[Contains plot spoilers–although I don’t think it would ruin your enjoyment of the book if you read this first.]
In January 1946, Maurine Bendrix rekindles his acquaintanceship with Henry Miles. A year and a half before, Henry’s wife Sarah had broken off her affair with Bendrix and Bendrix has had no contact with either of them since. When Henry confides that he is worried about Sarah, Bendrix’s jealously reawakens, and he sets out to discover the new object of Sarah’s affections.
The End of the Affair is the story of God destroying the love between two people in order that they might learn to love Him. (Bendrix, admittedly, does not get as far as loving God by the end of the novel, but has made steps in the right direction.) It’s an extended commentary on what Lewis says in The Problem of Pain:
“Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. […] What then can God do in our interests but make ‘our own life’ less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible source of false happiness?”
In an article on First Things, which I found insightful thought I didn’t agree completely with it, Benjamin Myers writes “Sentimentality offers us the dubious chance to feel while bypassing the messiness of any real human engagement: not too much feeling but too thin an experience.” The End of the Affair is not sentimental, and I think that’s part of the reason why it’s a mainstream novel—and a classic at that—while most Christian novels today wouldn’t have a look in with a secular audience.
Sarah’s struggle is brutally hard. For much of it, she feels that she has given up Bendrix for God without getting anything in return—in other words, that she has thrown away human love, but that she still does not love God or feel loved by Him. At one point she writes, “While I loved Maurice, I loved Henry, and now I’m what they call good, I don’t love anyone at all. And You least of all.”
Because of such authenticity, when she does write of her love for God, it feels genuine rather than sentimental:
“Did I ever love Maurice as much before I loved You? Or was it really You I loved all the time? Did I touch You when I touched him? Could I have touched You if I hadn’t touched him first, touched him as I never touched Henry, anybody? […] You were there, teaching us to squander, like You taught the rich man, so that one day we might have nothing left except this love of You.”
The End of the Affair is rich in themes to explore–Sarah’s spiritual journey, Bendrix’s character development, the nature of love and hate, and the similarities between The End of the Affair and Brideshead Revisited come to mind–but this is long post enough. I’ll let Bendrix have the last, haunting word:
“For if this God exists, I thought, and if even you [i.e. Sarah]—with your lusts and your adulteries and the timid lies you used to tell—can change like this, we could all be saints by leaping as you leapt, by shutting the eyes and leaping once and for all: if you are a saint, it’s not so difficult to be a saint. It’s something He can demand of any of us, leap. But I won’t leap.”