Enduring Love


Ian McEwan

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The Nature of Love Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Importance of Loyalty Theme Icon
Rationalism vs. Intuition Theme Icon
Obsession Theme Icon
The Nature of Love Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Enduring Love, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Nature of Love Theme Icon

At the heart of Enduring Love is the question of whether love is something that endures or that must be endured, and the double meaning of the novel’s title suggests that both answers are correct. This is consistent with McEwan’s larger project: asking the reader to consider love in all its complexity. Love is not merely a force for good, McEwan seems to be arguing, but a biological and neurological fact that manifests in ways both good and evil. For Joe and Clarissa, love is a potentially healing force and a prize to be reclaimed if at all possible. For Joe and Parry, however, love is a destructive delusion. Yet, in both cases, love seems to exist beyond the realm of total human control. The novel’s characters experience it but cannot quite harness it, which suggests that love’s power—good and bad—is beyond the reach of reason.

The most important love in the novel is the love shared by Joe and Clarissa. Though their love is challenged over the course of the book and appears not to escape entirely unharmed, it is nevertheless a crucial example of marital harmony: an illustration of what love can be in a best-case scenario. Early in the book, Joe recalls that Clarissa’s letters to him, in the first days of their relationship, were “passionately abstract in their exploration of the ways [their] love was different from and superior to any that had ever existed.” Joe, meanwhile, finds it miraculous that a “beautiful woman loved and wanted to be loved by a large, clumsy, balding fellow who could hardly believe his luck.” In these passages, love is portrayed as a life-altering stroke of luck. That Joe and Clarissa have stumbled upon it, and each other, is a thrilling accident that only they can fully appreciate.

Similarly, when Clarissa insists, after the ballooning accident, that she and Joe “have to help each other” by behaving in a loving way, Joe realizes that, in his rationalist insistence on talking through every moment of the tragedy, he has “been trying to deny [himself] even the touch of her hand.” Clarissa, on the other hand, has “effected a shift to the essential” by leading Joe to bed: she is helping him remember what really matters. The reader sees here that McEwan has love in mind as a potential antidote for sorrow. This is love at its most beneficial: it makes tragedy bearable by providing an alternative emotional realm into which to escape. This, for McEwan, is the kind of love that might have a chance at enduring, and whose endurance would be a purely positive phenomenon.

The novel’s other primary example of love, on the other hand, is far more sinister: the one-sided love that joins Joe and Parry. Like the love between Joe and Clarissa, however, the love that Parry feels for Joe has simply happened, without planning or resolve. Parry is as much a victim of it, arguably, as Joe is, and luck is at work in this negative love as much as in Joe and Clarissa’s positive love.

When Joe recalls the scene, in the novel’s first pages, in which he and Parry both run toward the hot-air balloon, he imagines them “rushing toward each other like lovers,” a deeply ironic statement that illustrates the novel’s ideas about love. Neither Joe nor Parry knows what he is “rushing toward”—neither can anticipate or control the force of what is about to bind them—and, as a consequence, both are subject to love as an uncontrollable force. Furthermore, after attempting to murder Joe and while holding a knife to Clarissa’s throat, Parry tells Joe, “I love you” and “it’s wrecked my life.” Clearly, this is a kind of love that inflicts hardship. Both Parry (who is destructively beholden to his emotions) and Joe (who cannot dissuade Parry from his obsession) are forced to endure this terrible love.

McEwan also stresses on several occasions the idea that love is, in a sense, biologically programmed, not only in the case of Parry’s disorder-driven affection, but in healthy human beings, as well. McEwan first establishes this idea in the novel’s early pages. As Joe is witnessing various happy reunions at London’s Heathrow Airport, he notices that “the same joy, the same uncontrollable smile” can be seen “in the faces of a Nigerian earth mama, a thin-lipped Scottish granny, and a pale, correct Japanese businessman.” For Joe, this proves “Darwin’s contention that the many expressions of emotion in humans are universal, genetically inscribed.” In other words, love is biological, rather than rational. Ironically, Joe encounters the results of this same evolutionary programming when it is his turn to greet Clarissa, despite his ability to recognize and diagnose that programming in others. “Immediately my detachment vanished,” Joe tells the reader, “and I called out her name, in tune with all the rest.” In this moment, Joe’s behavior is beyond his immediate control.

Finally, near the end of the novel, when Parry has been disarmed and led away, Joe confesses that he and Clarissa would have immediately embraced and reconciled with one another had they lived “in a world in which logic was the engine of feeling.” Reconciliation makes sense given what they have suffered together and the fact that the central point of contention between them—Is Jed Parry dangerous?—has been definitively answered. Yet the two do not immediately reconcile; “such logic would have been inhuman,” McEwan writes. Instead, their emotions and behavior are, as always, just beyond their ability to master. Even here, love cannot be commanded.

Taken together, these relationships and feelings reflect the novel’s ultimate statement about love: it has the power both to heal and to destroy, and, in either case, it is often beyond human reason or control. No other force in the book has anything like love’s impact on the characters’ motives, attitudes, and behaviors. It is, simply put, the reason Enduring Love exists.

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The Nature of Love ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Nature of Love appears in each chapter of Enduring Love. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Nature of Love Quotes in Enduring Love

Below you will find the important quotes in Enduring Love related to the theme of The Nature of Love.
Chapter 1 Quotes

To the buzzard, Parry and I were tiny forms, our white shirts brilliant against the green, rushing toward each other like lovers, innocent of the grief this entanglement would bring.

Related Characters: Joe Rose (speaker), Jed Parry
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

If one ever wanted proof of Darwin’s contention that the many expressions of emotion in humans are universal, genetically inscribed, then a few minutes by the arrivals gate in Heathrow’s Terminal Four should suffice. I saw the same joy, the same uncontrollable smile, in the faces of a Nigerian earth mama, a thin-lipped Scottish granny, and a pale, correct Japanese businessman as they wheeled their trolleys in and recognized a figure in the expectant crowd.

Related Characters: Joe Rose (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

I said, “We tried to help and we failed.”
She smiled and shook her head. I went and stood by her chair and put my arms around her and protectively kissed the top of her head. With a sigh she pressed her face against my shirt and looped her arms around my waist. Her voice was muffled. “You’re such a dope. You’re so rational sometimes you’re like a child.”

Related Characters: Joe Rose (speaker), Clarissa Mellon (speaker), James Gadd, Harry Gadd
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

“I’ll tell you one thing it means, dummkopf. We’ve seen something terrible together. It won’t go away, and we have to help each other. And that means we’ll have to love each other even harder.”
Of course. Why didn’t I think of this? Why didn’t I think like this? We needed love.

Related Characters: Joe Rose (speaker), Clarissa Mellon (speaker), Jean Logan
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

“I love you more now I’ve seen you go completely mad,” she said. “The rationalist cracks at last!”

Related Characters: Clarissa Mellon (speaker), Joe Rose
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

“The fact that you love me,” he continued, “and that I love you is not important. It’s just the means . . . [t]o bring you to God, through love. You’ll fight this like mad, because you’re a long way from your own feelings? But I know that the Christ is within you. At some level you know it too. That’s why you fight it so hard with your education and reason and logic and this detached way you have of talking, as if you’re not part of anything at all?”

Related Characters: Jed Parry (speaker), Joe Rose
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

A few years ago, science book editors could think of nothing but chaos. Now they were banging their desks for every possible slant on neo-Darwinism, evolutionary psychology, and genetics. I wasn’t complaining—business was good—but Clarissa had generally taken against the whole project. It was rationalism gone berserk. “It’s the new fundamentalism,” she had said one evening . . . . What a zoologist had to say about a baby’s smile could be of no real interest. The truth of that smile was in the eye and heart of the parent, and in the unfolding love that only had meaning through time.

Related Characters: Joe Rose (speaker), Clarissa Mellon (speaker)
Page Number: 74-75
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

It wasn’t that she believed Parry, I told myself, it was that his letter was so steamily self-convinced, such an unfaked narrative of emotion—for he obviously had experienced the feelings he described—that it was bound to elicit certain appropriate automatic responses. Even a trashy movie can make you cry. There were deep emotional reactions that ducked the censure of the higher reasoning processes and forced us to enact, however vestigially, our roles: I, the indignant secret lover revealed; Clarissa, the woman cruelly betrayed. But when I tried to say something like this, she looked at me and shook her head slightly from side to side in wonderment at my stupidity.

Related Characters: Joe Rose (speaker), Clarissa Mellon, Jed Parry
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

Our easy ways with each other, effortlessly maintained for years, suddenly seemed to me an elaborate construct, a finely balanced artifice, like an ancient carriage clock. We were losing the trick of keeping it going, or of keeping it going without concentrating hard.

Related Characters: Joe Rose (speaker), Clarissa Mellon
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 14 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Joe Rose (speaker), Jed Parry
Related Symbols: Curtains
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 18 Quotes

There were very few biblical references in Parry’s correspondence. His religion was dreamily vague on the specifics of doctrine, and he gave no impression of being attached to any particular church. His belief was a self-made affair, generally aligned to the culture of personal growth and fulfillment. There was a lot of talk of destiny, of his “path” and how he would not be deterred from following it, and of fate—his and mine entwined. Often, God was a term interchangeable with self. God’s love for mankind shaded into Parry’s love for me. God was undeniably “within” rather than in his heaven, and believing in him was therefore a license to respond to the calls of feeling or intuition.

Related Characters: Joe Rose (speaker), Jed Parry
Page Number: 163-164
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 24 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 247-248
Explanation and Analysis: