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The Meanings of Atonement

“I put it all there as a matter of historical record… We will all only exist as my inventions. No one will care what events and which men and women had been misinterpreted to make a novel… How can a novelist accomplish atonement when… she is also God? In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms” (Atonement 2001 p.369-371).

A reader’s interpretation of prose is fundamentally influenced by the narrator’s perception consequently, an unreliable narrator has literary, theoretical, and moral consequences for the meanings that can be read from a text. Exchanging an omniscient, third individual narrator, who supplies an apparently comprehensive and veracious account and encourages a prepared suspension of disbelief on the reader’s element, for a focalised, subjective point of view, noticeably informed by ideologies and ethics, casts a shadow of doubt and ambiguity on the narrative. In the coda of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the manipulative narrator, Briony Tallis, delineates that this novel is her final chance to supply “satisfaction or reparation for [the] incorrect [and] injury” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary 2015) she caused Cecilia, her sister, and her lover, Robbie Turner, by misinterpreting their interactions and motivations. Her reaction was, with catastrophic results, based on a Victorian class consciousness and horror of sexuality, and egocentrically subordinated the others’ reality to her fiction. The section “London, 1999” discloses Briony’s failure to attain the titular meaning of the novel in its theological sense, but also depicts the maturation of her literary imagination, which permits her to atone by means of empathy. However the postmodern methods infused all through this prose fiction intimate that it was usually about the nature and procedure of storytelling. McEwan’s adult oeuvre is characterised by a “private and psychological component” linked to a “public and historical one” (Finney 2004 p.68) which establishes the characters of Atonement as ideological products of their twentieth century British context.

Briony’s direct voice equivocates the coda, therefore calling into question her moral fulfilment of the novel’s titular meaning, in its theological sense and via her imagination. Her character is imbued with late Victorian Puritan beliefs from her parents and her reading of Gothic literature. Briony’s very first play, a Gothic fairy tale, concludes with “a great wedding” – “an unacknowledged representation of the however unthinkable – sexual bliss” (9)– to which her mother, whose personal husband’s “deceit was a kind of tribute to the value of their [strategic] marriage” (148), responds with “wise, affirming nods” (four). Nevertheless, she divulges in the coda that she never ever confessed her sin or sought forgiveness from her victims: “it is only in this final version that my lovers finish well… as I walk away” (370). In the final draft, Briony claims she will retract her evidence after apologising to Cecilia and Robbie, the lovers reunited in London in the epilogue, she reveals this to be a fabrication – she “never saw them that year” (370) prior to they died and Lord and Lady Marshall are legally untouchable. Even Nurse Tallis’ penance was motivated by a want to construct herself as selfless and compassionate. “Sometimes, when a soldier… was in excellent discomfort, she was touched by an impersonal tenderness that detached her from the suffering, so that she was capable to do her function effectively and with out horror. That was when she saw what nursing may possibly be… She could picture how she may abandon her ambitions of writing and dedicate her life in return for these moments of elated, generalised enjoy.” (304) The oxymoron “impersonal tenderness” and repetition of “might” subvert her pretence, even though the godlike adoration she craves is uncharacteristic of someone compelled by guilt and shame. According to the Puritan doctrine of limited atonement, Jesus’ death secured the salvation of the elect, those blessed with God’s grace (Woodlief), amongst which Briony would count herself, as a British upper-middle class author. Briony constructs Turner as a metaphorical Christ figure in Part Two via biblical allusions and imagery (Culleton 2009): he shares his ‘last supper’ with Nettle and Mace and later “put his arms about the corporals’ shoulders and… let his head droop” (244). Nevertheless, in Briony’s tale, Robbie didn’t die, and as a result, Briony forfeits redemption. Nonetheless, Briony achieved atonement through empathy. McEwan believes that “imagining what it is like to be someone other than your self is at the core of our humanity” and therefore “cruelty is the failure of imagination” (McEwan 2001). Briony originally committed her crime simply because she ironically forgot that “other folks are as real as you” (40) and ruthlessly subordinated reality to fiction – “the truth was in the symmetry” (169), and in the coda Briony admits, “all the preceding drafts were pitiless” (370). Consequently, her victims’ fictional ending proves she has discovered to empathise, to think about other folks, as autonomous entities, authentically (Finney 2004 p.81). The contradiction of a theological and moral reading of the coda hence subverts the titular meaning of the novel.

The metafictional and metanarrational elements of the epilogue are intertwined with a reflection on the literary movements and genres parodied by the novel to talk about the nature and “making of fiction” (Finney 2004 p.69). Initial, Briony refers back to Part A single: “I enjoy these small factors, this pointillist strategy to verisimilitude, the correction of detail that cumulatively offers such satisfaction.” (359) Classical realism derives its good quality not from the authenticity of its topic, but from accuracy of its representation (Watt 1957 p.11). Briony employed this technique to convince readers of a veracious narrator of Element One particular and of Robbie and Cecilia’s fabricated, fairy tale ending. Due to the ambiguity of the denouement, it is debatable whether or not it is cowardice and immorality or “sense [and] hope” that provokes an author to conceal an unsatisfying resolution, since “who would want to think that, except in the service of the bleakest realism?” (371) Secondly, Briony consists of Lola and Marshall in the epilogue simply because they symbolise the modernist belief that corruption and decay lie beneath beauty (Rahn 2011). “He at final appeared the cruelly handsome plutocrat” and “there was an air of a well being farm about her, and an indoor tan” (357), and yet they both rose above others by exploiting them. Revising Parts Two and Three in light of this suggests that behind modernism’s own aesthetic – prioritising style and innovation more than character and plot (Wolfreys 2001 p.121)– lies artificiality and depravity, simply because it enabled Briony to “drown her guilt in a stream – three streams – of consciousness” (320). Thirdly, Briony connects her work – “the drafts are in order and dated, the photocopied sources labelled… every little thing is in the correct box file” (353)– to her childhood – “the model farm… consisted of the usual animals, but all facing a single way… her straight-backed dolls… appeared to be beneath strict instructions not to touch the walls numerous thumb-sized figures… suggested by their even ranks and spacing a citizen’s army awaiting orders” (5)– by means of similarity of visual imagery. But her self-reflexive musing, “I’ve usually liked to make a tidy finish” (353), reminds readers that this novel satirizes the bildungsroman genre Briony in no way matures into a trustworthy narrator, with the capability to relinquish her reality and fiction to “disorder” (9) alternatively of imposing “symmetry” (169). In addition, she confirms proof of a drafting procedure from Portion 3: “the earliest version [of Atonement], January 1940, the latest, March 1999, and in among, half a dozen different drafts.” (369) In his letter, Cyril Connolly asks, “Wouldn’t it support you if the watching girl did not in fact realise that the vase had been broken?” (313) Re-reading Element One, readers uncover Briony has taken his guidance. He also criticises modernists for disregarding what lies at the core of prose: a reader’s “childlike want to be told a story” (314), which in turn concerns Briony’s artistic licence. Lastly, “The Trials of Arabella” is performed in honour of all the texts Atonement referenced to “entail productivity” (Finney 2004 p.73), particularly Richardson’s Clarissa, utilized to foreshadow Lola’s rape and clarify the ideologies that supported Robbie’s incrimination and Marshall’s escape thereof. The blatant manipulation of a variety of literary periods, genres and tactics, revealed in the coda, reminds readers of the dangers and building of fiction.

According to Geoff Dyer, “McEwan makes use of his novel to show how the subjective or interior transformation” of his characters and the revision of his symbols “can now be seen to have interacted with the larger march of twentieth century history” (Dyer 2001), particularly the decline of the influence of Victorian ideologies on class and sexuality, and the traumatizing effect of the war on Britain. Victorian morality arose mostly from the nouveau-riche merchant class they had been impelled to handle their libido rise above the all-natural order Charles Darwin proposed and the corrupting promiscuity of the aristocracy (Ping). Underlying Briony’s misinterpretation was the same snobbery and Puritan sexuality of the British upper-middle class in the early 1900s. She wishes to “spare herself the sight of her sister’s shame” (38) (being noticed by a man in her underclothes) reads Robbie’s letter as “brutal” and “disgusting” (113) and describes him as “huge”, “wild” (123) and bestial, due to the fact of her prude and chaste attitudes towards really like. Emily is a item of the naturalisation of the Victorian social hierarchy, and as a result “opposed Jack when he proposed paying for [Robbie’s] education” simply because it “smacked of meddling” (151) with the status quo. The Tallis’ Meissen vase represents the fragility of Cecilia’s virginity (Finney 2004 p.77), just as her romantic partnership with Robbie embodies the initiation of a a lot more contemporary, liberal era of sexuality, and Briony’s false testimony, with a “glazed surface of conviction… not without having its blemished and hairline cracks” (168), but also foreshadows the fracturing of the Tallis family, their class and British society. This is supported by Cecilia’s impression of her home: an “unchanging calm, which produced her far more specific than ever that she must quickly be moving on” (19). The effect of World War II on the British psyche and empire was devastating: just before World War II, possessing profited from Planet War I and dominating virtually a quarter of the globe, England was an empire at the height of its powers right after Planet War II, the humiliating conflict at Dunkirk and the enormous waste of resources and lives left England broken. When Turner is sent to jail and then to war, his former life and hopes, like Britain’s naivety and peace, come to an abrupt and traumatic end (Finney 2004 p.78). Retrospectively, he sees “a dead civilisation… first his own life ruined, then everyone else’s” (217). This “connection amongst the microcosm of the lives that Briony has disrupted and the macrocosm of a planet at war” demonstrates how “relationships… absorb outdoors stress, influence politics, and… history” (Finney 2004 p.73). “London, 1999” sits in stark contrast with the rest of the novel, indicating how society has evolved and how the characters, as ideological constructs, now match into it. Briony is an anachronism in a modern, meritocratic society: the tension between her and her cabbie is born of condescension from a deceased class method, symbolised by Emily’s funeral. Nevertheless this new social order inspires respect for Lola and Marshall, maybe even because he is a war profiteer and their union represents sexuality a lot more permissive than Robbie and Cecilia’s. Briony’s first particular person narration of the epilogue explains how British society has created from the start of the twentieth century, demonstrating how literature can represent history.

The utilization of the direct voice of Briony, a very unreliable narrator, renders the coda ambiguous, and consequently effects the readings that can be produced of Ian McEwan’s Atonement literarily, theoretically and morally. Briony arguably achieved the titular meaning of the novel by involving imaginative empathy in her fiction, but not by religious doctrine. This contradiction encourages a criticism of the literary periods Atonement explores, specifically postmodernism and metafiction. Furthermore, the novel is an instance of historiographic inasmuch as McEwan uses prose to subjectively represent history and society. Opening up Atonement to multiple interpretations demonstrates something that may possibly have prevented Briony incriminating an innocent man, had she realised it: that literature, like reality, has no definite, universal which means as an alternative, every particular person creates their own which means. “Readers make the meaning of literary texts, and accordingly there is no such point as a ‘right reading’” (Crosman 1982 p.357)


McEwan, Ian (2001). Atonement. Random Property. Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2015). “Atonement”.

Finney, Brian (2004). “Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: The Creating of Fiction in Ian McEwan’s Atonement” Journal of Modern Literature. Indiana University Press.

McEwan, Ian (2001). “Only love and then oblivion”. The Guardian.

Dyer, Geoff (2001). “Who’s afraid of influence”. The Guardian. Crosman,

Robert (1982). “How Readers Make Meaning”. John Hopkins University Press. Woodlief, Ann. “Background on Puritan Theology”.

Culleton, Megan (2009). “Authorship and the Success of Failure in Atonement”. https://web results-of-failure-in-atonement

Watt, Ian (2001). The Rise of the Novel. University of California Press. material/1/WattNotes.pdf

Wolfreys, Julian (2001). The English Literature Companion. Palgrave Macmillan.

Rahn, Josh (2001). “Modernism”. The Literature Network.
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