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Atonement

Atonement is a 2001 bildungsroman novel by Ian McEwan. It is a complex text that holds a story within a story. Atonement is a tale of love, loss, and separation, at times set against the backdrop of the Second World War. It was also made into a successful 2007 film starring Keira Knightly, James McAvoy, and Saoirse Ronan.

Below is a summary of Atonement and its main ideas. You will also find an analysis of the text and an exploration of some of the novel's key characters and quotes.

Content warning: the following explanation includes discussions of sexual assault.

Atonement: summary and main ideas

Atonement is a novel split into three parts. It is in the third person but it is later made clear that events are told from the viewpoint of Briony Tallis, one of the key characters in the novel. She is a young girl and a passionate writer.

The first section of Atonement begins in the Tallis family's large country home in the English countryside in 1935. The family consists of father Jack, who works a busy government job, mother Emily, and their three children, Leon, Cecilia, and Briony. Leon is the eldest and is coming back to the family home to visit his wealthy friend Paul Marshall. Cecilia is also returning after completing her degree at Cambridge University. She attended university with the son of the Tallis family's housekeeper, Robbie Turner.

At the same time, the family is being visited by their cousins, twins Jackson and Pierrot and their fifteen year old sister Lola. Their parents have recently gone through a divorce. Jack is often away at work and Emily is often incapacitated with a headache while these visitors are present.

In the midst of all this, romance is developing between Cecilia and Robbie. They are childhood friends and very close. Their flirtations are witnessed through the naive and misguided eyes of thirteen year old Briony. Through a window she sees Cecilia strip down to her underwear in front of Robbie and get into a fountain. Though the two are awkwardly flirting, Cecilia is, in reality, getting into the fountain to retrieve broken pieces of a vase. Briony sees it as a coercive situation in which her sister is in trouble. This perception is increased by a vulgar note that Robbie gives Briony to deliver to Cecilia. Briony is instructed not to read this but she disobeys. Later in the evening, Briony catches Cecilia and Robbie making love in the family library. It is consensual but she perceives it as an assault.

All those staying at the home have a dinner party that evening. Jackson and Pierrot run off and disappear. A search party is set up to find them. During the search, Briony witnesses Lola being sexually assaulted in the dark. She cannot properly see the assailant. The police are called but Lola will not say who attacked her. Because of her earlier misconceptions about him, Briony accuses Robbie of being the perpetrator. She provides evidence of what she previously witnessed between Robbie and Cecilia. Briony is believed and Robbie is arrested and sent to prison. Cecilia does not believe any of this and subsequently cuts off ties with her family. She is deeply in love with Robbie and promises to wait for him.

The second part of Atonement begins in 1940, during the Second World War. Robbie has been released from prison on the condition that he join the British war effort. Cecilia has become a nurse. The two are only able to meet briefly before Robbie is sent to France. Readers see Robbie in Dunkirk not long before the evacuation. Both he and the war effort are struggling. He is only sustained by thoughts of Cecilia and the letters she has been sending him. Robbie collapses on the beach, too weak to carry on.

Briony, older now, feels a deep guilt for what she has done to Cecilia and Robbie. She has now become a trainee nurse, rather than following her passion for writing. Briony visits her sister to find Robbie staying in her apartment while on leave from the army. Cecilia and Robbie clearly still love each other. Briony apologises and promises to legally rescind the testimony she gave that put Robbie behind bars. She also says she will tell her parents that she was wrong about Robbie. This will not change things but she feels it is the least she can do. She also tells Cecilia and Robbie that it is more likely that Paul Marshall was the one who assaulted Lola. However, Lola has recently married Paul so he will never be prosecuted. Cecilia and Robbie do not forgive Briony fully but there is a sense that relations between the sisters have improved.

The last section of Atonement is set in 1999. It is in the form of a diary entry by Briony. She is now seventy-seven years old and a famous novelist. However, she is also suffering from dementia. This diary entry reveals that Briony has been the author of the previous sections of the novels. It is her novel, also called Atonement. She has written it in an attempt to make up for the suffering she unintentionally inflicted on Cecilia and Robbie. It is also revealed that not all of what she wrote was true. The section in which Briony encounters Robbie in Cecilia's apartment, the two reunited, is fictional. In reality, Robbie died of his injuries in Dunkirk and Cecilia died during bombing in the Blitz. Briony believed the two deserved a happy ending after all they had suffered. Atonement is a fictional story contained inside another fictional story.

Atonement: main ideas

One of the main ideas of this novel is contained in its title: Atonement. Briony is young, misguided, and naive at the beginning of McEwan's novel. This leads to her misperception about what occurs between Cecilia and Robbie. She is not malicious in sending Robbie to prison as she truly believes she is protecting Cecilia and other women from Robbie. This is also impacted by how Briony sees gender. She sees men as capable of dominating women.

The novel is called Atonement because Briony spends the rest of her life trying to atone for what she has done. She becomes a nurse instead of going to Cambridge as a way of giving back. She also constructs an entire story that gives Cecilia and Robbie the happy ending that she has robbed them of in real life. In this story, Briony apologises and makes things right in a way she was never able to in real life. It is clear that Briony's mistake has plagued her for her entire life as she still writes of it in her diaries at seventy-seven years old while suffering from dementia.

Atonement: analysis

Let's look at the novel in more depth. This will help uncover its meanings.

Atonement: themes

Let's take a look at some of the themes present in McEwan's Atonement.

Perspective

Perspective is key in Atonement, largely because it is so complex in this novel. Briony sees what unfolds between Cecilia and Robbie through the perspective of a young child that does not understand matters of sexuality. All she can do is assume from what she already knows. She ends up being wrong, which has dramatic consequences. Cecilia and Robbie have a very different perspective of the events in question. This is because they experienced them firsthand.

Throughout Atonement, Briony matures and reevaluates her perspective on events with the new information she has as an adult. This means that the novel is a bildungsroman as we see Briony gradually grow up. She totally changes her perspective about what has happened and spends the rest of her life trying to atone for her mistake.

A bildungsroman is a literary genre. Bildungsromans follow a typically young character as they grow up and mature. This maturing is usually aided by struggles and challenges. Other well-known bildungsromans include James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Jane Austen's Emma (1815).

Perspective is also very important in Atonement because it is revealed at the end of the story that the perspective readers have gained throughout the novel was wrong. Briony has created this story to make up for what she did as a child. This means that everything we have read has been through Briony's eyes. She has used outside sources to discover how others experienced the events that unfolded but it is solely her perspective. The first section that was seen partly through Cecilia's eyes and in her voice was really a part of Briony's novel. It is notable that Cecilia does not narrate again after this.

On top of this, the reunion between Cecilia and Robbie is revealed to be fictional. As readers we must now reevaluate things with our new perspective of the story. For example, on a first reading, the section in which Robbie is in Dunkirk during the war seems to be from his perspective. But it is actually a fictionalised version that is given from Briony's perspective. It is her novel and Robbie never really returned from the war to tell her his experiences.

Class

Class is another key theme in Atonement. Cecilia and Robbie's relationship is halted because of the accusations against Robbie that send him to prison. But it is likely that their relationship would have struggled even if this had not happened. Cecilia is from an upper class family and Robbie is the son of the Tallis family's housekeeper. Although Robbie is quite welcome in the family, there is still a class difference. Jack Tallis has also paid for Robbie's university education. This leaves Robbie in the position of owing something to the Tallis family because of their money and his lack of it.

It is also important that almost everyone, with the exception of Cecilia and Robbie's mother, immediately believe that Robbie is guilty. Robbie is from a lower class which is more traditionally associated with criminality. Jack and Emily's class prejudices are noted in the novel. Paul Marshall, on the other hand, is the real perpetrator of the assault upon Lola. His wealth and status mean he is not even a suspect. He is able to eventually marry his victim, meaning he will forever avoid the consequences for his crime.

From your reading of Atonement, can you think of any more examples of when class is important in the text?

Atonement: characters

Let's take a look at some of the key characters in Atonement.

CharacterExplanationTraits
Briony TallisThe novel's central character. The youngest Tallis sibling. Atonement is told from her perspective as Briony becomes a famous novelist. She is thirteen when the novel begins and seventy seven in the story's closing section. The mistake she makes as a child in accusing Robbie of rape, which plagues Briony for the rest of her life. She spends it trying to atone for it. Despite her writing talents, Briony becomes a nurse during the Second World War. She becomes a writer later in life. Briony matures throughout the novel.
  • In the beginning of Atonement: Naive. Misguided, Innocent.
  • Later in Atonement: Regretful. Guilty. Optimistic.
Cecilia TallisBriony's older sister and the middle child in the Tallis family. She has completed a degree in English at Cambridge and is disappointed with her final grade. Cecilia is in love with Robbie Turner. They engage in an awkward but passionate courtship. Cecilia begins to discover who she is through this relationship. This is until Robbie is falsely accused of rape by Briony. Cecilia is fiercely loyal to Robbie and cuts ties with her family after Robbie's arrest. She works as a nurse during the Second World War and is killed during the Blitz. Any growth Cecilia may have had is stunted by the loss of Robbie and then of her own life. However, Briony allows her a happy ending in her fictionalised version of events.Loyal. Passionate. Independent.
Robbie TurnerRobbie is the son of Grace, the Tallis family's housekeeper. He is from a lower class background but attended Cambridge because Jack Tallis paid for it. Robbie is shown as fiercely intelligent. He achieves very high grades at university. He is also sharp and able throughout Atonement. This helps him when he is away in France too. Robbie is deeply in love with Cecilia. He is much more aware of it than she is initially. Robbie's class contributes to the fact that many of those around him believe he has raped Lola. Robbie is passionate and remains loyal to Cecilia until he loses his life in the war.Intelligent. Confident. Passionate.
Paul MarshallPaul is a close friend of the Tallis's eldest son, Leon. He is a wealthy businessman who owns a company that sells chocolate. He is portrayed as immature and self-centered. Paul is also cruel. He rapes Lola, a fifteen year old child. He then allows Robbie to take the blame for it. Paul is protected by his class. He is not considered a suspect because he is a rich upper class man. He then goes on to marry Lola. Paul faces no consequences for his actions.Cruel. Selfish. Manipulative.
Jack TallisJack is the patriarch of the Tallis family. He has a well paying government job and is from an upper class background. He is also very frequently absent from his wife and children. It is insinuated that Jack is having an affair. His money gives him power, like the ability to send Robbie to university. Cecilia also remarks on how judgemental her parents are on the issue of Robbie's class.Wealthy. Powerful. Detached.

Atonement by Ian McEwan: quotes

We will now look at some quotes from Atonement and their significance.

QuoteChapter/PartSignificance

'Now there was nothing left of the dumb show by the fountain beyond what survived in memory, in three separate and overlapping memories. The truth had become as ghostly as invention.'

Chapter 1

This is Briony's youthful realisation about perspective. Even as a child, she recognises that everyone has a different perspective on issues. However, because she is a child, Briony does not realise the full implications of this yet. She does not know how her version of the truth will impact Robbie and Cecilia's lives.

'He used to revel in his freedom to make his own life, devise his own story.'

Part 2

This quote is about Robbie. This shows the freedom and independence he has lost because of his imprisonment. Briony's privileged perspective has robbed him of much of his agency.

'"I'm not going to go away," she wrote in her first letter after Liverpool. "I'll wait for you. Come back." She was quoting herself.'

Chapter 2

Cecilia's loyalty to Robbie is obvious. When he is taken away by the police, she promises she will wait for him. Cecilia then repeats this promise again and again in all her letters to Robbie.

'[Briony] knew what was required of her. Not simply a letter, but a new draft, an atonement, and she was ready to begin.'

Part 3

Briony has matured enough to realise her grave mistake. This cements Atonement as a bildungsroman. She now wants to atone for the suffering she has inflicted on Cecilia and Robbie. Her novel will play a major part in this.

'I like to think that it isn't weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end.'

Part 3

This is Briony's validation for the fictional ending she gives Cecilia and Robbie. It is also part of her atonement. Briony has been plagued by guilt for the mistake she made. And so she sees it as kind to give them a happy ending in the only way she is able to.

Atonement - Key takeaways

  • Atonement is a 2001 bildungsroman novel by Ian McEwan.
  • It is told from the perspective of Briony, a young girl that we see grow up. She mistakes an interaction she sees between her sister Cecilia and Cecilia's lover Robbie for an assault. This changes the couple's lives forever.
  • It is revealed that Atonement is really a novel within a novel, written by a much older Briony.
  • Two key themes in Atonement are perspective and class.
  • A key idea in Atonement is found in the title. Briony spends her life trying to atone for the mistake she made as a child.

Frequently Asked Questions about Atonement

In Atonement, it was Paul Marshall who assaulted Lola, not Robbie. The novel also turns out to be a fictionalised version of events, told by a much older Briony.

No, Atonement is fully fictional.

Atonement is told through the eyes of Briony Tallis. It tells the story of Briony's false accusation of rape against her sister Cecilia's lover, Robbie. The couple are separated and Briony spends her life trying to atone for her mistake.

It is set in three time periods: 1935, during the Second World War, and 1999.

The purpose of Atonement is to show the importance of perspective. Every person has their own perspective and way of seeing the world. In some cases, this can be incorrect, like in Briony's perception of what happened between Cecilia and Robbie.

Final Atonement Quiz

Question

When was Atonement published?

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Answer

2001

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What literary genre does Atonement fit under?

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Answer

Bildungsroman

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Question

What are two key themes in Atonement?

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Answer

Perspective and class

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Question

Why is Robbie assumed guilty of the assault and Paul Marshall is not even considered a suspect?

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Answer

Because Robbie is of a lower class and Paul is a wealthy upper class man.

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Question

Which part of Atonement is revealed to have been fictionalised by Briony?

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Answer

The reunion and happy ending of Cecilia and Robbie

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Question

Why is the title of Atonement so relevant?

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Answer

Because Briony spends her life trying to atone for her mistake in accusing Robbie of assault

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Question

What are three traits that could be used to describe Cecilia Tallis?

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Answer

Loyal, passionate, and independent.

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What must readers reevaluate after discovering that Briony is the author of Atonement?

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Answer

They must reevaluate the events that have taken place as they were all really from Briony's perspective.

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What really happened to Cecilia and Robbie?

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Answer

They both lost their lives in the war. Robbie in France and Cecilia in the Blitz in London.

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Question

Which character faces no consequences for his cruel actions?

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Answer

Paul Marshall

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