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...
(The entire section is 803 words.)
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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...
(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 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 seriously—her vivid imagination is the source of innumerable secrets that can be played out in front of an audience, giving her great satisfaction. It is a microcosm that she created with just a few words.
However, others in the family see her efforts as more melodramatic than dramatic and her sister Cecilia’s praise for her writing is tinged with condescension. But Briony wrote this particular play on the occasion of her older brother Leon’s homecoming and she is content with the finished product. Any one of her other stories normally would have sufficed, but her cousins from the North are visiting, and The Trials of Arabella is her offering to them.
The three cousins are on this open-ended trip because their parents have divorced. When Lola and her twin brothers, Jackson and Pierrot, arrive, Briony immediately wants to give them their parts and start rehearsing. The adults, however, have something else in mind for the guests and their day is instead spent acclimating to their new surroundings. When the children finally gather for their first rehearsal, the twins insist they do not want to be in a play, for it is nothing but showing off. The playwright herself silently agrees, and that is why she loves dramas—all eyes are focused on her. Lola stops the boys' grumbling by threatening to tell “the parents,” and reminds them that they are to make themselves “amenable” while they are guests.
As Briony begins to recount the plot of her story to her older, more sophisticated cousin and the recalcitrant twins, she is struck with the realization that her play is a “miserable, embarrassing thing.” After hearing the plot, each twin agrees to a role and Briony is...
(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.
Cecilia contemplates visiting her brother Leon in London or joining one of her university friends and working for the summer, but none of it moves her from her lassitude. Besides, she must clear the awkwardness between she and Robbie before she can do anything else.
She decides to arrange some wildflowers in a family heirloom vase before her brother’s arrival later in the day. The vase is likely the most valuable item in the Tallis home, but her father wants it to be used rather than kept behind glass somewhere. After arranging the wildflowers in artful disarray, Cecilia walks to the outside fountain to fill the vase with water. There, she spots Robbie enjoying a cigarette, and asks him to roll her one as she is feeling too lazy to walk up two flights of stairs to get her own. The two smoke and engage in inane and awkward small talk punctuated by long bouts of silence. There is “something between them,” and Cecilia feels it acutely. They grew apart while at Cambridge because it was “too difficult to do anything else.”
Robbie studied literature and is now planning to attend medical school. He is the son of the family’s cleaning lady, and Cecilia’s father has always assumed the expenses of the boy’s education. As they talk about medical school, Robbie becomes defensive and tells Cecilia he has made arrangements to pay her father back. She does not intend to antagonize him with her casual comments about his going to be a doctor, but he becomes angry and insulted. He seems to be in the habit of “wrong-footing” her whenever he gets the chance—that is, making a show of being nothing but her servant’s son. It appears he is either mocking her or punishing her, and though she...
(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 asked to leave.
Alone in the nursery, Briony ponders whether or not the rest of the world is as unique as she is. If they are, she “could drown in irrelevance.” And if they are not, then she is surrounded by automatons and machines. Both options displease her, just as the rehearsals have offended her sense of order. She no longer has control of her words and their meanings, her rightful role as the show's centerpiece has been stolen by Lola, and the weather is extremely hot. Upon reflection, Briony thinks the proper tribute to her brother’s homecoming—as well as the proper tribute to her own accomplishments—would have been to hand Leon a story she had penned and watch him read it in front of her. It seems so obvious, but now it is too late.
As she stretches and looks out the nursery window, Briony sees her sister and Robbie Turner near the fountain. From his stance, thirteen-year-old Briony assumes Robbie is proposing marriage to her sister, and she is not in the least surprised. In fact, in Briony's romanticized world, it makes perfect sense for the son of a servant to marry the lord of the manor’s daughter. As Briony watches, though, she sees Cecilia strip to her underwear at Robbie’s command and then proceed to climb into the pond. Briony feels shame for her sister, and the events she witnesses do not seem to fit a logical order of any kind. The entire scene now seems threatening. It might be easy for her to think this scene had been staged just for her benefit; however, she is aware that what she saw has nothing to do with her. Tempted to go to Cecilia’s room and demand an explanation, Briony instead stays where she is and thinks about how she could write the scene she just...
(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 French do), but Cecilia does not understand and is left confused as the younger girl leaves to greet her arriving brother.
Taking the vase to the guest room (assigned to her brother’s friend Mr. Marshall) as her mother asked her to do eight hours ago, Cecilia contemplates the cool, tidy bedroom. Looking out the window, she spies three silhouettes in the distance: Hardman, Mr. Marshall, and what must be her brother. A fourth, Robbie Turner, joins them and their outlines appear to fuse together. Cecilia imagines the greetings of these young men and is resentful that her brother would treat Robbie as a friend, not knowing he is “in disgrace.” She goes upstairs for a cigarette.
Smoking in the house is something her father disapproves of, but he is away and twenty-three-year-old Cecilia is bold enough to light up as she heads outside to meet her brother. Her father has distinct ideas about when and where women should smoke, and though she talks of liberation and freedom, Cecilia generally does not openly disobey him. The two new guests arrive and Danny Hardman is behind them with their luggage. Old Hardman looks mutely at the five-pound note in his hand. Leon, aged twenty-five, is pleased to see his sister and introduces her Paul Marshall. While Cecilia and Leon discuss their parents’ whereabouts, she is aware that Paul is staring at her; before she can speak to him, though, she must think of something to say. She tells her brother that Briony is planning a play but all may not be well. Paul says it must have been Briony who he saw down by the lake thrashing the nettles.
After Danny takes the luggage upstairs, the three young adults sit on the terrace, talking. Paul, who is from a...
(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 boys wrestle while Lola arranges her hair in front of a mirror. They soon return to the nursery, and Pierrot begins to cry. Lola consoles him, telling him they will be able to go home soon, but Jackson blurts out that they will never be able to return home because of the divorce. Divorce is a word which has never before been spoken by any of them. Even though they don't really understand the word or its ramifications, they are stunned into silence when it is spoken. Lola finally tells Jackson never to speak the word aloud again, and he agrees. She discovers a young man in a white suit leaning in the doorway; she is unsure of how much conversation he has heard.
Paul Marshall, a generally a pleasant man devoid of any sense of humor, comes forward to introduce himself to the three cousins. Lola finds the combination of cruel demeanor and pleasant manner very attractive. She is also attracted to his expensive shoes, but he is nonplussed by her admiration. He explains that he is staying in an unused bedroom, a fact Lola already knows. Paul expresses his regret at the play’s being canceled, but the children are only concerned about what he might have overheard. When Jackson asks if Paul has heard of their parents, Paul admits he has read about them in the papers—something all three of them find alarming. To the boys, a newspaper is a place where only dire news is told; but to Lola, it means he probably knows about their family shame.
Though Paul is dismissive about exactly what he knows, Lola tells him not to speak of such things in front of the children. She says this with such conviction that Paul winces at his error and tries to make amends by telling the twins he has heard their parents...
(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. Emily contemplates how she can best protect her youngest child, Briony, from the inevitable heartbreaking failures she has ahead of her.
The only contribution Emily can make to her household now is to listen. Her room is near the nursery, and she hears someone walking barefoot out of the house. She knows it must be Briony, for she refuses to wear shoes in the heat. With her sense of hearing heightened, Emily listens to the rehearsal being abandoned, Cecilia taking the vase of flowers to the guest room, Danny hauling luggage up the stairs, and the twins scampering together down the stairs. After awaking from a short nap, Emily hears a man’s voice talking to the twins; she assumes it must be Paul, whose room is nearby. Next she hears Betty calling the boys for their baths, reminding her of the familiar childhood rituals she used to do with Briony when she was younger. Emily now thinks of Briony, often locked behind her closed door and “grappling with some unspoken, self-imposed problem.” She mourns the loss of the last child in her family, as eleven-year-old Briony has moved beyond that stage of life, to young adulthood. The sound of running water suggests that Betty has found her charges, and Emily strains to arrange the pillows behind her to sit up. As she does so, she hears the prolonged “creaking of the bedsprings” in the nursery followed by her niece Lola’s laughter.
Mr. Marshall must be a nice man to spend his time entertaining children in the nursery, Emily thinks. She begins planning how she can fulfill her duties as hostess despite the headache. She will ask the cook to slice the roast into cold cuts, assure herself that the twins are cared for properly, phone her husband to let...
(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 story for her actions. First Briony imagines a singular nettle, curving and graceful, to be her Lola, the one who stole her role. It is too quick a thing to destroy her just once, so the next few nettles are also Lola. This time she is surrounded by admirers; though Briony concedes it is a pity the innocent onlookers have to die, they are spreading rumors about her and she fells them all with her slender stick. The most offending nettle stings her feet as it falls. Finally the nettle version of Lola is dead, and Briony turns her attention to the twins. Three pairs of nettles receive her wrath, sacrificed for the incompetence of the two boys. There are no exceptions for children in retribution; it is a blind punishment. Finally, she attacks her playwriting. It, too, has become a nettle, several nettles, symbolic of the shallowness, the wasted time, the hopeless pretending, and the distortion of others’ minds on the roles. “In the garden of the arts, it was a weed and had to die.”
No longer a playwright, Briony begins walking around the temple and slashes the nettle representing her childhood. As it falls, so do her childish ambitions and ways. One nettle serves for all of her childhood, but she is not content. She “disposes of herself” year by year until she has destroyed thirteen of the innocent weeds. Gone is her childish dependence, her need to show off and be praised, her pride in her writing, and her reliance on the praises of her mother. Soon, though, she is absorbed in the action itself, the cutting down of nettles. In her mind, she is written about in newspapers around the world as the best thrasher of nettles who ever lived, soon to be featured at the Berlin Olympics and certain to win the gold...
(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 as an act of fierce independence and was likely regretting her actions even now. As he thinks more about the incident, he realizes she had been trying to humiliate him with her anger at his having broken the vase—something which would not have happened if she had not refused to allow him to help her. Now he will be at dinner and she will be even angrier still; he had not thought quickly enough to avoid the invitation from Leo when it came. His conflict is palpable: his desire to see her again, to imagine her skin beneath the clothing she wore, versus his desire to avoid her wrath and the humiliation she will likely inflict on him.
Half-dressed, he sits at his desk and contemplates the letter he will write her. His room is filled with old hiking boots and maps, with literature and poetry, with medical books and a pad of his own drawings of various dissections of the human anatomy. There are photos of his father and mother and their family, before his father walked out on them so many years ago. In a pile of correspondence is a scribbled note from Jack Tallis, agreeing to pay Robbie’s way through medical school, as well as stacks of application forms for colleges far away. Once, going away seemed like a grand adventure; now it feels more like a self-imposed exile. He looks at a book Cecilia once handed him to borrow from their library and smells it, trying to capture her scent even three years since she touched it. Three years in which he made a pretense of ignoring her but actually “languished in his lady’s scorn.”
The typewriter in front of him is a relatively new gift from Jack Tallis, presented to him in a small ceremony in the family’s library. That day, speeches were made and...
(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 stairs.
This time as she passes the mirror she sees herself as a fifteen-year-old girl, too innocent for who she is now. In frustration, she returns to her room and undresses. She knows now, and has known all along, that there is only one dress in her wardrobe she really likes, only one dress which is suitable to wear on such an evening after a day of feeling so unsettled. It is a shimmery green backless dress, bought to celebrate the end of finals but never worn. As she puts it on, she feels “sleekly impregnable, slippery and secure,” like a mermaid. Finally Cecilia is content and opens the door of her bedroom, only to be startled by a raised fist directly in front of her eyes.
It is Jackson, about to knock on her door. The twins are in a dilemma, for they are to report downstairs for tea but cannot arrive unless fully dressed—and there is only one pair of socks to be found. The boys are arguing over who gets to wear them, and Cecilia goes with Jackson to help them solve their problem. Jackson tells her Lola will not help because she “hates” them, and Cecilia feels gratified when the young boy slips his hand in hers as they walk toward the boys’ room. The room is a disaster and Cecilia helps restore order to the chaos as the boys watch. They tell her they wish they could go home, but she tells them their parents are both occupied so they must stay here for a while longer. The continue that they wanted badly to be in the play, but that Briony walked off and has not returned. Cecilia is dismayed at having one more person to worry about, but she dismisses the idea and tells them they must forget about the play. The search for socks is fruitless, as her careless Aunt Hermione (the boys' mother)...
(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 unusual alacrity.
As she dresses for dinner, Briony feels determined to protect her sister from the dangers of which only she seems to be aware. Something is threatening the order of their household, and Briony knows they will all suffer unless she is able to somehow diffuse it, delicately, so Cecilia will not protest or turn on her. Briony feels torn between starting a story and simply writing about today’s observations and experiences. She wonders how she can write about losing her childhood and discovering the baseness of Robbie’s “disgusting mind” all in one day. As she is pondering these things, Lola taps softly on her door and asks to enter.
Before Briony gives her permission, Lola enters the room and sits on the bed, as if the two of them always ended their day with a sisterly chat. Lola says she is upset at her brothers for abusing her, showing Briony a long scratch on her upper arm and “blotchy bands of chafing” on each wrist. Instantly the younger girl sympathizes but wonders why the twins would do such things to their sister. Lola explains they are upset and want to go home, and they think she is the one keeping them here. As Briony hands her a clean handkerchief, Lola begins a kind of wailing cry, and Briony shuts her bedroom door so no one downstairs will hear her. In an odd attempt to console her, Briony tells Lola about what she saw that morning and the letter she read that night, spelling the crude, offending word to magnify its impact.
Now Lola is the one who comforts Briony, sympathizing with her having been so long and in so many situations with a boy who is capable of such thoughts. Briony tries to recall times when she might have noticed such tendencies in...
(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 Marshall breaks the “asphyxiating silence.”
Paul is not a handsome man; he now has a scratch along his face which adds to his unpleasant visage. He breaks the rules of etiquette and talks directly to Robbie, excluding the rest of the dinner guests; Robbie answers him and then directs a question about the weather to the entire table, though it is Pierrot who meets his eyes as he asks it. The boy is dumbstruck at the thought of answering an adult question, and Briony sees the fear of Robbie in his eyes and tells him he does not have to answer. The adults have a conversation about the excessive heat, and Emily remembers that her mother used to think young people behaved less prudently when the weather was hot—fewer clothes, more places to meet. When Leon teasingly asks Cecilia if she has been acting less morally today than other days, she blushes. Robbie starts to speak, but Cecilia recovers sufficiently to exchange easy banter with her brother. Leon then turns to Briony, asking her if she has misbehaved outrageously on this hot day. Robbie knows she is a child and could very well tell everyone at the table both about the letter and about what she saw in the library. The thought however does not fill him with dread; instead he is almost eager for the opportunity to stand next to Cecilia and defend her honor. Briony disappoints Robbie by telling Leon she did nothing wrong. Jackson says that is not true; she would not let them have their play. Leon smiles and teases her, saying if it were not for her, they would all be in the library “watching the theatricals.”
As he sits and listens, Robbie ponders the unexplored curves of Cecilia’s back. He feels both pain and pleasure; indeed,...
(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 envelope, Emily was sharp with her, not wanting her daughter to make a dramatic production out of the reading. Emily realizes this is not a flattering realization. Emily remembers that when she was eleven and ran into a glass window, cutting her hand badly enough that blood sprayed profusely, it was nine-year-old Hermione who threw the histrionics and got all the cosseting and petting as one medical uncle attended to her wound.
Lola, too, had a penchant for upstaging everyone around her. When the letter had been read, Lola drew attention to herself by storming out of the room and into the darkness alone. Emily is certain that once the boys have been found, the searchers will then have to find Lola, waiting outside in the dark until she can make a dramatic re-entrance to the household. She is also certain it was Lola who undermined Briony’s play, as evidenced by the ripped poster and the playwright living in exile all afternoon. “How like Hermione Lola was, to remain guiltless while others destroyed themselves at her prompting.”
Now Emily waits for the nightly phone call from her husband. She knows he works late; she also knows he does not sleep at his club as he tells her—and he knows she knows. The lies are consistent, but so are the phone calls. Emily takes great satisfaction in her house and the grounds and especially her children, and she is content to hear the sound of her husband’s voice regularly. This kind of prolonged and complicated attention is enough to sustain her, and she has convinced herself that her husband’s elaborate deceit is actually a tribute to their strong marriage. Though she had been a wronged child and was now a wronged wife, Emily is...
(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 Robbie; instead, she must use her disgust and detestation to motivate her. Her family has given him everything; they have treated him as one of their own. Now she is eager to expose him for the villain he is. Her father will be devastated that his protégée has turned out to be a ravager of young women.
As she hunts her prey, Briony imagines the phrasing and images she will include in her writing once she is able to record her thoughts. She retraces her steps toward the house and sees her mother through the window. Emily appears to be frowning in contemplation, but Briony knows this is just her mother’s expression; in fact, no one is more kind or sweet than Emily is. As she looks at her mother, Briony knows Emily will die one day. She contemplates an elegant funeral over which she and her siblings will preside.
Briony could easily go into the house, sit next to her mother, and tell her about the day’s events. If she had, she would not have committed her crime. So much would have happened and yet nothing would have happened; the evening would have been unremarkable in every way. She moves and makes a noise; because she does not want to explain herself, her course is set—her course and the courses of those she loves.
Unlike the adults, Briony does not have a flashlight to help guide her through the night; in their eyes, she is still a child. However, she put her childhood behind her earlier in the day and is now somehow ready to prove it. Instead of turning back to the house, Briony crosses the bridge onto the island where the temple is. She is the only one who ever comes here, and moving around in the unfamiliar dark is not a problem for her. Tonight, though, the familiar things...
(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 their examinations.
Paul arrives from searching for the boys and hears the news. In a proprietary way, he speaks with policemen and the doctor as well as Emily and Leon. He is calm and composed, even offering cigarettes from his gold case to the officers. Cecilia, on the other hand, is huddled in the peripheries, smoking in “agitated disgust.” Typically she would take charge of such an occasion; tonight she is receding as Emily comes forward to take charge. Cecilia hears her sister’s rendition of events and looks on in anger and contempt. Briony sees her sister watching her and is afraid; she avoids any contact with Cecilia. The older girl paces the room as she waits for Robbie to return. Everyone else in the room is doing the same, though no one would have said so.
Suddenly Briony emits a startled cry and runs up the stairs with great energy, as if she were soon going to provide an unexpected but delightful Christmas surprise for everyone in the room. Upstairs she goes directly to Cecilia’s room and begins wading through the mess until she finds what she is looking for and heads back downstairs. She hands the folded letter to the chief inspector, who reads it without any visible reaction before giving it to one of the policemen. Leon reads it next, and none of the adult men react to what they read. When Emily Tallis, head of the household (at least until her husband arrives), asks what the men are reading, the men try to put her off. Emily insists and the inspector eventually nods his approval. Cecilia finally becomes aware of what is happening and grabs for the letter now settled on her mother’s lap and she screams at them all for their audacity. Two policemen and her brother keep Cecilia...
(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. He was not trying to impersonate an officer; he had lost his revolver and was simply trying to survive.
As they continue walking they see a bare leg, severed neatly above the knee, hanging in a tree above them. The sight does not move the two corporals; they have seen enough of war. Turner walks ahead, out of their sight, so he can vomit in private. He also checks the wound festering under his shirt. It is a bit swollen and red, and he can feel the piece of shrapnel inside him when he walks. His only privacy is behind the map. The men catch up to him. Although they outrank him, they ask him where to go next. Turner is only a private, but the corporals are city men who know nothing about compasses and countrysides, and they need him to find their way back to civilization. To preserve the dignity of their rank, they tease him as they follow him. Now they ask why a mere private talks “like a toff.”
Turner does not mind their teasing, but he does not owe them any explanation. He just wants to keep walking and forget the leg. He leads them through the French countryside, which he would have found beautiful in different circumstances. Now he just wants to survive—“has one good reason to survive”—and if they want to follow him that is their choice. At least Nettle and Mace had managed to keep their rifles. After seeing a bombed-out cottage, Turner is feeling sick again; he is chased by more than the German army and air force. The corporals are harassing him a bit but he just keeps walking. He thinks perhaps it is time to ditch them and strike off on his own.
They approach a farmhouse and a haggard French woman shoos them away as she would some unruly hens. Turner is the only one...
(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 letter tucked into his pocket, a letter with Cecilia’s new address and a promise to wait for him. It is this hope which has sent him into the countryside.
Later Turner gets up and goes out into the black night. He sees the glimmer of German armor in the distance and remembers a poem she wrote him; all her letters are buttoned inside a pocket in his greatcoat. Turner knows if he has to spend time in prison again he will not live through it. There will be no letters from her, no hope, no bargaining for an early release in exchange for joining the infantry. Perhaps, he thinks, he should just leave now and strike out on his own. However, it is dark enough to be dangerous, and the corporals might be useful to have with him as he travels.
Though he goes back inside and lies down, sleep will not come. Turner remembers the only time he saw her after the incident. They met at a teahouse six days after he was released from prison, in 1939, a day before he had to report for duty. He got there early and sat at a corner table, enjoying the freedom and embracing everyday life. While in prison, he was allowed only one female visitor, his mother, in case he turned again into an assaulting maniac. He was in love with Cecilia, was willing to work at staying sane for her, and loved her words because he loved her. His own words had been censored by his psychiatrist and were therefore free of any sensuality or emotion. His diagnosis was “morbidly oversexed,” and it was determined he needed help as well as correction. Any reference to things even mildly emotional by either of them caused their letters to be confiscated. Instead they wrote about literature, about the great tragic literary couples such as Tristan and...
(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 enemy. Medical personnel and patients are being evacuated, and military vehicles are on the move. Along with them are civilian vehicles of all kinds, including horse carts and tractors, piled high with household items. Walking faster than the traffic is moving are hundreds of soldiers along with families with suitcases, babies, bundles, and children. Turner slips into the procession and the corporals follow him, though he tries to ditch them in the crowd.
After disentangling himself from an altercation (with the help of Mace and Nettle), Turner keeps walking and watching the sky more than his surroundings on the ground. His thirst is mighty and his wound is getting worse. Soon he is stopped by a rather eccentric officer trying to recruit soldiers for an attack on a small group of enemy soldiers hiding, he says, in the nearby forest. Turner has no intention of joining this haphazard plan but stays to listen for moment. As he does, he sees something unusual perched in a tree on the road ahead of them; once his mind registers that it is a weapon pointed directly at them, he shouts for everyone to take cover. He ducks behind one of the abandoned vehicles and is safe; the officer who was trying to recruit soldiers has been hit in the hand by the machine gun fire. After the attack, he is still committed to searching out the hidden enemy. Turner and the corporals decline the request to join the determined but off-kilter officer, and he salutes them with his uninjured left hand before marching off into the woods with his reluctant band of soldiers.
The column is not moving as people take care of the wounded. Surprisingly, though several are wounded, no one was killed. Turner makes himself available...
(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 something new with which to occupy his mind and carry him forward through his pain.
The possibility of redemption, of freedom from an old condemnation, is enough to remind him of how much he has shriveled in these past years. The prospect is one of “rebirth, a triumphant return,” an opportunity to become a man who is once again free to pursue whatever simple pleasures he desires. He will not spend his energy shunning those who had shunned him or collecting apologies from those who had so easily believed the worst. Instead, he will simply resume his life. He might reapply to medical school, and if Cecilia reconciles with her family he will find a way to be cordial from a distance, though Emily had “pursued his prosecution with a strange ferocity” and Jack had simply walked away when he could have helped.
As he walks through the unmoving convoy, stepping over the dead and wounded, Turner contemplates how he will deal with Briony once he is exonerated. He knows the possibility of absolution is for her, not for him. It is true she was a child in 1935, but she had been fiercely determined and consistently adamant in her accusations. Though he knows it is foolish to hate either Briony or Danny Hardman, he does. Turner has had plenty of time to think about the girl’s motives, and he keeps coming back to a June day in 1932 when Briony was about ten years old. He was nineteen and they went to the weir for swimming lessons he had started with her a year earlier. After the lesson, Turner stepped away from the clearing to change his wet clothes. When he returned to the weir, the young girl was standing on the edge of the water. She asked him if he would save her if she jumped in, and of course he said...
(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, and he leads her and her boy to some semblance of safety.
Their progress is too slow, so he grabs the boy and runs ahead, hoping she will follow more quickly to protect her son. She is struggling to keep up and the boy in his arms is crying, wetting his pants, and struggling to reach his mother behind him. The howling plane draws closer and Turner drops on his face in the field, covering the boy with his body and pulling the woman to the ground. The plane has one bomb, and the missile lands a mere eighty feet from them with a tremendous shaking and flying debris. They are still too close to the road, so Turner tries to drag the woman to the forest where others are heading. This time there is machine gun fire as they are lying face down in a plowed field, and the woman is speaking to her son in Flemish, telling him everything will be fine. The boy has gone mute and she refuses to stand or move. Finally Turner must run to save himself.
His feet are heavy as they are only in nightmares, and he is unable to reach shelter before the next attack. This time his face, mouth, and ears are all full of dirt he cannot really get rid of, but there is water in the woods ahead and he will try to remove it all there. He looks behind him, and where the Flemish woman and her son had been sitting is now a crater. Now Turner remembers he must live, though he cannot remember why. He joins the two hundred or so people, many of them wounded, gathered in the forest and dreams only of water. The all-clear finally sounds, but no one moves. They know what those planes are capable of doing, and they understand that sound might be a false sign of safety. Suddenly Mace is behind him and hands him a full canteen of water. After...
(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 any kind in sight. Most of the twenty thousand or more soldiers, though, are just hanging around on the beach. Some are playing football, others are digging personal trenches, one is swimming, but most are simply in limbo, waiting aimlessly for the next thing.
Turner and the corporals, driven by their thirst, head toward a café that soldiers have broken into and in which the men are now getting drunk. They scavenge the bar and the kitchen, but there have been too many there before them. Even the kitchen tap was inoperable and dry. Men continue to hover around the bar for the piles of cigarettes and cling to the idea that there had once been something to drink here. Turner stays for a few moments because it is too much effort to fight the crowds to leave. There had been boats yesterday, he hears, and there may be boats again today. He finally catches the corporals’ attention, and they work their way slowly through the crowd until they are stopped by an angry mob gathered around a man in a chair.
The object of attention and contempt is a Royal Air Force (RAF) soldier, and the men are merciless in blaming him for the lack of air cover and their shameful defeat. They have found something on which to vent their shame and anger, and this diminutive officer is it. He is a scapegoat for all their frustrations, and they begin to beat the passive man. Turner is appalled but does nothing: “It was madness to go to the man’s defense; it was loathsome not to.” The beating continues as they decide to take the man down to the beach, intending to drown him, after the shouted suggestion by Mace who picked the man up in a giant bear hug and headed toward the water a mile away. Nettle and Turner exchange a...
(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 such errors in recent days, but lately Sister Drummond is preoccupied with other, more secretive things. The trainees are no longer complaining either.
The beds are emptying, but the work load is increasing. Trainees are polishing and cleaning and scrubbing more than ever, and army vehicles bring more beds which are not clean and must be made hygienic. Large quantities of new supplies need to be unloaded, inventoried, and put away, including things called “Bunyan Bags,” which none of the probationers have ever seen or used. A new medicine cabinet has been filled with morphine and only Sister Drummond has the key. The top floor of the hospital was emptied at the beginning of the war and the operating theaters are already located in the basement. All first-floor windows have been sandbagged and cement now covers every skylight. Military officials come to inspect the facilities, with little or no warning, and seem to approve.
Fiona is Briony’s roommate and tenuous friend; there is little time, between working and studying and classroom lessons, to test any friendship. The only free time the girls have is their one-hour tea time each day, though the girls are often too weary to do more than sit in silence. In any case, Briony does not make herself available for intimate friendships; the strongest relationship she has is with Sister Drummond, a woman who is charged with holding Briony accountable to every rule and regulation of nursing and the hospital. There is never any praise, and the Sister’s bad opinion is feared; the best she can hope for from her mentor is indifference.
At night when she has a few quiet moments, Briony escapes in her mind to the college world she left, a...
(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 which she never receives answers, plus news of evacuees who have made their family mansion their new home. Emily has taken in the refugees in an attempt to keep her house from being confiscated by the military. The strangers are disrespectful, and all the family’s valuables have been moved to the basement. Betty the housekeeper dropped the family heirloom vase, claiming the pieces had simply come apart in her hands—a story no one believed. Danny Hardman had joined the navy and Briony’s father Jack was working too hard. These letters make Briony a bit nostalgic for a life she once had, but she is adamant about not allowing her immediate family to be part of her life.
Each night since the beginning of her training, Briony writes in her journal for ten minutes before going to bed. Because there is no place to lock her journal, she changes patient names and disguises the staff members in case anyone happens to read her work. Since she is already making things up for these people, she also embellishes and changes who they are and what they do. Later she will regret not keeping a more accurate record of that time, but for now it is the familiar escape, the thing she knows best. Though she is busy all day, she occasionally has the opportunity to do some daydreaming as she looks out the window at the Houses of Parliament. She does not think about her journal; instead she remembers using her uncle’s typewriter to type her long story—one hundred and three pages—which she bundled up and sent to a new literary magazine called Horizon. The work is a new kind of writing, with little concern for plot or characters, something modern novels no longer utilize. The new fiction is a reflection and revelation...
(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 ahead of them; then they see the groups of wounded men, many on stretchers, and realize these are soldiers coming home. Briony and Fiona run toward the wounded just as other doctors and nurses begin pouring out of the hospital entrance. She is immediately commissioned to help carry a stretcher into the hospital. The wounded sergeant is clearly in need of medical attention, and the doctor at the other end of the stretcher does not realize Briony’s struggle to carry her end of the burden. She manages, barely, and is then sent to help others.
Those on stretchers have all been taken inside, much to Briony’s relief, but there are two hundred wounded men who need to be moved inside in order to get medical care. She and the other trainees help the men on crutches and others into the hospital; it is slow going and often the men need time to rest along the way. Many of them collapse into sleep as they are waiting for a bed, since all the beds are now full. The first-year nursing students are all performing duties beyond their normal tasks, and Briony is to cleanse the leg wound on the soldier in front of her. She does her job well, well enough that Sister Drummond puts a quick hand on Briony’s shoulder and tells her she is doing a fine job, though she must work a bit faster. This successful moment propels her to even better work.
Briony’s next task is to take water to the exhausted soldiers. It is crucial that the men not get dehydrated, so she does her best to convince even the unwilling to drink. She thinks about one of these men being Robbie, and she envisions gently cleaning his face of oil, dirt, and sand and his silent offering of forgiveness. Now she has been assigned to remove the shrapnel...
(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 running in the hallways, which a nurse should never do.
One of the primary domains of all the first-year nursing students is the sluice room—the room in which all the bedpans are emptied and sterilized. Briony dons her rubber apron and begins her task; if she forgets to clean and dry the handles of each pan, the ward sister scolds her. After straightening the ward at the end of the day, she has no time to read the newspaper. But today a sentence in an article on the war catches her attention: British troops are being moved from northern France to “previously prepared positions.” This does not reveal much useful information to most people, but Briony understands it as a euphemism for “retreat” and finally realizes her hospital is one of the places soldiers will be sent. This explains the secrecy, the excessive supplies, and the tension she has been feeling over the past months. German troops have reached the Channel and everything has gone awry in France, though the complete picture is unclear to civilians.
About the time the last of the patients is moved out of the hospital, Briony receives a letter from her father with the news that Lola Quincey and Paul Marshall are getting married. For the rest of the day, Briony thinks about these two people who had been there at that crucial turning point in her life. Lola is now twenty; Paul is eight years older—and Briony made it possible for them to marry. Her guilt haunts her for the entire day, despite her attempts to work hard and forget the damage she caused. There is no undoing it; she is “unforgivable.” For the first time in a long time, Briony wants to speak to her father. She hopes that his telling her of the marriage is his way of...
(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 allowed to recover in the hospital. They grow “sour” and “surly” once they have regained their health, disgusted at themselves (many of them never even fired a shot) and angry at the military “brass” who abandoned them in retreat as well as the French who collapsed without a fight. These men are in no mood to obey any authority, including that of the nurses—until Sister Drummond pays them a visit.
Saturday arrives and Briony leaves the hospital early, before breakfast. She walks along the river but does not know specifically where she is going and feels very alone, in contrast to her work culture of collectivism and group identity. The only map she has is old and liable to crumble into pieces, and the buses have all covered over their destination signs in an effort to confuse the enemy. In fact, the newspaper has reported that German parachutists may be posing as nurses and nuns to avoid detection while spying, and one way they might be recognized as the enemy is by their consistent reference to maps. Now Briony is afraid the uniform that has kept her safe and protected and part of a group may actually put her in danger. An older gentleman delivering milk with his horse gives her directions which she follows (even though they do not seem particularly correct), knowing he is watching.
As she walks under a bridge, train thundering over her, Briony wonders, despite the rigors of what she has seen and experienced, if she is strong enough to continue this journey into the real, more brutal world. She also ponders the “sugarcoated rejection slip” she has consistently carried in her pocket and the evasions the editor had pointed out in her work. How, she wonders, can she make the story...
(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 shouts for Tallis to come to the door. Soon Briony sees her sister coming down the stairs in thick socks and a dressing gown she recognizes. At the sight of Briony, Cecilia sits down on the stairs and asks what she is doing here. Briony’s answer is simple: Cecilia did not answer her letter, so she came. Something in her sister’s face tells her not to ask about Robbie. Cecilia asks where Briony is training and she looks somewhat displeased and tells her she is at the ERS, a place Briony knows is seeing far worse casualties than her hospital gets. At a loss for something to talk about, Briony asks Cecilia if she has heard from their father lately; not surprisingly, the answer is no. Briony tells her the latest news from their mother, which Cecilia responds to sardonically. The only interest she does show in the news from home is that the family heirloom vase was broken. Cecilia wonders if it was broken in many pieces and if anyone saved them.
Reluctantly Cecilia invites her sister up to her rooms but does not invite her to sit down. After finding and lighting a cigarette, Cecilia tells Briony she went to see a lawyer regarding Briony’s intention to recant her testimony; the lawyer was not encouraging, telling her it would still be Briony’s word against Lola’s. Their last hope, according to Cecilia, would have been Danny Hardman’s father, but he is now dead. Briony is confused and does not see the connection between their former groundskeeper and the attack on Lola. Cecilia continues her tirade, saying she paid good money to the lawyer only to have him tell her Briony’s desire does not matter. The fact is that she lied the first time, and there is no evidence to prove she is telling the truth now....
(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 forget the most familiar things in her life until one day she will wake up in her own room and not know it or even her oldest remaining friends and will have to be moved to a hospital to receive proper care.
It is called vascular dementia, and the “slowness of the undoing” is much better than Alzheimer’s, which often causes patients to get aggressive and have mood swings. This is more benign, and she will probably just end up as “a dim old biddy in a chair” after losing her faculties bit by bit. At first Briony was not distressed by the illness and in fact called all her friends to tell them her news. Today she wonders if she is simply doing what in earlier days would simply have been called getting old. In any case, she is “fading into unknowing.”
As she rides to the museum, she pauses to reflect upon the people in her life who have lived in these houses. She thinks of her father who lived near here after his second marriage, of the basement apartment where she lived and worked during the fifties, of her brother Leon’s house, a place where he nursed his sick wife and then raised his rambunctious children with amazing and admirable devotion. “The addresses of the dead pile up,” and one day others will think of her in such a moment of reflection. As they cross over the Waterloo Bridge and she sees her favorite view of London, Briony feels well and intact, knowing that while young people see degeneration on the outside, old people are not so different from them on the inside.
The cabbie is cursing all the construction being done and interfering with traffic. As they detour, Briony thinks about the three hospitals she worked at during the war and about how she merged...
(The entire section is 2212 words.)