Atonement follows the story of Briony Tallis, who witnesses events between her older sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner the son of her father’s housemaid. Briony’s innocence gives way to a misinterpretation of what she sees, triggering her imagination to run wild and leads to an unspeakable crime that changes all of their lives. Jane Austen’s first novel Northanger abbey tells the story of Catherine Morland, who is a nice girl, who has an overactive imagination, fuelled by her obsession with gothic novels. When Catherine meets Henry Tinley, she’s instantly smitten.
But when she’s invited to his home, the sinister Northanger Abbey, she learns not to interpret the world through the pages of the vivid thrillers that she reads. There are various themes that both books have in common such as; love, guilt, shame, forgiveness, war, social class, identity, and loss of innocence. There are also similarities between characters despite the time difference between the novels. The Characters of Briony and Catherine, the two heroines, will be compared as well as John Thorpe and Paul Marshall who are cast in the role of the villains.
In this essay I will explore and compare the style and language used for both novels and effects of the styles of writing used and their impressions on the reader will be analysed. In Northanger Abbey the main character is Catherine, a 17 year old who is very naive, impressionable and a bit of a fantasist who has to learn the differences between fiction and reality, false and true friends. Catherine is a fairly unremarkable young lady, living at home with her nine siblings and her parents. The Allen’s are a wealthy childless couple living next door.
Before going to Bath with the Allen’s, Catherine has never been away from her family home in Fullerton for an extended period of time. Catherine’s main occupation is reading Gothic novels, particularly Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. This leads her to imagine herself as the heroine of a Gothic murder mystery when she visits the Tinley’s at Northanger Abbey. Catherine believes what she imagines will come true, swept up in a world of birds singing, a beautiful world, however reality is different. Catherine’s views of life are tinted by the romantic Gothic ovels she often loses herself in, coupled with her inexperience and naivete within her nature, it leads to some misfortunes during her time in Bath. Catherine eventually realizes her mistake and repents her accusations of General Tilney, whom she believed played a part in his wife’s death. Catherine matures over the course of the novel and becomes more independent and proficient at assessing the true characters of those around her. Her infatuation with Henry deepens into a genuine affection, and her patience is rewarded by their marriage.
Northanger Abbey is set over a season of which Catherine over time develops from being a naive impressionable young girl into a mature realistic woman. From the beginning of the novel Catherine believes that everyone is good, kind and honest like she is. This is because of the sheltered life she has lead and her willingness to see the good in people. Having learnt the ways of the world, knowing that all that glitters is not gold, people are not always what they make out to be.
She learns to read people and works out that real life is very different from that in her books. While in Bath, Catherine meets and befriends two families: the scheming Thorpe’s and the wealthy, educated Tinley’s. She meets the charming, witty Henry Tinley at the ball and has growing feelings for him, she also meets, Isabella Thorpe, who is a two faced, self-centred girl, out to get what she wants at any cost. However the girls become friends and read novels, gossip and attend balls together. Briony is the main character of the book atonement.
In essence, she is the author and the story is told through her eyes. Briony is the thirteen-year-old youngest daughter of three, who aspires to be a writer, like Catherine she is a heroine, fantasist, a bit of a loner, a day dreamer and she idolises older people in her life, putting them on a pedestal. Innocent Briony lives in a pleasant world, with her sister Cecilia, brother Leon, and her parents. However, her parents are often absent with her mother being ill and her father working in London.
Briony is from a privileged background. The narrator refers to Briony as a little girl whose effective status is of an only child. She seeks praise and approval and looks for attention and is the baby of the family. Briony has led a sheltered life ‘bubble life’ as she is always looked after. When we meet her, she has written a play called “The Trials of Arabella” which she also attempts to star in and direct. It is clear to the reader that Briony is a girl with an extended and vivid imagination.
Her reality compared to her high-demand vision of life is called nothing but “dreams and frustrations. ” She entertains a high amount of self-pity when she doesn’t get what she wants and expects too much from the people and the world around her. Briony is losing her innocence from the moment “Atonement” begins. She misinterprets the motives and intentions of adult behaviour. This causes her to trigger a series of events that will have long-lasting and incredibly damaging results for the parties involved. Briony grows up to serve as a nurse in London during World War Two.
She also begins to write while in London and by the end of the book we meet Briony as a 77 year old who has just learned of a terminal illness (vascular dementia). She is being celebrated by her family for her successes as a writer. It is during this final chapter that we learn Briony to be the author of our tale. Ian McEwan’s Atonement opens up with a quote (a letter) from Jane Austen’s 1818 Northanger Abbey, “Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from?
Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English: that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open?
Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting? They had reached the end of the gallery; and with tears of shame, she ran off to her own room. This long quote that begins the novel is a letter to the young Catherine Morland, the heroine of Austen’s tale who is a girl that is in love with Gothic fiction that she sends the lives of people around her into a downward spiral by imagining a perfectly innocent man to be capable of doing terrible things.
Catherine basically creates a Gothic tale to suit her own life. McEwan takes Austen’s theme of the process of the dangers of transferring fiction to real life. When Catherine reads the letter, she has “tears of shame. ” Just like Briony, she becomes aware of her crime. Briony’s atonement for her crime is to spend a lifetime writing her novel, convicted to write it over and over and over again. Once she discovers she is dying, she is finally able to complete the book, but in a different way that she ever had before.
As she sees it, she fails to have the courage of pessimism, and rewrites a fictional fairy tale in which the lovers survive. But in contrast to Northanger Abbey Atonement ends in a very vague way, In that the lovers survive but as we are made aware that Briony is in fact the author, Cecilia and Robbie are absent from her birthday celebration and the reader is left questioning whether they really survived or not. Perception, misunderstanding, and a vast imagination are characteristics that both Catherine and Brioney have in common.
Catherine’s imagination is shaped by her experience reading the Gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe. Being caught up in her fantasies, Catherine still expects to encounter the same scary objects she has read about such as bloody daggers and ghostly shrouds of which may be hidden in secret places throughout the house. Even when she finds only ordinary objects such as a quilt, in place of their imagined counterparts, Catherine refuses to abandon her vision of Northanger’s mysterious history until reality imposes her to in the form of Henry’s talking-to.
Austen hereby suggests in order for Catherine to see clearly things for what they are she must divorce herself from such fiction because only then can Catherine truly grow, and not mix her reality with that of the one she imagines in her head. Whereas Briony is too young to fully grasp the adult world yet old enough to presume she understands her social environment, what happens in Atonement is all created by the capability to misinterpret observation.
Briony is still a child; her obsession with order, her fantasizing about playwriting and fencing, and the seriousness with which she takes her play all represent her at a point where she is too young to see the world beyond her own existence. This flaw is not her fault. It is a part of the maturing process. Most of the action that is misinterpreted in atonement takes place where some senses are obstructed or absent while others are available, such as Briony can see the incident between Cecilia and Robbie at the fountain, but she can’t hear it.
Briony reads the words in the letter, but she doesn’t know what it means nor does she understand it. Briony sees Cecilia and Robbie in the library, but nobody speaks of it and finally, Briony hears Lola being raped, but can’t completely see what/who it is because it is dark. Part One of atonement is based on perception and misperception. Even the narration of the novel plays on this idea. McEwan continuously has to repeat the same episode through different perspectives so that the reader can get the whole picture to show Briony’s misconception of events as a young girl.
By doing this McEwan showcases Brionys guilt and how she is trying her best to make up for what she did not understand as a child and what she struggles with as an author by presenting the story from every angle, and not just the writer’s point of view. Many of the characters in Northanger Abbey define themselves on the basis of their material wealth, they are obsessed with the acquisition and upkeep of material objects. Mrs Allen, for instance, is always worried about tearing her latest ball gown.
Upon arriving in Bath, Catherine and Isabella spend a portion of each day walking around town, viewing the window displays, and Isabella is constantly comparing her attire with other women’s. General Tinley is the novel’s most materialistic character. He has devoted his life to outdoing his wealthy peers through the size, scale, and expense of his estate. Catherine is constantly asked to compare and judge the General’s possessions against Mr Allen’s upon her arrival to Northanger Abbey.
Austen’s writing seems covertly critical of these attitudes, but as illustrated especially in her more famous novels – she is a satirist; this is to say her humour is always gentle, mixed with real affection for her characters and their shortcomings. They may fret about their possessions in excess, but they do so in well-meaning ways. This contrasts heavily to McEwan’s novel though inequities and injustices of social class appear throughout the novel, the most obvious example is the relationship between Robbie Turner and Cecilia Tallis.
Because Briony thinks her older sister is in grave danger of falling beneath her class that she sets out to protect her. Placing social distinction above love is common sense for Briony, and her disapproval of Robbie proves this faculty to hold up in the courts. As for Cecilia, she is the only character in the story to deal with these issues head on. After realizing her unfair behaviour towards Robbie while at Cambridge together, Cecilia has the courage to announce her love for him when she defends the letter being passed around the living room for all to read as evidence of Robbie’s sex-maniac ways.
Even when he is arrested, she stands by him, and soon thereafter disowns her family to become a nurse living in a terrible flat in north London. The only other person accused of the rape is the other servant, Danny Hardman. And even when his father provides a perfectly suitable alibi, it is not presented without question and doubt. Paul Marshall on the other hand, the filthy rich guest to the home who is actually responsible for the crime, is never even considered or questioned. As part of Briony’s self-administered punishment, she joins the nurses in the lower class where she sees herself as a slave.
This may have been an act of repentance and nobility during the war, but its motives are questionable because by the end of the novel, Briony is admitted back up the ranks of class, having a chauffeur and a lovely flat in Regent’s park. The reader is left wondering how much has really changed in the 65 years the novel has taken place The styles of writing are different; Austen in Northanger Abbey uses formal, structured language and the sentences are longer and more complex. However this writing style makes it easier to pick up on what Austen does best which is satire.
In her writing she makes fun of the upper class lifestyle, by making her heroine an ordinary girl. In Atonement, McEwan writes using informal, language, everyday conversational language and Robbie is the commoner, living with the Tallis, who have took him in and looked after him. Northanger Abbey is pre 1900 and Atonement is post 1900. The books are linked by class, love, the diversities of family life, imagination, misunderstanding and the touching life experiences that the characters have gone through. There are various themes that both novels share such as relationships and conflicts including love and romance.
Letters are a primary form of communication in Austen’s novel and characters wait readily for the mail coach to arrive, for instance when Isabella waits for James to write to tell her of his father’s approval for their marriage. It provides the characters of Northanger Abbey with realistic visions of other worlds, where exaggerated occurrences happen on a daily basis. For a young woman like Catherine, reading allows her to access the kind of dramatic conflict that her own life lacks, at least until she arrives at Northanger Abbey.
Similarly to this form of communication, in McEwan novel we learn the story was told through letters between Cecilia and Robbie, and even correspondence between Corporal Nettles and Briony. It leaves the question very open: Whose story is this? But McEwan plays with a layered-tradition: a story being told by one of the characters in the bhthird person, that shifts to the first person in the final section of the book when the reader realizes who the narrator is.
To conclude with though both novel are excellent in their own right, I question whether the story of Atonement is real or not, It leaves the reader wondering whether or not Briony in the end sought her atonement and forgiveness for her misunderstanding as a child and the guilt that she carried for all those years and whether she was really successful in her quest. It also gets you to question whether Briony is the only guilty party or whether it should be shared to others such as Lola, for not speaking up about the alleged rape.
Paul Marshall for raping an innocent girl and not admitting his wrong doings etc… As the novel comes to the end many questions are still unanswered and the reader though gaining insight that Briony is the narrator it is still questionable as to who the actual author is Briony or McEwan and who is capable of telling the complete story as to what really happened? All authors are subject to their own interpretation of events. There are numerous references made to literature in McEwan’s novel, such as Robbie being a literature major that reads and understand all the classic English novels and poets.
Robbie is also the innocent victim in the book. And the most obvious, Briony admits to making up the happy ending of love in her story. When Briony admits to us that it has taken her sixty-four years and countless drafts to complete her book, we have to ask ourselves: “Which is the ‘real’ one? Whereas Austen writes directly, this calls our attention to the novel’s fictional qualities: she wants us to know that we are reading a work of art For example; Austen lets us know from the very beginning of the novel that we are meant to compare Catherine with the eroines of earlier novels. Austen directly challenges the cliches of the emerging genre in order to solidify her own voice as a writer. As a reader you question what role does Austen’s memory have in the book, how does the reader differentiate between what is real and imagined. Just as Briony has told the story based on what is left of her memory towards the end of her life. But this influences our judgement on whether the story is accurately recited, and how much has her illness affected her memory and whether it is reliable or not.
Both books have the love of literature illustrated within them. Before Atonement even starts, the reader is given a Romantic novel quote something out of Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey. ” This sets the tone for a book that will be packed with literary allegory. Even the form of the book walks the reader through some of English literature’s historical periods such as Austen’esque Romanticism in Part One; Historical Fiction War Story in part two; Victorian or Modern Memoir in part three; and Post Modern speculation and theory in part four.
Just as Austen’s description of Catherine’s overeager fantasy is clearly a mockery of many Gothic conventions, ranging from the existence of a long-suffering female victim to the overpowering of a family’s history in hidden rooms and locked chests. It can be said that with a great novel, the reader learns much about the truth. That is indeed the case with Ian McEwan and his artful masterpiece, Atonement. In due course, it is fair to say as a reader you come away from the experience having learned a great deal more about the truth.
Whereas Austen’s novel the reader is able to learn that we as humans cannot escape reality by envisioning the world through how we would like to see it in our heads. We need to embrace the shortcoming that life throws at us and see things for what they truly are. Also both novels teach us that a simple misunderstanding could have a ripple effect that impacts those around us if we chose to live within a box and not try to broaden our perspectives.