As I read Atonement, by Ian McEwan, on the beach in Long Beach Island I was confronted with a somewhat new style of writing that I did not recognize. The splitting of the novel into three main parts only made sense to me after I had finished it; the account of the crime that took place at the Tallis household, Robbie Turner’s adventures at war, and Briony’s tales as a nurse were all connected and ended up “coming together” much more smoothly than I had anticipated.
The characters Briony, Robbie, Cecilia, and Lola are all faced with very different problems which all have the same fundamental root: the attacks on Lola and the “attack” on Cecilia. Briony is only 13 when the novel begins. She is desperate for attention and lives in her own, dramatic world through writing. “Nothing in her life was sufficiently interesting or shameful to merit hiding; no one knew about the squirrel’s skull beneath her bed, but no one wanted to know” (5). Briony’s need for attention is not helped by the fact that her mother is usually unavailable due to acute migraines.
She does not have the constant love and attention of a mother and both her siblings are grown up and lead their own lives. This leaves Briony as somewhat of an only child and certainly fuels her love for writing and creating her own fantasy worlds. Briony is “one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so” (4). She is an innocent pre-adolescent which later creates a huge catastrophe in the lives of Robbie Turner, her long-time family friend, and Cecilia Tallis, her sister. I feel that Briony at times felt homesick, but not in the typical way a person would feel homesick.
I thought that Briony feels homesick for her imaginative life when something real life happens. When a real life situation strikes she is forced to live in the real world away from her imagination and the world she created for herself. The accidental letter Robbie sends to Cecilia spawns the bulk of the problem of Briony, Robbie, and Cecilia’s characters. It is the culminated with their first intimate encounter, his return from jail and his first adventures as a soldier. Briony’s innocence as a child is first revealed in her take on the encounter between Robbie and Cecilia by the fountain.
The rising tension between Robbie and Cecilia due to repressed feelings was taken as Robbie asserting authority over Cecilia. “It was extraordinary that [Cecilia] was unable to resist him. At his insistence she was removing her clothes, and at such speed. What strange power did he have over her? Blackmail? Threats? ” (36). Briony recognizes that “she did not understand, and that she must simply watch. Unseen, from two stories up, with the benefit of unambiguous sunlight, she had privileged access across the years to adult behavior, to rites and conventions she knew nothing about, as yet” (37).
McEwan then inserts a little passage that seemed to me to contain a bit of foreshadowing. Briony had her first, weak intimation that for her now it could no longer be fairy-tale castles and princesses, but the strangeness of the here and now, of what passed between people, the ordinary people that she knew, and what power one could have over the other, and how easy it was to get everything wrong, completely wrong. (37) This passage is foreshadowing the events that take place next and Briony’s misinterpretations of those events.
This passage also demonstrates my point that at times Briony wishes that she could always be in her “fairy-tale” like world where everything was perfect. She finds that when she is confronted by reality she does not know what do with it and wishes she was living in her imagination. Briony is disgusted by what the letter contains. “With the letter, something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal had been introduced, some principle of darkness, and even in her excitement over the possibilities, she did not doubt that her sister was in some way threatened and would need her help” (106).
Briony is clearly deeply affected by the contents of this letter. “That the word had been written by a man confessing to an image in his mind, confiding a lonely preoccupation, disgusted her profoundly” (107). Briony felt there was “danger contained by such crudity” and that it “threatened the order of their household” (107). This leap from crudity to evil that Briony makes in her head is a sign of her ignorance to adult feelings. After reading the letter, Briony speaks to Lola about it. Lola labels Robbie a “maniac. ” “A maniac.
The word had refinement, and the weight of a medical diagnosis” (112). Her ignorance is proved even further when she walks in on Robbie and Cecilia in the library. Her confusion, as a child, is understandable, however. She misinterprets the situation to be an attack rather than an encounter of lovers. “Though they were immobile, her immediate understanding was that she had interrupted an attack, a hand-to-hand fight” (116). Briony, of course, sees Robbie as a maniac rather than a lover.
“He held her forearm which was raised in protest, or self-defense” (116). Briony became the self-proclaimed protector of Cecilia and when the twins Jackson and Pierrot go missing and everyone goes out looking for them in the night, Briony resolves to protect Cecilia from Robbie. She goes out alone, “conscious that she was sharing the night expanse with a maniac” (146). When Briony sees two figures in the distance and then is called out to by Lola, she immediately assumes it was Robbie attacking her. “She had no doubt. She could describe him. There was nothing she could not describe” (155).
Briony asks Lola, “‘Who was it? ’ and before that could be answered, she added, with all the calm she was capable of, ‘I saw him. I saw him’” (155). Lola “couldn’t say for sure. ” Briony replies with, “Well I can. And I will” (157). Briony’s conviction that it was Robbie who attacked Lola grew stronger by the minute. “Briony’s certainty rose whenever her cousin appeared to doubt herself” (157). Lola just went along with everything Briony was claiming. Briony’s “certainty” ultimately sends Robbie to jail.
Briony went off of her first instinct of what she thought she had a quick glimpse of. This was a mistake, which demonstrates her immaturity and ignorance to the real world. She based her thoughts on Robbie over a misconstrued letter, and it led her to misjudge a situation. And at the end of the novel we discover that Briony was wrong in accusing Robbie for the attack of Lola. Briony is a very immature character. She failed to recognize that what she caught a quick glimpse of, may not actually have looked as it seemed.
She used prejudgments she had on people to determine what she saw. I think this has to do with her strong imagination, because I feel at times throughout Atonement Briony was confused on the lines between reality and fiction. Sometimes she did not consider the outcomes to her actions and made mistakes because of them. Her strong imagination you could say persuaded her actions in reality. The events that occur in reality have much stronger repercussions then those in an imagination. As a 13 year old Briony had trouble understanding this, and mad many mistakes.
Briony’s opinions as a young girl were very frustrating for me to read. As a whole, Atonement was frustrating to read. Its only redeeming characteristic was that Robbie and Cecilia ended up together. While reading I definitely lost sight of Briony’s predicament being real. I sometimes started thinking that she was purposely out to get Robbie, forgetting that, in her childish innocence, she really would find something wrong with him. Briony was a very confusing character because she had a tough time judging the difference between reality and imagination at her premature age.
She was conniving towards Robbie and I felt as though she was trying to make her life dramatic in hopes of creating a better story. Most of the issues presented in this novel were not even solved by the end of the book. Robbie was not rid of blame, Briony could not undo her mistakes from the past, and Lola ended up marrying her rapist. That is probably one of the reasons that it was such a frustrating novel to me; everything was made just so that it could not be fixed.
I felt at times that the title of, “Atonement,” was a poor choice because I did not think that this book ended up fixing a wrongdoing. However while writing this journal one thing proved me wrong, fixing something. Briony started the novel as a character that felt homesick at times when dealing with the real world, and found refuge in her imagination. This led her to sometimes lose the distinction between fantasy and reality. But by the end of Atonement Briony realized that there were strict lines between actuality and imagination, and that when that line is blurred the results can be disastrous.
Courtney from Study Moose
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