Atonement Summary and Analysis of Part One: Chapter Eleven


This long chapter covers the dinner that everyone has been anticipating.

All the players are seated around the table, and the absence of a male patriarch (Jack Tallis) leads to awkward silence at the beginning of the meal. Robbie brings up the recent heat wave and Leon, innocently, chimes in with how the heat causes people to do something bad, to break rules. He then asks Briony if she has done anything bad today, and she redirects to her sister and Robbie.

During the dinner, Robbie’s mind flashes back to the recent events that took place since he arrived at the Tallis household. Deciding to man-up and take immediate responsibility for the shameful letter to Cecilia, he entered the home where Cecilia led him into the library/study. Thinking he was being taken there to be scolded or slapped, it is after a while that he realized Cecilia has led him there as an invitation to privacy. Alone together in the study, Cecilia explains how Briony has read the letter and Robbie is extremely apologetic. As readers, we are still unaware which letter Cecilia has read, as we don’t know if Briony switched them with one of her own. But we do know Robbie thinks Cecilia has read and is referring to the obscene letter.

Cecilia confesses a blindness and awakening to her own feelings towards Robbie after reading the letter, and intentionally corners herself in the darkness of the library, where they cannot be heard. She invites him to take her, which he does, and they begin to make love in the library. It is clear that this is Cecilia’s first time. During the lovemaking, Cecilia expresses she hears a noise. They stop and notice Briony standing and observing their actions. Cecilia dashes out of the library leaving Robbie standing there stunned to deal with Briony, which he avoids doing.

The narrative then moves back to real time and the meal they are all having. Jackson and Pierrot excuse themselves from the table and Briony notices the socks they are wearing. She uses this incident to expel her anger and is quickly put in her place by Cecilia who also uses this incident to expel her anger towards her little sister. Briony goes on to explain to her mother, and the rest of the table guests, how deviant and terrible the twins are to their older sister, pointing out bruises and scratches they have left all over her body. Lola begins to cry. Paul Marshall mysteriously attempts to play the incident off and explains how he was the one to break it up. This entire episode between Lola and Paul is all very strange.

Briony then notices a letter left on one of the twins’ chairs. She gives it to Emily to be read and it is a note from the twins saying they don’t like it at the Tallis home and are running away. This upsets Robbie greatly as he was looking extremely forward to the meal being over and sneaking Cecilia off outside to finish what they started.

Search parties are organized. Paul Marshall walks off by himself with Leon and Cecilia teaming up to search other areas. Briony is afraid to be left with Robbie, so she too begins looking around the outside of the house alone. Emily stays in the house with Lola in hopes that the twins will return out of fear. Robbie sets out on his own finding mission, and the chapter ends on the note that his decision to do so would be something that transforms his life.


There is a strong use of dramatic irony in all of Part One that is verbalized at the dinner table. Leon's mentioning of all the hot weather represents the heated passions of summertime youth. Even Emily gets in on the action, stating how "hot weather encourages loose morals among young people." It is also the weather that Leon thinks will lead to each and everyone's deviant behavior.

Leon teases Briony for abandoning her play and notes that they all could "be in the library watching the theatrics right now." Briony was just literally in the library watching some theatrics of her own. The heroine goes from a child's play with children players to directing real-life occurrences with adult players. Leon's lack of awareness is another comment to the greater crime in Europe--the businessman from London blind to the realities of the adult world. He doesn't even recognize the assaults being put on to his younger cousin Lola by his good pal Paul. Nor does any adult at the table for that matter, even when the bruises are alluded to and it is noticed that Paul has a self-defense wound on his face.

During the part of the narrative when we hear from Robbie's thoughts, he falsely assumes Briony is too young to understand, and that nothing will come of the incident in the library. Reminding us once again of the tragic flaw of Malvolio, the character Robbie once played on stage, he is oblivious to the unavoidable malice of a misdirected imagination. Here too, we read as Robbie relates his situation to English literary history--first Shakespeare and then D.H. Lawrence.

Hate runs in a two-way direction. Cecilia, who is eager to love, is as eager to hate, and when she realizes Briony has ruined her moment with Robbie, she discovers "she had never hated anyone until now." The reader has to keep in mind, when analyzing this text after reading the entire novel, that these are actually Briony's interpretation of the events, at the age of 77. There is no way to be certain what Cecilia experienced or felt at that moment. 64 years after the fact, and Briony, as "writer," still has the power to control her sister's life and emotions. It is a power she has never been able to control or come to terms with.