The story begins with Henry Perowne waking early and seeing a burning aircraft fly across the sky of early morning London. This sets him on all kinds of metaphysical musings:
If Perowne were inclined to religious feeling, to supernatural explanations, he could play with the idea that he's been summoned; that having woken in an unusual state of mind, and gone to the window for no reason, he should acknowledge a hidden order, an external intelligence which wants to show or tell him something of significance (16).But these musing don't extend into or penetrate far into Henry's world. His agnosticism or practical atheism seems to be summed up here:
But for Theo's [Henry's son] sincerely godless generation, the question [of theodicy] hasn't come up. No one in his bright, plate-glass, forward-looking school ever asked him to pray, or sing an impenetrable cheery hymn. There's no entity for him to doubt (32).
Perowne regards this [religiously motivated behavior] as a matter for wonder, human complication beyond the reach of morals. From it there spring, alongside unreason and slaughter, decent people and good deeds, beautiful cathedrals, mosques, cantatas, poetry. Even the denial of God, he was once amazed and indignant to hear a priest argue, is a spiritual exercise, a form of prayer: it's not easy to escape from the clutches of the believers (17).
God, religion, faith - these are superstitions at best, violent perversions at worst. Not realities at the very heart of human experience. So what is the driving force behind Henry's life? Work, it would seem. He and wife Rosalind are typically modern here:
Well, in ambitious middle life it sometimes seems there is only work. He can be at the hospital until ten, then it can pull him from his bed at 3 a.m., and he can be back there again at eight. Rosalind's work proceeds by a series of slow crescendos and abrupt terminations as she tries to steer her newspaper away from the courts. For certain days, even weeks on end, work can shape every hour; it's the tide, the lunar cycle they set their lives by, and without it, it can seem, there's nothing. Henry and Rosalind are nothing (23).Yes, nothing. This is profoundly insightful about the nature of modernity: without something constantly pecking at us, we disappear. I don't say it isn't in some sense true, but I do insist that it is outrageous. That McEwan doesn't discern the outrageousness of it furthers my outrage.
I don't want to give away the ending, but it seems to me that the questions set forth above are answered by a certain flattening of these questions. It is enough to do one's duty as an Englishmen and a surgeon. Human questions? These must stay within the realm of the pragmatic; if it is mysterious, it can't exist.