Literature Study GuidesAtonementPart 3 Section 4 Summary

Atonement | Study Guide

Ian McEwan

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Atonement | Part 3, Section 4 | Summary



The probationer nurses are given a half-day off, and Briony goes to the park with her friend Fiona. Briony has fantasies of London being overrun to prevent Lola and Paul's upcoming wedding. Despite these dark thoughts, Briony has a good time with Fiona. When they return to the hospital, they are immediately thrust into action, however. Wounded soldiers have returned from France.

Briony carries stretchers, cleans wounds, comforts patients, and thinks how one of these men might be Robbie. She speculates he might be thankful enough for her help to forgive her. As she is pulling shrapnel from a soldier's leg, he curses at the pain. Sister Drummond defends Briony, telling him not to speak to her nurses in such a manner. Briony assists other men with injuries, including a French boy who has lost part of his head. He mistakes her for his hometown sweetheart and she comforts him as he dies.

At long last, Briony receives a letter of rejection from the literary magazine for the story she submitted.


Briony is envious of her friend Fiona's guilt-free existence. Fiona is free to live her life as it comes, while Briony's life "was going to be lived in one room, without a door"—a prison of her own making. Seeing Briony's distress, Fiona offers to bring her water. And although the teacup of water Fiona brings revives Briony for an afternoon, Fiona cannot relieve Briony of her guilt or deliver rebirth.

Briony finds "rancid food" and the "sodden crumbs of Amo bars" in the injured soldiers' pockets. Paul's chocolate bars are terrible mementos of war, just as he himself is a terrible memento in the ruined lives of Robbie and Cecilia.

In the dying French soldier Luc Cornet, Briony sees a vision of what her life might have been. Like Robbie, Luc "was a lovely boy who was a long way from his family." When she imagines her "unavailable future" with Luc, it reminds the reader of Cecilia's unavailable future with Robbie.

The rejection letter is for "Two Figures by a Fountain," Briony's muted account of Cecilia and Robbie's long-ago encounter by the fountain. The reader sees how this first draft of the story is Briony's attempt to distance herself from the incident, and she suggests several changes, such as focusing attention on the girl watching the scene and showing how the child character might come between the lovers "in some disastrous fashion."

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