Atonement (novel)  

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Atonement is a family saga novel written by author Ian McEwan and published in 2001. The novel is about understanding and responding to the need for atonement. A women seeks atonement for an innocent childhood mistake that ruined lives and reflects on the nature of writing itself for this end. It consists of four separate temporal sections about: her mistake; its effects; her search for atonement in young adulthood; and then in old age. Set in pre-World War II England, war time France and England, and later twentieth-century England it revolves around an upper-class female.


Plot summary

Part one

Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old English girl with a talent for writing, lives at her family's country estate with her parents Jack and Emily Tallis. Her older sister Cecilia has recently graduated from the University of Cambridge with Robbie Turner, the Tallis family housekeeper's son and Cecilia's childhood friend (Robbie received a first in English while Cecilia received a "humiliating third"), with whom she eventually develops a relationship.

In the summer of 1935, Briony's maternal cousins, Lola and her twin brothers Jackson and Pierrot, visit the family after their parents are going through a bitter divorce. Briony's immaturity, and her inability to grasp certain situations which are beyond her understanding, lead her to misinterpret a scene she witnesses of a struggle between Robbie and Cecilia. What she believes to be a moment of sexual tension between Cecilia and Robbie is far from the reality of the situation and is the spark that begins Briony's fantasies. Briony misconstrues this situation and concludes that Robbie is acting aggressively toward Cecilia, due to their differences in gender and Briony's idea of male dominance over women.

Robbie, meanwhile, begins to realise he has developed an attraction towards Cecilia, whom he has not seen in some time, and writes several drafts of a love letter to her expressing the feelings he has for her. He decides to give the letter to Briony to deliver to Cecilia for him; however, he inadvertently gives her a version he had meant to discard, which contains lewd and vulgar references ("In my dreams I kiss your cunt"). It becomes too late for Robbie to rectify his mistake and despite his instructions to Briony not to open the letter she disobeys him and reads it.

Later the same evening, she walks in on Robbie and Cecilia having sex in the library. Briony misinterprets this as an assault and believes Robbie is a "maniac" from whom she must protect her sister.

Later, there is a family dinner party attended by Briony's brother Leon and his friend Paul Marshall. When it is discovered the twins have run away, the party breaks into teams to search for them.

In the darkness, while everyone is searching for the twins, Briony discovers her cousin Lola being raped by an assailant she cannot clearly see. Lola is unable/unwilling to identify the attacker. Briony accuses Robbie and identifies him to the police as the rapist, claiming she has seen his face in the dark. Her previous misinterpretations of seeing Robbie and Cecilia's struggle at the fountain, the letter, and the scene she witnesses in the library, lead Briony to accuse Robbie of raping Lola, despite having no solid proof that he was responsible. Robbie is taken away to prison, with only Cecilia and his mother believing his protestations of innocence. Briony perceives her actions to be heroic, fulfilling her fantasies of the criminal being locked up. As a result of this, Cecilia cuts off her family and refuses to speak to them again.

Part two

By the time Second World War has started, Robbie has spent several years in prison. He is released on the condition he enlists in the army.

Cecilia has trained and become a nurse. She has cut off all contact with her family because of the part they played in sending Robbie to jail.

Robbie and Cecilia have only been in contact by letter, since she was not allowed to visit him in prison. Before Robbie has to go to war in France, they meet once for half an hour, during Cecilia's lunch break. Their reunion starts awkwardly, but they share a kiss before leaving each other.

In France, the war is going badly, and the army is retreating to Dunkirk. As the injured Robbie makes his way there, he thinks about Cecilia and past events such as teaching Briony how to swim, reflecting on Briony's possible reasons for accusing him.

His single meeting with Cecilia is the memory that keeps him walking; his only aim is seeing her again. His condition deteriorates over the course of the section: He weakens and becomes delirious. At the end of part two, Robbie falls asleep in Dunkirk, one day before the evacuation begins.

Part three

Remorseful Briony has refused her place at Cambridge and instead is a trainee nurse in London. She has realised the full extent of her mistake and decides it was Paul Marshall, Leon's friend, whom she saw raping Lola. Briony still writes, although she does not pursue it with the same recklessness as she did as a child.

Briony is called to the bedside of Luc, a young, fatally wounded French soldier. She consoles him in his last moments by speaking with him in her school French, and he mistakes her for an English girl whom his mother wanted him to marry.

Just before his death, Luc asks, "Do you love me?" Briony replies, "Yes," not only because "no other answer was possible" but also because "for the moment, she did. He was a lovely boy far away from his family and about to die." Afterward, Briony daydreams about the life she might have had if she had married Luc and gone to live with him and his family.

Briony attends the wedding of Paul Marshall and her cousin Lola—who has decided to marry her rapist—before finally visiting Cecilia. Robbie is on leave from the army, and Briony meets him unexpectedly at her sister's.

Cecilia and Robbie both refuse to forgive Briony, who nonetheless tells them she will try to put things right. She promises to begin the legal procedures needed to exonerate Robbie, even though Paul Marshall will never be held responsible for his crime because of his marriage to Lola, the victim.


The final section, titled "London 1999," is narrated by Briony herself in the form of a diary entry. Now 77, she is a successful novelist who has recently been diagnosed with vascular dementia, so she is facing rapid mental decline and death.

The reader learns that Briony is the author of the preceding sections of the novel. On the penultimate page, Briony reveals that Robbie Turner died of septicaemia—caused by his injury—on the beaches of Dunkirk, that Cecilia was killed when a bomb destroyed Balham Underground station during the Blitz, and Briony never saw them in 1940. Briony did attend Lola's wedding to Marshall, but confesses she was too "cowardly" to visit the "recently bereaved" Cecilia to make amends. The novel—which she says is factually true apart from Robbie and Cecilia being reunited—is her lifelong attempt at "atonement" for what she did to them.

Briony justifies her invented happy ending by saying she does not see what purpose it would serve to give readers a "pitiless" story. She writes, "I like to think that it isn't weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end."

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