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The Sorrows of Young Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement


Jafarova, PhD student

Azerbaijan University of Languages, 2014

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by DAKAM Publishing for November 3-5, 2014

 Literary Criticism Conference Proceedings

– 2014 


Key Words: postmodernism,
metafiction, catharsis.



Atonement is a story
told to us by a seventy-seven year old Briony narrating herself as a
thirteen-year old girl with passion for writing. On a hot summer’s day of 1935
she was to commit an innocent crime that would wreck the lives of two loving
people. Why would she do that, you may wonder. It’s very simple, indeed, “The
road to hell is paved with good intentions”. As postmodernists claim, there is
no absolute truth or interpretation that can be achieved with the help of
logical reasoning or by the consciousness of the mind. The conflict between the
different perceptions of truth, facts and beliefs, truth and illusion will
always be there. The novel employs both postmodern and classic narrative techniques
and therefore, is treated as both realist and postmodern. On one hand there is
a reality that’s misread by a young girl, on the other hand there’s a
metanarrative reminding us that we’re reading a self-reflective novel. Being
multi-layered, Atonement has a strong
romantic element, historical background and psychological subtlety that
continues the empirical tradition of British fiction, and, at the same time,
questions the established values which makes it a fine postmodern novel. As a
piece of modern fiction Atonement is
significant for the way it tackles the complexities of human life depicted in
narration and has a cathartic effect on the reader. 


“But what was guilt these days? It was
cheap. Everyone was guilty, and no one was. No one would be redeemed by a
change of evidence, for there weren’t enough people, enough paper and pens,
enough patience and peace, to take down the statements of all the witnesses and
gather in the facts. The witnesses were guilty too. All day we’ve witnessed
each other’s crimes. You killed no one today? But how many did you leave to
die?” (Atonement, McEwan 2007, p.261)

in the broadest terms, contemporary British novelists combine a serious and
complex response to the world around and try to refract it with distinctive
modes of narration. Although postmodernism has become an important feature of
much post-war British fiction many contemporary novelists continue to work in a
realist mode. They use techniques associated with postmodernism for different
ideological as well as formal purposes. Hence, when we talk about postmodernism
in British literature we speak of ‘reworking of realism’, in other words,
British postmodern realism.

Atonement (2001),
Ian McEwan’s most expansive and remarkable novel so far, employs both
postmodern and classic narrative techniques and therefore, is treated as both
realist and postmodern. It is a story told to us by a seventy-seven years old
Briony Tallis narrating herself as a thirteen-year old girl with passion for
writing.  As a teenager she had one
sorrow only: she had no secrets. “Nothing in her life was sufficiently
interesting or shameful to merit hiding” (McEwan 2007, p.5). She longed for a
harmonious and organized world where you could easily make judgments of what
was right and what was wrong. Thus marriage was “of virtue rewarded, dizzy
promise of lifelong union”, whereas divorce went along with the “betrayal,
illness, thieving, assault and mendacity” (ibid., p.9).

a young writer she had to face pretense in words and encountered the danger of
self-exposure. But then she found all the pleasures of miniaturization and
ready-made “recipes”:

A world could be made in five pages,
and one that was more pleasing than a model farm. The childhood of a spoiled
prince could be framed within half a page, a moonlit dash through sleepy
villages was one rhythmically emphatic sentence, falling in love could be
achieved in a single word—a glance. … A crisis in a heroine’s life could
be made to coincide with hailstones, gales and thunder, whereas nuptials were
generally blessed with good light and soft breezes. A love of order also shaped
the principles of justice, with death and marriage the main engines of
housekeeping, the former being set aside exclusively for the morally dubious,
the latter a reward withheld until the final page (ibid., p.7).

One summer’s day in 1935, this imaginative girl witnesses a
moment’s flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the
son of a housekeeper and Cecilia’s childhood friend. Later that day Robbie asks
Briony to give a letter to her sister (that she opens), which he then realizes
is the wrong one with sexual implication. To make the matters worse, in the
evening while everybody was in the drawing room Briony finds the two in the
library and misinterpreting what she sees as physical assault linking the three
events comes to the conclusion that Robbie was ‘a maniac’.   

the day these events take place the family are being visited by their cousins
Lola, and the twins whose parents are going through a divorce. After misreading
the first stages of a love relationship between Robbie and Cecilia, Briony
mistakenly accuses Robbie of attacking Lola by the lake in the grounds of the
country house. She has observed Lola’s attacker in the half-light and because
of her feelings toward Robbie at this time mistakenly assumes that he is the
culprit (Bentley 2008, p.150)”. What she wanted was
to protect her sister and put this event as nicely as possible into “words” of
fiction. In her mind everything connected and “her eyes confirmed the
sum of all she knew and had recently experienced. The truth was in the symmetry,
which was to say; it was founded in common sense. The truth instructed her
eyes” (McEwan, p.169). We all love stories; human beings are story telling
animals. Atonement is also a story of
a little Briony who eventually becomes a writer and realizing she did something
irreparable and therefore, wrecked the lives of two loving people, atones all
her life and this time makes up another story to undo her damage. In order to
avoid justifying herself and bring about the forces that drive people’s actions,
Briony, the omnipotent narrator, comments on the things that happen and the
thoughts, as well as decisions of the characters. She is no longer a
descriptive narrator whose single purpose is to moralize but the one who needs
to show the single event from several different perspectives thus revealing to
us how people can easily “get everything wrong, completely wrong”.
It’s what we call impartial psychological realism and it’s where the postmodern
way of thinking starts:

“The age
of clear answers was over. So was the age of characters and plots. Despite her
journal sketches, she no longer really believed in characters. They were quaint
devices that belonged to the nineteenth century. The very concept of character
was founded on errors that modern psychology had exposed. Plots too were like
rusted machinery whose wheels would no longer turn. A modern novelist could no
more write characters and plots than a modern composer could a Mozart symphony”
(ibid., p.281).

Meanwhile Robbie spends several years in prison and then is released on the condition to fight
in the Second World War. Cecilia has trained
and become a nurse. She has cut off all contact with her family because they
all took part in sending Robbie to jail. Sixteen-year-old Briony also goes for
nursing and finds courage in herself to ask for forgiveness. Although she
doesn’t actually get it she’s happy to see Cecilia and Robbie still in love and
united. It’s only in the epilogue headed “London, 1999” an elderly Briony, now
a famous novelist, reveals the “bleakest reality”; that Robbie died of
septicemia at Bray Dunes on 1 June 1940, or that Cecilia was killed in
September of the same year by the bomb that destroyed Balham Underground
station; “and that Briony never saw
them in that year”. “What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw
from such an account? Who would want to believe that they never met again,
never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that? (ibid., p.371)”
These are the questions Briony, the “author” of the novel, asks us. Indeed, we
wouldn’t like to know such a cruel and unfair truth. And yet we get to know it,
as it’s also a metafictional novel, which makes us aware that we are reading a
book. There can be no illusion regarding the novel; even though it tells us a
story with all kinds of psychological subtleties, romance and historical
background it’s mostly the imagination of the author who decides everything for
us. We have no power to enter people’s minds or have a right to make the
decisions for them, be judgmental. We can only project ourselves into the
thoughts and feelings of others. And this act of empathy lies at the center of
McEwan’s book. “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is
at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the
beginning of morality”, “for me novels are not about teaching people how to
live but about showing the possibility of what it is like to be someone else.”
– These are what McEwan himself says. It’s when you can feel empathy that you
can undergo catharsis and become a better person.

Postmodernism can take away so many
things from us; beginning from grand narratives finishing with little illusions
and happy endings but what it can never take away is the love motif, for as
long as we have a heart we’ll fall in love and will glorify it and never stop
reading and enjoying love stories.




BENTLEY N. (2008), Contemporary British Fiction, Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press

McEWAN I. (2007), Atonement, London: The Random House
Group Limited 

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