Study Guide

Atonement Family

By Ian McEwan

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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.

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