Study Guide

Atonement Compassion and Forgiveness

By Ian McEwan

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).

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