The Meanings of Atonement

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Words: 2158 |

Pages: 5|

11 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

Words: 2158|Pages: 5|11 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

“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 individuals were misinterpreted to make a novel… How can a novelist achieve atonement when… she is also God? In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms” (Atonement 2001 p.369-371).

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A reader’s interpretation of prose is fundamentally influenced by the narrator’s perception; therefore, an unreliable narrator has literary, theoretical, and moral consequences for the meanings that can be read from a text. Exchanging an omniscient, third person narrator, who supplies an apparently comprehensive and veracious account and encourages a willing suspension of disbelief on the reader’s part, for a focalised, subjective perspective, 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 last chance to provide “satisfaction or reparation for [the] wrong [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 achieve the titular meaning of the novel in its theological sense, but also depicts the maturation of her literary imagination, which allows her to atone through empathy. Yet the postmodern techniques infused throughout this prose fiction intimate that it was always about the nature and process 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, thus calling into question her moral fulfilment of the novel’s titular meaning, in its theological sense and through her imagination. Her character is imbued with late Victorian Puritan beliefs from her parents and her reading of Gothic literature. Briony’s first play, a Gothic fairy tale, concludes with “a good wedding” – “an unacknowledged representation of the yet unthinkable – sexual bliss” (9)– to which her mother, whose own husband’s “deceit was a form of tribute to the importance of their [strategic] marriage” (148), responds with “wise, affirming nods” (4). Nevertheless, she divulges in the coda that she never confessed her sin or sought forgiveness from her victims: “it is only in this last version that my lovers end 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) before they died and Lord and Lady Marshall are legally untouchable. Even Nurse Tallis’ penance was motivated by a desire to construct herself as selfless and compassionate. “Sometimes, when a soldier… was in great pain, she was touched by an impersonal tenderness that detached her from the suffering, so that she was able to do her work efficiently and without horror. That was when she saw what nursing might be… She could imagine how she might abandon her ambitions of writing and dedicate her life in return for these moments of elated, generalised love.” (304) The oxymoron “impersonal tenderness” and repetition of “might” subvert her pretence, while 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), among which Briony would count herself, as a British upper-middle class author. Briony constructs Turner as a metaphorical Christ figure in Part Two through biblical allusions and imagery (Culleton 2009): he shares his ‘last supper’ with Nettle and Mace and later “put his arms around the corporals’ shoulders and… let his head droop” (244). However, in Briony’s tale, Robbie didn’t die, and thus, Briony forfeits redemption. Nonetheless, Briony achieved atonement through empathy. McEwan believes that “imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity” and thus “cruelty is the failure of imagination” (McEwan 2001). Briony originally committed her crime because she ironically forgot that “other people 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). Therefore, her victims’ fictional ending proves she has learned to empathise, to imagine others, as autonomous entities, authentically (Finney 2004 p.81). The contradiction of a theological and moral reading of the coda thus 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 discuss the nature and “making of fiction” (Finney 2004 p.69). First, Briony refers back to Part One: “I love these little things, this pointillist approach to verisimilitude, the correction of detail that cumulatively gives such satisfaction.” (359) Classical realism derives its quality not from the authenticity of its subject, but from accuracy of its representation (Watt 1957 p.11). Briony employed this technique to convince readers of a veracious narrator of Part One and of Robbie and Cecilia’s fabricated, fairy tale ending. Due to the ambiguity of the denouement, it is debatable whether it is cowardice and immorality or “sense [and] hope” that provokes an author to conceal an unsatisfying resolution, because “who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism?” (371) Secondly, Briony includes Lola and Marshall in the epilogue because they symbolise the modernist belief that corruption and decay lie beneath beauty (Rahn 2011). “He at last appeared the cruelly handsome plutocrat” and “there was an air of a health 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 over character and plot (Wolfreys 2001 p.121)– lies artificiality and depravity, 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… everything is in the right box file” (353)– to her childhood – “the model farm… consisted of the usual animals, but all facing one way… her straight-backed dolls… appeared to be under strict instructions not to touch the walls; various thumb-sized figures… suggested by their even ranks and spacing a citizen’s army awaiting orders” (5)– through similarity of visual imagery. But her self-reflexive musing, “I’ve always liked to make a tidy finish” (353), reminds readers that this novel satirizes the bildungsroman genre; Briony never matures into a reliable narrator, with the ability to relinquish her reality and fiction to “disorder” (9) instead of imposing “symmetry” (169). Furthermore, she confirms evidence of a drafting process from Part Three: “the earliest version [of Atonement], January 1940, the latest, March 1999, and in between, half a dozen different drafts.” (369) In his letter, Cyril Connolly asks, “Wouldn’t it help you if the watching girl did not actually realise that the vase had been broken?” (313) Re-reading Part One, readers find Briony has taken his advice. He also criticises modernists for disregarding what lies at the core of prose: a reader’s “childlike desire to be told a story” (314), which in turn questions Briony’s artistic licence. Finally, “The Trials of Arabella” is performed in honour of all the texts Atonement referenced to “entail productivity” (Finney 2004 p.73), especially Richardson’s Clarissa, used to foreshadow Lola’s rape and explain the ideologies that supported Robbie’s incrimination and Marshall’s escape thereof. The blatant manipulation of various literary periods, genres and techniques, revealed in the coda, reminds readers of the dangers and construction of fiction.

According to Geoff Dyer, “McEwan uses 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), specifically the decline of the influence of Victorian ideologies on class and sexuality, and the traumatizing impact of the war on Britain. Victorian morality arose mainly from the nouveau-riche merchant class; they were impelled to control their libido rise above the 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 seen by a man in her underclothes); reads Robbie’s letter as “brutal” and “disgusting” (113); and describes him as “huge”, “wild” (123) and bestial, because of her prude and chaste attitudes towards love. Emily is a product of the naturalisation of the Victorian social hierarchy, and therefore “opposed Jack when he proposed paying for [Robbie’s] education” 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 relationship with Robbie embodies the initiation of a more modern, liberal era of sexuality, and Briony’s false testimony, with a “glazed surface of conviction… not without 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 made her more certain than ever that she must soon be moving on” (19). The effect of World War II on the British psyche and empire was devastating: before World War II, having profited from World War I and dominating almost a quarter of the world, England was an empire at the height of its powers; after World War II, the humiliating conflict at Dunkirk and the massive 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 everybody else’s” (217). This “connection between the microcosm of the lives that Briony has disrupted and the macrocosm of a world at war” demonstrates how “relationships… absorb outside pressure, 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 fit into it. Briony is an anachronism in a contemporary, meritocratic society: the tension between her and her cabbie is born of condescension from a deceased class system, symbolised by Emily’s funeral. However this new social order inspires respect for Lola and Marshall, perhaps even because he is a war profiteer and their union represents sexuality more permissive than Robbie and Cecilia’s. Briony’s first person narration of the epilogue explains how British society has developed from the start of the twentieth century, demonstrating how literature can represent history.

The utilization of the direct voice of Briony, a highly unreliable narrator, renders the coda ambiguous, and consequently effects the readings that can be made 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, especially postmodernism and metafiction. Furthermore, the novel is an example of historiographic inasmuch as McEwan uses prose to subjectively represent history and society. Opening up Atonement to multiple interpretations demonstrates something that may have prevented Briony incriminating an innocent man, had she realised it: that literature, like reality, has no definite, universal meaning; instead, each person creates their own meaning. “Readers make the meaning of literary texts, and accordingly there is no such thing as a ‘right reading’” (Crosman 1982 p.357)


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

Finney, Brian (2004). “Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: The Making 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”.

Watt, Ian (2001). The Rise of the Novel. University of California Press.

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

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

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The Meanings of Atonement. (2018, April 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from
“The Meanings of Atonement.” GradesFixer, 05 Apr. 2018,
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