What does the "pig lady" symbolize in Atonement by Ian McEwan?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Part Two of Atonement, by Ian McEwan, is told from the perspective of Robbie Turner, a soldier during World War II. It is 1940, and the British soldiers are retreating after a defeat; they are making their way across France, dodging persistent attacks from German fighter planes. 

In the beginning, "before the sight of a corpse became a banality," Robbie travels uneasily with two other men, both of whom outrank him. He is wounded, though he does not tell the others, and this wound is the cause of some delirium. On their journey, the trio sees many grotesque and horrific things, including civilian casualties of war. Turner is often delirious and reveals things about his unusual past; the other two men are never quite sure if what he is saying is true.

They finally arrive at Dunkirk, on the English Channel, but they are forced to wait, as there are more than twenty thousand other soldiers waiting for the same thing. The three men are in a back alley and ask an old woman for some water. She is suspicious and insists that they must first catch her pig. Though the other two are reluctant, Turner (in his delirium) somehow believes that she has a kind of control over his fate, and he does as she asks. After he traps and returns the pig to her, the woman gives the men food and drink. His colleagues find his behavior odd, but since it ends well their suspicions are allayed.

This is a rather insignificant incident in the scope of this complicated novel; however, there is a significance to this episode. Because this entire section is told from Turner's perspective, the reader is not certain whether he is suffering from delirium or not. Neither are his companions. Their reaction to Turner's rather odd behavior reminds us that we cannot take everything Turner says in his narrative as complete or accurate truth--a consistent theme in this novel.