Woolf and McEwan: How the Modern Became Postmodern

Ian McEwan’s Atonement draws inspiration from and alludes to a vast number of 20th century modernist authors and works, both stylistically and thematically. For a novel to be considered a successful culmination to the reading of a large body of works, however, it must not be content with merely echoing the themes, styles, and forms of the past. Rather, it must extend them, add to them creatively, and attempt to pull them into contemporary readership. While his thematic and stylistic allusions to 20th century greats such as Virginia Woolf show his intellectual knowledge of and debt to 20th century modernist writing, it is McEwan’s ability to transform these stylistic and thematic elements and mold them into a postmodern classic that makes Atonement a more than adequate culmination to the readings of a 20th century British Literature course.

Stylistically, McEwan draws most heavily from the works of Virginia Woolf for the opening portion of Atonement. The slow pace of the opening, allowing for the painstakingly detailed description of nearly every scene, in addition to the examination of the psychological motives of multiple main characters, closely mirrors the style of Virginia Woolf, which she incorporates into the majority of...

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