Love that endures is a main theme in the novel, and the strongest force in existence, which has the capability of bridging those whose outlooks are diametrically opposite, for example, art, science and religion (Clarissa, Parry and Jed). However, this only bridges them, it does not resolve any differences they may have in terms of perspective. I do not think it possible to answer the above question without touching on why these three topics are diametrically opposed. I intend to answer this as well as what the characters’ differences are, and if they spring from their own opposing outlooks.
Paradoxically, the characteristics of art, science and religion that cause them to be diametrically opposed are discreet, yet at the same time obvious. The character of Joe represents science within the novel. Through the novel, we learn how Joe lives up to his ‘science’, there is ample evidence of him being very empirical. This is displayed in the very first chapter, ‘Later I wondered why it had not been blown away. Later still I discovered that the wind at five hundred feet was not the same that day as the wind at ground level. ‘ Because of his scientific characteristics, he believes everything must be based on fact.
He has an overriding need to establish facts in order to see his ‘truths’ and believes only in rational actions, particularly in human beings. Further evidence of this is the revisiting of the accident repeatedly in his mind, and the eventual physical revisiting to the scene of the accident, in chapter fifteen, to find answers. However, this theory, along with many of his, is flawed. In trying to understand the chain reaction that occurs within the novel, he himself acts irrationally and with genuine feeling, but of course, does not recognise what he previously referred to as ‘irrational’ when he experiences these feelings himself.
For example, in the very first chapter when Joe meets Clarissa from the airport: ‘… in thirty-five minutes I experienced more than fifty theatrical happy endings, each one with the appearance of being slightly less well acted than the one before… and suspected that even the children were being insincere. I was just wondering how convincing I myself could be in greeting Clarissa… immediately my detachment vanished, and I called out her name with all the rest. ‘ He analyses the behaviour of the people at the airport and criticises its genuineness until his ‘detachment vanishes’ and he experiences it himself.
As the novel progresses, we learn this hypocrisy almost, is typical of Joe. He observes them as if they were playing out a drama; an interpreted world through narratives; a fiction. However, this is very interesting as each of the characters own truths are based a round this idea of a fictional narrative. For Clarissa, she is a university English literature teacher, Joe is a scientific journalist, and Jed suffers from a delusion. Therefore, the conflict, which arises between the characters because of their contrasting truths, is ironic.
The previous quote is just one an example of Joe contradicting his beliefs. Evidence of this increases as the novel progresses. The scene at the airport is also an example of a much more implicit contradiction by Joe. ‘If one ever wanted proof of Darwin’s contention that many expressions of emotion in humans are… genetically inscribed, then a few minutes at Heathrow’s terminal four should suffice. ‘ Yet later, he questions the sincerity of these actions, which would suggest Darwin’s theory is not accurate. In addition to this, there is the differing statement he makes in reference to the accident.
At first, his view is ‘A child alone and needing help. It was my duty to hand on, and I thought we would all do the same. ‘ As well as this, he believes that although he did not know who let go let go first, he is certain it was not him. However, just a few pages on from this, he states, ‘The child was not my child, and I was not going to die for it. ‘ A complete contrast to his original thoughts proving the idea of irrationality, yet he does not recognise this in himself as he does in others and the rest of the world.
As this idea is carried through the novel to the extent that it is almost a central theme, I wonder, although it does not state anywhere, if this is the Mc Ewan’s authorial voice shining through, subtly showing he does not believe in Joe’s outlook. It is also assumable that Mc Ewan aims to highlight the weaknesses in Joe’s beliefs. The character of Clarissa, representing art within the novel, is very different from Joe, just as art is very different from science. Her outlook on life is ‘diametrically opposite’ to Joe’s. One very clear example of this is the debate on a baby’s smile in chapter 8, where the ‘… uman nature was up for re-examination… ‘ – Joe cannot accept simple answers like Clarissa. Joe’s belief is the same as that of Edward O. Wilson, ‘… it is a social releaser, an inborn and relatively invariant signal that mediates a basic social relationship. ‘ Clarissa on the other hand believes ‘The truth of the smile is in the eye and heart of the parent, and in the unfolding love which only had meaning through time. ‘
At this stage in the novel, Clarissa and Joe’s enduring love bridges their differences, ‘there we left it, no hard feelings. As the novel progresses, theses two completely different perspectives are exposed further. The introduction of Parry into their lives exposes the ‘diametric opposed’ ideas they both share, resulting in a growing conflict between the two characters. Evidence for this spark lies in chapter nine, where Joe and Clarissa move towards judgement of each other after an argument about Jed. The ripple effects of the balloon accident at the start of the novel, is the main cause of the crack, which has occurred between them, and the beginning of the problems in their relationship.
Further into the novel, Clarissa becomes progressively more certain that Joe is suffering from delusion, not Jed, and as a result, a less severe conflict grows between the reader and Joe as we question his unreliability as a narrator. What I found extraordinary in the novel, is once we see the breakdown of trust between Clarissa and Joe, we as readers feel a breakdown of trust between Joe and ourselves. ‘His handwriting is rather like yours’ (page 100) suggesting Clarissa’s disbelief in Joe’s story.
Our breakdown of trust is a direct result of Joe’s unreliable narratives, which signifies a turning point in the novel as our opinions of Joe alter and we see him in a more negative light. As an unreliable narrator, we understand, through the thought provoking themes, that everything he says cannot be relied on heavily, as the facts are tainted; an altered truth.. The third protagonist, Jed, represents faith and religion in the novel. Jed is a young, gay male suffering from de Clerambault’s syndrome as we find out towards the end of the novel.
From our very first encounter with Jed, we as a reader come to our own conclusions about his behaviour. ‘What we can do is pray together’ This is not the sort of behaviour labeled ‘normal’ and his religious extremity is uncomfortable. Straight away, we label his unnatural fervor as ‘mad’ because it is on the surface and very explicit. However, once you analyse the other central characters, evidence suggests they too are, and certainly go through stages of being mad. Joe shows this with his manic behaviour both after the accident and towards the end of the book when he travels to get the gun.
This behaviour is noticeable by others, ‘the rationalist cracks at last’ (Clarissa) which later form into accusations that Joe is the mad one, but never noticed by themselves. This is also similar to Clarissa’s situation, after circumstances left her unable to bear children. ‘I had never witnessed such a disabling grief… ‘ (Joe) Because of this came her decline into depression after the death of her friend’s baby. To an extent, her experiences have rendered her incapable of rationality in certain circumstances, ‘…
Clarissa’s own mourning for a phantom child… ‘ The idea that all the characters experience some kind of madness is likely to be a comment by Mc Ewan about society. In terms of the story, it seems ironic as each of them believe their way and their beliefs are the ‘truths’, yet can any of them be relied on if they all show signs of madness? Can any of anyone’s truths be relied on? Because of our questioning of the reliability of the narrator narrator, I found myself questioning on a number of occasions who out of Jed and Joe was actually the mad one.
Although at the beginning of the novel we are presented with this religious extremist, with an absolutist idea of God, it is all from Joe’s perspective, until, we read Joe’s letter, which has not been tainted by a secondary perspective. The letters, in which he writes, appear so plausible and rational. ‘Describing how the soup is made is not the same as describing why it is made… ‘ As a result, we are left with the question of the reliability of Joe as a narrator, questioning the reliability of Joe’s perspective of the conflict between the two characters.
Science is based on reality, truth, facts and rational thought. You do not believe and see or see to believe; it just Is. Art, ‘the creation of something beautiful or significant’ (dictionary) Therefore, although art is often an expression, there is evidence of it – it uses a human skill to create a reality; you see to believe in many cases. Religion is dissimilar to both of these. Religion is completely based upon faith as there is no hardheaded evidence for it to be proven to exist and is therefore a lot less tangible. Believing is seeing in this case.
Each ‘belief’ contradicts the next and is therefore understandable how three people with three different views could come into conflict with one another. Linking in with this idea, in chapter nineteen when we meet Clarissa’ godfather, he mentions past eminences in the field of science who ‘could not, or would not see the truth of the scientific evidence before them because the evidence conflicted with their pet theories’. This idea is relevant to each character but alters to fit their characters. To Keats, the imaginative mind was diametrically opposed to the intellect.
It was capable of ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. It is therefore, not hard to understand that three different perceptions, art, science and religion can ‘count for the conflict between the characters’. The main conflict that develops between Joe and Clarissa is the debate on the reoccurring events surrounding Jed Parry’s obsession, which is rooted in the breakdown of trust between the two characters. At the end of the novel, the future in the relationship between them is left open.
Clarissa writes a letter to Joe. ‘I was completely wrong… but there might have been a less frightening outcome if you had behaved differently… you were manic, and driven, and very lonely. ‘ This lack of trust, which creates a fracture in their relationship, is, a result of the characters being blinded by their own ‘truths’. This results in having the incapability of seeing something in a different light. This happens to those who claim to know the truth; all the characters in the novel including those not central to the story, Mrs. Logan for example.
She constructs her own truths, based on the facts of the day of the balloon accident. ‘I know what killed him’. As this happens to each of the characters, it is likely to be a comment made by Mc Ewan in reference to society and how we all construct our own narratives based on what we see. It is therefore inevitable that conflict arises, as each persons viewing of the world, their perceptions, are different. I believe all these ideas are a huge insight into McEwan’s mind. Being so confident your theory is correct, can blind you and result in mistrust with other theories and people just as it does in the novel.
This mistrust can be destructive; we see in Mrs. Logan the effects her husband’s death has had when she believes he had an affaire. ‘Her sourness… anger in her voice… ‘ and later refers to a scarf which she believes the ‘mistress of her husband’ to be the owner of. Therefore, to sum up what I think McEwan is trying to say is that being blinded by your views, and having the incapability to escape from a tunnel vision mind, which is often self-constructed, can be destructive, yet we are all culpable of this psychological crime.
The conflict between science and religion (Jed and Joe) is also a big theme in the novel. The behavioural scientist, Noakes, writes ‘A rationalist scientific mind is set up in opposition between the values of the heart and the domestic scene’ What is interesting about the two characters representing science and religion, is that we often question Joe’s sanity, as his ‘truths’ are flawed, even though it is Parry that is ‘mad’.
I do not believe it is at all an accident that their names are so similar, nor do I think it an accident that there are more similarities between the characters when we look further into the iceberg. They both proclaim to know truths, we doubt Jed because of his illness, but Clarissa, who is supposedly sane, doubts Joe and therefore so do we – our opinion of one character is highly influenced by another.
Could this be another comment on society by McEwan in that once a person is labeled mad by someone, we see them in that light and consider it ourselves, constructing our own little stories on the situation – Noakes also states that ‘Truth is a fictional narrative’. Mc Ewan uses this novel to explore his philosophical ideas through the differing characters, perhaps to highlight that there has to be an acceptance of other views even if we do not agree.
The characters in this book do accept, and accept in the form of their enduring love for one another. There are parallels between the characters however. They each construct their own ‘truths’ based on facts. These truths are inevitably different from person to person. Every single person’s perception is unique, just as someone’s fingerprint is. This, without a doubt, is the root of conflict – and possibly all conflict. Saying why the soup is made is answerable in science, art and religion, but in diametrically opposed answers.