Summary And Main Themes Of The Novel Atonement

Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement features a theme about architectural detail. McEwan builds the theme and quest for atonement by using these descriptions. Briony Tallis, a writer who writes architectural details, attempts to rid herself of the guilt that caused her sister Cecilia Tallis to lose her life and Robbie Turner (Cecilia’s boyfriend and the accused rapper). McEwan creates a fiction of distortion of reality, combining literary and architectural creativity. Briony’s understanding of the crime she committed is helped by the mixture of literary and architectural details. Briony’s novel is about how Briony tries to find the forgiveness she wants.

McEwan makes Briony’s effort to find atonement through Part II by referring to the French countryside where Robbie is sheltering while fighting in World War II. Robbie and Nettle (a corporate companion) arrive in the countryside and take refuge at ‘a bombed-out house that had its cellar half open to skylight and appeared like a giant cave. Nettle grabbed him by the jacket and pulled Nettle down a steep slope of bricks. He guided him to the dark cellar floor. McEwan indicates that these lines are a manuscript about Briony’s atonement attempt. McEwan could use allusion through this description when he made Robbie look like Jesus. Briony sold Robbie to the police, her selfishness and childlike naivety leading to Robbie’s ultimate demise on the cellar floors. Robbie is laid in Nettle’s cave tomb in a French village near the coast to symbolize his innocence. Briony realizes that distorted reality doesn’t bring about redemption. Nettle places Robbie in his cave tomb in a French seaside village. McEwan uses Briony’s inability visit her sister for the first time to paint the scene as McEwan’s guilty conscience. McEwan explained that “The walls had been covered with pale vertical stripes similar to boy’s sleepwear, which intensified the sense of confinement”. This symbolises both the confinement Robbie will face in prison and the one Briony has created. Briony is now separated from Cecilia because she created a wall with lies that kept her from Robbie. McEwan’s portrayal of the guilt is done to prepare Briony for her attempt at atonement. McEwan gives Briony an opportunity to act in obtaining reparation. Briony’s path allows her to write Robbie and their sister a happy ending. The thought that they reunite strengthens the happily ever After’ and simplicity of life Briony could’ve given to Robbie and their sister if she had been more truthful. Unfortunately, that’s not possible with her novel.

Briony ultimately finds atonement by watching her memories fade away of her former home. McEwan’s vanishing landscape is symbolic of Briony losing her memory. McEwan treats the loss to memory, rather than as an atonement, as an act in kindness. She gives up the guilt she’s lived with all her life. Briony will never be able to recall the trust she lost and her brain will shut down. McEwan shows that imagination can’t replace the reality of what happened and has occurred in the real world, as Briony realizes. The only thing that can redeem you is the elimination of reality. This happens when the Tallis’ home is razed and Briony’s memory of the crime is erased.

Works citées

McEwan, Ian. Atonement. An item from Canada in 2001 was recently sourced.


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    Finlay Mason is a 36-year-old blogger and teacher from the UK. He is a prominent figure within the online education community, and is well-known for his blog, which provides advice and tips for teachers and students. Finlay is also a frequent speaker at education conferences, and has been quoted in several major newspapers and magazines.

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