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ATONEMENT by Ian McEwan
Transcript of ATONEMENT by Ian McEwan
Atonement is recognized as McEwan's master piece of fiction. It is a story of a novelist who atones for her crime through her novel itself. It follows Briony Tallis, who, on a summer day in the 1935 upperclass countryside, witnesses some events between her sister Cecilia and the son of her family’s housemaid, Robbie Turner. Briony's innocence and powerful imagination give way to misinterpretations of what she sees, confusing real life with her fictive world leading to a crime that will have tragic consequences for all.
About Atonement (2001)
Temporal and Political Context
Briony's search for her crime´s atonement runs through the chaos and horror of World War II and all the way up to the close of the twentieth century.
ATONEMENT by Ian McEwan
Considered one of the most widely read and internationally recognized authors of contemporary British fiction. Categorized as a representative of postmodernism.
So far, McEwan has written two volumes of short stories, eleven novels, and numerous other literary works. McEwan’s literary career began with the publication of two collections of short stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975), and In Between the Sheets (1978). The Cement Garden (1978), was McEwan’s first novel. The novel that has brought McEwan probably the most attention so far is Atonement (2001).
McEwan’s most recent novels so far are Saturday (2005), On Chesil Beach (2007), and Solar (2010).
For his writing, McEwan has received a number of awards, including three Booker prizes (for The Comfort of Strangers, Amsterdam, and Atonement), and British Book Award Author of the year (for On Chesil Beach).
Atonement is the eleventh book written by Ian McEwan. It was published in 2001 and won the W.H. Smith Literary Award in 2002, the National Book Critics' Circle Fiction Award in 2003, the L.A. Times Prize for Fiction in 2003, and the Santiago Prize for the European Novel in 2004. It was also made into an award winning film in 2007 directed by Joe Wright and starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightley.
Born in Aldershot, England on June 21, 1948.
Written in three major parts, with a final denouement from the author.
Set in a hot summer day of 1935 in a Surrey mansion in London north countryside.
Set in 1940, five years later. World War II has begun
Eighteen-year-old Briony who has signed up as a nurse in London as a penance for her sin.
one day/night in 1935 at the Tallis family estate
Focuses on Briony Tallis, the thirteen-year-old youngest daughter of three, who aspires to be a writer. She has written a play to be performed at dinner for the homecoming of her brother Leon but the reader will have to wait till Briony is 77 years old to see the play being performed. In part one, the writer unfolds the three central scenes from which the story will be developed.
Witnesses a scene by the house’s fountain between her older sister Cecilia and the son of the family charwoman Robbie Turner. What is an innocent act is misunderstood by the naive and innocent Briony.
Intercepts a letter from Robbie to Cecilia and reads it. Mistakes Robbie´s words as an attack on her sister.
Witnesses a rape taking place of her older cousin Lola and convinces everyone, including authorities, that the abuser was Robbie Turner. He is taken to jail.
Attended Sussex University. Here he first realized an interest in becoming a writer. While studying at Sussex, McEwan wrote mainly for performance, completing play and radio scripts as well as television sketches. While being at the University of Anglia, he shifted to prose. At Anglia, McEwan was introduced to a group of young American writers who would have a great effect on him and his writing.
Following graduation from Anglia, McEwan left Europe to spend a year in Afghanistan. Upon his return, married Penny Allen and had two sons but their marriage was short-lived. Following his divorce, McEwan married a Guardian editor, Annalena McAfee. Together, they continued to raise McEwan's sons.
Focuses on Robbie Turner at France as a soldier during WWII. He has already served three years in prison for a crime he has not committed and is now able to exonerate himself by serving in the army. In Dunkirk, Robbie is severely wounded but is determined to make it home to Cecilia who is waiting for him in London.
five years later.
Still writing. She submits a story to a London journal which is rejected, but in the rejection she is encouraged to develop the story further as it is quite good.
Attends the wedding of Lola and Paul Marshall (whom she knows to be her cousin's rapist) and does nothing to stop it.
Visits her older sister Cecilia, who is now living in London, and discovers that Robbie is still alive and living with her. Admits her guilt and seeks counsel on what she can do to make it better.
Robbie instructs Briony to write a long letter providing the truth of the story to clean his name.
A letter from the author to the reader. It is revealed that the novel's author is Briony herself.
Attends her 77 year old birthday party reunion at her old home, the original scene of the crime.
Informs her reader that she has made up the part about visiting Cecilia and Robbie in London and how both people died in war without seeing each other again after Robbie´s imprisonment. Her act to let their love last forever in her book will be her final atonement for her crime.
Novel’s Literary Analysis
Atonement: A walk into a library
Concerned from beginning to end with the theme of Literature and making up stories
"A world could be made in five pages, and one that was more pleasing than a model farm. The childhood of a spoiled prince could be framed within half a page, a moonlit dash through sleepy villages was one rhythmically emphatic sentence, falling in love could be achieved in a single word--a glance. The pages of a recently finished story seemed to vibrate in her hand with all the life they contained." (Page 7)
When we first meet its female protagonist, Briony, at the age of thirteen, she is already committed to the life of a writer. She subordinates everything the world throws at her to her need to cope with the demands of her own world of fiction:
“I’ve been thinking about my last novel, the one that should have been my first. The earliest version, January 1940, the latest, March 1999, and in between, half dozen different drafts…My fifty-nine-year assignment is over. There was a crime-Lola’s, Marshall’s, mine-and.., I set out to describe it.” (pag. 369)
“Then you’ll write to me in much greater detail. In this letter you’ll put in absolutely everything you think is relevant. Everything that led up to you saying you saw me by the lake. And why, even though you were uncertain, you stuck to your story in the months leading up to my trial…it needs to be a long letter” (page 345)
Atonement turns inwards in a self-referential, metafictive manner. The use of the metafictional plot element of a novel inside a novel can further be viewed as an inward-looking form of literary allusion. The novel Atonement is a story written by Briony to atone for her crime which is in turn written by McEwan and which also contains further intertexts and letters to draw deeper meaning to the novel and set the story into motion
Metafictive Plot Device of a novel within a novel: revealed in the Final Coda (Epilogue)
“I know there´s always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened? The answer is simple: the lovers survive and flourish. As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love” (pag. 371)
Intertextuality draws attention to the novel’s own status as a fictional text:
Serves as both a warning and a guide to how the reader should view the narrative. It is an act of continuous reminder that the entire book is the final literary artifact of Briony, a professional writer.
The very first instance of intertextuality is in the epigraph of the novel. A quotation from Jane Austen’s 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.
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Like Atonement, Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey was a novel about novels. In particular, it was a satire of the Gothic novels popular at the time (1803). Catherine, who is mentioned in the epigraph as Miss Morland, is Austen's heroine, and she reads bunches of novels. She has read so many books about murder and rape that she ends up imagining her boyfriend's father has murdered his wife. The epigraph is enacted by Mr Tilney whom Catherine has unfairly accused of murder. Similarly to Catherine Morland in Austen’s novel, Briony fails to make a distinction between the fictive and the real world.
Epigraph: serves to illuminate important aspects of the story and guides the reader into the right direction. Introduces the topic about making things up and tells the reader he will come into a British novel that deals with other British novels.
BRIONY´S PLAY THE TRIALS OF ARABELLA
The theme of Literature and making up stories are further foregrounded from the very beginning of the novel by the scene of Briony preparing for rehearsals of her play, The Trials of Arabella. The play itself is a kind of fictional intertex and symbol of the novel:
“Briony was hardly to know it then, but this was the project’s highest point of fulfillment” (page4)
In the last pages of the book, Briony finally sees her play performed, some sixty-five years later. Completing the play, then, lasts as long as the book. To get to the end of the one, you've got to get to the end of the other.
The plot of The Trials of Arabella has some similarities to the book itself. Arabella, the princess, falls in love with an impoverished doctor—just like Cecilia falls in love with Robbie, who aspires to be a doctor, an impoverished one since Cecilia’s father is the one who pays for his studies. Another parallel between the play and the book is that in both cases the author (Briony) decides to give the lovers a happy ending:
At the wedding ceremony, Arabella and the medical prince address the audience:
“Here’s the beginning of our love at the end of our travail. / So farewell, kind friends, as into the sunset we sail!” (page 368)
Briony, at seventy-seven, after watching the performance, states:
“There was a crime. But were also lovers, lovers and their happy ends have been on my mind all night long…It occurs to me that I have not traveled so very far after all, since I wrote my little play" (page 370)
BRIONY’S NOVELLA TWO FIGURES BY A FOUNTAIN
Part Three picks up the eighteen-year-old Briony who has signed up as a nurse in a war hospital in London in an act of penance for her sin. She is also still writing. She submits a story to a London journal which is rejected, but in the rejection she is encouraged to develop it further. The novel called Two Figures by a Fountain represents Briony’s first attempt to write the story of her crime that will finally end in the novel Atonement. Furthermore, the project of writing it down was announced in advance by the thirteen-year-old Briony at the begging of the novel:
“…she sensed she could write a scene like the one by the fountain…she could imagine herself hurrying down now to her bedroom, to a clean block of lined paper and her marbled, Bakelite fountain pen” (page 40)
Briony is giving us the plan for the novel she will finally write and we're reading:
“Six decades later she would describe how at the age of thirteen she had written her way through a whole history of literature” (page 41)
Sets the story´s course and drives the characters into motion
ROBBIE’S LOVE LETTER TO CECILIA
Following the fountain scene, Robbie is alone in his room trying to understand his love for Cecilia by talking about books. He has lots of books scattered about, covering everything from eighteenth-century poetry to medicine (page 82/92). He picks up a book on landscape gardening he got from Cecilia, "raise[s] the book to his nostrils and inhaled" (page 84). A couple of paragraphs later he mentions "the page at which his Anatomy tends to fall open these days” (page 85) (illustrating female genitalia). He thinks about her beloved Anatomy and writes:
"In my dreams I kiss…In my thoughts I make love to you all day long" (page 86)
This letter professing his love and physical desire for Cecilia, which he meant to destroy, is accidentally given to Briony to deliver to Cecilia. After she has read it, she discovers perverse desires and wants to protect her sister from this sex-maniac. Before she can do so, she witnesses the couple making love in the family library among shelves of books:
“He pushed her hard into the corner, between the books. As they kissed she was pulling at his clothes..” (page 135) and mistakes it for assault, further confirming her assumption that Robbie was a maniac.
JACKSON AND PIERROT’S LETTER OF ESCAPE TO THE FAMILY
Sets up the scene in which the rate will occur
“We are gong to run away becase Lola and Betty are horid to us and we want to go home. Sory we took some frute And there was’nt a play” (page 143)
Briony finds Lola, who has been sexually assaulted and sees a figure running away into the darkness. Though she does not see his face, she is convinced that it was Robbie and accuses him to the police. She also presents to the police Robbie’s letter to Cecilia as a proof of his maniac personality. Robbie is taken to prison and separated from Cecilia who promises to wait for him.
CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN ROBBIE AND CECILIA WHILE IN PRISON/WAR
These letters are full of intertextual allusions to authors and great medieval literary lovers to stand in for themselves in code to elude censors
"So they wrote about literature, and used characters as codes. At Cambridge…all those books, those happy or tragic couples they have never discuss! Tristan and Isolde, the Duke Orsino and Olivia (and Malvolio too), Troilus and Criseyde, Mr Knightley and Emma, Venus and Adonis, turner and Tallis…” (page 204),
"Mention of a quiet corner in a library” (page 204)
was a code for sexual desire and become a symbol for their love.
A letter from the author to the reader. Briony informs the reader she has made up the part about visiting Cecilia and Robbie in London and how both people died in the war and could never reunite again. Her act to let their love last forever in the pages of her book will be her final atonement for her crime.
Main character and author of the book.
When the story begins, she is 13 years old
Has two older siblings: Leon, who is twelve years older and living in London; and Cecilia, who is ten years older and has just returned from school in Cambridge.
Early on her life, Briony discovers her passion for writing. When she first appears in the novel, she has written a play called "The Trials of Arabella" which she also attempts to star in and direct.
At the end of the book, she is a 77 year-old successful writer dying of Vascular Dementia, a terminal disease
Second heroine who suffers the consequences of Briony’s misguided crime
Studied at Cambridge with Robbie Tuner at the same time she was
Back to the Tallis household for the summer, Cecilia discovers Robbie Turner's love for her after receiving a letter by the hand of Briony. When Robbie is accused of raping Lola Quincey, Cecilia is the only one who stands by him, insisting on his innocence.
Moves to London to become a nurse
In the final section of the book, Cecilia is visited by Briony. She is living with Robbie in a small flat in London
In the end, we learn Cecilia was killed in a bombing in a London train station during the war.
Main male character who is falsely accused of rape by Briony Tallis.
He is 23 years old and has just returned from Cambridge where he earned a literature degree. His entire schooling has been funded by Jack Tallis.
Son of Grace and Ernest Turner who left them when Robbie was six years old.
Pens a letter to Cecilia announcing his love for her.
Accused of raping the young cousin Lola. Sent to prison for three years. When Britain enters the war in 1939, Robbie has an opportunity to emancipate himself by fighting in France.
The next time the reader gets to know about him is in Cecilia's flat in 1940 when Briony visits, seeking her "atonement." Robbie refuses to forgive her but instructs her to write a letter telling the truth
In the end of the book, it is revealed that Robbie died in war as a result of his wounds.
Briony, Cecilia and Leon’s mother and Jack Tallis’ wife.
Father of the household and a minor character in the novel.
Briony's older brother and the eldest of the three Tallis children.
Leon is returning home from working in London to visit his family and it is his homecoming that inspires Briony to write a play for him. With him, he brings home his wealthy friend Paul Marshall. He works at the banks, "working and living for the nights and weekends" (101).
Eldest sibling of the Tallis cousins who comes to spend the summer at their estate while her parents go through a divorce.
Victim of rape committed by Paul Marshall, Leon´s friend, though Briony gets to convince her that it was Robbie Turner who was her attacker. Lola appears to know this to be false, but never says the contrary
At the end of the novel, she is marrying Paul Marshall, her attacker.
Jackson and Pierrot Quincey
Lola Quincey's younger twin brothers. They are 9 years old when they arrive at the Tallis home for the summer
During a dinner, the two twins decide to run away and this leads to the opportunity for the crime of rape to be committed.
Atonement is a story about trying to get forgiveness for your sins
Briony's sins are about making up stories
The way Briony tries to get forgiveness: also by making up stories. The book is her long letter of atonement written to Robbie and her sister Cecilia.
She is too young to understand the dangers that can produce by modeling life into an artificial world. When she makes public her confusion between life and the life of fiction the consequences are tragic and irreversible ¬except in the realm of fiction. She attempts to use fiction to correct the errors that fiction (fantasy) has induced her to cause in the first place.
Atonement is the long letter Robbie indulges Briony to write explaining why she did what she did
Unfolds their romance and unlocks Briony´s imagination towards her final crime.
Sustains their love and a hope for a future together
Acknowledges the novel has been written by Briony, the story's main character