Atonement seems like a simple title. And… you know, it really is a simple title. Everything about the novel is a puzzle box, but the title means pretty much what it says. The book is about Briony's effort to atone for the really horrible thing she did when she was a kid and accused her sister's lover of rape.
Okay, okay—there might be another twist. The novel is not just about atonement, but is the atonement itself. Robbie tells Briony to write him a long letter explaining why she did what she did, and the novel is that letter. It's the task he set her. But by the end we know that Robbie didn't tell Briony anything; he died in the war. Briony gave him a happy ending—so the atonement, then, is the effort to remake the past and fix what she did in imagination, even if she couldn't in real life.
Still. Compared to point of view, the title really isn't trying to trick you. Maybe McEwan wasn't feeling as spunky as usual when he wrote it.
The last three paragraphs of Atonement basically tell you that everything in the book was made up. We knew this already of course (it's a work of fiction, after all), but it's still a little bit of a shock.
Specifically, the last paragraphs are where Briony tells us (indirectly, but pretty clearly) that in the novel we've just finished reading, some of the plot isn't "really" what happened.
Specifically, Robbie and Cecilia didn't reunite and live happily ever after. Robbie died on the Bray Dunes on June 1, 1940 of infection, and Cecilia died a few months later in a bombing during the German airstrikes on London. Furthermore, Briony never actually walked to her sister's apartment, as she says she did in part 3. Instead she simply returned to the hospital and just imagined herself going to her sister's.
"How could that constitute an ending?" Briony asks four paragraphs from the end after explaining why she changed the facts. The ending she's referring to, though, isn't the end of the book we're reading, just the end to the book she wrote. We get the conclusion she withheld from her novel anyway. The end of Atonement, then, repudiates itself, or tries to: It tells you that it's not the end that should have been.
Briony also points out that she did not allow her lovers to forgive her. She is also, though, thinking of another draft, in which we end with "Robbie and Cecilia, still alive, still in love, sitting side by side in the library, smiling at The Trials of Arabella. It's not impossible." It is the last thing Briony shares with us before going to sleep and the whole book wraps.
We never read that draft though. Briony either changed her mind, or else her vascular dementia prevented her from writing it. On the other hand, though, we do still see that last image through Briony mentioning it. In that one sentence at least, Cecilia and Robbie are alive and in love until the very end.
So why have the tricky ending? Why make us happy and then sad? Why the bittersweet confusion? Well, in the first place, it ties up the themes neatly—Briony atones for making up a bitter story about Robbie by making up a sweet story about Robbie. And, in the second place—it's just kind of phenomenally tear-jerking. The book is sort of a tragic romance, and one of the things you're supposed to do at the end of a tragic romance is bawl your eyes out. Giving you the sad ending might have tugged on your heart, but giving you the happy one and then sucker punching you—that's just brutal.
The last line of the novel is "But now I must sleep." Sleep reminds us of dreams, which is fitting since Briony has essentially dreamt up the whole novel. It suggests death too, though, which is coming for Briony shortly. But it's also an announcement that she's going to put down her pen. And what happens in a novel about writing when the writer stops writing? Nada. It's the end.
Yeah, that's a lot of setting included right there. Luckily, everything doesn't happen everywhere at once, which would be confusing both in the book, and in real life. So, let's see where the homeys at. First, at home:
The Tallises are not exactly stinking rich, maybe, but they are pretty darn rich. They've got servants; they've got a pool; they've got gardens and a fancy fountain and grounds big enough that they need to send out search parties when Jackson and Pierrot wander off.
The whole first section of the novel is set at the house in 1935, before World War II. The setting is idyllic (who wouldn't want to live in a giant house with servants to do your gardening?) and also fragile (like the vase Robbie and Cecilia break). The war is coming, like the "black-furred creature" of Emily Tallis's migraine (1.6.3), and everyone's dreams for the future—not just Robbie's and Cecilia's—are going to shatter.
After the first part of the book, we learn bits and pieces of what happens to the Tallis home. During the war, the Tallis family has to take in refugees from London and elsewhere who are fleeing the upcoming German air strikes (the Blitz). And finally, in the last section set in 1999, the Tallis home has been converted into a hotel. Which gives you an idea of how mega-honking-huge it is.
The second part of the novel is set at the end of May, 1940 in France just after the British Expeditionary Force has had its butt kicked by the Nazis. The BEF is retreating to Dunkirk on the French coast, where they're hoping they'll be picked up and transported back to England.
Dunkirk is often presented as a triumph of sorts. The British government asked individuals with boats to help with the evacuation, and thousands of people with small crafts responded, helping rescue thousands of soldiers.
In Atonement, however, Dunkirk is a giant, chaotic, steaming pile of mess. British soldiers are wandering haplessly around the countryside. The Royal Air Force (RAF) is nowhere to be found, and German fighters drop bombs on tired, hungry, retreating soldiers at will. Officers issue ridiculous orders and there's no food or water. The retreat is less a courageous example of pluck, and more an ill-planned devastating defeat.
The setting itself, and all its "unexpected detail" (2.1)—the boy's leg in the tree, the troops attacking the RAF officer—serves as a kind of criticism, or parody, of Britain's self-image and self-mythology. In a similar way, it contrasts with the first part of the book, where the Tallis family home is supposed to signify both their wealth and the security that supposedly comes with it.
This is also the setting where McEwan gets to get gory and grimy and show you dead bodies and severed limbs and veins in your teeth. McEwan was known as "Ian Macabre" for a while because his early books had yucky details like that. Atonement is much less horror-filmy, but maybe McEwan wanted to throw in just a little gore for his old-school fans.
The third part of the book is set in London, mostly in the hospital where Briony works. Again, here we get to see the horrors of war, this time as wounded soldiers stream in with terrible wounds. This is also the section where we see, by letter, glimpses of Emily Tallis complaining about having to deal with evacuees. The contrast between happy idyllic rich people upset because their gardens are being trampled on and soldiers getting their limbs blown off is not subtle—but hey, who wants subtle all the time?
"Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?"
They had reached the end of the gallery, and with tears of shame she ran off to her own room.
— Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Like Atonement, Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey was a novel about novels. In particular, it was a satire of the Gothic novels popular at the time (1803). In these stories, villainous uncles imprisoned their nieces, husbands murdered wives, and grisly corpses leaned out of closets to shout "booga-booga!"
Catherine, who is mentioned in the epigraph, is Austen's heroine, and she reads bunches and bunches of novels by people like Anne Radcliffe—sort of the Stephen King of her day. Catherine has read so many books about murder and rape and pillage that she ends up deciding that her boyfriend's father has imprisoned or murdered his wife!
He hasn't. Her boyfriend, Mr. Tilney (who speaks the epigraph), discovers her suspicions and tells her she is a dope. Much embarrassment ensues.
The parallel with the plot of Atonement is fairly straightforward. Like Catherine, Briony has false suspicions. And like Catherine, Briony sheds "tears of shame"—in this case, the novel itself—when she discovers her error.
There are some contrasts between Atonement and Northanger Abbey, too. Northanger Abbey is a comedy—Catherine's suspicions are not believed, and no ill comes of them. Briony, on the other hand, destroys multiple lives because of her foolishness.
In addition, Northanger Abbey, in that quote, is very sure of the propriety of the English. "Remember that we are English, that we are Christians… Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them?" Northanger Abbey'sanswer to these questions is, no, the English do not connive at atrocities, and indeed that such atrocities don't really exist.
Atonement is not so sure. On the contrary, the book is filled with atrocities, including rape, false imprisonment, and war. Crimes can absolutely "be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing." From the perspective of Atonement, then, it's not just Catherine who is naïve, but Mr. Tilney too.
So the epigraph gets us set to hear about making things up and feeling embarrassed and Englishness. It also tells us that we're coming into a British novel about British novels, and that much Britishness and novelness is going to ensue.
Atonement is a little more than mid-way up the mountain on the Shmoop tough-o-meter. The book was a bestseller, and it's got a lot of the things you'd expect in a bestseller—a plot that bangs along, a great love story, action, drama, excitement, and a writing style that can be both clear and just literary enough to thump you on the head.
"Finally he spoke the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen." (1.11.66)
Not quite as direct as a pop song, but it's got all the more kick for that.
On the other hand, though, the novel is fairly long and includes a lot of historical detail about England before and during World War II which may be unfamiliar—especially to American audiences. The evacuation of France at Dunkirk, which is the background for Part 2 of the novel, is an iconic event for a British writer like McEwan. But the exact mechanics of how and why the British Expeditionary force had to flee Hitler's army may be a little tricky to follow for those who didn't learn about it over and over in history classes growing up.
McEwan also makes a lot of allusions to other literature—names like Housman and Auden keep popping out of the pages like erudite (that's fancy for well-educated) groundhogs. And, speaking of erudite, McEwan's vocabulary can be pretty tricky at times. He'll use phrases like "pointillist approach to verisimilitude" (4.15), for example. That might set you back at first, but really McEwan's just saying that Briony's putting in a lot of details to make her stories seem real.
The book is something like a puzzle box: Events are shown, then re-shown from someone else's perspective. You never learn which version of an event is "true." This is part of the fun of the novel, though. It's a bit like a mystery, except instead of watching it get solved, you have to be Sherlock Holmes, minus the pipe and funny hat (or not—we'll leave that up to you). Not having Holmes to wrap up all the details in a pretty bow can be frustrating, but it's also satisfying when you figure out how things pop into place—or when you realize that they don't.
Atonement is self-referential… which is a fancy way of saying that it's a book that likes to talk about itself. You can tell this because the biggest, most honking, I-am-a-symbol symbol in the book is the play, The Trials of Arabella. And what does the symbol symbolize? The book you're reading!
In the first paragraph of the book (1.1.1) we see Briony writing her play, The Trials of Arabella, in "a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss breakfast and lunch." In the last pages of the book, Briony finally sees her play performed, some sixty-five years later. Completing the play, then, lasts as long as the book. To get to the end of the one, you've got to get to the end of the other.
And there's more. The plot of The Trials of Arabella has some suspicious similarities to the book you're reading. Arabella, the princess, falls in love with an impoverished doctor—just like Cecilia falls in love with Robbie, who is (ta-daaa!) an impoverished doctor (okay, he's an aspiring doctor, but close enough). The play also features "an impetuous dash toward a seaside town"—and the second part of the novel is devoted to Robbie's dash (not so impetuous) to Dunkirk during the war.
The biggest parallel between play and book, though, is helpfully spelled out for you at the end of the book (thanks Ian McEwan). The play has a happy ending:
Here's the beginning of our love at the end of our travail. / So farewell, kind friends, as into the sunset we sail! (4.41)
Briony, at seventy-seven, after watching the performance, has a little epiphany. "It occurs to me that I have not traveled so very far after all, since I wrote my little play"(4.45), she says. She still wants a happy ending, no matter how contrived, or forced. So she gives Cecilia and her doctor one, just as she gave Arabella and her doctor one. The Trials of Arabella is just like Atonement—except for the ways that they're not. If a theme of Atonement is that fiction and reality don't quite line up, then it makes sense that the symbol and the thing symbolized won't quite match either. Which is why the novel's not called The Trials of Arabella. (Okay, also probably because Atonement sounds snappier.)
So if you check out our discussion of The Trials of Arabella, you'll see we mentioned self-referentiality. In case you haven't checked that part out yet, though, self-referentiality is when a book talks about itself. And how better for a book to self-reference itself than by using books to symbolize the book you're reading? It's a book about a book that talks a whole lot about books.
There are lots of books plumped down hither and yon in that book you've got there called Atonement. You'll find them especially in the vicinity of Robbie. When we see him alone in his room, he's got tons of books scattered about, covering everything from poetry to medicine. Then he picks up the book on landscape gardening he got from Cecilia, "raise[s] the book to his nostrils and inhaled" (1.8.11). A couple of paragraphs later he mentions "the page at which his Anatomy tends to fall open these days"—that page would be the page illustrating female genitalia in case you weren't sure. At the same time as he thinks about his beloved Anatomy, Robbie writes at the end of his letter to Cecilia, "In my dreams... I make love to you all day long" (1.8.15), amongst other even racier things.
For Robbie, Cecilia and books and dreams all run together. This makes sense, since Robbie is himself in a book within a book—Ian McEwan writing about Briony writing about Robbie and Cecilia. No wonder, then, that when Robbie and Cecilia finally come together it's in the library, their story torridly shelved among the stacks of books surrounding them.
After Robbie is sent to prison, he and Cecilia turn to books to express their love and desire for each other in code to elude censors. "So they wrote about literature, and used characters as codes" (2.80), mentioning great literary lovers to stand in for themselves.
And then, "Mention of 'a quiet corner in a library' was a code for sexual ecstasy." After Cecilia and Robbie's romantic rendezvous in the library, libraries (which, you know, are filled with books) become themselves a symbol for love.
So why the obsession with books? Why a novel about novels? Well, we talk about that some in the "Why Should I Care?" section, but maybe the short answer is just that novelists are pretty into books.
If you see a vase in a book, you can bet it's going to break. And sure enough that's the case here, too.
But the vase that Cecilia and Robbie break at the fountain isn't just any broken vase. It's also… a symbol of their love. They break the vase on the day they come together just like their love is broken apart almost before it gets started. Get it?
The vase is a little more complicated than that, though. In fact the vase is not just a symbol but… drum roll please… a self-referential symbol. (Noticing a theme in these symbols? If not, be sure to check out our discussion of books and The Trials of Arabella.)
The vase was originally given to Cecilia's Uncle Clem during World War I by the grateful inhabitants of a French town he had helped to evacuate. The vase is valuable, but we're told it was "respected" not for its beauty or expensiveness, but "for Uncle Clem, and the lives he had saved" (1.2.12). The vase is important, in other words, because of the story that goes along with it.
Clem's isn't the only story that goes with the vase, though. There's also this story, right here, the one you're reading, in which Cecilia takes the vase down to the fountain, and then meets Robbie, and they break it, and then Cecilia takes off her clothes to retrieve the broken pieces.
And we get to see that story over and over. First, we see it through Cecilia's angry eyes (1.2.53), and then we see it again from a distance through Briony's uncomprehending but fascinated stare. We see the story unfold again through Robbie's memory, agonized with desire and love (1.8.2).
When Briony sees the scene, she imagines that she will write it down and "recast" it, "through Cecilia's eyes and then Robbie's" (1.3.28). This is, of course, exactly what happens in the book— Briony is giving us the plan for the novel she'll write and we're reading.
But the recasting doesn't end there. We also see the scene, repeated, in the novella Briony writes, which we have described to us in the rejection letter from her editor. And we finally see how the vase gets broken once and for all in 1940. Betty is carrying it downstairs and says it came apart in her hands, though no one believes her (3.19). We know, however, that the vase had already been broken and mended years earlier by Cecilia, so to us it seems totally possible that it actually did just come apart in Betty's hands. It was bound to fall apart sometime, just like Robbie and Cecilia's love story does when Briony reveals that they both died in the war.
So the vase is a symbol for the story of Robbie and Cecilia, and its falling apart and being put back together only to eventually fall apart mirrors their relationship quite nicely. The vase is also a symbol for symbols more generally, though, and how objects represent the stories we associate with them.
This isn't so much a symbol as a sticky, brown mess stuck onto Paul Marshall. Because Paul Marshall is the kind of guy who should be festooned with sticky brown messes.
Paul makes his fortune from chocolate, of course. Or, more specifically, he makes his fortune selling chocolate to soldiers. The "Amo Bar" is a pun. It sounds like "Ammo," or bullets. But it also references the Latin word for love—presumably because the chocolate will remind soldiers of home. Paul sells chocolate named for love and death—which seems appropriate, considering the fact that he's a rapist.
While they're waiting to be taken back to England from France along with much of the rest of the British army, Robbie and Nettle run into a gypsy woman who offers them food if they'll capture her escaped pig.
The pig is a symbol of sorts for Robbie himself. The woman practically tells him so after they capture it when she says, "My pig will always remind me of you" (2.296). Additionally, Robbie's mother is associated with gypsies—she tells fortunes (which is a stereotypical gypsy thing to do), and Robbie's father appears to have been Romany, or gypsy (see 1.8.8). Furthermore, the woman loves her pig just as Robbie's mother, Grace, loves him. And just as the woman wants her pig back, Grace is somewhere over there in England, praying for Robbie to come home. (In the film, the encounter with the gypsy woman is cut… and replaced by a sequence in which Robbie has a vision of his mother.)
Robbie, who is delirious, seems to more or less understand the connection between the pig and his own predicament. He insists on capturing the escaped critter out of superstition. As he says, he had once believed that stepping on a crack would cause his mother to die—and he hadn't stepped on a crack and his mother hadn't died.
Since the pig is Robbie, and he saves the pig, we should conclude that Robbie survives. And indeed, in the third part of the book we see that Robbie has survived. But then, in the fourth part, we learn that Briony just made that up, and Robbie actually died. Which brings up the obvious question—What about the pig? Did Robbie not really save the pig? Did the episode with the pig "really" happen?
We hope he saved the pig. Pigs are cute.
Luc is a French soldier with a massive head wound who dies in Briony's arms.
He's not just any soldier with a massive head wound, though. He's also, possibly, a symbol of Briony's husband, Thierry, who dies in 1997, two years before the last chapter of the book.
What evidence is there that Luc is Thierry? Well, both men seem to be French (the picture of Thierry was taken in Marseille, and Thierry is a French name). Also, Luc tells Briony in his delirium that he loves her, which prompts Briony to imagine "the unavailable future" in which she would have spent her life with him "loving her in his eager way" (3.218).
It also seems significant that when Briony looks at her husband's picture in the last part of the novel, she immediately thinks "One day I would be asking who he was" (4.23). She has vascular dementia, and shortly she will be detached from memory and the world, just as Luc was when she met him.
If Luc is her husband, and he dies in the novel before they could meet, you might see this as a kind of atonement. In one story, Robbie and Cecilia never get their love, while Briony and her husband get theirs. But when Briony retells the story, Robbie and Cecilia get together, and Briony's love affair is erased before it can begin.
Briony says she likes happy endings, but she's obviously got a thing for tear-jerkers as well.
Atonement is a sneaky ninja book. It has a complicated narrative point of view, which means it's not always clear who is speaking, or where they're coming from. And yes, Briony Tallis is the secret point of view ninja.
Most of the book is in third person. The final part, however, is in first person as told by Briony. In the last part, Briony reveals that the whole book is actually written by her. So everything you read in the book is actually being said by Briony, even though it's in third person.
And, as she also confesses in the last section, sometimes she lies. We guess ninjas aren't necessarily the most reliable narrators.
One of the ways Briony-the-writer lies is that she tells you what other people are thinking, though, of course, she couldn't possibly know for sure. Again, the bulk of the book is in third person… but generally it's in third person limited omniscient, which means that we're usually riding along in one particular person's head. Who this person is, though, switches around.
A couple of times, we end up in Emily Tallis's head (see 1.6), laying in bed with her as she thinks her way out to the rest of the house and considers what is happening there. We're not actually with Emily, though, since Briony wrote the book, so what we're actually privy to is Briony's understanding of Emily's drifting dream of everyone else. Yeesh.
And sometimes—as in part 3, or much of part 1—we're in Briony's head. And you'd think that Briony the old writer would at least know what Briony the child or Briony the young woman thought, but Briony the old writer has already admitted to lying, so all bets are off.
Finally, there are a couple of points in the novel that switch from third-person omniscient to third-person universal. In these sections, the narrator seems to know everything, and often leaps ahead in time to tell you about it.
This happens, for example, in the third paragraph of the novel. Briony's mother has just read The Trials of Arabella, and the narrative tells us, "Briony was hardly to know it then, but this was the project's highest point of fulfillment. Nothing came near it for satisfaction, all else was dreams and frustration." At first, this seems like a universal narrator, speaking from we-don't-know-where. Later on, when we reach the last part of the novel, we realize that this is Briony, the elder, looking back and telling us what happened to her.
But… we also, at the end of the novel, see the triumphant final performance of The Trials of Arabella, which occurs after Briony (in the novel) finished her text of Atonement. So the universal narrator here is actually, as it turns out, wrong. Which just goes to show you can't trust anyone.
Why all these puzzle box narrators within narrators, with various consciousnesses popping out at you like ninja-jack-in-the-boxes, all sneaky and bouncy and confused? Well, part of the reason seems to be that Briony is fascinated with seeing into other people's minds. "She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive" (1.3.24), she muses excitedly at one point. As a child, and later as an author, she loves trying to figure out what other people are thinking. So, naturally enough, her book is filled with her trying to figure out what other people are thinking.
The other reason for the point of view ninjaness, though, is that Atonement is (as we've also mentioned in the "Symbols" section) self-referential. It's about itself, and about the process of imagining and creating novels. So you get imaginings within imaginings, minds making minds making minds.
In the end, Briony seems to feel that she's failed—no matter how many minds she makes, they're all in her mind after all. "[A] novelist… is also God," she says sadly. "There is nothing outside her. In her imagination, she has set the limits and the terms" (4.46). But has she? Who is writing those words? Briony? But she's a character too. Who's writing about her? And, for that matter, who's writing about you? At the end of Atonement, we sort of end up looking over our shoulders to try to figure out which ninja, or God, has us in its point of view.