It was commonplace in the nineteenth century English novel that the author was God—omniscient and omnipotent within the fictional universe that exists between the covers of a book. Novelists such as William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) and George Eliot (1819-1880) exercised their divine privilege through overt intrusions into the narrative to arrange the lives of their characters and to tell the reader what to think. Rejecting that model and metaphor, modernism assigns novelists a more modest role—to transcribe their characters’ states of consciousness.
Early in her illustrious literary career, Briony Tallis, dominated by the influence of Virginia Woolf, writes a novella, Two Figures by a Fountain, that fulfills her modernist ambition: “To enter a mind and show it at work, or being worked on, and to do this within a symmetrical design—this would be an artistic triumph.” However, Cyril Connolly, the legendary editor of Horizon, rejects Briony’s manuscript, complaining that it “owed a little too much to the technique of Mrs. Woolf” and is weak in narrative interest.
In her seventies, Briony, now a literary celebrity, reworks the same material into a much more complicated book with a strong story line, one that, because it draws directly on actual incidents and people, cannot be published during her own lifetime. That novel, Atonement itself, reverts to the model of nineteenth century fiction, in which a narrative deity controls everything. The text of Atonement is an attempt to rewrite history. It is Briony’s bid to repair a terrible wrong that she committed when she was thirteen. Though the book will be her gesture of atonement, Briony recognizes that atonement is submission to an external authority and that, for a sovereign author whose imagination is supreme, such submission is impossible to achieve. In her final sentences, while vascular dementia begins to deplete her memory and defeat her imagination, seventy-seven-year-old Briony asks: “How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her.” There is, nonetheless, another author, Ian McEwan, as well as a reader outside Briony Tallis, and Atonement, which she despairs of as a mere attempt at impossible atonement, succeeds despite itself.
The novel starts with and arises out of thirteen-year-old Briony’s actions during a hot summer day in 1935. On her family’s country estate in Surrey, Briony conscripts her three cousins, fifteen-year-old Lola Quincey and Lola’s nine-year-old twin brothers, Pierrot and Jackson, to perform a silly play, The Trials of Arabella, that she herself has written. The cousins, troubled by their parents’ divorce, are not very cooperative, and the production is aborted. The imperious young playwright, described as “one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so,” fabricates another script that reconstructs the world for everyone around her. In Briony, McEwan examines the ambiguity of his own art—the storyteller as both creator and prevaricator. Robbie Turner, the handsome, brilliant son of the Tallis family’s housekeeper, has recently graduated from Cambridge University with financial support from Briony’s father. Despite the social chasm separating them, Robbie dares to love Cecilia, Briony’s older sister, also a recent Cambridge graduate. Briony senses, without understanding it, a powerful bond between the two, but she is confirmed in her assessment that Robbie is a “maniac” when he asks her to deliver to Cecilia a lewd, sealed note that she opens and reads. Robbie had written another, less blunt letter of affection and does not realize that he has inadvertently put his crude expression of sexual longing into the envelope that he hands to Briony.
When, later in the evening, amid a confused search for the missing twins, Lola reports that she was sexually molested, Briony concocts a story in which Robbie is the culprit. Lola does not contradict her, and Robbie is arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. Though literary fiction is a creative, generally benign distortion of the truth, in this case a promising young life is blighted by the misuse of imagination. “Liars! Liars!” shouts Grace Turner, as the police take her son, manacled, away. Everyone else acquiesces in the lie, including Briony’s easygoing older brother, Leon, and Leon’s visiting friend, Paul Marshall, who plans to make a fortune selling a candy bar to the military.
In the second of four sections that constitute Atonement, Cecilia, furious that her snobbish family supported Briony’s obvious perjury, breaks with them and goes off on her own to work as a nurse in London. Though she writes regularly to Robbie, she is unable to be with him. After three and a half difficult years in prison, he is mustered into the British Expeditionary Force as a private. Much of section 2 is a wrenching account of the frantic British retreat from Dunkirk. Amid the frenzied, violent rout that follows Germany’s defeat of France, all that sustains Robbie in his struggle for survival is the thought of reunion with Cecilia.
In section 3, Briony suffers pangs of conscience for her false testimony against Robbie. Rejecting the advantages of her social class, she follows her estranged sister into nursing. Briony embraces the discipline of Sister Drummond, tyrannical head nurse of the military hospital in London where, as secular penance for her misdeed, she takes on the most humiliating and arduous tasks. When the hospital fills with casualties from the debacle at Dunkirk, Briony throws herself into the job of caring for the critically wounded.
In section 4, Briony is an aging literary luminary who is honored on her seventy-seventh birthday with a performance of The Trials of Arabella, the play she wrote at thirteen and was intending to mount on the fateful day in 1935 when she also presumed to write the real-life script for Robbie and Cecilia. Acutely aware of the disparity between her version of the sexual assault on Lola and what actually happened that evening, she has finally finished creating a richer, more reliable account. Yet it is one that, for all of its scrupulousness, also insists on imagining alternative destinies for the wronged lovers, Robbie and Cecilia. Though Briony cannot publish her revised account as long as Lola’s influential and litigious rapist lives, she recognizes that, after writing it, “My fifty-nine-year assignment is over.”
Though the reader is supposed to assume that Briony is the author of the entire narrative, one of the most remarkable features of the book is how convincingly it manages to represent the states of mind of several characters—not only of Briony but also of Robbie, Cecilia, and even her mother, Emily Tallis, a woman whose recurring migraines shield her from having to deal with the fact that her absentee husband, a government official, is unfaithful and deceitful. Briony represents her own progress as a writer and a human being in her increasing ability to vary points of view. It is a significant moment in her artistic and ethical development when Briony realizes that, “It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value.” At thirteen, dreamy Briony suffers from a lack not of imagination but of imaginative sympathy, the ability to acknowledge the emotional autonomy of others. Her artistry is peremptory; through clever combinations of words, she presumes to impose her personal designs on the lives of other human beings. Fifty-nine years later, Briony demonstrates that she has grown far beyond the megalomaniacal fantasies of her early artistic efforts. Her mature writing is the product of research, not merely adolescent fancy. Like McEwan himself, she has spent many hours in the archives of the Imperial War Museum at Lambeth, immersing herself in the letters, journals, and memoirs of British nurses and soldiers who served during the retreat from Dunkirk. The result is remarkably successful in representing not only the genteel society in which Briony grew up but also the experiences of working-class nurses and military conscripts. Through her work, Briony transcends the narrow limits of her background and interests, and McEwan enters the mind of a woman born to privilege twenty-six years before he came into the world. The novel is a triumph of empathy if not atonement.
Throughout his career, McEwan has found and shared pleasure in excavating the horror that lurks beneath placid surfaces. All is not well at the lovely country house occupied by the Tallises, just as visitors to Venice rely at their peril on the comfort of strangers in McEwan’s 1981 novel of that name. His first book, a collection of short stories called First Love, Last Rites (1975) which won the Somerset Maugham Award, immediately served notice that he was a writer worth watching. His novel Amsterdam (1998) won the prestigious Booker Prize. As soon as it was published, Atonement jumped onto the best-seller lists and stayed there for several months, while numerous reviewers, in both Britain and the United States, resorted to the word “masterpiece” to describe it. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley hailed McEwan’s novel as the magnum opus of the foremost living Anglophonic writer: “Certainly it is the finest book yet by a writer of prodigious skills and, at this point in his career, equally prodigious accomplishment. It confirms me in the belief that there is no one now writing fiction in the English language who surpasses McEwan, and perhaps no one who equals him.” One could quibble over the names of McEwan’s contemporaries who surpass him in breadth of experience, range of tone, or verbal dexterity, but what cannot be denied is that the author of Atonement has nothing to regret.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic Monthly 289 (March, 2002): 106.
Booklist 98 (November 15, 2001): 523.
The Economist 360 (September 22, 2001): 1.
Library Journal 126 (November 15, 2001): 97.
The New Republic 226 (March 25, 2002): 28.
The New York Review of Books 49 (April 11, 2002): 24.
The New York Times, March 7, 2002, p. E1.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (March 10, 2002): 8.
The New Yorker 78 (March 4, 2002): 80.
Newsweek 139 (March 18, 2002): 62.
The Washington Post Book World, March 17, 2002, p. 1.
The Weekly Standard 7 (April 29, 2002): 43.