The catastrophic balloon accident at the start of Enduring Love precipitates several crises of loyalty. One crisis involves a group of strangers, another strains the dynamic of a relationship, and a third involves a widow grappling with her doubts about her late husband. Each of these scenarios shows that catastrophe can dramatically reshape situations that once seemed clear and stable. Once characters come to doubt the reliability and benevolence of the world around them, they can easily fall into disloyalty, even to those they love. Through his characters’ post-catastrophe struggles with their loyalty to others, McEwan demonstrates the value of loyalty—its comfort, goodwill, and stability—while warning that loyalty, once squandered, is difficult to rebuild.
The fatal ballooning accident with which the novel opens occurs because a group of men are unable to cooperate successfully—because they are, in effect, disloyal to one another and to their shared mission. When the balloonists’ distress first becomes clear to the strangers in and around the “hundred-acre field,” several men run to help, thinking little for his own safety. The men are working together to rescue Harry Gadd, who is stuck in the balloon’s basket and could be carried away by the wind at any moment, yet, despite a “vague commonality of purpose,” they are “never a team.” Hampered by a “fatal lack of cooperation,” they work against one another instead of working together, which reveals how easily circumstances can disrupt a group’s loyalty to a widely held goal.
This failure to cooperate becomes deadly after a stunning act of disloyalty. Though the collective weight of the men holding the ropes could save the child, one by one the men let go until only John Logan—who is carried away and eventually falls to his death—remains. For McEwan, this collective betrayal of Logan is the result of the fact that “selfishness is . . . written on our hearts”: people think of themselves before thinking of others. Though none of the survivors will admit to himself that he let go first, it is beyond dispute that the men have “broken ranks” with catastrophic results.
The disloyalty of the men during the ballooning accident echoes a more intimate disloyalty that wreaks havoc on the novel’s central relationship. During the long period in which Joe Rose, the novel’s protagonist, is harassed and stalked by Jed Parry, Joe believes that his wife, Clarissa, is disloyal to him, and Clarissa believes Joe is crazy. Clarissa thinks that Joe is “making too much of” Parry and comes close to suggesting that Parry is a figment of Joe’s imagination, while Joe invades Clarissa’s privacy by going through her letters and notes in search of an explanation for her failure to support him. McEwan seems to be illustrating here how difficult it is to be loyal. Despite their best intentions, Joe and Clarissa allow their own suspicions and agendas to corrupt the mutual loyalty they know they ought to have in a moment of crisis.
As a consequence of this mutual suspicion, Joe and Clarissa soon drift apart. As Joe puts it, “When our eyes met, it was as if our ghostly, meaner selves held up hands before our faces to block the possibility of understanding.” Here, disloyalty seems not only to set the couple against each other but to obscure their very identities. While a reconciliation seems possible by the end of the novel, Joe acknowledges that Clarissa’s failure to support him wholeheartedly might ultimately prevent them from remaining together. Though they may eventually reach “mutual forgiveness, or at least tolerance,” they have not yet done so as the book ends.
In a third instance of catastrophe producing distrust and disloyalty, John Logan’s wife, Jean, begins to believe, after his death, that he was having an affair in the weeks leading up to the accident. When this belief turns out to be incorrect, Jean realizes that she has been disloyal by mistrusting him. Once the truth is revealed, in fact, Jean is arguably more distraught than she was before. “Who’s going to forgive me?” she asks, angry at herself for doubting her husband’s fidelity. “The only person who can is dead.” Jean’s distress in this moment illustrates a highly significant characteristic of loyalty as McEwan understands it. Though characters can express regret when they fail to be loyal to one another, they cannot undo that failure. Just as her husband’s death is irrevocable, the fact of Jean’s initial suspicion cannot be altered. Clearly, her grief is at least in part an awareness of her inability to reclaim the total loyalty that she briefly set aside.
Throughout the novel, true loyalty is revealed to be as valuable as it is rare. Loyalty’s uncommonness is, in fact, a sign of its worth, as is the difficultly of forgiveness once loyalty is violated. Violating loyalty, in McEwan’s worldview, is easy, but the consequences of disloyalty include deep suffering. The message McEwan intends to communicate is clear: loyalty to groups, to shared goals, and to loved ones is a prized and irreplaceable human value. Once it is lost, it is almost impossible to reclaim.
The Importance of Loyalty ThemeTracker
The Importance of Loyalty Quotes in Enduring Love
I should make something clear. There may have been a vague communality of purpose, but we were never a team. There was no chance, no time. Coincidences of time and place, a predisposition to help, had brought us together under the balloon. No one was in charge—or everyone was, and we were in a shouting match.
Every fraction of a second that passed increased the drop, and the point must come when to let go would be impossible or fatal. And compared with me, Harry was safe, curled up in the basket. The balloon might well come down safely at the bottom of the hill. And perhaps my impulse to hang on was nothing more than a continuation of what I had been attempting moments before, simply a failure to adjust quickly.
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.