Atonement by Ian McEwan is a literary masterpiece and a highly critically acclaimed novel. Written in 2001, this piece of British metafiction tells a brilliant story of love, war, mistakes, forgiveness, and, of course, atonement. The story opens on Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old growing up in the upper-middle class in England in 1953 with her older sister Cecelia who has developed feelings for Robbie, her childhood friend. Robbie and Cecelia meet secretly in the library only for Briony to witness their intimate acts. Briony immediately villanizes Robbie and, later, when her cousin Lola is sexually assaulted, she points her finger at Robbie, claiming to have witnessed him running away. The book fast-forwards and it is revealed that Robbie was sent to prison, and then to fight in World War II while Briony realizes that Robbie did not attack Lola and remains riddled with guilt. She finds that Robbie is staying at Cecelia’s apartment and she promises to retract her witness statement though Cecilia and Robbie do not forgive her. In the final part of the novel, the audience learns that the book was, actually, Briony’s book and that some parts were false. In reality, Cecilia and Robbie never reunited - they both died separately during the war. While Atonement clearly maintains all the twists and turns standard of any McEwan work, it also manages to remain remarkably grounded through McEwan’s use of stylistic devices such as imagery, analogies, and foreshadowing as well as through his narrative and structural decisions. The result of these literary decisions was a gripping novel telling a story with many moving parts and themes, centered firmly around the idea of how destructive one’s perspective and imaginations can truly be. Atonement is far more than a story about just atonement; it incorporates love stories and war stories and more to make it stand out as truly one of the most influential works of the 21st century.
In the novel, Ian McEwan: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, 2nd edition, Groes proves the impact of postmodernism in Atonement. Postmodernism, a movement during the mid to late 20th century, preached the idea of reality is not absolute, but constructed by each person individually. According to Groes, Atonement is “a proper postmodern artifact, wearing its doubts on its sleeve, on the outside...” (Groes 72). He defends this statement throughout his book by providing specific examples of central themes and ideas in Atonement which make it the “postmodern artifact” it is believed to be. These examples include Atonement’s unique representation of the disillusionment and chaos created by World War II and the unreliability of Briony’s self-conscious accounts. Both of these play into the idea of postmodernism as they create a sense of ambiguity and confusion within the reader to prove that truth is not absolute or all-knowing. It is constructed by each person individually and, for this reason, may be, even, untrue. This is a significant criticism as many critics have even extended this idea to suggest that the book even participates in a broader postmodern critique of the west leading up to World War II. As Brian Finney, an English professor at California State University at Long Beach points out, Atonement accomplishes this with its two separate time frames. For example, Robbie’s childhood and his years spent with Cecelia in the beginning of the book were full of hope and he lived happily because he was unaware of his dark future - much like the west during the 1930s. The West, and Robbie, however ae hurled into a war that they find themselves completely unprepared for because it was not real to them until it was too late (Finney 26).
Brian Finney, in his own critical essay Briony's Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan's Atonement, focuses on highlighting the metafictional aspects of the book, which also lend themselves to postmodern ideas. Metafiction is unique genre where the narrator’s self conscious narating reminds the audience that the book is a work of fiction. Briony’s reveal at the end of the novel that the book was written by her and is, in parts, untrue, draws attention to the constructed nature of reality and truth in the novel - a central idea of postmodernism - and, in this way, “invite[s] [the audience] simultaneously to reflect on the way subjectivity is similarly constructed in the non fictional world we inhabit” (Finney 26). Essentially, Finney argues that the novel forces us to reexamine how we interpret the world through the same narrative process of Briony which, as the novel reveals, are so misleading.
McEwan’s use of imagery, juxtaposition, metaphors, and foreshadowing, among a multitude of other devices, catapults Atonement’s plot and helps establish its place in. literary history. The most common use of imagery throughout the novel is in the form of water. Throughout the novel, water is seen in many of the most important, plot propelling scenes. This is significant because water itself is universally recognised to represent cleaning and renewal, phrases practically synonymous with the term atonement itself. In part three, when Briony is a nurse, she washes her hands and equipment excessively and obsessively. McEwan even writes that “The everyday practice of boiling, scrubbing, buffing, and wiping became the badge of the students’ professional pride” (McEwan 256). Briony’s new obsession with cleaning can be seen as a desperate way for her to wash away her sins. She is desperately trying to atone for and wash away her sins the way she can wash her hands and the wounds of soldiers. But, as proven by her obsessive washing and some of the soldiers she treats, no matter how much she washes her hands and others, it is never clean enough. This is representative of her mistakes - as no matter what she does, she can never atone for them in this lifetime.
McEwan also makes use of a juxtaposition and a powerful analogy early in the story to create a strong characterization of Briony, the main character. In the beginning of the novel, McEwan juxtaposes Cecelia’s messy, unorganized room with Briony’s neat and organized room to emphasize Briony’s compulsive nature and her constant need for control. McEwan even states that “[Briony] was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so. Whereas her big sister’s room was a stew of unclosed books, unfolded clothes, unmade bed, unemptied ashtrays, Briony’s was a shrine to her controlling demon...” (McEwan 4-5). Furthermore, in describing Briony’s room, McEwan states that “[her dolls] suggested by their even ranks and spacing a citizen’s army awaiting orders” (McEwan 5). This is a significant analogy as by part three, Briony is working with actual, wounded soldiers except, this time with much less control. Where she could control her dolls and line them straight in her room, in her actual job she has minimum control because, as the novel preaches, one perspective is not always indicative of the real world.
Finally, McEwan’s use of foreshadowing must be noted as well as it serves to build anticipation within the reader and, thereby, also helps to build dramatic tension within the story. Foreshadowing is apparent within the very beginning of the novel when Briony reveals the plot of the play she has written, called The Trials of Arabella. The events in the play mirror the events that would soon unfold in the Tallis household, only the real life version would be much bleeker. The introduction of this foreshadowing tool so early in the book gives the audience a taste of the kinds of stories Briony likes to tell and the drama involved in these stories as well. When it is later revealed that Briony fabricated Robbie and Cecelia’s happy ending, the audience remembers the plot of The Trials of Arabella and understands that this was the first example of Briony’s childlike and imaginative mind which would, unfortunately, dictate the rest of her and her sister’s tragic lives.
Atonement is not only one of the most influential novels of the 21st century - it is also one of the most interesting. Throughout the novel, McEwan uses a third person narrative to allow readers to understand the story from multiple different viewpoints. As the story develops slowly, naturally, and unbiasedly thanks to the multiple points of view employed by McEwan, he emphasizes each character’s thought processes and ideas which lead to different outcomes and conclusions in the case of each separate character. The effect of this is a clear demonstration as to how different perspectives and preconceptions may influence one’s understanding of reality and their surroundings. The multiple points of view allow McEwan to show how several may observe the same event yet construct completely different interpretations of it. Unfortunately, as he reveals, these different interpretations of reality can be disastrous and ruin someone’s life in a matter of minutes. The narration is also unreliable as Briony reveals herself to be the author. This serves to further emphasize the theme of how one's perspective shapes their existence.
Aside from a unique point of view, McEwan also incorporates letters throughout the novel which is a unique technique. The inclusion of some of these letters serves as paratextuality, one of the five forms of intertextuality as presented by Sayyed Ali Mirenayat and Elaheh Soofastaei in the paper Gerard Genette and the Categorization of Textual Transcendence. Specifically, paratextuality is a form of intertextual discourse which describes the relationship between text and paratext - which is comprised of titles, prefaces, epigraphs, dedications, and notes, other elements that are incorporated in the text to make it more understandable and accessible for the reader (Mirenayat et al., 534). Paratextuality in incorporated in this novel through private letters, military reports, and newspaper articles. The mention of such paratexts serves to add credibility to Briony’s novel. In the midst of the constant scrutiny of the credibility of the novel, these paratexts reassure the audience that there is some truth and historical credibility to Briony’s, and thus McEwan's, novel.
Atonement is divided intelligently into three different parts, plus an epilogue. This construction allows the novel to reflect and tell the story throughout multiple different times and places without being confusing. In part one, the narration focuses on Briony as the characters are all young and growing up in the Tallis house. In parts two and three, the time period remains constant though part two focuses on Robbie in France and part three focuses on Briony in London. The stories come back together and conclude in the Epilogue. This dynamic structure in which movements in time, space, and narrative focuses, is, however, all tied together through similar patterns and writing styles and a continued focus on Briony. These similarities allow the audience to more easily tie together and understand the complex storyline. Additionally, the continued focus on Briony also makes this novel a circular story as it starts and ends in the same place with a strong focus on a singular, unifying element. The story starts and ends with Briony writing some type of novel though in the beginning she writes to exercise complete control whereas in the end, she is writing to atone for her sins.
The overarching theme of Atonement is the way in which one’s perspectives may shape their existence and that of others. Throughout the novel, this theme is dramatized by Briony’s accusation against Robbie. This accusation was based on nothing more than Briony’s falsey developed perspective on Robbie after witnessing him in the library with Cecelia. While Robbie was actually innocent, the accusation still ruins his life, even though it is based on nothing more than Briony’s imaginative, adolescent mind and perspective. The theme of the way perspective can shape - and even ruin - lives is also communicated through the novel's major symbols: water, which is associated with atonement, and The Trials of Arabella, which serves as much more than a foreshadowing device. Throughout the novel, water is a powerful marker of cleansing, or atonement itself. At the same time, The Trials of Arabella serves as a synecdoche, representing the novel as a whole. Briony insists on giving the characters in The Trials of Arabella a happy ending, something which her imagination and perspective refuses Robbie and Cecelia in real life. This reinforces the way perspective can shape ones life, even if it ends up doing so negatively.
Critical commentaries of Ian McEwan’s Atonement focus heavily on the impacts and existence of postmodernism and metafiction within the novel. But, this coupled with the McEwan’s powerful use of imagery, juxtaposition, analogies, and foreshadowing as well as a third person, unreliable narrative and paratextuality help build the complex storyline and develop the central theme of how shaping and destructive one’s imagination and perspective can be when dictates one's actions unilaterally. The novel’s circular and divided structure makes this work and message clear and easy to understand throughout. Thus, the development of such a meaningful theme as well as the way it is delivered to the audience, makes Atonement one of the most meaningful works of its century.
- Groes, S. (Ed.). (2017). Ian McEwan: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (2nd ed.). Bloomsbury Academic.
- Finney, B. (2007). Briony's Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan's Atonement. Studies in the Novel, 39(3), 26–39.
- McEwan, I. (2001). Atonement. Knopf.
- Mirenayat, S. A., & Soofastaei, E. (2014). Gerard Genette and the Categorization of Textual Transcendence. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 5(3), 533–541.