Briony is the main character of the book. In essence, she is the author and the story is told through her eyes, although somewhat removed (see "Major Themes" for more on this point).
When the story begins, Briony is 13 years old (although, I have to say some pages have her at 12 and others at 11, but for the most part, it is determined she is 13 years old on page 109). She was born in 1922 and the only mentioning of her birth states that it was "difficult" and triggered her mother's long illness with migraines and depression.
Briony has two older siblings: Leon, who is twelve years older and living in London; and Cecilia, who is ten years older and is living at home having just returned from school in Cambridge. The narrator refers to Briony as a little girl whose effective status is as an only child.
Early on her life, Briony discovers her passion for words and secrets. When we meet her, she has written a play called "The Trials of Arabella" which she also attempts to star in and direct. It is clear to the reader that Briony is a girl with an extended and vivid imagination. Her reality compared to her high-demand vision of life is called nothing but "dreams and frustrations." She entertains a high amount of self pity when she doesn't get what she wants and expects too much from the people and the world around her.
Briony is losing her innocence from the moment "Atonement" begins. Bearing witness to a sequence of events between her older sister and the son of their charlady, Briony misinterprets the motives and intentions of adult behavior. This causes her to trigger a series of events that will have long-lasting and incredibly damaging results for the parties involved.
Briony grows up to serve as a nurse in London during World War Two. She also begins to write while in London, and by the end of the book we meet Briony as a 77 year old who has just learned of a terminal illness (vascular dementia). She is being celebrated by her family for her successes as a writer. It is during this final chapter that we learn Briony to be the author of our tale.
Cecilia Tallis could be considered the second heroine of "Atonement." She is Briony's older sister by ten years, and suffers in love by the misguided crime of her young sister.
Cecilia is quite different than her younger sibling. The opening chapters describe her state of living as untidy, taking time to illustrate the unorganized and scattered way in which she lives. We also learn of a dear maternal affection in Cecilia for her younger sister, who shows an enthusiasm for Briony's childish, imaginative mind that Briony perceives as being condescending. Further on into part one of the novel, the reader also learns that it was Cecilia who would go to Briony when her creative mind would get away from her at night, causing her terrifying nightmares. During these spells, it was Cecilia who would run to her sister's room and hold her, repeating the phrase "Come back"--words that will carry plenty of weight throughout the entire novel.
Cecilia studied at Cambridge where she learned the unfortunate separations between gender and social class. Robbie Tuner was at the university at the same time she was, although they did not befriend one another because of the clear social-class distinction between the two. Back that Tallis household for the summer, Cecilia feel impatient and desperate for something exciting to happen to her. She also feels useless as a member of the Tallis family. She is restless and wants to feel needed, but is not.
Cecilia discovers Robbie Turner's love for her after receiving a letter by the hand of Briony. Surprisingly (especially to Robbie) she embraces his desires and mirrors his sentiments. When Robbie is accused of raping Lola Quincey, Cecilia is the only one who stands by him, insisting on his innocence.
Following the incredulous accusations towards her lover, Cecilia exiles herself from the Tallis family. She moves to London to become a nurse and we only hear from her through her love letters to Robbie Turner while he is fighting the war off in France.
In the final section of the book, Cecilia is surprise-visited by Briony. She receives her little sister and we find Robbie and her living together in a small flat in London. The last we see of Cecilia is when she and Robbie escort Briony back to the subway station following a visit in which forgiveness for her sister's malice crime is never granted.
In the end, we learn Cecilia was killed in a bombing in a London train station during the war.
Robbie is the main male character of the novel. He is the young man who we follow into battle during World War Two in the middle sections of the book, as well as the character whom is falsely accused of rape by Briony Tallis.
Robbie Turner is the son of the Tallis charlady Grace Turner. During childhood, all the children were too young and innocent to recognize any difference between themselves and Robbie was close friends with Leon and Cecilia, and acted as an older, caring brother to the young Briony. When his is introduced in the book, he is 23 years old and has just returned from Cambridge where he earned a literature degree. He is now working on some landscaping in the Tallis park and debating on going back to school for a degree in medicine. His entire schooling has been funded by the generous Jack Tallis.
We learn that Robbie's father Ernest left him and his mother when he was six years old with no real explanation. Rather than turn the Turners onto the street, Jack Tallis offered a position on the house staff to Grace and over the years both mother and son became an extended part of the Tallis family.
Robbie is described as being very handsome, "sheer bulk," and quite intelligent (24). Although ignored for the most part by Cecilia at Cambridge, Robbie pens a letter to her announcing his love for her. He intends to deliver an apology letter for breaking the family's relic vase, but the letters are accidentally switched and his awkward predicament is set.
After being caught making love to the higher class Cecilia, Robbie is accused of raping the young cousin Lola. Robbie is found guilty of the crime and sent to prison for three years. When Britain enters the war in 1939, Robbie has an opportunity to emancipate himself by fighting in France. This he does.
The middle of the book follows Robbie through his horrific tour (retreat, really) from the front lines near Belgium back to Dunkirk where the British army was gathering to flea back to England via the English Channel. Robbie is injured with shrapnel during a bombing, but marches on with his two corporal companions Nettles and Mace.
Turner reaches Dunkirk. The next time we pick him up is in Cecilia's flat in 1940 when Briony visits, seeking her "atonement." Robbie is furious with the young lady for the crime she committed and refuses to forgive her, instead instructing her on a series of legal action that will help clear his name.
In the end of the book, it is revealed that Robbie died in the war as a result of his wounds.
Emily is mother to Briony, Cecilia, and Leon, and wife to Jack Tallis. She is 46 years old in 1935 where the first third of the novel takes place.
She is defined as distant and unfriendly and seems to let the Tallis household be managed by the staff that is employed there. To her defense, Emily is pretty much a single mother--her husband Jack is never around, devoting more of his time to his work in the Whitehall ministry than to his family.
Emily suffers from severe migraines, an illness that began after the birth of her youngest child Briony. She was educated at home by herself until she was 16, then she was sent to Switzerland to boarding school. Her view about woman and class in society is traditional. She feels woman are subservient to men and social classes should not mix romantically.
Emily has a special maternal instinct for her youngest daughter, Briony, and it is said that she "loves to love her" and "protects her against failure" (62). Overall, she is described as having a maternal "sixth sense [and] tentacular awareness" for her children and her household.
There is a complete and in-depth description of Emily Tallis given at the beginning of Chapter 6.
Jack is the father of the household and a minor character in the novel. We know he is an extremely hard-working and generous man. He is never home, spending all of his time at the ministry in London where he works, suggestively on secret government preparations for the inevitable war with Germany (on page 115, he refers to himself as a "slave" to Britain).
Jack values family and patriotism. His most prized possession is a family heirloom vase that made it home from the first World War after his brother was awarded it as a gift for saving a Belgian village from German attack. This is the vase that Robbie Turner breaks in the fountain, triggering the series of events that leads Briony to falsely accuse him of rape.
We know Jack to be generous by the way he treats his staff. He keeps Grace Turner on as an employee after her husband abandons her and adopts Robbie like a son, funding his way through Cambridge.
When Briony accuses Robbie of rape, he stands by his daughter's word and disowns the Turners from his family, his daughter Cecilia included.
Leon is Briony's older brother and the eldest of the three Tallis children. He is the typical 1930s playboy. Living in a period of jubilation and ease between the two wars in Europe, Leon enjoys the freedoms and carelessness of his social predicaments.
Leon is returning home from working in London to visit his family and it is his homecoming that has Briony so excited and inspires her to write a play for him. With him, he brings home his new found, and highly wealthy friend Paul Marshall. He is extremely close with his sister Cecilia and the idol of his younger sister Briony. Leon is also very close with Robbie and described as generally an overall well-rounded guy who is admired by everyone (61).
Leon has the opportunity to work with his father at the ministry, but passes it up showing his carefree spirit in the face of patriotic responsibility. Instead he takes a job at the banks, "working and living for the nights and weekends" (101).
Leon feels that no one in the world is naturally mean spirited, scheming, lying, or betraying (101). He is the voice of optimism and hope, albeit somewhat blind and ignorant, during this period leading up to the war in Europe.
At the end of the novel, Leon is still alive, although very old and completely inept. He has survived four marriages, raised a number of children, and is still viewed as a very likable and admirable character by all who surround him.
Lola is the eldest sibling of the Tallis cousins who comes to spend the summer at their estate while her parents go through a divorce. She is 15, two years older than Briony, and right from the start, Briony takes a disliking approach to her fostered by jealousy of her coming to age faster.
Lola, along with her two brothers, is living with the Tallis's because her father has returned to school at Oxford and her mother has run off to Paris with a lover. Ginger haired and freckled, Lola manipulates Briony from the start. She leverages her predicament and family situation to get what she wants from the Tallis home.
Described as brisk and oblivious to anything beyond her own business, Lola is doomed to be like her mother--a deviant schemer to get what she wants and one who is tranquil and triumphant in competition.
Lola is the victim of first sexual assault (assumed, but greatly hinted at in the narration) and then rape. When Briony witnesses the rape and scares off the assailant, she convinces Lola it was Robbie Turner who was her attacker. Lola appears to know this to be false, but never comes clean as to who she thinks her attacker is.
We lose Lola until the final third of the novel when we learn she is marrying Paul Marshall, her attacker. Together, Lord and Lady Marshall enjoy tremendous financial success and involve themselves in many philanthropic work throughout England.
Briony's final comments on Lola Quincey/Marshall are how young, vibrant, and healthy she appears despite being 80, and how Lola will without doubt outlive the ailing Briony.
Jackson and Pierrot Quincey
Jackson and Pierrot are Lola Quincey's younger twin brothers. They are 9 years old when they arrive at the Tallis home for the summer, and are at a complete loss with their situation and what is happening between their two parents, Hermione and Cecil Quincey.
Forced to act in Briony's play, the twins are at first disagreeable. Soon thereafter, they come around and realize the play is the only thing they like about their new predicament. Looking similar to their older sister, ginger haired and freckled, the boys torture Lola and blame her for being stuck at the Tallis's for the summer.
During a dinner when they learn the play is not going to be performed, the two twins decide to run away, leaving a note left behind on their dining room chair. This act triggers panic and a search party into the countryside night that leads to the opportunity for the crime of rape to be committed.
The boys are eventually found alive and returned to the Tallis home by Robbie Turner. We don't hear about them again until the final chapter when Pierrot is overcome with emotion at the playing of The Tales of Arabella sixty-four years after that fateful night. We learn that Jackson dies in 1984, but both boys grew up to have very large families, as it is mostly Quincey grandchildren and great grandchildren who are there to celebrate Briony's 70th birthday.
Hermione and Cecil Quincey
The parents of Lola, Jackson, and Pierrot, they actually never appear in Atonement, except for once--at the wedding of Lola and Paul Marshall.
Hermione is Emily Tallis's younger sister. She is somewhat of a free spirit and has no regard for social expectations. This side of her creates an odd bond between herself and Cecilia, who it is stated both admire the the other.
Hermione fleas the English countryside for France with a lover, leaving her husband to return to Oxford for schooling and her sister to look after her three children. It is said that Hermione "plotted her way out of a marriage and suffers a nervous breakdown" (62).
Danny and Mr. Hardman
The Hardman's are workers on the Tallis estate. Danny receives more attention than his father in the tale because it is he who is accused of being Lola's attacker by Cecilia and Robbie Turner. While Danny Hardman is representative of the lower class pubescent male coming to terms with physical desires for the Tallis/Quincey girls, there is little evidence that attaches him to Lola's rape.
Danny Hardman is fully exonerated by Briony when she informs Cecilia and Robbie that it was a man fitting the size and description of Paul Marshall whom she saw on top of Lola.
Danny Hardman joins the British Navy to fight in the war against the Germans (262).
Grace is Robbie Turner's mother and a charlady for the Tallis household.
Grace was married to a man, Ernest Turner, Jack Tallis employed as a laborer on the estate who abandons her and her son for no said reason. In order to make ends meet, Jack employs Grace as a helping hand and she acts as a clairvoyant on the side for the other employees of the home. After years of labor and raising Robbie on her own, Jack awards Grace complete ownership of the small cabin in which they live.
Grace is loved by all the Tallis children. She is a very kind woman and viewed as a mother-figure by both Leon and Cecilia. Upon the discovery that her son is being blamed for the rape of Lola Quincey, she is outraged and stands by his innocence.
Grandfather Harry Tallis
Jack Tallis's father Henry, grew up in an ironmonger's shop and made his money patenting locks, bolts, and latches. He was the son of a farm laborer who changed his name from Cartwright to Tallis for reasons unknown (102).
Clem is Jack Tallis's older brother. He died during World War One, but not before saving an entire Belgian village by alerting them of a planned German bombing attack mere hours before it happens. As a show of gratitude, the town awards Clem with a vase, in which he is somehow able to continue to fight with while carrying. He sees the vase gets back to his brother in England safely. Clem, however, was not as lucky and never returns from the war.
Betty is the head maid in the Tallis home. She is described as terrifying and forceful (23) as well as distant and firm (30). Betty is there to act as surrogate mother to the Tallis children and overseer to the rest of the maid staff.
Polly and Doll
Both young maidservants from the nearby village who are employed at the Tallis home. Both are seen as "simple" (98) and quiet.
Auntie Venus is not really an aunt, but a distant relative to the Tallis's (it is safe to assume on Emily's side) who comes to live with them at the house after she is old and ailing.
Auntie Venus was a nurse in Canada for many years before returning to England to die. She lived in the household after her retirement, as an old bedridden lady, and dies when Cecilia was ten years old and Briony was just born. The nicest room in the house, with the view overlooking the lake and fountain, is referred to as 'Auntie Venus's room.'
Barbara is only mentioned in the book. This is the "sweet, dependable, well-conneted girl" both Jack and Emily Tallis wish Leon would marry. She has a castle in the highlands, and at the end of the book we learn that that is where Leon raised his family. Although Barbara is not mentioned specifically, once can assume that Jack and Emily got their wish.
Paul is Leon Tallis's Cambridge/London pal. Leon brings Paul back to the home for the weekend dinner he has planned with his family.
Paul comes off as smug and pretentious to the rest of the Tallis crowd. He appears to almost 'wish' a war because it will provide him with so much opportunity as a business man. His wishes come true, and as a result, Paul Marshall makes millions.
There are some very subtle suggestions that Paul Marshall has his sites set out on Lola Quincey from the time he arrives at the home. Briony notices some heavy bruising on Lola's arms and some scratches on Paul's face. When Briony comes across the scene at the fountain where Lola is being raped, she has every reason to suspect it was Paul Marshall.
Paul gets rich selling chocolate during the war and goes on to marry Lola. Later adorned Lord Marshall, the last we see of Paul is as a very old, very debilitated, very wealthy man.
The village investigator/policeman. He leads the inquiry into the rape of Lola Quincey. He used to be a trade unionist (137) and is very humble, sincere, and generous in his trade. He is generally liked by all people in his county. His brother is later commissioned as the ARP Warden for the county during the preparation for German invasion, and unlike P.C., the Warden is highly disliked because of his strict methods (263).
One of the two men traveling through Belgium and France with Robbie Turner. Corporal Nettle trusts Turner, even though his affection is represented in jest. He is a cockney and is labeled as being mentally inferior to Turner often making fun of him (202) but at the same time sticking close to him and respecting him realizing Turner is his ticket out of the war alive (205).
After they are separated from their third man, Corporal Mace, Nettle and Turner are left to survive it on their own in Dunkirk waiting for the British Navy to show up and escort them home. Nettle does his best to look out for his friend, nursing him and feeding him on the beaches of Dunkirk.
At the end of the book, Briony reveals to the reader that it was Corporal Nettle with whom she corresponded via letter to learn all the facts of Robbie's last days in the war.
Corporal Mace is the third soldier marching with Turner and Nettle out of France. Very similar to Nettle, Mace is looked upon as being mentally inferior to Turner, yet hanging close with respect for his intelligence.
In a final act of absurd heroism, Corporal Mace rescues a British RAF private from a mob beating by his own countrymen in a bar in Dunkirk. Pretending to drown him, Mace picks up the lone soldier and carries him out of the bar to safety. We never hear from Corporal Mace again.
Henry and Jean-Marie Bonnet
These are the pair of French brothers in the France countryside who shelter Turner, Nettle, and Mace during their march back to England. They are kind man who share food and wine with the three wounded British soldiers and supply them with rations before seeing them off.
Sister Marjorie Drummond
Sister Drummond is the head nurse at the London hospital where Briony takes up a post. She is a vicious dictator who demands order, routine, and discipline and is feared by most of her staff (255-58).
Fiona is the only friend Briony makes at nursing training and in the hospital. The girls are quite different from one another, coming from different social classes and having very different motivations to be there. Most notably is the scene Briony and her share in the park just before the wounded arrive at the hospital. Both girls laugh in a sort of removed innocence before they are stunned back into the reality of the war by the hundreds of wounded men they frantically attend to.
Briony's dead husband. He is only mentioned in passing (340).
Atonement Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Atonement is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Robbie and Cecelia never reunited outside of Briony's story, they died during the war. Briony never saw her sister again. This wasn't, however, a figment of her imagination. Briony informs her reader that she has made up the part about visiting...