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Atonement | Quotes


Love which did not build a foundation on good sense was doomed.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 1

This is Briony Tallis's attitude toward love when she is 13 years old, and this attitude is the basis for her play, The Trials of Arabella. It speaks to her love of order. In her opinion, Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner's love is not built on good sense (they are of different classes and they engage in impulsive behavior), so their love is doomed. The ending of the novel suggests this is McEwan's thesis as well.


Only in a story could you enter ... different minds and show ... they have equal value.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 3

When discussing her early philosophy of what the moral of a story should be, the narrator declares there need not be a moral at all: "She need not judge." In this way, the narrator is defending her choice to give voice to the inner thoughts of her characters, although she cannot possibly know whether those thoughts are true. Her only objective is to show how separate minds "were equally alive."


The world, not one she could make, but the one that had made her.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 7

This quotation relates to Briony's preference for order over chaos. The real world is not one she can control, and her attempt to take control of Lola Quincey's rape narrative by accusing Robbie goes terribly wrong. If Briony had been able to relinquish her need for absolute order and control, things might have turned out differently.


Rise and fall—this was the doctor's business, and it was literature's too.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 8

The narrator suggests that Robbie will be a better doctor because he has read so much literature. Both are disciplines concerned with human suffering, of "self-destructive folly" and sheer bad luck. In an example of situational irony, neither Robbie nor the readers expect he is on the cusp of this same suffering.


It was wrong to open people's letters, but it was right ... to know everything.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 10

The narrator provides Briony's defense for opening Robbie's letter to Cecilia. She feels bad about invading her sister's privacy, but she is vindicated both by the contents of the letter (which prompts her decide to act as her sister's protector) and by her arrogant need to be omniscient in the service of her story.


Wasn't writing a kind of soaring, an achievable form of flight ... of the imagination?

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 13

Briony has dreams of absolute freedom, dreams in which she can achieve her goals "through desire alone." She realizes real life might not actually give her such freedom, but writing about life can. She believes she can protect her sister by describing Robbie in her writing in such a way as to "conjure him safely on paper." The power of her words alone can transform him. Instead of her words saving him and her sister, however, her words harm them irreparably.


Guilt refined ... detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 14

McEwan creates an apt image of guilt entailing going over details in one's mind like a religious person constantly fingering a rosary.


This moment had been imagined and desired for too long, and could not measure up.

Narrator, Part 2, Section 2

Here, McEwan speaks to the gap between imagination and reality. Robbie has used his hope of reuniting with Cecilia as a way to stay alive in prison, and no matter how good it is to see her, it cannot possibly make up for all the days he spent in torment, wanting her.


He used to revel in his freedom to make his own life, devise his own story.

Narrator, Part 2, Section 5

This quotation speaks to the power every person has to be the main character in their own story, a power sometimes taken away by forces beyond their control, such as what happens to Robbie.


One person waiting for another was like an arithmetical sum, and just as empty of emotion.

Narrator, Part 2, Section 6

McEwan suggests the emotion is not in the waiting, but in the bringing together of two people. Cecilia has promised she will wait for Robbie, but her promise does not do him any good unless he can actually reach her.


A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended.

Narrator, Part 3, Section 4

As a nurse, Briony witnesses the horrors of war firsthand via the broken bodies of the soldiers for whom she cares. This causes her to ruminate on the nature of humanity, on how easy it is to tear good things apart, and on how difficult it is to rebuild relationships. She relates this to her own situation, realizing how she figuratively tore apart Robbie with her words, and how no amount of her wordsmithing can put him back together again or elicit his forgiveness.


It was not the backbone of a story she lacked. It was a backbone.

Narrator, Part 3, Section 5

When her novella is rejected for publication, Briony reflects on the reasons. The publisher's letter suggests she needs to integrate a backbone into the structure of her story, but she knows what she actually needs to do is to come clean about her unsavory role in the plot and stop being a coward.


Not simply a letter, but a new draft, an atonement, and she was ready to begin.

Narrator, Part 3, Section 6

In Briony's imaginary encounter with Cecilia and Robbie, they demand Briony write a letter to their families detailing her crimes. She decides a letter is not enough. Instead she must write a new draft of her novella—one that does not protect her arrogance, but lays her guilt bare. This would be her attempt at atonement.


When I am dead ... we will only exist as my inventions.

Briony Tallis, Part 4, London, 1999

Briony defends her choice to change the fate of Cecilia and Robbie in her work by stating that once one dies, a person exists only in memories or by being immortalized on the page.


Can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her ... power of deciding outcomes, she is ... God?

Briony Tallis, Part 4, London, 1999

Here Briony compares herself to God: as the writer of the novel Atonement, her power over her characters is absolute. She concludes that there is no atonement for God, or novelists either, even if they do not believe in God.

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