Themes of Love, Truth and Memory in Ian Mcewan’s Atonement

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Words: 1110 |

Pages: 2|

6 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Words: 1110|Pages: 2|6 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Ian McEwan’s Atonement is a romantic war tragedy metafiction published in 2001. The novel follows the lives of the young lovers Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner, the story’s two protagonists whom experience the text’s conflict as they are never able to fulfill their dreams of eternal love due to them being separated by an impetuous lie constructed by Cecelia’s younger sister, Briony Tallis. Themes such as love, truth and memory are confrontationally explored by McEwan throughout the text in the form of stylistic features such as focalisation and reliability and irony which enable the audience to delve further into the thought processes of the novel’s main characters, giving them a deeper level of insight and perspective as to how they operate and their intentions.

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Atonement cleverly engages the reader through a prism of first and third person perspectives, enabling the themes of truth and memory to be explored via focalisation and reliability. For example, in chapter 6, while Cecilia (Emily Tallis’ mother) is reminiscing about her children, the paragraphs are entirely written in third person; however, the technique of focalisation filters the narration through Emily’s perspective, allowing the audience to gain an insight into her thoughts, which then enables readers to be able to identify some of these thought processes as distorted truth. For example, in one of the paragraphs, Emily considers herself possessing “a sixth sense, a tentacular awareness that reached out from the dimness and moved through the house, unseen and all-knowing.” This can be perceived as Emily arrogantly believing that she knows her children in extensive detail - “only the truth”. However, her presumptive assuredness has proven to be false in the later stages of the novel. One particular scene which clearly demonstrates this is when she decided to believe Briony’s false accusation of Robbie as a rapist; she fails to consider her berserk imagination and her tendency to embellish truth. This miscalculation proves that Emily is far from right in thinking herself “all-knowing”, and in fact provides evidence that she is living in her own warped version of reality. Given this outcome, the evidence then further points at Emily being an unreliable narrator, as her version of events differs vastly to those experienced by other seemingly more reliable characters, such as Cecilia, who knows that Robbie had been wrongly accused and is innocent. It can then be further added that Emily is unreliable in rather a unique way as shown by the particular language used in the focalisation of her thoughts. Within this scene there is an apparent tone of arrogance; for example, “what to others would have been a muffling was to her alert senses, which were fine-tuned like the cat’s whiskers of a [sic] old wireless, an almost unbearable amplification”. This almost narcissistic sense of superiority suggests that she fully and completely believes that she is “all-knowing”, diverging from the manner in which another character, Briony, is unreliable; in the latter’s case, throughout the novel she appears deep down in the core of her character to be aware of her own unreliability but faces an internal struggle in admitting it to herself and others, as is later revealed in the great regret she shows during her atonement for falsely accusing Robbie. Analysis of these characters and situations through the techniques of focalisation and reliability enable the audience to be able to grasp the unique characterisation of Emily Tallis and contribute to the overarching theme of different versions of reality, making it significant within the novel’s wider structure

Through excellent use of irony, McEwan explores the theme of love. The novel’s most salient examples of such irony appear in passages including direct speeches, especially in the novel’s dialogues and arguments. For instance, when Briony visits her sister Cecilia to apologise for her sins, she says: ‘What I did was terrible. I don’t expect you to forgive me.’ Cecilia replies: ‘Don’t worry, I won’t ever forgive you.’ Cecilia’s answer is really quite ironic since both of her statements contradict each other, and such irony also reflects Cecilia’s state of mind and her attitude towards the issue between the two characters. These interactions and conflict position the reader to be able to perceive and understand the bitterness of Cecilia stemming from Briony’s impulsive actions, which in turn resulted in the separation of her and her lover Robbie. Also, from Cecilia’s attitude towards Robbie, it is possible to deduce that she prioritises her love before anything else - even family affections. This gives readers an insight into Celia’s personal feelings and allows the audience to develop sympathy for the lovers while also loathing Robbie for her Machiavellian schemes. A further example of irony can also be found in the last part of the novel when Briony shares her thoughts on Lola and Paul Marshall: ‘Poor vain and vulnerable Lola…. And what luck that was for Lola — barely more than a child, prised open and taken — to marry her rapist.’ This whole statement can be viewed as ironic since it is highly unlikely that a woman would even consider marrying her rapist, let alone calling such a union to be one of luck. These statements in fact add as further evidence of just how distorted and delusional Briony’s thought processes really are, especially when it comes to social relationships. Briony was aware that if Lola had accused Paul Marshall of rape, Paul could then use his power to obliterate Lola’s life. Briony’s choice of words – ‘poor vain and vulnerable’ - to describe a hated person implies the non-literal meaning of the utterance, the contradiction. The irony presented through the marriage of Lola and Paul enables the audience to glimpse a distorted version of love, which then acts as a vehicle highlighting the purity of Robbie and Cecilia’s love. This technique then elicits more sympathy from the audience towards Robbie and Cecilia as the ‘real’ criminal and the real ‘victim’ have moved on from the rape and are currently living in their salad days and thus drawing more hate towards Briony.

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In conclusion, Ian McEwan successfully conveys the themes of love, truth and memory in Atonement. Focalisation and reliability were used with substantial efficacy to contribute to the themes of truth and memory through the utilisation of Emily Tallis. Irony was also utilised by McEwan to demonstrate different versions of love, both distorted and pure. The human experience is riddled with unpalatable truths that we discover as we journey through life. With his attempt to influence our values and attitudes by deliberately challenging the reader to confront some of humanity’s unpalatable truths, McEwan prompts us to consider our own moral compass through the subjective prisms of love, truth and memory. 

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Themes Of Love, Truth And Memory In Ian McEwan’s Atonement. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 22, 2024, from
“Themes Of Love, Truth And Memory In Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” GradesFixer, 10 Feb. 2022,
Themes Of Love, Truth And Memory In Ian McEwan’s Atonement. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 May 2024].
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