Study Guide

Atonement Literature and Writing

By Ian McEwan

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.