Study Guide

Atonement Part Three (Chapter 16)

By Ian McEwan

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.