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Atonement is a 2001 novel by British author Ian McEwan about a woman's effort to atone. The story is told of her life changing mistake as a young girl who dreams of being a writer in upper-middle-class interwar England, the affects on herself, family and friends, and her own effort to achieve atonement over the coming century, which leads to an exploration on the nature of writng itself.

It is widely regarded as one of McEwan's best works and is one of the most celebrated and honoured books of recent years. It was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize for fiction, an award he had already won for his previous novel, Amsterdam. McEwan utilises several stylistic techniques in the novel, including metafiction and psychological realism.

Plot summary

Part one

In the hot summer of 1935, 13-year-old Briony Tallis is already an ambitious writer. She has written a play for her older brother, Leon, who is supposed to arrive later in the day. The characters are to be played by her cousins, 15-year-old Lola and the nine-year-old twins Jackson and Pierrot. Briony's sister, Cecilia, has returned home from Girton Collegemarker, Cambridgemarker, and is trying to sort out her confused feelings towards the charlady’s son and her childhood friend, Robbie Turner, who is home from Cambridge Universitymarker for the summer. His studies were financed by her father, Jack Tallis.

Cecilia wants to fill a vase with water at the fountain in front of the Tallis’ house. She meets Robbie and they start talking, but the conversation quickly becomes awkward. When Robbie wants to help Cecilia with the vase, she remains stubborn, the vase breaks and two pieces fall into the fountain. Cecilia strips to her underwear, jumps into the fountain and retrieves the fragments while Robbie only stares at her. Briony witnesses the ensuing moment of sexual tension from an upstairs bedroom and is confused as to its meaning.

Leon Tallis arrives with his friend, Paul Marshall. They meet Robbie on their way to the house, and Leon invites him to dinner. Cecilia is irritated at Robbie’s coming, but does not know why he bothers her so much.

Meanwhile, Robbie wants to write a letter to Cecilia to apologize for his behavior at the fountain. He indicates that he also feels awkward around her, and, like her, does not know why. After finishing it, he unthinkingly adds an obscene suggestion on to the bottom of his letter, using the word “cunt”. Although he then writes another version of it, it is the first that is accidentally delivered to Cecilia via Briony, who reads it. Briony consults with her cousin Lola; Briony is then convinced that Robbie is a “sex maniac" and that she must protect her sister from him.

Upon reading Robbie’s letter, Cecilia realises her love for Robbie, and they end up making love in the library. Briony interrupts them, and interprets their lovemaking as a sexual assault upon her sister.

During dinner, the twin cousins run away, leaving a letter. The dinner party divides into groups to go out searching for them. Robbie and Briony are the only ones who are left alone — as Robbie has to acknowledge later, the biggest mistake of his life. In the dark, Briony comes across Lola being raped by an unknown attacker. Briony convinces herself that Robbie is the attacker, as it fits perfectly in her picture of him as a maniac. Lola, afraid of even more humiliation, lets Briony do the talking.

The police arrive to investigate, and when Robbie arrives with the rescued twins, he is arrested solely on the basis of Briony's testimony. Apart from Robbie's mother, only Cecilia believes in his innocence.

Part two

By the time World War II has started, Robbie has spent three years in prison. He is released on the condition of enlistment in the army. Cecilia has become a nurse. She cuts off all contact with her family because of the part they took in sending Robbie to jail. Robbie and Cecilia have only been in contact by letter, since she was not allowed to visit him in prison. Before Robbie has to go to war in Francemarker, they meet once for half an hour during Cecilia’s lunch break. Their reunion starts awkwardly, but they share a kiss before leaving each other.

In France, the war is going badly and the army is retreating to Dunkirkmarker. As the injured Robbie goes to the safe haven, he thinks about Cecilia and past events like teaching Briony how to swim and reflecting on Briony’s possible reasons for accusing him. His single meeting with Cecilia — the one kiss — is the memory that keeps him walking, his only aim seeing her again. At the end, Robbie falls asleep in Dunkirk, one day before the evacuation.

Part three

Briony has refused her place at Cambridge, and instead is a trainee nurse in Londonmarker. She has realized the full extent of her crime, and now remembers it was Paul Marshall, Leon’s friend, whom she saw raping Lola. Briony still writes, although she does not pursue it with the same recklessness as she did as a child.

Briony is called to the bedside of Luc, a young, fatally wounded French soldier. She consoles him in his last moments by speaking with him in her school French, and he mistakes her for an English girl whom his mother wanted him to marry.Just before his death, Luc asks "Do you love me?", to which Briony answers "Yes" — not only because "no other answer was possible" but also because "for the moment, she did. He was a lovely boy far away from his family and about to die." Afterwards, Briony daydreams about the life she might have had if she had married Luc and gone to live with him and his family. (Later, it is briefly mentioned that after the war Briony married a Frenchman named Thierry in Marseillemarker).

Briony attends the wedding of her cousin Lola and Paul Marshall before finally visiting Cecilia. Robbie is on leave from the army and Briony meets him unexpectedly at her sister’s place, as well. They both refuse to forgive Briony, who nonetheless tells them she will try and put things right. She promises to begin the legal procedures needed to exonerate Robbie, even though Paul Marshall will never be held responsible for his crime because of his marriage to Lola, his victim.

Part four

The fourth section, titled "London 1999", is written from Briony's perspective. She is a successful novelist at the age of 77 and dying of vascular dementia.

It is revealed that Briony is the author of the preceding sections of the novel. Although Cecilia and Robbie are reunited in Briony’s novel, they were never reunited in reality: Robbie Turner died of septicemia caused by his injury on the beaches of Dunkirk, and Cecilia was killed by the bomb that destroyed the gas and water mains above Balham Underground station. The truth is that Cecilia and Robbie never saw each other again after their half-hour meeting.Though the detail concerning Lola’s marriage to Paul Marshall is true, Briony never visited Cecilia to make amends.

Briony explains why she decided to change real events and unite Cecilia and Robbie in her novel, although it was not her intention in her many previous drafts. She did not see what purpose it would serve if she told the readers the pitiless truth; she reasons that they could not draw any sense of hope or satisfaction from it. But above all, she wanted to give Robbie and Cecilia their happiness by being together. Since they could not have the time together they so much longed for in reality, Briony wanted to give it to them at least in her novel.

The novel ends with a meditation on the nature of atonement and authorship. The conclusion that Briony reaches is that an author cannot achieve atonement through a novel; the author plays the role of God in her novel, determining the characters' fates and altering them at will.

Main characters

  • Briony Tallis – The younger sister of Leon and Cecilia, Briony is an aspiring writer. She is a thirteen year old at the beginning of the novel and takes part in sending Robbie Turner to jail after she finds Robbie and Cecilia making love in the library. Briony is part narrator, part character and we see her transformation from child to woman as the novel progresses. At the end of the novel, Briony has realized her wrong-doing as a “child” and decides to write the novel to find her atonement.
  • Cecilia Tallis – The middle child in the Tallis family, Cecilia has fallen in love with her childhood companion, Robbie Turner. After a tense encounter by the fountain, Robbie and she don't speak until they meet again before a formal dinner. Upset over the loss of her love, to jail and war, she has almost no contact with her family again.
  • Leon Tallis – The eldest child in the Tallis family, Leon returns home to visit. He brings his friend Paul Marshall along with him on his trip home.
  • Emily Tallis – Emily is the mother of Briony, Cecilia, and Leon. Emily is ill in bed for most of the novel, suffering from severe migraines.
  • Jack Tallis – Jack is the father of Briony, Cecilia, and Leon. Jack often works late nights and it is alluded to in the novel that he is having an affair.
  • Robbie Turner – Robbie is the son of Mrs. Turner, who lives on the grounds of the Tallis home. Having grown up with Leon, Briony and Cecilia, he knows the family well. He attended Cambridge University with Cecilia and when they come home on break, they fall in love.
  • Mrs. Turner – The mother of Robbie Turner, she was given permission from Jack Tallis to live on the grounds. She has become the family's maid and does laundry for the Tallis'. After the conviction of her son for a crime she doesn't believe he committed, she leaves the Tallis family.
  • Lola – Lola is a 15-year-old girl who is Briony, Cecilia, and Leon's cousin. She comes, along with her brothers, to stay with the Tallis' after her parents' divorce. She is red-headed and fair-skinned with freckles.
  • Jackson – Jackson is a young boy (Pierrot's twin) who is Briony, Cecilia, and Leon's cousin. He comes, along with his sister and his twin, to stay with the Tallis' after his parents divorce.
  • Pierrot – Pierrot is a young boy (Jackson's twin) who is Briony, Cecilia, and Leon's cousin. He comes, along with his sister and his twin, to stay with the Tallis' after his parents divorce.
  • Hardman – Hardman is the handy man for the Tallis family.
  • Paul Marshall – A friend of Leon's, who rapes Lola and, some years later, marries her.
  • Nettle – Nettle is Robbie's companion during the Dunkirk evacuation.
  • Mace – Mace is Robbie's companion during the Dunkirk evacuation.
  • Betty – The Tallis family's servant, described as "wretched" in personality.


Themes

Atonement

The novel bears the name of its primary theme. Throughout the work, the reader can see the characters search for atonement. "I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me," Briony says at the end of the novel. Briony recognizes her sin (i.e., wrongfully accusing Robbie and ruining his and Cecilia's chance at a life together) and attempts to atone for it through writing her novel. She does not grant herself forgiveness; rather, she attempts to earn atonement through giving Robbie and Cecilia a life together in her writing.

Moods

  • Book/Author Relationship
McEwan reiterates the comparison between himself, a writer in reality, and Briony, a writer of fiction in his story. Throughout the novel, McEwan compares himself, an author of literary fiction, to Briony and both her literary fiction and real-life fiction. This comparison draws a relationship between the life of the author and the life of Briony in the story.
  • Truth v. Imagination
Throughout the novel, Briony fabricates her own reality due to immaturity and misunderstanding, both in her literature and in her mind. Briony’s fabricated reality is often positive and optimistic, such as the inclusion of Robbie and Cecilia meeting at the end of her story; however her false reality initiated the plot of the story, as she lied about the rape of Lola.
  • Peace
The motif of peace is shown through the stillness and calm the characters experience at the Tallis Estate at the beginning of the novel. The estate is portrayed as being an isolated and calm environment in a world of chaos and confusion, most characters seem to enjoy being separated from the chaos of society. However, Cecilia states her discontentment with the solitary and calm atmosphere at the estate, as she wants to move on to more exciting and worthwhile things in her life.
  • Death
Throughout the second half of the novel, the motif of death contrasts the motif of life shown in the beginning of the novel. The motif of death occurs mostly while Briony is working in the hospital, as she encounters the death of many soldiers and bystanders from the war. Death is also portrayed during the war, when Robbie is participating in the retreat. Robbie witnesses the death of many soldiers and innocent bystanders, and many bystanders experience the death of others around themselves.
  • Love
The relationship between Cecilia and Robbie is portrayed throughout the book as a loving one, even when Briony fictitiously portrays their reunion. Companionship is also exemplified between family members in the book, although Briony’s relationships are mostly overprotective.

Objects and places

The Trials of Arabella

In the book, The Trials of Arabella is a play written by Briony Tallis in 1935 with the intention to teach her brother Leon to be more serious about love. In the first part of the book the performance of the play is abandoned due to the lack of cooperation of Jackson and Pierrot, and the further complications that follow. The play is later performed in 1999 during Briony's 77th birthday celebration by various young grandchildren.

The Tallis Estate

The Tallis Estate is in the Surrey Hills in England, being the family home and also the site of the Tallis family party for Briony's 77th birthday. It is at The Tallis Estate that the key moments of the exposition of the story take place. The first part of the book completely takes place on this estate. In the final scene it has become a hotel; the family reunion for Briony's 77th birthday, with more than 50 guests, including various grandchildren and great-grandchildren, takes place in the same library where Robbie and Cecilia consummated their love for the first and only time.

The vase

The vase originally belonged to Mr Tallis's brother, Clem, who received it as a present for saving the inhabitants of a town near Verdunmarker during World War I. Although it is very valuable, the Tallis family decides to keep using it to honour its owner's memory.

Cecilia and Robbie (who seemingly keep ignoring each other since their return from university) fight over the vase by the fountain and break off some shards, and Cecilia undresses to get them out of the fountain. This incident leads to (the different versions of) Robbie's apologetic letter. The subject of the vase comes up again when Briony visits Cecilia and Robbie and mentions that the vase has been broken; Cecilia is unsettled by the news.

Dunkirk

The second section of the book contains detailed descriptions of the Dunkirk evacuation, in which Robbie takes part, and gives an account of his war experiences.

The section describes the resentment felt by Briony to adequately protect them from Germanmarker Stukas during the retreat. In one scene, Robbie and his fellows save an RAF soldier from being lynched by infantrymen in the British Expeditionary Force. This scene is based on reminiscences that McEwan heard from his father, who had been at Dunkirk. This hostility towards the RAF was later eclipsed by the glory the British pilots won during the Battle of Britain.

In the fourth section of the book, Briony is shown gathering information and obtaining opinions about the war in order to give as realistic a description as possible in her book. It is also revealed that she had received a number of letters from "Old Mr. Nettle", one of the two corporals with whom Robbie shared his experiences in Dunkirk.

The hospital

Both Cecilia and Briony become nurses and are trained at the same hospital in London. Briony chooses hard and lowly work instead of a comfortable student life at Cambridge. In the hospital, Briony comes in contact with the harsh reality of war.

This part of the book describes the strict semi-military discipline imposed on trainee nurses at the time, consciously modeled on the training of soldiers and harking back to the time of Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War.

Social background

Robbie has been well-treated, being the friend and companion of the Tallis family children and having a first class school and university education paid for by the father. Nevertheless, neither he nor the family members forget that he is the charwoman's son.

Sponsoring Robbie was mainly the initiative of Jack Tallis, Cecilia and Briony's father, who at the time when the story takes place is growing ever more distant and absent — officially because of the burden of his government job, actually because he is having an affair of which his wife is tacitly aware and which keeps him away for much of the time, including on the crucial night of crisis. Near the book's end it is told that later Jack Tallis would "live in London with his second wife".

Emily Tallis, the mother, has never approved of paying for Robbie's education, nor of Cecilia's going to Cambridge, which Emily considers a waste of time and money and which interferes with finding a "suitable" match, marrying and having children. Cecilia is aware that her mother considers Paul Marshall a possible husband for her — Robbie would not have been considered suitable, even under other circumstances.

Cecilia herself is at the beginning shown as sharing in the condescending and patronizing attitude towards Robbie. When they are grown, their unequal social positions cause tension and awkwardness between them, causing Robbie to avoid Cecilia during the three years when they are both at Cambridge. Two acts in the book break these social conventions — her undressing in front of him and his writing her a sexually explicit letter.

These same acts — witnessed by Briony and through her eventually widely revealed — fatally undermine Robbie's precarious social position. The Tallis family members (except for Cecilia) are immediately willing to believe the worst of him, as are the police officers stationed in the Surrey countryside. Cecilia's revelation that their sexual encounter at the library was with her full consent does not help Robbie — it just serves to further convince the police that "Mr. Turner is a dangerous man".

In going away to be a nurse in London, and cutting herself completely off from her family, Cecilia expresses her anger and disgust at the family's turning on Robbie, and her understanding that in that social milieu he would never be taken as an equal and that their liaison would never be accepted.

Robbie's ambiguous social position is described in the Dunkirk part of the book, where he is "the private who talks like a toff." The two corporals, who formally outrank him, nevertheless accept his lead and address him as "guv'nor".

References to other literary works

Atonement contains intertextual references to a number of other literary works, including Virginia Woolf's The Waves, Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, Henry James' The Golden Bowl, Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, and Shakespeare's The Tempest, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night. McEwan has also said that he was directly influenced by L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between. It also has a (fictional) letter by the literary critic and editor Cyril Connolly, addressed to Briony.

Awards, rankings and critiques

Atonement was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize for fiction. It was also shortlisted for the 2001 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the 2001 Whitbread Book Award for Novel. It won the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the 2002 WH Smith Literary Award, the 2002 Boeke Prize and the 2004 Santiago Prize for the European Novel. In its 1000th issue, Entertainment Weekly named the novel #82 on its list of best 100 books in the past 25 years. Time named it the best fiction novel of the year and included it in its All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels, and The Observer cites it as one of the 100 best novels written, calling it "a contemporary classic of mesmerising narrative conviction."

Literary critiques:

  • Crosthwaite, Paul. "Speed, War, and Traumatic Affect: Reading Ian McEwan's Atonement." Cultural Politics 3.1 (2007): 51-70.
  • D’hoker, Elke. “Confession and Atonement in Contemporary Fiction: J. M. Coetzee, John Banville, and Ian McEwan.” Critique 48.1 (2006): 31-43.
  • Finney, Brian. "Briony's Stand Against Oblivion: The Making of Fiction in Ian McEwan's Atonement." Journal of Modern Literature 27.3 (2004): 68-82.
  • Harold, James. "Narrative Engagement with Atonement and The Blind Assassin." Philosophy and Literature 29.1 (2005): 130-145.
  • Hidalgo, Pilar. “Memory and Storytelling in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Critique 46.2 (2005): 82-91.
  • Ingersoll, Earl G. “Intertextuality in L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between and Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 40 (2004): 241-58.
  • Schemberg, Claudia. Achieving 'At-one-ment': Storytelling and the Concept of Self in Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, Black Dogs, Enduring Love and Atonement. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2004.
  • Phelan, James. “Narrative Judgments and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative: Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” A Companion to Narrative Theory. Ed. James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. 322-36.


Controversy

In late 2006, Lucilla Andrews' autobiography No Time for Romance became the focus of a posthumous controversy when it was alleged that McEwan plagiarized from this work while writing Atonement. McEwan professed his innocence. Several high profile authors leapt to his defence, including John Updike, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Keneally, Zadie Smith, and the reclusive Thomas Pynchon.

Cinematic adaptation

An award-winning film adaptation, directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, was released by Working Title Films in September 2007 in the UKmarker and in December 2007 in the USmarker.

References

  1. About King's College London : News and What's On : King's College London
  2. Atonement - ALL-TIME 100 Novels - TIME
  3. The best novels ever (version 1.2) from Observer Blog
  4. Recluse speaks out to defend McEwan - Telegraph
  5. Pynchon backs McEwan in 'copying' row | News | Guardian Unlimited Books


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