The Comfort of Strangers  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

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). It was adapted into a film in 1990 (The Comfort of Strangers), which starred Rupert Everett, Christopher Walken, Helen Mirren and Natasha Richardson. The film is set in Venice.

Plot summary

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 are 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.

While the two men talk with the women in another room, Robert punches Colin in the stomach hard enough so that he doubles over. At their next meeting, Robert takes Colin for a long walk in the city and talks entirely to men, all in a language that Colin doesn't understand. Later, Robert tells Colin that he told the men that Colin was his lover.

Returning to the house, Mary and Colin find that Caroline and Robert have packed all their belongings. They are going away, traveling.

She gives Mary tea laced with a drug that paralyzes her but leaves her able to see. Robert slashes Colin's wrist, and he bleeds to death while she watches helplessly. She later awakens in the hospital and finds out that Robert and Caroline are gone.

The police later inform her 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."

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Comfort of Strangers" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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