The Use of Time in The First Ten Chapters in Atonement, a Novel by Ian Mcewan

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About this sample


Words: 892 |

Pages: 2|

5 min read

Published: Oct 22, 2018

Words: 892|Pages: 2|5 min read

Published: Oct 22, 2018

How does McEwan use time in the first ten chapters?

In Atonement McEwan uses time in various ways in order to explore various perspectives, relationships and to try piece together the events that occur in the first section of the book.

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The timing of various relationships is used by McEwan in order to create a dramatic turning point which ultimately leads to the downfall of the story; causing more issues as a result of this first turning point. The divorce of Emily Tallis’s sister results in her children staying at their cousin’s house for the duration of the first section of the book. This timing of the divorce coincides with the turning point as the breakdown of her relationship could possibly foreshadow the breakdown of others’. For example, Cecilia and Robbie’s new found love ends quickly as well as Emily and Jack’s begins to deteriorate throughout the story as the reader learns Jack is having an affair. Similarly, Cecilia and Briony’s strong sisterly bond quickly worsens due to Briony’s mistake.

Time is also used by McEwan to portray the various transitions the characters are experiencing. Briony’s transition into adolescence is shown through her growing curiosity as well as her desire to be considered as older than she is. However the reader is reminded by McEwan that she’s only transitioning into adolescence not woman hood as he occasionally places her in situations such as the nursey which is associated with children or dressing her in a ‘white muslin dress’ which again makes her seem younger as white portrays innocence as well as her dress being made of muslin which is often associated with babies and young children as it is used when making bibs or clothes for children; once again highlighting her young age and innocence. Similarly, Lola’s transition from adolescence to adulthood is shown through her clothes and the way she dresses. She now, unlike young Briony, wears perfume with a ‘womanly tang’ showing she is wanting to seem older than she is however this ‘could not conceal a childish whiff of Germolene’ showing as hard as she tries to seem older than she is she not quite old enough yet. This is again demonstrated when she goes through a very adult experience which she is not ready for even though she considers herself almost adult. Time also is shown through relationships as the timing of Robbie going to university and losing Cecilia is also happening at this same time as their relationship is just beginning. Emily Tallis is also ending a period of her life of being a young mother who is needed as Briony, her youngest child, is growing up and becoming less independent on her mother giving her a sense of loss. This could also possibly leave Emily jealous of Cecilia who has a closer bond with her sister than herself.

McEwan also uses this idea of time to confuse the reader as the first section of the book occurs all in one afternoon/ evening yet so much happens. Although this isn’t provable the detail associated with it all adds up to one afternoon. In this first section the story doesn’t progress that fast until the first ten chapters yet it speeds up greatly in the last four to show what a blur the evening was as disaster strikes. The quickness of it all also allows the characters to maintain their thoughts and feelings throughout the evening without them changing; if it had happened over several days then explanations for certain events would’ve changed the perspective of Briony as Cecilia may have had chance to explain to her younger sister; preventing her accusing Robbie of Lola’s rape. The quickness also adds to the sadness of Cecilia and Robbie’s relationship ending just as quickly as it begun as it shows just how new it was as happened all in one day leaving the reader feeling more upset for the characters due to the long build-up of sexual tension between Robbie and Cecilia throughout the majority of the first section of Atonement.

Time is again used by McEwan to describe the events that take place as well as the various perspectives. The timing of the different situations that happen are shown by repeating it without the reader being explicitly told as it is through the eyes of different people; however this allows the reader to piece together the sequence of events for themselves allowing them to feel more involved in the story and the characters’ lives. For example, Emily Tallis hears two pairs of footsteps outside her room which she originally believes to be the twins however as a reader, due to reading of the same sounds heard and the various takes on this situation we know that it is in fact Lola and Paul Marshall. Similarly, we see the fountain scenario between Robbie and Cecilia through the eyes of three different people. This again allows the reader to fully understand the event as well as to see it through the eyes of a child and 2 adults. This helps us see the difference in how the characters react to and perceive the scenario at hand which ultimately leads to the turning point of the whole story.

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To conclude the idea of time is used by McEwan to show relationships and transitions and most importantly the sequence of events that lead to the downfall of the story.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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The Use of Time in the First Ten Chapters in Atonement, a Novel by Ian Mcewan. (2018, October 22). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 24, 2024, from
“The Use of Time in the First Ten Chapters in Atonement, a Novel by Ian Mcewan.” GradesFixer, 22 Oct. 2018,
The Use of Time in the First Ten Chapters in Atonement, a Novel by Ian Mcewan. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Feb. 2024].
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