Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 969
Maurice Bendrix, the narrator of The End of the Affair, says that his account is “a record of hate far more than of love.” He claims to hate Henry Miles, his wife, Sarah, and a God in whom he does not believe. His narrative begins in January, 1946, when he encounters Henry crossing the street on a dark and rainy night that might correspond to the dark night of the soul. Worried about his wife, Henry asks Bendrix to come home with him; he confides that he fears Sarah is having an affair. Henry is tempted to hire a private investigator, and when he balks at doing so, Bendrix offers to do it for him. In fact, Bendrix and Sarah had been lovers for five years, from 1939 to 1944, when she abruptly and without giving reasons broke off the affair. Suspecting that she is seeing some other lover, both men are jealous, Bendrix intensely so. While he is visiting Henry, Sarah comes in drenched to her skin. None of them realizes it, but she has literally caught her death of cold.
Obsessed, Bendrix does in fact hire a detective, Alfred Parkis, who, with his son, begins a surveillance. After several reports to Bendrix about Sarah’s repeated meetings with a man named Richard Smythe, Parkis manages to steal Sarah’s journal. Reading it, Bendrix learns the reason for the end of their affair.
The affair began when Bendrix, a novelist, was doing research on a civil servant much like Henry Miles. In the course of using Sarah as a source, Bendrix casually seduced her, only for the two of them to find themselves overwhelmingly in love. Henry had been a devoted but dull husband with such a minimal sex drive that for years he and Sarah had slept apart. A sensual and frustrated woman, Sarah had a few brief affairs before the one with Bendrix, but they meant nothing to her except momentary gratification. Bendrix, however, she loves unreservedly, both physically and spiritually. Unable to believe in the depth of her love, jealous of her former lovers and imagining subsequent ones, Bendrix fears that the affair will end and so attempts to hasten it to that end by being bitter and quarrelsome. Though hurt, Sarah remains utterly committed to him. “Love doesn’t end,” she tells him. One day in 1944, after they have made love in his apartment, an air raid begins; Bendrix goes downstairs to see if everything is all right, and a V-1 bomb explodes in front of the house. When Sarah goes to look, she finds Bendrix pinned beneath the front door, seemingly lifeless. Convinced that he is dead, Sarah goes back to his room and prays to a God in whom she does not believe, asking that Bendrix be alive and promising, if he is, to give him up. Just then, he comes back into the room; she thinks that the pain will now begin and almost wishes him “safely back dead again under the door.”
Indeed, though Sarah has been an atheist, she keeps her vow, and the keeping of it helps bring her to belief, to fill the desert within which she has found herself, with divine love. In her suffering, she often hates God and seeks help from Richard Smythe, a rationalist preacher afflicted by a large strawberry birthmark that ruined his otherwise handsome face. Yet Smythe’s arguments against the existence of God are so intense that they help turn Sarah to belief, for how can one so hate a being that does not exist. She begins visiting a dark and ugly Catholic church with hideous statues whose very physical ugliness helps her believe in a God become incarnate; who, she asks, could love or hate a divinity as vague as a vapor. She buys a crucifix and begins to take instruction in Catholicism. Gradually, her hatred of God turns to love; a scrap of what seems like a love letter, which Parkis stole and gave to Bendrix, was actually a letter to God; He is the rival, the secret lover that Bendrix had feared.
Realizing belatedly the depth of Sarah’s love for him and believing that his presence can win her away from the God whose existence he does not accept, Bendrix phones Sarah to say he is coming for her. Ill and in bed, she tells him not to come, and when he insists, she flees into an even darker and wetter night. Bendrix pursues her to church, only to find her sick and suffering. His driving her out into the storm kills her, for the cold she caught the first night develops into pneumonia, and she dies before he can ever see her again.
Now Bendrix finds that he too can continue to love in the absence of the beloved. Yet he continues to fight Sarah’s God, refusing her the Catholic burial that she wanted and arguing bitterly with the God who now hounds him. When he is about to drift into a reluctant affair with a young woman, he prays to Sarah to stop him, and at that moment, Sarah’s mother intervenes. From her, he learns that as an infant, Sarah had been secretly baptized a Catholic. Sarah’s spirit seems able to perform miracles; it appears that she cured Parkis’ son of acute internal pain and caused Smythe’s hideous birth mark to vanish. Despite her adultery, Sarah has become a saint. Reluctantly, still hating God, Bendrix comes to believe in His existence, and though the book ends with his praying to God, “I’m too tired and old to learn to love. Leave me alone forever,” it may be that through his love for Sarah, whom he thought he hated, he may come to love her God, whom he has also thought he hated.