Atonement Summary and Analysis of Part One: Chapter Three


The nine year old twin Jackson pees his bed in the night and is forced to launder the sheets himself, which takes hours and cuts into Briony’s scheduled rehearsal time, frustrating her immensely. Nothing is going as planned for the young perfectionist. Lola shows up at the nursery very adult-like, maturing rapidly right before Briony’s eyes, forcing her to consider her own slow-growing pace. Briony begins to suspect that Lola is out to destroy her play intentionally.

The play’s rehearsal is a bust, and everyone leaves Briony alone in the upstairs room to consider her predicament. It is here we get a glimpse into the young writer’s mind as she postulates reality, her imagination, and individualism as “unbearably complicated” (34). Briony then realizes she should abandon the play and write Leon a story instead. Comparing play to story form, she concludes a story is much easier to convey than a play.

Deep in her self-absorbtion, Briony gazes out the window and observes from a far distance, the fountain scene between Cecilia and Robbie. Too young to fully comprehend what she is witnessing, Briony mistakes the scene for Robbie proposing to Cecilia and having complete command over her, forcing her to disrobe and “drown herself” so he can save her and have her hand in marriage. She bears this story in comparison to a story she had once written.

Briony’s active imagination begins to run wild on her. She wonders if Robbie is blackmailing her older sister, threatening her, and if he has some sort of invisible power over her (36). She is aware she does “not understand” completely, and must “just watch” (37) in order to attach sense to what she sees. Briony concludes in her mind that this is not a fairy tale world and that chance brought her to the window to witness the extraordinary event, and that this is the stuff of real-life, adult world.

In the final two paragraphs of the chapter are written, the narrator reveals to be writing from “six decades later.” As the much older Briony (the revealed author of the story) looks back on the 1935 incident, she compares her account of an event to the possible reality of it, concluding: “Truth had become as ghostly as invention” (39).


Briony's decision to abandon the play and work on a story will come back to haunt her for the rest of her life. Choosing to step out of the childish folktale mentality and into the adult realm of story telling leads Briony's imagination to play tricks on her when she witnesses the fountain scene between Cecilia and Robbie. Recall that it is in the "nursery" where the rehearsals are taking place, and it is Lola who appears enters it that morning "in the guise of the adult she considered herself at heart to be." Everything around Briony is growing up, but her.

Seeing her sister stand in her underwear, soaking wet in front of Robbie, sets her mind loose and "one mystery breeds another." Briony discovers that "the world, the social world, is unbearably complicated." Briony accepts that what she sees, she "doesn't understand" but decides to write the story anyway.

Here, the narration gets complicated. When reading the first time, one is not aware that the narrator is Briony 77 year old self. Thinking it to be an omniscient, separated voice, the narration into the power of the author is determined to be profound, but not nearly as revealing. Once having read the entire book and realizing it is Briony who is writing it sixty-four years later, the passage, "It wasn't only wickedness and scheming ... the only moral a story need have" (38) carries that much more weight.

By the end of the chapter, we are told "no doubt that some sort of revelation occurred," that "the truth had become as ghostly as invention." These phrases should trigger to the reader that this story will be as much about the inventing and recording of it as it is about its truth.