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Atonement: a novel
Ian McEwan
Author: McEwan, Ian
Three children lost their innocence--as the sweltering summer heat bears down on the hottest day
in 1935--and their lives are changed forever.
New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2002, 351 p.
Popularity: '* i'r S'9
Level: Adult
Subject Headings:
Sisters -- England
Guilt in women -- England
Rich families -- England
Shame -- England
girls -- England
-- Englancl
Country life -- England
Social classes -- England
England -- History -- 20th centurY
Psychological fiction
published: London : Jonathan Cape, 2001
Reviews for this Title:
Booklist Review: McEwan, a master of psychologically acute and elegantly gothic tales, won the Booker Prize for
Amsterdam (1998) and now weighs in with an even more polished and entrancing novel. It's 1935, and England is
experiencing a heat wave, while chaos rules at the Tallis country estate. Mr. Tallis is always at the office; his lovely wife,
suifering from migraines, is usually in her darkened bedroom. Their youngest, 13-year-old Briony, a budding writer, keeps
busy cohposing silly romances while waiting for her visiting older siblings and displaced cousins. Brother Leon, a bank
cleri<, arrives with an unattractive but wealthy friend. Sister Cecilia is home after finishing up at Cambridge, as is the sharp
and ambitious Robbie Turner, their cleaning lady's son. The cousins, freckly twin boys and the newly nubile and wholly
untrustworthy Lola, are unhappy victims of an impending divorce. All are hoping for a soothing holiday, but things quickly
turn bizarrely catastrophic tnint<s to the highly imaginative but utterly naive and histrionic Briony, who sees something
sinister occui between Cecilia and Robbie and wildly overreacts. McEwan's instantly addictive story line is of the
bad-to-worse variety as he moves on to the harrowing vicissitudes of World War II. Every lustrously rendered, commanding
scene is charged with both despair and diabolical wit, and McEwan's Jamesian prose covers the emotional spectrum from
searing eroticism to toxic guilt. In sum, he excels brilliantly at depicting moral dilemmas and stressed minds in action
withou-t losing a keen sense of the body's terrible fragility, the touching absurdity of desire, and time's obstinacy.
(Reviewed November 15, 2001) -- Donna Seaman
School Library Journal Review: Adult/High School-Set during the seemingly idyllic summer of 1935 at the country
estate of the T;llis family, the first section of this thought-provoking novel ambles through one scorchingly hot day that
changes the lives of almost everyone
present. The catalyst is overly imaginative 13-year-old Briony, who accuses Robbie,
her sister's childhood friend and their housemaid's son, of raping her cousin Lola. The young man is sent to prison and
Cecilia, heartbroken, abandons her family and becomes a nursing sister in London. In the second
part, McEwan vividly
describes another single day, this time Robbie's experiences during the ignominious British retreat to Dunkirk early in World
War II. Finally, readers meet Briony again, now a nursing student. She is aware that she might have been wrong that day
five years eaiti"r and begins to seek atonement, having clearly ruined two lives. In a story within a story, McEwan brilliantly
engages readers in a tou-r de force of what ifs and might have beens until they begin to wonder what actually happened.
fn6 siory is compelling, the characters well drawn and engaging, and the outcome is almost always in doubt. The
descriptions of the retieat and the subsequent hospitalization of the soldiers are grim and realistic. Readers are sparecl
little, yet the
journey is worth the observed pain and distress. Well-read teens will find much to think about in this
novel.-Susan H. Woodcock, Chantitly Regional Library, VA (Reviewed June 1,2002) (School Library Journal, vol 48, issue 6,
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Publishers Weekly Review:
Starred Review
Thls haunting novel, which just
failed to win the Booker this year, is
at once McEwan at his most closely observed and psychologically penetrating, and his most sweeping and expansive. It is in
effect two, or even three, books in one, all masterfully crafted. The first paft ushers us into a domestic crisis that becomes
a crime story centered around an event that changes the lives of half a dozen people in an upper-middle-class country
home on a hot English summer's day in 1935. Young Briony Tallis, a hyperimaginative 13-year-old who sees her older
sister, Cecilia, mysteriously involved with their neighbor Robbie Turner, a fellow Cambridge student subsidized by the Tallis
family, points a finger at Robbie when her young cousin is assaulted in the grounds that night; on her testimony alone,
Robbie is
The second paft of the book moves forward five years to focus on Robbie, now freed and part
of the British
Army that was cornered and eventually evacuated by a fleet of small boats at Dunkirk during the early days of WWII. This
is an astonishingly imagined fresco that bares the full anguish of what Britain in later years came to see as a kind of
victory. In the third part, Briony becomes a nurse amid wonderfully observed scenes of London as the nation mobilizes. No,
she doesn't have Robbie as a patient, but she begins to come to terms with what she has done and offers to make amends
to him and Cecilia, now together as lovers. In an ironic epilogue that is yet another coup de th66tre,McEwan offers Briony
as an elderly novelist today, revisiting her past in fact and fancy and contributing a moving windup to the sustained flight of
a deeply novelistic imagination. With each book McEwan ranges wider, and his powers have never been more fully in
evidence than here. Author tour. (Mar. 19)
Staff (Reviewed November 19, 2001) (Publishers Weekly, vol 248, issue 47, p45)
Library Journal Review: The major events of Booker Prize winner McEwan's new novel occur one day in the summer of
1935. Briony Tallis, a precocious 13-year-old with an overactive imagination, witnesses an incident between Cecilia, her
older sister, and Robbie Turner, son of the Tallis family's charwoman. Already startled by the sexual overtones of what she
has seen, she is completely shocked that evening when she surreptitiously reads a suggestive note Robbie has mistakenly
sent Cecilia. It then becomes easy for her to believe that the shadowy figure who assaults her cousin Lola late that night is
Robbie. Briony's testimony sends Robbie to prison and, through an early release, into the army on the eve of World War IL
Gradually understanding what she has done, Briony seeks atonement first through a career in nursing and then through
writing, with the novel itself framed as a literary confession it has taken her a lifetime to write. Moving deftly between
styles, this is a compelling exploration of guilt and the struggle for forgiveness. Recommended for most public libraries.
in Prepub Alert, UII/l/01.)-Lawrence Rungren, MerrimackValley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA (Reviewed
November 15, 2001) (Library Journal, vol 126, issue 19, p97)
Kirkus Reviews
/* Starred Review
McEwan's latest, both powerful and equisite, considers the making of a writer, the
dangers and rewards of imagination, and the
between innocence and awareness, all set against the late afternoon
of an England soon to disappear.
In the first, longest, and most compelling of four parts, McEwan (the Booker-winning Amsterdam, 1998) captures the inner
lives of three characters in a moment in 1935: upper-class 13-year-old BrionyTallis; her 18-year-old slster, Cecilia; and
Robbie Turner, son of the family's charlady, whose Cambridge education has been subsidized by their father. Briony is a
penetrating look at the nascent artist, vain and inspired, her imagination seizing on everything that comes her way to
create stories, numinous but still childish. She witnesses an angry, erotic encounter between her sister and Robbie, sees an
improper note, and later finds them hungrily coupling; misunderstanding all of it, when a visiting cousin rs sexually
assaulted, Briony falsely brings blame to bear on Robbie, setting the course for all their lives. A few years later, we see a
wounded and feverish Robbie stumbling across the French countryside in retreat with the rest of the British forces at
Dunkirk, while in London Briony and Cecilia, long estranged, have joined
the regiment of nurses who treat broken men back
from war. At 18, Briony understands and regrets her crime: it is the touchstone event of her life, and she yearns for
atonement. Seeking out Cecilia, she inconclusively confronts her and a war-scarred Robbie. In an epilogue, we meet Briony
a final time as a 77-year-old novelist faclng oblivion, whose confessions reframe everything we've read.
With a sweeping bow to Virginia Woolf, McEwan combines insight, penetrating historical understanding, and sure-handed
storytelling despite a conclusion that borrows from early postmodern narrative trickery. Masterful. (N.8.:Atonement was on
the shortlist forthis year's Booker, and is favored to win the Whitbread in January.)
(Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2001)
Author Web Sites:
1. http://www.ianmcewan.com/ - Ian McEwan's Official Web Site
ISBNS Associated with this Title:
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Ian McLwan Website: llomepage
http ://www. ianmcewan. colr
& Criticism
rances & Events
Featured ltem
Recent News
New McEwan Interview
McEwan is interviewed by lsaac
Chotiner The New Republic,ll
January 2008. He discusses Saul
Bellow, the Internet, and atheism.
On Chesil Beach
Now in Vintage Paperback
Help for Students!
Click Here to view books about lan
McEwan and his novels, including
critical editions and A-Level guides
to Atonement and Enduring Love.
Discussion Board
Atonemenf (the
Working Title in conjunction with Focus
Features have adapted for film lan
McEwan's novel Atonement.
Borders has created a special
Atonement film page that includes an
interview with lan McEwan and more.
Visit Borders to watch the interview.
For more information, please
visit the film
website: AtonementTheMovie.co.uk
Focus Films
View the Trailer (small / large). View
additional trailers at imdb.com.
lan McEwan was born on 21 June 194g in Aldershot, England. He
studied at the University of sussex, where he received a-BA degree ,n
English Literature in 1970. whire compreting his trln degree ini".Jri"n
Literature at the University of East Angria, hi took
" "r"-"tiuu
course taught by the noverists Marcorm Bradbury and Angus wirso"n.
McEwan's works have earned him worldwide
critical accraim. He won
the somerset Maugham Award in 1g76 for his first collection orshort
stories First Love, Last Rtfes; the Whitbread Novet nward
SbZj ano
the Prix F6mina Etranger (1993) for The Chitd in Time; and
Germany's Shakespeare
in 1999. He has been shortlisted for
the Man Booker Prize for Fiction numerous times, winning the award
for Amsterdam in 1gg8. His nover Atonement received the wH Smith
t-jt^e111f eward (2002), Nationat Book Critics' Circte Fiction nwarO
Los Angetes Tim.es
Fiction (2003),
and the S*ilrgo
t9r the European Novel (2004).
He was awarded a CBE in
2000. In 2006, he won the James Tait Brack Memoriar
for his
novel Saturday.
His most recently published
novel on chesit Beach is now available
in paperback
from Vintage and is published
in the U.S. by Nan A.
T3le;e / Doubleday. His bestseiling nover Atonementis
arso avairabre
at all quality
Visit your local independent
bookshop to order a copy, or purchase
online via Amazon.co.uk,
Borders, trtan R. ialese,
Powell's, Jonathan Cape, Vintage, Random House Canada, Randonr
House Australia, localbookshops.co.uk,
or from a
variety of quality
Independent Booksellers.
Il" lry
is directed by Joe Wright and produced
Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan and co-produced
by Jane Frazer. The
screenplay was adapted from the novel by dhristopher Hampton.
Photo @ Keke Keulielaar
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Book Discussion Guide
NoveList Book Discussion Guide
NoveLiSVEBSCO Publishing O 2003
Ian McEwan
(New York, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2001)
Ian McEwan was born in England in 1948. His father was an officer in the British army, and Ian spent many years of
childhood in foreign countries such as Libya and Singapore. He attended the University of Sussex, graduating with a B.A. in
1970, and moving on to the University of East Anglia, where he earned an M.A. in creative writing the next year. His first
short story collections began to appear in 1975 with the publication
of First Love, Last Rifes. He oroduced a second collection
which was published
as In Between the Sheets in 1978.
He has also published eight novels, most of them dealing with darkly comic themes of sexual aberration, obsession, and
familial dysfunction. Though he writes about such macabre and violent subject matter, McEwan's writing style is rather
matter of fact, indeed, almost "clinical" in a way that makes the violence and oddity seem to be
another part
of normal
life. His first book, The Cement Garden (1978), details the sordid lives of a group of orphaned children. He followed this with
The Comfort of Strangers (1981), a novel about a British couple staying in Venice and the sinister events they encounter
there. It was turned into a film in 1990 with the help of the (slightly sinister) playwright Harold Pinter, and starred
Christooher Walken.
His next three books have all been critical successes: Black Dogs, Enduring Love, and Amsterdam (1998). His prizes for
fiction have been numerous, but the most prestigious was the Booker Prize he was awarded for his achievement in
Amsterdam.It was with Amsterdam that McEwan turned his hand to social satire of the kind adooted earlier in the centurv
by Evelyn Waugh, satirizing the wealthy and powerful of society and saying goodbye to the type of conservative government
that had dominated Britain throughout the 1980's under Margaret Thatcher.
Apart from his short stories and novels, McEwan has been active in adapting his own works for the screen and has also
written children's stories and magazine essays. Atonement, his most recent novel, appeared in 2001. When asked what he
might like to do if not a writer, McEwan told England's Guardian newspaper, "I wouldn't mind being the lead guitarist in an
incredibly successful rock band. However, I don't play the guitar." (Quoted from The Guardian Unlimited at
http :
ks. g u a rd i a n. co. u k/a u th o rsla u thor / 0,59 L7,- 1 08, 00. htm |
Atonement begins in the summer of 1935 at the country estate of the Tallis family, where menace infects the air. Worries
about German aggression and possible war occupy Mr. Tallis, "away" at his desk in a London government office for long
stretches at a time. Emily Tallis suffers from migraines and has little control over her own family. Cecilia, her eldest daughter,
has returned from Cambridge for the summer and tries to make some plans for her life. Briony, the youngest child, is a
precocious thirteen year old who aspires to be a writer even as she confronts the beginning of adolescence. Robbie Turner,
the son of one of the Tallis's servants, is about to embark on a medical school career financed by Mr. Tallis.
Into to this household comes the Tallis's oldest son Leon, home on a weekend visit, and he brings a friend with him, a
chocolate magnate who wants Britain to enter a war so that he can sell his candy bars to the Army. Three young cousins of
the Tallis family arrive on the same weekend, planning to stay until their parents work out the terms of a divorce.
The first section of the novel explores the growing tensions surrounding the Tallis family, from the growing sexual attraction
between Cecilia and Robbie to the bruises that cousin Lola has acquired on her arms. After a late dinner one evening, the two
youngest cousins run away from the house, and everyone present sets off to find them. Wandering in the dark on her own,
Briony comes across someone raping her cousin Lola in a secluded spot, and based more on her own preconceptions and a
strange scene she has witnessed than on visual evidence, she fingers Robbie as the culprit, paving the way for his trial and a
DflSOn Sentence.
The shorter second section skips ahead to the Second World War, where Robbie is a foot soldier in France, retreating to
Dunkirk as best he can. On his journey he sees the vivid consequences of the war on both clvilians and combatants alike, and
his arrival at the beaches of Dunkirk only shows him how the British Army can turn on its own. All around him he sees guilty
faces and crimes for which he is unable to atone.
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The third section finds Briony desperately trying to atone for her crime against Robbie by worklng as a nurse in London and
all but abandoning her literary aspirations. She is deeply concerned with making up the wrong that she committed years
before and decides to contact Cecilia about ways to make it right.
In the short final section, we are given a picture of Briony in 1999 as an elderly novelist, returning to the old Tallis home for
her 77th birthday. She explains the ways in which that single event of long ago has affected every day of her life since and
the lengths to which she has gone in order to seek out forgiveness and expiation -- to find atonement -- but doing so has
been more difficult than she ever thought possible.
While answers are provided, there is no presumption that you have been given the last word. Readers bring their own
personalities to the books that they are examining. What is obvious and compelling to one reader may be invisible to the
next. The questions that have been selected provide one reasonable access to the text; the answers are intended to give you
examples of what a reflective reader might think. The variety of possible answers is one of the reasons we find book
discussions such a rewarding activity.
Why does Briony denounce Robbie so forcefully and maintain that position with such
We see from the earliest pages of the novel that Briony has a great love for control. She has even come to enjoy writing, in
fact, because it affords her the chance to organize and arrange life however she sees fit. "A taste for the miniature was one
aspect of an orderly spirit. Another was a passion for secrets: in a prized varnished cabinet, a secret drawer was opened by
pushing against the grain of a cleverly turned dovetail
joint, and here she kept a diary locked by a clasp, and a notebook
written in a code of her own invention" (p. 5). Control, power, knowledge of secrets -- all of these character traits of Briony
appear early on and bear directly upon her behavior later in the story.
When she opens the letter from Robbie to Cecilia, it is her curiosity at work, her desire to know her sister's secrets, and it is
the knowledge of this letter that first makes her believe Robbie t be a "maniac". The coarsely worded letter becomes another
piece of her own secret knowledge, and she spends much of the evening mulling over it, thinking up ways that she can help
her sister escape from Robbie's evil clutches. "Something irreducibly human, or male, threatened the order of their
household, and Briony knew that unless she helped her sister, they would all suffer" (p. 114). She takes upon herself the
determination to aid Cecilia without once consulting her sister's wishes, and she continues to believe that Cecilia dislikes
Robbie even as she walks in on them having sex in the library. The strength of her initial interpretation colors every other
action that she witnesses that evening.
There is also the issue of Briony's imagination, a powerful faculty of hers and one in which she puts great trust. Though it
serves her well enough in her writing, Briony is not yet wise enough to realize the limitations of imaginative speculation, and
when she comes across Lola being raped outdoors in the darkness, she believes that her own reconstruction of the event and
assailant are a sound basis for lodging an accusation -- even though she never saw the assailant and Lola refuses to identify
him. With the idea that it must be Robbie firmly in her head, Briony does not even pause to consider the clear evidence (in
the form of scratches and bruises) against Paul Marshall.
She makes her complaint against Robbie, even claiming to have seen him clearly, and never retreats from it or retracts it.
Though Robbie pleads his innocence, Briony remains frrm in her testimony. As the narrator tells us towards the end of the
first section, "And so their respective positions, which were to find public expression in the weeks and months to come, and
then be pursued as demons in private for many years afterwards, were established in these moments by the lake, with
Briony's certainty rising whenever hercousin appeared to doubt herself" (p. 167).
In this way of viewing the events, Briony appears almost noble, even if misguided, seeking only to defend her cousin and
keep her from pain. Only two pages on, though, we are given a less flattering portrait of her actions. "She was like a
bride-to-be who begins to feel her sickening qualms as the day approaches, and dares not speak her mind because so many
preparations have been made on her behalf. The happiness and convenience of so many good people would be put at risk"
(p. 169). We have seen much earlier how Briony's own writing skills were often put to use in the service of securing attention
for herself. Now, those same skills of imagination have gathered a great attention upon her and she is unable to do anything
that would damage that. She goes along with proceedings even as she begins to doubt her own role in them, but quickly
sees that things have gone too far for her to change her story. Her imagination has led her to see Robbie in a fleeing
shadow, while her love of power and attention lead her to keep playing her part long after she wants to keep doing so.
What is the importance of the scene between Robbie and Cecilia at the fountain?
A photograph of a fountain with a large country house in the background graces the cover of Atonemenf, giving us a clue as
to the pivotal importance of the confrontation there between Cecilia and Robbie if we did not pick it up from the story itself.
The scene is simple enough, if a bit odd. Cecilia takes a priceless vase out to the fountain to rinse it off, and Robbie talks to
her there, offers to help. He reaches for the vase, Cecilia resists his help, and a piece breaks off and falls into the water.
Cecilia strips down to her underwear right in front of Robbie and plunges into the water to retrieve it. Unknown to both of
them, Briony observes the scene from an upstairs window.
The episode becomes representative of the problems of interpretation that plague the story. Each character comes away
believing something different about what has happened at the fountain Briony, who has no context for the event, cannot
decide what to make of it, and it is only in light of reading Robbie's letterand finding him and Cecilia in the library that she
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makes sense of the earlier episode. Cecilia also struggles to understand what has happened, and for a while she has
convinced herself that she is annoyed with Robbie, that he irritates her and has for some time, and that she doesn't want to
see him again. For his part, Robbie feels a surge of triumph but also the stirrings of sexual desire. It is their reflections uoon
the fountain scene that both Robbie and Cecilia come to realize their own attraction to each other.
As the first moment of true sexual awareness between them, the fountain scene sets up the chain of events that are to
follow. Robbie will dwell on Cecilia's body and write her the letter that falls into Briony's hands. Cecilia will reconsider ner
feelings for Robbie and approach him sexually at the dinner party that evening. Briony, watching from above, will use the
scene as mental evidence of Robbie's maniacal nature and the threat that he poses to her sister. The breaking of the vase
and Cecilia's plunge into the fountain therefore form the core event of the novel's first section, the event that makes all the
others possible in some way.
How does Robbie's march to Dunkirk relate to the rest of the book's themes?
The Dunkirk section of the novel is the only part to take place outside of England and initially seems to have little connection
with the themes developed in the extended opening section. A close reading of Robbie's flight to Dunkirk, though, shows a
connection between what he has suffered and the misery present in the rest of the world. It is a way of making Robbie's
experience of unjust conviction into something larger than a single case of injustice.
Robbie dwells often on the thought of Cecilia and on her letters to him, on the life that they might make together back in
England, and his hope of total exoneration in Lola's rape. Early in his story, he comes across a boy in a remote French
village, a boy who has been blown apaft by some sudden act of violence, and whose body parts now dangle from a tree. Thrs
image will haunt him on the entire hike back to Dunkirk, where the British are struggling to evacuate the continent as quickly
as possible. That boy, a noncombatant, causes Robbie to ponder questions of guilt and innocence that clearly relate to his
own case, but also assume a wider dimension: is the world itself guilty at the core, and is there any hope for atonement?
"But what was guilt these days?" think Robbie. "It was cheap. Everyone was guilty, and no one was. No one would be
redeemed by a change of evidence... The witnesses were guilty too" (p. 261).
Robbie finds compelling evidence for this train of thought on the multi-day march toward the shoreline, as he witnesses the
continued acts of war: the French cavalry slaughtering theirown horses, the vicious Stuka attacks on civilians and soldiers
alike, the horrible suffering of the wounded men making the same trek. Each of these things seems an enormous injustice,
only heightening Robbie's own sense that the world ought not to be this way, but that since it is, it must do much in oroer to
expiate its sins. The scene, once he reaches the relative safety of Dunkirk, only confirms his view further. Even the British
army, the "good guys", turn on one of their own in a truly senseless act of violence, attacking an RAF man in a deserted bar
for "allowing" the Stukas to strafe them at will. Even among his own people, within the army, the guilt runs deep, and the
extended parallel drawn in this section between Robbie's own unjust treatment and the entire, enormous injustice of war,
makes this section of vital importance forthe message and scope of the book as a whole.
why does Briony choose to enter nursing and turn her back on her family?
It is with herdecision to leave her home behind and to undertake a difficult job
that Briony finally admits to herself the full
extent of the damage she has done to the lives of Cecilia and Robbie. Nursing is the initial stage in her quest for atonement
for that wrong, and it is why Briony turns her back on the possibility of years spent at Cambridge. She also turns her Dack on
her writing -- partially -- and seems to draw a connection at last between the imaginative spirit that creates fictions and the
testimony she gave about Robbie. Nursing removes her from that world and thrusts her into a word of continual work that
leaves no time for thought or reflection -- the one thing she now wants most to avoid. "She emptied and sluiced the
bedpans, swept and polished floors, made cocoa and Bovril, fetched and carried -- and was delivered from introspection" (p.
Briony is conscious, even as she does it, of the fact that she is seeking her atonement through a sort of forgetting. In the
end, though, her crime remains with her and no amount of hard work will ever wash it away -- and of this, too, she is oeepry
aware. "Whatever skivvying or humble nursing she did, and however well or hard she did it, whatever illumination in tutorial
she had relinquished, or lifetime moment on a college lawn, she would never undo the damage. She was unforgivable" (p.
It is because of this knowledge that she seeks out Cecilia after Lola's wedding, tries to reconcile with her, offers promises of
retracting her information and clearing Robbie's name. This is the sort of act that might lead to forgiveness, but the real
tragedy of Atonemenf is that Briony is too late. Robbie and Cecilia both perished in the war, and her account of the visit to
their rented room is wholly imaginary, a novelist's attempt at atonement. For the rest of her life Brlony must live with the
knowledge that she has no way of receiving forgiveness from either Robbie or Cecilia. In such a situation, the forgetfulness of
work proves more attractive than the ceaseless consciousness of a writer's life, and though this is ultimately the path
she chooses, the young Briony first seeks out the way of forgetfulness and finds it lacking before returning to her writrng.
What does "atonement" mean for the various characters?
Robbie is most articulate about guilt and repentance and redemption -- he dwells on it the entire way to Dunkirk. His desires
seem simple enough, to be declared wholly innocent of Lola's rape. "That he could be cleared had all the simplicity of tove.
Merely tasting the possibility reminded him how much had narrowed and died. His taste for life, no less, all the old ambitions
and pleasures. The prospect was of a rebirth, a triumphant return. He could become again the man who had once crossed a
Surrey park at dusk in his best suit, swaggering on the promise of life, who had entered the house and with the clarity of
passton made love to Cecilia" (p.227). The mere clearing of his name would be atonement. It would set him on a new life.
"To be cleared would be a pure state. He dreamed of it like a lover, with a simple longing. He dreamed of it in the way other
soldiers dreamed of their hearths or allotments or old civilian jobs" (p. 228).
2lll12008 12:12 PM
But something more complicated grows within him, a sense that a much larger and more important atonement is called for in
the world' He returns obsessively to the image of the dead child in the tree.""He;;ti;;
bacr ano get the boy from the tree.
He had done it before. He had gone back where no one else was and found the oovr uiJ"r'u tree and carried
on his
shoulders and Jackson in his arms, across the park" (p. 262). He wants to right the injustices of war itself, especially those
that occur to the noncombatants,
such as the child.
For Briony, it means something that can never be given:
the forgiveness of both Robbie and cecilia. It means that she will no
longer need to carry within herself the shame and self-loathing tiat attend her realization of having committed a terrible
crime, one that may have kept Robbie and Cecilia apart and c6anged the entire course of their lives.
As for Paul Marshall, Lola's rapist and later husband, Briony comments at the end of the book,
he's spent a lifetime
making amends" (0.
:sz;. Though she makes it clear that he has never allowed even the whiff of impropriety to come near
his name (his
team of lawyers has seen to that), still the Marshalls
much of their time and energy to philanthroprc
causes and public
institutions' The act of marrying Lola, a girl many years his junior,
seems also an attempt on Marshall,s
to erase the wrong he did her.
Each character seeks their own brand of atonement -- and each has something different to atone for.
Does Briony ever find the atonement that she seeks?
This is the concern of the novel's final, slim section. Briony, at her 77th birthday, reflects back upon her life as a novelist and
over her writing career, and realizes that the central probiem
and preoccupation
of her life and work has been a search for
forgiveness from those who can no longer forgive. As she puts it, 'The problem
of these fifty-nrne years
has been this: how
can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute powei
of deciding ort.or"i, ,ne'is also God? There is no one, no
entity of higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled *itn, or that cln forgive hur.in"r" is nothing outside her. In
her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was
always an impossible task, and that was precisely
the point. rne attempt was all,, (p. 371).
The simple answer, then, is no. she has lived with the guilt
of her crime for most of her life and found no way to avoid it, not
even by transmuting it into fiction. Her statement makes clear the limits of fiction and of writing itself -- though a story may
have a great effect upon others, it can never replace tru*r, ano fne author of the story will atways know which version of a
tale is authentic and which a lie' Briony, no matter how many times she explores in writing the story of Robbie, cecitia, and
herself, can neverforget that each alternate
to the story iniirh" dieams rp *ui n-oi the true ending. Fiction is no
substitute for a true atonement and a reconciliation,
and thougir Briony has found some ."uru." of happiness and success in
her life' she has never escaped the demons haunting her since childhood. They are oemoni irrat live on through the act of
memory, and McEwan gives us hints that Briony's own suffering will only be removed when her memory fails, a process
has already begun in her aging body. only in forgetfulness ano-tnen death will she find some measure of peace
from rne
atonement that she could never make in life.
what does Atonement have to say about books and the interpretation
of their meanings?
The concern with authorship and interpretation exists from the beginning.of the novel, with Briony,s planned performance
her play,
"The Trials of Arabella." Her simplistic views about what i boori is and what it .6un, are presented
early on in the
story and prove
to have a profound
impact on the way events develop. Remembering her own past productaons
of sma'
books, Briony thinks abou.t "the title lettering, the illustrated .ou"r, tn" pages
bound -- in that word alone she felt the
attraction of the neat, limited and controllable form she had left behind whln she decided io-write a play.
A story was direct
and simple, allowing nothing to come between herself and her reader -- no intermediaries
with their private
ambitions or
no pressure
of time, no limits of resources,,
To her, the meaning of a document ought to be immediately obvious. stories and letters are "direct
and simple", not difficult
to decipher and not open to multiple, competing interpretations. To her, "reading a sentence and understanding it were the
same thing; as with the crooking of a finger, nothing iay between tnem. trrere *lus no gup drring which the symbols were
unraveled" (p. 37).
This belief in the ease of interpretation leads her to jump
to conclusions that she is later reluctant to change in two notable
cases: Robbie's letter and her later identification of Robbie as the rapist. In both cases she is presented
with symbols and
misinterprets both. After reading Robbie's letter, she settles on the i'dea that he is a
seeing an ambiguous
shadow fleeing Lola's side, she decides that it wasRobbie, based larjely on her previous
beLief that he is a dangerous sexual
when in fact cecilia returns his feelings. The dangers ano
iliralts or intbrpreiati*
u".o." starkly clear in Briony,s
behavior throughout the first section of the novet.
Later, when she takes to writing books of her own, and tells the story of Robbie and cecilia in her own
reverses her childhood belief in the simplicity and unity of interpretaiion.
Now she believes that interpretations
are many ano
ambiguous, that she as a writer has no business supplying clear messages to her readers.
excited her about her
achievement was its design, the pure geometry_and
tn" o-"rining ,ni"rtuinty which reflected, she thought, a modern
sensibility' The age of clear answers was over. so was the age 5f characters and plots" (p. 281). she retreats out of fear of
again and offers up only ambiguities.
she finally comes to believe that this is not sufficient, either, that her reructance to interpret is more an act of cowardrce than
a real step forward in style and taste. she asks herself difficult questions
about her first novella.
she really think she
could hide behind some borrowed notions of modern writing, and drown her guilt in a stream -- three streams! -- of
consciousness? The evasions of her little novel were exactly those of her life.tvervtning
i;e oid not wish to confront was
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also missing from her novella -- and was necessary to it. What was she to do now? It was not the backbone of a story that
she lacked. It was backbone" (p. 320).
Through Briony's struggles with the writing process and the
and dangers of publication
and authorship, McEwan exptores
the fragile nature of interpretation and the bounds beyond which we as readers are no longer justified
in making implications
No answers or set of guidelines are provided, only a concern neither to abandon interpretation 6ttodetner (a
soft of extreme literary relativism) nor to make it too facile. This message resides at the very heart of Atonement.
Further Reading:
Barry Unsworth . The Raae of the Vulture (1982)
Unsworth spins out the tale of Henry Markham, British civil servant in 1908, who returns to Istanbul after a twelve year
absence. Markham is intent on expiating the one sin that he cannot stop remembering -- the cowardly way in which he saved
himself during the Armenian massacres that killed his fianc6e years before. Now back-in the city that he has never forgotten,
Markham seeks both revenge and atonement of his own.
Margaret Atwood. Alias Grace (1996)
This fabulous novel ranges across the stories and viewpoints of its characters to tell the story of the servant girl Grace and
her trial for the grisly double murder of her employer and his mistress in 19th century Canada. In the end, we must make
our own
about whether Grace is a victim of her circumstances or a cunning deceiver, whether she has repenreo or
remains unchanged.
Amy Tan. The Kitchen God's Wife (1991)
The daughter of Chinese immigrants to California learns the story of her mother Winnie's life in China for the first time ano
struggles to understand the reasons that brought her to a new land, where Winnie has a chance to begin anew and give her
family a chance at a life very different from the one that she had.
Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dallowav (1925)
The opening section of Atonemenf has been compared in style and setting to much of Virginia Woolf's work. Wealthy Clarissa
Dalloway spends the day in London preparing for a dinner party that may (or may not) inllude the
Intertwined with her narrative are the troubled thoughts of Septimus Hodge, back from the war and deeply disturbed over
what he has seen there. The narrative voice slips in and out of charactersi minds, weaving a complicated tapestry of
upper-class London life and the terrors that can drive people to suicide and despair.
This Book Discussion Guide was developed by Nathan Anderson, a doctoral student in Engtish Literature at the lJniversity of
North Ca rol i na-Cha pel H i I l.
Something about the books on this list:
Atonement begins in the summer of 1935 at the country estate of the Tallis family, where menace infects the air....
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Ian McEwan
by Andrew Smith
Psychological Fiction
Ian McEwan's books are haunting, eloquent, and precise investigations of how discrete events loom large in the human
psyche. Combining complex themes with spare writing, McEwan's realist work garnered early attention and commendation
from literary critics; his commercial success has grown with each book. Although his early short stories were known for their
shock value, his mature novels are probing and philosophical, featuring suspenseful plot lines and subjects of contemporary
relevance that readers will remember and reflect on long after finishing.
In his unsentimental yet intimate fashion, McEwan is light-handed with his description and settings. The action and the
characters'thought patterns deliver what little sense of place is needed to convey the visceral human themes he chooses.
While the stories are not overtly political, events such as the Second World War, the years of Thatcher leadership, and the
Iraq war are backdrops to the setting and central to the characters' formation and choices of action. The characters
themselves are thoroughly British
for the most part intelligent, informed, upper-middle class, particular, and intense.
Reflective and three-dimensional, many of them try to make sense of the lives they lead, aware of the ambiguities and
contradictions of those lives. His characters are engaging in their self-analysis, decision-making, remorse or lack thereof, and
finally, compassion.
McEwan's topics are varied and creative, often packaging weighty matters with momentum-filled plot lines and twists. The
common thread is that a sudden event turns the direction of an ordinary life, forcing the now-struggling character to cope.
McEwan uses disturbing (but not graphic or gratuitous) violence as a device to expose the moment when a character's nature
is stripped to the bone. Imminent personal danger echoes and contrasts with geo-political chaos, and both pose the question
of how one cultivates and maintains a civilized, rational persona without abandoning morals.
McEwan has written himself into a unique niche
his books have political undertones, but are not ideological; they are
suspenseful but not Mysteries; they are about life choices without a trace of sentimentality. While terse and realistic, he is
not dismal in the sense of many writers of realism, and he adds interesting quirks along the way. To top this off, while each
of his books skillfully bears his distinct stylistic tone, they vary greatly in scope and in what each novel accomplishes.
Readers searching for a parallel author are unlikely to find one, but may locate writers whose own works share some of
McEwan's appeal.
A Whitbread Award winner, McEwan was shoft-listed for the Booker Prize three times before winning with Amsterdam in
1998.Amsferdam and Atonement are highly recommended, but his 2005 novel Saturdav offers wide appeal to many kinds of
readers, and is the best starting place for readers new to his writing. Saturday established him as one of the earliest eminent
authors to skillfully incorporate a post 9-11 world-view into the life of a character. McEwan follows a day in the life of Dr.
Henry Perowne, a comfortable and confident neurosurgeon who, having witnessed an explosion, still heads out to a squash
game only to be violently confronted by thugs. Perowne is remarkable in his ability to analyze, cope with, and finally, forgive
his attacker. Saturday made the New York f/'rnes Most Notable List, as well as Library Journal's Best Books list and American
Library Association Notable Books list.
Martin Amis came into prominence as a British author at about the same time as Ian McEwan; both were recognized as
voices of their generation. Like McEwan, Amis's stories are detailed and dispassionate examinations of characters placed
conflict, told with a dry and ironic humor that ruthlessly peels away external disguises. Start with London Fields, in which
self-proclaimed psychic Nicola Six manipulates three men into the depths of passion necessary for one of them to murder her
on her birthday, as she has foreseen.
A much-honored American writer, Philip Roth shares with McEwan the ability to create a mood of disquiet with controlled,
intelligent prose. They share similar methods of shocking the readerand peppering stories with dry humor. Both Roth's and
McEwan's earliest works use a slightly bumbling character without redeeming qualities who tries to establish his place in the
world. In Goodbve. Columbus a young man, bereft of meaningful family attachments and without money or direction,
acquires a girlfriend and inserts himself into the life of her wealthy family. It is worth noting that Roth's novels, like
McEwan's, have matured over time and moved toward more comDlex themes and older characters whose lives are linked
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with particular current events. Readers who enjoyed Saturday should also take a look at Roth's Everyman, the story of an
unnamed narrator who looks back at the arc of his life with both regret and pride.
Similar in tone, economy of words, and the art of getting right to the story, Paul Auster writes books that are complex, yet
fast-paced reads. Unlike McEwan, he adds a touch of fantasy and surrealism; there is a story within the story. In The Book of
Illusions, a professor struggles to cope with the tragic loss of his wife and children and begins to find new purpose in
unraveling a mystery behind the disappearance of a silent film star. A discovery that the star is alive leads to a bizarre turn
of events and a love affair fraught with a sense of loss. McEwan's fans are likely to savor Auster's sense of the macabre, as
well as his metaphysical and psychological dimensions.
Author of three very different novels, John Lanchester mirrors McEwan in hrs satire, details, and carefully planned
intelligent prose. His second book, Mr. Phillios, is a day-in-the-life portrait of a middle-aged accountant who finds himself
"made redundant." He spends his day wandering around London in suit and tie, making observations and calculating statistics
on everything from the numbers of women employed as pornography models to how much of his life he has spent doing
nothing. Mr. Phillips's crises are not particularly dramatic, but they need not be with Lanchester's skillful prose and Mr.
Phillips's telling ruminations.
precision of words, and Woolf's classic Mrs. Dallowav is a masterpiece of character development. Writing with wit and an art
for marking time and memory, Woolf creates a character who senses that her social busyness masks her own awareness of
mortality. A highly unconventronal writer for her time, her long sentences and winding stream of consciousness require a bit
m^ro niiian.o
than McEwan's works, but she had a passion for words that allowed her to depict the intricacies and fragility of
Iife in small, but ever so aptly chosen, details.
Andrew Smith is the Readers Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library.
Something about the books on this listr
Ian McEwan's books are haunting, eloquent, and precise, combining complex themes with spare writing to create books that
are quickly read but not easily forgotten.
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1. McEwan, Ian Adult .t N/A
On Chesil Beach
Popularity: *s?*tl
2. McEwan, Ian
Popularity: ****
3. McEwan, Ian
Atonement: a novel
$? r'r
Adult 4
4. McEwan, Ian
Popularity: E*'**
Adult .f N/A
5. McEwan, Ian
Endurino love: a novel
Popularity: *i**
6. McEwan, Ian
Popularity: fr*
7. McEwan, Ian
Davdreamer. The
(1994) , Popularity: ****
Children's .t 840
8. McEwan, Ian
Black doqs
Popularity: [****
Adult *f N/A
9. McEwan, Ian
Innocent, The
Popularity: \':,t ir
Adult .,1 N/A
10. McEwan, Ian
Child in time, The
Popularity: **'tr*
1l-. McEwan, Ian
Comfort of stranqers, The
tr &'*r Fr
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12. McEwan, Ian
In between the sheets and other stories
13. McEwan, Ian
First love, last rates
Popularity: *'*tF';":
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