"'Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English: that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?'
They had reached the end of the gallery; and with tears of shame, she ran off to her own room."
This long quote that precedes the novel is from Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey." The letter is to the young Catherine Morland, the heroine of Austen's tale who was a girl so much in love with Gothic fiction that she sends the worlds and lives of people around her into a tailspin by imagining a perfectly innocent man to be capable of doing terrible things. Catherine basically creates a Gothic tale to suit her own life. McEwan takes Austen's theme of the process of the dangers of transferring fiction to real life, but also of the process of atonement for such deeds.
When Catherine reads the letter, she has "tears of shame." Just like Briony, she becomes aware of her crime. Briony's atonement for her crime is to spend a lifetime writing her novel, condemned to write it over and over and over again. Once she discovers she is dying, she is finally able to complete the book, but in a different way that she ever had before. As she sees it, she fails to have the courage of pessimism, and rewrites a fictional fairy tale in which the lovers survive.
"A world could be made in five pages, and one that was more pleasing than a model farm. The childhood of a spoiled prince could be framed within half a page, a moonlit dash through sleepy villages was one rhythmically emphatic sentence, falling in love could be achieved in a single word--a glance. The pages of a recently finished story seemed to vibrate in her hand with all the life they contained."
A major theme to Atonement, if not 'the' major theme, is the power of writing and a forensic look into the history of the literary tradition. A secondary theme, but one that is just as prominent, is the loos of innocence and the transposition from childhood into the adult world. This quote in the opening pages of the novel marries those two themes with precision and brevity.
Briony, because of her passion for writing, is aware even as a child of the power one has with the pen. Even at the age of thirteen, Briony can "make" a world in as little as "five pages." More importantly, she understands that as the writer, she has complete autonomy to "spoil" lives and restore "love." Not only does the child Briony understand this capacity over her characters, it excited her--the story literally "vibrates" in her hand.
What Briony is too young at this point to understand, is the difference between fictionally invented plots and characters and reality.
"What deep readings his modified sensibility might make of human suffering, of the self-destructive folly or sheer bad luck that drive men toward ill health! Birth, death, and frailty in between. Rise and fall--the was the doctor's business, and it was literature's too. He was thinking of the nineteenth-century novel. Broad tolerance and the long view, an inconspicuously warm heart and cool judgement; his kind of doctor would be alive to the monstrous patterns of fate, and to the vain and comic denial of the inevitable; he would press the enfeebled pulse, hear the expiring breath, feel the fevered hand begin to cool and reflect, in the manner that only literature and religion teach, on the puniness and nobility of mankind..."
Robbie Turner is the "he" in this passage. When we meet Robbie, he is lost in searching for purpose in life. He has earned a degree in literature already from the university at Cambridge, is now working as a landscape artist at the Tallis manor, and is considering going back to medical school to become a doctor.
Throughout the book, McEwan draws the readers attention to his historical surveying of English literature. Here, the character Robbie considers the similarities between anatomical evaluation of humankind (the doctor's) and artistic analysis (literature's). The conclusion that is being made at the end of this paragraph is that only literature and religion have the power to reflect and teach humankind's most valuable lessons.
Finally, it is important to recognize that this paragraph is Robbie thinking about himself in the future, in 1962, when he will be fifty-years-old. He wonders what kind of man he will be and seems to appreciate that all the knowledge (medicine and literature) will not be enough to overcome the "puniness" of mankind.
"The very complexity of her feelings confirmed Briony in her view that she was entering an arena of adult emotion and dissembling from which her writing was bound to benefit. What fairy tale ever had so much by way of contradiction?"
In the music world, in the tradition of American blues music, this moment is referred to as "the crossroads."
This is the opening sentence to Chapter Ten, the chapter in which Briony discovers Robbie and Cecilia making love in the study. There can be no greater incident to lose your innocence to then the witnessing of the older man you have an oedipal attraction to making love to your older sister. The quote informs the reader that Briony was aware of her transient stage, she has a "confirmed view" of her "entering" adulthood.
As difficult as this moment is for Briony, it is one "from which her writing was bound to benefit." McEwan draws reference to the personal sacrifice great artists and writers make for their art--trading complacency and simplicity for torture and brilliance.
"How guilt refined the methods of self-torture, threading the beads of detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime."
Without question, one of Atonement's major themes is guilt. At a young age, Briony commits an act that will haunt her for the rest of her life. This quote is not intended to be too deep or subliminal, it pretty much says it as it is.The guilt Briony has leads to a "self-torture" that stays with her for "a lifetime." The only metaphor that McEwan adds to this line is an allegory to religion. The rosary is a string of beads used in both Catholicism and Islam. Religions in general use shame and guilt to oppress human desire, invoke fear, and maintain order. By comparing Briony's guilt to the beads on a rosary and a "loop" (a shape with no beginning or end), the author is able emphasize the eternity of Briony's guilt.
"I'll wait for you was elemental. It was the reason he had survived. It was the ordinary way of saying she would refuse all other men. Only you. Come back."
"Come back" are the words shared between Cecilia and Robbie that Briony (as author) utilizes as a motif to their love, hence achieving her atonement. There is no way Briony would have been able to know what her older sister said to Robbie Turner on the driveway after his arrest before he was escorted off by police. Regardless, because Briony aims to make their love "eternal" in her story about her crime and the consequences thereafter, she focuses in on a phrase she discovered in a letter from Briony to Robbie while he was off fighting in the war.
These words, "come back," are also the words Cecilia used to say to Briony when she was having a nightmare and would wake up screaming as a little girl. On a second level, Briony is wishing her older sister would use them on her instead of Robbie, exercising the power to wake her from this nightmare she began by falsely testifying against an innocent person. By making the phrase unique to Cecilia and Robbie, and never hearing them directed to her again, the fictional author is able to achieve the "atonement" she sets out to and reach some sort of peace of mind.
"This was her student life now, these four years, this enveloping regime, and she had no will, no freedom to leave. She was abandoning herself to a life of strictures, rules, obedience, housework, and a constant fear of disapproval. She was one of a batch of probationers--there was intake every few months--and she had no identity beyond her badge."
A secondary theme to the book is identity. In the opening pages of the novel, Briony daydreams about being a famous writer, a name that is recognized throughout all of London for her magnificent ability at playwriting. In London, at the age of 18, she has been self-demoted to a slave, "a life of strictures, rules, obedience, housework, and a constant fear of disapproval." But what is even worse for her, is that she lives in a world where her name does not even exist.
As a self punishment, Briony decides to give up all the luxuries of an upper-class life. No Cambridge, no fancy flat to live in, no traveling, no job at the ministry. Briony hopes that her duties as a nurse during the war will serve as some sort of penance towards her. Yet the cost of doing so, is a complete stripping of her identity--she fails to exist as "Briony"--with no will nor freedom to go back.
"From this new and intimate perspective, she learned a simple, obvious thing that she had always known, and everyone knew: that a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended."
The horrors of war is a theme in Atonement that enters the book in Part Two and then never really leaves. On the night of the crime, England was still at peace with the rest of Europe, and with the exception of Jack Tallis, war hadn't made its way into the lives of any of the characters in the books. World War Two serves as some sort of macrocosmic loss of innocence to all of Europe.
The passage above is a juxtaposition. Briony Tallis "easily tore" the lives of Cecilia and Robbie Turner apart, a crime that is "not easily mended." WWII is doing the same thing to all of Europe (and mankind for that matter). Nursing during the war and witnessing body parts existing like broken car parts or the limbs of trees, Briony enters a new stage of experience--a person is just as susceptible to destruction (physical or mental) as any other object on the planet, and so much of the time, this injury is caused by fellow man (her's to Robbie, and Hitler's to the soldiers she cares for).
"We catch this young girl at the dawn of her selfhood. One is intrigued by her resolve to abandon the fairy stories and homemade folktales and plays she has been writing (how much nicer if we had the flavor of one) but she may have thrown the baby of fictional technique out with the folktale water. For all the fine rhythms and nice observations, nothing much happens after a beginning that has such promise."
This paragraph is in a rejection letter from "CC" to Briony regarding her story "Two Figures by a Fountain" that she submitted for publishing. CC is most likely Cyril Connolly, editor of Horizon (a literary journal in London at the time). The theme here is the interrogation of history and how national myths are inscribed into storytelling as well as the construction of literary tradition. The advice notes that the author (Briony) wants to get rid of the "folktales" but risks abandoning the "fictional technique" altogether.
We can conclude that Briony takes Connolly's advice. Look at the changes made from Part One to London, 1999. Assuming Part One of Atonement is the story ("Two Figures by a Fountain") that Briony has sent into Horizon and Connolly is advising on, we can see the obvious changes the book goes through from cover-to-cover, touching on so many other traditional fictional styles while abandoning the "fairy tale" technique after Briony is a child.
"The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all."
This paragraph, spoken by the 77 year old Briony Tallis in memoir form, married the two major themes of the novel: literary tradition and atonement. Briony struggles with her story and how to end it. A story that will be her last but should have been her first, our heroine admits the difficulty she had in deciding what to do with Robbie and Cecilia.
A rephrasing of the basic question Briony struggles with is this: How can I be rewarded my forgiveness if I am the one who gets to decide what happens? In other words, one cannot self-ascribe atonement. She can seek it, but is must be granted by the one who has been wronged or injured. Being author of the story places Briony in a bind because of her "absolute power to decide outcomes." She asks if she is not "also God?" meaning to the characters and episodes in her book. She is. As author she has the power to do anything to anyone or any situation. Recognizing this power, Briony concludes that there can be "no atonement for God or novelists," and only the attempt matters.
Atonement Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Atonement is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
That is the main question of the novel. Does Briony finally achieve her atonement by writing her story and keeping her lovers and allowing their love to survive? I'm not convinced Briony does this. Briony is losing her innocence from the moment...