Classism In Ian Mcewan’s Atonement

Categories: Atonement

The novel Atonement was written by Ian McEwan and is set around the time of World War II. Chapter one begins in the summer of 1935 at the Tallis family’s very English country house. Cecilia Tallis the well-bred female protagonist is back home from Cambridge University as is the low-class male protagonist Robbie Turner. However, they attended Cambridge under very different circumstances. Robbie’s mother, Grace Turner is the Tallises cleaning lady who lived in a small bungalow on the Tallis property, which was eventually gifted to her from the Tallis family.

This is where she raised young Robbie on her own. Grace won the hearts of the Tallis family through her dedication to polishing which became a Tallis family joke but mainly because of her kind spirit towards her employer’s children; the wealthy Cecilia and Leon, who were Robbie’s childhood best friends, regardless of the class difference. The other female protagonist and third child Briony was yet to be born.

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Although Robbie was largely incorporated into the Tallis family, both growing up alongside the Tallis children and receiving an exceptional education funded by the family, he is nevertheless an outsider. Turner is fortunate enough to be attending Cambridge through the patronage from Cecilia’s father. Despite being smarter than most around him and winning a scholarship to a local grammar school he is still from a working-class family and would never be able to afford to attend such a prestigious university without the charity from Mr. Tallis. Thus, Robbie has somewhat lifted out of his position of social subordination thanks to his intelligence.

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This divide in class not only affects Robbie’s education but all aspects of his life including his affections for Cecilia. This essay will argue that despite the tension that drives the novel’s early plot, class is the prominent driving force that keeps the protagonists, Robbie and Cecilia apart and not only the unfortunate circumstances of the false accusation of the rape of Lola and subsequent imprisonment. Therefore, had Robbie been born into an upper-class family, the outcome of the event may have been entirely different. This essay will focus on part one of Atonement and use a series of excerpts to prove the thesis statement.

Firstly, a brief look into England between WWI and WWII, it was a time of turmoil for the working class, the time of the great depression. Hunger strikes from the industrial north to London were a regular occurrence, yet soon forgotten. The once-bustling factories for steel, iron, coal, and textiles that supported the working class were facing economic catastrophe. The employees encountered sporadic or permanent unemployment. Whole communities lived on or below the breadline. The British wing of the Communist Party supported these hunger marches as fascism was consolidating abroad. Communism was not something new to Turner it is mentioned that he was part of this party at one stage in his life.

‘Robbie had put down his trowel and stood to roll a cigarette, a hangover from his Communist Party time – another abandoned fad’.

Moreover, Turner knew his class position, and whilst in Cambridge he accepted the class difference as seen in the excerpt below;

‘He [Robbie] liked people to know he didn’t care – there goes my mother’s employers daughter, he once said to a friend. He had his politics to protect him, and his scientifically-based theories of class and his rather forced own self-certainty. I am what I am.’

During the same conversation with Cecilia, they start to discuss their prospects, which leads to a miscommunication about money, and underneath that, is class, the real issue.

‘No one’s really going to give me work as a landscape gardener, I don’t want to teach, or go in for civil service. And medicine interests me…’ He broke off as a thought occurred to him. ‘Look, I’m going to pay your father back. That is the arrangement.’

Subconsciously the fact that his mind went straight to his debt to Mr. Tallis shows again how aware Robbie is of the class divide, a divide that would later aid in his imprisonment. Turner displays an almost arrogant persona, he acts as if he has come to terms with his status but beneath this is there is insecurity, which rears its ugly head when conversing with Cecilia before the pond moment.

However, for Jack Tallis, the Turner boy seemed to be a sort of sanctimonious endeavor, as Mrs. Tallis reveals in the novel.

‘She [Mrs. Tallis] liked him [Robbie] well enough, and was pleased for Grace Turner that he had turned out to be bright. But really, he was a hobby of Jack’s, living proof of some leveling principle he had pursued through the years. When he spoke about Robbie, which wasn’t often, it was with a touch of self-righteous vindication.’

Irrespective of his education Robbie was unable to breach the hierarchy of the class standards, which he was a part of. At the end of the day, his education is dependent entirely on the whims of those whom his mother continues to serve. The Tallis’s definitely cared for Robbie and his status with the family for it has made him confident in his own abilities, rather than feeling limited by his social status. It seemed that he had come to terms with his position until his conversation with Cecilia in the garden of the country estate. This shows a more self-conscious Robbie, one very aware of this status, and soon his life will change due to it. The incident confirms that however close Robbie seemed to the family, his class still makes him the outsider.

Secondly, British society had retained a rigid class structure up until the outbreak of World War II in 1939. The educated middle and upper class tended to believe in their own moral and cultural superiority over the lower class. This era produced what was seen as the proper models of behavior. Such as correct pronunciation, etiquette, appropriate dress, and conduct. The people in power derived from an upper-class background and received the best education possible, there were rarely any exceptions. Some of the bourgeoisie saw themselves as the guardians of culture and those lower in the social order hardly questioned this. Members of different classes were seldom willing or able to move up in the hierarchy. People were expected to conform to the values of their peers and social convention restricted them to do otherwise. The class difference is strikingly apparent when after Lola has been found raped, the police are called to the country house and the chocolate heir Paul Marshall’s social status likely allows him to escape suspicion even though he returned to the house alone. The excerpt below shows Marshall using his class status to make sure he is seen as a man of good morals who respects authority and would by no means ever rape women, even though he is actually is guilty.

‘Paul Marshall came in from searching and learned the news from the inspectors. He walked up and down the terrace with them, one on each side, and on the turn offered them cigarettes from a gold case. When the conversation was over, he patted the senior man on the shoulder and seemed to send them on their way.’

This scene illustrates not only that Paul is self-absorbed and tedious but that his status allows him to not even be considered as the attacker and the pat on the shoulder of the senior officer is Marshall exerting his class position. This proves that an individual’s social status has little correlation with his or her moral intellectual worth. Regardless, low-born Robbie, however kind and intelligent he may be does not allow him the power to choose his own fate as other higher status characters do throughout the novel. Instead, due to his class, he is left at the mercy of a biased system while more morally reprehensible characters go unpunished largely because of their greater social power. Furthermore, when Cecilia is forced to give her statement to the police their prejudice is already apparent. Despite her sexual encounter with Robbie in the library to be consensual.

‘When she [Cecilia] finally yielded up her own account of what happened in the library – in its way far more shocking than Briony’s, however consensual the encounter had been – it merely confirmed the general view that had been formed: Mr Turner was a dangerous man.’

His outsider status undeniably contributed to the swift and uncompromising isolation he experiences after Briony wrongly identifies him as the man who attacked Lola. Once Briony has produced the letter and convinced the authorities and adults of her narrative that Robbie is a sex maniac predator his fate is sealed. It becomes upper class versus lower class and the odds were not in Robbies favour. To go a level deeper, both Cecilia and Robbie suspect Danny Hardman an even lower class employee at the country house. Thus, Robbie is also not immune to class prejudice, as he assumes the even lower class Danny Hardman raped Lola, never imagining that it might have been Paul Marshall who did it. Furthermore, Marshall

‘Cecilia”s repeated suggestion that it was Danny Hardman they should be talking to was heard in silence.’

In conclusion, the greater social power the upper class have in this novel is subsequently used to keep the lovers Robbie and Cecilia from ever coming together. 'the grammar school boy,' lifted out of his position of social subordination due to his intelligence, yet still an outsider to the Tallis family. His outsider status undeniably contributes to the swift and uncompromising isolation he experiences after Briony accuses him of raping Lola. That he falls for Cecilia, the elder daughter of the household, and that she reciprocates his love, represents the first breach in the social harmony of the apparent idyll projected in the movie, a liaison underwritten by their shared disregard for the sexual taboos of the gentry. 

Works cited

  1. McEwan, I. (2001). Atonement. Vintage Books.
  2. Bell, R. (2015). British Working-Class Fiction: Narratives of Refusal and the Struggle against Marginalization. Springer.
  3. Hobsbawm, E. J. (2015). The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. Vintage.
  4. Fielding, L. (2012). Class and Social Control in Paretsky's Mystery Novels. Journal of Popular Culture, 45(6), 1302-1322.
  5. Simpson, J. (2017). Class Struggle and Social Change in the United States: The Role of the Working Class. Routledge.
  6. Giddens, A. (2018). The Class Structure of the Advanced Societies. Routledge.
  7. Worsley, L. (2017). The English and Their History. Penguin UK.
  8. Argyrou, V. (2017). The Sociology of the Subcultures. Routledge.
  9. Bourdieu, P. (1986). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Harvard University Press.
  10. Evans, R. J. (2003). The Coming of the Third Reich: How the Nazis Destroyed Democracy and Seized Power. Penguin.
Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Classism In Ian Mcewan’s Atonement. (2024, Feb 04). Retrieved from

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