As he stares at Jean Logan’s children, Joe reflects on his and Clarissa’s history with kids. Though Joe has “never looked after a child for any length of time,” he has been assured by Clarissa that he “would have made a wonderful father,” and the two of them have spent many weekends with Clarissa’s nieces, nephews, and godchildren. Nevertheless, Joe feels an “uneasiness” whenever he is in the presence of a child. Such a proximity makes him recall his own childhood, during which he often pitied adults and felt the need to “conceal the fun” he would have as soon as he was away from them.
Joe and Clarissa’s childlessness haunts their relationship throughout the novel. In these paragraphs, the reader sees its manifestation in Joe’s temporary awkwardness around Jean Logan’s children. Evident here, as well, is Joe’s occasional irrationality. The reason for his “unease” at the moment is clearly not reasonable, yet his emotions operate at a remove from his rational mind.
With these thoughts in mind, Joe appraises the Logan children and tries to see himself through their eyes: he is “yet one more dull stranger in the procession lately filing through their home.” Rachael, Joe decides from looking at her, is “about ten” years old, while her brother, Leo, is “two years younger.” With the children is a nanny, and Joe reflects that the children have “an appealing scruffiness about them” and don’t, unlike their mother, “look crushed” by their father’s recent death.
Rachael and Leo are an important counterpoint to Jean Logan. Because their minds are free of any suspicion about their father’s behavior, they are able to experience grief as children, uncomplicatedly. This speaks to both the complexity of adult relationships and the high cost of obsession.
Staring back at Joe, Leo declares, apparently in response to his mother’s assertion about the missing woman, that “it’s completely wrong to kill people.” When Joe replies that Jean has merely been using a common expression, the conversation shifts to whether it is wrong to kill and eat horses. Rachael joins the discussion, and the three of them enter a brief and child-like debate about cultural norms (“in China it’s polite to burp after a meal”) and whether any absolute moral rules exist. As Leo climbs onto her lap, Jean Logan asserts again that she “ha[s] to find” the woman who was with her husband, and she enlists Joe in the business of questioning the others who were present at the scene.
Rachael and Leo Logan represent a level of sanity and moral clarity that is beyond the reach of Jean Logan at this moment. Even as her children make indisputable moral points (amidst outbursts of childlike silliness and unreason), Jean is involving Joe in an obsessive plan that can only lead to further emotional damage. Because of the strength of her obsession, Jean is unable to modify her own thinking or to understand the pain for which she is setting herself up.
Joe tentatively agrees to help, realizing that he will be “in a position to censor the information and perhaps save the family some misery.” He reflects on Rachael and Leo’s precocious moral reasoning and decides that they would agree with his determination to lie were they to understand the situation fully. For the children’s benefit as well as Jean’s, Joe states loudly that John Logan was “a very determined and courageous man” and that, by refusing to let go of his rope, Logan “put the rest of us to shame.”
Here, the reader sees Joe’s lack of emotional intelligence. Unwilling to engage Jean’s actual feelings and thoughts, Joe steers the conversation to the safer (but, for the moment, less relevant) ground of John Logan’s courage. Joe’s own obsession—with his own comparative cowardliness—may be at work here, as well.
As Joe finishes these remarks, Jean Logan begins to respond. She agrees that her husband was brave, but she insists simultaneously that he was “very, very cautious,” as well, and that he “never took stupid chances.” In Jean’s mind, John must have held onto the rope longer than everyone else because he knew that the woman accompanying him was “watching.” He was forty-two, Jean insists, and he “couldn’t accept it.” Thus, he was killed not by bravery but by foolhardiness and a determination to show off for a younger lover.
Jean Logan’s hypothetical narrative is entirely false, as the reader learns at the end of the novel. Yet her obsessive need to understand her husband’s death in the context of his supposed infidelity has rendered her unable to separate truth and untruth. Though such an inability leads to nothing but pain for Jean Logan; she simply cannot help thinking as she does.
Joe reflects to himself that only grief could “devise” such a “narrative,” and he tells Jean not to believe such an elaborate “hypothesis.” As he speaks, he notices the children dancing around the room, and he hears Leo remark that, in the game he and his sister are playing, “she’s the queen and I only come out when she gives the signal.” This seemingly random remark immediately jogs Joe’s memory. The business about a “curtain” and a “signal” that he has been trying to remember has to do with Buckingham Palace, he now recalls. King George V was stalked by a Frenchwoman in the years after World War I, and the Frenchwoman became convinced, in her madness, that the king was sending her “signals that she alone could read,” using the “curtains” of Buckingham Palace as a means of communication. The illness from which the Frenchwoman suffered was called de Clerambault’s syndrome.
Joe’s rational diagnosis of Jean Logan’s thinking is the correct one in these paragraphs: because obsession and grief have taken the place of reason in Jean’s thoughts, she is unable to recognize that her narrative is merely a theory. Joe, an outsider who cares nothing about John Logan’s marital fidelity, meanwhile, is able to see things more clearly. That Joe’s own obsession (with his half-formed “curtain” and “signal” memory) is resolved by pure chance is a similar point of interest here. Thinking feverishly about his half-memory has not helped Joe; rather, he has recalled the information only because of the antics of children.
As Joe prepares to leave, Jean Logan gives him the names and telephone numbers of the other accident witnesses, whom she means for him to contact. Joe thinks again of the story of King George and his insane devotee, and he realizes that Jed Parry must be suffering from the same condition, which causes the sufferer to feel delusions of love. Determined to research the condition further, Joe shakes the children’s hands, steps out of the house, and returns to his car for the drive back to London.
Jed Parry’s love for Joe is explicitly connected to a named psychological disorder in these important paragraphs. Here, McEwan is pursuing the idea that love is not merely a positive force, but a potentially destructive one, as well. Because it exists outside of Parry’s control, he is as much a victim of it as Joe is.