Literature Study GuidesAtonementPart 1 Chapter 10 Summary

Atonement | Study Guide

Ian McEwan

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Atonement | Part 1, Chapter 10 | Summary

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Summary

Briony rips open the letter intended for Cecilia. She knows she should not, and yet "the shock of the message vindicated her completely." She realizes she must now reconsider the fountain scene based on the letter and on the obscene word which "disgusted her profoundly."

Briony attempts to do some writing, "to be lost to the unfolding of an irresistible idea." Lola enters and declares that she's had an appalling evening. She shows Briony a long scratch on her upper arm and her chafed wrists. Lola accuses her twin brothers of assaulting her, but Briony correctly reflects the depth of Lola's grief could not be caused by the twins alone. Feeling tenderness toward Lola, Briony reveals the details of the letter. The two decide Robbie is a "maniac."

Then, Briony goes downstairs, enters the library, and witnesses what to her looks like Robbie attacking Cecilia (but is actually Robbie and Cecilia engaged in the sexual act).

Analysis

Robbie's letter is the second link following the fountain incident in the chain of events leading Briony to accuse him. After reading it, she resolves that she must help her sister or "they would all suffer." In fact, it is her meddling in affairs she does not yet understand that causes them all to suffer.

When Lola comes in to confide in Briony, she is wearing a tight dress that restricts her movements. This is symbolic of Lola's already being trapped by Paul. She has begun to lie for him when she claims her bruises and scratches were inflicted by the twins. Briony wonders how "a girl so brittle and domineering" could be dominated by nine-year-old boys. A seed of doubt in Lola's story is sown.

Lola is understandably shaken by Paul's first attack on her, but she lets herself be distracted by Briony's gossip about Robbie. It is Lola who first calls Robbie a "maniac" and a "monster," projecting those words upon a convenient stand-in for the real monster—Paul. But the power of those words infects Briony's thinking to the point where she can no longer see Robbie as anything else. So, when she walks in on Robbie making love to Cecilia in the library, she assumes the worst.

Although Lola suggests going to the police with the letter, Briony is reluctant. She fears being made to say the obscene word in Robbie's letter aloud as proof, and she "could not afford to be drawn into a conspiracy."

Briony reflects on how she would like to talk Lola out of wearing her constricting dress, but decides "attaining adulthood was all about the eager acceptance of such impediments." This statement supports the novel's coming-of-age theme by having Briony assume the mantle of responsibility for Lola's scratch.

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