Literature Study GuidesAtonementPart 2 Section 3 Summary

Atonement | Study Guide

Ian McEwan

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Atonement | Part 2, Section 3 | Summary



The three soldiers walk away from the farmhouse. After some time, they come upon the main road and see lines of trucks bound for Dunkirk. The road is full of retreating soldiers and displaced families. They watch the sky, looking out for German planes. A major tries to enlist them in a mission, and Nettle argues with him. Robbie senses danger and runs for cover as a bomb falls and destroys a truck on the road. In the aftermath, the major again tries to engage the three, but they refuse and keep moving. They trudge on, their only thoughts of reaching the water.


This section illustrates how the chaos of war is able to break down even the rigid order of the military. Twice a superior officer gives Robbie, Mace, and Nettle commands, and twice they refuse him and get away with it. The first time they are saved by an incoming bomb, and the second, the major seems to be affected by some sort of war delirium in which he squints at Robbie's uniform and imagines he sees "the insignia of senior rank." It is as if the major sees in Robbie's mission to get to the sea a higher purpose and therefore lets him go unhindered by further delays.

Robbie laments the destruction of war. He sees a dead civilization in all the chaos. "First his own life ruined," he thinks, "then everybody else's." But other people hardly concern him at this point. "His thoughts had shrunk to the small hard point of his own survival." And to survive means reaching the water. The reader does wonder, however, why Robbie does not consult a medic at this point about the inflammation of his wound. He helps those suffering around him, yet he does not help himself. Is he too far gone in his delirium, or does he simply not want to be slowed down in his obsessive trek to the sea?

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