Atonement: Appearance and reality, morality and the law

Atonement is a brilliant novel. Ian McEwan performs literary magic playing with appearance and reality. But he also probes character and morality and ends with an expose of how the law can hinder justice.

Even when Briony Trallis realises who the perpetrator is of the crime she witnessed as a girl, she cannot expose him for fear of legal action. He is rich and powerful, quick to sue anyone who casts a slur on him.

Though a successful author, Briony knows her book about him will not be published in her lifetime.

Even if he dies, she could still be sued by his wife. For she was the girl he raped and yet she let an innocent man go to prison, falsely implicated for the crime. A crime for which Briony must share the blame, for it was she mistook who the culprit was and gave the evidence that sent an innocent man to prison.

Young Robbie Turner cannot convince the authorities he is innocent. Though an Oxford graduate, he is still the housekeeper’s son while Briony, only 13, is his mother’s rich, influential employer’s daughter. Her evidence counts more than his, but she in turn is powerless against someone richer and more influential than her.

I know this is not how one reads the novel, which is far more rich and complex to be read as a tract on class war. But the tensions and inequities are there, plainly stated in the novel.

Atonement is that rare novel, mixing romance, appearance and reality and social commentary in a gripping story as murky as a political drama. There are the starcrossed lovers who helped the book become a Hollywwood blockbuster. But not having seen the movie, I consider the story to be essentially about Briony. And that is what makes it so complex, for she is no angel — far from it. We start by being amused and impressed by her precocity and literary aspirations only to be horrified by the damage she does when she imagines Robbie to be a sex maniac. Her power of imagination which makes her a budding writer also helps to send an innocent man to prison.

Appearance and reality

But she is not so much imagining things as misinterpreting what she sees. The author is playing with appearance and reality. Briony sees Robbie and her elder sister, Cecilia, in compromising situations — they are falling in love — her mistake is to see Robbie as the aggressor and her sister as the damsel in distress. She wants to protect her sister and when her cousin, Lola, is raped in the bushes by a shadowy figure who melts into the night, she jumps to the conclusion that it must be Robbie. Lola apparently cannot identify the man, Cecilia implores the police not to put too much faith on the words of a highly impressionable girl, but Briony sticks to her story, and Robbie goes to jail.

What follows is the atonement. Briony is no monster. When she realises her mistake, she tries to atone for it. But their lives have changed forever. Cecilia cuts herself off from her family. So does Briony. They both become nurses — but in separate hospitals, away from each other — attending to the victims of the Second World War. Robbie, when he is released from prison, becomes a soldier in the war. The novel becomes a wartime romance as Robbie finds his way back to Dunkirk desperate to stay alive so he can be reunited with Cecilia. Briony, meanwhile, between her nursing duties, completes a novella about the two lovers.

Will Robbie be reunited with Cecilia? Will they forgive Briony her crime? They eventually meet in wartime London, Robbie tells Cecilia how she can help him clear his name and then he has go back to his camp while she has return to the hospital.

But the encounter, described in Part III of Atonement, turns out to be fiction — a chapter in the novel Briony has written about the lovers, expanding on the novella she wrote in her youth.

The brief fourth and final part of Atonement finally ends the play with appearance and reality. Briony, now a successful novelist dying of vascular dementia, celebrates her 77th birthday with a party thrown in her honour by her relations. At last she gets to see The Trials of Arabella, the play she had  written as a 13-year-old before their lives were changed forever. Then she goes to bed but lies awake thinking about Cecilia and Robbie and the book she wrote about them which can only be published after her death. The story concludes with her thoughts:

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. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me. Not quite, not yet. If I had the power to conjure them at my birthday celebration… Robbie and Cecilia, still alive, still in love, sitting side by side in the library, smiling at the Trials of Arabella? It’s not impossible.

But now I must sleep. 

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