Literature Study GuidesAtonementPart 1 Chapter 8 Summary

Atonement | Study Guide

Ian McEwan

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Atonement | Part 1, Chapter 8 | Summary



Robbie sits in a bath in his cramped home and thinks of Cecilia's exposed body in the fountain. Formerly, she had been "like a sister, almost invisible," but he sees her as a woman now. He decides to write Cecilia a letter of apology. He goes through numerous typewritten drafts, and on one of them, he types an obscene admission of love for her. He puts that version aside and writes out another version in longhand. As he dresses for dinner, he chats with his mother, who tells him she polished the silver at the big house earlier in the afternoon.

He goes out, feeling free and happy, anticipating seeing Cecilia. He muses it might be better for Cecilia to see the letter before he goes in to dinner, so he gives it to Briony, whom he runs into along the way. Only afterward does he realize he picked up the obscene version of the letter by mistake. He tries to call Briony back, but it is too late.


Robbie has formed his own "scientifically based theories of class" and declares, "I am what I am." He claims not to care what other people think of him or his social status. He knows Cecilia is of a higher social class than he, but this does not intimidate him. He believes he has a chance with her and senses "a great change coming over him."

Robbie's various attempts at apology in letters to Cecilia foreshadow older Briony's many drafts of her apology novel. Their words are at their most powerful when they allow themselves to be at their most vulnerable and honest. Robbie's obscene words seal his doom, but they also incite a great love story with Cecilia. As he later muses in Part 1, Chapter 11, "his stupid letter repelled [Cecilia] but it unlocked her." His fatal mistake, as McEwan seems to suggest, is his choice of messenger. If he had only been brave enough to deliver the message himself, everything might have turned out differently.

While he writes his letter to Cecilia, Robbie finds himself "worshipping her traces," a foreshadowing of a future time when all he will have is his memories of her. As he dresses, he is efficient, "as though preparing for some hazardous journey or military exploit"—an interesting choice of words considering his hazardous military future.

Robbie also notes that he saw young Hardman leering at Lola—a red herring McEwan plants a second time to mislead the reader.

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