Atonement Summary and Analysis of Part One: Chapter Two


The chapter begins with an in-depth description of the older female Tallis sibling Cecilia. It is stated that Cecilia has great desires to be needed at home, but unfortunately, just isn’t. Despite her uselessness to the rest of the family, she does not want to go away.

Cecilia has had a long-term relationship with Robbie (since they were 7) including attending Cambridge University together. While there, Cecilia and Robbie run in different circles because of a distinct separation in class (Robbie is the son of the Tallis charlady, Grace Turner). This separation in friendship may have built up some suppressed anger towards Cecilia from Robbie because of her family wealth and his lack thereof, as well as a loss of in loyalty.

Leon is coming home from London with a friend, Paul Marshall, whom Cecilia dotes upon from afar, without ever having met him. In her efforts to impress him, she spends an extraordinary effort preparing a vase of flowers for his room. The vase is a family heirloom from Mr. Tallis’s brother Lieutenant Clem Tallis, who saw it sent to the Tallis estate from Verdun where it was awarded to him from a small village for saving them from an attack. Clem died in battle, but the vase made it home.

When Cecilia prepares to fill the vase with water from the fountain, Robbie insists on helping her and the two of them drop the vase into the fountain and it breaks. Robbie assumes full responsibility for the breaking of the vase, and Cecilia gets undressed to swim into the fountain and retrieve the broken pieces.


The introduction of Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner are what allows the author to begin his theme of social class and gender roles in the novel. While Cecilia wants to be "needed" at home (a maternal instinct) she is aware that she also has the education and skills to be independent and part of London's working class. In the years leading up to World War Two, feminism was not a priority in Europe. It wasn't until the war, when all the men went overseas to fight, that feminism began to flourish.

Cecilia is not aware of why she treats Robbie so poorly, that her efforts to "impress" Paul Marshall are really aimed towards Robbie. She hasn't yet realized that it is a misunderstanding of her love towards him that causes her to treat him so poorly. The vase is a symbol that all things traditional and perfect in the Tallis home are about to break. Here we have Robbie, a man who enjoys landscaping and making plants natural in their beautiful state, separated from Cecilia, who seeks to take the flowers and place them in her room, removing them for their natural place. The vase is the object that bridges them, but before it can ever be put into use, it is broken.

When Cecilia reemerges from retrieving the broken piece of ceramic, her "movements are savage" and she "banishes" Robbie with her eyes. Robbie, recognizing her fury and his punishment, attempts to "quell" the rolling water, a rather impossible task. Water is an avid symbol throughout the book, as we read on to discover. Robbie is constantly betrayed by the one element that is intended to both cleanse him and be his source of life.