Ian McEwan is held in high esteem as an author and won the 1998 Booker prize for his novel Amsterdam. Atonement lives up to these high standards, being short-listed for the 2001 Booker Prize and was awarded the best fiction novel of the year by Time Magazine. Atonement is acknowledged to be one of Ian McEwan’s finest works offering a love story, a war story and a story of whether atonement is achievable. We read so much of Briony’s search for it and so little of the result of that search, that perhaps the point of the book is her need for atonement and not whether she found it or not. The ambiguity of giving the story two possible endings is a very effective and clever device used by McEwan; this, in turn, may leave him open to criticisms by readers who are left frustrated at there being no satisfactory conclusion as to whether atonement was ever achieved.
The work operates on a number of levels. It has a strong narrative and is written with tremendous descriptive power dealing with complex themes and examining the creative act of storytelling via the shared, self-reflection of the main protagonist, Briony Tallis, a budding author. At the beginning of the novel, Briony is a girl of thirteen her mind filled with romantic stories containing morally certain scenarios; she views the world around her through the same filters and is over-confident in her ability to judge events. When she observes a strange interaction between her sister, Cecilia, and Robbie, the cleaning lady’s son, she misinterprets the situation as threatening for her sister. This impression is reinforced when she later interrupts them in the secluded library having an amorous embrace, which she construes as an assault. Later that night a girl cousin is raped on the grounds, and Briony, arriving on the scene just as the rapist is leaving, “knows” that the perpetrator is Robbie, even though she cannot actually identify him in the darkness.
Lola, the victim, fails to contradict this assertion for motives of her own. As a result of Briony’s evidence, Robbie is wrongfully convicted. This then is Briony’s crime, for which she spends the rest of her life trying to atone. Briony lives in a world of fantasy and romance; she is very controlling and secretive. The secret drawer in her cabinet and the way she organizes the animals in her model farm highlight these aspects. The scene in which Cecilia jumps into the fountain is a key scene in the novel and marks a turning point in Briony’s perception of herself and of the world. Her sister’s actions are so out of character that she can only make sense of them by assuming that Robbie has some sort of malevolent power over Cecilia. This view is confirmed later when she discovers them in the library, making love pressed up against a bookcase. In her naivetï¿½ she interprets this as an assault by Robbie on her sister.
Suddenly the real world was more mysterious and fascinating than her fantasies. Speaking later – as a famous 77-year-old author – Briony claimed that this was “the moment when she became recognizably herself” and realized how easy it is to “get everything wrong.” McEwan closely links Briony’s crime, and her subsequent search for atonement, with her self-conscious desire to be an author. In the build-up to the assault on Lola, Briony repeatedly reflects on how she is emerging from childhood into adulthood. To her, rejecting fairy tales in favour of a mature understanding of “real life” is a crucial step in her literary aspirations and her personal development. Briony is over-confident in her ability to read real-life situations correctly, and her over-active imagination, As McEwan puts it, leads to her guilt in accusing Robbie of attacking Zola. McEwan cleverly repeats terms that paint Briony as an author concocting a work of fiction or an actor in a play of her own making.
When Robbie hands her the envelopes containing the draft of his note to Cecilia, Briony is thrilled that the fates have indeed presented her with a real, dramatic event; she is unable to resist opening the envelopes and read the letter. She is deeply shocked by the obscenity, and based on her incomplete understanding of adult sexuality; decides that Robbie is a maniac, and is planning to harm her sister. Briony retreats so she can “frame the opening paragraph of a story” about him. She “casts herself as her sister’s protector”, and she begins to dream up ways she can ‘conjure Robbie safely on paper.’ In her own mind, her powers as an author are God-like. She excuses herself for reading Cecilia’s letter by claiming she must know everything. When she comes across Lola by the lake with the half-seen figure retreating into the dark, she claims to understand everything immediately.
As the author of her own truth, Briony establishes the facts of Robbie’s guilt based on her own preconceptions about him. She goes to Cecilia’s room and retrieves the obscene letter, and hands it over to the police. This action demonstrates that at some level Briony knows what she is doing; she is trying to prejudice the police, and the rest of the family, with the same circumstantial information that influenced her. Soon, even if Briony had wanted to modify or withdraw her accusations, they take on a power of their own. She admits to having doubts once she is asked to repeat the accusation over and over again to the police and eventually the courts, but she does not “seriously try” to amend her story – partly because she “lacks courage”, and partly because she enjoys her “vital role” at “centre-stage” in the unfolding drama. Her story more important to her than the truth, and in the logic of McEwan’s narrative, this has significant implications for her search for atonement, which when defined is reparation and reconciliation for wrongdoing, literally becoming “at one” with persons to whom you have done wrong.
At the beginning of part two of the novel, Robbie receives a letter from Cecilia while he is serving in the army in France telling him that Briony has been in contact offering to retract her accusations against him officially. Five years on, having served most of that time in prison for a crime he did not commit and having had his blossoming love for Cecilia frustrated by enforced absence, Robbie responds cynically. He believes immediately that Briony’s desire for “absolution” is not for his benefit, but for her own, to ease her own conscience. Back in London, the reader learns Briony is living in self-imposed exile from her family, copying Cecilia’s retreat from Robbie’s accusers by following her sister into nursing. She bears the hardships of being a student nurse as a penance for the wrong she knows she has done, but her inner thoughts reveal she still views herself as a character creating her own story. Rather than concentrating on how she can make up for the hurt caused to Cecilia and Robbie, she still sees herself as “an important writer in disguise”.
Her first attempt at getting published, Two Figures by a Fountain, is the story of the day she saw Robbie and Cecilia break the vase by the fountain. She is using their story for her own ends, and yet, as the reader discovers from her rejection letter from Horizon, she has not even been honest enough to admit how her misunderstanding of the scene came between the two lovers. Her search for atonement is linked to her writing a new chapter in her life story and suggests that it is the self-conscious process of seeking atonement that matters to Briony rather than any real desire to be reconciled with Cecilia and Robbie. When she visits her sister’s flat, Briony admits that she is shocked to be accused of lying to get Robbie convicted. Even now, she clings to her younger self’s belief in the fantasies she concocted as some kind of justification for accusing Robbie, despite him pointing out that she failed to act on her own uncertainties about the truth of what she said.
Once instructed by Cecilia and Robbie as to the steps she must take to clear Robbie’s name, Briony ends the penultimate section of the novel talking about writing “a new draft, and atonement”. But, in the light of what follows in the novel’s final section, the fact that Cecilia nor Robbie acknowledge Briony’s apology, and Cecilia’s earlier declaration that she will never forgive her sister, perhaps suggest the reader should be cautious in seeing this as atonement achieved. The ‘alternative ending’, which switches to a first-person narrative told by Briony 59 years later, confirms that, for her, the important thing all along has been the process of ‘drafting’ her own search for atonement, rather than its actual achievement. Briony is now an old woman, celebrating her 77th birthday by returning to her family home (now a hotel) for a family celebration. But this return offers no reconciliation, largely due to Cecilia and Robbie’s absence from the scene. Briony tells the reader that the story they have just read is her creation, the results of her 59-year search for atonement through writing. But she also draws explicit attention to the fact that it is a work of fiction.
Cecilia and Robbie both died having never met again after he was imprisoned. Their love did not save Briony’s guilt by enacting its own atonement, and as she admits, the hope of reconciliation at the end is nothing but a neat narrative device to achieve a satisfactory conclusion. In Briony’s view, her long search for atonement through writing the story of Cecilia and Robbie has borne fruit because, as she puts it, the story will survive the reality. The fact that McEwan breaks from the main narrative just at the point where Briony is about to achieve atonement means the novel ends on an ambiguous note. The ageing Briony seems happy that her story has achieved something in terms of putting right the wrongs of the past. But on the other hand, she admits to herself that it is only a story and that Robbie and Cecilia were never reconciled, which suggests that atonement in ‘real’ terms is impossible. She has written her
story out of a need to find atonement, and writing the novel has been her search for it. But she herself admits to the futility of that search when she asks, “how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?” Briony’s ultimate satisfaction with the novel implies she feels reconciled with herself through writing it – it is the search for atonement, which has been all-important. But, as the final twist in McEwan’s novel implies, the results of that search are just fiction. Giving the story two possible endings is unsatisfactory for many readers, but this too is a device used by McEwan. It is not he who has created the false, happy ending, but Briony, the novelist, as part of her search for atonement. I find it difficult to conclude that any real atonement has been achieved, in my mind Briony’s actions throw up more questions than answers. She is an acclaimed author facing death, is her life so awful as an adult that atonement for something she did, as a child is required for her life to continue? With the two people involved both dead, is an attempt at atonement not futile anyway?
During the final chapter, McEwan appears unsure how to conclude his own novel, which may explain the ambiguity of having two possible endings, leaving the final conclusions on whether Briony ever achieves atonement to be made by the reader. Did Briony ever achieve atonement? It seems not. When writing in the first person as a 77-year-old, she is facing mental deterioration and will die before Lola, and the novel, her attempt at atonement, will not be published in her lifetime. Her sister and Robbie died before they could spend any meaningful time with one another so it is hard to see how atonement is remotely possible under those circumstances; perhaps the point of the book is her need for it, not whether she found it or not. Briony herself gives the answer: ” No atonement for God, for novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.”