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Atonement: The Downward Spiral of Childhood

Ian McEwan’s Atonement is a historical fiction that explores the themes of love, betrayal, and culpability. The author delves into these themes, which are common to literary tradition, and opts for an omniscient narrator that follows the stories of the characters. McEwan, an author known for existential themes and tragic plots, examines the power of individual actions and the consequences of those actions on one's own fate as well as that of others. In other words, for the author, the determining factor is not the ending, but the action that precipitates or alters the order of things. In this sense, this article will analyze the origin of the downward spiral of the main characters of the novel and to what extent their lives were determined by a factor apparently external to them.

Atonement is a tragic love story in which there are two main agents: on the one hand, Briony, a little girl who destroys her older sister’s happiness, and, on the other hand, the catastrophic consequences of World War II that annihilated the hopes and dreams of an entire generation. The first part of the novel starts on a summer day in which Cecilia and Robbie, the main couple, have just started a relationship when Cecilia’s cousin, Lola, is raped. The author helps the reader to figure out who the real rapist is thanks to the bird's-eye view of the events provided by the narrator. To everyone's surprise, Briony accuses Robbie, who ends up going to jail, putting an end to his expectations of a better and happier life with Cecilia (O’Dwyer, 2016). The second part of the novel starts with the British troops in Dunkirk during World War II. Robbie exchanges prison for the war trenches, whereas Cecilia has started working as a nurse in a hospital and has cut all contact with her family (Ganteau, 2017). However, Briony becomes a nurse to reunite with her sister and ask for her forgiveness (Turcu, 2015). The final act follows Briony who still works in a hospital where she meets several soldiers from Dunkirk. In the end, the reader discovers that the novel is Briony’s confession and not an accurate historical narration from an objective narrator.

Figure 1. Briony in Atonement. 2007. Joe Wright.

In the novel, the characters fall from a state of grace and start a downward spiral, particularly Briony. She is involved in an incident that causes a dramatic change in the life of others and she is never able to get over it (Turcu, 2015). Briony witnesses Cecilia and Robbie making love in the library and her childish and innocent mind completely misunderstands what is really happening. She interprets the act as violent based on her little girl's perception of lust and desire. From this moment on, the destiny of the three main characters begins to be traced based solely on the inexperience of a young girl.

The novel examines the binary concepts of love/loss, absence/presence, and sadness/ecstasy through the eyes of a little girl who ends up being a tormented woman (Pyrhonen, 2012). The absent love is not Briony’s lover, but rather the failed relationship between Cecilia and Robbie (Turcu, 2015). The novel is a letter of atonement from Briony’s part, written to the main couple. It is also an attack against other people who shared the blame, such as her parents, her brother, and the police.

Figure 2. Cecilia and Robbie in Atonement. 2007. Joe Wright.

In Atonement, the downward spiral is not a punishment for a person’s sins, but rather the law of the talion, in which a person that has sinned is penalized according to their actions. Briony destroys her sister’s happiness and is responsible for remediating the situation. Yet, Briony cannot undo her actions and, thus, she cannot reunite Cecilia and Robbie (Turcu, 2015). However, she can create an imaginary story in which they have their happily ever after. Briony is never forgiven by her sister and Robbie which causes great torment to her and leads the character to fictionalize their story. In this way, she finally gives Cecilia and Robbie the happy ending that they longed for by writing a love story. In the end, Briony Tallis carries her mistake throughout her life because she remains a witness to the unalterable past.

Briony's quest for atonement begins the moment she realizes the consequences of her actions. As she slowly matures, she is searching for a way to redeem herself for being not only a liar but also incapable of empathy for Cecilia and Robbie (Turcu, 2015). For the author, childhood is not a world of innocence or the ideal state of mind before entering adulthood (O’Dwyer, 2016). In Atonement, childhood is related to sin as it corresponds with jealousy and refusal to accept the fairy-tale world. When observing Cecilia and Robbie, Briony is shocked to find out that is not her love story that she witnesses but her sister’s. She is also in love with him and cannot stand Robbie’s love for Cecilia. She even tries to drown herself in the river so that she can have Robbie’s attention. Thus, for McEwan, childhood is not exempt from sin or corruption. Evidently, Briony is not fully aware of the consequences of her actions, but neither is she the harmless bystander she might appear to be (Pyrhonen, 2012). Having been brought up hearing tales of happy endings, she is unable to understand that in real life one cannot get everything one wants and, therefore, she cannot have Robbie.

Figure 3. Robbie and Briony in Atonement. 2007. Joe Wright.

In conclusion, the novel deals with a delusion, an irrepressible desire to be loved, and the fact that love is not always reciprocal. Atonement presents a couple that loses its equilibrium and is exiled from Eden under extremely unfair circumstances (O’Dwyer, 2016). In the novel, the couple’s love comes to an end only for the events of one night: the false accusation. Robbie’s friendly relationship with Briony will unleash a series of terrible acts against him: his imprisonment and his enrolment in the army (Ganteau, 2017). The downward spiral ends in tragic death: both Robbie and Cecilia die in the war, far away from each other and the only place they can ever be together is a fictional space, the figment of imagination of the very person who separated them forever.

Bibliographical References

Ganteau, J.M. (2017). Of Wounds and Secrets: Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Etudes Anglaises, 70(3), 339–353.

O’Dwyer, E. (2016). Of Letters, Love, and Lack: A Lacanian Analysis of Ian McEwan’s Epistolary Novel Atonement. Critique - Bolingbroke Society, 57(2), 178–190.

Pyrhonen, H. (2012). Purloined Letters in Ian McEwan’s “Atonement.” Mosaic (Winnipeg), 45(4), 103–118.

Turcu A.E. (2015). Veiled Truth In Enduring Love And Atonement. Messages, Sages, and Ages : Proceedings of the ... International Conference on British and American Studies, 2(2), 38–47.

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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