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Summary and Main Themes of The Novel Atonement

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Ian McEwan portrays a theme of architectural detail throughout his novel Atonement. Through the use of these descriptions, McEwan constructs the theme of guilt, and the quest of finding atonement, that follows through his main character, Briony Tallis. Briony, who is a writer, writes these architectural details in an attempt to cleanse herself of guilt and find atonement for the misunderstanding that ruins the lives of her sister, Cecilia Tallis, and Robbie Turner, Cecilia’s lover and the accused rapist. McEwan creates a novel of distorted reality as he intertwines the creative acts of literature and architecture. The mix of creative acts in literature and the architectural detail work as a guide for Briony as she begins to understand the crime she had committed. In the end, Briony’s novel distorts the reality of her life events in an attempt to achieve the forgiveness she craves.

McEwan makes Briony’s attempt of finding atonement evident in Part II through his references to the French countryside, where Robbie is taking shelter while fighting in the war. Upon arrival to the countryside, Robbie and Nettle, a corporate companion, take refuge in ‘a bombed house whose cellar was half open to the sky and had the appearance of a gigantic cave. Grabbing him by his jacket, Nettle pulled him down a scree of broken bricks. Cautiously, he guided him across the cellar floor into the blackness’ (McEwan 244). McEwan shows these lines to be a manuscript of Briony’s attempt for atonement. Through this description, McEwan was able to use allusion when he turned Robbie into someone who resembles Jesus. As Briony sacrificed Robbie to the police through her naivety and selfishness as a child, this led to his ultimate destruction on this cellar floor. To further symbolize Robbie’s innocence, Nettle lays Robbie in his cave tomb in a seaside village in France just as Joseph did to Jesus. This reflects Briony’s realization that distorting the reality of Robbie’s role does not bring redemption to the existence of her daily life.

In the third part of the novel, McEwan demonstrates Briony’s guilt toward Cecilia and shows her attempt at forgiveness with her sister through the descriptions Briony uses in the details of her sister’s boarding room. As Briony never gets the chance to visit her sister, McEwan uses this as an opportunity to portray the scene from the perspective and imagination of a guilty conscience. When McEwan stated, ‘The walls were papered with a design of pale vertical stripes, like boy’s pyjamas, which heightened the sense of confinement’, this confinement symbolizes the confinement Robbie is forced to face in prison, as well as the prison Briony has created for her sister and herself. As she has built a wall of lies that separated Cecilia from the man she loves, this causes the separation between Briony from both Cecilia and Robbie. McEwan portrays the guilt in this fashion to setup Briony’s attempt to receive atonement through taking action. McEwan allows Briony to take action in getting reparation by giving the imaginative novelist that she is a path of redemption. By giving her this path, Briony can write her sister and Robbie a happy ending they deserved at the end of her novel. The thought that the two lovers reunite reinforces the ‘happily ever after’ and the simplicity of a life that Briony could have delivered to her sister and Robbie if only she had told the truth but now is only possible through her novel.

In the end, Briony finds atonement which is seen through the vanishing of her memories of the landscape around her old home: ‘I’ve been watching the first gray light bring into view the park and the bridges over the vanished lake’. The vanishing landscape written by McEwan symbolizes the loss of Briony’s memory. McEwan takes the loss of memory, not as an atonement, but as an act of kindness, giving her the freedom from the guilt she has lived with her entire life. In the end, as the disease takes over her brain, she will not have the memories of the betrayal of trust she caused, and Briony gets the relief that she can never obtain through her novel. As Briony concludes that she can never receive forgiveness from her loved ones, McEwan demonstrates that the imagination cannot replace what happens and had happened in the real world. The only redemption comes from the erasing of reality as the architectural details are erased from around the Tallis’ home and Briony’s details of her crime are erased from her memory.

Works Cited

  • McEwan, Ian. Atonement. Vintage Canada, 2001.

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Summary And Main Themes Of The Novel Atonement. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from
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