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Atonement | Context

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Self-Reflexive Novels

Atonement follows in the literary tradition of the self-reflexive novel, or novel about its own writing. Within the narrative of Atonement, it is revealed that the novel in the reader's hands is a product of Briony's guilt over having ruined her sister's romance. In the last chapter, Briony claims to have gone through several drafts over the course of her life (including an early novella that is rejected by publishers), but that the current draft will most likely be her last, because of the onset of dementia. This is, of course, a mere literary conceit on the part of Ian McEwan, as Briony is purely fictional.

The self-reflexive metafictional technique became popular in the 20th century, but its roots are from three centuries before. The most famous early example is Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes's novel Don Quixote, published in Spain in two parts in 1605 and 1615. In the second part, the characters are aware of, and refer to, Part 1's publication. English novelist Laurence Sterne would also later play with this type of self-referentiality in Tristram Shandy, a novel published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767. The author presents the novel as having been written by Tristram Shandy, who is also the main character of the novel that traces his exploits.

Briony Tallis's revelation at the end of Atonement is a twist similar to that employed by English writer Roald Dahl in his 1982 novel The BFG, in which the BFG (Big Friendly Giant) is identified as the writer of his own adventures. Unlike American novelist Kurt Vonnegut in his 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, however, McEwan does not go so far as to insert himself into the narrative.

Class in Early 20th-Century British Society

Two world wars and numerous socioeconomic changes (including access to education and technology) have worked to blur the boundaries between social groups in England's strict class system, in place in British society for centuries. But in 1935, the year Atonement begins, people were either upper-class, middle-class, or working-class.

The upper-class were the aristocracy. Traditionally, they owned land and had titles that were passed down to their children. Because of the hereditary nature of the aristocracy, upward mobility from the lower classes was nearly impossible. However, it did happen. In the novel, Leon Tallis's friend Paul Marshall gains the aristocratic title of Lord because of his wealth, influence, and status as a businessman.

The term middle class began to be used more frequently in political and social discourse in the 1830s. But the modern meaning of the term was not defined until 1913, by statistician T.H.C. Stevenson. The middle class was then (and is now) made up of professionals like doctors and lawyers as well as senior government workers and white collar workers. As a civil servant, the character Jack Tallis (Briony's father) could afford to provide his family with the trappings of an upper-middle-class life.

The working class was made of up the poorest of Britain's people. Before the Industrial Revolution (late 18th and early 19th century), they would have been called peasants and worked primarily in agricultural endeavors, but after 1830 they often had factory jobs or worked as servants. In the novel, Robbie Turner's mother, Grace, is a servant to the Tallis family. Robbie Turner, with his working-class origins, does not have the kind of invulnerability that Paul Marshall's privileged status provides him. This is one of the reasons Robbie became an immediate suspect in Lola's rape while Paul was not even considered. Even Robbie himself suspects another servant's son instead of Paul.

The British Retreat from France in World War II (1939–45)

After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain sent troops to France near the Belgian border. The period from October 1939 to May 1940 was known as the Phony War because it consisted mainly of spy missions and little actual warfare. At this time, British and Allied troops held the channel ports of Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk.

The Germans ramped up their offensive in mid-May by invading the Netherlands and Belgium and pushing the Allies all the way to the French border with Belgium. The French army did not have enough manpower to mount a counteroffensive, and by May 17 the Germans had breached the Oise line. At the same time, the Germans also blocked the Allies in the north Channel and also went around south of their position at Arras. The German army soon surrounded the Allies on three sides, cutting off their supplies. The Allies responded by trying to break the German line at Arras on May 21, 1940, but they failed. This battle is mentioned to Robbie by the Bonnet brothers in Atonement.

When the Germans took Boulogne and Calais, a total retreat of Allied soldiers was ordered to Dunkirk. Stranded on the beach there, soldiers awaited evacuation as they continued to be bombarded by German forces. Although nearly 340,000 soldiers were ultimately saved, all their equipment was burned or destroyed—an occurrence witnessed by Robbie and his fellow soldiers in Part 2 of Atonement.

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