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Themes and Literary Techniques in Atonement by Ian Mcewan

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Through a critical reading of an excerpt from the novel Atonement by Ian McEwan, many formal and stylised characteristics can be identified in assisting the success with which the novel delivers it’s themes to the readers. Some of the techniques used in this specific excerpt include intertextuality, literally allusions and foreshadowing. Through an analysis of these techniques, the importance of critical analysis for a writer will be made evident.

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McEwan uses intertextuality in this chapter to enhance Robbie’s world view and make evident to readers the way in which Robbie processes his changing feelings for Cecilia. McEwan refers to several literary texts that define the way in which Robbie thinks about society, love and politics. By listing the kinds of books strewn across Robbie’s insufficient house, McEwan manages to paint a picture of Robbie’s upbringing, his interests and his opinions. The reference to the book of Gray’s Anatomy and the description of Robbie’s drawing of the anatomical hand shows his deep interest in medicine when McEwan says, “he had set himself the task of drawing and committing to memory the bones of the hand”. “The cast of Twelfth Night on the college lawn, himself as Malvolio, cross-gartered” is a literary allusion to the Shakespearean play Twelfth Night and exemplifies the way in which Robbie views love, specifically through his portrayal of Malvolio who, like Robbie, had prioritised his honourable and humble upbringing and shunned worldly materials till he fell in love. Similarly, Robbie writes a graphic and uncharacteristic letter to Cecilia due to the inexplicable love he has for her, which paves the way for his downfall. McEwan is able to allow readers an insight into the way in which Robbie has experienced life thus far and therefore, allows them to make sense of the uncharacteristic letter he writes to Cecilia.

McEwan uses this chapter to allow his readers a deeper insight into Robbie as a person thereby garnering their sympathy for him for the following trials and tribulations to come. McEwan describes Robbie’s upbringing, modest and honest, alongside Cecilia and Briony’s, who grew up with wealth and comfort. Robbie has accepted his place in society and is almost indignant in making it clear that it doesn’t phase him in the least. “He liked people to know he didn’t care — there goes my mothers’ employers’ daughter”, reveals the way in which Robbie didn’t allow himself to be hindered by his background. McEwan demonstrates Robbie’s free mind and strong will as he says, “He had his politics to protect him, and his scientifically based theories of class and his own rather forced self certainty”. Through this description of Robbie, McEwan demonstrates Robbie’s independence and relentlessness in hoping to make the most of the opportunities he has been given, thereby allowing the readers to support him and empathic with him through the remainder of the novel.

McEwan uses foreshadowing in this chapter to create symmetry in his novel and further consolidate the themes of the novel within his readers minds. As Robbie contemplated the reasons behind Cecilia’s actions, McEwan introduces the recurring theme of humiliation within the novel. “The idea was to humiliate him. There it stood, The undeniable fact. Humiliation. She wanted it from him. She was not mere sweetness, and he could not afford to condescend to her, for she was a force, she could drive him out of his depth and push him under”, which foreshadows the way in which Robbie’s future will be lost to his love for Cecilia. Although Robbie is only indulging himself when he hoped that Cecilia’s act came from a place of affection and even love, he dangerously surrenders himself to accepting humiliation, which carries forward as he is wrongly accused of raping Lola by Briony. His acceptance of the incorrect accusation further consolidates McEwan’s theme of humiliation within the novel. Robbie’s several attempts at writing a letter to Cecilia also foreshadows Briony’s multiple drafts of the novel she hopes will bring her atonement. Through his use of foreshadowing, McEwan manages to introduces greater themes into this chapter, and so, allows his readers to recognise the messages within the novel.

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Through an analysis of the given excerpt, it is clear that critical reflection on a piece of literature consolidates the importance of literary techniques in ensuring the efficacy of the medium in delivering themes to audiences. Through a close critical reading of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, It becomes evident that techniques such as foreshadowing, allusions and intertextuality are efficient ways in which an author might further develop a character and allow the audience to empathise with them further.

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Themes And Literary Techniques In Atonement By Ian McEwan. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 9, 2023, from
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