Two days after the arrival of Parry’s letter, Joe drives to Oxford to visit John Logan’s widow, Jean Logan. In his thoughts is his “sense of failure at science,” an “old restlessness” whose resurgence Joe connects to “Logan’s fall” or “the Parry situation.”
Even as he fulfills an unpleasant obligation, Joe is unable to shake his new obsession, an indication of obsession’s power over even a rational mind.
As Joe drives, he glances occasionally in the rear-view mirror, watching for Parry, who he assumes may be following him. He thinks, too, about the “large Victorian house” to which he’s driving, and he reflects upon the fact that he was able to find nothing related to the words “curtain” and “signal” in his files.
Joe’s thoughts continue to swirl in an unpredictable way: he is unable to commit to any one particular line of thinking, despite his rational mind. The workings of such a mind, it seems, can be interrupted by complicated realities.
His relationship with Clarissa, Joe narrates, has continued to be difficult. Though the two have been “affable” and have even “made love, briefly,” they remain emotionally distant from one another. Joe has read Parry’s letter to Clarissa, and while she has acknowledged that Joe is “right to feel harassed,” she has also remarked that Parry’s writing is “rather like” Joe’s. Similarly, Clarissa seems convinced that Joe must have said something to Parry to provoke Parry’s latest delusions. “Parry’s artful technique of suggesting a past, a pact, a collusion,” Joe reflects, is causing Clarissa to wonder if Joe is telling her the entire truth. While Clarissa doesn’t actually believe that Joe is secretly having an affair with Parry, she is nevertheless provoked by Parry’s “steamily self-convinced” letter into certain “automatic responses.” She can’t help behaving, Joe thinks to himself, like “a woman cruelly betrayed.”
Joe’s belief that Clarissa has experienced certain involuntary emotional responses to Parry’s letter says much about Joe’s understanding of Clarissa’s character. Joe’s thinking is that Clarissa is unable to make the reality-based determinations that he himself would make as a rationalist and a former scientist. If Parry has the emotions and desires of a person with whom Joe is having an affair, Joe suspects that Clarissa cannot help but feel, emotionally, that Joe has been unfaithful to her. Joe’s thoughts here are driven in part by Clarissa’s irrational implication that Joe is secretly the author of Parry’s letter.
Continuing to remember the morning in question, Joe recalls that an “unarticulated dispute” had lingered between Clarissa and him despite the cheerfulness with which she had kissed him goodbye. Joe thinks that the two of them are “losing the trick” of their marriage and that, even “in bed,” he and Clarissa have become “unconvincing somehow.” Clarissa, Joe speculates, has somehow persuaded herself that the Parry situation is Joe’s fault, and she simultaneously “hate[s] to see [Joe] back with that old obsession about getting back into science.” Joe recalls Clarissa’s statement that she is “trying to help [him]” but that he is too “feverish in [his] attention to Parry” to allow her to do so. There is “something,” Clarissa insists, that Joe is “not telling [her].”
The reader understands Clarissa’s suspicions to be baseless, yet her thinking is not entirely wrong in these paragraphs. Joe has returned to his old obsession, and, partly as a consequence, he has contributed to the strain in what was previously an uncomplicated, loving relationship. Importantly, Joe dislikes that strain in part because it is “unarticulated”: he can’t define what is happening to Clarissa and himself. This disturbs Joe’s rational mind, which wants to understand, connect, and diagnose.
After Clarissa leaves the house, Joe allows himself to entertain other “bad thoughts,” wondering whether Clarissa is using Parry “as a front” to mask some infidelity of her own. Even as he reflects on the fact that the kind of “self-persuasion” in which he is engaging is a mere evolutionary reaction, he can’t help allowing himself to walk into Clarissa’s study, where he slowly begins to search through her correspondence for some evidence of an affair.
Once again, Joe allows his commitment to reason to lapse when he is confronted with a reality that reason cannot fully explain. Joe’s thoughts about Clarissa’s unfaithfulness are not connected to any facts, yet Joe cannot help but give into them by spying on Clarissa.
Though Joe tells himself that he is merely attempting to “bring light and understanding” to Clarissa’s failure to support him, he nevertheless understands that, by invading Clarissa’s privacy, he is sacrificing his own “honesty and innocence and self-respect.” He knows he is “behaving badly,” but he “care[s] less by the second,” telling himself that it is up to him to resolve the situation in which he and Clarissa find themselves.
Despite his ostensible rationalism, Joe is easily able to deceive himself, about both his motives and what he is likely to achieve by going through Clarissa’s things. Joe’s ability to hold two competing beliefs at once—what he is doing is both wrong and necessary—is illustrative of his capacity for unreason.
Browsing Clarissa’s letters, Joe finds a note from Jocelyn Kale, Clarissa’s godfather and an eminent professor, inviting the two of them to lunch in celebration of Clarissa’s birthday. He finds a letter from Clarissa’s brother Luke, as well, but no evidence of adultery. Angry with himself, he manages to leave Clarissa’s office with her stapler in his pocket. Retrieving that stapler, Joe has pretended to convince himself, was his reason for entering her study in the first place.
Joe’s behavior is bad, but of far greater significance is his ability to deceive himself when necessary. Joe’s decision to take the stapler with him, despite the fact that he has no need for it and has entered Clarissa’s office for other reasons entirely, reveals that Joe, like Jed Parry, is incompletely dedicated to reality at times.
As Joe continues to drive, his thoughts turn to the evening after his invasion of Clarissa’s privacy. Clarissa was “friendly, even vivacious,” and Joe felt guilty about the fact that he now “really did have something to conceal from her.” The next morning, he opens a letter from a former professor assuring him that a return to laboratory work is out of the question. Joe, the professor states, should “continue with the very successful career” he already has.
Reality intrudes into Joe’s delusions in these important paragraphs, both in the form of Joe’s recognition of his own guilt and in the letter he receives from his mentor. That Joe is able to receive and process factual information, even when it contradicts his hopes, is what separates him from Jed Parry.
Fifteen minutes away from Jean Logan’s house now, Joe considers why he has come. He has spoken to Jean on the telephone, and while she seemed “calm” and “glad [he] was coming,” Joe is no longer sure of his own motives: he “no longer trust[s]” himself, he realizes. Arriving at the house, Joe sees Jean Logan’s “neglected garden” and “closed curtains,” yet he realizes that “the sadness” he sees “coming off the house” is “mere projection.” This leads to yet another reflection on Joe’s part about his own “dishonesty”: he has come not to tell Jean Logan of her husband’s courage but to establish his own innocence in the man’s death.
Like all human beings, Joe is a man of complicated motives, and he possesses the ability to deceive himself. In a sign of mental health, however, Joe is able to parse these moments of self-deception and he has the further ability to recognize the biases and flaws in his own thinking. Joe’s response to Jean Logan’s house is illustrative of this fact. Whereas Parry would see in the house’s appearance a message intended specifically for him, Joe is able to resist that delusion.