What happens in Atonement?

In Atonement, Briony Tallis mistakenly accuses Robbie Turner of raping her cousin, Lola. She also witnesses an encounter between Robbie and her sister, Cecilia. Years later, she realizes that Robbie was in fact innocent, but by then it's too late.

  • Briony has a crush on Robbie, who falls for her older sister Cecilia after a scene in which Cecilia strips down to her underwear to retrieve the pieces of a broken vase.

  • During a dinner party, Briony witnesses Robbie and Cecilia having sex in the library. She later see her cousin Lola having sex with an unknown man and assumes it's Robbie.

  • Briony accuses Robbie of rape. He's sent to prison, then fights in the war. Later, she tells Cecilia that she was wrong and Robbie was innocent. She writes this novel as part of her atonement.

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Introduction

Known for telling stories about problematic teens and dysfunctional family relationships, Ian McEwan does not stray too far from his roots in Atonement. The first half of the novel focuses on one day in a seemingly idyllic setting, when suddenly everything goes wrong. At the core of the whirlwind circumstances that change the lives of the people around her is a thirteen-year-old girl with a significant imagination and maybe just a touch of cruelty in her eyes.

When she was ten, Briony Tallis confessed her pre-teen infatuation for Robbie Turner, the twenty-year-old son of the Tallis family's housekeeper. Three years later, when the novel opens, Briony witnesses Robbie and Briony's older sister, Cecilia, flirting with one another. Briony, through interior monologue, does not understand what is going on between Robbie and Cecilia. She is disturbed when she reads a note Robbie has sent to Cecilia that has obvious sexual overtones. When she catches Robbie and Cecilia in a dark corner of the family's library in the throes of passionate sex, Briony fears for her sister's life. Or at least, that is what she tells the reader. That might even be what she tells herself. However, this does not fully explain what she does next.

At the end of celebratory dinner, which includes Briony's family, three visiting cousins, and a wealthy friend, Briony's nine-year-old twin cousins excuse themselves from the table, leaving behind a note that states they are running away. In the dark of a hot summer night, the family goes out onto the grounds of the family estate and search for the missing boys. While all the other family members are calling out the boys' names, Briony is by herself, scheming.

Briony happens upon her sixteen-year-old cousin Lola, who is crying. As Briony approaches, a male figure recedes into further darkness. Lola has been raped. Briony, still under the influence of her fear and disappointment, identifies the rapist as Robbie. And so the disintegration of the family begins. Robbie is sentenced to jail. Cecilia cuts ties with her family. Lola and her rapist hide behind the lie. And Briony is left to atone for her sin.

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 2,932 words.)