Study Guide

Atonement Themes

  • Coming of Age

    Atonement covers 64 years, which is long enough to do a serious amount of growing up. Everybody who wants to grow up in the book—Lola, who paints her toenails and wears perfume; Briony, who wants to learn all about how adults feel so she can write it down; Robbie, who wants to be free and pursue his own ambitions; Cecilia, who wanders around moping and smoking waiting for her life to start—gets old. Every single one of them—even those who actually died before they had a chance, thanks to Briony's novel.

    So does all this growing up and getting old make them happy? Well… that's another question…

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. How is Cecilia's coming of age in the novel similar to Lola's coming of age? How is it different?
    2. In what ways is Briony at the end of the novel different from her younger self? In what ways is she the same?
    3. In novels, men are often presented as becoming adults by going to war. Does the war make Robbie a man? How about Briony and Cecilia?

    Chew on This

    Atonement shows that being an adult is a dream you have when you're a child, and being a child is a dream you have when you're an adult.

    The one person who is stuck in perpetual childhood in the novel is Emily Tallis.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    The name of the book is Atonement, so you know it's a story about trying to get forgiveness for your sins. Those sins are, oddly, mostly about making up stories. And the way you try to get forgiveness is also by making up stories. Briony did wrong by imagining that Robbie raped her cousin. Then she writes a fictionalized novel about how he didn't rape her cousin to atone for it. Paul, on the other hand, doesn't say anything about his own sin from first to last, and doesn't seem to feel the need for forgiveness either. Maybe atonement only works in a story. Just like you can't have a beginning without an end, you can't have forgiveness without a tale that tells you what you did wrong.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Is Briony's novel an act of compassion? Or is it presumptuous of her to pretend to know what Robbie and Cecilia were feeling?
    2. Besides Briony, Paul, and Lola, who else in the novel commits crimes or sins? Robbie? Jack Tallis? Cecilia? Anyone else? What do they do wrong? How do they go about seeking forgiveness, if at all?
    3. Did Lola forgive Paul? Should she have? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Briony is an awesome person who wrote her novel to make up for what a jerk she was.

    Briony is a jerk who wrote her novel to show how awesome she is.

  • Dreams, Hopes and Plans

    Expressing a dream or a hope or a plan in Atonement is a pretty sure way to have the novel drop a heap of misery in your lap. Briony sets out to stage an awesome play; Robbie decides to head off to medical school; Cecilia tells Robbie to come back to her—and what are the results? Pffft, nyah-nyah, and argh. The only person who manages to have all his dreams come true is Paul Marshall—and that's hardly a feel-good outcome.

    Oh, yeah. Briony seems to be on the money when she says she's going to sink into dementia and death at the end of the novel. So that's cheery, though probably not the end of life she's originally hoped for.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes and Plans

    1. Briony hopes to be a writer, and her dream comes true. How are her fulfilled dreams related to the dreams she has that don't come true?
    2. Grace Turner tells fortunes on the side to make extra money. Do her predictions about her own life ever work out?
    3. How are dreams related to class in the novel? Do rich people have better success in fulfilling their dreams? Provide evidence from the novel for your answer.

    Chew on This

    In the novel, memories of the past—such as when Robbie remembers Cecilia in the fountain, or when Briony remembers her childhood—are also in some ways hopes for the future.

    If Briony was really sorry for what she'd done, she should have given up storytelling and her dreams of being a writer.

  • Literature and Writing

    As you might have heard us mention before, Atonement is literature about literature. It's writing about writing. It turns back and bites its own tail, like a flexible yoga dog. Briony writes the novel within the novel, of course, as well as the play in the novel and even a novella in the novel. But there's also Robbie's X-rated note that precedes the X-rated business he gets into with Cecilia. And then there are the letters between Robbie and Cecilia when he's in prison, in which they communicate their love by talking about great literary lovers past. Atonement is like walking into a library and having all the books jump up and down shouting at you to read some other book. And yes, there are lots of references to libraries in Atonement too.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Pick a scene from one of the first three parts of the book. How does your reading of it change when you realize that the scene is written by Briony? (For example, do you start to question whether some details are true or not?)
    2. The last performance of The Trials of Arabella takes place in the Tallis family library. Why is this significant?
    3. In chapter 8, Robbie tries to understand his love for Cecilia by talking about books. Does he try to understand his war experiences by talking about books? Is war more real than love? Is something more real or less real if we read about it?

    Chew on This

    Briony becomes a more moral person over the course of the book by becoming a better writer.

    Atonement shows that writers can't be trusted at all. Take away their typewriters and feed them gruel and water.

  • Family

    On the one hand, family in Atonement is peace and happiness and mom reading the play you read out loud while hugging you and doing all the voices. On the other hand, family is a multi-tentacled monster that grabs you by the feet and pulls you down into a boggy pit of jealousy and neurosis and unpleasantness. Emily never gets over hating her sister Hermione. Jack Tallis betrays his wife. Everybody she's related to betrays Cecilia. Families are a mess. But then in the last scene Briony's happily surrounded by cousins and nieces and distant relations once removed. Families: can't live with them, can't stop them from writing books about you.

    Questions About Family

    1. How is Emily's relationship with her sister Hermione similar to Briony's relationship with Lola? How is it different?
    2. Is Cecilia right to break with her family? Why or why not?
    3. How does Cecilia try to take Emily's place as a mother in the novel? Does Briony see Cecilia as her mom in some ways? What effect does that have on her?

    Chew on This

    Briony is just like her mother, which is why she makes everyone miserable.

    Virtually all the parents in the novel are absent, which is why the kids get into so much trouble.

  • Sex

    There are basically two sex acts in the novel, and they're both really important. The first is when Robbie and Cecilia have their sweetly scandalous encounter in the library, and the second is the even more scandalous but not even a little bit sweet assault of Lola by Paul Marshall. Briony is a witness to both—and misunderstands both completely, to the detriment of everybody (except Paul). You could say sex causes a lot of grief in the book. But really it's more that the stories around sex that Briony (and Lola) only half know are inadequate and messed up. It's not so much sex as what people think about sex that dooms poor Robbie—and lets that jerk Paul get off scot free. (See our "Steaminess Rating" section for more discussion.)

    Questions About Sex

    1. Cecilia and Lola are both confused about their own sexual desire. How is that confusion different? What effects does it have?
    2. Briony thinks it's yucky when she finds out that Robbie is imagining having sex with Cecilia. Is it yucky when Briony (who is writing the novel, remember) imagines Cecilia and Robbie having sex?
    3. We learn a lot about Robbie's sexual desire in the novel, but nothing about Paul's. Would the novel be stronger or weaker if this were reversed?

    Chew on This

    Briony is jealous of Cecilia's sexual relationship with Robbie, which is why she falsely accused him.

    Briony wasn't jealous of Cecilia; she was just really confused about sex.

  • Versions of Reality

    When you see "versions of reality," you might start thinking about science-fiction and fantasy and phasers and Jedis and hobbits. There aren't any phasers or Jedis in Atonement, though. The different versions of reality here are more like different perspectives, mixed up with dreams and hopes and fears. Leon's version of reality is one in which everybody is nice and friendly. Emily lies in her bed and imagines what everybody else is doing throughout the house. And of course Briony writes a novel which is one version of reality, telling some things truly and tweaking others. She doesn't put in any hobbits, but she does add a couple of ghosts.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. In the last few paragraphs of the novel (see our "What's Up With the Ending?" section), Briony talks about earlier drafts of the book. Do you think those drafts would have been better or worse? Would they have been more real?
    2. Is The Trials of Arabella a version of reality? If so, how is it similar or different to the version of reality in Atonement? If not, why not?
    3. Does everybody have their own version of reality? If so, are some versions of reality more real than others? Is Luc's version of reality less real than Leon's, for example? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Briony is a liar who makes up her own version of reality rather than sticking to facts.

    The French writer Albert Camus said "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth." That describes Atonement perfectly.

  • Warfare

    Often times, war in literature is presented as horrible, but it at least allows for some exciting plotting. If you're at war, you're doing something. Not so much in Atonement, though. There aren't any battles here—just a messy retreat and people being shot at. War isn't so much a plot itself as an ugly barrier in the middle of the plot. Briony the novelist, like Briony the nurse, ends up having to clean up after the war, bandaging up the story she wants to tell where war has torn it apart. If war gets in the way of people's plans, then maybe it isn't a story itself but something that ruins other stories.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. How is the second section of the novel different from the first in terms of setting? Point of view? Chapter divisions? Action? What effect do these differences have, and how are they related to the theme of war?
    2. How is the war similar to prison for Robbie?
    3. Toward the end of the novel, Briony talks about the way that war is often seen as men's business. Do women have different experiences of war in Atonement? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    Robbie and Cecilia's tragedy is the fault of the war, not of Briony.

    The second part of the novel, with Robbie's war experiences, is the least interesting part of the book because it's the one in which hardly anything happens that matters to the main story.