Study Guide

Atonement Literature and Writing

By Ian McEwan

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.