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Atonement: Letter Scene Essay

Ian McEwan wrote the powerful book Atonement with a few over-arching themes in mind. He eloquently put together this masterpiece by using a small number of key illuminating incidents to reveal his large ideas. McEwan used these episodes to give insight into the characters and their minds. The letter scene is an example of one of these illuminating incidents. In this scene, Robbie writes both an apology letter and a sexual note to Cecilia. He accidentally places the sexual message inside an envelope and sends Briony to present it to Cecilia. Both Briony and Cecilia read Robbie’s letter. Robbie’s monumental mistake creates a situation that can be dissected to find more about Briony, Robbie, Cecilia, and also the inner meaning of McEwan’s work as a whole.

The letter scene enables readers to discover more about each character. Robbie’s internal monologue is present in this scene. He writes, “Cecilia, I don’t think I can blame the heat” ( 80). These words display Robbie’s true love for Cecilia. They are private thoughts that had not been previously revealed. Soon, Cecilia and Briony will both know these thoughts too. When Cecilia reads the letter, she becomes excited and her internal monologue is also exposed. The words, “of course, of course… everything is explained” (105), echo around in Cecilia’s mind. Robbie and Cecilia’s love seems to transcend social class. Their feelings find a way to surpass the limitations of societal rank. Though, Briony’s skewed view of the letter changes everything.

Briony’s misperception of the situation eventually leads to the downfall of Robbie and Cecilia’s love. This is the vista on infinity that McEwan decides to reveal. He wants readers to know the dangers of adolescents’ young imaginative minds (especially Briony’s). Briony had just failed in her attempt to create a play for the homecoming of her brother. She is fed up with life as a youth, and wants to expand her writing prowess into a more adult style. Briony’s imagination gets the best of her after reading Robbie’s letter.

She, “did not doubt that her sister was in some way threatened and would need her help” (107). This false idea led Briony to charge Robbie with rape, which in turn ruined his life and killed him. McEwan uses the letter scene to reveal Briony’s twisted imagination. He guides readers to come to the conclusion that children’s imaginations sometimes have far-reaching and unintended effects. In this case, Robbie and Cecilia’s rare rule-bending love was not able to flourish.


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