The Comfort of Strangers

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First edition cover

The Comfort of Strangers is a 1981 novel by British writer Ian McEwan. It is his second novel, and is set in an unnamed city (though the detailed description strongly suggests Venice). Harold Pinter adapted it as a screenplay for television in 1990 (The Comfort of Strangers), which starred Rupert Everett, Christopher Walken, Helen Mirren and Natasha Richardson. The film is set in Venice.[1]

Plot summary[edit]

Mary and Colin are an English couple on holiday abroad in an unnamed city. Mary is divorced with two children; Colin is her angelically handsome lover who has been with her for seven years. Although they do not usually live together, their relationship is deep, passionate and intimate, but they seem to be bored.

One evening, the couple gets lost amongst the canals and is befriended by a forceful native named Robert, who takes them to a bar. Later, he insists on bringing them to his house where they meet his wife Caroline. Although the guests are at first shown great hospitality, it becomes clear that the hosts have a peculiar relationship with each other – Robert is the product of a sadistic upbringing and Caroline, who is disabled, has an uncomfortable masochistic view of men as being masters to whom women should yield.

At the beginning of their next meeting, Robert immediately separates Colin and Mary, and takes Colin for a long walk in the city. As they are walking, Robert talks exclusively to men, all in a language that Colin doesn't understand. Later, Robert informs Colin that he told the men that Colin was his lover.

Meanwhile, Caroline tells Mary all about the sado-masochistic relationship she has with Robert. Robert had soon started to become very violent towards her, especially when they were having sex. One time, he even broke her back while having intercourse, the reason for Caroline's enduring pain and limping. Caroline nevertheless points out that in a way, she enjoyed being hurt and loathed by her husband. Eventually, they even shared a mutual fantasy, namely to kill someone. Mary does not really comment on what she has just learned. Later on, Caroline makes some tea and leads Mary into her and Robert's bedroom. Mary is surprised to find a wall covered with photographs of Colin. As she slowly begins to understand what Caroline and Robert have in mind with Colin, she starts to feel very tired and falls asleep.

Shortly afterwards, Colin and Robert return from their walk and Colin notices that something is very wrong with Mary. It turns out that Caroline has laced the tea with a drug that paralyzes Mary but leaves her able to see. With Mary being unable to move or warn Colin, he is still in the dark about what is going to happen to him. She has to watch helplessly as Robert and Caroline start to touch Colin, kiss him, and as Robert slits Colin's wrist with a razorblade. As a result, Colin bleeds to death; Mary passes out completely. She later awakens in the hospital and finds out that Robert and Caroline are gone, having taken all their belongings with them.

The police later inform Mary that such crimes are common.


McEwan's novel explores the desultory closeness that exists between Mary and Colin. They have known each other for seven years and "often forget that they are two separate people". As well as being an expression of their love, this closeness makes them weak and puerile. It causes them pain, and enables Robert to take advantage of them.

The disturbing climax of the narrative suggests that McEwan is concerned with two main themes. First, the sadistic behaviour of Robert and the subservience of Caroline are manifestations of a raw and haunting human sexuality. Second, Robert's acts are placed in the context of his childhood, suggesting that his family upbringing with a domineering, authoritarian father, submissive mother and older, more powerful sisters, was responsible for his behaviour.


The novel was nearly universally praised both in the United Kingdom and in the United States. In The New York Times, the critic John Leonard wrote "No reader will begin The Comfort of Strangers and fail to finish it; a black magician is at work." Leonard called McEwan "one of the few English writers of fiction who belong these days to a dark Europe; he is a Samuel Beckett with some genital organization" and "a writer of enormous talent."[2]


  1. ^ Canby, Vincent (1991-03-29). "Review/Film; A Grand Guignol Along Venice's Grand Canal". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-03-01.
  2. ^ Leonard, John (1981-06-15). "The Comfort Of Strangers". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-03-01.