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Course Hero. "Atonement Study Guide." Course Hero. 5 Oct. 2017. Web. 17 Dec. 2018. <>.

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Course Hero. (2017, October 5). Atonement Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved December 17, 2018, from

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Course Hero. "Atonement Study Guide." October 5, 2017. Accessed December 17, 2018.


Course Hero, "Atonement Study Guide," October 5, 2017, accessed December 17, 2018,

Atonement | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Part 1

In an upper-class house in Britain in 1935, 13-year-old Briony Tallis has written a play, The Trials of Arabella, to be performed by her visiting cousins from the North in honor of her brother, Leon Tallis's, homecoming. Her 15-year-old, precocious cousin, Lola Quincey, schemes to take the leading role of Arabella away from Briony—an act that upsets Briony greatly.

From a second-story window, Briony witnesses a scene at the fountain below between her older sister, Cecilia Tallis, and Robbie Turner, the son of their charlady or cleaning woman. It seems to Briony that Robbie has commanded Cecilia to strip off her clothes and jump in the water. In fact, Cecilia has waded into the fountain to retrieve pieces of a priceless vase broken during a tussle with Robbie.

Briony abandons rehearsals for the play and goes out to a nearby island temple to destroy nettles, plants with jagged leaves and stinging hairs. Leon arrives with his friend Paul Marshall but does not stop to greet Briony, which causes her to stubbornly wait outdoors until something meaningful happens to her.

Cecilia fixes the chipped vase. She hears Leon invite Robbie to dinner and is irritated. She talks to Paul, wondering if he might be the man she is going to marry, but decides he is too dull for her.

Paul visits Lola and her twin brothers, Jackson and Pierrot Quincey, in the nursery and creepily watches Lola eat a chocolate bar. Meanwhile, Briony's mother, Emily Tallis, lies in her bed with a migraine and congratulates herself for being aware, through a kind of "sixth sense," of everything that goes on in the house.

Robbie cannot stop thinking about Cecilia after seeing her nearly naked in the fountain. He realizes he loves her and drafts several versions of an apology letter to her for their verbal scuffle. One of the letters is obscene, and he puts it aside. As he walks to the Tallis house for dinner, he sees Briony and decides to use her as a messenger. Only after Briony is out of sight does Robbie realize he accidently gave her the obscene version of the letter.

Cecilia dresses for dinner and then helps the twins get ready. She chats with Leon before dinner, and Briony brings her a folded piece of paper—Robbie's letter, which Cecilia soon realizes Briony has read. She confronts Briony, but Briony ignores her.

Lola confides to Briony that the twins have attacked her, a lie intended to protect Paul, her real attacker. In turn, Briony confides to Lola the contents of Robbie's letter, and they decide he is a "maniac."

Dinner is a stifling affair with stilted conversation. The twins ask to be excused, and then Briony finds a letter they left behind announcing their intention to run away. Everyone except Emily goes to search for them.

Briony is not concerned about the twins, but she is thrilled to be allowed outside at night, despite being wary of Robbie, the "maniac." She finds Lola near the island temple, reeling from being raped. Briony sees a man of Robbie's build running away and assumes he was the attacker. Lola does not correct Briony when she claims she saw Robbie, but Lola maintains that she did not see her attacker.

Briony returns to the house and accuses Robbie. Everyone seems to believe her except Cecilia and Robbie's mother, Grace Turner. The police are called, and when Robbie arrives with the found twins, policemen take him away in handcuffs. Cecilia tries to comfort Robbie through the window of the police car. Grace calls the Tallis family liars as her son is driven off.

Part 2

Some years later, during World War II (1939–45), Robbie finds himself in France retreating from the Germans and on his way to Dunkirk for evacuation at Bray Dunes back to England. He joined the infantry as a condition of his early release from prison after serving three and a half years for Lola Quincey's rape. The shrapnel embedded in his skin is festering, but he does not want to tell his companions, Corporal Mace and Corporal Nettle, about it.

Robbie is still in touch with Cecilia via letters. They met once in London after his release from prison and kissed passionately. Robbie has one reason to stay alive: Cecilia's love. He knows her letters by heart.

After stopping for a night's rest at a farm, the three men continue on toward the beach. Along the way, they witness chaos and hear the cries of the wounded. German planes attack, dropping bombs that kill many. Somehow, they make it to Bray Dunes, but there are no boats to evacuate them. After Mace saves a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot from an angry mob, Robbie and Nettle lose him and find a place to rest for the night. Robbie's condition has made him delirious by this point, and his unconscious shouting is bothering the other men around him. Nettle asks him to be quiet, and Robbie promises him that he will not hear another word from him. His last waking thoughts are of Cecilia.

Part 3

Although she could have chosen an easier life, Briony now works in London as a nurse, just like Cecilia. She tries to drown her guilt over unjustly accusing Robbie of Lola's rape in hard work, but guilt pursues her nevertheless. She still writes in her spare time and has sent the first draft of a novella to a literary magazine.

War is on the verge of coming to Britain, and Briony cares for the evacuees from the French front. She receives a letter from her father with the news that Lola and Paul are getting married. She decides to attend their wedding, and this event prompts her to visit Cecilia and apologize for her crime.

At Cecilia's, Briony sees Robbie. He has survived the war and has returned to Cecilia. Briony asks for their forgiveness, but they refuse to grant it. Instead, they ask her to write a letter to their parents and family explaining what really happened. Briony's novella has been rejected, so she decides to rewrite it as atonement for her sin.

Part 4

In London, on the day of her 77th birthday, Briony muses on her recent diagnosis of vascular dementia. She admits that she fabricated her meeting with Cecilia after Lola's wedding. In actuality, Robbie died of septicemia in Dunkirk, and Cecilia died later during the German bombing of the Balham Underground station during the London Blitz. Briony wanted to give them a fictional happy ending as part of her atonement.

At her birthday party, celebrated at her old house (now a hotel), Briony watches a family production of her play The Trials of Arabella. She knows, because Lord and Lady Marshall are still alive and will likely outlive her, that she will not be able to publish Atonement in her lifetime because it would be libelous, or damaging to reputations.

Atonement Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Briony prepares to put on a play for her family.

Rising Action

2 Robbie and Cecilia tussle at the fountain.

3 Briony reads an obscene letter from Robbie to Cecilia.

4 Robbie and Cecilia make love, and Briony sees them.

5 Paul rapes Lola while the family searches for her brothers.

6 Falsely, Briony accuses Robbie of the rape.

7 Robbie goes to prison and then off to war in France.

8 Briony visits Cecilia to apologize and sees Robbie there.


9 Paul Marshall marries Lola.

Falling Action

10 Much later, Briony writes but doesn't publish Atonement.

11 Briony reveals the book is not entirely truthful.


12 Robbie and Cecilia never reunited.

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