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In many ways, Briony changes just like any other girl. Her maturation into a woman resembles that of most females. Of course, in the context of Atonement, Briony changes in a very specific way; however, if you have not finished the novel yet, I'd hate to ruin it for you. Generally speaking, though, I would say Briony's biggest change lies in her shift from selfishness to selflessness. As a child, Briony refuses to come forth with the truth because of her embarrassment and her confusion about the situation. This refusal results in the complete disintegration of Robbie's reputation, and causes heartache for both him and her sister, Cecilia. As a young woman, Briony finally understands the pain she caused and seeks to right her wrong. However, dedicate a critical eye to the ending of the novel. Do you think Briony truly acts selflessly in the end, and does she attain atonement?
Initially Briony is a precocious 13-year-old with aspirations of becoming a writer. She is the baby of the family, but her imagination is anything but babyish. Although her stories are somewhat awkwardly written, they illustrate a girl who is already aware of the disorder inherent in the real world and who finds satisfaction in bringing order to the fictional world she creates. This will have a tremendous effect on her life and that of the people closest to her.
And now a very tricky point: upon first reading, Atonement seems to have an omniscient third person narrator. We believe that we can trust this narrator to be telling us the full truth about the story and the characters that inhabit it. However, once we reach the final section of the book, we learn otherwise. Once we learn that older Briony was the narrator all along we view the story differently. Certainly, we give more value to comments such as, “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.” When we are given such a peek inside young Briony’s thoughts we see that she is a young girl trying to better grasp what it means to not be Briony.
As a young girl she struggles a bit with this. At one point she expresses frustration with how her first attempts at drama have illustrated the inevitable need to “make use” of others. This young Briony is a far call from older Briony. As our narrator, her saying, “In Leon's life, or rather, in his account of his life, no one was mean-spirited..." is important. That “or rather, in his account of his life” illustrates that Briony has come to accept, with old age and experience, that each human being is their own narrator, perceiving life and all it brings in their own fashion.
If younger Briony had known that fact, she never would have presumed to know what transpired between Robbie and Cecilia, nor would she have jumped to conclusions which led Robbie to be accused of being Lola’s molester. Older Briony is attempting to atone for this serious “crime” as she calls it, by writing the novel we read, by empathising with other characters. It all harks back to young Briony asking herself, “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 ..."
As most of us, Briony grows up and matures. It is most unfortunate, even tragic, that before she matures she sets in motion a chain of events that negatively impact her family. Ultimately, she at least tries to redeem herself through writing “Atonement”. Whether she is successful at this remains up to personal opinion – I have never encountered a book that divides my students quite as much as this one. However, Briony Tallis’ growth is, in my opinion at least, undeniable.
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