Study Guide

Atonement London, 1999 (Chapter 17)

By Ian McEwan

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.