Literature Study GuidesAtonementPart 1 Chapter 4 Summary

Atonement | Study Guide

Ian McEwan

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Atonement | Part 1, Chapter 4 | Summary



Cecilia repairs the vase in the library. She hears footsteps, and concerned they are Robbie's, she enters the hallway to confront him. Instead, she finds a puffy-eyed Briony, who rips in half the poster advertising her play. Cecilia attempts to console her, but Briony stalks off.

Cecilia takes the vase to Paul Marshall's room. Through the window, she sees Robbie interacting with her brother, Leon, and Paul. In exasperation, she begins to smoke, although she knows her father would not approve.

She comes downstairs to meet Leon and Paul. After a short conversation, she decides Paul, who talks about nothing but his chocolate business, is dull and not the kind of man she would like to marry. Leon informs her Robbie will be joining them for dinner, which upsets Cecilia so much that Leon asks if something has happened between them. She denies it, and the three go indoors to mix drinks.


The fact that Cecilia repairs the vase, a symbol of her relationship with Robbie, in the library is significant because it parallels the consummation of their love later that evening in the same room. At this point, she is still highly annoyed with him, but he is clearly much on her mind, proving that he matters a great deal to her.

The short encounter between Cecilia and Briony illustrates their sisterly affection. Cecilia recalls comforting Briony after nightmares, saying, "Come back. It's only a dream." These words show the depth of her feeling for Briony, and she uses them often later to express her devotion to Robbie. These words also have the feel of dramatic irony, as the reader knows something that young Briony does not: she will never be able to come back into her sister's affection from the impending nightmare of her own making, her false accusation of Robbie.

While in Paul's room, Cecilia feels her presence is "a kind of trespass," with Paul so close by. This foreshadows the magnitude of Paul's later trespass against Lola and his part in ruining Cecilia and Robbie's lives. As she greets Paul for the first time, Cecilia notices the Hardman boy and notes his undue interest in Lola. This juxtaposition of the two men in her physical space leads her, and the reader, to make the mental leap of pinning Paul's eventual rape of Lola on Hardman.

Finally, when Paul offers to make a sweet mixed drink of rum and chocolate, Cecilia insists she would rather have "something bitter. Or even sour." This foreshadows the way Paul will make something bitter and sour out of her life. Also, her doubt about whether he touches her forearm on the way into the house foreshadows the reader's doubt about who raped Lola.

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