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Atonement | Symbols

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Vase

Uncle Clem's vase is a symbol of Robbie Turner and Cecilia Tallis's relationship. Like the vase, it is precious and fragile. Their brittle fountain encounter ends in a tussle during which the lip of the vase breaks off. Cecilia carefully mends the vase with sealant, just as she and Robbie mend their relationship by sealing it physically. Forces beyond their control break both the vase and their relationship.

But the vase can also be seen as a symbol of Cecilia's relationship to her family, since it is an heirloom passed down from a revered uncle. The first cracks to appear foreshadow Cecilia's alienation from the family after they unfairly condemn Robbie. The ultimate shattering of the vase happens during the war in which both Robbie and Cecilia die, cutting off Cecilia from her family forever. It is also interesting to note that Uncle Clem acquired the vase in World War I, which took his life (although his legacy, via the vase, made it home). The vase is therefore tied to two wars, both of which harm the Tallis family.

The vase is also tied to Briony's sense of guilt over her false accusation. It features prominently in her novella Two Figures by a Fountain. And it is no accident that Briony reveals the final fate of the vase during her fictional visit to Cecilia's house. Both the vase and the Robbie-Cecilia relationship are destroyed, but she attempts to atone by rewriting the relationship's ending.

Dresses

Dresses are closely related to the coming-of-age theme because they reflect the perceived maturity level of the wearer. Briony notes at their second play rehearsal that her white muslin dress is childish compared to Lola's more adult sweater and trousers look, but that she did not want to make the effort to appear older.

While dressing for dinner, Cecilia rejects a dour black dress she thinks makes her look beyond her sexual prime and a frilly pink dress she thinks makes her look like a child. She chooses a backless green dress, signaling her availability to Robbie Turner. Lola Quincey wears a constricting dress that Briony muses Lola chose because "attaining adulthood was all about the eager acceptance of such impediments." The constricting dress is also a symbol for the trap Lola falls into with Paul Marshall. Once she keeps her silence about his culpability, she is bound to him and their lie forever.

Finally, at her 77th birthday party, Briony chooses a dove-gray, cashmere dress to symbolize she is finally comfortable and at peace with her story—she has "grown up" emotionally enough to accept what she has done.

Water

Water is a symbol of life and rebirth throughout Atonement. When Cecilia jumps into the fountain, she is reborn as an object of affection in Robbie's eyes. During the war, Robbie is constantly searching for water to keep him alive. The sea he is walking toward is a symbol of his hope for survival and reunion with Cecilia.

Briony often goes to bodies of water to revive herself when she is in a bad mood. But in Part 3, stinging cold tap water punishes her a dozen times a day when she must wash her hands as a nurse at the hospital. Her friend Fiona brings Briony a symbolic offer of water, but Fiona is incapable of taking Briony's guilt away. While on her imagined visit to Cecilia, Briony wishes her sister would give her a glass of water—here a symbol of a rebirth into Cecilia's good graces—but Celia does not.

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