On their honeymoon is the south of France June and Bernard Tremaine set out on a walk in the countryside. Both are devout Communists, agree on most everything and much in love. While Bernard stops to look closely at some caterpillars, June continues on her way.
Soon thereafter, two large, black dogs confront her. We learn later that the Germans left them to terrorize the villagers. June managed to ward off the dogs, but the encounter changed her life.
It became a mystical experience, turned her away from Communism and acquired a somewhat religious epiphany. In spite of their love for one another, June and Bernard never lived together again. June settled in a bergerie in the south of France; Bernard returned to England and ran successfully for Parliament.
McEwan’s tale is narrated by their adoptive son, Jeremy, who spoke frequently with both of them. The novel recounts their now-differing views on science, religion, and politics.
I believe McEwan intended June’s encounter with the black dogs as a metaphor for a fundamental feature of the human condition. He sums it up at the end:
…I came face to face with evil. I didn’t quite know it at the time, but I sensed it in my fear—these animals were the creations of debased imaginations, of perverted spirits no amount of social theory could account for. The evil I’m talking about lives in all of us. It takes hold in an individual, in private lives, within a family, and then it’s children who suffer most. And then, when the conditions are right, in different countries, at different times, a terrible cruelty, a viciousness against life erupts, and everyone is surprised by the depth of hatred within himself. Then it sinks back and waits. It’s something in our hearts.