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Briony is the most interesting and dynamic character in the novel. She is a writer, of course, and it is through her we meet everyone else in the story. We see her when she is both young and old, we see her at her very best and her very worst, we love her honesty and we despise her deceitfulness, we feel sorry for the mess she's made of things and we're glad when she suffers for the things she's done. In short, she is a complex character and I like her, flaws and all.
I find Briony an incredibly deep character. I love the fact that we see her at different stages of her life, starting with her naive childhood, then having to face the realities of working as a nurse during wartime, and then lastly as an old woman, looking back upon her life and contemplating her death. I think, as #3 argues, we see McEwan exploring the limits of writing and where fiction ends and reality begins, and how even the best attempts to blur those boundaries ultimately are doomed. Briony is a character bearing a massive burden of guilt, and we wonder whether her work of fiction has actually allowed her to make her atonement, or whether she is still just as burdened as she always was.
Well, McEwan's book is really about writing, isn't it. Briony is a flawed writer from page one: scribbling, making order, imagining, creating for herself a central role in a drama about herself and her own romantic, childish, and not very realistic view of the world in The Trials of Arabella. She creates fictions everywhere, not the least of which is the fabulous lie for which she attempts to atone for the rest of her life. But, she writes her dramas, her letters, her "biography," her failed perspective stories, her novels. First and foremost, Briony is a writer in a book about writing. My students really struggle to grasp that this is metafiction--the author, McEwan, using Briony, a writer, to talk about words, stories, and lies. How many times do we refer to the author of the book as Briony Tallis rather than McEwan? One reason the movie just did not work as well as the book was the centrality of writing/words/fictions to the characters (Robbie, Cecilia, Luk, etc.).
I find Briony a fascinating and dynamic character. Ian McEwan has a talent for creating well-rounded, flawed, and appealing characters, and Briony is, in my opinion, one of his best. In the opening scenes, he paints her as an obsessively ordered child who craves attention and has a vivid imagination. He manages to convey all of those personality traits in just the first half of the opening sentence:
"The play-for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper-was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition."
So, from the very start we get a glimpse of her intense personality. I personally find her a bit irritating; we have all known that child that likes to show off, and to have things just so, and it is usually hard to not be annoyed by them. They have a hard time just going with the flow, and accepting life for what it really is, and tend to get upset when they feel out of control. They are emotional and difficult to deal with, relate to, or enjoy. So, I find her a bit annoying, and I can relate to that annoyance, because it brings to mind people that I know that are like that.
Of course, when she falsely accuses Robbie, it is hard not to have harsh feelings against her. However, McEwan had done such a good job of painting her character by then, that it is entirely consistent with who she is. I couldn't imagine her NOT having done that. Of course I wish she hadn't, but it was in line with her personality.
Later, after a few years have passed and she has become fully aware of her awful mistake, I found myself feeling bad for her. What an awful predicament to be in! Her remores, and her work as a nurse helping dying soldiers has added an element of compassion to her, and she has loosened a lot of the rigid structure of her personality as a result. She is more likeable, not only because she realizes her mistake, but because she has learned from it, and is striving to change what made her make the mistake in the first place.
Those are my thoughts on Briony. She is a brilliantly crafted character, one that elicits strong emotions from the audience; if she can do that, then McEwan has succeeded in fleshing out a person that seems real enough to feel something for, whether good or bad. It will be interesting to hear other people's thoughts too!
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