“Atonement” is a novel written by the British author Ian McEwan and published in 2001. The book was an immediate success and was made Time magazines list of the 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923. In 2007, the book was made into a critically acclaimed film of the same name that was nominated for both the Academy Awards and the British BAFTA awards.
The novel’s main theme are the idea of personal atonement and owning up to one’s past mistakes. It is set in the English countryside during the mid-1930’s and revolves around a false accusation of rape placed against a man named Robbie Turner by a young girl named Briony Tallis. Briony sees Robbie, a family friend, in a passionate embrace with her older sister and assumes that he is attacking her. Later, when a cousin of the family is raped, Briony tells the police that it was Robbie who committed the assault and he is arrested on her word alone. Briony’s sister, Cecilia, who is in love with Robbie, defends him and later breaks away from her family in anger over their siding with Briony.
Robbie is imprisoned for 3 years, after which he agrees to be conscripted into the war so that he can get the rest of his sentence thrown away. Briony, meanwhile, becomes a nurse in London and loses touch with her sister, who has never forgiven her for accusing Robbie. Briony has realized too late that Robbie was not guilty of the rape and now feels that there is nothing she can do to correct this and she must atone for her sins the hard way.
At the end of the novel, we flash forward to the 1990’s, when Briony is an old woman. She has become a successful author and reveals that Cecilia and Robbie both died in the war without her ever being able to apologize to them. She intends to write the true story of what happened on that fateful night in 1935 in a book and publish it as her form of atonement.
Briony Tallis is an intelligent, creative thirteen-year-old girl living in 1930’s wartime England. In the beginning of the novel, she is preparing a play that she has written for a performance in front of her older brother, Leon who is returning for the weekend from London to spend time with his family.
Briony’s cousins Pierrot, Lola and Jackson are also visiting from the north. The moment her cousins arrive, Briony begins to assign them roles in her play and direct them in how to perform. The play is entitled “The trials of Arabella”. Upon reading it, Briony’s mother, Emily announces that she likes it while Cecilia, Briony’s adult sister condescendingly agrees.
Lola, the eldest cousin (who is two years older than Briony) , challenges Briony for the lead part of Arabella. Briony finally relents and lets her have it. Lola continues to mock the lines in the play as they rehearse and this angers Briony.
The next chapter gives us a back story on Briony’s sister, Cecilia. Cecilia has recently graduated from university and returned home. She is at a loss for what to do with her life next. Cecilia has been friends with the Tallis’ maids son, Robbie since they were children. The two even attended university together, however because of their separation in social class they ran in different circles. Cecilia worries that this has created a divide between them.
Leon is bringing a friend home with him, a man named Paul Marshall whom Cecilia dotes on though she has never actually met him. In an effort to make an impression on him she spends a large amount of time arranging a vase of flowers for his room. Cecilia goes outside to fetch water for the vase from the fountain. Robbie sees her and insists on helping. Cecilia protests and the two of them struggle with the vase, accidentally dropping it in the fountain and breaking it. Cecilia takes her clothes off so that she can dive into the fountain to retrieve the pieces of the vase.
Inside the house, Briony catches sight of her sister and Robbie fighting as she gazes out a window. Briony is confused by the scene in front of her and even more befuddled when her sister disrobes and walks into the fountain. Briony’s rich imagination begins to take over and she makes up stories about what she is seeing. She wonders if Robbie has just proposed marriage to Cecilia and if she has decided to drown herself to avoid him. Then she wonders if Robbie might be blackmailing her sister. She is aware that she does not understand and must watch to gain more insight.
Cecilia fixes the vase and hides it in the house. She stumbles across Briony crying in the hallway. Briony is upset about her play and reveals that she now considers it a mistake.
Leon and Paul arrive and Cecilia greets them outside. The two arrive with another friend a man named Danny Hardman. Cecilia and Paul begin to flirt with each other immediately. Leon tells Cecilia that he has invited Robbie to dinner that night and this angers Cecilia. The two argue. The thoughts of Robbie make Cecilia redouble her efforts to seduce Paul. She thinks that she feels he is stupid but considers the idea of marrying him to be “deliciously self-destructive”.
Briony abandons the idea of performing her play with no explanation. In the cousins room, Lola consoles her brothers as they cry from homesickness. Paul Marshall enters the room and introduces himself. He attempts to reassure the crying boys and eventually ends up flirting with Lola as he recognizes her to be almost of age.
Outside in the garden, Briony fantasizes about hurting or even killing Lola. She feels that she needs to give up on writing completely. Briony daydreams about how her sister used to say “come back” to her when she’d wake from a bad dream in the night and need comforting.
Across the property in the maid’s house, Robbie prepares for dinner and thinks about Cecilia. He wonders what his feelings for her are and whether or not he should have accepted the dinner invitation. Robbie decides to write a letter to Cecilia apologizing for breaking the vase. But he struggles to do this and finds himself drifting off and even writing about his desire for her in one of the drafts.
Robbie speaks to his mother briefly before heading out to dinner. En route to the house, he stumbles across Briony who is standing on the bridge that spans the lake surrounding the Tallis house. Robbie hands the letter to Briony and asks her to run ahead and deliver it to Cecilia. Briony agrees and runs off. After she leaves, Robbie realizes that he has mistakenly switched the real letter with the obscene draft that he made containing his sexual desires for Cecilia.
Back at the house, Briony hands Cecilia the letter and runs to greet Leon. Cecilia reads the letter and is shocked but realizes that she feels that same way that Robbie does. As she is thinking about this she realizes that the letter does not have an envelope. She asks Briony if it was given to her sealed but Briony ignores her questions. Briony runs upstairs to prepare for dinner. We learn through her narration that she did read the letter and it’s obscene contents. She sits down and wonders what to do with this information. Briony feels that the letter and the incident at the fountain has turned her into an adult and that she can be a true writer now.
Lola enters the room and begins crying because her brothers are angry at her. They assume that she is the reason that they were sent to the Tallis house for the summer when in reality it is because their parents are divorcing. Briony attempts to cheer up Lola and they begin to see each other as friends instead of enemies. Briony confesses the contents of the letter to Lola. Lola is so shocked that she suggests that they go to the police.
Lola leaves to go down to dinner and Briony follows after a moment. However, on her way down she hears a noise in her father’s study and enters to find the origins of the sound. Inside she sees Robbie and Cecilia. Robbie has Cecilia pinned against the wall and his hands are under her skirt. Not understanding what she is seeing, Briony assumes that Robbie is attacking her sister. She calls her sister’s name and Cecilia extricates herself from the situation without a word. Briony is left in the room alone with Robbie who also doesn’t acknowledge her.
Dinner begins and they family enjoy polite conversation with an undercurrent of awkwardness. We are taken from Robbie’s point of view and shown that, upon arriving at the house he immediately went to find Cecilia to apologize for the letter. Cecilia led him to the study and he assumed that he was going to be scolded. But once they were alone Cecilia told him that she thought Briony had also read the letter and Robbie, embarrassed, profusely apologizes. Cecilia begins to confess an awakening of her feelings toward Robbie and intentionally brings them deeper into the study where they cannot be heard. The two eventually begin to passionately kiss and make love. At one point they hear Briony calling out Cecilia’s name and realize that she is watching them. Cecilia runs out of the library and leaves Robbie to deal with Briony which he avoids by not saying anything.
Back in current time, during the dinner, Briony and Cecilia trade barbs over the table, attempting to express their anger toward one another covertly. Briony begins to scold the young cousins for hitting their sister. Paul Marshall strangely tries to play off their actions by saying that he broke up a fight between the cousins and their sister earlier. Briony soon realizes that the twins have left the table during the conversation. She finds a letter on one of their chairs confessing that they are running away.
This news upsets Robbie as he was eagerly awaiting the end of the dinner so that he and Cecilia could finish what they started in the study. Nevertheless, the family organizes search parties to find the twins on the grounds of the estate. Paul Marshall walks off by himself. Briony, who is afraid to be alone with Robbie also begins looking around the grounds by herself. Lola and the Tallis’ mother stay in the house in the hopes that the twins will soon return. Robbie leaves to look by himself as well and the narration notes that this would be a decision that changes his life forever.
While the Tallis’ mother, Emily waits with Lola she notices the scratch marks and bruises on the girl which she assumes she got in the fight with her brothers. However, Emily finds the marks strange and cannot figure out why. Lola eventually becomes so upset by her brother’s absence and the unwanted attention from Emily that she leaves to join the search party.
The Tallis’ father, Jack calls the house and he and Emily chat about the twins disappearing. Jack puts it down to simple mischievousness. While she is talking to her husband, the search party returns without the twins. Leon takes the phone from his mother and asks that his father comes home as soon as possible. He whispers something into the phone that Emily cannot hear but she understands that something is wrong, and that the news of the twins is bad. Leon hangs up the phone and instructs everyone to move into the drawing room so that the news can be broken to Emily and Lola.
The beginning of the next chapter takes us back a bit to the search party outside. Briony is searching for the twins on her own, happy that Cecilia has decided to go off with Leon and that she will be under his protection. Briony heads to the structure on the lake that they call the temple to investigate. As she nears the temple, however she spots two figures in the temple. Lola, who is one of the figures, calls out for Briony. At the sound of her voice the larger figures dashes from the scene. Lola is left in shock and rocking in fear on the floor of the temple. The narrative insinuates, without clearly stating it that Lola was raped. Briony does her best to comfort her cousin she asks Lola if it was “Him”, implying Robbie. But Lola, too upset to speak, never answers. Briony attempts to get Lola to identify her assailant but when the girl cannot, she assumes that it was Robbie.
Lola herself is unsure who it was that attacked her. She explains that she never saw the man clearly as he covered her eyes during the assault. But everything she says only makes Briony more determined that it was Robbie that attacked her. Briony comforts Lola and tries to get her to walk back into the house. Before they can reach it, however, Leon and Cecilia appear. Leon carries the weak and frightened Lola without asking any questions. Briony narrates that she feels certain that she knows what happens.
In the next chapter we are taken through a police interview with Briony. She tells the police that she, Leon, Lola and Cecilia entered the Tallis home after the attack and Emily took Lola upstairs to clean her up and wait for a doctor to arrive. Two police inspectors arrive. Paul Marshall returns and looks anxious and nervous at the situation unfolding. Briony runs to her sisters room and fetches the letter which she hands to the lead detective. The detectives read the letter and then hand it off to Leon who reads it and hands it to his mother. Cecilia soon realizes what they are reading and becomes furious at the invasion of her privacy.
Briony then tells the detectives and her mother and brother all that she has witnessed between Robbie and Cecilia the last few days. The lead detective repeatedly asks Briony if she is sure that she saw Robbie raping Lola and she confirms that she is. The household waits for Robbie to return all through the night. Soon, a figure approaches the house. Robbie returns with the two young cousins in tow. The family is relieved that the twins are alright but this feeling immediately transitions into fear and hatred of Robbie.
Emily sends Briony to her room and Briony is forced to watch out the window as Robbie is handcuffed and led away from the house to the police car. She sees Cecilia running toward Robbie and assumes that she is whispering her forgiveness to him because she is in shock. Robbie’s mother arrives as the police are leaving and shouts that they are liars and that her son is innocent.
Part two of the book begins in France during World War II. Robbie leads two British soldiers through the countryside to Dunkirk where they are expecting to be able to catch a ship back to England. Robbie and the two other soldiers, Nettle and Mace take refuge in a barn. While they sleep, Robbie’s thoughts turn to memories of his time in prison. We are told that Robbie was in prison for three and a half years. Cecilia remained loyal to him during that time and eventually ended up being shunned by her family for her loyalty. She now works as a nurse in London. Robbie agrees to serve in the army to reduce his prison time. Unfortunately this cuts down on the time that he gets to see Cecilia. During Robbie’s training the two only get to meet once in a cafe.
Robbie tells the reader that he encouraged Cecilia to reach out to her family to let them know where she is but Cecilia refused as she is still disgusted with them for sending him to prison over the uncertain testimony of a young girl who was known for being overly imaginative. Robbie also reveals that Briony skipped university to become a nurse and that he received a letter from Cecilia saying that Briony had been trying to set up a meeting with her. Cecilia assumes that Briony is seeking to come clean about what happened when Robbie was arrested. In the letter, Cecilia reveals that she is unsure if she should meet with her sister.
The next morning, Robbie and the other soldiers awake and resume their march toward Dunkirk. Robbie remembers a time, years before when he still lived with the Tallis family when he was attempting to teach Briony to swim in the lake. Briony faked drowning to test whether or not Robbie would save her. When he does, however, he scolds her for her actions. Briony tells him that she only did it because she loves him. Robbie remembers that he assumed that it was a schoolgirl crush. After that day, Briony never did anything else to demonstrate her love for him and he assumed that she had gotten over it. However, now he wonders if her accusal of him may have been vindictiveness over that incident. He wonders if he can ever forgive her.
The three soldiers eventually reach Dunkirk. However, hundreds are soldiers are also waiting on the beach to be evacuated and there are no signs of any ships. The town is in chaos. Robbie and the other soldiers search the town for food and a place to sleep. Soldiers swarm the town, looting what they can as there is a general sense of unease that the German’s may attack at any moment.
The three soldiers eventually find a cellar to bunk down in for the night. Nettle notices that Robbie is not looking well and tells him to hold on because they will surely be evacuated the next morning. Robbie has been injured by shrapnel and is most likely suffering from gangrene. He attempts to sleep for a while and reads Cecilia’s letter again. She ends it in the same way that she bid farewell to him at the Tallis’ house after he was arrested, with the words, “I’ll wait for you. Come back”. Robbie drifts off to sleep with the letter in his hand.
In the next part, we are taken to a London hospital where Briony, now eighteen, is training to be a nurse. Briony reveals that after a short time attempting to be a short story writer, she decided to become a nurse to help the war effort. She has limited her communications with her family almost entirely however, she is aware via monthly letters from her mother that the Tallis’ estate has had to take on boarders as part of the governments efforts to evacuate London of women and small children.
The estates grounds are also being destroyed and used as a training ground. All of the houses valuable’s have been moved in case there is a bombing, and the vase that Cecilia fought over with Robbie was dropped, shattering it. The letter also states that Danny Hardman has recently joined the Navy and that Lola and Paul Marshall are engaged to be married. Since that fateful night in the temple, Briony has realized that it was most likely Paul Marshall that raped Lola but feels that there is nothing she can do to correct this mistake now. Briony wonders if her parents have realized that it was Paul Marshall as well, and blame her for Robbie’s imprisonment and Cecilia leaving them.
Briony keeps a journal as a small way of maintaining her dream of being a writer. Soon, hundred of wounded soldiers are brought into the hospital from the battle in France. Briony struggles to do her job amongst the carnage and suffering. The narration in this passage reveals many of the horrors of war in very graphic terms. After the day is over, Briony finds that she has received a letter from a magazine rejecting her story, “Two Figures By A Fountain”. However, the letter has a positive tone and encourages her to rework the story and try again.
The following weekend, Briony walks to the church where Lola and Paul are getting married and sneaks in at the end of the ceremony. The narration insinuates that Lola sees her and may recognize her but Briony is not sure.
Next she walks to the apartment where Cecilia is living. Cecilia is surprised to see Briony and is very cold towards her. Robbie comes out of a back room and he is angered to see Briony. Briony attempts to apologize but reveals that she does not expect forgiveness from them. Robbie tells Briony that if she is sincere in her search for atonement than she should go to her parents and tell them the truth of what happened that night when she accused him of raping Lola. Robbie does not take her apology but insists that she tell her parents and the police the truth of what happened that night. Briony leaves and the narration reveals that this was the last time she ever saw either of them.
The last chapter of the book flashes all the way forward to the year 1999. Briony is celebrating her 77th birthday by visiting the Imperial War Museum library. Briony has received letters from Colonel Nettle asking her to write her story. Recently, Briony has also received a diagnosis of vascular dementia. She is rapidly losing her memory but is oddly content with this. She remembers the details of where everyone in her story ended up. Leon is still alive and has been married four times. Though he is wheelchair bound while his current wife raises their children. Paul and Lola became a Lord and Lady and are very wealthy.
Briony herself married a man named Thierry who recently passed away. She became a successful writer and her books are read in schools across England. After her parent’s death, the Tallis’ household was turned into a golf course and hotel. Briony soon attends a family gathering at the hotel organized by Pierrot’s grandson.
Briony is brought into the library for a performance of her younger relatives acting in her old play, “The Tales of Arabella”. Briony is shocked and pleased to watch the performance. Afterward, she apologizes to Pierrot for canceling the play all those years before.
Later that night, Briony sits at her old writing desk working on her next novel. It is the story that she has always longed to write, the story of her mistake in accusing Robbie of rape. She intends to wait until all the people featured in the book are dead to publish it so that she will not be sued for refusing to change their names in the story.
Finally, in the end of the book, Briony reveals the last twist of the story. It is only in her version that Robbie and Cecilia ended up together. The passage where she met Robbie and Cecilia in their apartment was entirely made up. In reality, Robbie died of gangrene in Dunkirk and Cecilia died shortly after that in a bombing in London.
Briony regrets that she was too cowardly to ever speak to her sister again. The letters that Robbie and Cecilia sent each other during the war are now in a museum and it is from them that she has taken all of her information about what happened to them during that time. However, she does not believe that the real ending is happy or conclusive enough, so she changed it to the story. She intends this version to be the only one that everyone remembers. This, Briony believes, is her final act of atonement for her sister and Robbie.
Briony Tallis – when the story begins, Briony is a creative, intelligent, perhaps overly imaginative teenage girl. In the opening chapters of the book, we are introduced to Briony’s character and given an insight into her world. She is a writer, who expects a lot from the people and the world around her. She has a tendency to let her imagination get carried away and bring on vivid, almost hallucinatory day dreams of the world around around her.
These day dreams are often dark and violent. For instance, upon seeing Robbie and Cecilia at the fountain she initially assumes that Robbie has proposed to Cecilia and that the latter has decided to drown herself in the fountain in refusal. She then assumes that Robbie is blackmailing Cecilia. These daydreams are probably the result of common novels and plays of the time working on a young girls imagination and sense of drama.
“The Atonement” in the story belongs to several characters, but chiefly to Briony, who feels that she must atone for her false rape accusation against Robbie. Briony feels that the scene that she witnesses outside in the fountain is the end of her innocence, and despite this being the over dramatic exclamation from a young girl, it ends up being true, as soon afterward Robbie is arrested and life in the Tallis house begins to fall apart as a result.
The lie that Briony tells about Robbie raping Lola is innocently given as the made up story of a young girl that has real, life ruining implications for everyone in the story. The entire lives of all of the characters fracture at that one moment and the impact effect the rest of their lives. For this, Briony feels terribly responsible, and she remains a changed, quieter woman till the end of her life.
Briony begins working as a nurse as part of her atonement though she remains unable to speak with her sister or Robbie ever again out of shame.
Cecilia Tallis – Briony’s older sister by ten years, who, at the start of the story, feels useless as an adult still living in her parents household and wishes to find a purpose in life. In the opening of the book, Cecilia shifts from one idea to another very quickly and seems to be considering many possibilities for a purpose in her life. She considers marrying Paul Marshall, although she does not love him and in fact, considers him stupid. Cecilia wants to feel needed by her family but does not. She is restless and constantly waiting for something exciting to happen to her and for her life to start.
Cecilia is revealed to be quite unorganized and scattered. She and Briony seem to have had a closer relationship when they were younger that has recently fractured and changed. We learn that Cecilia used to calm Briony after the younger girl would have a nightmare, chanting the words, “Come back”, which she later uses in her letters to Robbie.
Cecilia’s character mainly revolves around Robbie. She feels disconnected from him at the start of the novel as well, as they both attended the same University where they discovered for the first time that their differences in social class made them unacceptable as friends in the eyes of polite society.
Cecilia is surprised to find out after receiving Robbie’s first letter that she feels the same desire for him that he feels for her. Later, when Robbie is accused of raping Lola, Cecilia is the only member of the Tallis family that stands by him and doesn’t question his innocence. This causes the rift between herself and her family to widen to the point that she forsakes them completely and moves to London to live by herself and work as a nurse.
After this point, all of her narration is told through letters to Robbie on the war front and we learn at the end of the book that she was killed during a bombing while in a London train station.
Robbie Turner – the son of the Tallis’ maid and the man who is falsely accused of rape by Briony. Robbie is 23 years old and has recently earned a literature degree at university. His schooling was funded by Jack Tallis. Robbie’s own father, Ernest left the family when he was a small child and no one knows what became of him. Robbie’s mother assumes that he died in World War I.
Despite the class differences, Robbie grew up with the Tallis children and is considered an extended member of the family. He becomes aware of the social differences in his and the Tallis lives during university, just as Cecilia does. However, since he is in love with Cecilia he seems more keenly aware of these differences. Robbie expresses his secret desire for Cecilia via a letter that he never means to send and is embarrassed and apologetic when he realizes that he did accidentally send it.
However, Cecilia soon reveals that she feels the same way about him and the two begin a tragically short courtship in the study. Their love making is accidentally seen by Briony and, because she is not quite old enough to understand the adult situation that she has found them in, is misconstrued by her as an attack by Robbie on her sister.
The second atonement in the novel belongs to Robbie and Cecilia for not explaining the sexual situation that Briony found them in immediately. Both attempt to avoid bringing up the topic and as a result, are not made aware of how Briony has mistaken what she saw. This results in Briony later assuming that Robbie is a rapist and his arrest. He is sent to prison for three years after which he is offered release if he agrees to serve a term in the war. Robbie agrees and is injured by shrapnel and dies in France.
Lola Quincey – the eldest Quincey sibling who visits over the summer with her two younger brothers. The Quincey’s are the Tallis’ cousins whose parents are undergoing a divorce and send their children away to keep them out of the bitter details. Lola is two years older than Briony and thus, initially experiences many power struggles with the girl. Briony feels that Lola is manipulative and is leveraging her family tragedy to get what she wants from the Tallis household. It is strongly hinted at in the narrative that Lola is first sexually assaulted by Paul Marshall during his visit and then later raped.
However, when Briony’s intervention runs off the rapist, she successfully convinces Lola that Robbie was indeed her attacker and in her shock, Lola agrees. She appears to know that this is untrue, but is too scared to tell the truth. Later in the novel, Lola marries Paul Marshall for reason that we are not privy too and together they enjoy much financial success as Lord and Lady Marshall. In the end of the book, Lola is a vibrant, healthy 80 year old woman who appears at the Tallis family reunion.
Paul Marshall – the friend of Leon’s who visits the Tallis home on the fateful weekend. Paul presents himself as being very smug and pretentious to the Tallis’ and Cecilia comes to the conclusion that he is very stupid. Paul seems to almost wish that the war with Germany would start because he feels that it would provide many business opportunities for him.
From the time that he arrives there are very subtle, yet heavy implications that Paul takes an attraction to Lola and later assaults her. Briony spots some scratches on his face around the time that she finds the bruises on Lola’s arms. Briony seems to nearly put together that Paul assaulted Lola and later when she sees a shadowy figure run from the temple after raping Lola she has every reason to suspect that it was Paul Marshall.
However, she does not admit this and instead accuses Robbie. During the war, Paul gets rich selling chocolate and marries Lola due to machinations on his part. He becomes very wealthy and the last we see of him is a very fail, very well-off old man.
Ian McEwan Biography
Ian Russel McEwan is a novelist born in Aldershot, England in 1948. The son of an army major, McEwan moved often as a child and spend his childhood in places such as Asia, Germany and Northern Africa. His family moved back to England when he was 12 years old and McEwan graduated with a degree in literature from the University of Sussex in 1970. He then decided to study for a masters degree in creative writing.
McEwan was first published in 1975. His first book was a collection of short stories called ‘First Love, Last Rites’. Several more books of short stories followed this in 1978 and 1981, two of which have since been adapted into films.
In 1997, McEwan published his first novel, ‘Enduring Love’ which, although popular with critics, was not a success. Four years later in 2001, McEwan published the book he is perhaps best known for, ‘Atonement’.
McEwan has published novels as recently as 2012 and is currently working on his next novel.
McEwan has been nominated for multiple literature awards, including the Shakespeare Prize in 1999 and has been nominated for the Man Booker award six times to date.
McEwan married a woman named Penny Allen in 1982 and divorced her in 1995. The two have two grown sons together. Two years later in 1997, McEwan remarried to a woman named Annalena McAfee. The two remain together to this day.