HomeLiterature Study GuidesAtonementPart 1 Chapter 11 Summary

Atonement | Study Guide

Ian McEwan

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Atonement | Part 1, Chapter 11 | Summary

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Summary

The evening's dinner is a stuffy affair. Jack is absent, and so, too, is light conversation. Paul breaks the silence with a private comment to Robbie. It is inappropriate social behavior but goes uncensored.

General dinner conversation commences, with the heat being a main topic. Emily chastises Briony for speaking rudely to Robbie and then states, "hot weather encourages loose morals among young people." This leads Leon to jokingly question his sisters about their behavior.

Robbie uses this time to reminiscence about his encounter with Cecilia in the library immediately before dinner. In a flashback, he apologizes to her for giving her the wrong version of the letter, and they talk about their newfound feelings for each other, until "there seemed no way out with words," and they let their bodies do their talking for them. They make love, Robbie tells Cecilia he loves her, and Briony interrupts them.

Dinner ends with an outburst by Briony about the twins' wearing her socks and her pointing out Lola's injuries. Briony then finds a letter from the twins indicating they have run away. Everyone goes out to search for them, including Robbie, who sets off by himself.

Analysis

The fact that Emily seats Leon to her right and Paul to her left at the dinner table may be a biblical allusion to Matthew 25:33 in which the sheep (righteous) are placed to the right and the goats (unrighteous) to the left. Briony and the twins sit on Leon's side, and the doomed couple, Cecilia and Robbie, sit on the "goat" side with Paul and Lola. The seating scheme can also be seen as foreshadowing Emily's judgment, which leads to Robbie's damnation, Cecilia's bleak future, and Paul and Lola's unholy alliance. It is also to be Robbie's "last supper" as a free man.

Dinner gives more clues about the true nature of Lola's injuries. Robbie notices Paul has a two-inch scratch on his forehead, and later Paul claims to have "saved" Lola from the twins' brutality. Emily openly casts doubt on the twins' ability to cause such severe bruising, but her line of questioning is interrupted by the discovery of the twins' disappearance.

In a flashback to their interlude in the library, Robbie compares his thoughts to those of Malvolio in William Shakespeare play Twelfth Night (1601–02): "Nothing that can be can come between me and the full prospect of my hopes." The parallels between Robbie and Malvolio are many. Both are members of the servant class in an upper-class household. Both abandon their more stoic natures when they fall in love with the daughters of the household (Cecilia and Olivia, respectively). And both are imprisoned based partially on the contents of a letter.

When orderly words fail them, Robbie and Cecilia give into the chaos of their feelings. This is a beautiful connection they will both cherish in memory, but because they were not careful, because they did not base their encounter on good sense, it also leads to their doom—exactly as Briony writes in Part 1, Chapter 1 in The Trials of Arabella.

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