Compare how Atonement and Spies explore the journey from innocence to experience. Both Atonement and Spies are bildungsroman where the protagonists are reminiscing about events in their childhoods which impose on them in their adult lives. In Atonement, Briony is narrating throughout the text; however the reader only finds this out at the end and in Spies Stephen is narrating with his older and younger self through duel narration with slippage between the two.
Both text were published within a year of each other, Atonement in 2001 and Spies in 2002; however they both focus on the same time in history, during (and after) the Second World War. Spies focuses on one point in time around 1940; whereas Atonement ranges before, throughout and after the war with the view points from different characters throughout unlike Spies where the reader sees only from young or old Stephen. Both protagonists are naive and easily influenced in the beginning of the novels and their misinterpretations draw the narrative to a conclusive disaster.
In Spies, Stephen misinterprets the Mrs Hayward’s diary’s x’s and exclamation marks for some form of German “code” and believes that she is a spy- “she actually is a German spy”- Similarly in Atonement, where Briony misinterprets what she witnessed in the library which leads her to the conclusion that Robbie raped Lola, which she sticks to with conviction “it was Robbie”. The misinterpretations made by the protagonists reflect the lack of knowledge about the adult world and emphasise their innocence in the beginning of the novels.
In Atonement the peak of Briony’s innocence is at the beginning with the “Trials of Arabella” and sulking when she gives up the main part of “Arabella” by killing nettles which foreshadows the impending doom of her actions. I believe at this point Briony triggers a transition to adult knowledge with the letter and therefor conclusively decides the narrative with her intrusion of Robbie and Cecilia’s privacy; however in the film adaptation others have interpreted this differently.
Peter Bradshaw believes that it is the “mysterious scene by the fountain that is to trigger Briony’s terrible misguided sense that she has a personal insight and a grievance; it appears to give her an access point into shocking adult phenomena”. However key the scene is in the narrative as a whole, I do not believe it to be a pivotal role in Briony’s contribution to the downfall that is witnessed later in the novel due to the confusion she feels when confronted with the situation.
In Spies Stephen and Keith play childish games such as “monkey hunting”; however this is contradicted increasingly throughout the novel with the seriousness of their accusations made in regards to Keith’s mother. John Mullan believes that the “The boys show ominous signs of adulthood behaviour when supposedly children: the boys never seem to call each other by their first names except when taking some horrendous sounding oaths”. The protagonists both believe a fictitious story conjured from their own imaginations and thus relieves them of their innocence leaving them open to the repercussions of their actions.
Briony convinces herself that she saw Robbie and swears that she did whilst we find out later in the novel that she was unsure. In the first interview with the police she states “I know it was him”, not clarifying that she “saw”, him leading the reader to believe that she does so because of her misunderstandings over the fountain and letter earlier in the novel. In spies Stephen and Keith are certain that Mrs Hayward is a spy after they witness her first “disappearance” which they both rationalise after they have seen it.
This act of misunderstanding is less harmful than that of Briony’s action however; they are invading the privacy of someone else which does add to the compromising of their innocence. Both stories conjured by the protagonists are not clarified throughout the narrative; the author leaves hints for the reader about the events themselves, and this lack of knowledge is a hallmark of postmodernism and the unreliable narrator present within each text. The inevitability of the protagonist’s actions is that both are shown to be guilty in their adulthood.
The reader learns that Briony becomes a nurse and gives up a chance to go to Oxford and the class privileges that result from it. The reader learns that “the purpose of becoming a nurse was to work for her independence” as well as learning what Robbie is going through in the army. We later learn that the narrative has been written by Briony and some parts have been fictionalised such as the meeting with Robbie and Cecilia so she can try and put right what she could not do in life.
Like Atonement Stephen in Spies feel guilty about the death of Uncle Peter and revisits The Close in which he grew up to atone. This is where the narrative takes place, “you can’t go back everyone knows that” implying that “everyone” knows that it was his fault. This is an interesting comment made by Stephen because surely Stephen and the reader know that it is Keith’s father who is to blame ultimately for the discovery and death of Uncle Peter after Stephen and his confrontation over the picnic basket.
Both protagonists, we learn have been putting the idea of properly confronting and trying to amend (as best they can) their actions off until the latest time possible. The reader learns that Briony falsities the ending and meeting of Cecilia and Robbie in the final chapters where she is close to forgetting all of her memories through dementia. Like Briony Stephen has waited till very late on in his life to re-visit the close.
We learn that he has lived a full but somehow sorrowful life until he returns and faces the actions that he made when he was a child “I can sort out whether I belong here or there” Both novels explore the motif of love and sexuality in spies the reader is given details about one of two sexually attracted women in his life: Barbara Berrill, and his future wife. The reader only learns that his wife is German and no more information throughout the novel other than the fact that Stephen had a family with her and that she died.
The reader is witness to the presumably only sexual act between Barbara Berrill and Stephen where they exchange two kisses “she leans closer still, and rests her lips against mine” it is presumed that this is Stephens first kiss with a girl due to his initial reactions “Nice?… I was too busy thinking about the germs” a typical young boy’s reaction to the opposite sex. This scene can be said to be one of the most normal childlike behaviour in the entire text, through the experimental aspect that has been associated with growing up.
The motif of sexuality and relationships is greatly explored in atonement compared with that of Spies. Early on in the narrative Robbie and Cecilia “make love” this act creates and spurs on a relationship throughout the rest of the narrative with longing for a similar experience; however like spies this act never occurs again whereas unlike spies neither Cecilia or Robbie indulge in any sexual contact after their initial “library scene” because of both their untimely deaths emphasising the importance of that moment in the readers eyes.
This singular act of “love” somewhat adds to the innocence and sympathy felt towards both characters. Unlike the other two protagonists in Spies and Atonement (Stephen and Robbie) McEwan never mentions Briony to have any sexual contact throughout the novel unlike Robbie’s And Cecilia’s characters the absence of Briony’s sexuality evokes no sympathy. I believe that McEwan includes this as part of her atonement, because of the deprivation of sexuality that Briony causes.
Both novels show clear points in the narrative where the protagonist’s develop their experiences in the world of adult life through their actions; however it can be said that the protagonists have never been allowed to fully pass into the full realms of adult knowledge because throughout their lives they cling to an event that happened in their child hood without being able to come to terms with it until the end of their lives.
Courtney from Study Moose
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