Art and Empathy: An Analysis of Saturday and Atonement College

In Atonement, McEwan reveals in the final section, ‘London, 1999,’ that the previous narrative had been a novel written by the character Briony, creating a metafictional lens and calling into question all the previous events the reader had assumed were objectively true. McEwan first signals this shift through a move to Briony’s first-person perspective as a seventy-seven year old woman, and through the vague hints about her current novel. Eventually she directly discusses her ‘last novel, the one that should have been (her) first’ and its subject of ‘our crime – Lola’s, Marshall’s, mine’, both statements revealing the guilt that has dogged her and led her to create so many drafts of her retelling over fifty-nine years. Her attempt to achieve sympathy is purposeful, yet limited. Much the same approach to the issues of art and empathy emerges in another McEwan novel, the current-events-oriented Saturday: here textual and literary art forms bring characters towards somewhat greater states of understanding, but also and paradoxically serves to reveal lapses in empathy.

McEwan implies that the optimistic ending of the penultimate section is false, as well. Briony admits that ‘it is only in this last version that my lovers end well’,...

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