Study Guide

Atonement Quotes

  • Sex

    Chapter 1

    He rolled onto his side, eyes fixed and unseeing, and indulged a cinema fantasy; she pounded against his lapels before yielding with a little sob to the safe enclosure of his arms and letting herself be kissed; she didn't forgive him, she simply gave up. He watched this several times before he returned to what was real; she was angry with him […] (1.8.4)

    There's a contrast here between Cecilia yielding, which is false, and Cecilia angry, which is true. But… we find out later that Cecilia isn't really angry, even if she thinks she is, and we see her yielding. With sex, as with everything else in the novel, truth and fiction are hard to pin down.

    He had been about to conjure for her a private moment of exuberance, a passing impatience with convention, a memory of reading the Orioli edition of Lady Chatterly's Lover, which he had bought under the counter in Soho. (1.11.50)

    Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawrence is a famously dirty book, and the Orioli edition was the uncensored version. The novel is giving a shout out to some of the most famous sex scenes in literature before getting on with its own (sole) steamy scene.

    His experience was limited and he knew only at second hand that they need not lie down. As for her, beyond all the films she had seen, and all the novels and lyrical poems she had read, she had no experience at all. Despite these limitations, it did not surprise them how clearly they knew their own needs. (1.11.65)

    Up until now, we've mostly seen people thinking about sex by reading or imagining—always through second-hand encounters. Here, though, the novel suggests that those second-hand versions of sex are pretty second-rate. They don't actually help Cecilia and Robbie much at all, but at the same time, they sort things out just fine. There's some irony here, though, since this scene is itself a scene within a book (within a book). If Cecilia had somehow read it before her library rendezvous with Robbie, would it have provided useful information?

    A drop of water on her upper arm. Wet. An embroidered flower, a simple daisy, sewn between the cups of her bra. Her breasts wide apart and small. On her back a mole half covered by a strap. When she climbed out of the pond, a glimpse of the triangular darkness her knickers were supposed to conceal. Wet. He saw it, he made himself see it again. The way her pelvic bones stretched the material clear of her skin, the deep curve of her waist, her startling whiteness. (1.8.2)

    This is Robbie remembering Cecilia coming out of the fountain in her underwear. It's important that we see his perspective in retrospect; that is, we don't hear his thoughts at the time, but only later. Cecilia becomes an image, or a character, in his mind. Sex is about stories as much as acts (which is why the act is set in the library, perhaps).

    Cecilia Tallis

    Cecilia felt a pleasant sinking sensation in her stomach as she contemplated how deliciously self-destructive it would be, almost erotic, to be married to a man so nearly handsome, so hugely rich, so unfathomably stupid. He would fill her with his big-faced children, all of them loud, boneheaded boys with a passion for guns and football and aeroplanes. (1.4.36)

    We never actually hear Cecilia express sexual desire for Robbie—the library scene is all from his perspective, not hers. That means the only person we hear her kind-of sort-of lust after is Paul, who she thinks is so awful that it would be "almost erotic" to marry him. Maybe this "deliciously self-destructive" impulse is what draws Lola to Paul as well?

    Lola Quincey

    "How appalling for you. The man's a maniac."

    A maniac. The word had refinement, and the weight of medical diagnosis. All these years she had known him and that was what he had been. (1.10.34-35)

    Lola labels Robbie a maniac just after she's been assaulted by the actual maniac, Paul. Briony is excited to have the right word. She loves words, remember. You wonder if she accused Robbie just because she's so excited to have her vocabulary confirmed.

    Paul Marshall

    "Bite it," he said softly. "You've got to bite it."

    It cracked loudly as it yielded to her unblemished incisors, and there was revealed the white edge of the sugar shell, and the dark chocolate beneath it. It was then they heard a woman calling up the stairs from the floor below [...]

    Lola was laughing through her mouthful of Amo. "There's Betty looking for you. Bathtime! Run along now. Run along." (1.5.74-76)

    Paul urges Lola to eat his chocolate bar. It's not stated explicitly, but this is probably the moment before Paul's first attack on Lola. Remember from the discussion of chocolate in the "Symbols" section that Amo is linked to both violence and sex or love. Paul urging Lola to eat the chocolate is the closest we get to seeing the rape. It's one of the queasiest scenes in the book (and also one of the queasiest scenes in the 2007 film).

    Robbie Turner

    Then, after a few moments' reverie, tilted back on his chair, during which time he thought about the page at which his Anatomy tended to fall open these days, he dropped forward and typed before he could stop himself, "In my dreams I kiss your cunt, you sweet, wet cunt. In my thoughts I make love to you all day long." (1.8.15)

    The implication is that his Anatomy keeps opening to the page showing the female genitalia. Sex for Robbie is self-reflective; he thinks about it through books and words and dreams. Is sex self-reflective for Paul? It doesn't seem to be. The thing that is supposed to make Robbie a sex maniac, then—the fact that he thinks about sex—could be seen as the exact thing that makes him not a maniac.

    Chapter 2
    Robbie Turner

    In love with her, willing himself to stay sane for her, he was naturally in love with her words […] During his time inside, the only female visitor he was permitted was his mother. In case he was inflamed, they said […] He had been diagnosed, with clinical precision, as morbidly oversexed, and in need of help as well as correction. He was not to be stimulated. Some letters—both his and hers—were confiscated for some timid expression of affection. So they wrote about literature, and used characters as codes […] Mention of "a quiet corner in a library" was a code for sexual ecstasy. (2.80)

    Robbie is in love with Cecilia's words. At the same time, the library where they had sex among the books becomes a literary code for sex. Who knew reading a novel could be so exciting?

    Chapter 3
    Lola Quincey

    Poor vain and vulnerable Lola, with the pearl-studded choker and the rosewater scent, who longed to throw off the last restraints of childhood, who saved herself from humiliation by falling in love, or persuading herself she had, and who could not believe her luck when Briony insisted on doing the talking and blaming. And what luck that was for Lola—barely more than a child, prized open and taken—to marry her rapist. (3.260)

    We mentioned this quote in the "Coming of Age" theme as well. Sex and coming of age are often connected. Usually, having sex is seen as one way that people grow up, and there's some of that in this novel too (Robbie and Cecilia both feel transformed by their sexual encounter, for instance). But this quote suggests that the two can be linked in other ways too. Specifically, wanting to grow up makes Lola confused about both sex and love. Sex doesn't make her an adult. Rather, wanting to be an adult, or being caught between adulthood and childhood, makes her unable to see Paul's thuggishness as thuggishness. In some ways, Paul's rape traps her as a child forever. Because of his assault, she ends up living her life based on a crush she convinced herself she had when she was fifteen.

  • Family

    Chapter 1
    Briony Tallis

    There was, of course, much that she did not know about Cecilia. But there would be time, for this tragedy was bound to bring them closer. (1.14.43)

    Briony is thinking that jailing Robbie will bring her and Cecilia closer together. That would be a major, gigantic, unfixable error on her part, and the impetus for Briony beginning her novel.

    Briony knew that if she had traveled two hundred miles to a strange house, bright questions and jokey asides, and being told in a hundred different ways that she was free to choose, would have oppressed her. It was not generally realized that what children mostly wanted was to be left alone. (1.1.13)

    Briony is talking about her cousins, who have just arrived. They probably do want to be left alone to some degree, but at the same time they've also just left home because their parents are divorcing. So in that sense they probably wish that they hadn't been left so alone.

    Cecilia Tallis

    She had returned from Cambridge with a vague notion that her family was owed an uninterrupted stretch of her company. But her father remained in town, and her mother, when she wasn't nurturing her migraines, seemed distant, even unfriendly. (1.2.6)

    Cecilia is being a teenager. She doesn't know what to do with herself, she can't get along with her parents, she's sneaking cigarettes every chance she gets. It would all be sort of funny if her family didn't ruin her life a couple hundred pages down the road…

    Grace Turner was happy to take care of his laundry—how else, beyond hot meals, to show mother love when her only baby was twenty-three—but Robbie preferred to shine his own shoes. (1.8.17)

    Grace Turner doesn't get a lot of screen time in the novel. As a parent, though, she comes off way better than Emily or Hermione or Jack.

    Even being lied to constantly, though hardly like love, was sustained attention; he must care about her to fabricate so elaborately and over such a long stretch of time. His deceit was a form of tribute to the importance of their marriage. (1.12.6)

    Emily is thinking about Jack's affair, and convincing herself that he cares about her because he's willing to construct elaborate lies about his infidelity for her. Who else in the novel shows they care by constructing elaborate fictions? Jack's youngest daughter, perhaps?

    He paused to gather his courage. "It's a divorce!"

    Pierrot and Lola froze. The word had never been used in front of the children, and never uttered by them. The soft consonants suggested an unthinkable obscenity, the sibilant ending whispered the family's shame. Jackson himself looked distraught as the word left him, but no wishing could bring it back now, and for all he could tell, saying it out loud was as great a crime as the act itself, whatever that was. (1.5.8)

    Divorce would have been much less common in the 1930s, when this book is set. It's seen as an embarrassment, and as a result nobody has apparently explained it to the kids—not even (we learn a few sentences later) to fifteen-year-old Lola.

    How could anyone presume to know the world through the eyes of an insect? Not everything had a cause, and pretending otherwise was an interference in the workings of the world that was futile, and could even lead to grief. Some things were simply so.

    She did not wish to know why Jack spent so many consecutive nights in London. Or rather, she did not wish to be told. (1.12.7-8)

    Emily thinks that imagination is dangerous and that it's bad for families. Briony proves her right, in some sense—she certainly messes up her family by "interfering in the workings of the world." At the same time, though, if Emily had had a little more imagination, and been willing to interfere a little more, maybe she could have prevented some of what happened?

    Chapter 2
    Robbie Turner

    Nearly every man here had a father who remembered northern France, or was buried in it. He wanted such a father, dead or alive. […] Rootless, therefore futile. He wanted a father, and for the same reason, he wanted to be a father. It was common enough, to see so much death and want a child. Common, therefore human, and he wanted it all the more. When the wounded were screaming, you dreamed of sharing a little house somewhere, of an ordinary life, a family line, connection. (2.244)

    Robbie at war imagines a stable family life. There's something ironic about this though, since the Tallises' ordinary family life basically destroyed him. Still, you can hardly blame the guy for wanting to get out of France. And the Tallis family house, for all its problems, certainly looks like an appealing place to be from the middle of a war.

    Cecilia Tallis

    "They turned on you, all of them, even my father. When they wrecked your life they wrecked mine. They chose to believe the evidence of a silly, hysterical little girl. In fact, they encouraged her by giving her no room to turn back. She was a young thirteen, I know, but I never want to speak to her again. As for the rest of them, I can never forgive what they did. Now that I've broken away, I'm beginning to understand the snobbery that lay behind their stupidity. My mother never forgave you your first. My father preferred to lose himself in his work. Leon turned out to be a grinning, spineless idiot who went along with everyone else." (2.91)

    Cecilia's view of Leon here is very different than her view earlier in the novel (for an example see 1.9.66). His easy-going, see-the-best-of-everyone attitude turns out to look a whole lot of spinelessness in the face of crisis. And everyone else comes off horribly as well. This is the one-paragraph case for the prosecution against the Tallis family. It seems fairly damning.

    Chapter 4
    Briony Tallis

    How delightful to be at the heart of such a good-willed reunion. […] We ranged in age from three months to [Leon's] eighty-nine years. And what a din of voices, from gruff to shrill, as the waiters came round with more champagne and lemonade. The aging children of distant cousins greeted me like long-lost friends. (4.34)

    The end of the novel has the happy, cheerful family scenes that the beginning mostly lacks. The family here is a cheerful, bustling affair, rather than a big clump of resentment and jealousy and frustration. Maybe the younger generation of Tallises is just happier, or maybe families look less tense when you're looking at them from the perspective of a seventy-seven-year-old great-aunt than when you look at them from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old.

  • Dreams, Hopes and Plans

    Chapter 1
    Briony Tallis

    Cecilia was not inclined to help—it was too hot, and whatever she did, the project would end in calamity, with Briony expecting too much, and no one, especially the cousins, able to measure up to her frenetic vision. (1.2.6)

    Cecilia knows her sister well…

    But hidden drawers, lockable diaries and cryptographic systems could not conceal from Briony the simple truth: she had no secrets. Her wish for a harmonious, organized world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing. (1.1.6)

    Briony is a big old neat freak. You don't often think of neatness as a kind of hope or plan—but this quote suggests that maybe it is. Briony wants—or hopes or dreams for—a world with all the beds made and all the dishes washed. Which puts limits on what she can do, and also results in some horrible messes.

    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. There were moments in the summer dusk after her light was out, when she burrowed in the delicious gloom of her canopy bed, and made her heart thud with luminous, yearning fantasies, little playlets in themselves, every one of which featured Leon. (1.1, 3)

    The first thing we learn at the beginning of the book is that Briony is writing a play. Just about the next thing we learn is that the production isn't going to live up to her hopes. This is a subtle signal that… life is filled with disappointment and despair.

    Cecilia Tallis

    This time she paused to peer out of the window at the dusk and wonder where her sister was. Drowned in the lake, ravished by gypsies, struck by a passing motorcar, she thought ritually, a sound principle being that nothing was ever as one imagined it, and this was an efficient means of excluding the worst. (1.9, 1.28)

    Cecilia is, by the novel's lights, correct—nothing is ever as you imagine it, and every time you imagine something (like Briony thinking the rapist is Robbie, or Cecilia thinking it's Danny Hardman) you're wrong. Unfortunately, Cecilia imagining that imagining will exclude the worst is also wrong. Briony is not drowned in the lake… but she will accuse Cecilia's boyfriend of rape and ruin everybody's lives. Cecilia wasn't counting on that.

    "Our dad says there isn't going to be a war."

    "Well, he's wrong."

    Marshall sounded a little testy, and Lola said reassuringly, "Perhaps there will be one."

    He smiled up at her. (1.5, 1.64-67)

    Jackson and Pierrot are telling Paul Marshall that there may not be a war. Paul is cranky because if there's no war, he can't sell all his chocolate bars. In this book, though, Paul gets everything he wants, so the world is plunged into war and millions suffer and die, all so Paul can have his dream come true and sell chocolate bars. Jerk.

    Robbie Turner

    He thought of himself in 1962, at fifty, when he would be old, but not quite old enough to be useless, and of the weathered, knowing doctor he would be by then, with the secret stories, the tragedies and successes stacked behind him. (1.8.44)

    This is Robbie imagining his future life as a doctor. Since Robbie is not Paul Marshall, imagining a happy future and making plans seals his doom. Rather than healing people, he dies of infection. Which seems really like an excessively cruel punishment for not being Paul Marshall.

    Chapter 2

    They could never be counted, the dreamed-up children, mentally conceived on the walk into Dunkirk, and later made flesh. (2.244)

    Robbie is with the British retreat, and he's thinking about how all the men around him are thinking of how they want to get home and have kids. This is one of the few plans not by Paul Marshall which comes true: Many of the people who think about kids end up actually getting back to England and having kids. Robbie doesn't—but somebody does. There's also a nice suggestion here that kids themselves are hopes and dreams and plans, like babies are little imagined stories that come true. And there are a lot of kids milling around in the last section of the novel, remember—all of Briony's nieces and nephews and cousins. So maybe the book isn't entirely a downer.

    That he could be cleared had all the simplicity of love. Merely tasting the possibility reminded him how much had narrowed and died. His taste for life, no less, all the old ambitions and pleasures. The prospect was of a rebirth, a triumphant return. He could become again the man who had once crossed a Surrey park at dusk in his best suit, swaggering on the promise of life […] (2.181)

    This is a doubly doomed plan. In the first place, legally, a court wouldn't care if Briony went back on her testimony. And, in the second place, Robbie gets killed before she can recant anyway. The only rebirth he gets is in imagination—first his own, and then Briony's novel.

    Robbie Turner

    He intended to survive, he had one good reason to survive, and he didn't care whether they tagged along or not. (2.12)

    Again, Robbie is punished for (a) planning and (b) not being Paul Marshall. There's a trend here…

    Chapter 3
    Briony Tallis

    She could still hear his voice, the way he said Tallis, turning it into a girl's name. She imagined the unavailable future—the boulangerie in a narrow shady street swarming with skinny cats, piano music from an upstairs window, her giggling sisters-in-law teasing her about her accent, and Luc Cornet, loving her in his eager way. (3.218)

    This is a little tricky. It's Briony dreaming of life with the French soldier, Luc, who dies in her arms at the hospital. So it's his dream (he mistook her for his fiancée) which never comes true. But… Briony does actually marry, and the suggestion is that she marries a French husband (Thierry). So the dream kind of does come true, maybe. We don't ever really get to see the happy ending, but it's nice to know that maybe it's out there.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    Chapter 1
    Cecilia Tallis

    She said, "Briony read it."

    "Oh God. I'm sorry."

    He had been about to conjure for her a private moment of exuberance [….] But this new element — the innocent child — put his lapse beyond mitigation. It would have been frivolous to go on. He could only repeat himself, this time in a whisper.

    "I'm sorry…" (1.11.48-51)

    Cecilia's telling Robbie that Briony read his X-rated note. Robbie's thinking his sin is unforgivable. He doesn't know from unforgivable sins, though. Briony, who remember is writing this novel, knows. That's irony, there, again.

    Briony Tallis

    Briony's immediate feeling was one of relief that the boys were safe. But as she looked at Robbie waiting calmly, she experienced a flash of outrage. Did he believe he could conceal his crime behind an apparent kindness, behind this show of being the good shepherd? This was surely a cynical attempt to win forgiveness for what could never be forgiven. (1.14.40)

    That last sentence about it being a cynical attempt to win forgiveness for what could never be forgiven? You could argue that that's what Briony's novel is.

    […] Briony was touched by her sister's capacity for forgiveness, if this was what it was. Forgiveness. The word had never meant a thing before, though Briony had heard it exulted at a thousand school and church occasions. And all the time her sister had understood. (1.14.43)

    Double back flip irony here. Briony is watching her sister say goodbye to Robbie after he's been arrested. So, in the first place, Cecilia is not forgiving Robbie—she doesn't think he's done anything wrong. And in the second place, Cecilia is actually not particularly interested in forgiveness, as we'll see later in the book.

    Looking at the boys…she knew they could never understand her ambition. Forgiveness softened her tone. (1.1.22)

    This is probably the first mention of forgiveness in the novel, and it's Briony forgiving Jackson and Pierrot, rather than anyone forgiving Briony. She's kind of condescending about it though, isn't she? She figures she can understand them but they can't understand her. If the novel is about forgiveness and compassion, this maybe isn't as great of a start as it looks at first.

    Chapter 2
    Cecilia Tallis

    But I get the impression she's taken on nursing as a sort of penance. She wants to come and see me and talk. I might have this wrong, and that's why I was going to wait and go through this with you face to face, but I think she wants to recant. I think she wants to change her evidence and do it officially or legally. […] She might not think what I think she does, or she might not be prepared to see it through. Remember what a dreamer she is. (2.98)

    This is a letter from Cecilia to Robbie. Remember: In the novel, Briony is supposed to have read these letters after Cecilia and Robbie died as part of the research for her novel. So imagine reading a letter in which your sister talked about you like that. "Remember what a dreamer she is." Ouch.

    Briony Tallis

    But he did not think his resentment of her could ever be erased. Yes, she was a child at the time, and he did not forgive her. He would never forgive her. That was the lasting damage. (2.217)

    It's interesting that the "lasting damage" here is not the being thrown in prison and then having to go off to war and losing your career and being separated from the love of your life. The "lasting damage" is being unable to forgive.

    Chapter 3
    Briony Tallis

    "What I did was terrible. I don't expect you to forgive me."

    "Don't worry about that," she said soothingly, and in the second or two during which she drew deeply on her cigarette, Briony flinched as her hopes lifted unreally. "Don't worry," her sister resumed. "I won't ever forgive you." (3.359-360)

    Cecilia is harsh. As a side note, the 2007 movie flubs this line. In the film, there's no pause between the "don't worry about that" and the "I won't ever forgive you." You lose the whole sting, that way.

    But there was one thing she had not said.

    She spoke slowly. "I'm very, very sorry. I've caused you such terrible distress." They continued to stare at her, and she repeated herself. "I'm very sorry."

    It sounded so foolish and inadequate, as though she had knocked over a favorite houseplant, or forgotten a birthday.

    Robbie said softly, "Just do all the things we've asked."

    It was almost conciliatory, that "just," but not quite, not yet. (3.460-464)

    This is the scene where Briony apologizes to Robbie and Cecilia. Remember, this scene probably never happened. Briony never saw Robbie again, and didn't have the backbone (as she says) to go and see Cecilia after he died. So it's sort of the emotional climax or center of the novel, but it never occurs. Also notice that they don't actually forgive Briony for what she did.

    Chapter 4
    Briony Tallis

    I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me. Not quite, not yet. If I had the power to conjure them at my birthday celebration…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. (4.47)

    The "not yet" here echoes the "not yet" in the scene where Briony apologizes to Cecilia and Robbie. It's not clear, though, what future time Briony is looking towards. When are they going to forgive her? Is she hoping for forgiveness after death? Or maybe she's just not willing to admit it's all over?

    The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. (4.46)

    This is the bit where the author of the novel (Briony and/or McEwan) tells you what it's all about. How do you atone when you're God? But… is that really what it's about? Is this only applicable to authors? Are they the only ones who have trouble atoning? Briony doesn't always exactly say what she means, remember (and when she does she sometimes wishes she didn't).

  • Versions of Reality

    Chapter 1

    When the twins came back, it was a certain bet that Lola would still have to be found. Bound by an iron principle of self-love, she would stay out longer in the darkness, wrapping herself in some fabricated misfortune, so that the general relief when she appeared would be all the more intense, and all the attention would be hers. (1.12.5)

    This is Emily Tallis thinking mean thoughts about her niece Lola, because she reminds her of her sister, Hermione. Emily imagines that Lola will fabricate misfortune to hog all the attention. The truth, though, is that Lola really does come to misfortune. The made-up version of reality isn't Lola's, but Emily's.

    In Leon's life, or rather, in his account of his life, no one was mean-spirited, no one schemed or lied or betrayed. Everyone was celebrated at least in some degree, as though it was a cause for wonder that anyone existed at all. He remembered all his friends' best lines. The effect of one of Leon's anecdotes was to make his listener warm to humankind and its failings. (1.9.66)

    Leon has one of the nicest versions of reality around. But… it's because he sees the best in everyone that he's friends with Paul Marshall and brings him to stay with his family. Even thinking the best of everyone has its downside, as it turns out.

    Now there was nothing left of the dumb show by the fountain beyond what survived in memory, in three separate and overlapping memories. The truth had become as ghostly as invention. (1.3.16)

    Briony is remembering the scene at the fountain, and also imagining Robbie and Cecilia remembering the scene at the fountain. She realizes that everybody has their own story going on in their own head, which means that everybody has their own version of reality. There's no one truth, so fact is just as much of a ghost as fiction. Briony finds this liberating and exciting. Having fiction treated as fact doesn't go so well for Robbie, though.

    Briony Tallis

    "It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value." (1.3.24)

    This quote connects a number of themes—versions of reality, compassion, and writing. Writing is the way you acknowledge others's versions of reality and, in doing so, treat them with compassion. Briony's false accusation of Robbie seems to negate this insight—but the novel itself, Atonement, seems to be trying to fulfill it.

    That the word had been written by a man confessing to an image in his mind, confiding a lonely preoccupation, disgusted her profoundly. (1.10.107)

    The word Briony is referring to is the X-rated one that Robbie accidentally wrote to Cecilia. Briony sometimes thinks it's thrilling that other people have their own ideas and stories, but she also finds it off-putting. She seems as disgusted by the fact that Robbie's got images in his mind as by what those images are. The fact that he thinks freaks her out.

    She was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so. (1.1.4)

    Briony wants to have the world just so… and the version of reality she gives us in the novel is just so in many ways. The book is very carefully structured in its own right, and we eventually learn that she's cleaned up the ending too. Even if she hadn't though, fiction is almost always neater than fact.

    So many decent people could not be wrong, and doubts like hers, she's been told, are to be expected. Briony did not wish to cancel the whole arrangement. She did not think she had the courage, after all her initial certainty and two or three days of patient, kindly interviewing, to withdraw her evidence. However, she would have preferred to qualify, or complicate, her use of the word "saw." Less like seeing, more like knowing. Then she could have left it to her interrogators to decide whether they would proceed together in the name of this kind of vision. (1.13.51)

    Briony gets tangled up in what happened outside her head and what happened inside it. Which is sort of understandable, since she's thirteen and in a traumatic and scary situation. The problem is that the adults involved also get confused as to what is happening in their heads and what might have happened outside their heads. The version of reality that traps Robbie isn't just—or even mostly—Briony's. That's why Cecilia is so mad at her parents.

    Chapter 2
    Cecilia Tallis

    Yes, and by the way, she also said that she's had a piece of writing turned down by Cyril Connelly at Horizon. So at least someone can see through her wretched fantasies. (2.100)

    This is Cecilia writing to Robbie. She's arguing that Briony's writing is stupid and fantastic and unreal because it comes from the same place as her accusation of Robbie. Would Cecilia have liked Atonement if she'd read it? From this quote, it seems like probably not.

    Robbie Turner

    Periodically, something slipped. Some everyday principle of continuity, the humdrum element that told him where he was in his own story, faded from his use, abandoning him to a waking dream in which there were thoughts, but no sense of who was having them. No responsibility, no memory of the hours before, no idea of what he was about, where he was going, what his plan was. And no curiosity about these matters. (2.258)

    Robbie is delirious here, and reality is drifting away from him. In other words, he's losing touch with his story, or his version of reality. This is what's going to happen to Briony, too, we learn at the end. Vascular dementia is going to erase her memories, and leave her adrift.

    For three years she must have nurtured a feeling for him, kept it hidden, nourished it with fantasy or embellished it in her stories. She was the sort of girl who lived in her thoughts. The drama by the river might have been enough to sustain her all that time. (2.216)

    Here Robbie remembers a crush Briony had on him, and wonders if that's the reason that she accused him. Briony herself suggests it was not (3.412). If Briony's telling the truth (emphasis on if), then Robbie's falsely accusing her as she falsely accused him. Except… Briony is writing this, remember. How does she know what Robbie thought of her? She may just be making it up—which means she's falsely accusing him of falsely accusing her…

    Chapter 3
    Briony Tallis

    […] Briony already sensed that the parallel life, which she could imagine so easily from her visits to Cambridge as a child to see Leon and Cecilia, would soon begin to diverge from her own. This was her student life now, these four years, this enveloping regime, and she had no will, no freedom to leave. (3.16)

    Briony's imagining two different versions of her life. In one (which she actually pursued) she became a nurse; in the other she went to Cambridge. Note that, though she says one life disappears, it isn't exactly gone. She's writing about it—it's still in the book. Is the life she didn't lead really less "real" than the life she did leave? Both are just stories in a novel, right? Which is the case for Robbie and Cecilia too. They only live in fiction—but they only died in fiction too.

    Chapter 4
    Briony Tallis

    I worked in three hospitals […] and I merged them in my description to concentrate all my experiences into one place. A convenient distortion, and the least of my offenses against veracity. (4.7)

    Briony is saying she's told worse lies. She may be referring to the fact that in her novel she says that Robbie and Cecilia didn't die, but she also might be referring to the way she accused Robbie in the first place.

  • Coming of Age

    Chapter 1
    Briony Tallis

    And though it horrified her, it was another entry, a moment of coming into being, another first: to be hated by an adult. Children hated generously, capriciously. It hardly mattered. But to be the object of adult hatred was an initiation into a solemn new world. It was promotion. (1.13.3)

    This is after Briony has interrupted Robbie and Cecilia in the library, but before she's falsely accused him of rape. So he doesn't actually hate her yet; he just thinks she's annoying. It's almost like wanting him to hate her makes him hate her, though. Imagining it makes it so, sort of. (See also the "Dreams, Hopes, and Plans" theme.)

    Briony spoke with adult calm. "That's pretty strong, coming from you."

    "Meaning what?"

    That, Robbie knew, was not the question to ask. At this stage in her life Briony inhabited an ill-defined transitional space between the nursery and adult worlds which she crossed and recrossed unpredictably. In the present situation she was less dangerous as an indignant little girl. (1.11, 1.84-86)

    And one more time with the irony. Robbie doesn't know just how dangerous Briony is as a semi-adult person who knows whatever happened in the library wasn't right but doesn't quite know why. Incidentally, it's Cecilia who says, "Meaning what?" For full effect, read it out loud as sneeringly as possible, as if your little sister just interrupted the most important moment of your life but you're at the dinner table and aren't allowed to throttle her.

    Briony felt the disadvantage of being two years younger than the other girl, of having a full two years' refinement weigh against her, and now her play seemed a miserable, embarrassing thing. (1.1.36)

    The sign that Briony is growing up here is actually that she's embarrassed that she's not grown up. If she were a bit younger, she wouldn't even care about being refined. It's being stuck in between that's the killer.

    The very complexity of her feeling confirmed Briony in her view that she was entering an arena of adult emotion and dissembling from which her writing was bound to benefit. (1.10.1)

    Again with the irony. This quote is right after Briony reads the note with the dirty words from Robbie to her sister, and decides he's a bad guy, leading her to accuse him of rape later on. This ruins his life, and gives her the subject for her novel. So her writing does benefit. Joy to her.

    Her sandals revealed an ankle bracelet and toenails painted vermilion. The sight of these nails gave Briony a constricting sensation around her sternum, and she knew at once that she could not ask Lola to play the Prince. (1.1.5)

    Lola is fifteen going on twenty-five. She can't play a prince because she's already working so hard at playing a princess. Briony, meanwhile, is freaked out by the slightest suggestion of sexuality. All of which is going to cause problems down the road…

    Robbie Turner

    Robbie stared at the woman, the girl he had always known, thinking the change was entirely in himself, and was as fundamental, as fundamentally biological, as birth. She returned his gaze, struck by the sense of her own transformation, and overwhelmed by the beauty in a face which a lifetime's habit had taught her to ignore. She whispered his name with the deliberation of a child trying out the distinct sounds. (1.11.66)

    Sex as coming-of-age ritual. Not exactly original, but tried and true. Plus, Robbie and Cecilia are cute together. There's no denying that.

    One word contained everything he felt, and explained why he was to dwell on this moment later. Freedom. In his life as in his limbs. Long ago, before he had even heard of grammar schools, he was entered for an exam that led him to one. Cambridge, much as he enjoyed it, was the choice of his ambitious headmaster. Even his subject was effectively chosen for him by a charismatic teacher. Now, finally, with the exercise of will, his adult life had begun. There was a story he was plotting with himself as the hero, and already its opening had caused a little shock among his friends. (1.8.42)

    This is bat-you-over-the-head-and-make-you-cry-in-your-milk irony, here. Robbie dwells on the word "freedom" later because later he's in jail. He doesn't get to choose a profession; he doesn't get to start his adult life. Though he does get a story with himself as the hero, it's not plotted by him, and it's a tragedy, not an adventure. It does cause a shock among his friends, though. At least he's right about that.

    Chapter 3
    Robbie Turner

    "Do you think I assaulted your cousin?"


    "Did you think it then?

    She fumbled her words. "Yes, yes and no. I wasn't certain."

    "And what's made you so certain now?

    She hesitated, conscious that in answering she would be offering a form of defense, a rationale, and that it might enrage him further.

    "Growing up." […]

    She had been right to be wary. He was gripped by a kind of anger that passes itself off as wonderment.

    "Growing up," he echoed. When he raised his voice she jumped. "Goddamnit! You're eighteen. How much growing up do you need to do? There are soldiers dying in the field at eighteen. Old enough to be left to die on the roads. Did you know that?"

    "Yes." (3.405-415)

    Robbie intends this to mean that if soldiers are old enough to die at eighteen, then Briony is past old enough to take responsibility for her actions. It does raise the question though—should 18-year-olds really be sent off to war? Briony maybe makes the soldiers seem too young, rather than the other way round.

    Briony Tallis

    Poor vain and vulnerable Lola, with the pearl-studded choker and the rosewater scent, who longed to throw off the last restraints of childhood, who saved herself from humiliation by falling in love, or persuading herself she had, and who could not believe her luck when Briony insisted on doing the talking and blaming. And what luck that was for Lola—barely more than a child, prized open and taken—to marry her rapist. (3.260)

    What "humiliation" is Lola saved from exactly? We think the humiliation might have to do with old-fashioned ideas about female purity and the idea that a woman who wasn't a virgin wasn't marriage material. What do you think? It's hard to say for sure, because remember that we're only getting Briony's impression of what Lola thinks. In a lot of ways, the choices Lola makes on her way to growing up remain a mystery.

    Chapter 4
    Briony Tallis

    I was haunted by the thought of Lola […] She was always the superior older girl, one step ahead of me. But in that final important matter, I will be ahead of her, while she'll live on to be a hundred. I will not be able to publish in my lifetime. (4.24)

    Remember that Emily Tallis never grows out of her dislike for her sister (Lola's mother) Hermione. Here Briony, at seventy-seven, still seems stuck in her childhood relationship to Lola, at least to some extent. Both Lola and Briony desperately wanted to grow up, but even pushing 80, they're still the same little girls in some ways.

  • Literature and Writing

    Chapter 1
    Briony Tallis

    She had dreams in which she ran like this, then tilted forward, spread her arms and, yielding to faith […] left the ground by simply stepping off it [….] She sensed now how this might be achieved, through desire alone; the world she ran through loved her and would give her what she wanted and would let it happen. And then, when it did, she would describe it. Wasn't writing a kind of soaring, an achievable form of flight, of fancy, of the imagination? (1.13.2)

    Briony sees writing here as making anything possible. Which it sort of does, except not really.

    Six decades later she would describe how at the age of thirteen she had written her way through a whole history of literature, beginning with stories derived from the European tradition of folktales, through drama with simple moral intent, to arrive at an impartial psychological realism which she had discovered for herself, one special morning during a heat wave in 1935. She would be well aware of the extent of her self-mythologizing, and she gave her account a self-mocking, or mock-heroic tone. (1.3.15)

    The one-sentence summary of the history of European literature is nifty. But the real double whammy is that the last sentence summarizes the history a second time. Right? She says European literature goes from magical tales/myths to realism. Then she says that she knows she is self-mythologizing, and then gives her account a "self-mocking" realistic tone. We've mentioned that Mr. McEwan is tricky, right?

    The play—for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss breakfast and lunch. (1.1.1)

    The very first sentence of the novel is about Briony writing her play—which is itself a symbol of the novel (it says so in the "Symbols" section, so it must be true). So the first thing we do is to write about writing a novel about writing. It's a wonder Ian McEwan didn't get so dizzy that he had to stop right there.

    The play she had written for Leon's homecoming was her first excursion into drama, and she had found the transition quite effortless. […] A universe reduced to what was said in it was tidiness indeed, almost to the point of nullity, and to compensate, every utterance was delivered at the extremity of some feeling or other, in the service of which the exclamation mark was indispensable. The Trials of Arabella may have been a melodrama, but its author had yet to hear the term. The piece was intended to inspire not laughter, but terror, relief and instruction, in that order, and the innocent intensity with which Briony set about the project—the posters, tickets, sales booth—made her particularly vulnerable to failure. (1.1.10)

    Is Atonement meant to inspire terror, relief, and instruction? Not exactly… but it does have some elements of melodrama. There's a big old tragedy at the center of it—and a certain amount of horrifying gruesome bits. Note also how dreams lead to failure. See the "Dreams" theme for more on that.

    At the age of eleven she wrote her first story—a foolish affair, imitative of half a dozen folktales and lacking, she realized later, that vital knowingness about the ways of the world which compels a reader's respect. But this first clumsy attempt showed her that the imagination itself was a source of secrets: once she had begun a story, no one could be told. Pretending in words was too tentative, too vulnerable, too embarrassing to let anyone know. (1.1.7)

    Briony thinks writing is a kind of secret, in part because it comes from inside you—you're making a private world public. Are there secrets in the novel Briony writes? Well, yeah (though she tells you most of them if you read closely).

    Everything connected. It was her own discovery. It was her story, the one that was writing itself around her.

    "It was Robbie, wasn't it?" (1.13, 1.27-28)

    This is the moment when Briony decides that Robbie raped Lola. She puts him into her story—and so starts to treat him like a thing, rather than a person. She destroys his life because it makes for a better plot. Is this any different from what Briony does in writing Atonement?

    Robbie Turner

    Finally he spoke the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen. She repeated them, with exactly the same slight emphasis on the second word, as though she had been the one to say them first. (1.11.67)

    The words are… "I love you," of course. And while this quote doesn't seem like it refers directly to writing, it seems significant that it takes place in a library. This is the scene where Cecilia and Robbie have sex among the books—and many of those books are stories in which someone says "I love you" to someone else. But even though all those other books said it, it's still okay for Cecilia and Robbie to say it. Even if Briony (who wrote this scene, remember) is coy about actually writing "I love you" down.

    Chapter 2
    Cecilia Tallis

    "I'm not going to go away," she wrote in her first letter after Liverpool. "I'll wait for you. Come back." She was quoting herself. (2.94)

    Cecilia first says, "I'll wait for you. Come back" when Robbie is taken away by the police. She then puts it at the end of all her letters to him. It takes on more meaning because it is twice said—or three times said, or four, since Briony is writing down in a novel what Cecilia said in a letter quoting herself.

    Chapter 3
    Briony Tallis

    She began her journal at the end of the first day of preliminary training, and managed at least ten minutes most nights before lights-out. […] This was the only place she could be free. […] In later years she regretted not being more factual, not providing herself with a store of raw material. It would have been useful to know what happened, what it looked like, who was there, and what was said. At the time, the journal preserved her dignity […] (3.22)

    Briony's writing here about the journal she kept as a student nurse. There's a parallel between how her writing preserves her freedom and sense of self and the way that Robbie lives on the letters he gets from Cecilia. Writing in Atonement sometimes can save your life. That's why Briony writes Atonement, which saves Robbie and Cecilia… on paper anyway. Note also where Briony says she would regret in later years that she wasn't more factual. When does she need all these details about the hospital? Surely she needs them when she actually writes Atonement, the book you're reading.

  • Warfare

    Chapter 2
    Robbie Turner

    There were horrors enough, but it was the unexpected detail that threw him and afterward would not let him go. (2.1)

    Robbie's saying that the parts of war that are memorable or disturbing are the surprises. Another way to look at this is that the things you haven't imagined or don't expect—the bits that you haven't dreamed or planned for, are the ones that knock you on your butt. (Check out the "Dreams, Hopes, and Plans" theme for more discussion of Robbie being knocked on his butt.)

    In the lucid freedom of his dream state, Turner intended to shoot the officer through the chest. It would be better for everyone. It was hardly worth discussing the matter in advance. (2.261)

    Some war stories focus on the sense of comradeship between the men. In Atonement, on the other hand, the soldiers all seem to be ready to start shooting at each other at a moment's notice. The only reason Robbie, in his delirium, doesn't shoot the officer is that, when he reaches for his gun, he discovers he's lost it.

    He was thinking about the French boy asleep in his bed, about the indifference with which men could lob shells into a landscape. Or empty their bomb bays over a sleeping cottage by a railway, without knowing or caring who was there. It was an industrial process. He had seen their own RA units at work, tightly knit groups, working all hours […] They need never see the end result—a vanished boy. (2.77)

    RA is the Royal Artillery—the British units that fire the big artillery guns. Robbie's thinking that when you're shooting at someone from way far away you don't need to think about them as people. You erase them as thinking, conscious people, and then, once you've erased them in your imagination, it's easy to erase them altogether.

    He was the only man on earth and his purpose was clear. He was walking across the land until he came to the sea. The reality was all too social, he knew; other men were pursuing him, but he had comfort in a pretense, and a rhythm at least for his feet. (2.130)

    Here it's Robbie who is erasing other people from his consciousness—not in order to kill them, but in order to try to save his own life.

    But there was one external development, one shadow that he had to refer to. After Munich last year, he was certain, like everyone else, that there would be a war. Their training was being streamlined and accelerated, a new camp was being enlarged to take more recruits. His anxiety was not for the fighting he might have to do, but the threat to their Wiltshire dream. […] But for both of them there was also something fantastical about it all, remote even though likely. Surely not again, was what many people were saying. And so they continued to cling to their hopes. (2. 88)

    The Munich Agreement in 1938 allowed the Nazis to annex Czechoslovakia. Again, war here is a large, ugly critter that squats right exactly where you planned to hold the wedding. It gets in the way, catastrophically. The Wiltshire dream is a plan Cecilia and Robbie have to go to a cottage after his leave and finally spend some time together. It never happens though. See our analysis of "Dreams, Hopes and Plans" elsewhere in the "Themes" section to see what happens to you when you make a plan in this novel.

    "Nice bouquet," Turner said when he had drunk deeply.

    "Dead Frog." (2.239)

    McEwan was known in his early books for his gruesome subject matter. There isn't as much of that sort of thing in Atonement, but this is definitely an example. "Frog" is a less than complimentary term for the French. Nettle is joking that the water Turner is drinking tastes like a dead Frenchman. He should have been a stand-up comic, that Nettle.

    In a field ahead, he saw a man and his collie dog walking behind a horsedrawn plow. Like the ladies in the shoe shop, the farmer did not seem aware of the convoy. These lives were lived in parallel—war was a hobby for the enthusiasts and no less serious for that […] Yes, the plowing would still go on and there'd be a crop, someone to reap it and mill it, others to eat it, and not everyone would be dead… (2.219)

    Again, there's the sense that war isn't real—or maybe that it's too real to fit into people's everyday stories. It feels like it's everything, but it's just a distraction. Unless, of course, it finishes you off.

    Chapter 3

    It was never said, but the model behind this process was military. Miss Nightingale, who was never to be referred to as Florence, had been in the Crimea long enough to see the value of discipline, strong lines of command and well-trained troops. (3.16)

    Florence Nightingale, who organized nursing in England, developed her ideas during the Crimean War of the mid-1850s. The quote here suggests that Briony is experiencing something similar to what Robbie did during basic training. Both are being taught to obey orders in preparation for war.

    Briony Tallis

    Perhaps she was the last person in the hospital to understand what was happening. The emptying wards, the flow of supplies, she had thought were simply part of general preparations for war. She had been too wrapped up in her own tiny concerns. Now she saw how the separate news items might connect, and understood what everyone else must now and what the hospital administration was planning for. […] It had all gone badly wrong in France, though no one knew on what kind of scale. This foreboding, this muted dread, was what she had sensed around her. (3.29)

    Briony is a little slow on the uptake, which just goes to show that—though she's older—she's not that distant from the thirteen-year-old from the start of the book. She still has a bit of trouble putting things together.

    Chapter 4
    Briony Tallis

    Finally the colonel, who began his letter by addressing me as "Miss Tallis," allowed some impatience with my sex to show through. What was our kind doing anyway, meddling in these affairs? (4.19)

    The colonel has read over Briony's manuscript draft of her novel—the novel we've just read. He's correcting errors—telling her that officers at the time wouldn't have been wearing berets, for example. He also seems to think women shouldn't be writing about war.

    Of course, Briony is writing about the war because it's her story; she needs to tell about the war to explain what she did and what she has to atone for. But the novel also suggests that war is something that happens to women as well as men. Cecilia is killed in the war just as much as Robbie is.

    You apologize, in passing, for not writing about the war. We will be sending you a copy of our most recent issue, with a relevant editorial. As you will see, we do not believe that artists have an obligation to strike up attitudes to the war. Indeed, they are wise and right to ignore it and devote themselves to other subjects. Since artists are politically impotent, they must use this time to develop at deeper emotional levels. Your work, your war work, is to cultivate your talent, and go in the direction it demands. Warfare, as we remarked, is the enemy of creative activity.

    This is the letter from Cyril Connelly at Horizon to Briony. It argues that creativity and war are opposed, and that authors shouldn't write about war. Briony ends up disagreeing, it seems like. Or at least, the novel she writes is about the war in part. You could even say that war inspires her creative activity, since Cecilia and Robbie are killed in the war, which leads her to make up a happy ending for them.