Joe indicates that he will narrate Clarissa’s return home from her perspective. She has had a bad day at work dealing with unprepared students and difficult university colleagues, and, as she carries a heavy bag of books up the stairs to her apartment, she worries that the unexpected effort required to do so indicates that she is “getting old.” She looks forward to seeing Joe, but realizes upon entering the apartment that he appears to have a “wild look about him.” This suspicion is confirmed when Joe begins to tell her “a tale of harassment and idiocy” without so much as a “hello.”
Joe’s decision to turn the narrative over to Clarissa is, in a sense, an indicator of his commitment to reason. Joe understands that he cannot fully do justice to Clarissa’s feelings without attempting to inhabit her mind, and he also seems to grasp that his own behavior can be viewed in many different ways. These concessions to reality reveal the fact that Joe continues to be sane despite all that has happened.
With no transition or pause, Joe finishes his rant about Jed Parry and begins to tell Clarissa about a conversation he has had with a particle physicist friend about a potential job interview. Because Clarissa sees that Joe is “conversationally deaf and blind,” she interrupts him, declares that she is going to take a bath, and moves away from Joe toward the bedroom. Joe follows her, “insisting that he has to get back into science,” yet he is soon talking once again about Parry, whom Clarissa once more dismisses—if only in her own mind—as harmless.
Joe’s rational mind prevents him in this moment from understanding Clarissa’s emotional needs or recognizing the franticness of his own speech. Interestingly, his dual obsessions—with Parry and with returning to a career in science—give way to one another as he continues to speak. It is this manic behavior, as much as anything else, that Clarissa rejects.
As Joe continues talking uninterruptedly, Clarissa resigns herself to the fact that Joe “is not going to take care of her.” Her bad mood is tempting her to draw “significant conclusions” about the state of her relationship with Joe and his manic behavior, but she reminds herself that they “love each other” and are merely “in very different mental universes now.” Nevertheless, Clarissa can’t help noting that Joe could easily “get back into science” with nothing but a “good idea” and a “sheet of paper” if he so desired. Joe needs the fantasy of a university appointment, Clarissa reflects, to protect himself “against failure, because they will never let him in.”
Clarissa’s suspicion that Joe is shielding himself against failure by demanding a university appointment rather than taking up science again on his own is an important perspective on Joe’s character and on the imperfectness of his ability to reason. Because Joe is locked into his own perceptions and experiences, he can’t recognize in himself the subconscious motives that Clarissa easily diagnoses. Joe’s information about himself is incomplete.
Preparing her bath, Clarissa reflects further on Joe’s emotional state, noting that his “precise and careful mind . . . takes no account of its own emotional field.” She wants to be left alone but feels unable to ask because of Joe’s “intensity.” Instead, she finally begins to concentrate on what Joe is saying and realizes that he is claiming to have received dozens of phone messages from Parry. Alarmed, Clarissa insists that the machine’s indicator “said zero,” and Joe responds that he erased the messages, a claim that puts Clarissa briefly in mind of her father, who died of Alzheimer’s.
Clarissa’s thoughts in these paragraphs about the precision of Joe’s mind (and the emotional cost of that precision) are one of the novel’s fullest expressions of the difference between the two characters. Here, McEwan allows the reader to understand that Joe’s rationalism is not entirely “correct,” and neither is Clarissa’s more intuitive thinking entirely “wrong.”
Clarissa uses this moment of contradiction to finally interrupt Joe, explaining that he has been talking non-stop since she arrived. When he confesses that he feels “agitated,” she asks him again if he’s “making too much” of Parry and suggests asking Parry in for “a cup of tea.” Arguing that Parry is merely a “symptom” of Joe’s “old frustration about not doing original research,” Clarissa prompts Joe to reveal that Parry stood outside their apartment all day and that “the police say it’s not their business.”
Clarissa connects Joe’s frustrations about Jed Parry to his frustrations about his career, and she is not entirely wrong to do so. Yet this connection reveals the intuitive thinking that dominates Clarissa’s intellectual life. Though likely true, such a diagnosis of Joe’s mindset is formed by psychological implication, not pure fact.
Clarissa is unmoved by Joe’s claims, however, and asks him why he erased the messages on the answering machine. When Joe responds that he did so because the police weren’t interested in the tape, Clarissa raises the stakes of the argument by suggesting that the tape would have been “evidence for [her].” Horrified that Clarissa clearly doesn’t believe him, Joe follows her into the bedroom as she finishes her bath. He is angry now and complains bitterly that he “can’t get [Clarissa] to take this seriously.” Clarissa responds that Joe’s own obsession with Parry suggests that Joe has, in a sense, “invented him.” “You ought to be asking yourself which way this fixation runs,” she tells Joe. Furious and hurt, Joe insists that he only wants Clarissa’s support, while Clarissa accuses Joe of “lying” about Parry’s initial telephone call. Joe storms out of the apartment and sees Parry waiting for him on the street once again.
Loyalty and obsession are at the forefront in these important paragraphs. Joe’s understanding of loyalty requires that Clarissa believe and support him irrespective of his lack of evidence, whereas Clarissa’s understanding of loyalty requires that Joe abandon his obsessive ranting and attend to her emotional needs. At the same time, Clarissa’s implication that it is Joe who is obsessed with Parry (rather than vice versa) is spoken in anger, yet it nevertheless reveals what Clarissa actually believes. For her, Joe’s emotionally insensitive behavior is evidence that his factual claims must not be correct. Such is the extent to which Clarissa values emotion.