the attempted rescue is proceeding. The men are “breathless, excited, [and] determined on [their] separate plans.” Joe explains that while he, Joseph Lacey, and Toby Greene are trying to pull Harry Gadd from the basket, James Gadd is trying to climb over them, and Jed Parry and John Logan are shouting their own suggestions. As the great gust of wind arrives, James Gadd is knocked from the basket, and his “considerable weight” no longer contributes to the work of keeping the balloon anchored to the ground.
Joe’s technical descriptions of what physically happens to the balloon simultaneously show Joe’s obsession with reason over emotion (he tells nothing about the emotional significance of the moment) and gives the reader a continuing sense of the rescue effort’s disorganization. Clearly, Joe understands the rescue attempt in terms of science and the physical world.
As a consequence of James Gadd’s being knocked aside, the balloon begins to rise into the air, taking the five remaining men—Joe, Jed Parry, Joseph Lacey, Toby Greene, and John Logan—with it. Joe recounts the infinitesimally brief moment of thought that follows: either he must hang on to his rope and hope that his weight (and that of the others) brings it down, or he must let go immediately.
This represents Joe at his most rational. Even in the presence of disaster, Joe is able to understand—or at least look back clearly on—the “neuronal” processes that were at work in the men’s decisions to hang on or let go.
Joe realizes that “every fraction of a second that passe[s] increase[s] the drop” and that the drop will eventually be fatal if he holds on too long. Though he doesn’t believe that he is the first to do so, he lets go of his rope and falls to the ground, as, around him, do Jed Parry, Joseph Lacey, and Toby Greene. Only John Logan continues to hang on, and with only his small weight to hold the balloon down, the man and basket begin to rise farther into the air.
Joe reveals his own disloyalty to the rescue effort when he drops, and it is in this moment that Joe first reveals a hint of moral or emotional thinking. By justifying his actions through claiming he was not the first to drop, he suggests that, even though dropping was a rational choice that saved his own life, he has some guilt about it.
By the time Joe regains his footing, the balloon, and John Logan, are “fifty yards away” and very high in the air. Unable to believe what is happening, Joe states that he expects some “freak physical law” to intervene on John Logan’s behalf, and he is surprised when “only ruthless gravity” asserts itself. Joe watches as John Logan slips down to the end of his rope, hangs on for a final moment, and then falls the terrible length to his death. The chapter ends with Joe confessing to the reader, “I’ve never seen such a terrible thing as that falling man.”
Interestingly, Joe’s momentary disbelief of what is happening is decidedly irrational: that he expects a “freak physical law” to prevent John Logan’s death clearly indicates that Joe’s rationalism can at least be challenged by events. The chapter’s closing words, similarly, provide a rare window into Joe’s emotions. He has previously described the accident in physical and scientific terms; now, in his horror, he turns to the purely emotional word “terrible.”