Study Guide

Atonement Chapter 1

By Ian McEwan

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.