A grief-stricken Jean Logan meets Joe at the door. Following her inside, Joe reflects upon the house’s décor, which he suspects has not changed since the “fifties or sixties.” In the house’s “austerity,” Joe sees not only “the soul of English pragmatism” but “a perfect setting for sorrow.” He follows Jean to a back room, and when she retreats to the kitchen to make tea, he looks around at the books and furnishings, speculating that “Jean or John Logan had surely inherited the house unchanged from parents” and that “the sense of sorrow in the place” perhaps “pre-dated John Logan’s death.”
Once again, Joe finds himself drawing conclusions on the basis of incomplete information. Interestingly, his nebulous thoughts about the house’s “sorrow” feel like the sorts of conclusions that Clarissa, a far more intuitive character, might draw. This suggests that Joe’s rationalism and Clarissa’s intuition are shifting categories: the border between them is not hard, and characters move back and forth among the two realms.
Returning to the room, Jean confesses that she doesn’t know why Joe has come and that she would prefer not to hear condolences from a stranger. Joe sees in Jean’s appearance “the terms of her bereavement”—her clothes are dirty and her hair “greasy”—and he is unsure of how he should behave in her presence. Jean, Joe reflects, “gives the impression of a stringy kind of independence, and of a temper easily lost.” Deciding on his conversational strategy at last, Joe asks Jean if she wishes to hear any particular details of the ballooning accident in advance of the “coroner’s court,” which remains several weeks away.
Jean Logan’s bereavement—evident in her appearance and manner—illustrates the strength of her love for her husband and the devastating effect that his sudden death has had on her. That Joe struggles to enter the emotional realm in which Jean currently resides is evidence of his uneasy relationship with emotions, as well as of the private, intensely personal nature of love as rendered by McEwan.
Responding with surprising hostility, Jean answers that she does indeed wish to have certain questions answered, but that she doesn’t think she will be told the truth. She confesses that others to whom she has asked these questions have found her to be “mad”—insane—and she begins to cry. Embarrassed, Joe looks away and sees out the window a “brown, igloo-style tent.” He speculates that perhaps Jean’s children have felt the need to flee to it in order to escape their mother’s grief. Turning his attention to Jean Logan again, Joe realizes that what he is seeing on her face is “love” and that he needs immediately to return to London in order to “save” his relationship with Clarissa.
Joe is surprised to realize that Jean’s hostility is a result of the love she had for her now-deceased husband. Yet Joe is able, in a moment of surprising emotional clarity, to apply that knowledge to his own relationship, as the reader sees when Joe feels a sudden desire to return to Clarissa. Meanwhile, these paragraphs reveal the extent of Jean’s obsession with her husband’s fidelity. Obsession is altering her emotional state to the extent that even a stranger can recognize the change.
Before he can depart, however, Jean gathers herself and begins to ask the questions she has in mind, telling Joe that there was someone “with [her] husband” on the day of the accident. She asks Joe if “one door or two” were open on the car from which John Logan ran into the field, and she speculates that whoever was with him must have stood and watched what happened from beside that car. Summoning the details of John’s plans for that day (he was supposed to be at a medical conference in London), she insists that John would have had no reason to be in the Chilterns in the first place. Though Joe insists that there has to be “a perfectly innocent explanation,” he isn’t able to offer one, nor is he able to respond to Jean Logan’s anger at the fact that the police will not fingerprint John’s car because no “crime” has been committed.
McEwan’s use of doors as an element of, and a symbol for, obsession is at work here. As a purely physical matter, the question of how many doors were open on John Logan’s car is a small one. Yet, for Jean Logan, the answer informs an entire hypothetical narrative that has the potential to restructure her conception of her married life. She simply must know the answer, regardless of the social or emotional consequences of doing so—a state of affairs that speaks to obsession’s power over even mentally healthy individuals. Important, too, is the fact that Joe is unable to modify Jean’s obsession with kind remarks.
Producing a shopping bag from the corner of the room, Jean reveals to Joe the remains of a picnic, found in John’s car among his other possessions. With the bag is a woman’s scarf that Jean is unable to identify, and her natural assumption is that the scarf belongs to (and the picnic was for) whomever her husband was seeing in the months before his death. Jean insists that she has to “talk to” the woman in question, yet Joe knows that even the woman’s fingerprints would only be useful if she has a criminal record. When Joe speculates that the woman may very well try to make contact with Jean, Jean states that she will “kill her” if she “comes near this house.” As Jean finishes this remark, her two children, Rachael and Leo, come into the room.
Jean’s threat is another illustration of the power of obsession to alter an otherwise reasonable and healthy personality, as is the way Jean clings to the remains of her husband’s supposed picnic and the scarf that must belong to his mistress. To make such a threat is irrational, just as the fulfillment of Jean’s wish to “talk to” her husband’s ostensible mistress would almost certainly not satisfy her. Yet obsession has twisted both her values and her perception of the world. She cannot help herself.