Study Guide

Cecilia Tallis in Atonement

By Ian McEwan

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Cecilia Tallis

Cecilia Tallis, Briony's older sister, totally doesn't know what she's doing. She comes back from college in 1935 and she flops and mopes and smokes around the house like some sort of morbid adolescent. Her brother asks her to come up to London with her, and she hems and haws and burbles. She switches dresses three times before going down to dinner. When her mother tells her to put some flowers in a vase, she takes all day about it.

And then she breaks the vase when she has an argument with her childhood friend Robbie Turner.

And then she's so mad at him that she takes off her clothes and dives into the fountain to retrieve the broken pieces of the vase. "Drowning herself would be his punishment" (1.2.54)!

Wait… what was that last bit again? She's mad at him… so she takes her clothes off? Yeesh. Kids those days.

In Love

Probably most of you can figure out where this is going: Cecilia doesn't know what she's doing because she's got one very particular thing she's not telling herself. That thing, as you've probably guessed by now, is that she's head over heels in love with her childhood friend Robbie Turner. Hence the not leaving home for London, the moping around the house, the stripping off her clothes to jump in the fountain.

Luckily, Robbie's behaving a little erratically as well, and he accidentally sends her a note that he meant to destroy because he mentions some of his X-rated fantasies concerning her. Cecilia responds not with horror, but by suddenly realizing that she's got those X-rated fantasies herself. "…how could I have been so ignorant about myself? And so stupid?" (1.11.61) she asks herself. We were kind of wondering the same thing.

The answer's simple enough: love makes you stupid sometimes. And for what it's worth, once Cecilia figures everything out, she doesn't hesitate at all. One page the light bulb goes on, the next she's pulling Robbie into the library for a steamy make-out session and repeating after him "the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen" (1.11.66).

Happiness ensues!

And The Sad Bit

Of course, happiness does not ensue. Instead, Cecilia has no sooner figured out what she wants to do with her life than that life is destroyed. Robbie is accused of raping Lola and dragged off to prison… and that's that. Her life begins and ends within a matter of hours. It's pretty tragic.

The rest of Cecilia's story is a long epilogue. After the first section of the novel, we never get to hear Cecilia's thoughts again—we're never in her consciousness. We see her only through Robbie's memories of her letters or through Briony's eyes. We know she breaks with her family for their role in prosecuting Robbie. We know she becomes a nurse, and through Briony we see something of her confidence and her bitterness about this role. We know she never forgets Robbie, and we know that when he was taken away by the police she said, "I'll wait for you," and that she signed her letters the same way (2.180). Importantly, we also know that she follows through on her promise and waits.

But we never really find out what that waiting feels like. It's as if Briony, who we learn is the writer of the novel, couldn't bear to peep inside her sister's head. She couldn't make herself see what exactly became of that girl who didn't know herself well and, once she finally did, promptly watched that self disappear.

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