Study Guide

Atonement Sex

By Ian McEwan

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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.

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