Literature Study GuidesAtonementPart 2 Section 5 Summary

Atonement | Study Guide

Ian McEwan

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Atonement | Part 2, Section 5 | Summary



There is more confusion on the road as Robbie and the others retreat. French soldiers hurl insults at them, but many of the French civilians carry on with their normal activities, such as teaching their sons how to kick a ball. German planes fly overhead, and Robbie runs. He tries to help a mother and her son, but they do not move because they are in shock and end up getting killed. All Robbie can think about is water until Mace brings him a dead man's water bottle.

As they get closer to their destination, Robbie catches "the taste of the sea." They approach a bridge where a sergeant pulls out men for duty. Mace instructs Robbie to limp between him and Nettle so he does not get chosen. After more walking, Nettle takes off his boots and flings them into a field, but Robbie persuades him to put them back on.


There are numerous references in this section equating water with life. First, Robbie imagines a paradise of waterfalls and lakes in the woods. Then, he recalls some lines from a poem in Cecilia's last letter: "In the deserts of the heart, let the healing fountain start." These lines hold a distinct promise of rebirth after going through many trials. Next, he hears wounded men calling out for water, water he himself has, thanks to a dead man's bottle Mace has procured for him.

The woman and child Robbie sees being vaporized by the bomb symbolically mirror his dream of a life and a child with Cecilia, which are also being vaporized by the war.

Robbie also sees a chaplain and a clerk "dousing cases of prayer books and bibles with petrol." When even the strict order of religion, in addition to the military one, is abandoned, the true chaos of war is revealed.

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