The Comfort of Strangers

by Ian McEwan
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Chapter 1 Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411

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.

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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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

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 condos. There are lots of different types of art around the room giving it the look of a gallery. Mary tries to no avail to open some of the furniture drawers but they are all locked. Eventually, Mary notices a sliding glass door leading to a balcony and is surprised to see someone looking at her through the glass.

The door opens, and the woman watching Mary introduces herself as Caroline, Robert’s wife. She apologizes for her husband’s absence, and tries to grill Mary for details about herself. Caroline mentions how beautiful Colin is, and then soon leaves to fetch snacks realizing that Colin and Mary must be famished. Mary eats greedily, and Caroline speaks to Mary about love. She believes that if one is truly in love, one should be willing to let a significant other kill them. She also tells Mary that she came and watched Mary and Colin sleeping for about half an hour. During their conversation, Mary registers that Caroline has serious back pain along with difficulty getting around.

The conversation between Mary and Caroline is interrupted by the arrival by Colin, who comes out onto the balcony with only a towel to cover himself. Caroline suddenly remembers their clothes, tells them they are in a locked cabinet. She begs the two of them to stay for dinner. She insists Robert wants them to stay and jokingly tells them she won’t give them a key until they agree to stay. Mary and Colin finally agree to stay to have dinner, and Caroline tosses the key to him. There is something desperate about Caroline’s pleading that suggests that she has few friends or visitors (or that Robert has commissioned her to keep their guests there until he gets home).

Chapter 6 Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

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 change out of Caroline’s robe into something appropriate. Caroline departs to the kitchen to check on dinner, leaving Robert and Colin alone. Once alone, Robert laments the situation caused by the feminist movement in Italy. It is clear that Robert’s review of marriage and male-female relations is strictly traditional. He insists that women want to be dominated and controlled by men. When Colin attempts to playfully disagree, Robert punches him in the stomach. Colin has the wind knocked out of him, and Robert helps him back to his feet; it is unclear if the punch was intended as a joke, a reprimand, or both. As Robert goes to the kitchen to check on the food, he deliberately winks at Colin.

At dinner, conversation proves to be painfully sparse, with only Mary filling it by telling tedious stories about her children’s school. Although Caroline tries to politely ask questions, Robert makes no secret of his disinterest. Robert then mentions a new manager working at his bar/restaurant and proposes a toast. When Colin does not participate in the toast, Robert repeats himself until Colin too lifts his glass. Later that evening, as Robert and Mary chat, Colin finds himself alone with Caroline. She seems concerned about the duration of Colin and Mary’s trip and wonders if they will soon go back. She seems to hint that she is not able to leave the house of her own volition and makes Colin promise to return. Meanwhile, Robert shows Mary a photograph of a man smoking; the picture is grainy and hard to decipher. After some more chatting, Mary finally talks Colin into leaving; just as they step outside, Caroline reminds Colin of his promise. The door closes and from the street it sounds like Robert strikes Caroline in the face. Colin and Mary, alone on the street, must now decide which direction to go to find their way back to the hotel.

Chapter 7 Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432

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 to telling each other bizarre fantasies. Colin fantasizes of a machine that has sex with Mary until she dies, and continues afterward. Mary imagines removing all of Colin’s limbs and keeping him as a sex slave, both for herself and others. In the light of day, these fantasies seem embarrassing, and the two do not discuss them.

One morning, Mary awakens early and decides to go for breakfast while Colin sleeps. She quietly leaves their room and heads to the café directly across from the hotel. She is the first customer of the day, and the waiter gives her a complimentary cup of hot chocolate. Eventually, other people begin to filter into the restaurant. Mary looks up at her room in the hotel and sees Colin on the balcony. He waves to her and she feels oddly disconcerted, but isn’t sure why. Colin soon appears on the ground level and crosses the street to join her for breakfast.

That night, Mary is startled from her sleep screaming. Colin starts and tries to comfort Mary, who had a dream in which she remembered something. Mary’s screams are so loud that it stirs others in the hotel, who come into the hallway before returning to their rooms once Mary has quieted. Colin continues to press Mary about what she saw, but she does not want to say. Colin begins to drift off to sleep in Mary’s arms and she finally reveals her nightmare. She realized that the picture Robert showed her during their dinner visit was of Colin standing on the balcony. She did not initially recognize it because it was fuzzy and unclear; however, seeing Colin at breakfast made her realize what it was. She tries to gauge Colin’s response to the picture, but he has drifted back to sleep.

Chapter 8 Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409

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. As he looks more closely, he sees that she is waving to him. Colin soon becomes alarmed that Mary is struggling or drowning and trying to signal him for help. He makes his way out into the ocean, fighting against the strong waves to get to Mary. Colin is a good short-distance swimmer, but fatigues easily when swimming for extended periods of time. Complicating this are the heavy waves that knock him about, causing him to swallow water. Colin attempts to alter his strokes to combat the fatigue, but finds himself quickly wearing out. He eventually approaches Mary who is not in danger at all; she was simply marveling at the beauty of their surroundings. She advises Colin to lay on his back for awhile to rest and prevent himself from drowning (and possibly taking her with him).

When they finally make their way back to the beach, Colin collapses onto his towel, worn out from the effort of swimming after Mary. For the first time in awhile, they allow themselves to talk about Robert and Caroline. Mary seems certain that Robert beats Caroline. Colin wonders if Caroline doesn’t mind her harsh treatment, which offends Mary’s feminist sensibilities. At the end of the day, the couple makes their way down to the quay to catch a water taxi home. When their taxi approaches their usual stop, they decide to get off one stop later. When they do, they look up in the distance and see a familiar balcony. It is Robert’s house, and Caroline stands there waving at them. Without discussing it, they both climb the hill towards their home.

Chapter 9 Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605

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 other patrons at the bar continually look at Robert as he waits. On the walk back to Robert’s home, Robert tells Colin that he spoke about him to all of the friends and acquaintances they passed on the way to the bar. Robert told them that Colin was his lover, and his leaving Caroline was driving her into a rage. Colin attempts to question Robert about his reasons for doing this, as well as the photograph, but Robert deflects all questions. At an intersection not far from Robert’s house, Colin looks down one road. It may be a street he has explored with Mary during an earlier outing in which they became lost. It occurs to Colin that he could escape down this street and go off on his own, but he does not. Robert clears his throat and insists they return to his home.

While Robert and Colin are away at the bar, Caroline and Mary get to know each other. The house has been packed up and there are suitcases by the door. Caroline explains they are taking a three-month vacation to visit her family in Canada. Caroline takes Mary into the kitchen off of the main gallery and offers her some tea. The tea is surprisingly bitter, but Mary compliments Caroline in an effort to be sociable. During the conversation, Mary tries to get Caroline to admit the source of her back pain, but Caroline does not initially want to discuss it; Mary assumes this is because she is being abused by her husband. Eventually, Caroline agrees, and explains that Robert married her when she was just twenty. He wanted a family, but they soon discovered they were unable to have children. Initially, they believed it was Caroline’s medical issue, but tests revealed Robert had a low sperm count. One day while making love, Robert physically hurt Caroline. Surprised, Caroline felt that she both liked and deserved the pain. The physical beatings become a regular part of their lovemaking, along with Robert venting his verbal hatred of Caroline. One night, Robert goes too far and breaks Caroline’s back. They back off from their violent fantasies unsure of how to continue. Robert has regularly shared fantasies of killing Caroline during their lovemaking, and Caroline thinks he is now intent on doing so. As they finish the story, Caroline takes Mary to their bedroom where Mary sees a kind of shrine built to Colin. Photographs of him cover the wall opposite their bed. Many of them have been magnified or cut to eliminate Mary from the picture. Mary suddenly feels herself growing sleepy; she drifts off only to be awakened a short while later by Caroline. Robert has returned with Colin, and the couple is ready to enact a fantasy involving Colin and Mary.

Chapter 10 Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 413

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 Caroline recovers; the violence only seems to intensify Robert and Caroline’s investment in the scenario they are playing out. She puts her hand up Colin’s shirt and begins to fondle his chest; Robert kisses him on the mouth and Colin stands in stunned shock. From where she sits groggily, Mary sees Robert take something out of his pocket. Alarmed, she realizes it is a razor as Robert unfolds it. With a swift movement, he slashes Colin’s wrist creating a large, gaping wound. Blood pours everywhere and Colin collapses to the ground. Mary, though horrified, again loses consciousness.

Later, Mary is questioned thoroughly by the local authorities. They are impressed by the consistency of her story and she is soon cleared as a potential suspect. They note the odd details of Robert and Caroline’s actions. They clearly planned everything far in advance; Caroline had as much as admitted that to Mary when she was staring at the photographic shrine to Colin. Still, they had been careless in ways that seemed inconsistent with their detailed planning. They used their real passports to leave the country and they left fingerprints everywhere. Mary understands that part of their fantasy is to be caught and punished, so it makes perfect sense that they did not go to great lengths to conceal their identities or their involvement in the crime. Eventually, the medical examiner takes Mary down to the morgue to identify Colin’s body. She does, noting the beauty that attracted Robert and Caroline. She calls her ex-husband and speaks to her children to make plans for the return from her vacation. As she leaves, Mary is again struck by the kindness of the police offers.

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