Literature Study GuidesAtonementPart 1 Chapter 3 Summary

Atonement | Study Guide

Ian McEwan

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Atonement | Part 1, Chapter 3 | Summary



Rehearsals for Briony's play are delayed by the twins' bad behavior. Lola, in her belief that she is all grown up, condescends to Briony, which causes Briony to suspect her of "destructive intent." Briony spies Danny Hardman, a servant's son, watching them from a doorway. Soon she finds herself alone in the nursery, and considers the mechanics of her hand, wondering which "part of her ... was really in charge."

Briony goes to the window and witnesses the scene between Cecilia and Robbie related in Part 1, Chapter 2. At first it seems to her, by the formal way that Robbie stands, that he is proposing marriage. When he raises his hand in what to Briony seems a command to Cecilia to remove her clothes, Briony takes a dark view of his behavior. She contemplates writing the scene she observed from three points of view. As she reflects on this moment much later in life, she mythologizes it as the point "when she became recognizably herself." She puts off writing the scene to search for her cousins so they can resume rehearsals.


Briony's chance observation of her sister's "shame" in front of Robbie plants the seed of her suspicion he is a maniac, which later becomes conviction. She realizes she is out of her depth concerning the "rites and conventions" of adult behavior, grasping "how easy it was to get everything wrong, completely wrong." And yet, even as she admits this, Briony is too wedded to her sense of order to not create her own narrative explanation of what she saw.

Briony spends much of the chapter in quiet contemplation, wondering if everyone else could be as real as she feels she is. She decides what makes people unhappy is "the failure to grasp that other people are as real as you"—a serious moral indictment of her own failings in this regard and a foreshadowing of her own lifelong unhappiness for arrogantly considering only her own point of view.

The reader also gets clues that Briony's account may not be entirely true when the older Briony concedes that what survives in memory has distorted the truth until it is "as ghostly as invention."

Whereas Briony wears a childish white muslin dress (still clean and "innocent" at this point, before her crime), Lola attempts to dress to look older, wearing trousers that give her womanly hips. Dress plays an important role in the path to maturity.

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