Atonement Summary and Analysis of Part One: Chapter Eight


This chapter is devoted to Robbie Turner. It starts off with him in his bathtub daydreaming about what he saw earlier in the day—Cecilia disrobing, diving into the fountain, and then standing before him soaking wet in her underwear.

Robbie contemplates his feelings towards Cecilia and whether or not he should have accepted Leon’s invitations to dinner. Regardless, he prepares for the occasion. He feels Cecilia is restless in that environment and is out to humiliate him. Robbie concludes that Cecilia was also a bit sadistic in her anger, knowing perfectly well what she was up to when she got nearly naked in front of him.

He writes Cecilia an apology letter for breaking the vase. He has trouble doing this, finding the right words, even reaching into his deepest desires and typing sexual wishes to her at the bottom of one of the drafts (80). We learn more about the background of Robbie's parents as well—Grace and Ernest Turner. Ernest walked out on the family when Robbie was six, with no explanation and has never been seen since. Grace assumes he was sent to the front of WWI and killed, since there is no other explanation as to why he would take no interest in his own son. Ernest was Jack Tallis’s gardener. When he abandoned his family, Jack employed Grace at the house as a cleaner and eventually handed over the cabin to her. She continued on the house staff regardless.

Robbie shares a quick conversation with his mother before leaving the cabin to head to dinner. En route, he spots Briony who is still standing on the bridge over the lake on the road into the Tallis property. Robbie asks Briony to run ahead and pass the note to Cecilia, thinking this would avoid him giving it to her in front of others, and allow her some time to absorb its contents in private before facing him.

Briony obliges and runs ahead and into the home with Robbie’s apology note. As she runs off, Robbie realizes he has mistakenly placed the wrong letter in the envelope. The obscene letter is on its way to Cecilia’s hand while the polite and apologetic hand-written note remains in his bedroom.


Robbie is aware of his position in the hierarchy of social class, but it is stated that "he liked people to know he didn't care." Robbie's view of social class, one that takes into consideration his own "politics," "scientifically based theories," and a "forced self-certainty" demonstrates both the character's humility and the author's opinion on all human beings as nothing more than "material objects" made up from the same matter.

Robbie considers her social predicament in the face of his feelings towards Cecilia and understands her attempt to "humiliate" him. This introduces yet another recurring theme in McEwan's novel. Robbie, in a self-massochist way, enjoys the humiliation just as Briony will when she becomes a nurse as part of her penance for her crime.

We also learn that Robbie has a deep relationship with literature. This places him on the same level of as the older, narrating Briony Tallis. He has a typewriter he frequently uses, he is surrounded by books (both scientific/medical and classic literature) and he acted in a Shakespeare play. The character he played, Malvolio from "Twelfth Night," is a literary allusion made to illustrate his views towards life and love. Shakespeare's Malvolio was a character of strict and noble upbringing. He avoids to be involved in the pettiness of the world around him. But when he falls in love with Olivia, he forgets his ways and acts foolishly which leads to conflict. Similarly, Robbie is about to write a letter in an uncharacteristic state that will lead to conflict with the rest of the Tallis family and change his life forever.

Notice how Robbie has difficulty writing his "apology" letter to Cecilia, going through "many drafts" before he is able to come on one he feels is right. This foreshadows Briony's search for atonement with her "apology" novel and the 64 years and numerous drafts it takes her to complete. Briony, as narrator, is relating Robbie's interest and struggle in writing to her own, perhaps justifying her sense of guilt. At the bottom of page 85, the narrator explains how Robbie too, is the author of a "story ... with himself as a hero."

Finally, when Robbie sees Briony on the bridge, he at first considers her to be a supernatural being, a spectral "white shape." As she runs off towards the manor with his letter in tow, she is a "distant rhombus of ocher light." Briony, as a supernatural presence and deliverer of desire in textual form, represents the release of subliminal, or Freudian, desires into the real world--an act that cannot be undone.