Atonement Summary

Atonement is a novel by Ian McEwan in which Briony Tallis mistakenly accuses Robbie Turner of raping her cousin, Lola, effectively ruining Robbie's life.

  • Briony has a crush on Robbie, but Robbie is interested in her older sister Cecilia.

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

  • Briony accuses Robbie of rape. He's sent to prison, then fights in the war.
  • Years later, Briony realizes her mistake and tells Cecilia that Robbie was innocent.
  • Briony writes Atonement as part of her repentance.

Introduction

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 357

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.

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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.

Extended Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1110

Part I

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.

Part II

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 British troops have been defeated and are retreating.

Robbie is with two fellow soldiers, Nettle and Mace, who have recently survived a bomb attack. Robbie has led the two corporals away from the main roads to avoid becoming easy targets for the German planes. Masses of English troops are making their way to the English Channel where boats are supposed to take them back home.

McEwan uses the soldiers' long journey out of France to give an up-close view of World War II and all its abuses and casualties. Body parts litter the landscape. Wounded citizens and soldiers sit along the roadside begging for assistance.

By the time Robbie reaches the beach, he is in a semi-conscious state due to a fever caused by a wound. The two soldiers that Robbie safely led through the war zone are now focused on saving their friend. This section closes with the hope that a British boat is coming the next day.

Part III

Four years have passed since that summer night when Robbie was arrested. Briony is a student nurse. The hospital where Briony is working has typical types of city patients. But one day, lines of army ambulances arrive, and terribly wounded soldiers are brought in. Briony suddenly must come to terms with the war. She attends to young boys with parts of their heads blown off. She smells the stench gangrenous wounds. She feeds soldiers who no longer have mouths.

Briony hears that her cousin Lola and Paul Marshall are to be married. This shocks Briony, who sneaks into the back of the church to watch the ceremony. She wants to make sure that both Paul and Lola see her there. She does not speak to them. She just wants them to know that she knows their secret and will never forget it.  Seeing the wounded soldiers and Lola and Paul’s wedding ceremony brings Briony's guilt for the pain she has caused her sister and Robbie to the forefront of her thoughts. She is determined to meet with Cecilia, who up to this point has not wanted anything to do with Briony.

She arrives at Cecilia’s apartment and is surprised to find Robbie there. Robbie tells Briony that if she wants to help them she is to write letters to her family explaining Robbie's innocence. She is also to go to court to see if she can clear Robbie's name. That is all he and Cecilia want to do with her.

London, 1999

McEwan ends Part III with a sort of signature that reads: “BT, London, 1999.”  Then he begins the next section of the novel with the heading, “London, 1999. “BT” in the signature stands for Briony Tallis. Readers learn in this last portion that what has been written prior to this last section is a novel that Briony has written. Supposedly, this very last section is outside the boundaries of the novel.

Briony has been diagnosed with a disease that will eventually strip her of all memory and kill her. She is an old woman now and is on her way to a family birthday celebration in the manor in Sussex. The house has been converted into a hotel.

Before she leaves London, Briony puts all her affairs in order, including the completion of her novel. Her publishers have said that she cannot publish it until Lola and Paul Marshall have died, due to the possibility of lawsuits. Fearing she might die before the Marshalls, Briony has left instructions with her publisher on how to deal with her manuscript.

As Briony sits with her family and watches her great-grandchildren put on the play that she wrote when she was thirteen, she has an inner monologue with her readers. By the end of McEwan’s novel, it is not clear if the story prior to this last section is a statement of fact, a fictionalized version of fact, or a complete fabrication. Since Briony is concerned about a lawsuit, readers might conclude that the story was based on fact. But Briony's inner dialogue clouds this issue, leaving the real author, McEwan, playing with his readers with this twist.

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