Literature Study GuidesAtonementPart 2 Section 1 Summary

Atonement | Study Guide

Ian McEwan

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Atonement | Part 2, Section 1 | Summary



Now in France as part of the retreating British infantry in World War II, Robbie grips a map he hopes will lead him to the coast. Two corporals, Mace and Nettle, tag along with him. They outrank him but respect his survival skills. Although they see many horrors, including a child's severed leg hanging from a tree, they carry on. They come to a farmhouse and ask for food and a place to rest, but an old woman turns them away, claiming her sons will kill them. Robbie and the other two ignore her and drink from her water pump. Mace and Nettle make beds for them in the barn, and they settle in for the night.

The sons, Henri and Jean-Marie Bonnet, enter later and bring them food. They talk of the horrors they have seen. Nettle gives the men cigarettes for their kindness, and the men leave them to sleep.


The novel has left the safety of ordered society to enter the chaos of war, taking Robbie with it. Robbie has one goal: to survive and return to Cecilia. Mace and Nettle admire his strong will to survive, even if they do not understand why he has no rank when he speaks like a "toff," British slang for a rich or upper-class person. They mockingly call Robbie "guv'nor," but Robbie never reveals his past.

Robbie is embarrassed to share his secrets with these men, and the distance between them means he does not reveal a crucial fact: he has been injured by a piece of shrapnel that is now festering beneath his skin and will eventually kill him.

The old woman's sons reveal her descent into chaos, telling them that she's losing her mind because of the war. This foreshadows what will happen later to Briony.

All of Part 2 is about Robbie's hope of reaching the ocean, and it is drinking water that sustains him throughout—in this section in the form of the old woman's pump and the kindness of her sons. Water symbolizes life and Robbie's hope of being reborn once he can escape from France and see Cecilia again.

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