Study Guide

Atonement Warfare

By Ian McEwan

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.

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