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                                                THE ACT OF LIFELONG ATONEMENT

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. 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 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). As 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”:

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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’.   

Then the  meeting between Robbie
and Cecila in the library, as it is told through a focalisation

on Robbie, is experienced as a call towards darkness/obscurity:
“He followed her across the hall into the library which was in darkness, and
waited by the door while she searched for the switch of a desk lamp”
(132). An amorous dance between the two lovers soon starts, where Cecilia seems
to disappear from Robbie’s field of vision and to vanish into the  darkness: 
“She  moved  beyond the 
light,  downpast  the 
shelves.  He  stepped further  into the 
room,  not  quite following her,  but 
unwilling to let  her  out  of  close 
range”  (132). Before Robbie
finally finds Cecilia, the darkness intensifies and it is in a  corner 
that  the  couple 
meet  “She  was 
moving further  away, toward the
corner, into deeper shadow” (132) Choosing a corner to shelter  their 
encounter  is  significant, 
for,  according to  Bachelard : “An imaginary room  rises 
up around our  bodies,  which think that they are well hidden when we
take refuge in a corner”24. The corner is  a 
“haven  that  ensures 
us  one  of 
the  things  that 
we  prize  most highly—immobility”25.
Cecilia and Robbie indeed experience their meeting as a moment out of
conventional time. In that “sort of half-box,  part 
walls,  part  door”26  the 
play between light  and shadows  may be 
construed as  symbolic  of 
the  awkward discovery of sexuality
by the  young couple.

   When Briony revisits  the 
same  scene  through a 
focalisation on the young girl that she was, darkness seems to dominate
the scene. The  threshold therefore  becomes, 
as  Philippe  Hamon explains  it  a variation
of the window motif used to “frame” the description28:

At first, when she pushed open the door and stepped in, she saw

nothing at  all.  The 
only light  was  from 
a  single  green-glass 
desk

lamp which illuminated little more than the tooled leather surface

on which it stood. When she took another few steps she saw them,

dark shapes in the furthest corner. (123)

 

Briony’s crossing the threshold is far from a cognitive epiphany. She  cannot 
see anything –  a  blindness 
that  might  hint 
at  her inability to identify Lola’s  ‘real’ 
attacker  a  few 
hours  later.  As she gets nearer to the corner of the room,
Robbie and Cecilia eventually take 
shape.  The  narrator’s 
refusal  to identify them  by their 
first names and the emphasis on vague signifiers such as
“them”, “dark shapes” 
underline  Briony’s  lack of 
visual  and intellectual  lucidity. although Briony seems to realize
that there is no visual illusion here, she is still tricked by her imagination
into the  wrong interpretation of  what 
she  sees. 

Briony
doesn’t think highly of Cecilia’s ability to protect herself from danger. Like other young people her age who
yearn for other people’s approval and
admiration, Briony longs for someone to protect. Soon,
she hits upon her older sister – a girl whose room is a mess and who is so weak as to allow herself to be bullied
into stripping out of doors by the charwoman’s
son – as the target of her concern. Though willing
to take on an adult supervisory role towards her sister, Briony conspicuously fails to involve herself in
situations where her help is needed

“On
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
spite of her willingness to judge others and to castigate villains,however,
Briony doesn’t show too great a willingness to analyse her own behaviour. In her immaturity she assumes
that her own actions and motivations must be
blameless – also, she makes no effort to predict
their consequences. On p. 174 the reader is told that she sees herself as ‘guiltless’, and her role in identifying
the rapist as ‘vital’.Considering her distraught sister after Robbie’s arrest,
she reflects that Cecilia would now need to be
consoled by her and that ‘this tragedy was
bound to bring them the two sisters closer’ (p. 186). Similarly, as she approaches the supine figure of her cousin
in Chapter 13, she is overcome by a ‘flowering
of tenderness’ for her. ‘Together’, Briony tells
herself, Lola and her ‘faced real terrors. She and her cousin were close’ (p. 165). In the light of the distance and
calculated coldness which will characterize
the two girls’ relationship in the future, this statement
is nothing short of pathetic. Briony’s self-delusion really knows no bounds.

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.

As Briony becomes a nurse like 
her  sister,  the 
possibility of  an escape  from 
the  self-inflicted prison of her
guilt is evoked, for compassion for another’s suffering may be the true
“entering the minds of others”. Thus, Briony faces the gruesome death
of a young soldier, just as a half-fascinated and half-horrified Robbie  had  to
witness  the  tragic 
death of  a  Flemish mother and her child (236-7) and this
parallel may offer a humane escape from the moral aporia of her guilt. When
Briony takes care of a wounded French private, she discovers the strange power
of his defenceless face:

 

It
was hard to think of him as a soldier. He had a fine, delicate face,

with
dark eyebrows and dark green eyes, and a soft full mouth. His

face  was 
white  and had an unusual  sheen, 
and the  eyes  were

unhealthily
radiant. His head was heavily bandaged (305)

 

The  impossibility for  Briony to truly enter Robbie’s mind in order
to atone for what she has done to him is 
enhanced by the  elusive  quality of 
his  physical  outline 
at  key moments. When she sees him
near the house, at the moment whenhe 
gives  her  the 
letter,  Robbie  is 
merely a  “white  shape 
which seemed at first to be part of the pale stone of the parapet.
Staring at it  dissolved  its 
outlines,  but  within 
a  few  paces 
it  had taken  on  a vaguely
human form” (93). Still, as a writer, the very impossibility of  ever 
capturing the  essence  of  the  Other 
is  what  makes 
the attempt so captivating: “that episode in the sunlight was not
quite so as  interesting as  the 
dusk”  (115).  According to critic  Bernhard Waldenfels , that discovery
“does not mean that there is something behind the  masks and clothes the other wears, it
rather  means that the other’s otherness
eludes every qualification we may apply”33

As the 77-year-old Briony admits in the
final part of the book (the coda), which is narrated in the first person, she
has also taken it upon herself to trim inconvenient truths and uncomfortable
facts out of her narrative – she refrains from acquainting her readers with the
lovers’ deaths, for example, assuming that her audience will want to have nothing
to do with such tragedy – ‘ ‘Who would want to believe that?’, she asks, ‘except
in the service of the bleakest realism?’ (p. 371). Here Briony reverts to the
role of ‘imposer of plots’, a role she incarnates to perfection in Part I.  In the coda, Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner
are referred to as ‘the lovers’. Is this, the reader of Atonement cannot
but wonder, an indication of the fact that, over the years, Briony has
persisted in seeing them primarily as latter-day embodiments of old romantic archetypes
rather than as real people? Like another well-known creation of McEwan’s, the
vain and ambitious journalist Vernon Halliday of Amsterdam, Briony is
prepared to sacrifice the private lives of her human subjects and the integrity
of their experiences, on the altar of personal vanity. Ultimately, Briony’s
great failure is the one attributed by McEwan to the perpetrators of the 9/11
attacks – a failure of empathy.21 ‘Imagining what it is like to be someone
other than yourself’, McEwan wrote in The Guardian the week after the
attacks, ‘is at the heart of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and
it is the beginning of morality.’22 McEwan’s argument is that, had the
terrorists had the empathy to imagine the suffering they would cause, they
would not have done what they did. The ending of Atonement sees Briony
still engaged in the task of trying to make the ‘unruly world’ of other people’s
lives ‘just so’ (p. 7).

To the very end,
she is incapable of seeing Robbie and Cecilia’s role in the fiction she has
spun around them for what it is. For her they are ‘the lovers’, for the reader,
‘the victims’. Like the victims of the 9/11 massacre, the only weapon Briony’s
victims can brandish in the face of her bigoted antagonism is their love. As
McEwan famously asserted with reference to Al Qaeda’s victims: ‘As for
their victims …those snatched and anguished assertions of love23 were their
defiance.

 

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