Atonement Summary and Analysis of Part Three: Pages 270-297


Briony and Fiona go to the park for lunch. They enjoy their time away from the hospital and share laughs, getting to know more about one another. On their walk back to the hospital, they come on the horrifying scene they had been anticipating, dreading, and hoping would never come. Hundreds of wounded soldiers back from France are spread out all over the hospital lawn and steps.

Briony attempts to carry a wounded soldier into the operating room and almost drops him. Immediately, she feels she will fail. She feels humiliation, shock, and shame. Despite these moments of self pity, Briony tries to fulfill her role as a nurse, the one she has trained for, but the scene is too chaotic for her. At one point, she leads a battalion of wounded soldiers to a vacant ward and tries to follow the procedures she has been taught. She has no control over the men, and panics. A superior nurse then assures her that “procedure” can be let go. No one was prepared for this.

Briony spends majority of the chapter passing on from one soldier to the next. Removing bandages, cleaning and recovering wounds, helping soldiers to drink, cleaning bedpans. Some soldiers are worse than others, and a lot of the narrative in this section is extremely graphic about the horrors of war. She has to remove shrapnel from one man, sees another man whose face is completely gone, and talks to another man as he dies from missing part of his cranium and brain.

Briony learns a lot about herself and humankind during these hours. She sees men and bodies as they are—material objects. And she realizes that all the nursing in the world would not make up for what she has done to her sister and Robbie Turner. It makes her feel even less like a person (293).

The last four pages of the section are a lengthy and detailed rejection letter from the magazine/journal where she sent in her story “Two Figures by a Fountain.” The letter is encouraging, and tells Briony to pursue her story and her craft more, and that they would like to see the story reworked and resubmitted as something more than in short-story form.


When Briony does her best to handle the situation of the hundreds of wounded men who arrive at her hospital, she is determined not to fail. Instead, she comes away humiliated. As soon as the war touches her life, i.e. is not in control of the situation like a writer always is, she fails. Her failure as a nurse during those first days represents her inability to cope with a world in which she is not the puppeteer.

The men whom Briony attempts to lead to beds do not even "seem to be aware of her existence" confirming her subconscious fears of complete anonymity and lack of identity. Order has been restored and Briony is invisible. Compare the chaos of war and the hospital to the order of Briony's farm animals in her room as a child, or the direction she commanded when rehearsing the play in the nursery. In the real world, especially during the war, Briony seems to not exist. In her imaginative world, Briony is God.

In the presence of men, Briony is once again protected from the obscene. Just like the "c" word that was placed into the letter she read when she was 13, the "f" word is used her out of pain, and the soldier who uses it is scolded by Sister Drummond. This is odd behavior for a woman who's entire profession is based on words.

Water is an important part of these thirty pages. It is water that is desired and required by all the wounded bodies, and it is Briony who is meant to deliver it. She compares herself to a mother, feeding the men "like giant babies."

During the horrifying scenes of torture and pain, Briony realizes the body to be a material object, and once torn apart, it is difficult, even impossible, to mend.

Identity appears again, this time in the form of a conscious decision by Briony to share her name with a dying man. She knows this is against the rules, but takes comfort in living out his delusional fantasy.

The last pages of this section end with a long, detailed letter from C.C. (Cyril Connolly, editor of Horizon Literary Journal in London at the time). C.C positions the letter to ask what the English novel of the twentieth century has inherited, and what can it do now? The letter has a profound effect on Briony: On the one hand it encourages to pursue her story further. On the other, it coaches her in all she is getting wrong in writing, including being too impersonating. C.C. encourages her to find her own voice and be less concerned with the traditions of Virginia Woolf. Most importantly, Briony is told to look beyond her own situation as the observer and recorder of events and spend more time answering how her crime "might affect the lives of the two adults."

Two final pieces of insight and advice are offered to Briony that need little analysis but are worth noting: 1) Artists are politically impotent. 2) Warfare is the enemy of creative activity.