On the train ride to M—, Dowell remembers finding it very funny when a brown cow hitched its horns under the stomach of a black and white animal and threw it into the middle of a narrow stream. He reflects that he probably should have pitied the animal but he didn't; he merely enjoyed the sight. Dowell adds that no one paid attention to him laughing.
Once they get to M—, they visit Martin Luther's bedroom and examine his Protest. With animation, Florence explains that this piece of paper is the reason that they are Protestants, hardworking, sober, industrious, and very different from the Irish and the Italians. As she says this, she touches Edward's wrist. Dowell is aware of something treacherous and evil in the day. Leonora rushes out of the room, pulling Dowell with her. She is enormously upset, claiming that "that" is the cause of sorrow in the world. Dowell does not understand what she means. When Leonora sees that Dowell does not comprehend her meaning, she re-establishes her composure and says that she is offended by Florence's comments because she is an Irish Catholic.
Dowell's inability to understand the events that are about to happen create a good deal of dramatic irony. One significant irony is the discrepancy between Dowell's perception of himself and the our perception of him. For example, Dowell considers himself extremely perceptive and insightful. Because he has had nothing to do for nine years, he reasons that he must be a faithful narrator. His attention, he explains, was entirely focused on the world around him: the decorations in the dining room, the plan of their hotel, the coquettish actions of Florence. But as he relates the story of their day at Nauheim, Dowell is the opposite of insightful. He is so enraptured in seeing things as they appear to be and in trusting "good people," that he is incapable of suspecting the beginning of a romance between Florence and Edward. Even when Leonora desperately attempts to point out the truth to him, Dowell does not understand. He happily accepts her excuse that as a Catholic, she is offended. Dowell can only recognize details which have little bearing and no importance. His wife's betrayal and Leonora's horror remain utterly invisible to him.
The scene in which Dowell laughs at the cows is a larger metaphor for the way we respond to Dowell in the novel. Dowell laughs at an act of violence among animals in a strange and awkward way. He notices the intricate relationship between the cows, but he does not notice the emotional violence amidst his very intimate group. Reflecting, Dowell concedes that he should have felt pity for the animal that was thrown into the river. But he did not feel pity at all. Likewise, we fail to pity Dowell because his situation is morbidly comic. He is so ignorant and naive that he can inspire only a strange fascination in the outside observer.