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Atonement by Ian McEwan and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: A Comparative Analysis

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McEwan’s Atonement and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway both effectively use with chance, coincident, and accident as plot developments and narrative tools

Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway uses chance and coincident as narrative tools. Woolf creates tunnels between characters which are linked through shared chance experiences, such as a car backfiring that is witnessed by entire crowds. By doing this, Woolf is able to introduce different plot lines with different protagonists that never meet, but demonstrate society as a whole. Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus Smith never actually meet, but their paths cross through jumps in the narrative structure, and by chance encounters after Septimus’s death. Woolf uses cars, planes, and locations around London to access the minds of her character. When Septimus and Clarissa see the same plane, Woolf jumps in and out of each character. It is chance that the characters both see the plane – if one had been inside, he or she may have missed it, breaking the bridge between the characters. Additionally, the coincidental connections between characters connect plots. After Septimus dies, Clarissa is hosting her party, and the Bradshaws serve as a link between Clarissa and Septimus. The Bradshaws bring death to Clarissa’s party: Septimus’s death. It is by chance that Clarissa would know the doctor that worked with Septimus’s death, and by presenting this connection, readers can see Clarissa’s anger at the real world, as she is angry that death was brought to her party.

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The plot of Atonement is fuelled by a young girl who accidentally witnesses mature situations and mistakes their meanings. Briony Tallis is only thirteen years old when, by chance, she witnesses sexual and tense encounters between her sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallis family’s housekeeper. First, Briony watches her sister undress and dive into a fountain to fetch a broken vase. The young girl does not, however, see the vase, and instead believes that Robbie is forcing Cecilia to perform this rather risqué action. Briony has no idea what to make of this encounter, and so she starts seeing Robbie in a negative light as she does not know the full story. Later, Robbie accidentally sends Briony off with a letter he mistakenly writes to Cecilia, including very vulgar and sexual language. His accident leads to Briony further questioning her sister’s safety with Robbie. Briony reads the vulgar letter, and, although she does not know what it means, she decides that Robbie is a “maniac”. By creating this image of him, she unknowingly dooms him without even trying to understand the actual story. Briony then walks in on Cecilia and Robbie having sex, but due to her age, she mistakenly believes that Robbie is attacking her sister. This chance encounter frightens Briony about her sister’s safety even more. Briony does not understand what is happening between the lovers, but she jumps to conclusions based on her few chance encounters with Robbie. When Paul Marshall rapes Lola, Briony happens to find them and accidentally accuses Robbie of the crime. By doing this, Briony seals Robbie’s death. McEwan uses these chance encounters of Briony’s youth to explain the reason for Briony’s atonement, as the death of Robbie and Cecilia are on her shoulders, and she stood in the way of their happy life together. Briony’s accidents cause death and create the entire plot of Atonement.

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