Study Guide

Atonement Coming of Age

By Ian McEwan

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?"

"No."

"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.

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