How does Atonement encompass the genre of postmodernism, particularly metafiction? Is there any specific passage that shows such? Addressing the concept of metafiction, discuss the ways in which the novel Atonement can be considered postmodern. You are asked to specifically locate aspects of postmodern writing at work in the novel, and to illustrate their significance: once identified, how do these formal devices express a postmodern worldview?

Atonement speaks to the postmodernist belief that reality tends to be subjective. It’s Briony’s interpretation of reality and what happened to Lola that sets the plot in motion. The metafiction of Atonement links to Briony’s own writing endeavors. Her writing helps Ian McEwan address the pros and cons of fiction and its relationship to reality.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Before I help you talk about Atonement’s postmodern and metafiction credentials, I think we should try to establish a definition for postmodernism and metafiction.

Postmodernism seems to suggest that reality is much more subjective than people tend to acknowledge. With postmodernism, reality is understood more as an interpretation than...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Before I help you talk about Atonement’s postmodern and metafiction credentials, I think we should try to establish a definition for postmodernism and metafiction.

Postmodernism seems to suggest that reality is much more subjective than people tend to acknowledge. With postmodernism, reality is understood more as an interpretation than as an objective truth.

It shouldn’t be too hard to link the above definition of postmodernism to Atonement. The plot of Atonement is built on an interpretation of reality. If it wasn’t for Briony’s interpretation of what happened to Lola, Robbie would have never been jailed. There would be no story—or perhaps there’d be a different story—to tell.

Briony reinforces the postmodern tenet that reality is vulnerable to manipulation and distortion. With postmodernism, you might say that what matters most is what people said happened, not what might have actually happened. What’s crucial is that Briony said Robbie committed sexual assault, not that he actually committed sexual assault.

The fragility of reality links to Briony’s ideas about people. Briony learns “that a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended.” In this context, you could claim that both reality and people are constructs. Their existence depends on other people and how other people do and don’t represent them. That fragmented, personalized point of view has a lot in common with postmodernism.

As for metafiction, as other Educators have already noted, metafiction tends to explicitly draw attention to its own medium and processes. Atonement is a novel by Ian McEwan; yet, it’s also a novel by Briony Tallis. By having the character engage in writing, McEwan can directly address issues linked to writing, fiction, and so on.

You might reason that the metafictional and postmodern elements of the novel work together. Writing could be considered a way to create and foster your own interpretation of reality. It’s a way to see the world. As the narrator says about Briony,

the world she ran through loved her and would give her what she wanted and would let it happen. And then, when it did, she would describe it.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As hannahschychuk points out, the entirety of Atonement is Briony's atonement--though the novel is by Ian McEwan, the internal world of the novel belongs to Briony. The story is told through her perspective to exonerate Robbie, who she accused of raping Lola. By the end of the story, dated 1999, we realize that what we've been reading is a text 64 years in the making, not just an abstract piece of fiction.

What makes this metafiction, and therefore postmodern, is that the novel acknowledges that it is a written text. By acknowledging that it's a written work, Atonement is able to ask different questions and inspire different responses than if it were simply the straightforward story of Briony or Robbie or Cecilia. Instead, it is that story, but it's also showing Briony's development, her change of heart, and her attempt to atone for ruining a young man's life. Because we read this from her perspective, we have a different view on the events than if we read solely from Robbie's point of view, or even a third-person narrator. Though McEwan is the author, acknowledging that it is a written work within the text gives us an extra element to consider in our interpretations, namely, the relationship between fact and fiction and how Briony's truth has evolved and shifted.

This comes up frequently in the novel, in quotes like the following:

“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.”

“Was everyone else really as alive as she was?...If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone's thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone's claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was.”

“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. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.”

All of these quotes explore the relationship between a writer and the world, and, more specifically, between the writer and her work. Over the course of writing her atonement in the form of this novel, Briony also comes to see that this is a story she has manufactured from the beginning--the narrative of Robbie assaulting Lola--and that her viewing others as nothing more than empty characters waiting for her to complete them has been hurtful. In the final quote, she comes to the conclusion that nobody can forgive her--what she's done, what she's written, is finished. All she can do is manage the consequences.

Postmodernism as a genre and method of thinking critiques the common concepts of art; in the case of Atonement, it questions reality, narrative, writing, truth, and innocence. All of these things are inherent because of the metafiction, which centers it firmly as a postmodern narrative and allows it to interrogate these concepts through the fictional novel, the "true" story within, and the various ways that Briony has shaped and twisted the truth to suit her version of the events.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

If metafiction is writing "that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction," the best example of this is the fact that story of Atonement is being written (as atonement) by Briony Tallis.  Thus, making the work a "story about a story."

Also, anything in the text relating to Briony's writing and performance of her play is necessarily "meta."  I would suggest looking there for specific passages which strike you or to her explanation at the conclusion of the novel.

If you can't find anything, this passage has many meta elements to it, "Periodically, something slipped. Some everyday principle of continuity, the humdrum element that told him where he was in his own story." (p. 232)

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team