Literature Study GuidesAtonementPart 1 Chapter 1 Summary

Atonement | Study Guide

Ian McEwan

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Atonement | Part 1, Chapter 1 | Summary



In the upper-class Tallis family house in England in 1935, Briony Tallis writes a play to perform with her visiting cousins in honor of her adored brother, Leon Tallis's, return home. Her mother, Emily Tallis, indulges Briony by complimenting her work, but her cousins, Lola and twins Jackson and Pierrot Quincey, are not so obliging. The cousins are staying with the Tallis family because their parents are divorcing, and Lola ruins Briony's plan to take the role of the play's main character, Arabella, by claiming the part for herself. As they read through the play, Briony starts "to understand the chasm that lay between an idea and its execution," thanks to her cousins' poor pronunciation and monotone inflection.


The novel seems at first to be written from a third-person omniscient point of view, but it is not until the end of Part 4 that the reader understands that the narrator is Briony herself, who many years later has become the novelist she always dreamed of being as a child. Third-person omniscient narration distances the reader from the characters, so it is as if mature Briony wishes to distance herself from the youthful version of herself she clinically describes in her novel. McEwan chooses this point of view because he wants the reader to judge young Briony, just as mature Briony does. If the novel as a whole is Briony's atonement for her youthful misjudgment, then this first chapter sets up some reasons—but not excuses—for her having acted the way she did.

Young Briony is "possessed by the desire to have the world just so." Her sense of order gives her "a passion for secrets." However, because of her sheltered upbringing and orderly life, Briony has no secrets. Her longing for intrigue drives her to look for scandal where there is none. Here and throughout Atonement, McEwan seems to advocate a healthy balance between order and chaos, since too much of one at the expense of the other leads to unhappiness.

As the focal point of the chapter, Briony's play, The Trials of Arabella, gives the reader additional insight into her immature mind. It also foreshadows the events to follow. She is as inexperienced as her heroine and doesn't realize that the world "can rise up and tread on [her]."

This chapter also marks the first appearance of the "antique peach and cream satin dress" that Arabella will wear for her wedding scene. Briony rues the fact that she must give up the dress to Lola when she relinquishes to her the part of Arabella. This scene foreshadows the loss of Briony's innocence when she later steps in and takes away from Lola the leading role in the real-life rape drama.

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