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Atonement | Themes

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Guilt

With a title like Atonement, it seems obvious the novel is about coming to terms with guilt. Briony Tallis does not mention her feelings of guilt outright very often. She spends much of the novel subtly shifting partial blame for Robbie Turner's fate onto others. Paul should not have raped Lola, and he should not have used Robbie as a convenient scapegoat for his crime. Her mother, Emily Tallis, should have known Paul Marshall raped Lola Quincey if she "knows everything." Her father, Jack Tallis, should have been more involved with his family and stepped in to defend his protégé, Robbie. Her cousin Lola Quincey should have spoken up instead of letting the clueless Briony speak for her. Robbie himself should not have used the obscene word he uses in his letter to Cecilia. And Robbie and Cecilia Tallis should have found a more private place to make love than the library, where Briony walked in on them.

During her time as a nurse, Briony acknowledges the burden of her guilt and how it pursues her: "Guilt refined ... detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime." She wishes she could have been brave enough to apologize personally to Cecilia, so she fabricates a visit to her sister where she has a chance to do so.

It is not until the end of her life that Briony is ready to go public with her private shame, but she cannot publish Atonement until her fellow sinners Paul and Lola are dead. She knows she can never attain forgiveness, but she unburdens herself of guilt by her lifelong attempt to set things right, even if this can be done only in fictional form.

Order versus Chaos

The contrast between order and chaos appears as a theme throughout Atonement, with McEwan seeming to advocate a healthy balance between the two. Briony's impeccably tidy room and need for absolute control over her own narrative represents order. Meanwhile, the aimless Cecilia, with her impulsive nature and messy room, represents chaos. Studious Robbie has an orderly life as a doctor in his sights until he falls in love with Cecilia, and reckless actions—writing an obscene letter, using a child as a messenger, making love to Cecilia in an inappropriate place, and setting off on his own to search for the twins—lead to his undoing.

The novel is framed by young Briony's play, The Trials of Arabella, which extols the virtue of good sense and foreshadows doom for any love not based on this quality. Briony learns early she is not suited to be a playwright because she does not have complete control over the outcome of her fiction. She rejects the chaos of playwriting and dedicates herself solely to the orderliness of novel writing. In an example of situational irony, when she speaks for Lola about the identity of the rapist, Briony unexpectedly becomes the main actress in a real-life drama of her own making—a narrative she creates to take control, but which ends up getting far out of her control.

After the chaos of Robbie's trial and prison sentence, Robbie joins the military, and Cecilia and Briony join the nursing profession—both institutions that rely heavily on order for their success. But the events of World War II (1939–45) break down the military order, leaving Robbie to die in Dunkirk as the British army withdraws from France. Briony takes ultimate control of her story by becoming the author of it. After various drafts, she finally believes it worthy of being her atonement. But Briony's final punishment for her obsessive need for order is a slow descent into dementia—mental chaos from which she can never recover. McEwan seems to offer her diagnosis as a sort of poetic justice for her crime.

Coming of Age

Both 13-year-old Briony and 15-year-old Lola try to grow up too fast, with disastrous results. Briony is too young to process the complex workings of the adult world and so misunderstands Robbie and Cecilia's flirtation as something far more sinister. Lola, still privately reeling from the threat of her parents' divorce, wants to act as though she is above it all. She dresses like a woman instead of a child, which attracts inappropriate attention from Paul.

Briony willfully "kills" her childhood in Part 1, Chapter 7 ("having no further need for it"), using nettles, plants with jagged leaves and stinging hairs, as a stand-in. As she reflects in Part 1, Chapter 13, if she had allowed herself to continue her childhood, and allowed her mother to snuggle her, would never have found Lola after her rape and never have borne false witness against Robbie.

Power of Words

The two most powerful words in Part 1 of Atonement are the obscene word Robbie uses in his letter and the word maniac. Both change Briony's innocent opinion of Robbie into a harsh judgment of his character. Robbie sets this transformation in motion by first writing the word and then giving a child (Briony) the opportunity to read it. Briony is disgusted by Robbie, but she does not consider him dangerous until she tells Lola about the letter and Lola calls him a "maniac." Once this word is introduced, Briony repeats it until she believes it wholeheartedly. These two words become the fuel for Briony's false accusation of Robbie.

Similarly, Robbie reflects how his obscene letter "repelled [Cecilia] but it unlocked her." His word had the power to destroy him, but it also had the power to give him his great love story.

In Part 2, Cecilia's words in letters to Robbie have the power to keep him alive through prison and his war experience. Specifically, it is the words she once used to soothe Briony after her nightmares that now express her unwavering devotion to Robbie: "Come back."

In Part 3, Briony's journal writing is what keeps her sane and allows her to keep her identity in the face of an institution in which she is stripped of everything but her designation as a nurse. The original draft of her novella (which later becomes Atonement) lacks power because there is no emotional truth to it—she is hiding her guilt behind an unsuccessful experiment in point of view.

Finally, in Part 4, Briony has achieved the ultimate power over her creation by becoming a celebrated author. Words are the source of her power, and with them she builds entire worlds. But the one thing she wants the most, atonement, she does not have the power to give herself. Even so, she acknowledges she has at least made the attempt.

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