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Atonement Themes

by Ian McEwan

Major Themes

Guilt / Atonement

The theme of guilt, forgiveness, and atonement should be extremely obvious to anyone who reads the book. The entire plot of the novel centers on a woman who devotes her entire life repenting a crime she committed while still a young girl.

Articles of note that are not as obvious to the reader that have to do with this theme are things like, is Briony the only person who should feel guilty? Who else is at fault for the crime committed on that hot summer night in 1935? Where is Lola's guilt for not saying anything? What about Paul Marshall's--the real assailant who gets away with rape and stands silent while an innocent man goes to prison. Then there are all the adults in Part One of the novel. How is it that so many people who are capable of understanding so much more than a thirteen-year-old girl come to rely completely on her testimony? Should more not have been done in the investigation?

The question is left open at the end of the book. Does Briony finally achieve her atonement by writing her story and keeping her lovers and allowing their love to survive?

The second layer to the guilt theme has to do with the history of literature. Aside from the crime she committed as a child, Briony feels guilty for her powers as a writer. She knows she has the autonomy to write whatever story she so chooses. Just like she could send Robbie to prison, she can make him survive the war. The reliance readers put in Briony to tell them "what really happened" leaves her feeling guilty about her life's work, and she projects that guilt onto the history of the English literature canon.

Literary Tradition

Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" marked a new literary form in Romanticism literature in that it was a story, inside a story, inside a story. At the very centre of the notable novel, the monster is telling his story in the first person to his creator who is telling his story to a ship captain who is writing his story to his sister who is the author of the book. Ian McEwan's "Atonement" plays with this layered-tradition: a story being told by one of the characters (not revealed until the end) in the third person, that shifts to the first person in the final section of the book when the reader realizes who the narrator is. During this chapter, we learn the story was told through letters between Cecilia and Robbie, and even correspondence between Corporal Nettles and Briony. It leaves the question very open: Whose story is this?

That is the exact point Briony (or is it McEwan?) is trying to draw out. Who is capable of telling a complete story about "what really happened?" All authors are subject to their own interpretation of events and it is this in-empirical science that is literature that can cause so much power over other human beings.

Look at all that is misinterpreted in writing. Briony doesn't understand the letter Robbie has sent Cecilia and sees it as a threat. Robbie places the wrong letter in the envelope triggering, and eventually indicting him for rape. The numerous references made to literature in the novel--too many to list. Robbie was a literature major, and has read and understood all the classic English novels and poets. Robbie is also the innocent victim in the book. And the most obvious, Briony admits to making up the happy ending of love in her story. When Briony admits to her reader that it has taken her sixty-four years and countless drafts to complete her book, the reader has to ask him/herself: "Which is the 'real' one?"

Before the book even starts, the reader is given a Romantic novel quote--something out of Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey." This sets the tone for a book that will be packed with literary allegory. Even the form of the book walks the reader through some of English lit's historical periods: Part One--Austen'esque Romanticism; Part Two--Historical Fiction War Story; Part Three--Victorian or Modern Memoir; and Part Four--Post Modern speculation and theory.

Perception/Misunderstanding

What happens in "Atonement" is all created by the imagination to misperceive observation.

Briony is at a point where she is too young to fully grasp the adult world she is quickly becoming a part of, yet old enough to presume she understands her social environment on a mature level. This wavering, transient positioning in her psychological development, along with the circumstances she happens to observe (the fountain scene, the letter, the library scene, and the rape) all lead to a misappropriation of her emotions. Briony is still a child, there is no arguing that. Her obsession with order, her fantasizing about playwriting and fencing, and the seriousness with which she takes her play all represent her at a point where she is too young to see the world beyond her own existence. This flaw is not her fault. It is a part of the psychological maturing process.

Notice how so much of the action takes place in a state where some senses are obstructed or absent while others are available. Briony can "see" the incident between Cecilia and Robbie at the fountain, but she can't hear it. Briony "reads" the word in the letter, but she doesn't "know" what it means. Briony "sees" the the sex in the library, but nobody "says" anything about it. And finally, Briony "hears" Lola being raped, but can't completely "see" what/who it is because it is dark. Part One is all about perception and misperception. Objects in this section are metaphors that serve as agents to this theme--windows, doorways, light, darkness, etc.

Even the narration of the novel plays on this idea. The author is continuously having to go back and repeat the same episode through different eyes so the reader can get the whole picture. By doing this, Briony (as author) is trying her best to make up for what she did not understand as a child and what she struggles with as an author. That is, present the story from every single angle, and not just the writer's point of view. In achieving this, Briony hopes to atone for her misconception of events as a young girl.

Innocence

Arguments can be made on where the exact point is that Briony "loses her innocence." There are a few moments in Part One that can be attributed to such a notion:

Was it when she saw the scene at the fountain? When she gives up on her play? When she reads the letter from Robbie to Cecilia? When she mistakenly observes Robbie and Cecilia making love in the library? When she witnesses Lola's rape? Or when she officially accuses Robbie of the assault to authorities? Each one of these is a plausible response.

What is certain, however, is that somewhere during Part One of the novel, Briony ceases to exist as a protected child in this world and enters the exposed world of adulthood. The narration of part one, which we learn later to be Briony herself, holds nothing back in informing the reader of this post-awareness. Briony the character is too young to realize it at the time. She is caught in between world's. Look at the moment when the search parties take flight after the twins; Briony debates on whether she is old enough to search herself, or if she should stay back under the protection of her mother. She decides on the former and this decision results in something that forever changes her life and the lives of everyone around her. Even following the arrest of Robbie, Briony yearns for her mother's comfort.

There is a greater loss of innocence at play here as well. War rips the entire country apart, and eventually the world. The bliss is innocence that was being enjoyed by Europe following "the war to end all wars" (WWI) is about to be stripped away in force. This innocence is represented in Leon Tallis, a character who lives for the weekends in London, doesn't think there will be a war, and feels all people are primitively good-natured.

War

It is not typical to say that "war" is a theme in any book, but it is a very important part of "Atonement" and something that needs to be addressed as a separate component to the overall themes of the book.

Ian McEwan is a known activist against war and as a writer who takes a personal interest in World War Two history. His father was a Major in the British Armed Forces and McEwan grew up in different areas of the world, in Army camps, while his father was serving his duties.

There is an irony that Robbie Turner must fight in the war to exonerate himself from a crime he did not commit. This highlights the injustices of any war. As much as the story is a fictional tale, the scenes that involve the war, both in France in Part Two and in the hospitals in London in Part Three, are historically accurate. In particular, the horrors that the British Army faced as they awaited evacuation on the beaches of Dunkirk and the German planes continued their assault, is captured in extraordinary detail in "Atonement." Also, McEwan acknowledges a book he read in 1977 called "No Time For Romance" written by Lucilla Andrews that was the personal account of a nurse who served in the hospitals in London during the war. Briony's experiences in Part Three are directly inspired from that reading (for more information on this, see "Plagiarism" in the Additional Content of this Note).

There is not too much to be said on it. The two world wars that took place in Europe in the first half of the 20th century are events that changed the course of human history. Ian McEwan's "Atonement" draws focus on the lasting effects these events had on the British psyche in hopes of assisting in the prevention of it from ever happening again.

Social Class

The inequities and injustices of social class appear throughout the novel. The most obvious example is the relationship between Robbie Turner, son of the Tallis charwoman, and Cecilia Tallis, daughter of the ministry-employed and wealthy Jack Tallis.

Recall that it is because Briony thinks her older sister is in grave danger of falling beneath her class that she sets out to protect her. Placing social distinction above love is common sense for Briony, and her condemnation of Robbie proves this faculty to hold up in the courts. As for Cecilia, she is the only character in the story to deal with these issues head on. After realizing her unfair behavior towards Robbie while at Cambridge together, Cecilia has the courage to announce her love for him when she defends the letter being passed around the living room for all to read as evidence of Robbie's "sex-maniac" ways. Even when he is arrested, she stands by him, and soon thereafter disowns her family to become a nurse living in a "terrible flat" in north London.

The only other person accused of the rape is the other servant, Danny Hardman. And even when his father provides a perfectly suitable alibi, it is not presented without question and doubt. Paul Marshall on the other hand, the filthy rich guest to the home who is actually responsible for the crime, is never even considered or questioned.

As part of Briony's self-administered punishment, she joins the nurses in the lower class where she sees herself as a slave. This may be an act of penance and nobility during the war, but it's motives are questionable. Notice how by the end of the novel, Briony is admitted back up the ranks of class, having a chauffeur and a lovely flat in Regent's park. The reader is left wondering how much has really changed in the 65 years the novel has taken place.

Identity

Here is a question to ask: Who is Briony Tallis? Is she a child criminal? A repenting nurse? A writer? All of them? Is she a good person? An evil person?

Any novel that stretches over a sixty-five year period is going to observe the characters go though periods of change and development. But "Atonement" works on a different level when it comes to identity as a theme.

Briony Tallis has the imagination to make herself anything. When the story opens she is Briony the serious child, Briony the famous writer, and Arabella, the star of a play she has just written. Whenever Briony is upset, she wanders by herself to water, where she can daydream into any persona she wishes--a murderer, fencing champion, successful author (notice the water motif for this--a formless element).

In Part Three of the book, Briony has become a nurse, but she is given a badge with an incorrect first initial. She has been completely emasculated by the war and her social condition, as well as her guilt. When she sits with the dying French soldier, he thinks her to be someone else, and she goes along with his fantasy out of pity, but she tells him her real name in the end.

Other characters in the story too suffer identity problems. What is difference between Jackson and Pierrot; Nettles and Mace? The latter cannot determine if Turner is an educated Cambridge boy or a lower-class prisoner like themselves. Even Robbie himself doesn't know what he wants to be--a literature graduate come landscaper who is considering medical school, who has no father.

The confusion of identity points out the confusion of coming into oneself at the golden age of lost innocence as well as what a nation is during war. Cecilia Tallis appears to be the only character who confidently knows her true self. As readers, we even have to question who wrote the book--Briony Tallis or Ian McEwan?

Themes of identity are common in coming-of-age novels. The fact that we get Briony at three distinctive points in her life complicates this overarching investigation into what makes up one's own sense of individuality and how confident that person has become with that outpouring image.

Atonement Essays and Related Content