Study Guide

The Comfort of Strangers

by Ian McEwan

The Comfort of Strangers Summary

Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

Colin and Mary are a couple traveling in Venice, and their days have an almost ritualistic similarity. In the mornings, they busy themselves with sightseeing and tourist attractions. This is followed by a late-afternoon nap (which only once included sex) after which they leisurely bathe and dress themselves. They then spend an hour on the veranda relaxing, taking in the sights and sounds of the neighborhood, and often smoking a joint together. In the evenings, they explore the city in search of new, often out-of-the-way restaurants. Their command of the city’s geography is limited and they are further hampered by the inadequacies of the maps they bought. It is quite common for them to get lost in their travels, not taking in dinner until 9:00 or later. As their stay goes on, the two become more and more dependent upon the maid’s service, and their initial tidiness soon gives way to the slovenliness of people who know that someone else is picking up after them.

On this particular day, the couple finds themselves in the midst of a cool silence—some earlier disagreement has left them not speaking to each other. Colin rises from his afternoon repose and showers first, hearing a man across the way in his own shower singing opera with great abandon. When Mary eventually arises, trying to shake off busy dreams in which she is constantly beleaguered by her children, she keeps her distance and offers only chilly responses to Colin. This evening, Colin smokes his marijuana alone on the veranda and notices a mildly comical situation play out in which an elderly man attempts to get a good picture of his wife without the interference of a table of diners nearby. Once the man has removed the diners from view, he finds his wife has wandered away from her pose and angrily attempts to reposition her. While this scene plays out, Mary refuses the pot, and stays inside doing yoga to keep her distance. When she finally arrives on the porch, Colin recounts the story of the photograph in an exaggerated way in a purposeful attempt to draw her out. She does not initially respond, but soon the couple is holding hands again. They apologize to each other and head indoors for some familiar, but not exceedingly passionate, lovemaking. When they have re-dressed, they find themselves well behind their usual schedule. Despite this, they head out into the evening resolved to maintain their daily routine.

Chapter 2 Summary

The early part of their journey proves unsuccessful for expected reasons. Colin and Mary forget to bring their maps with them, and quickly find themselves lost. The relative lack of signage and the sameness of the streets only furthers their confusion. Colin seems more perturbed than the unflappable Mary, who stops at a department store window. On display is a bed scene with an incredibly ornate upholstered headboard, which includes a built-in radio, telephone and refrigerator. At another building, Mary is taken with posters of feminist propaganda, and she stops to see if her Italian is good enough to read them. While she is particularly fond of a flyer calling for the castration of rapists, Colin grows impatient knowing that their chances of finding a restaurant still open are dwindling.

After venturing a little further, they find locations vaguely familiar from previous wanderings, but are no closer to finding a restaurant. Colin is slightly optimistic that they might be able to find a hot dog stand they had found in the area during a previous excursion, but still cannot get his bearings. With limited street lighting, the city has grown very dark. Suddenly, a man steps out of the shadow and asks who they are and where they are going. Initially, Colin and Mary are reluctant to offer any information about themselves, but the man insists he knows of an establishment that is still open, and warns them that even the hot dog stand has closed for the night. He grabs each of them by an arm and begins to guide them, despite their protests and attempts to disengage. He apologizes, introduces himself as Robert, and takes them on a fifteen-minute walk (passing some previously visited landmarks) to a small basement bar. Along the way, they pass Robert’s home, but he explains that his wife is resting so he cannot invite them in.

Upon arriving at the bar, Robert speaks to one of the workers, who sends over wine and breadsticks. Colin and Mary note that the bar only has men in it. Given their limited food intake and the steady flow of wine, Colin and Mary gradually reveal information about themselves. Colin and Mary are unmarried, and Mary has two children from a prior relationship. Wanting to know more about this new acquaintance, Mary asks Robert how he met his wife. Before beginning the story, he explains that it requires considerable back story involving his whole family: his mother, his father, and his four older sisters.

Chapter 3 Summary

As Robert begins to speak of his childhood, he portrays his father as a stern and terrifying man. Everyone in Robert’s house fears his father and strictly obeys the rules he sets. As the only boy, Robert becomes his father’s favorite, but this is not without its consequences. When his two oldest sisters, the teenaged Eva and Maria, ask for privileges like wearing make-up and stockings, Robert was often asked to mediate by his father. Out of fear of his father, the ten-year-old Robert said no to all of these requests, and his father jovially insisted that it was Robert’s decision, not his own.

One day, when Robert’s parents are out, Eva and Maria try on their mother’s clothing, makeup and perfume and parade around the house as if they were grown-ups. When the time arrives for their parents return, they return all of the clothes, wash themselves thoroughly, and open the window in their parents’ bedroom to clear the smell of perfume. At dinner that night, his father asks him what they did all afternoon, and Robert responds honestly because he thinks his father already knows. That night, his father calls Robert into his office (a room usually off limits) and has him watch as he beats the two sisters with the belt. From then on, Robert’s sisters hate him and soon enact their revenge. They trick Robert into eating sweets and chocolates, feed him castor oil, and lock him in their father’s office. While he is trapped in there, he vomits and soils himself. The sisters unlock the room shortly before their father returns, and act as if nothing has happened. When their father sees the mess and realizes Robert has eaten chocolate (something he forbids), his disappointment is overwhelming. Robert never eats chocolate again, and still holds a grudge against his sisters.

Despite his punishments for ruining the office, Robert’s mother still dotes on him. Whenever his father is away, Robert sleeps in her bed. One day, another family visits and his sisters attempt to embarrass Robert by telling the kids that he still sleeps with his mother. One of the daughters, Caroline, is sympathetic and does not make fun of Robert. Eight years later, Robert and Caroline get married. After Robert finishes his story, he bids Colin and Mary goodnight. The two then stumble out of the bar, now quite inebriated, and wander off into the night.

Chapter 4 Summary

Colin and Mary are too drunk and disoriented to make their way home, and instead sleep in a doorway for a few scant hours. In the morning, Colin has considerable difficulty in rousing Mary to suggest that they make their way back to their hotel. Although they are still hopelessly lost, Walter knows that if they can get back to the center of the city, they can find their way to the hotel, which is close by. He guides the half-conscious Mary through the streets to the local hospital. Just as they arrive, a waterbus headed for the center of town departs. While they wait, Colin suggests they check the hospital to see if it might have a cafeteria or kiosk that sells something to drink. Mary, nearly delirious from her lack of rest, food and water, has difficulty staying awake. Fortunately, another water bus soon arrives and takes them back to the center of the city. Once there, the dozy, parched Mary insists that they find some water. An outdoor restaurant nearby is packed, and Colin hovers over the table of an elderly couple until they leave. Once they finally get a table, Colin and Mary are virtually ignored by the wait staff.

A baby plays at a nearby table and catches Mary’s eye. She is fascinated and wonders what her own children are up to at this moment. She feels guilty about leaving them home with their father, and considers returning home early, even though they have ten days left in their vacation. Finally, after much hand signaling, Colin gets a waiter to come to their table. When he asks for water for himself and Mary, the waiter gruffly exits. Worried that the waiter may never come back, Mary suggests they leave, go back to their hotel, and order room service.

As they prepare to leave, they see Robert across the way and try to sit back down to avoid being seen by him. Unfortunately, they catch his eye and he comes over to see them. When they relay their difficulties in getting a glass of water, Robert is horrified and feels responsible for their hangovers and lousy night’s sleep in a doorway. He insists on taking them back to his house to rest, insisting it will be more comfortable than a hotel. Colin initially refuses, but the still-exhausted Mary follows Robert. Colin does too, and Robert takes them back to his home via a taxi.

Chapter 5 Summary

Hours later, Mary and Colin wake up in an unfamiliar bedroom. They are each sleeping in their own bed, completely naked. Mary, who wakes first, admires the sleeping Colin’s physical beauty; she then gets up and begins doing yoga. Colin soon stirs and quickly becomes concerned about the whereabouts of their clothes. When Mary tells him to look for a robe and go find out where their clothes are, he comes back from the adjoining bathroom in a frilly women’s robe. He refuses to leave the room dressed this way, so he gives the robe to Mary and makes her go look.

Once out of the room, Mary gets a good look at her surroundings. She is several stories up in a building that seems to have been subdivided into apartments or...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Colin excuses himself to dress and Caroline quizzes Mary about her work. Mary has recently worked for a women’s theatre collective before creative differences and other difficulties caused the group to split. Caroline seems baffled by the possibility of an all-female theatre and believes their plays must have somehow focused on men, even if they were offstage. As they converse, Caroline again mentions Colin’s attractiveness and tells Mary that Robert owns the bar he took them to the night before. Just then, Robert arrives home and Caroline struggles to rise up from the chair and greet him. Colin returns, nattily dressed, and thanks Robert for his hospitality.

Colin’s return allows Mary to slink off to her room and...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

After their dinner with Robert and Caroline, Mary and Colin return to the hotel and scarcely leave it for the next three days. They find themselves in the throes of a newfound passion. They spend much of the days and evenings making love, and they take most of their meals in their room. They both feel like they have rediscovered the feeling of the first love of a new relationship. When they aren’t in bed, they spend hours talking to each other about their families, their dreams, and their fears. They also philosophize about the greater questions of life and death, as well as politics and social issues. They frequently shower together, and constantly whisper and giggle to each other. During their lovemaking, they are often given...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

The next day, Mary and Colin decide to go to the beach. It is an intensely hot day, and the beach is extremely crowded. As Colin and Mary make their way along the sand, they realize the impossibility of finding the perfect spot. They want to be away from the crowds without infringing on the privacy of others who want the same thing. They eventually settle into an area nearby a group of young people playing beach volleyball and flirting with each other. They cover each other in sunscreen, and Mary heads out into the ocean for a swim. Colin, enjoying the time alone, soon drifts off to sleep.

When he wakes a half an hour later, he searches the ocean for Mary. He finally sees what he thinks is her, far out on the horizon....

(The entire section is 409 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

Colin and Mary are greeted warmly at the stairs by Robert and Caroline. Robert insists that he has to take care of some business at the bar and takes Colin with him. He leaves Mary to talk with Caroline without asking either of them if they agree to this arrangement. Along the way, Robert holds Colin’s hand. Although this is customary for men in this country, Colin feels that Robert is deliberately trying to keep a hold on him. Along the way, Robert seems to go out of his way to speak to everyone he knows. Colin does not understand the language, but repeatedly hears his name mentioned. They arrive at the bar, which again only has male customers, and Colin waits at the table while Robert and his new manager sign some papers. The...

(The entire section is 605 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

Mary is incredibly weak and disoriented when Caroline brings her out into the gallery; she can barely speak. Caroline deposits her in a chair and explains that she put something “special” in her tea. Colin tries to understand Mary’s whisperings but can only make out the word “Go.” Colin is alarmed by Mary’s condition and asks Caroline to call the hospital. Caroline informs them that she and Robert are about to go away and the telephone lines have been shut off. Colin asks Robert to go to the hospital to get an ambulance, but Robert refuses. Instead, Robert and Caroline back Colin up against the wall opposite Mary’s chair. When Colin tries to escape, he knocks Caroline down. Robert slams Colin against the wall as...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear