Atonement Summary and Analysis of Part Three: Pages 250-270


The beginning of Part Three has Briony learning the ropes as a nurse in one of London’s hospitals while it prepares for the returning of wounded soldiers. We learn that after a stint as an unsuccessful short story writer, Briony took up nursing where she befriends fellow nurse Fiona and fears Sister Marjorie Drummond who rules her nursing academy with an iron fist.

The opening pages describe the conditions of the health care industry in the late 30s. Young women being homesick for their parents or their men who were overseas, attempting to learn a trade which was rather new, and fulfilling their duty in this wretched war. One article to note is how the name badge Briony is given to wear sports the wrong first initial, having the letter “N” where a “B” should be. Briony compares the nursing experience with “her student life” (260), recognizing all of the opportunities passed by choosing nursing over Cambridge. This has been a decision her parent’s were not fond of and are certain their daughter will come to her senses about soon.

Briony has detached herself from her family almost entirely. After living with an aunt and uncle in a part of London and trying it as a writer, she now limits her communications with her parents to monthly letters in which very little is revealed. Her parents are still living in the country. They have taken in some billets from East London as part of Britain’s safety procedure to evacuate the city (because of the bombings) and things at the Tallis household are in complete disarray. Betty dislikes all the mothers boarding there (there are three of them) and the children (there are seven of them). There is constant fighting amongst all inhabitants at the Tallis estate and the park/yard is being destroyed in preparation for war. All of the valuable belongings have been moved to the basement in case of a bombing, and Betty drops Uncle Clem’s vase on the steps, smashing it completely (262). It is also told that Danny Hardman has joined the navy.

Briony keeps a journal to maintain her sanity (265-66), citing that writing is the only thing where her true identity is revealed. She admits to reading the papers each day and learns that the British Army is retreating out of France. Germany has reached the channel. She finally understands the urgency of the hospital’s preparations to clear space.

Briony receives a letter from her father. In it, he informs her that Lola and Paul Marshall are to be married. He underscores the letter with “love as always” (268). Briony reads into this as her father's omniscient awareness into the fact that he may know that Paul was the criminal, and exactly what Briony and Lola did to blame Robbie. Once again, guilt overcomes Briony. She feels she is the one person who “made this possible” (268). There are hints to the reader that the rapist that night was Paul Marshall, and Briony has known it all along. She now wonders if her father does too.

Briony attempts to contact her father over the telephone while on a lunch break, but the line never gets through and she runs back to the hospital, late, but in a “surprising physical pleasure, a brief taste of freedom” (270).


In Part Three, we experience another shift in literary style. Here we have a home-front story of reconciliation. The focus in on Briony herself, her acceptance of guilt and her attempt at atonement. As opposed to Robbie who is out in France journeying towards home in a Odysseyian format, we have Briony who is already at home and journeying as close to the war as she can get by her decision to become a nurse. Robbie wants to escape the war and clear his name, ridding himself of shame. Briony wants to get as close to the war as she can, announce her sin to the world, and get rid of her guilt, even if it means living in shame.

This is really a chapter in "the stripping away of identity" for Briony. Nursing has caused her to be without her class and even without her name (the wrong initial has been given to her badge). All the determination of a young Briony Tallis has been stripped. As a working-class nurse, Briony has "abandoned herself," she has "no will and no freedom" and is sustained to a life of "strictures, rules, obedience and housework" which is quite different than the Briony we knew at age 13. But "behind the name badge and uniform was her true self"--a writer who still derived "pleasure in seeing pages covered in her own handwriting."

The ward is described as like "darkness itself" and there is no Cecilia there to protect her. Briony needs to escape, at night and into the dark, in order to write--the only act that "reserves her dignity." She is still literature-minded, thinking of herself as a "kind of medical Chaucer."

Briony is conscious of her efforts as nurse were to somehow make up for what she did to Robbie. But just like the physical wounds she is meant to treat on a daily basis, she can never undo the damage. Regardless of how well she can help it heal, the scar of what will always be unforgiven will never heal.