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Atonement Summary and Analysis

by Ian McEwan

Part One: Chapter Four

Summary:

Cecilia mends the vase and replaces it in Aunt Venus’s room without anyone noticing the break. She then notices Briony crying in the front hall and destroying her playbill. She attempts to comfort her little sister, just like she has always done in the past.

Briony, determined her play is “a mistake,” storms out of the house and into the garden to weep. Cecilia lets her baby sister go to work it out on her own and visits Aunt Venus’s room and observes the boys (Leon and Paul, with Danny Hardman driving) approaching the house. Before they can reach the Tallis home, they run into Robbie Turner in the driveway. Leon and Paul enter the house with Danny carrying the bags. Cecilia greets them and her and Paul immediately begin flirting. Cecilia also notices the maturity of Danny Hardman and ponders whether or not he has a crush on Lola.

Cecilia, Leon, and Paul sit around the pool where Paul indulges in self-centered monologues about his business and Cecilia and Leon get into an argument because Leon has invited Robbie to join them at dinner. The thoughts of Robbie cause her to investigate the personality of Paul Marshall a littler more closely, and she concludes: “How deliciously self-destructive it would be, almost erotic, to be married to a man so nearly handsome, so hugely rich, so unfathomably stupid” (47).

Eventually, the argument between Cecilia and her dear brother Leon subsides, and all three go inside for pre-dinner cocktails.

Analysis:

When Cecilia realizes that her play is child's work and her sister is being (assumedly) blackmailed by both a man of lower class and the man whom she has a crush on, she leaves the house to seek refuge in the temple down by the lake on the Tallis estate. As stated earlier, water is a very important symbolic motif that appears often in Atonement. It is near water where everything Briony experiences as a part of her loss of innocence. Cecilia's attempt to save her little sister from "self destruction" fails. The fact that she no longer has the soothing maternal powers of an older sibling demonstrates the exit from childhood and entry from adulthood for Briony.

Cecilia lets this pass without incident. Her focus is on her emotions for Robbie and trying to figure out what drove her to such frivolous action down at the fountain. Her "annoyance" with Leon's failure to "know Robbie's disgrace" is misdirected, and should be aimed at her own failures of awareness. Upon meeting Paul Marshall, Cecilia begins to recognize her attraction for genuineness over class. She thinks it would be "self-destructive" to marry someone so "unfathomably stupid." Soon thereafter, Cecilia is "genuinely annoyed" with Paul Marshall when he smugly insults "grammar school types" he met while at Oxford.

By the end of the chapter, Cecilia is becoming aware of that phoniness of her world. When she stands back to take in the entire scene of her brother, Paul Marshall, the lake, the house, the garden, it appears "carved" and "fixed." She knows she wants out, but she doesn't know how to get there.

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