Atonement Summary and Analysis of Part Three: Pages 297-330


Briony, like the rest of London, is aware of the advancement and edge Germany is taking in the war. The soldiers were pushed back over the channel and the buzz bombings of London are about to begin. The city is preparing for a full-blown German invasion.

Briony continues with her long shifts at the hospital and dealing with the traumas and horrors of war. On one Saturday, Briony trades a shift with Fiona and begins to walk north through London into the countryside. During her walk, the reader is provided with a narrative description of her own thoughts into the guilt she carries and her surrender to the fact that she will never receive (nor deserve) complete forgiveness from Cecilia or Robbie Turner.

The destination of her Saturday journey is the church where Lola and Paul Marshall are being married. There is a Rolls Royce outside the chapel proving Paul’s financial success as a result of the war, and the ceremony inside is very private and small. Briony sneaks into the back of the chapel and observes the wedding. Once the preacher offers up to the congregation to speak aloud if there is any reason why Lola and Paul Marshall should not be married, Briony freezes and does nothing. The two complete the ceremony and exit the church. Briony goes unnoticed by all, accept the twins, Jackson and Pierrot, who spot her as they parade out of the church. Lola “may” have recognized her, but the reader is left guessing (308).

Briony then visits a one-bedroom apartment near the church. It is where her sister, Cecilia, is living. Cecilia is not expecting Briony and is shocked to see her. They originally talk of nursing and the war, and Cecilia is very cold towards her younger sister. As they talk, Robbie appears in the kitchen, unaware of Briony’s presence. When he sees her, he too is shocked and angry. He goes at her both verbally and physically, and once again, Cecilia steps in between and “saves” her little sister from Robbie’s wrath. Briony is happy to see that Robbie is alive.

Briony tries to apologize but does not expect forgiveness from either Cecilia or Robbie. She insists that she has “grown up” (323) but Robbie is not buying it, and still threatens her. Robbie then instructs Briony on exactly what she needs to do if she is serious and sincere about her search for “atonement.” Robbie tells Briony to go to her parents and let them know that she knowingly falsely accused Robbie of raping Lola. Then she will write Robbie a letter in “great detail” about everything that led up to what she saw at the lake and why she blamed Robbie. Finally, she will go to the magistrate with the same, true version of events that night as she remembers them. This is when Briony realizes Robbie and Lola think Danny Hardman was the guilty party, when in fact it was Paul Marshall. She also tells them about the marriage.

Robbie and Cecilia escort Briony to the subway station. She apologizes again for all that she has done, and then turns to leave. The apology is received blankly. Robbie just beseeches her to do as he has instructed. This is the last time Briony sees either of them.


It is learned that the war is not going well for the Allied Forces, and just like Briony in her search for atonement, "the country stands alone now" too. Through the course of the novel, it should be realized that both England and Briony go through the stages of losing innocence to a greater, evil force they do not understand, fighting to maintain preservation of that innocence, submitting to the guilt of their failures, and eventually surviving the worst of the transition, achieving some sort of forgiveness on the other side.

When speaking to the soldiers, Briony learns it was the "fucking RAF" that had let them down. The omnipresent power from the sky is what failed to be there in their time of need. This could be a metaphor for the Godlessness in both Briony's and Robbie's lives in terms of lack of protection from harm. Religion pops up again when Briony enters the church where Lord and Lady Marshall are being married--she expects "the scene of a crime" (recall, the rape took place near the temple on the Tallis estate) and is disappointed when her imagination has led her to false expectations. Even the bride does not "appear to be a victim" like she had hoped for, and this time, the temple offers some sort of serenity instead of threat to Lola.

What Briony needs, in her own words, is "backbone." She seeks this courage in real life and not just writing, but is unable to find it. She misses her opportunity to annul the marriage because of a "lacking courage for confrontation." The feeds into the idea of the writer as complete narcissist. Briony understands that what may not transpire in real life, can always be recreated in fiction. "It was not the backbone of a story she lacked. It was backbone."

Everything to Briony seems a "far-off, distant time." Her lunch with Fiona a few weeks ago feels that way, let alone that fateful night in 1935. Even the heat-wave from that summer is remembered to be from a different time altogether, which is McEwan's way of playing with the folklore and human condition to remember things as always being "...-er" in the past (hotter, better, darker, lovelier, simpler, etc.). Briony's stroll through the north of London in search for, first, Lola's wedding, and second, her sister, is framed as back to the timelessness and permanence of the novel's very beginning. She is leaving the modern, war-torn city and walking back into the rustic, rural English countryside. Her only direction is a "crumbling bus route map dated 1926," emphasizing this point. On page 309, she even says: "It seemed a far-off, innocent time."

The closer she gets to her sister, the more her identity is washed. "Since she left the cafe," Briony takes on a "ghostly persona" and the way her sister speaks to her is unidentifiable. Cecilia's identity has disappeared too: "She barely knew this woman."

Cecilia's loyalty lies completely and solely to Robbie now. This is made obvious when he moves in to attack Briony and once again, Briony is saved by Cecilia who intervenes. The words "come back," however, are directed at Robbie and not Briony, further isolating Briony from her sister and realizing she never will, nor should be, forgiven.

There is a subtle redirection onto the susceptibility of error and blame in this section to. As long as Briony had blamed Robbie for the rape, Robbie and Cecilia have assumed it was Danny Hardman who was the assailant. Ironically, it is Briony who is able to swing what they have imagined into the reality. "Years of seeing it a certain way" does not only apply to the guilty (Briony) but also to the innocent (Robbie and Cecilia).

At the end of this section, the narrator, still using the third person, notes that "she is ready to begin" her atonement. She then signs the novel, "BT," leaving the reader to assume it was Briony who wrote the story, but not fully ready to commit to her identity completely.