Known for telling stories about problematic teens and dysfunctional family relationships, Ian McEwan does not stray too far from his roots in Atonement. The first half of the novel focuses on one day in a seemingly idyllic setting, when suddenly everything goes wrong. At the core of the whirlwind circumstances that change the lives of the people around her is a thirteen-year-old girl with a significant imagination and maybe just a touch of cruelty in her eyes.
When she was ten, Briony Tallis confessed her pre-teen infatuation for Robbie Turner, the twenty-year-old son of the Tallis family's housekeeper. Three years later, when the novel opens, Briony witnesses Robbie and Briony's older sister, Cecilia, flirting with one another. Briony, through interior monologue, does not understand what is going on between Robbie and Cecilia. She is disturbed when she reads a note Robbie has sent to Cecilia that has obvious sexual overtones. When she catches Robbie and Cecilia in a dark corner of the family's library in the throes of passionate sex, Briony fears for her sister's life. Or at least, that is what she tells the reader. That might even be what she tells herself. However, this does not fully explain what she does next.
At the end of celebratory dinner, which includes Briony's family, three visiting cousins, and a wealthy friend, Briony's nine-year-old twin cousins excuse themselves from the table, leaving behind a note that states they are running away. In the dark of a hot summer night, the family goes out onto the grounds of the family estate and search for the missing boys. While all the other family members are calling out the boys' names, Briony is by herself, scheming.
Briony happens upon her sixteen-year-old cousin Lola, who is crying. As Briony approaches, a male figure recedes into further darkness. Lola has been raped. Briony, still under the influence of her fear and disappointment, identifies the rapist as Robbie. And so the disintegration of the family begins. Robbie is sentenced to jail. Cecilia cuts ties with her family. Lola and her rapist hide behind the lie. And Briony is left to atone for her sin.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Briony Tallis, age thirteen, wants her Quincy cousins to perform in a play she has written to celebrate her brother Leon’s visit from London with his friend, Paul Marshall. Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner, formerly childhood friends, are both back from Cambridge, where they have become distant. When he tries to help her fill a valuable vase with water at a fountain, it breaks; in frustration, Cecilia strips to her underwear in front of him and dives in to recover the pieces. Briony observes this scene from the house and is troubled by what she sees. Meanwhile, her cousin Lola, age fifteen, undermines Briony’s plans for the play, and rehearsals are abandoned. Briony walks out to the grounds in frustration.
Leon and Paul arrive from London and, meeting Robbie on the way in, invite him to dinner that night. At his mother’s cottage, Robbie writes to Cecilia to apologize about the vase and explain his feelings for her. In one hastily written draft, he describes his desire in explicitly sexual terms; he abandons that version and writes a more appropriate one. On his way across the grounds, he encounters Briony and asks her to take his letter to Cecilia. Only as she reaches the house does he realize he put the sexually explicit letter in the envelope. By the time Cecilia meets him at the door with the letter in her hand, Briony has already read it.
Briony shares the information in the letter as well as the scene by the fountain with Lola; they decide Robbie is dangerous and Cecilia needs protection. Cecilia confronts Robbie in the library, and after they confess their affection for each other, they make love. Briony finds them and believes Robbie is attacking her sister. They all go down to dinner without speaking.
The meal is interrupted by the news that Jackson and Pierrot have run away; everyone disperses to look for them. In the darkness, Briony comes across a man and Lola having sex in the grass. The man sneaks off, and Briony...
(The entire section is 803 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
For many, Atonement is McEwan’s best novel. The reviews were positive, with some grumbling about the ending. Atonement contains three parts—the first set in1935, the second two in 1940—followed by an epilogue occurring in 1999.
Part 1 opens in the country home of the Tallis family. It includes the “Old Man,” as his children call their father, absent in London, perhaps preparing for war or evading the wife with headaches; his son, Leon, twenty-three; daughter Cecilia, twenty-two; and daughter Briony, thirteen. The family almost includes the cleaning lady’s son, Robbie Turner, because the “Old Man” virtually adopted him after Robbie’s father ran off when Robbie was six. Mr. Tallis paid Robbie’s way at Cambridge and may send him to medical school. Like Cecilia, Robbie is an English major, and he finished his degree with a “first,” or “A,” compared to her “third.” The Tallises are presently hosting Mrs. Tallis’s niece, Lola, fifteen, and twin nephews, whose mother ran away with another man. Leon has invited his friend, Paul Marshall, heir to a chocolate factory, to visit. When Cecilia strips to her underwear to retrieve the missing piece of a Meissen vase from the garden fountain, Robbie suddenly falls in love with her.
In the letter he writes to declare his love, Robbie makes a disastrous Freudian slip by referring to Cecilia’s genitalia with a word he had just read in D. H. Lawrence’s notorious novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). To compound his tragic error, he enlists Briony as the letter carrier; she reads the letter and...
(The entire section is 662 words.)
McEwan's Atonement begins on a hot day at an English country manor, the house of the Tallis family. Jack Tallis, the father, is not at home, as is the normal case. Emily Tallis, the mother, is in bed with a migraine headache. The children, therefore, are left fairly on their own. Briony, the thirteen-year-old fledgling writer, has created a play that she is rehearsing with her cousins, Lola, Jackson, and Pierrot, who have come to stay with them while their parents go through a divorce. This is a special day. Leon, the oldest child of the Tallis family, is coming home from London for a visit and Briony's play is for him.
Meanwhile, Cecilia Tallis, who is twenty-three and home from college for the summer, is emotionally irritated. Her edginess has something to do with Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallis's housemaid. Robbie has grown up with the Tallis children and has always been a close friend with Cecilia. But in the past few years, Cecilia and Robbie have become uncomfortable in one another's company. There is a sexual tension between them, though they are both afraid to admit it.
Once Leon arrives with his friend Paul Marshall, the group sits down to dinner. Just prior to dinner, Robbie had given a note to Briony, asking her to present it to Cecilia. The letter is Robbie's way of broaching the subject of his recently discovered love for Cecilia. Briony cannot resist reading the note before giving it to her sister. The sexual nature of the note pushes Briony into a panic. She believes that her sister is in danger. When she catches Cecilia and Robbie in a state of heavy passion, Briony thinks Robbie is hurting Cecilia and believes Robbie is a serious threat to the family.
When the twins go missing after dinner and everyone goes out into the night to search for them, someone rapes sixteen-year-old cousin Lola. Briony is the first to come upon Lola and sees a shadowy figure disappearing. Lola sounds terribly upset and acts as if she does not know who has done this to her. Briony convinces her that it was Robbie.
Robbie is arrested for rape.
This section of the novel follows Robbie, who has been released from prison early because he has volunteered to go into the British army. It is 1939. He has not seen Cecilia for more than three years. They meet briefly before he is sent to France. The story then switches to France, where the British troops have been defeated and are retreating.
Robbie is with two fellow soldiers, Nettle and Mace, who have recently survived a bomb attack. Robbie has led the two corporals away from the main roads to avoid becoming easy targets for the German...
(The entire section is 1110 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary
Briony is the youngest child in her family, and she writes stories. She is imaginative and has an “orderly spirit,” which is marked by a love for the miniature and a passion for secrets. Her room is neat and tidy, with all of her toys facing her and several hidden spots where she can store her diary and other personal items. However, the sad truth is that Briony has few secrets, and those she has, no one else cares to know.
Although she has written many stories over the course of her young life, The Trials of Arabella is her first play and she relishes the attention. In addition to writing the script and building the stage, she has created posters, tickets, and even a sales booth. She takes her writing very...
(The entire section is 582 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 2 Summary
Cecilia Tallis has come home from school for the summer, and the weeks since finals ended have been filled with inactivity. Generally she is “bored and comfortable,” but today she is desperate for a cigarette and for something to happen. As she passes through the grounds, she sees Robbie Turner assiduously working on the landscaping. Robbie is a childhood friend, someone she has known since she was seven and a fellow university student, but she avoids passing too near to him. Though she could participate in Briony’s play, she does not, knowing it will end tragically because no one can live up to her sister's great expectations. She also rejects visiting her mother, as her mother is not interested in speaking with her....
(The entire section is 704 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 3 Summary
Briony is unhappy on the day of the performance of her play, The Trials of Arabella, since her cast is not ready. The night before, Jackson wet the bed and was forced to wash his bedding and pajamas by hand, not as a punishment but as an unconscious reminder that there are unpleasant consequences for such behavior. It took so long that the boy was unable to join the morning rehearsal, and his brother was so concerned for his twin that he was worthless and ill-prepared. While Lola showed up and knew her lines, her air of superiority made it seem like the rehearsal was meaningless to her. Meanwhile, Danny Hardman, whose father works on the grounds, positioned himself in the doorway and was such a distraction he had to be...
(The entire section is 517 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 4 Summary
Cecilia mends the vase and though it has three cracks, it is unlikely anyone will ever notice the damage. As she leaves the library, she encounters Briony who looks as if she's about to cry. Unhappy with the play, Briony is on a mission to destroy the playbill. While Cecilia, who has always loved to cuddle and comfort her younger sister, tries to cheer her up, Briony resists. The young girl attempts to destroy the watercolor poster she so carefully made, but her sister is able to keep her from doing irreparable damage. Briony considers confessing to Cecilia her true feelings about the play of which she was once so proud. Instead, she tells Cecilia she chose the wrong genre (though she pronounces it as she supposes the...
(The entire section is 657 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 5 Summary
Briony finally gives up on her play and her cousins are baffled. While the twins were delivering their lines the best they could and Lola was giving a credible performance, the young director simply walks out of the room with no intention of returning. Lola sees Briony alone, standing at the edge of the lake, and then wanders about the house. When Lola comes upon a previously unused bedroom, she observes a masculine-looking suitcase covered with pasted-on travel stickers. As she runs her thumb over the lock, she is startled by the opening of the clasp; she pushes it closed and quickly leaves the room.
The cousins, now free from rehearsals and unable to use the pool while adults are present, gather in Lola’s bedroom....
(The entire section is 617 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 6 Summary
It is an important day for Emily Tallis, for her son is coming home. However after making sure the children have all eaten sensibly, she takes to her bed with the hopes of averting a migraine headache. The heat is oppressive, and she is not sure anyone will be able to eat the roast she ordered for dinner that evening. Her room is dark and she spends some time contemplating her children. Leon, her oldest, refused to take advantage of his father’s influence and is making his own way working in a bank. She is hopeful he will bring home a friend suitable for her daughter Cecilia, though she is afraid the rather feminist and forward ways her daughter has adopted while away at college will prevent the girl from a suitable marriage....
(The entire section is 508 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 7 Summary
An island temple, once a religious shrine, now sits moldering in the middle of a small lake on the Tallis property. The insides lay in ruins, and the windows have all been broken out—by Leon and his friends some years ago. The statuary is gone and everything is crumbling, but it is a place of seclusion and relative peace. There is a fitting sense of tragedy to this location. This is where Briony goes to officially give up her dream of starring in or even producing The Trials of Arabella. Nearby, Briony has peeled the bark off of a slender hazel branch and is ready to vent her frustrations on some unsuspecting weeds.
She begins thrashing a gathering of nettles around her, and before long she is creating a...
(The entire section is 608 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 8 Summary
The evening sky is beautiful, but Robbie is not looking at it. Instead, he is soaking in a cramped bathtub full of tepid water in the attic bathroom of the servants’ bungalow that had baked in the sun all day. He contemplates for the first time how beautiful Cecilia is, recalling how as she rose, dripping from the water, he spotted a mole, a birthmark, and the tiny flower in the center of her brassiere. They had virtually ignored one another while in school, and he had always thought of her more as a sister than anything else. That has forever changed for him.
He leaves the tub and falls naked onto the bed, groaning at the impossibility of his situation. Cecilia had stripped and retrieved the pieces of the broken vase...
(The entire section is 1048 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 9 Summary
Cecilia’s first outfit, all black, was too austere and joyless for such an evening. When she looked in the mirror, she saw herself at age eighty-five, so she went back to her room to change. She is feeling relaxed and “self-contained,” as if she had not spent a moment thinking about her appearance. Nevertheless, she feels need to hurry as every minute she spends in her room is less time she is able to spend alone with her brother before everyone else descends upon them. Cecilia rifles through her closet, each dress indicating the passage of time in her life. She settles on a dusty pink dress, lower cut than the black one but suitable for both her mood and the evening. Within fifteen minutes she is headed back down the...
(The entire section is 1109 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 10 Summary
Briony feels no guilt at all about having read the letter intended for her sister. As an adult now, she believes her new job is to protect her sister. As the thirteen-year-old read the crude words from Robbie to Cecilia, she recalled the incident she saw out her window that morning. At the time she thought her sister was being intimidated, even threatened, by the servant’s son; in light of the letter’s contents, she is now certain there is something dark and sinister, perhaps even criminal, now surrounding the incident. Though Briony was, of course, happy to see her brother, her effusive greetings with him were designed to avoid Cecilia’s questions, and her mother’s instructions to go upstairs and change were met with...
(The entire section is 981 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 11 Summary
The dining room is suffocating with trapped heat and accumulated dust. Paul’s chocolate-infused drinks are nauseating, as is the thought of eating hot roast beef in this airless room. Emily Tallis seats each guest as they enter. Robbie is discomfited by the entire proceeding and finds himself sitting next to Cecilia. There is no small talk without Jack Tallis in attendance, as Emily neither knows how or cares to try. The meal is served in virtual silence by a mumbling Betty. Cecilia, Robbie and Briony are all in turmoil over the events of the past few minutes. Lola is distraught, as well, probably over the abuse she suffered from her brothers. Nevertheless, they are all sitting quietly and in a composed manner. Finally, Paul...
(The entire section is 1175 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 12 Summary
Though the rest of the household leaves to search for the missing twins, Emily stays behind in the empty mansion. She considers calling the local constable but does not want to speak to his garrulous wife and figures by the time a search party is gathered, the boys will have returned. Instead, she thinks about her wayward sister Hermione, and Hermione’s daughter Lola. When Emily had gone to Lola after dinner to assess her injuries, a wave of resentment had emanated from the girl, causing Emily to fuss over her even more in an attempt to hide it. While the injuries were real, Emily was once again in the position of relinquishing the spotlight to another, just as all the attention used to go to Hermione. When Briony wanted to open...
(The entire section is 834 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 13 Summary
“Within the half hour Briony [will] commit her crime.” She is determined to catch Robbie, the maniac. Cecilia is with Leon, and Briony is relieved that her sister will be safe. She is running in the dark, checking the pool for the twins and then doubling back to look for Robbie. She is running free in the wind and thinks about how she will write all of this down soon. Writing is a kind of soaring, a flight of the imagination, and she is looking forward to writing this story. Briony remembers the look of hatred Robbie had given her in the library, and this moves her to a new level of maturity. Being hated by an adult both horrified her and created for her “a moment of coming into being.” She knows she must not be afraid of...
(The entire section is 1349 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 14 Summary
Briony’s memories of the interrogation, her signed statement and testimony, and her exclusion from the courthouse during the trial do not bother her as much as her memories of that fateful night. When they arrive back at the house, Lola is the center of all attention; Briony knows this is as it should be. However, once Lola is taken upstairs for the doctor’s examination, the younger girl becomes the star. All eyes are focused on her, and she revels in the attention. When the policemen arrive, they question Briony and she answered everything calmly. She is their only source and this increases her certainty about what she saw. Briony is flanked by her brother and her mother as the inspector and the doctor arrive and complete...
(The entire section is 1133 words.)
Part 2, Section 1 Summary
[Part Two is not divided into chapters; instead, we have divided this section by the white space separating each section.]
Three men are walking. They have been walking for more than three miles, and now the man in the lead needs to stop and consult his map. It is not where he thinks it should be, and he stops and prepares to look for it when he discovers he is holding it in his left hand and it must have been there for the last hour. The other two men are off smoking and do not seem to notice. The map shows the rear area and is quite rare; he had pried it out of a dead captain’s hand as he was lying in a ditch. The man, Robbie Turner, also took the captain’s revolver....
(The entire section is 1017 words.)
Part 2, Section 2 Summary
It is dark out, and although the corporals are already asleep and snoring, Turner is not able to sleep. He thinks about how easy it is for an army to kill without seeing the individual casualties, the personal impact, of their actions. As he rests on his back looking out at the dark, Turner feels as if he is back in the cell where he spent three and a half years. How, he wonders, did he survive the “stupidity and claustrophobia” of that time. Being here, in the middle of a war full of death and destruction, is better than being in prison, “waiting for nothing.” Here there are valleys and streams and sunlight on trees, things that cannot be taken from him unless someone kills him. And here there is hope in the form of a...
(The entire section is 1144 words.)
Part 2, Section 3 Summary
Turner is nudged awake by one of the corporals. After dismantling their beds and makeshift table, the three soldiers smoke their first cigarettes of the day. Someone had left them a fresh loaf of bread and a wedge of cheese, which they divide now in case they get separated. They journey for several hours, and Turner is having difficulty matching the map to their terrain. They hear planes and artillery fire as they approach a village. A convoy of vehicles is in front of them, but they are not too tempted to hitch a ride, for the string of lorries is an easy target for fighter planes. They are headed north to Dunkirk, and they no longer need a map.
Along the way are many disabled military vehicles, stripped and useless to...
(The entire section is 584 words.)
Part 2, Section 4 Summary
Turner had used too much of his energy on others; now all he has left is the ability to mark his progress by the plodding of his boots on the ground. His impediments—his thirst, a blister on his foot, the shrapnel causing an infection—could not be allowed to outweigh his reasons to keep moving. He thinks about Cecilia and their few stolen moments of sensuality; he thinks about her as he saw her in a variety of settings before his life changed so dramatically. It is as if he has two lives, one before the twins ran away and one after, the latter including prison and war and the commonplace sight of the dead and dying. The memories were almost bleached colorless with the passage of time and with overuse; now, however, there is...
(The entire section is 673 words.)
Part 2, Section 5 Summary
The procession continues. Turner and the corporals continue their trek toward Dunkirk and home. Ordinary activities, such as a man plowing his field and a woman knitting in the back seat of her car, continue. However, the forward press of refugees reminds them there is a war. Suddenly at least fifteen aircraft flying at ten thousand feet are dots on the horizon. One Stuka breaks away and dives toward them as everyone on the road runs for cover. Turner can walk and stop without much thinking or effort; breaking away to protect himself takes nearly all his energy. A woman with a child appears in front of him, and she cannot decide where they might be safest during an air strike. Her inactivity sparks Turner’s protective instincts,...
(The entire section is 838 words.)
Part 2, Section 6 Summary
There are times as they walk when Turner is out of his mind, not remembering with any certainty where he has been, what he is doing now, or what his plan is for the future. His mind is not always clear, perhaps because of his infected wound and subsequent recurring fever. When the trio finally reaches Dunkirk, they walk through streets covered with broken glass until they reach the sand of the beach. There they stop and take in the unbelievable sight before them. A makeshift military base has long lines of men waiting at the canteens as others work at their desks. Further out, actually in the water, are men standing and waiting, in full uniform with rifles held above their heads, forming a kind of human jetty. There is no ship of...
(The entire section is 1065 words.)
Part 3, Section 1 Summary
[Part Three is not divided into chapters; instead, we have summarized this section by the white space dividing each segment.]
It is a cool late spring, April, and the hospital is mysteriously clearing out. Only eight of the twenty beds are occupied, and the senior staff is clearly harboring a secret the rest of the staff does not know. New drums of fire hoses and buckets of fire-fighting sand are deposited in the hallways, and Briony senses a disquiet, a “superstitious dread,” in the hallways. The trainees are always anxious about making mistakes. Sister Marjorie Drummond is always on the lookout, and a series of careless incidents could invoke her wrath in a mighty way. Briony knows she has made several...
(The entire section is 759 words.)
Part 3, Section 2 Summary
Before going to bed each night, other girls sob with homesickness or write detailed letters home, outlining their rigorous schedules in the hope of garnering sympathy. Briony sees these emotional outbursts as maudlin and writes briskly and minimally to her parents. This is her attempt at independence and it is important to her that her parents know as little as possible about her life; she does not want them, and especially her mother, to know about the lowly chores to which she has been reduced. She assures them she neither needs nor wants her allowance and she is not going to change her mind about her profession as her mother predicted she would.
Emily Tallis’s letters to her daughter are filled with questions to...
(The entire section is 477 words.)
Part 3, Section 3 Summary
The trainees get an unexpected and rare afternoon off, though they must stay in uniform. They talk of war as they sit in their chairs on the lawn. Briony wonders if Robbie was fighting in France, and what Cecilia would do if he died in battle. For the first time the two imminent crises in her life—the war and what she did to her sister and Robbie—have converged. One is a secret torment; the other is a public upheaval. The best scenario would be to change the past, but that is not possible. If Robbie does not return—she cannot finish the thought.
She and Fiona walk across the grounds and end up on the Westminster Bridge; there they see the army lorries unloading. At first the girls groan at the thought of more work...
(The entire section is 1048 words.)
Part 3, Section 4 Summary
The level of supplies brought to the hospital increases at the end of May. Briony and the other girls barely take notice, though. They are too busy doing their jobs and beginning hospital nursing and anatomy classes; at the end of the evening, it is difficult for any of them to stay awake for very long while studying. Big Ben chimes every half hour, and often the trainees groan as they realize they are supposed to be somewhere else. Their mornings begin with bedpan duty until seven-thirty, followed by a routine of bed making, blanket washing, and floor cleaning. Their feet always hurt from standing all day, and after drawing the blackout shades they must rush to get their books and make it to class on time. Twice Briony gets caught...
(The entire section is 501 words.)
Part 3, Section 5 Summary
Life soon settles into a routine for Briony and the other trainees. After the initial inundation of wounded, the nurses are working a strict shift system, and Briony is grateful to be working days, even though they are long. Everything looks different now, and she feels as if these are the last days before the Germans arrive, coloring these days with a clarity and a brightness before something new begins. New wounded arrive each day, but now there are beds for them all. Rehearsals and evacuation drills become the norm, and Sister Drummond is not terrorizing the trainees as she once was. In this setting, Briony is able to switch days off with Fiona, a Saturday for a Monday.
Due to an administrative error, some men are...
(The entire section is 1113 words.)
Part 3, Section 6 Summary
After Paul and Lola’s wedding, Briony is again walking purposefully toward her destination. Along the way she thinks of food, of all the lovely things which she once had every day and can only be gotten now if one pays the right price and knows the right people. A man steps out of a church and she wants to ask him for directions to the nearest café, but he is jittery and seems determined to ignore her, so she does not. Instead she retraces her steps and finds a place to have some tea and reconsider her plan. After a quick and incomplete freshening up, she decides she will go see her sister Cecilia.
After much more convoluted walking, she finds the house she is looking for and eventually someone answers her knock and...
(The entire section is 1420 words.)
Part 4, London 1999 Summary
It is the morning of Briony’s seventy-fifth birthday, and she is going to visit the Imperial War Museum one last time, the building which was once Royal Bethlehem Hospital—the old Bedlam. She has decided to donate the dozen or so long letters from old Mr. Nettle to the archives, and she has left all her drafts and photocopied sources neatly labeled and filed. The weather is rather miserable, so she takes a taxi to the museum and thinks about those poor inmates once housed in Bedlam. Their tragic plight has become personal to her after yesterday’s visit with her doctor. She is suffering a series of nearly imperceptible strokes, something which will eventually but certainly cause her to...
(The entire section is 2212 words.)