Literature Study GuidesAtonementPart 2 Section 2 Summary

Atonement | Study Guide

Ian McEwan

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Atonement | Part 2, Section 2 | Summary



Robbie lies in the barn and smokes while Mace and Nettle snore. He recalls his three and a half years in prison and how he joined the infantry to secure an early release. He also thinks about his only meeting with Cecilia between prison and war at a London teahouse in 1939. They are shy with each other, despite the many letters they have exchanged. Their time is up too quickly, spent in small talk. Cecilia is a nurse in training, and she has severed all contact with her family. As they walk to the bus, he squeezes her hand and then they kiss passionately. They promise to meet at a borrowed cottage during his two-week leave, but the war prevents that.

The last letter he receives from Cecilia tells him that Briony wants to change her statement to the police, and so they both see hope for a new start.


This section is mostly flashback to what happened between the night of Briony's accusation of Robbie and the start of the war. Cecilia and Robbie write letters while he is in prison, but as he had been diagnosed with being "morbidly oversexed," they must speak in code about their passion. They do this via allusions to famous couples in literature and refer to "a quiet corner in a library" to mean sexual ecstasy. This underscores McEwan's theme of the power of words: even when they are censored, their coded meaning can sustain romance. When Robbie and Cecilia meet, they realize "how far they had run ahead of themselves in their letters." If they could once again leave order behind and embrace the chaos of love, they might have a chance, the reader may think. Of course, their responsibilities (Robbie's to the army and Cecilia's to her nursing job) prevent them from acting on such an impulse.

Their letters to each other keep them alive. Words keep them alive. And in the end, Briony keeps them alive by writing about them in her words in the novel Atonement.

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