Literature Study GuidesAtonementPart 2 Section 4 Summary

Atonement | Study Guide

Ian McEwan

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Atonement | Part 2, Section 4 | Summary



Robbie continues on. He thinks of Cecilia's last letter and the possibility of rebirth and "a triumphant return." He "would simply resume." If his name could be cleared, he could "find Cecilia and love her, marry her, and live without shame."

But he is still tormented by thoughts of Briony's act. He thinks back to a possible motive, an encounter they had in June 1932 when he taught her how to swim in the river on the Tallis's property. After the lesson, she had asked him if he would save her if she fell in, and he had said he would. To test him, she had jumped in, and he had saved her. She had claimed that she had wanted him to save her because she loved him. He wonders if she waited on the bridge that fateful night for him because she still loved him, and if reading his letter to another had set off her jealousy. No matter her motive, he refuses to forgive her.


Like Part 2, Section 2, this section is a flashback as Robbie attempts to understand Briony's motives for falsely accusing him of raping Lola. Briony's declaration of love is clearly more memorable to Robbie than it is to Briony, as she never mentions it in Part 1. When bringing up Briony, McEwan uses the figurative image of an "indistinct shape" as a callback to the "white shape" with "vaguely human form" that Robbie sees on the bridge back in Part 1, Chapter 8, right before he hands Briony the letter that changes everything.

Robbie correctly concludes that the "possibility of absolution" Briony offers in her letter to Cecilia is not so much for him as it is for Briony. He knows "he had done nothing wrong." What she seeks is "for herself, for her own crime, which her conscience could no longer bear."

It is interesting to note that Briony's declaration of love for Robbie takes place near water. If water symbolizes rebirth in the novel, it is an inversion that Robbie believes his saving her from drowning was the beginning of the death of their carefree relationship. He tells her she has proven with her stunt that he would risk his life to save hers, but he does not love her. She thanks him, saying "I'll be eternally grateful to you." This is an example of dramatic irony, since the reader knows (as Briony does not at that point) that she does not express her "eternal gratitude," but rather condemns Robbie.

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