Literature Study GuidesAtonementPart 2 Section 6 Summary

Atonement | Study Guide

Ian McEwan

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Atonement | Part 2, Section 6 | Summary

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Summary

As Robbie, Mace, and Nettle continue to walk, Robbie increasingly gives in to the delirium state induced by his wound. They finally reach the beach at Dunkirk, but there are no boats and no potable water. Angry men take out their frustration on a Royal Air Force man, but Mace creates a distraction and saves the man's life. Robbie and Nettle search for Mace but do not find him and end up saving a pig for an old woman. She gives them food and drink as a reward. They find a room, already occupied by many other men, and settle down to sleep. Robbie shouts in his delirium, and Nettle tells him to quiet down. Robbie's last words before he goes to sleep and dies are "I promise, you won't hear another word from me."

Analysis

Although Robbie's fate is left vague at the end of Part 2, Briony admits in Part 4 that Dunkirk was the scene of his death. The promise of rebirth the sea offered him did not materialize.

The promise of the sea does save the RAF man from the bloodthirsty crowd. However, as Mace tricks the men into letting the man go, shouting, "I want to drown him in the bloody sea!" Robbie might very well have seen in this RAF man a member of the elite class that had condemned him. Robbie may have desired to exact revenge on the man like the rest of the crowd, but he is honorable and helps Mace in his effort to free the man.

In his fevered state, Robbie thinks of Cecilia's letters and her pledge to wait for him. He admits, "The words were not meaningless, but they didn't touch him now." He is too far gone for her words to have any power to affect him. His last thoughts are "order would prevail" when they got a good marching order the next day. He asks what poets know about survival, seeming to forget that the poetry of Cecilia's words is what kept him alive to this point. He remembers her words to him before he is dragged off by the police following Briony's accusation: "It's our secret," she had said. She had meant that their love was theirs and something no one could take from them.

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