Atonement by Ian McEwans Notes [Page is Under Contruction]

About The Trials of Arabella

Atonement is divided into three discrete parts and an epilogue, a structure that reflects movements in time and space and concentration on different characters.

There is some symmetry to the patternL we begin with all the characters together at the Tallis house, with attention focused on Briony. In Parts Two and Three, the narrative divides so that we concentrate on Robbie in France and Briony in London, with Cecilia as a background presence in both. Finally, the stories come together again to end back in the family house, with Briony at the centre and the remaining surviving characters around her.

The division of the main text into three parts allows McEwan to concentrate on key moments in time and place without the need to fill gaps or account for passing time.

Part One is different from Parts Two and Three. It is divided into numbered chapters, whereas the other parts offer continuous narratives with only slight pauses to indicate change of scene or passing time. It is related from different points of view, whereas Part Two is told almost entirely from Robbie’s point of view and Part Three and ‘London, 1999’ almost entirely from Briony’s point of view.

Chapter Six and Twelve are written from Emily Tallis’s point of view.

The multiple voices throughout Part One five this part is elusive, hazy quality. It is difficult to pin anything down — everyone sees differently, and for the greater part nothing much is happening anyway. We see everything as though through a heat haze — shimmering, with indistinct edges, just like Emily Tallis looking through ‘the worn fabric of the visible world.’

The actual incidents are not seen head-on at all, but glimpsed or recalled later. We do not see the attack on Lola, only the after-math in the dark, which Briony at first wonders if it is ‘some trick of darkness or perspective.’

The other important episode, the love-making in the library we also see at its end, again in dim light, and then in Robbie’s flashback.

The change to a single voice in Part Two and Three and ‘London, 1999’ gives these parts a more clearly defined focus. There is more action, and it is right before the reader’s eyes – brutally so, in many places. We see events taking place as Robbie sees them in France, not obscured by darkness or filtered through interpretations. The leg in the tree comes as a shock.

‘London, 1999’ includes and admission that some of the novel is ‘untrue.’ This changes the structure so that technically the end of Robbie and Cecilia’s story is really between parts of the novel and between England and France. The messy, frustrating lack of resoltuion is the very thing Brony tried to avodi in her childhood stories. Once again, she has used fiction to impose an order and righteousness to events that they don not really have.

In Part One we can see inside the mind of a number of the main characters whic helps to set the scene.
Placing the action in northern France in Part Two enables McEwan to switch to Robbie as narrator. This foregreounds Robbie’s importance as a character, and allows the reader to understand more fully the devastating effect of his separation from Cecicilia as a result of his imprisonment.
Part Three enables the reader to see the war from Briony’s point of view and to understand the fundemental effect her false accusation has had on her life and the atonement she is trying to make for it.
‘London, 1999’ allows McEwan to jump in time to the ‘present’ and to reveal the true narrator of the novel.



The young Brionu’s point of view is expressed in language that reflects her literary aspirations and her keenness to add to ther vocabulary. Her cousins are from the “distant north,” a phrase that recalls the langauge of children’s stories; and divorce is the ‘dastardly antithesis’ of order, two words that she has clearly taken from a dictionary or thesaurus rather than come across in context. Briony enjoys words but McEwan occasionally provides a humourous note when she uses such ‘flower’ language, for example, marriage is ‘nuptials’ and the cousins’ vivid hair colour is ‘virtually flourescent!

In relating events Briony casts them into a story with literary self-consciousness, imbuing actions with weighty significance: ‘Robbie imperiously raised his hand now, as though issuing a command.’


Does Briony grant herself Atonement?
Briony refuses to allow herself to imagine that Robbie and Cecilia can ‘forgive’ her.

Briony believed that Robbie has forced Cecilia to jump into the water.

The Role of Literature in Atonement?

The young Briony writes in a sensual and evocative style that could be described as stream of consciousness

Who’s the Antagonist?

Paul Marshall, WWII

Puaul is described as almost handsome but his chin too large and his features crowded towards the top of his face.

What does the Vase symbolise?
The Meisen vase in Atonement is symbolic of wealth, history and social class and of Tallis family history.

“How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?”

Briony has failed to achieve Atonement even from her fictional characters because like a God she admits she is able to tell this story in any way she chooses. This means that there is no atonement for God or Novelists.

Who are Nettle and Mace?

  • They are two British soldiers who walk with Robbie to Dunkirk.
  • They look after Robbie as he succumbs to blood poisoning and delirium.
  • In the epilogue, Briony has letters from Nettle, who has helped her to piece together the journey to Dunkirk.
  • In the epilogue, Briony has letters from Nettle, who has helped her to piece together the journey to Dunkirk.
  • After a Stuka attack they all stop to help the wounded.
  • Nettle and Mace are Corporal’s so higher in the hierarchy than Robbie who’s a private.

What is Briony’s Act of Atonement?

Briony’s writing of the novel again and again is her act of Atonement for her crime.

Quote Bank(1 to 8 words per quote, 50 quotes in all):

  1. “She had no doubt” – Briony she claims she had no doubt that it was Robbie
  2. “It had to be witnessed.” – Briony on her mother’s funeral.
  3. “I can. And I Will.”  Briony.
  4. “the dark disc of Lola’s face showed nothing at all.” – How little Briony could see.
  5. “knew” – Briony did not really see Robbie but ‘knew’ it was him.
  6. “The truth instructed her eyes’ – Briony.
  7. “bride-to-be” who has doubts before a wedding is what Briony compares herself to during the investigation, prefiguring Lola’s wedding to Paul. Did Lola have doubts?
  8. “I know it was him”, to which the policeman gives her a way out “Let’s forget what you know”
  9. bite it”, he said softly – Paul Marshall to Lola to do with his Chocolate
  10. “vanished boy” – the boy who’s leg was dangling from a tree, his own lost youth
  11. “prison made him despise himself”
  12. his military training feels “rich in variety” in comparison to life in prison
  13. “walking across the land until he came to the seas” – Robbie’s focus
  14. “chaotic retreat” – Dunkirk
  15. “I’ll wait for you. Come back.” – Cecilia
  16. “She was really an important writer in disguise”
  17. “an underlying pull of a simple narrative” – What Cyril Connoly wishes there was more of in the narrative
  18. “great hoard” of time, his “unspent fortune” – what Robbie imagines he has walking to the house for dinner
  19. “marry her rapist” – Briony on Lola’s Marriage to Paul Marshall
  20. “post of beloved younger sister” what Briony lost through her lie
  21. “as lean and fit as a racing dog” Lola in her old age
  22. “unpleasantly excited” – How Robbie felt when felt drawn towards the spectacle of the RAF man’s beating.
  23. “the… memories that consumed him every night” – Robbie’s recollection of his love-making with Cecilia in the library.
  24. Robbie knows “he would never forgive her [Briony]”
  25. When Cecilia opens the obscene letter from Robbie, She ‘adopt[s] an “expression of amused curiosity.”
  26. Cecilia her letter to Robbie “he is my reason for life”
  27. “I won’t ever forgive you” – Cecilia to Briony
  28.  Paul delivers a “ten-minute monologue (pg49)” showing how impolite and overbearing he was.
  29. Paul is described as “conventionally dull”
  30. Cecilia wonders what it would be like to marry someone “so nearly handsome, so hugely rich, so unfathomably stupid.”
  31. “the mausoleum of their marriage” – Lola’s and Paul’s marriage seal the possibility of the truth being fully revealed and accepted.
  32. Emily “pursued his[Robbie’s] prosecution with a strange ferocity.”
  33. Emily “actually grew as her older daughter shrank into private misery.
  34. “talking like a toff” – How Nettle and Mace tease Robbie.
  35. “You saw him with your own eyes.” – Police officer gives a way out to “Yes, I saw him. I saw him.”
  36. “Not Everyone would be dead” – Robbie
  37. “the Army Amo” – looks repellent when we see the the suffering that has formed the foundation of his wealth
  38. “To love her [is] to be soothed” – Emily’s love towards Briony is selfish
  39. “grinning, spineless, idiot.” – Cecilia admires Leon at the start but realises that he’s a grinning, spineless, idiot
  40. “defaced with the scribble of other minds” – Briony complaints that in performance her play has been “defaced” by “other minds”
  41. “Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony.” – Immediately before the scene she sees at the fountain.
  42. Robbie raised his hand “imperiously” at Cecilia in Briony’s eyes at the fountain. Briony falsely believes that Robbie orders Cecilia to jump into the fountain.
  43. “What did the poets know about survival” – Robbie things there is no point in Literature in despair
  44. Leon’s (calmness) ‘equanimity was bottomless’
  45. “a story was a form of telepathy”
  46. As an a nurse, the adult Briony continues to write, beliveing it is ‘the only place she could be free.”
  47. “There was crime. But there were also lovers.”
  48. The novel ends with Briony imagining Robbie and Cecilia “still alive, still in love” which implies love is the most important theme
  49. Briony suggests she is acting in “kindness” by giving the lovers “happiness” even if it’s in her imagination
  50. Briony describes herself as a child as “that busy, priggish, conceited little girl.”
  51. “I’m very story” Briony to Robbie and Cecilia
  52. “childlike desire to be told a story” – Cyril Connoly’s advice to Briony
  53. “The maniac” what Briony has already labelled Robbie as, “a medical diagnosis” that furhter confirms her narrative
  54. “There is no one… she can appeal to.” since Robbie and Cecilia are dead.
  55. “simply… to survive” Robbie’s intention in France
  56. “five million casualties” Jack Tallis works for a ministry in London and calculates the potential deaths from the war
  57. Land Lady calls Cecilia ‘Lady Muck’ (p. 334), showing Cecilia is now ‘in-between’ class lifestyles.
  58. ‘enduring patronage’ (p. 88) given to him by Jack Tallis,
  59. ‘The truth instructed her eyes’,
  60. ‘I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me.’
  61. at the start of the novel – ‘he was happy and therefore bound to succeed’
  62. ‘work for her independence’ (p. 278). What Briony is doing.
  63. ‘how easy it was to get everything wrong, completely wrong’ – Briony Pg 39