In the book Atonement by Ian McEwan, the protagonist Briony plays the naive child which eventually leads her to misinterpret an event between her sister, Cecilia Turner, and the son of the Tallis family’s cleaning lady, Robbie Turner. The particular event in which Briony had misinterpreted between her sister and Robbie was when she witnessed the two at the fountain.
She is mistaken when she thinks that this occurrence was Robbie forcing Cecilia to unclothe herself. She uses this experience and compares it to one from one of her stories. Being so young, Briony cannot fully comprehend the situation and lets this event take power over life. This short incident should have taught her that ignorance is blissful.
Briony devotes her whole life to expressing remorse for falsely accusing Robbie of rape. This is why self-perception vs. truth in the novel are the main themes, they are such crucial parts of the book because not everything is what it seems. Briony’s self-perception was caused by her lack of knowledge as well as being a young child.
Briony lacks the knowledge of those of the older characters in the story and it tends to show more often than not. She sees an event and takes it into her own hands without knowing what truly happens. From the beginning of the novel, she enters into a universe full of matured characters which later shows she is truly unaware of her surroundings. She only really pays attention to the small details and gets lost in her youth and writing.
After several events unfold, Briony tries to seek reparation for the events that occur due to her misinterpretation. Briony eventually starts to feel guilty for falsely accusing Robbie of the crime. She realizes what she did was wrong and that the only person that could change the lives of herself and everyone around her was solely in her hands.
Everything that Briony interprets as her own thoughts may not always come to be the truth as proven by McEwan’s writing. McEwan may have written the book as such to make his readers think more and to make them question if Briony truly is trustworthy in all her actions and words. The only real reason why Briony does not seem trustworthy is that she only perceives events blindly without full knowledge of what is really going on. That is why the relationship between truth and self-perception are strong viewpoints in McEwan’s novel.
The reasoning for Briony’s misinterpretation can be caused by her ignorance of things, as she is still a very young girl. Although she knew a lot for her age, it proved her more mature than most thirteen-year-olds. “At the age of eleven, she wrote her first story -- a foolish affair”(McEwan 6). This quote shows that even though she is a naive child she is still capable of understanding things. I do not think that Briony used the events she witnessed as a source of achieving attention, but I think she used it as a way to play a hero in her story. In getting herself into this situation she causes her sister to not speak to her family. By the end of the story, Briony does eventually realize that what she witnessed was actually her cousin, Lola, and Paul Marshall.
Briony's understanding of things also allows for her to misinterpret events as shown in the story. The next sentence after this brings up McEwan’s theme of self-perception and it says, “But this first attempt showed her that the image itself was a source of secrets…”(McEwan 6) Although McEwan does not clearly state that self-perception and misinterpretation are present in the novel, he still finds ways to make it known to the readers.
It is important to understand McEwan’s connection to his work and his personal experiences, three critics especially focused on the biological approach and include: Tomasz Dobrogoszcz, Brian Finney, and Dominic Head. In Dobrogoszcz’s writing, he mainly focuses on the relationships and family aspects in McEwan’s work. In the introduction, he states, “McEwan himself does not perceive the novelist’s predicament as that of crossroads… He sees forking paths of fiction as the realist and the experimental approach to his writing”(Dobrogoszcz 1). This was important in mentioning because it not only focuses on the way McEwan writes but also gives insight into his thought process when writing the book. Brian Finney seems to focus on how Briony takes a stand against oblivion.
Although on the first page Finney says, “For a long time Ian McEwan found himself trapped in the role of a sensational writer…”(Finney 1). Also later in the text, he speaks more about experiences occurring in McEwan’s that can also relate to parts of the book.
In Head’s writing, he gives a little background information on McEwan’s other works and then goes more into detail about his writing style. He states, “McEwan is at the forefront of a group of novelists who reinvigorated the ethical function of the novel, in ways that embody a deep response to the historical pressures of the time”(Head 1). This sentence, explains how Ian McEwan uses a historical background in his novels to help in setting the story. Further in the reading, Head states this: “The following topics have all figured prominently in his writing: politics; male violence and the problem of gender relations; science and the limits of rationality; nature and ecology; love and innocence; and the basis of morality”(Head 1). I believe that this part is key to understanding the main concerns of Ian McEwan because some are relevant in his life.
The next focus is solely on the breakdown in which systems, frameworks, and definitions come into play in the destruction list, post-structuralist, and/or postmodernist criticism. An example of an author who wrote in this approach was Maurizio Ascari. Not only was the topic of postmodernism mentioned in the title, but it also was mentioned in the text quite a bit. Ascari mentions “Briony’s failure to respond to the complexity of the surrounding world around her makes up McEwan’s novel of immersive realism and metafictional deconstruction.” McEwan’s goal of his work is “to draw the reader to the darkest place possible, a place where all our efforts at atonement come to naught…”(Ascari 1). McEwan is trying to find deceiving ways in which to draw in his readers by constructing a postmodernist quest for meaning.
Critic Karam Nayebpour focuses on the formalistic approach, offering a view on forms, stressing symbols, images, and structures. Nayebpour says that “ McEwan deals with mature characters, giving up the exploration of grotesque and disturbing themes”(Nayebpour 1). This can be viewed as the formalistic approach because it is taking the elements of his work to reinforce the true meaning behind the story. McEwan stresses symbols a lot throughout Atonement to help show the bigger picture. He ties in relationships and human nature to relate to the story as a whole.
Following the formalistic approach is the historical approach. Ellam and Quarrie’s focal point is on the connection between the novel and the time period in which it was written.
Both Julie Ellam and Cynthia Quarrie used a historical approach in their writings. “His fiction has become known for its displays of meticulous research and his novels are recognizable, especially since the late 1900s, for an economy of style”(Ellam 1). In focusing on Ian McEwan, in Ellam’s review, she touched on how McEwan connected historical background to the story. Both Ellam and Quarrie also mention how Atonement produces some sort of post imperialism.
The philosophical approach is focused on by critic John Lippitt. John centers his writing on Briony’s view of the world and McEwan’s philosophy as well. Lippitt focuses on the aspects of self-forgiveness and the moral perspective of humility through Briony, the protagonist.
In the abstract, Lippitt says, “First she (as in Briony) illustrates an unorthodox conception of humility that aids the process of responsibly self-forgiveness. Second, she fleshes out a self-forgiveness that includes continued self-reproach.” This theme of humility and self-forgiveness says that all of human nature can make mistakes because nobody is perfect. We see that nobody is perfect even through Briony and the events that occurred because of her misinterpretation.
Lastly, there is the reader-response criticism by Elizabeth Weston and Nathalie Jaeck, and Arnaud Schmitt. This criticism focuses on how the reader perceives the novel. Weston covers the topics of memory and history in the story to give readers an experience in which they must overcome Briony’s deficiencies. It allows readers to have a different look at historical traumas, the damages of war, and sexual violence. In the abstract on the joint paper between Jaeck and Schmitt, they say, “We will show that this narrative reconfiguration forces the readers to reassess their interpretations of the interplay between truth, error, and deception…”
The intent made clear is to make it so the reader may come up with explanations for each event that occurs, especially from Briony’s perspective. Ian McEwan sets up the story so that the reader may discover the true meaning in the literary work which can be shown through characters, the plot, and even symbols. It is important to understand that as a young child Briony likes to live in a world full of her own imagination. She seems to view everything in a false way causing her to misinterpret situations and ruining the lives of those around her.
She ruined her sister’s life as well as Robbie’s because she failed to comprehend and “respond to the complexity of the surrounding world”(Ascari). It displays her self-perception as a mere assumption without actual proof. Young Briony had created such a terrible monstrous view of Robbie by only seeing the surface of things and her naiveness got in the way of the truth. Briony’s love for writing troubles her view of perception and the truth because she believes that everything occurring in her life is somehow a story. In creating fiction events in her head it fantasizes her into thinking she must become a hero in her own life story and save her sister, Cecilia.
Although perception vs. truth is so important it is her love for novels and writing that really inspires her actions. If Briony had not been so interested in stories the story would have unfolded very differently. Throughout the book, the narrative is told in the third person all until the very last chapter. Perception becomes very confusing because the person telling the story seems to switch around a good amount. Briony comes up with a story of what she believes other people are thinking, but she does not really know the truth. In the end, a happily ever after story does come true once she finally gets Cecilia and Robbie to reunite. She creates a novel about her whole life and how she tries to make up for her wrongdoing.
In the end, Briony’s true atonement is her effort to fix the problem she had created and to make sure that Robbie and Cecilia’s love would have lasted forever. Even though Briony failed to interpret the event from a very young age it taught readers that the different types of realities featured in the story are more so viewed as different character’s perspectives. Briony’s misinterpretation of the situation comes to be seen as not completely true, as shown in the last chapter of the book. Going back to the fact of her trustworthiness, it goes to show that she is not all that trustworthy especially as she ages and her dementia worsens. The novel becomes very confusing and pretty much leaves it up to the readers to interpret the truth vs. what is not.
Self-perception in the novel is not just shown through Briony and what she witnesses, but it can also be related to the readers. This is because as readers we find out more about Briony and her backstory, but we can choose what we believe and what we do not, therefore both readers and Briony have a strong sense of self-perception.
Ian McEwan does an amazing job of transforming his characters to make the storyline more interesting. If anything guilt and her atonement were influenced by her misconception, creating more themes in the novel to relate to it. To get the full picture of what happened, McEwan reiterates scenes several times to show the views of several other characters.
Briony feels as if she cannot be forgiven because of her actions. Her character shows true character development, starting as a naive child and becoming a responsible adult. She feels remorseful because she eventually learned that she did not even have much proof, if any, to accuse him. McEwan teaches readers that in most cases our perception of things can easily overpower the truth.