Literature Study GuidesAtonementPart 1 Chapter 7 Summary

Atonement | Study Guide

Ian McEwan

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Atonement | Part 1, Chapter 7 | Summary



Briony slashes at nettles with a slender branch down by the island temple in the yard. She pretends certain nettles are Lola and she is enjoying cutting her down. She also cuts down playwriting and childhood itself. She then imagines she is an Olympic nettle slasher, representing her country in front of the world. She basks in the imagined praise of her older brother, Leon, as he approaches in the trap, but she does not turn to look at him. She wants him to stop and greet her, but he does not, and she is sad.


Although not much goes on in the way of plot, this chapter is rich in exploring Briony's inner life. First, it is significant that Briony goes to the water as a way of soothing and reviving her mood. In an example of dramatic irony, she does not know at this point (although older Briony does) that this place of refuge, the island temple, will soon become the scene of her greatest crime. The dilapidated state of the temple seems to be a statement on McEwan's part about how Europe has abandoned religion, to its detriment.

As Briony destroys the nettles, she imagines Lola with "an outrageous lie on her lips" and "spreading rumors"—punishable acts she will soon share with Lola, as older Briony knows.

Having decided that playwriting disturbs her sense of order because of "the messiness of other minds" involved and the "hopelessness of pretending," Briony also "kills" it and dedicates herself solely to novel writing. In Part 1, Chapter 3 she noted how her creation "drawn with clear and perfect lines had been defaced with the scribble of other minds." McEwan draws an obvious contrast here between the messiness of staging plays versus the greater order of novel writing. In the former, the writer gives up control of her material, while in the latter, she locks it down.

Sounding the novel's theme of coming of age, McEwan also has Briony figuratively destroy her own childhood—"having no further need for it"—among the nettles.

After Leon passes her by on the bridge, Briony resolves to stay where she is "until something significant happened to her." She issues a challenge to the universe, desiring to be a key player in a real-life drama. This is exactly what happens in the next chapter when Robbie gives her the letter to deliver to Cecilia.

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