Enduring Love is a novel of obsession: not only sexual or romantic obsession, but also religious obsession and obsession with the past. The book’s characters continually fixate on one another, on their own feelings, on their pasts, and on the lives they might have had if they had made different choices. This tendency, the novel suggests, is both harmful and a natural consequence of being human.
The most obviously destructive example of obsession in the novel is, of course, Jed Parry’s obsession with Joe, which reveals the dangers of giving in to one’s fixations. In one of his many letters, Parry warns Joe that Joe’s attempts to ignore him might “end in sorrow and more tears than we ever dreamed,” a threat he attempts to fulfill by having Joe killed at a restaurant. That an innocent and uninvolved stranger is mistakenly shot in Joe’s place merely heightens the tragedy that Parry’s obsession has brought about.
Interestingly, Joe is not above behaving obsessively himself, despite his rationalism and his clear understanding of the danger of obsession. A former scientist (and now a science journalist), Joe frequently harbors the notion that he is “a parasite” because he writes about others’ research rather than conducting his own. He refers to this feeling as “an older dissatisfaction”—it is a regular and recurring part of his emotional landscape—and he “broods” on it whenever he’s “unhappy about something else.” For her part, Clarissa “hate[s] to see [Joe] back with that old obsession about getting back into science,” a way of describing Joe’s feelings that makes clear that, at least to those closest to him, his emotions are not mere disappointment but something far less understandable.
Importantly, Joe’s feelings arise despite the fact that he already has an established reputation as a writer. Nevertheless, Joe can’t help thinking obsessively about what might have been had his choice been different, and he wonders, even in the midst of his ordeal with Parry, how he can “find [his] way back to original research and achieve something new.” That this stated goal is unreasonable is illustrated by the negative response of Joe’s old teacher to his proposals. (He advises Joe, gently, “to continue with the very successful career you already have.") What the reader sees here is that Joe is not merely considering an alternate career path but rehashing previous life choices in a way that is ultimately futile.
Yet the career in research that Joe gave up is not the only thing that he obsesses about. According to Clarissa, Joe obsesses about Parry, even as Parry obsesses about him. “You became more and more agitated and obsessed,” Clarissa writes in a letter to Joe. “You didn’t want to talk to me about anything else.” Clearly, the intensity of Joe’s reaction to Parry—and his inability to modify or cease thinking about that reaction—contributes to the diminishment of his relationship with Clarissa.
Finally, Clarissa herself grapples with an obsession—not with another character, but with her inability to have children due to a medical mistake in her early adulthood. Just as Joe occasionally feels the loss of his intended career, Clarissa is, from time to time, the victim of “the old sense of loss” about the child she can never have, further proof that obsession can strike even psychologically healthy characters. According to Joe, when a friend of Clarissa’s lost her baby five years before the ballooning accident, Clarissa “experienced as her own” her friend’s grief. “What was revealed,” Joe tells the reader, “was Clarissa’s own mourning for a phantom child, willed into half-being by frustrated love.” Once more, the reader sees the irresistibility of obsession: its ability to thwart the emotional stability of characters who are otherwise healthy.
This obsession of Clarissa’s colors her response to the ballooning accident and, by extension, her emotional life throughout the events of the novel. “In John Logan,” Joe states, Clarissa sees “a man prepared to die to prevent the kind of loss she felt herself to have sustained.” As a consequence of this thinking, McEwan seems to be revealing, Clarissa is unable from the start to approach the ballooning accident and subsequent events from an emotionally neutral perspective. This shows again the danger of obsessive thinking.
In each of these cases, from Parry’s dangerous fixation to Clarissa’s deeply human sense of longing, McEwan portrays obsession as a force that overwhelms reason and that must be tamed if happiness is to be achieved. Because the characters are subject to feelings beyond their control, they cannot be fully truthful with themselves or with each other. As human beings, they are inevitably susceptible to obsession, which can be dangerous and destructive.
Obsession Quotes in Enduring Love
“Look, we don’t know each other and there’s no reason why you should trust me. Except that God has brought us together in this tragedy and we have to, you know, make whatever sense of it we can?”
I was afraid of my fear, because I did not yet know the cause. I was scared of what it would do to me and what it would make me do. And I could not stop looking at the door.
“Something’s happened,” he said.
He wasn’t going to continue, so I said, “What’s happened?”
He breathed in deeply through his nose. He still would not look at me. “You know what it is,” he said sulkily.
Being hounded by Parry was aggravating an older dissatisfaction. It comes back to me from time to time, usually when I’m unhappy about something else, that all the ideas I deal in are other people’s.
“The guy’s ridiculous,” Joe continues. “He’s fixated.” Clarissa begins to speak, but he waves her down. “I can’t get you to take this seriously. Your only concern is I’m not massaging your damned feet after your hard day.”
This woman was convinced that all of London society was talking of her affair with the king and that he was deeply perturbed. On one visit, when she could not find a hotel room, she felt the king had used his influence to prevent her from staying in London. The one thing she knew for certain was that the king loved her . . . . He used the curtains in the windows of Buckingham Palace to communicate with her. She lived her life in the prison gloom of this delusion. Her forlorn and embittered love was identified as a syndrome by the French psychiatrist who treated her, and who gave his name to her morbid passion. De Clerambault.
“I’m pretty well off, you know. I can get people to do things for me. Anything I want. There’s always someone who needs the money. What’s surprising is how cheap it is, you know, for something you’d never do yourself.”
This breathless scrambling for forgiveness seemed to me almost mad, Mad Hatterish, here on the riverbank where Lewis Carroll, the dean of Christ Church, had once entertained the darling objects of his own obsessions. I caught Clarissa’s eye and we exchanged a half-smile, and it was as if we were pitching our own requests for mutual forgiveness, or at least tolerance, in there with Jean’s and Reid’s frantic counterpoint. I shrugged as though to say that, like her in her letter, I just did not know.