Critical Study: Atonement by Ian McEwan



Over the course of McEwan’s perspective- shifting narrative, we find characters, again and again, realizing that they are bounded by otherness, by other minds with their own plans, their own interiori- ties, their own ways of perceiving the world. Early in the novel, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis, while alone in her room, wonders whether everyone else could in fact be as “alive” as she:

If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably com- plicated, with two billion voices, and everyone’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance. (36)



The action of the first part of Atonement, running nearly half the novel’s length, is almost entirely confined to one of the hottest summer days of 1935, before the World War II.

Briony Tallis and the line between her creations and the world around her is a rather fine one. If the vignettes she writes and performs fulfill her own obsessive “passion for tidiness,” it appears they can also help her to assuage the complexities of an as yet unfathomable world (Atonement 7).

The description of an event as unassuming as children preparing a Mans- field Park-ish family play is a subtle tactic on McEwan’s part as it ironically foreshadows far more consequential self–Other confrontations to come in the novel…

By reducing others to the status of artificial things, she can take the mystery out of alterity, she can accommodate chaotic reality with a tidy narrative of her own design. In fact, Briony’s aesthetic management of others very nearly parodies the more formal aspects of Fascism, which is itself looming on the horizon of the Tallis’s world. Susan Sontag has expressed how the Fascist aesthetic was predicated on “the turning of people into things [: : : and] the ideal of life as art” (91, 96). “We who shape German policy,” stated Goebbels in 1933, “feel ourselves to be artists [: : : ] the task of art and the artist [being] to form, to give shape, to remove the diseased and create freedom for the healthy” (qtd. in Sontag, 92). Cynthia Ozick goes right to the inhuman core of the matter, explaining, “the German Final Solution was an aesthetic solution; it was a job of editing, it was the artist’s finger removing a smudge; it simply annihilated what was considered not harmonious” (165). While Briony Tallis should hardly be seen as a proto-fascist, her artful brand of solipsism can at least be seen as symptomatic of a shared urge (of which Nazism is possibly one of the more extreme examples), that is, the need to simplify any confrontation with otherness by objectifying the Other; in effect, to say that other minds are not as real as one’s own.

The narrative she fashions around her life and imposes on others, as we shall see, works to dismiss anything unknown by carefully obscuring the mystery of otherness.

The true culprit, the future chocolate tycoon, Paul Marshall, is never suspected. It would seem far more acceptable to put this sort of thing down to the son of a cleaner than to confront the rather more scandalous proposition that it was committed by a someone of higher stature.3 Here, in McEwan’s dark world of “believing is seeing,” certainty is led by preconceived notions, habits of interpretation (McEwan, Interview by John Sutherland).

Taking into consideration the self–Other dynamics being discussed, all these surprise reassessments of characters in the novel can be seen to hinge on the realization of what Emmanuel Lévinas calls the face of the Other. In Lévinas’s terms, the face is “the way in which the Other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the Other in me” (Totality and Infinity, 50). Put another way, the face is that which transcends the self’s preconception of the Other.

The epiphany of the Other bears its own significance, independent of the signification received from the world. The Other not only comes to us from a context but signifies by itself, without mediation [: : : ] The epiphany of the face is visitation [: : : ] The epiphany of the face is alive. Its life consists in undoing form where every being [étant], when it enters into immanence— that is, when it exposes itself as a theme—is already dissimulated. (Human- ism of the Other, 31)

Briony Tallis comes to a similar understanding in Part III of Atonement. Having signed on as a VAD nurse, she quickly learns that uncertainty is the order of the day in pre-Blitz London. Her naïve solipsism, so easily maintained in the sheltered world of the Tallis estate, is undermined by a selfless regime in the hospital. In fact, the new convent-cum-military structure of her existence could be seen as a self-incriminating reversal of the very limits she once imposed upon others: it is now her identity that is inculcated by a stock role. She subsumes herself in her work and gives herself over to a procedural life in which she has “no will, no freedom to leave [: : : ] no identity beyond her badge” (Atonement 276). Her controlling demon, we find, has metamorphosed itself into guilty self-effacement.

All she wanted to do was work, then bathe and sleep until it was time to work again. But it was all useless, she knew. Whatever skivvying or humble nursing she did, and however well or hard she did it [: : : ] she would never undo the damage. She was unforgivable. (285)

Some of the ideas above were taken from:  Briony’s Being-For: Metafictional Narrative Ethics in Ian McEwan’s Atonement by DAVID K. O’HARA




In the last part of the novel, and the adaptation, it is revealed that Atonement, in fact, is Briony’s “twenty-first novel”. Due to this revelation everything that the reader has read up to that point has to be questioned; all the events in the novel, Briony’s novel rather than McEwan’s, are told by Briony; she has thus “taken a novelist’s license to alter the facts to suit her artistic purposes” (Finney 69). It is, therefore, not the real Robbie and Cecilia who are present within the pages of Briony’s Atonement but character versions of the two, drawn from Briony’s memory. Thus, the events and the characters including Briony herself, both as a character and as the revealed author of the novel, have been altered by surrounding factors to suit the plot of the author Briony’s attempt to achieve atonement.



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