Study Guide

Atonement

Atonement Summary

A lot happens in Atonement. And then some of it doesn't, which can get the plot even more tangled.

We start out at the Tallis family's very upper-class English home in 1935, a few years before World War II. The family is expecting a visit from their maternal cousins—the young twins Jackson and Pierrot, and 15-year-old Lola—all of whom have been temporarily cast adrift by their parents' divorce. The Tallis family is also expecting a visit from brother Leon and his friend, the chocolate magnate Paul Marshall. With five (count 'em, five) people arriving, the house is in something of an uproar—especially since father Jack Tallis is off in London at his government job, while mother Emily Tallis is largely incapacitated with a migraine.

In the middle of all this burble and bustle, Robbie Turner, the son of the housekeeper, realizes that he's fallen hopelessly, passionately in love with his childhood friend Cecilia Tallis. Their courtship rituals result—as these things will—in a series of awkward sexual displays. Cecilia jumps into a fountain in her underwear. Robbie accidentally gives Cecilia a letter he meant to destroy in which he tells her exactly what he wants to do with her. Then they do some of those things, not nearly privately enough, in the family library.

These embarrassing events are witnessed by Briony, Cecilia's imaginative 13-year-old sister. Spurred by confusion, and by her penchant for making up stories, she decides that Robbie is a "maniac" who is after her sister. This results in disaster when the twins run away after dinner, and everyone races out to search for them in the dark. Briony finds Lola, who has been sexually assaulted, and sees a figure running away into the darkness. Though she does not see his face, she is convinced that it was Robbie, and accuses him to the police. Robbie is taken to prison, despite the protests of Grace Turner (his mother) and Cecilia, who pledges her love and promises to wait for him.

The novel now jumps several years to 1940. Robbie has been released from prison to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fighting in France against the Nazis. The war has gone horribly though, and so Robbie is trudging cross-country to the sea at Dunkirk, where he, his companions Mace and Nettle, and the rest of the British hope to be ferried across to England and safety. Robbie is wounded and increasingly delirious. He is sustained only by letters from Cecilia and his hopes for their future together. He finally collapses into sleep, waiting for the evacuation which is to begin the next day.

The narrative shifts to Briony. She is riddled with guilt since realizing that it wasn't Robbie who raped Lola. In part to try to atone for what she has done, she refuses to go study at Cambridge. Instead, to her mother's shock, she becomes a training nurse in London, where she cares for some of the first British soldiers wounded in the war.

On one of her days off from the hospital, Briony goes to visit her sister and offers to tell their parents and the court that her statement about Robbie was false. She discovers Robbie, who has survived the Dunkirk crossing, staying in her sister's apartment—scandal! (Or at least the landlady is scandalized, anyway.) Though it seems unlikely that Robbie's verdict can be overturned, she promises to retract her statement before an official witness, to tell their parents, and to write them a full account of what she did and why. She also tells them that Paul Marshall has married Lola, and that it was almost certainly he who raped her. Cecilia and Robbie do not forgive her, since she did ruin their lives and it's hard to get past that. But there is some sense of reconciliation.

The final part of the book is told by Briony in first person. She is old now, and a famous author. She has just learned that she has vascular dementia, a condition which will lead her to senility and then death in a couple of years. We learn that the book—yup, Atonement—is her novel, and that she is waiting to publish it until Lord and Lady Marshall—Paul and Lola—are dead and cannot sue. She recognizes that she will not outlive Lola, and that the book will therefore not be released in her lifetime. She also reveals that the book is not entirely truthful, and that Robbie and Cecilia did not reunite but instead died separately during the war. And if that doesn't make you cry when you turn the last page, then your heart is a big old lump of rock.

  • Chapter 1

    Part One

    • Briony has completed a play about a princess named Arabella, a wicked count, and a good doctor. Melodrama!
    • Briony's mom, Mrs. Emily Tallis, reads the seven-page play (The Trials of Arabella) and is extremely appreciative—which is pretty much all the success Briony is ever going to have as a playwright.
    • Briony imagines how impressed her brother Leon, who is coming home that evening, will be with the play. Bad news, Briony—not gonna happen.
    • Briony's room is super neat. She keeps diaries and some bric-a-brac treasures locked away, but earlier in her childhood she was dimly and a little sadly aware that she has no real secrets.
    • Then she discovered writing, and found that "the imagination itself is a source of secrets" (1.1.7). Her family encourages her writing habit, and Briony enjoys the control she has over a story.
    • The Trials of Arabella is Briony's first play, written in anticipation of her brother and cousins coming to the house. Before this, she'd only written stories.
    • The Quincey cousins—nine-year-old twins Jackson and Pierrot and fifteen-year-old Lola—are coming to visit because their parents are getting a divorce. Briony doesn't really understand what divorce is, though, and demands the twins begin rehearsing the play as soon as they arrive.
    • Cecilia—Briony's older sister—delays the start of rehearsal, and attempts to entertain the cousins with a tour of the house and a swim. The cousins do their best to seem pleased, and Briony hopes this means they'll also be cool with being in her play.
    • When it's finally rehearsal time, it turns out that not everybody likes plays. Uh-oh. The twins don't like plays because they just seem like an excuse to show off. Briony secretly agrees, though instead of hating plays for this reason, it's part of what makes her love them.
    • Lola's not having it, though, and tells the twins that they're going to be in the play or else she'll tell "The Parents." Dun dun dun…
    • When it sinks in that her cousins don't actually want to be in her play, Briony realizes that she's basically making them and feels pretty badly about it. Good on ya, Briony. Not badly enough to call the show off or anything like that, though.
    • Briony also dimly senses that Lola is hostile and dangerous. This suspicion is confirmed when Lola maneuvers Briony into giving her the starring part of Arabella. Briony plunges into misery and despair.
    • Despite her own crippling self-pity, Briony insists that she is going to be the director if Lola is playing Arabella. She also takes the part of Arabella's mother, which Lola had given to one of the twins.
    • The rehearsal grinds on, with Jackson reading in a horrible monotone, the twins trying not to giggle, and Lola going to great pains to show that she's too old for all this nonsense (despite having finagled the starring role for herself). Briony is relieved when Cecilia gathers up the twins for bed. It's hard to be a playwright.
  • Chapter 2

    • Cecilia Tallis is jonesing for a cigarette, so she's running to the fountain with some flowers in hand. She is seriously bored after returning from school and in dire need of some relief. A cigarette in the shade seems to be the best she can come up with right now.
    • Cecilia admires the reproduction of the sculpture of Bernini's Triton and notices Robbie Turner gardening. Robbie was her childhood friend and they attended university together as well. He is hoping to go off to medical school, a degree which Cecilia's father would pay for. Something about Robbie's academic hopes and Cecilia's father's support of him seems to irk her.
    • She returns around the front of the house so as to avoid Robbie, noting how ugly the house's exterior is and recalling her ironmonger grandfather who made the family fortune with patents on padlocks. The house's interior and the property's landscape, however, suit her tastes.
    • Cecilia feels dissatisfied with herself. She'd thought she would come back from university at Cambridge and enjoy her family, but they don't seem especially interested in her. She knows Briony's play is going to end in disaster, and doesn't want to be involved.
    • She wonders why she doesn't go off to stay with Leon in London or embark on some other adventure. Something, she feels, is holding her back.
    • She watches Robbie through the window as he rolls a cigarette, making a little mental list of interests he's abandoned. Thinking ill of Robbie is like a hobby of hers.
    • Cecilia puts the flowers into a vase that once belonged to her Uncle Clem. The vase was a gift to him from a village in France in honor of his bravery in defending them during World War I.
    • Cecilia spends a ridiculous amount of time considering the arrangement of the flowers before deciding to head back to the fountain to fill the vase with water (instead of getting water much closer by in the kitchen).
    • When she steps outside, it is all sunshine and warmth and good smells. There are birds and blooming trees. And then there is Robbie.
    • Cecilia asks him for a cigarette and they stroll over to the fountain. When Cecilia remarks about how beautiful the day is, Robbie gives her a look and she admits to herself that they seem to have some sort of feelings for each other.
    • Instead of talking romance, though, Cecilia and Robbie discuss Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, which Cecilia is reading.
    • Cecilia worries briefly that she's suggested sensual desires to Robbie—this would never be her intention—and then basically slips into a little daydream about how handsome and smart she thinks he is. Try though she might to resist her feelings toward Robbie by noting every single tiny quirk and failure of his, it seems she just can't help herself.
    • So Cecilia brings up Paul Marshall, the chocolate magnate who is coming to visit with Leon. Robbie reacts oddly and she wonders if he is jealous. She thinks she doesn't know him very well anymore, and suggests he shouldn't go to medical school. He wonders if she's worried about her father's money.
    • Cecilia is irritated. She remembers a few days earlier when Robbie took his shoes off to come in the house to borrow a book. She thinks he's deliberately trying to tease and humiliate her. The more obvious explanation—that they are both desperately flirting—doesn't occur to her.
    • Cecilia dips the vase in the fountain to get water, and Robbie tries to help her. She refuses, he insists, and they manage between them to break the lip. Two pieces snap from the vase and fall into the fountain.
    • Robbie prepares to unbutton his shirt to get the pieces. Instead though, Cecilia strips down to her underwear, goes into the fountain, and dives down for the pieces. Then she gets out, gets dressed, and stalks away. Robbie can only watch.
  • Chapter 3

    • Despite having hung a poster in the hallway to keep rehearsals and the debut performance of her play on track, Briony is having trouble getting everyone together to practice for the play. Go figure.
    • Her cause isn't helped any by Jackson being forced to wash his own sheets after wetting the bed, particularly since the kid has never washed a sheet before in his life (in case you weren't thinking of it, this is pre-washing machines, so this takes some actual elbow grease).
    • Even if Jackson were able to participate, though, it doesn't seem like rehearsal would be going much better. Pierrot speaks his lines badly and Lola wants everyone to know she's too adult for the room. Plus, Danny Hardman is lurking in the doorway.
    • Everyone wanders away from rehearsal except Briony, and she finds herself suddenly in a silent house staring at her hand, marveling at her ability to control it and the tiny moment between when she thinks about moving it and it actually moves. She also wonders whether everyone else in the world is as conscious as she is, if they find their lives as important as she finds her own. She figures they must, but has trouble really believing it. We feel you, Briony—it's kind of a mind-blowing concept.
    • Her mind returns to play rehearsals and how chaotic they are.
    • Stopping by a window, Briony looks out and sees Robbie and Cecilia by the fountain. Trying to make sense of their interaction from afar, she decides that either a marriage proposal is taking place or Robbie is ordering Cecilia out of her clothes and into the fountain. These are the only possible explanations she can come up with, though neither seems quite right to her, and she feels like she is getting a glimpse into the world of adults.
    • She imagines writing a story about this moment, using fiction to capture just how equally complicated and full everyone's mind is. Fiction, Briony understands, can show separate minds. This is the only moral it needs.
    • We slip forward sixty years to Briony identifying this moment as the moment she realized she would be a novelist.
    • And then we hop right back to teenage Briony as she continues to consider how she'd write this scene. She envisions writing the same scene from three different perspectives… Sound familiar? It should—the same maneuvers are made in the book we're reading.
    • Briony is still a total type-A personality, though, so she refocuses her attention on her play that nobody wants to be in in hopes of pulling it off for Leon's arrival.
  • Chapter 4

    • Cecilia finishes patching the vase back together. Evidently she's spent hours on this task.
    • Briony comes in and Cecilia immediately can tell that she's super upset because she's pinching her lower lip, something she's done forever.
    • Cecilia wants to comfort her little sister and recalls tending to her when they were younger and Briony had nightmares. Briony's growing up, though, and her problems are becoming more of her own.
    • This time, the problem is the play. It's in the wrong genre, a word Briony completely mispronounces before walking away.
    • Cecilia fills the vase, collects the flowers, and brings them to the room Paul Marshall will be staying in.
    • She lingers in the room, relishing its cleanliness. Through the window, she sees Hardman approaching the house with Leon and Paul Marshall seated behind him. She imagines the warm welcomes Leon and Paul will share with Robbie and, yet again, feels irritated.
    • So she searches for her cigarettes in her own messy bedroom and smokes as she walks downstairs.
    • Leon and Paul have arrived and Danny Hardman is carrying their luggage into the house behind them. As she often has when she first meets a man, she wonders if Paul is the man she will marry.
    • Cecilia and Leon exchange a big hug, and the smell of his coat and the feel of a pen in his jacket pocket remind her for a moment of afternoon visits to men's colleges. The memory seems to be a fond one.
    • Paul Marshall, on the other hand, is immediately dull when he speaks.
    • The matter of where Paul is staying comes up, and Cecilia directs Danny Hardman to the second floor. She notes that she's seen him hanging around the kids lately and wonders if it's because he has a crush on Lola.
    • They put Paul in Auntie Venus's room (Auntie Venus was a distant relative who stayed with the family for some time) and then settle down to hang out for a bit.
    • As it turns out, Paul is a huge, self-involved bore. He opens their group conversation with a ten-minute monologue. Yikes.
    • Cecilia imagines how absolutely terrible it would be to be married to him and yet feels kind of excited by the awfulness too. It becomes clear that Leon shares her feelings.
    • Leon announces he's invited Robbie to dinner. And guess what? Cecilia is cranky about it. Shocking.
    • Leon busts on Cecilia for being so unfriendly to Robbie after having known him for so long (Robbie is their cleaning lady's son) and notes how bright Robbie is.
    • Cecilia tries to convince Leon to disinvite Robbie to dinner, but since she won't give him a reason to, Leon's not taking the bait.
    • Cecilia says she wants some fancy mixed drinks; Paul offers to make some with chocolate because he's the chocolate guy.
    • As they go in, Cecilia thinks she feels Paul touch her on the arm. It might've been a leaf though. Either way, it's kind of a creepy moment.
  • Chapter 5

    • Briony gives up on play rehearsals by just quietly walking out. And by quiet we mean that her cousins don't even notice. Directors… they're a temperamental bunch.
    • The cousins are aimless and bored, uncomfortable in the house and generally unsure about how to amuse themselves. Eventually they end up back in the nursery where the twins begin to cry about being away from home.
    • Jackson mentions the word divorce, and Lola reprimands him. Apparently this is the first time any of them has spoken the word, and it's not clear whether they actually know what it means.
    • Along comes boring Paul Marshall. He introduces himself to everyone before mentioning that he's seen the cousins' parents in the paper, which Lola reprimands him for mentioning in front of the twins. Whatever is going on with Jackson and Pierrot's parents, it's clearly quite the scandal.
    • We flash back a few moments to Paul's experience between drinks with Leon and Cecilia and this moment in the nursery. Apparently the drinks made him a little drowsy so he lay down on his bed and closed his eyes for a few moments. He drifted to sleep, though, and had a slightly erotic dream about his four younger sisters (yes—you read that sentence right).
    • When he awoke, he was aroused and heard the twins and Lola talking in the nursery. Thinking it was their voices that prompted his dream, he made his way down the hall to see them.
    • Which brings us right back to the present moment in the nursery and Paul noticing that Lola isn't such a child after all. In fact, she's almost a woman. Almost.
    • He compliments Lola on her clothes and they make some small talk about Hamlet before she compliments him on his shoes.
    • Pierrot announces that he's hungry which somehow creates rooms in the conversation for Paul to tell Lola that she reminds him of her favorite sister. This probably isn't creepy in its own right, but given the dream we know Paul just had it takes on a different tone.
    • Paul offers chocolate to her and the twins because, you know, he's the chocolate guy. The twins are skeptical that soldiers will really want Marshall's chocolate, so only Lola gets a bar.
    • That's right—not only is Paul super dull, he's also the kind of guy who is willing to be spiteful to nine-year-olds. And the kind of guy who can turn watching a girl eat a chocolate bar into a pretty pervy exchange, which is exactly what he does next.
    • Betty, the cook, calls to get Jackson and Pierrot ready for bed.
  • Chapter 6

    • Emily Tallis retreats to her bedroom to wait out a migraine—which she refers to as a "black-furred creature."
    • Her son Leon has no ambition, she thinks, before going off on an internal rant about how Cecilia's smoking and education will prevent her from ever being married. It's quite a detailed rant, though at the end of it Emily asserts that she's not even the tiniest bit jealous of Cecilia. Okay, then.
    • Emily shifts her attention toward Briony next. She loves Briony and wants to protect her from failure and from Lola. Lola reminds Emily of her melodramatic sister Hermione, which makes sense since Hermione is Lola's mom.
    • Lying quietly, Emily can hear throughout the house and knows that the rehearsals have fallen apart. She hears Cecilia arranging the flowers, the arrival of Leon and Marshall, and the twins being taken off to bed.
    • She thinks about Briony growing up and being more withdrawn, and thinks about wanting another child.
    • The migraine begins to fade and Emily determines to go out soon and take her place as hostess.
  • Chapter 7

    • Briony is out by the island temple slashing nettles. She's done being a playwright, and decides she will become the greatest slasher of nettles in the world.
    • Needless to say, the story becomes pretty involved in Briony's imaginative head.
    • Leon drives by, but she doesn't go to greet him. She's too busy being an internationally recognized nettle slasher.
    • She stops daydreaming and feels disappointed in her own insignificance, so she decides to sit by the bridge until something significant happens to her.
  • Chapter 8

    • Robbie Turner sits in his bath obsessively remembering how Cecilia had looked coming out of the pond in her underwear.
    • He remembers how he didn't used to think she was beautiful. Clearly he's gotten over that.
    • How angry is Cecilia? Very angry, he decides. He thinks that she intended to humiliate him.
    • He hopes Cecilia was flirting with him. He knows he should have refused to come to dinner, but he wants to see her even if she hates him.
    • Looking around his room at his books and drawings, Robbie sees a picture of his parents—his mom, Grace, and his dad, Ernest, who disappeared when Robbie was young.
    • He examines the book on Versailles landscapes that Cecilia gave him, and laments having taken his shoes off to come in the house that day. He'd only done so in hopes that Cecilia wouldn't notice how ratty his socks were.
    • Now he sniffs the book because she touched it. He tries hard not to, but just can't seem to help himself.
    • He types a letter apologizing to Cecilia for his odd behavior. But then he accidentally on purpose adds an X-rated bit and ruins the draft. Oops. This guy seriously can't help himself.
    • He writes out another draft in longhand, this time leaving out the dirty parts.
    • As Robbie prepares himself to head over to the main house for dinner, he thinks about how Jack Tallis kept his mother on as a housekeeper, and how he grew up with Cecilia and Leon. Grace thinks Robbie's dad, Ernest, may have died in World War I.
    • Robbie and Grace chat about the client she just saw (Grace has a side hustle as a clairvoyant) and the Tallises' visitors, and Robbie remembers seeing Danny Hardman leering at Lola down at the pool.
    • Heading up to the main house, Robbie is excited to see Cecilia and excited about his own future. He finally feels like his life is his own, and imagines himself in 1962—fifty years old and a doctor. It's pretty warm and fuzzy.
    • At the bridge, Robbie bumps into Briony and decides to give her the letter for Cecilia. He thinks it will be best for Cecilia to receive it before he arrives.
    • Oops—wrong version of the letter. Robbie tries to call Briony back, but she's already run off. Imagine the most embarrassing thing you've ever done in your life. Now double it. That's about how embarrassed Robbie is right now.
  • Chapter 9

    • Cecilia is having trouble choosing a dress before going down to see her brother.
    • She puts on a black dress, but decides that she looks like she's going to a funeral.
    • So she puts on a frilly dress, but now she thinks she looks like Shirley Temple. Is it just us, or is this starting to sound a little like "Goldilocks and the Three Bears"?
    • Finally Cecilia tries on her favorite dress, a backless green number. She can't figure out why she's working so hard to look good. Surely, surely, it has nothing to do with Robbie… Keep telling yourself that, Cecilia.
    • She opens her door and finds Jackson about to knock.
    • The kids have been ordered down to tea, but they only have one pair of socks between them. Lola isn't speaking to the twins at the moment, so they've come to Cecilia for help.
    • Cecilia goes to their room to sort out the sock situation, finds it's a huge mess, and cleans up. The twins tell her that they want to go home and that Briony has abandoned the play and disappeared.
    • So Cecilia explains to the twins that they can't go home, and then she gets them socks from Briony's room, and sends them off to tea and Betty.
    • Following behind the twins, Cecilia catches her reflection in the mirror again. She cares less than she did earlier about her appearance, and realizes it's because somewhere in the process of helping the twins she committed herself to getting away from the house and her family.
    • Cecilia resigns herself to having to be the hostess for the evening. Jack Tallis is staying late, and Emily is never much use.
    • Sure enough, when Cecilia walks into the kitchen Emily is there already, trying to convince Betty to prepare a salad for dinner instead of the roast she and her assistant have been working on all day.
    • Cecilia convinces Emily that Leon wants a roast, much to Betty's relief.
    • Finally we get out to Leon. Or should we say finally Cecilia gets out to Leon and away from the heaping pile of people she mothers. With a drink and a cigarette in hand, Cecilia and Leon stroll and chat. Cecilia enjoys talking to him because he is ambitious-less and kind; he sees the best in everyone and avoids confrontation.
    • Cecilia tries to match his tone and outlook, but sounds bitter and mean-spirited and dissatisfied despite her efforts. Leon tells her to come to London with him.
    • Briony is waiting on the terrace to meet Leon. She gives Cecilia the letter.
    • X-rated bit and all, Cecilia reads the note and suddenly realizes that she's in love with Robbie. Duh and finally.
    • Briony is busy making a huge fuss over her brother, though, and doesn't answer when Cecilia repeatedly asks whether she read the letter.
    • Paul Marshall shows up and insists Cecilia try some chocolate mixed drink because, you know, he's the chocolate guy and that's kind of his thing.
  • Chapter 10

    • Briony has read the letter, and is absolutely thrilled to be privy to adult emotions. She thinks it's going to really help her writing along.
    • And then comes a really long paragraph devoted solely to Briony's musings on the word cunt. For real.
    • Briony has shifted her feelings toward Robbie and now identifies him as an ominous male presence that threatens the order of the house. She charges herself with the responsibility of saving her sister. It's all pretty melodramatic and high stakes, but so it goes with Briony.
    • Briony begins to write, but is interrupted by the arrival of Lola.
    • Lola says that the twins have been torturing her, and she has a scratch on her shoulder and burns on her wrists.
    • Briony moves to sit next to her cousin and comfort her, and when she does Lola tears up before trying very hard not to cry harder.
    • Briony closes her bedroom door so no one will hear, returns to Lola, and Lola beings to cry in earnest. Briony is amazed that two nine-year-olds could bring down Lola and relishes a sense of her own power.
    • Lola tells Briony that she was getting ready for a bath when the twins tackled her to the floor and held her down. Sharing this brings a giant sob into Lola's throat.
    • When Briony asks why the twins would do such a thing, Lola explains that they blame her for not being able to go home. It makes perfect sense to Briony.
    • Feeling suddenly close to her cousin and desperately wanting to change the topic, Briony tells Lola about the letter.
    • Lola is satisfyingly appalled and calls Robbie a "maniac," which Briony thinks sounds just right.
    • Briony leaves out the fact that she's afraid to go near Cecilia, who is probably going to be pretty unahppy about having her letter read.
    • Lola suggests going to the police and showing them the letter, but Briony doesn't think Cecilia will want to.
    • Lola warns that "Maniacs can attack anyone," and it seems like she's about to tell Briony something more, but stops herself.
    • Mrs. Tallis calls them to dinner, and Lola hurries off to get ready.
    • On her way down, Briony thinks about how she wishes her father were home sitting in the library. Life seems to be much calmer when he's around.
    • She slows as she comes upon the closed library door, and hears the sound of dishes and such in the kitchen and the twins arguing about how to spell a word.
    • And then, unfortunately, she opens the library door.
    • When she does, Briony sees Robbie and Cecilia crammed into a corner of the library. She thinks Robbie is attacking her sister.
    • They break apart and, when they do, Briony is surprised to realize that Cecilia doesn't appear grateful.
    • All three of them leave the library, with Cecilia rushing off before Briony can talk to her.
  • Chapter 11

    • Everyone is basically suffocating in the dining room. The windows won't open, the adults are forced to drink wine instead of the water they're craving, and nobody is particularly eager to eat a roast.
    • Needless to say, conversation is pretty slow. It isn't helped along by Cecilia and Robbie either, both of whom are lost in their own thoughts about the scene that just took place in the library.
    • Paul Marshall breaks the silence after three minutes (super awkward) by checking in with Robbie about tennis plans for the following day. When he speaks, Robbie notices a long scratch on his face.
    • More small talk follows, during which Briony snaps at Robbie and everyone discusses the heat. This is one seriously boring dinner party.
    • Robbie daydreams about Cecilia, imagining that he will be with her again soon and recalling the agony he felt after Briony ran away with his letter.
    • We are suddenly transported back to right before dinner. Robbie makes himself come into the house to find Cecilia and when she comes to the door he tells her he made a mistake with the letter.
    • Cecilia tells him Briony read it. He feels miserable and apologizes.
    • But all is not lost for Robbie. Cecilia leads him into the library, across the room and into a dark corner as he apologizes for his words.
    • They make love against the bookshelves and profess their love for each other. After so much build up, the whole thing is pretty frantic and romantic.
    • And then Briony comes in. Way to ruin it, Briony.
    • We are suddenly back at the dinner table where dessert has been served and the twins are whispering between themselves.
    • Forbidden from telling secrets at dinner, the twins ask to be excused. Briony realizes they are wearing her socks and protests. Cecilia snaps at her and Briony, who just wants to protect Cecilia, feels betrayed.
    • She points out Lola's injuries. Marshall says he saw the twins attack her—that he actually had to break the whole scene up—and Emily examines Lola more closely. When she does, she realizes that her wrists aren't merely burned, but that Lola is bruised halfway up her arms.
    • When Emily asks Lola how the twins managed to do so much damage, Lola says she has no idea.
    • Marshall tells her it's okay if she cries, and Emily pulls her in close.
    • For his part, Robbie finds himself wondering why Marshall hadn't mentioned the fight earlier considering his role in breaking it up and how badly hurt Lola was.
    • Amongst all of this commotion, Briony finds a letter left behind at the table by the twins.
    • It turns out that they haven't just left the dinner table, but the house. The letter they've left explains that they've decided to run away back home.
    • Lola panics and runs out after them.
    • Everyone else organizes into search parties. Leon grabs Cecilia, and Robbie decides if he can't be with his true love he'll search alone.
  • Chapter 12

    • Emily wonders whether to call the police, but doesn't really want to talk to the local constable's wife, or the constable himself for that matter.
    • She remembers how much she'd disliked her prima donna sister Hermione, and thinks that Lola is just like her mother. This seems kind of harsh to poor Lola, considering that she's fifteen and her parents are getting divorced. But anyway.
    • While waiting for her husband to call, Emily reveals that she knows he's having an affair. It bothers her only moderately, and she appreciates his attentiveness to pretending he isn't cheating on her.
    • She then muses about whether Paul Marshall would be a good husband for Cecilia. Emily likes the idea that he'll be super rich someday, and thinks he might get better looking as he ages. That he is intensely boring doesn't seem to register for her.
    • Finally Jack Tallis calls. Jack and Emily recount their days a bit to each other before Emily mentions the disappearance of the twins. Jack says he's going to call the police.
    • Before he can get off the phone, though, Leon comes in with Cecilia, Lola, and Briony. All are visibly upset.
    • Leon speaks briefly to his father, asking him to come home as quickly as possible. He then guides Emily into the drawing room to tell her what she senses will be terrible news.
  • Chapter 13

    • Back to just after dinner… to assist with the search for the twins and avoid Robbie, Briony heads toward the swimming pool.
    • As she walks, she thinks about Robbie and decides he must hate her. She enjoys the idea of being adult enough to be hated by an adult, and fantasizes about how she'll protect Cecilia even if Cecilia doesn't want to be protected.
    • When Briony arrives at the pool, nobody is there.
    • She thinks about herself as a writer, about how adult she is becoming and how thrilling it is to live life beyond the nursery. She thinks and she walks around until she thinks she hears a shout and sees a flash of light from the corner of her eye.
    • Briony stops in her tracks to listen and look more carefully before walking toward the woods where she thinks the sound and light came from.
    • When she gets to the woods, though, again she finds nothing.
    • Heading back toward the house, Briony catches a glimpse of her mother through the window and, amongst other things, considers what it will be like when her mother dies.
    • Briony considers going in and sitting with her mother for a moment, but decides to stay out instead. And in this moment—in this one small decision—a crime is set into motion.
    • Briony runs away from the house, slowing as she reaches the driveway. She remembers that there is an angry maniac outside with her (that angry maniac would be Robbie, in case you'd forgotten… and because Briony is the only one who thinks this about him), but summons the courage to proceed toward the bridge.
    • As Briony arrives at the temple, she realizes that what she's thought are a couple of bushes in the dark are actually two people. One retreats and the other stands up from the ground.
    • The one that stands is Lola.
    • Lola calls to Briony, helplessness in her voice.
    • Briony sees the first figure again and watches it make its way toward the house. With impossible clarity (remember—she thought the two people were bushes), Briony develops a sense of who this man is.
    • Briony asks her cousin who the figure was but before Lola can answer Briony declares that she knows who it was, that she saw him.
    • She asks Lola again who it was, seeking confirmation of her suspicion. Again Lola doesn't answer, though this time Briony at least waits a few seconds before announcing that it was Robbie.
    • Lola says nothing in response as Briony repeatedly says Robbie's name.
    • When Lola finally speaks, she simply says, "'You saw him.'" She repeats this phrase several times going forward, while Briony's conviction about Robbie's terribleness grows.
    • And then Lola tells Briony how her attacker came up behind her and pushed her to the ground, how he put his hand over her eyes, how she didn't see him.
    • Briony's commitment to her story about Robbie grows deeper and she promises to tell what she saw.
    • The narrative moves into the future now, and Briony repeats her accusation over and over to police. She knows in her heart that she actually isn't sure, but feels she cannot go back on the accusation. Plus, whenever she deviates from her tale the slightest bit, she's chastised. She seems scared of being dismissed as a silly girl, which makes sense given how thrilled she is to be included in the adult realm at all.
    • And then the narrative swoops back out to the temple where Lola and Briony are sitting silently in the dark.
    • When Lola breaks the silence, it's to express doubts that Robbie would attack her. Briony quells her concerns by reminding her cousin of what she saw in the library earlier.
    • The two girls begin to make their way toward the house, but when they get near Lola bursts into tears and says she can't go in.
    • Just then, Leon comes striding over, scoops Lola up in his arms, and begins to quickly carry her to the house. All the while, Briony is telling him what she "saw."
  • Chapter 14

    • The omniscient narrator tells us that Briony will one day remember the evening she's about to describe over and over, with great guilt.
    • At the house, Lola is taken to her room by Emily and other women to await the doctor. As Robbie hasn't returned to the house yet, this leaves Briony center stage (a.k.a. her favorite spot), with everyone listening to her. It fits quite nicely with her new sense of herself as grown up. 
    • The police arrive and interview Briony, who relishes her position as the sole witness.
    • Despite enjoying her central role, the evening is hazy for Briony. She remembers the doctor coming and people whispering amongst themselves in small groups; she remembers Paul Marshall showing up. 
    • Cecilia keeps to the peripheries, chain smoking and silent with bloodshot eyes. We can't say we blame the poor girl—she's in the middle of a pretty rough run.
    • Oh yeah—the twins are still missing, so search parties are sent out to look for them while everyone awaits Robbie's return and Jack Tallis's arrival home.
    • While waiting, Briony suddenly gets the idea to show everyone the letter Robbie gave Cecilia. Without asking Cecilia.
    • Guess what? After the cops, Leon and Emily read the letter, Cecilia notices what's going on and is outraged. And guess what else? No one will let her say much of anything. It's pretty hard to watch.
    • And then, in case things weren't awesome enough right now, Emily blames Cecilia for the assault on Lola, claiming that if Cecilia had brought the letter to her mother earlier then Emily could have prevented the whole debacle.
    • It's hard to like Emily at all in this moment, right?
    • Briony is formally interviewed by the police in the library and, as they aren't probing her too hard at this point, takes the space to really craft her story.
    • A call comes in from Jack Tallis's driver to say that his car has broken down and they won't be able to reach the house that evening.
    • In early morning, Robbie returns with the twins, whom he has found and brought home. Three cheers for Robbie!
    • Oh wait—everyone thinks he assaulted Lola, thanks to Briony.
    • Emily sends Briony to bed. Briony is worried that no one will believe that Robbie was the rapist since he rescued the children (and, you know, because Briony isn't actually sure she saw him), so she is relieved to see him handcuffed from her bedroom window.
    • As Robbie is being put in the police car, Cecilia comes running up. She and Robbie speak to each other privately, and she touches him kindly. 
    • Then Robbie is put in the police car, and he's off.
    • But wait—not so fast. Grace Turner is walking straight towards the police car, right down the middle of the driveway, and she shows no sign of stepping out of the way.
    • Police come out to move her, and she strikes them with her umbrella. She calls them liars over and over, which is totally appropriate when your son has been falsely accused of a really awful crime.
  • Part Two (Chapter 15)

    Part Two 

    • Robbie is holding a map. He is also holding a revolver. Both are from a dead man.
    • Robbie is in France during World War II doing whatever he can to survive. He is traveling with two corporals and, when they see a severed leg in a tree, Robbie runs ahead to getsick. He doesn't want the other men to see him.
    • This moment of solitude also gives Robbie a chance to check on the wound he has in his side. He doesn't think it's too bad, though there's something inside it that he can feel when he walks. Ouch.
    • Corporal Mace and Corporal Nettle, whom Robbie has been leading across country, rejoin him and the three men continue on their way.
    • Bombers pass overhead and the three soldiers hide out before resuming their journey. When they resume their journey, Robbie finds himself thinking about the bombed out cottage near the leg and wondering about who lived there. See? He's a sensitive guy.
    • And then they narrowly escape a pretty epic bee attack.
    • The bees behind them, Robbie and the corporals meet a Frenchwoman and ask her for help. (Robbie speaks French.) She says her sons will attack them, but nonetheless brings them food and lets them rest in the barn. It's relatively comfortable, though the food leaves a bit to be desired, even for soldiers who have been trekking on foot for who knows how long.
    • When the woman's sons show up, they turn out to be nice guys who give them more wine and heaps of delicious food.
    • While they all eat, the sons recount the destruction they say earlier in the day, including dead English soldiers in the road. Robbie explains that he and his companions are heading to Dunkirk, where they will hopefully be ferried back to England.
    • Though he's not convinced himself, Robbie tries to assure the Frenchmen that the English will be back in time to fight the Nazis.
    • The sons explain that their mother has lost her mind and hates all soldiers since losing a son to war.
    • Before saying goodnight, Nettle gives the brothers two cartons of cigarettes he'd taken from a store while following orders to destroy it. It seems many soldiers at this point have cigarettes instead of food to handle their hunger with.
    • The brothers and soldiers bid each other good night and goodbye.
    • Robbie lies in the barn thinking about the death and destruction he's seen, and after a moment of sleep, his mind shifts to his time in prison.
    • His time in prison was the worst. Way worse than war.
    • Robbie has reason to hope during war, at least. He carries his most recent letter from Cecilia in his pocket and her promise to wait for him in his heart. She is the reason he has to survive and find his way home.
    • Rising from bed, Robbie notes the gun flashes going off in the distance around him. He imagines life in German prison and knows he could not survive it.
    • Sleep eludes Robbie, so his mind wanders to the one time he saw Cecilia between being in prison and heading off to war, which in turn leads his brain all the way back to his time in prison.
    • While in prison, all women except Grace were forbidden from visiting Robbie because he was deemed some sort of sex maniac.
    • Cecilia wrote to Robbie weekly and he dutifully wrote back. Because their letters were read and censored though, so as to assure no stimulation for Robbie, they had to express their feelings in code. Fortunately, they had both read a ton of the same books in college, so they were up for the challenge. Aww…
    • In one of the letters Cecilia sent, she told Robbie she'd cut herself off from her entire family.
    • And now we're back in the café where Robbie is waiting for Cecilia to see her briefly before heading off to war.
    • When Cecilia arrives, Robbie leaps up and knocks his tea over. General awkwardness ensues, despite their romantic and regular letter writing over the past years. It's just too much in person and they end up making small talk. The poor duo only has Cecilia's half-hour lunch break to reconnect in person after so much time apart. It's really pretty tragic.
    • They kiss at the bus stop and, when they do, Robbie recognizes it as a memory he'll have in the bank going forward. This shifts to him remembering the kiss while lying in the barn in France.
    • And then we're back in time again to when Robbie was in basic training.
    • Letter writing has resumed, this time with no censors. Robbie and Cecilia both know that they will spend their lives together and spend their letters telling each other about their daily lives and routines as a maternity nurse and a soldier.
    • Robbie is concerned about Cecilia's decision to cut herself off from her family, a move she made on the day of Robbie's sentencing. Cecilia is absolutely confident in her choice, though. She also believes it was Danny Hardman who raped Lola that awful night.
    • Right before Robbie is supposed to go on leave and he and Cecilia are to spend two glorious weeks reuniting (ahem) in a cottage, England goes to war and his leave is canceled. Then it's rescheduled, but by the time his letter arrives to tell Cecilia she's gone off to a nursing course elsewhere. He tries to catch up with her, but it just doesn't come together. Yet again, Robbie and Cecilia are star-crossed lovers. Sigh.
    • Cecilia begins ending all of her letters with, "I'll wait for you. Come back," which is what she said to him when he was first taken away by the police. We think it's pretty romantic.
    • Robbie remembers the long boring winter with the British Expeditionary Force in France, doing little more than digging trenches.
    • With the arrival of spring, Robbie again writes to encourage Cecilia send a note to her family. He doesn't ask her to forgive them, but just to let them know where she is. He worries she'll be filled with regret if she doesn't do so before they die and he'd feel terrible knowing she'd severed contact out of her love for him.
    • Her reply comes shortly before they are told to retreat to the English Channel and is the last letter Robbie receives from her before the mail delivery system stopped running.
    • In her letter Cecilia says that Briony has decided not to go to Cambridge and is training as a nurse. Cecilia thinks it seems like a sort of self-imposed penance because apparently Briony also wants to recant her accusation against Robbie. Cecilia says that if Briony does so, and her parents listen to the apology, she just might be able to reconcile with them after all.
    • And then she tells him about twins who died in the hospital… because, hey—she's still a maternity ward nurse.
    • Back in the barn in France, Robbie is awoken and divides the provisions before the three men set off through the countryside. Robbie is exhausted and his wound is throbbing.
    • Eventually they reach a road and join many other soldiers and families heading toward the sea.
    • A car in the mass honks at Robbie. He almost attacks the driver, but Mace stops him. Traffic is irritating even when you're retreating from the Nazis, it turns out….
    • Robbie won't hitch a ride because he saw a bomber destroy an entire truck along with everyone in it. He hid in a ditch when the bomber came, and this is where he got the shrapnel in his side.
    • The walk down the road is generally depressing, with dead horses and dead bodies and sour spirits. It's pretty much as you'd expect during war, we guess.
    • There is a major who is trying to pull soldiers from the column and direct them towards some woods in the distance. It seems like he might be off his rocker a bit, and when he comes to Robbie, Mace, and Nettles, Mace and Nettles basically mock him into submission.
    • The conversation is interrupted by a plane strafing them. Robbie throws himself behind a truck (or a lorry if you're British) and survives the deluge.
    • The major is wounded, but still wants to go on the attack. Robbie tells him that he and Mace and Nettle are leaving, though, and off they go. Sound idea, gentlemen.
    • They stop to bury a boy, and then they keep right on walking.
    • Robbie thinks about the possibility of Briony clearing his name, of all the space it could open up for him and Cecilia in their lives.
    • The soldiers are walking through a bombed-out village now, with bodies strewn everywhere and a stench in the air. Robbie wonders at how history gets recorded, at how it's possible to pin down the names of villages and the dates of their destruction.
    • Robbie daydreams about having his name cleared some more before inevitably bumping up against Briony. Despite recognizing that she was just a child when she had him sent off to prison, he harbors feelings of resentment toward her.
    • Robbie feels as though Briony only wants to clear his name because her guilt is weighing on her, not because it's the right thing to do for him.
    • He also thinks about how much he dislikes Danny Hardman, who he now thinks raped Lola thanks to Cecilia's letter.
    • And now, thanks to Robbie's memory, we flash back to a summer day with Briony. It is a few years before the terrible evening when she ruined Robbie's life, and she is excited and talkative.
    • They are walking to the river for a swimming lesson, something Robbie has promised Briony.
    • After the lesson, Robbie ducks off to the woods to change clothes. When he returns, Briony is standing on the bank in her swimming clothes, looking down at the water.
    • She asks Robbie if he would save her if she fell in the river. He says of course, and then she jumps in.
    • He has to go in fully clothed to save her.
    • After her rescue, Briony thanks Robbie for saving her. Robbie, however, tells Briony how stupid she is for doing that and that she put them both in a dangerous situation.
    • Briony tells Robbie that she loves him, but he says he doesn't love her despite being willing to save her.
    • Robbie thinks that Briony must have had a crush on him for years, and that this was why she lied to put him in prison.
    • He thinks she must have felt betrayed when she read the letter to her sister. And then he thinks he will never forgive her, even if she recants.
    • And now we're in France again. Welcome back.
    • A French column comes through the crowd, masking the sound of a German plane approaching.
    • Robbie runs from the road. He takes a child from a woman, and tries to help them run from the bomb.
    • The woman stops running and Robbie has to leave her. A bomb falls and the shock knocks him to the ground. The woman and child are obliterated. No, really—there's just a giant crater in the ground where they once were.
    • Robbie goes into the woods desperate for water and unable to find any.
    • After what feels like forever, Mace finds him and hands him a dead man's nearly full canteen. Glug glug glug.
    • The two men begin to walk again and Nettle soon joins them. He has a bottle of wine and an Amo bar (the artificial chocolate bars which Paul Marshall hoped would make him super rich… looks like the war worked out for him at least) with him.
    • Robbie, Mace, and Nettle continue their trudge toward Dunkirk, surrounded by struggling citizens and soldiers. It seems like everyone is wounded.
    • Robbie suddenly remembers being carried on his father's shoulders and his thoughts turn to how badly he wishes for a dad.
    • He realizes his yearning for a father is the same as his yearning to be a father. After seeing so much death, fatherhood reminds him of his humanity. He fixes his mind on finding Cecilia and his father once the war is over, on becoming a father and his own father's son.
    • As the men near Dunkirk, they come to a bridge over a canal. A sergeant on the bridge is pulling out men for defense duties.
    • Mace tells Robbie that he'll be selected and tells him to start limping between his two comrades, leaning on them for support. Robbie isn't proud, but he follows the advice. He's super determined to get home.
    • A little farther down the road Nettle decides he can't take another step in his boots with his blisters, so he takes them off and throws them away.
    • Robbie collects Nettle's boots after declaring that they've got a long way to go still. As a favor to Robbie, Nettle agrees to carry the boots around his neck. Some favor.
    • As the soldiers keep walking, Robbie grows delirious. His wound still pulses and it seems he might have developed a fever.
    • Finally—finally—they arrive at the beach in Dunkirk. Phew.
    • Oh but wait… there don't seem to be any boats. Nope. Just one old useless whaler lolling about in the distance. Oh—and at least twenty thousand men.
    • This is what Robbie and Nettle and Mace have been walking toward, one agonizing step after another, for days. We're gonna go ahead and call this a disappointment of epic proportions.
    • The men are parched so they head away from the beach and into a bar, hoping to find water or something to drink. There isn't anything there, though, but some free cigarettes and tons of soldiers.
    • While in the bar, Robbie overhears a snippet of conversation that says there were boats yesterday and there's the possibility of more boats tomorrow.
    • A group of men is threatening an RAF (Royal Air Force) man because they're angry at the RAF for not protecting the soldiers better from enemy air fire during the retreat.
    • The man does not speak, and the crowd grows increasingly violent.
    • Mace, in an effort to protect the man, shouts that he wants to throw the guy in the sea. He grabs the guy and rushes out the door. Nettle and Robbie block the door for a second as Mace escapes.
    • Robbie and Nettle look for Mace, but can't find him.
    • They meet a gypsy woman and ask her for water. She's wary of the men and tells them she will give them water if they capture her escaped pig.
    • Nettle doesn't want to, but Robbie feels that he needs to get the pig in order to be sure he'll be saved.
    • Let's just say they don't catch the pig quickly. When they finally do, though, the woman gives them water and food, and helps them clean up.
    • Robbie and Nettle look for a place to sleep and finally find a cellar already crowded with men.
    • In the dark they are able to eat and drink without the other men taking their food.
    • Robbie becomes more delirious as his fever rages on, and his morale slips even as he tries to conjure Cecilia and think about his name being cleared by Briony. He is haunted by the things he has seen in the war.
    • Nettle tells him to be quiet—Robbie has been shouting without knowing it.
    • Nettle tells Robbie he looks terrible and makes him drink some water.
    • Robbie obliges, though he thinks the water tastes terrible, and tries to pull himself together in hopes of seeming better than he feels.
    • He tells Nettle he'll be staying on in France to tend to some unfinished business. Nettle sees how much his friend is struggling and tells Robbie that he has seen the navy and that they are coming to take them home tomorrow. It seems like a lie, but it soothes Robbie.
    • Robbie remembers in detail the exchange he had with Cecilia before getting into the police car all those years ago. He remembers her promise to wait for him, how much her words meant to him—how much they still mean.
    • He promises Nettle he'll keep quiet and asks his friend to wake him in the morning.
  • Part Three (Chapter 16)

    Part Three

    • The hospital that Briony is training in has been slowly emptying for days. What at first seemed like a sudden surge in good health, now seems like preparation for something bigger coming their way.
    • Briony and her fellow trainees live in constant fear of being reprimanded by Sister Drummond for their mistakes. Lately, though, the trainees' errors seem to be unnoticed.
    • Flashback to earlier: Sister Drummond viciously reprimands a trainee for revealing her first name to an appendectomy patient. And by viciously, we mean that half of the girls in the room were in tears before she was finished. Yikes.
    • And back to the present moment again: Work is intensifying, and the trainees spend their days scrubbing and sorting and unpacking supplies. Sent out on an errand, Briony notices that the same seems to be happening in other wards too.
    • Briony is sort-of friends with a trainee named Fiona, who looks a little like Lola. They don't have much time to really get to know each other, though, so they're friends in the same way that you were friends with the kid next door growing up because, well, she lived next door.
    • The trainees' regimen is meant to reduce them to anonymity and strip away their selves. The young nurses are both constantly monitored and completely exhausted by day's end.
    • Briony likes being obedient and having little time to think much.
    • In her letters home, Briony says very little. It is immensely important to her that this time be hers for working toward her own independence.
    • Emily, on the other hand, writes letters filled with questions (which Briony doesn't answer) and talks about the evacuees staying in their house. Here's a shocker for you—Emily doesn't seem super thrilled about hosting the evacuees. It's better than having the army take over the property, though, which almost happened.
    • Every night before bed Briony writes in her journal. We've got to give the girl credit for her dedication to her craft.
    • Has Briony stopped making things up, you wonder? Nope. She changes the names of the cast of characters that fills her days and this opens her up to explore who these people might all really be, building stories about their thoughts and lives.
    • She has written a novella, which she delivered to the new magazine Horizon.
    • The story is about impressions, and avoids plot. She thinks it's quite the modern undertaking and is pretty pleased with herself.
    • She has not, however, heard from Horizon for three months.
    • Also unheard from is Cecilia. Briony wrote to her months ago and is starting to suspect that silence might be Cecilia's answer.
    • At the end of May, the hospital begins receiving even more medical supplies. The trainees are worked relentlessly, with barely any time between work and classes to collect themselves or their things.
    • Briony realizes that the changes at the hospital aren't simply standard war preparations but preparations for an influx of soldiers following the army's retreat. Things have not gone well in France.
    • A letter arrives from her father saying that Paul Marshall and Lola Quincey are about to be married.
    • Briony feels responsible for Paul and Lola's union and realizes that no amount of work will rid her of the guilt she feels.
    • This stirs an unusual desire in her to speak to her father and she wonders if his writing to tell her about the upcoming wedding was his way of letting her know that he knows the truth about that night.
    • She tries repeatedly to call, but the call keeps dropping. As she runs back to the hospital so as not to be late, she realizes that this moment of running is the first time she's felt free in a long time.
    • The trainees are given a surprise half-day off, and so Briony and Fiona head out together for a walk and some tea before sitting down to listen to a band.
    • Briony worries that Robbie might be dead in France, and wonders whether her sister could survive such horrible news.
    • When they get close to the hospital, Briony and Fiona see trucks and ambulances. It seems their influx of patients has arrived.
    • Briony is ordered to help carry a stretcher, which she almost drops.
    • She leads a bunch of men into a ward and tries to keep them from lying down before they are cleaned, but they ignore her and promptly find beds for themselves. A nurse tells her not to worry about it, that sleep is more important than procedure for these tired and wounded men.
    • Briony cleans the leg wound of a corporal. It's very painful for him, but she is relieved to find he doesn't have gangrene. A nurse compliments her work, then tells her to work more quickly.
    • Next Briony removes shrapnel from a man. He is reprimanded by a nurse for screaming an obscenity as Briony removes the fragments… which seems kind of harsh. If you can't scream obscenities when you're having shrapnel removed from your leg, when can you scream obscenities?
    • And more carnage. Briony dresses the face-wound of another man; she treats a burn victim; she is told to talk to a French boy—Luc—because she speaks a bit of French, but he mistakes her for his sweetheart in his delirium.
    • At Luc's request, Briony adjusts his dressing. And discovers that much of his head has been shot away. Eek and ick.
    • He asks her if she loves him and she says yes. She tries to tell him her first name, and he dies.
    • When the nurses are given a rest, Briony returns wordlessly with Fiona to their rooms. After today, both girls are changed.
    • There is a letter waiting for Briony, but she doesn't open it immediately. Instead she thinks about Luc and imagines a life with him.
    • The letter is from Horizon and thanks Briony for her story, "Two Figures by a Fountain." It says that the story is too long to be printed, and that they have decided they cannot excerpt it either.
    • The letter also says, however, that the editors were very interested in her story, which—it turns out—is a disguised version of Cecilia and Robbie's encounter by the fountain that Briony watched from her bedroom window all those years ago.
    • The editor suggests that the story needs more plot, and that the little girl watching might have come between the lovers in some way. Hey, wait a second—it's kind of like this editor is talking about the book we're reading!
    • He encourages her to submit again or visit the office.
    • The hospital shifts become more regular, and the bombing of London grows more certain. Briony continues to work away in the hospital.
    • On her day off, Briony walks through London. Street signs and bus destinations have been removed to confuse invaders if they come.
    • While walking, Briony thinks about her rejected story, and decides that it is evasive and that she was trying to avoid her guilt when she wrote it.
    • Some guys whistle at her and some kids get in her way. Standard walk stuff.
    • Briony's walk meanders through the streets and her thoughts before finally landing her at Marshall and Lola's wedding. When she walks in, she realizes it is an intimate ceremony and that she has no business being there. She stays to watch anyway, though. Classic Briony.
    • Flashback to Lola walking into Briony's room in tears, her body bruised and scratched, and to the scratch on Paul Marshall's face and Lola's silence in the dark by the temple where Briony found her.
    • Briony concludes that Lola must have tricked herself into loving Paul Marshall in order to escape the shame she felt after being raped, and that Briony facilitated Lola doing so by taking the reins in Lola's moment of crisis and blaming Robbie.
    • Briony imagines standing up to protest at the wedding, but does not.
    • Lola sees her and recognizes her on the way out, but Marshall and Lola's mother, Hermione, do not seem to know who she is.
    • And time to do the British thing: Briony gets some tea and toast at a café.
    • Leaving the café, she imagines herself splitting into two, with one Briony walking back to the hospital and the other going up to a door and knocking.
    • We follow the Briony at the door.
    • When the door opens, Briony asks for Cecilia and the landlady tells her they look alike before calling for her sister.
    • When Cecilia comes downstairs, she is shocked to see Briony.
    • Brief discussion about where they are working as nurses ensues, and Briony tells Cecilia some news from home.
    • The landlady demands they go inside Cecilia's room or leave, and Cecilia reprimands her in a voice that makes Briony sure that she's a ward sister.
    • Inside Cecilia's room, Briony learns that her sister has talked to a lawyer, and that there will be no retrial even if Briony recants her accusations against Robbie.
    • Cecilia explains that the death of the older Hardman means there can be no change. Briony does not understand what Hardman has to do with it and says that she will tell the truth even if there can be no trial.
    • She calls her sister "Cee" and Cecilia snaps at her, forbidding her from using this term of endearment (fast fact: it's the name she uses to sign her letters to Robbie).
    • Cecilia explains to Briony that just because she feels like telling the truth now doesn't mean the court will believe her. Briony's already shown herself to be an unreliable witness. The damage, in short, is done.
    • Briony tells her sister that she doesn't expect her to forgive her and Cecilia's all like "don't worry, I won't."
    • All of a sudden Robbie comes out of the other room. Oh hey there, Robbie!
    • Briony is shocked to see him there and relieved to see him alive. For his part, though, Robbie doesn't even recognize Briony at first.
    • When he does realize who is visiting, though, Robbie unleashes some anger on Briony. In fairness, she's totally got it coming. She tells him that she knows he didn't assault Lola, and he wonders why she has not told everyone already.
    • Robbie is overcome with memories of the war and Cecilia does her best to comfort him.
    • Cecilia tells Briony that Robbie must report for duty soon, so the three of them don't have much time. Robbie and Cecilia have some things they'd like Briony to do for them. Seems pretty fair given the circumstances.
    • Robbie and Cecilia tell Briony that she must tell the Tallis parents the truth, make an official statement before a witness, and then write a long letter explaining everything that happened in the greatest detail possible and send it to Robbie. She agrees.
    • Briony explains to Cecilia and Robbie that it was Paul Marshall, not Danny Hardman, who raped Lola. She then tells them Lola and Marshall are married.
    • Not much to say after that, so they leave the house. Briony apologizes for causing Robbie and Cecilia such distress. They are, as you might imagine, not super impressed.
    • Briony leaves them, and is comforted by the fact that their love has survived.
    • She determines to begin her letter, or the new draft of the story—an atonement if you will (wink, wink)—which will become her novel.
    • The chapter ends with the signature "BT, London, 1999," which suggests that it's Briony who has written every word we've just read.
  • London, 1999 (Chapter 17)

    London, 1999

    • Briony is narrating thisafterward in first person. She says that it is her 77th birthday. Happy birthday, Briony.
    • She decides to go to the Keeper of Documents to donate some letters from Mr. Nettle—presumably the same corporal Robbie traveled with during the war.
    • The doctor has informed her that she has vascular dementia and will lose her memory over the next couple of years. Her mind will go and then she will die.
    • Weirdly, Briony isn't sad, but excited, and feels she must tell all her friends.
    • She takes a cab across town, passing the house where her father lived after his second marriage and the house where Leon nursed his second wife and raised his children.
    • She notes that in her account of her time as a nurse, she merged experiences at three different hospitals into one. She notes that this was one of her more minor deviations from the truth. Good to know…
    • When she gets out of the cab, she sees Lord Marshall and Lady Marshall (a.k.a. Paul and Lola) leaving the museum to get into their Rolls Royce.
    • Though Paul looks frail, she realizes that Lola is still very healthy. With her diagnosis, Lola will outlive her.
    • That Lola will outlive Briony means that Briony won't see her book published in her own lifetime. Instead, at the urging of her editor, she'll wait to have it published after Lola dies.
    • Off to the Keeper of Documents Briony goes, where she looks at notes provided by an old colonel. He suggests several changes. All the changes refer to passages in the novel (it's a kind of puzzle to figure out where they're from exactly… if you enjoy that sort of thing).
    • Back at home, Briony packs for a trip.
    • She mentions a photograph taken in Marseille of her husband, Thierry, who is dead now.
    • While waiting for her cab to arrive, Briony considers Lola further, marveling at how the woman will outlive her and again noting that she won't be able to publish during her lifetime.
    • The cab arrives and, when it stops, it lets Briony out at her childhood home.
    • The house is a hotel now, and Briony is given Auntie Venus's old room, the same room Paul Marshall stayed in during his fated visit.
    • Charles, Pierrot's grandson, calls to say he will come by in a bit to take her down to the party.
    • In the ballroom, Charles takes Briony around. She sees Leon and Pierrot and other relatives. The party is for Briony and she seems to enjoy the warmth with which everyone greets her.
    • Children perform The Trials of Arabella, the play Briony was writing at the beginning of the novel back when she was thirteen, and Briony is pretty thrilled if mildly critical of her young self.
    • Pierrot dissolves into tears. Briony wonders if he is remembering his parents' divorce, or his long-dead brother, or some combination of the two and the disappointment he shared with his brother when the play was canceled all those years ago.
    • The party over, Briony returns to her room. She says that her manuscript—which we've just read—includes real names and dates. The Marshalls will certainly sue so long as they are alive, so no one will publish it until after their death.
    • Briony says that in earlier drafts her lovers died, but that now she does not see the point in killing them anymore.
    • In earlier drafts, Briony wrote the truth: Robbie Turner died of an infection while waiting for evacuation from Dunkirk, and Cecilia died in September of that year when Germans bombed the Balham Underground station.
    • Also in earlier drafts, Briony turned back toward the hospital before going to meet her sister, who was recently bereaved.
    • Briony thinks that there is no way for novelists to achieve atonement. They are like God—in total command and with no one above them to offer forgiveness. The point of Briony's atonement, then, is that she tried to make up for her sins, not that she succeeded in doing so.
    • She imagines Robbie and Cecilia alive and watching The Trials of Arabella with her that evening in the library, and then she goes to sleep.