Atonement Summary and Analysis of Part One: Chapter Fourteen


This is the final chapter in part one. In short, it is the interview and statements of what Briony claims she saw in the temple.

Briony, Leon, Cecilia, and Lola enter the home. Betty and Emily take Lola upstairs to clean her up and try and get her to sleep, awaiting the Doctor to arrive. Two police inspectors arrive and soon after, the lead Detective. Paul Marshall enters shortly after everyone else. He learns of the news from the inspectors. Paul appears nervous and anxious at first arrival, but then calms after speaking to the inspectors. Cecilia remains silent on the edges of the scene, and furious at the same time. Leon is doing his best to act objectively and paternal.

Briony then gets an idea. She runs from the silent, tensioned drawing room and upstairs to Cecilia’s room. She searches through her older sister's things and finds the letter. She returns to the room with the letter and is about to hand it to Leon, when, at the last minute, she changes her mind and hands it to the lead Detective. He reads the letter, passes it off to this two junior officers, and then to Leon. Emily Tallis then notices that the letter is more than just an arbitrary note. She demands to read it, and when she does, Cecilia becomes aware of the object. Furious, she verbally slams the entire room.

Briony then goes on to explain to the Detectives and her mother and brother all that she has witnessed over the last two days. Although no direct reference is made to her expelling of the incident at the fountain, she does tell of the letter, her reading it, and the scene she discovered in the library between Robbie and Cecilia prior to dinner. Upon the “official interview,” the lead Detective repeatedly asks Briony if she is certain she saw him (meaning Robbie Turner) (169), to which she confirms she did. She also shows the detectives and Emily the exact spot of the library “attack.”

As the household waits anxiously for something to happen, the night ends and dawn begins to rise. Breakfast is prepared when they notice a figure approaching in the rising sun of the lengthy driveway. The entire party goes out to see who/what it is. At first, it appears to be a giant, unsure of its character; there is hesitation and fear. As it moves closer, it is realized that it is in fact Robbie with the twins—one on his shoulder the other trailing in his hand. There is relief that the twins are all right, but that immediately moves to hatred and fear in Robbie’s presence. Her mother sends Briony to her room.

Briony watches from her bedroom window as minutes (hours?) later Robbie is led from the home and into the police car in handcuffs. She witnesses her sister, Cecilia, run from the house and console Robbie, whispering to him in what is an assumed forgiveness and loyal state of shock. As the police car is pulling down the laneway, Grace Turner is approaching on foot. She stops the car and strikes the policemen and their vehicle with an umbrella. She screams “Liars!” repeatedly to the car and the Tallis household as the car pulls away.


The importance of being the only witness to the crime and the one whom all eyes fall upon to identify the assailant feeds Briony's narcissism and confirms her lie in her own head:"Her vital role fueled her certainty." Like the art of storytelling itself, the more she repeats the words, the more it becomes true in her head.

It is actual written text that confirms Briony's story and seals Robbie's fate. Aware her accusations are not being taken seriously, Briony is able to support them with the written word. The combination of her imagination and erotic letter-writing have the power to turn imagination into reality, but this time, not only to Briony but to her entire audience as well. By now, Briony changes her phrasing from the sensory "I saw him" to the factual and cognitive: "I know it was him." By the time she sees Robbie's innocence laid out in front of her, she is "outraged," a sign that she is fully convinced of his guilt.

After being "sent to bed" by her mother, Briony feels "helpless and childish" in her success. She is unable to identify all that she is achieved and is left confused and desires her mother's protection. Witnessing Cecilia's forgiveness of Robbie in front of the police car, Briony enters a new dimension of adulthood--guilt. Forgiveness is a word that had "never meant a thing before," and now she will spend the rest of her life in search of it.

Part One ends with the tragedy of the night invoking a love for her sister and an assumption that the events of the evening will forever bring them closer. This is hardly the case. For the rest of the book, Briony is a detached, isolated, and lonely--but brilliant--writer. Her crime was the moment she chose the latter over familial love and social complacency. McEwan's draws the attention to the sacrifices one makes for a contribution to literary tradition. It is almost as if Briony was old enough to understand that committing her crime against Robbie would cause her a lifelong imprisonment of guilt and eternal pursuit for atonement. But it was a decision she consciously made, in order to become the writer she had always hoped to be.