Literature Study GuidesAtonementPart 1 Chapter 2 Summary

Atonement | Study Guide

Ian McEwan

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Atonement | Part 1, Chapter 2 | Summary



Briony's sister, Cecilia Tallis, is bored with life back at home after three years at Girton College. The fine day makes her "impatient, almost desperate." She is outside to pick flowers to display in her brother's guest's room, but she avoids her childhood friend, Robbie Turner, who is down on his knees tending to the hedges. She reenters the house to retrieve a vase, a valuable piece passed down from her Uncle Clem, who died in World War I (1914–18). She arranges the wildflowers in the vase and decides to fill it with water at the fountain outside. As she approaches, Robbie turns and greets her. Their conversation is stilted, and Cecilia feels uncomfortable around him and "jittery" and "annoyed with herself" for being so.

When Robbie mentions the subject of Cecilia's father paying for his medical studies, he insists he intends to pay it all back. This statement bothers Cecilia, because she feels he is distancing himself from her and either mocking her for being a woman or punishing her for being above him in social station. She awkwardly balances the vase on the rim of the fountain, and Robbie grabs for the vase, trying to be helpful. As Cecilia grips it more tightly, a section of the lip of the vase comes off in Robbie's hand. She reprimands him, and then strips off her clothes to wade into the fountain and save the broken pieces. She dresses quickly when she comes out and returns to the house without a further word exchanged between them.


This chapter switches to the perspective of Briony's older sister, Cecilia. However, since the reader discovers at the novel's end that Briony is the author, Briony should be considered an unreliable narrator of Cecilia's inner thoughts. In Part 1, Chapter 3, Briony observes the pivotal fountain scene from an upper story window, but her young mind cannot fathom its context or the fact that it is essentially a flirtation.

Cecilia feels awkward around Robbie, and she does not fully understand why until she reads his letter in Part 1, Chapter 9: her awkwardness is due to her awareness of her childhood friend as a sexual being to whom she is attracted. Her mind is at odds with what her body already knows, and she is left confused.

McEwan spends an ample amount of time establishing the sentimental value of the vase, and he does so because the vase can be seen a symbol of Robbie and Cecilia's love. During these moments at the fountain, their fragile relationship is nearly broken, but Cecilia has the power to repair the vase as well as the relationship.

Where McEwan makes Briony a servant of order, he creates her opposite in Cecilia. Cecilia craves the impression of disorder, artfully arranging her wildflowers "in order to achieve a natural chaotic look." Her room is also a mess. Cecilia has an impulsive nature, leading her to trouble, best exemplified by her stripping off her clothes in front of Robbie before she jumps into the fountain. The reader can also infer her preference for chaos by her choice of filling the vase with water from the fountain instead of a tap inside the house.

Water serves as a symbol of purity, hope, and rebirth throughout Atonement, and the water in the fountain symbolizes a rebirth in the way Robbie sees Cecilia—no longer a sisterly figure, but as a subject of attraction. The surface of the water in the fountain "roils" with Cecilia's fury at the broken vase, and Robbie tries to quell it with his hands—a foreshadowing of his apology letter to her.

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