Atonement (novel)

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Atonement (novel).jpg
Atonement cover
AuthorIan McEwan
Cover artistChris Frazer Smith
CountryUnited Kingdom
PublisherJonathan Cape
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardcover)
Pages371 pp
ISBN0-224-06252-2 (first edition)

Atonement is a 2001 British metafiction novel written by Ian McEwan. Set in three time periods, 1935 England, Second World War England and France, and present-day England, it covers an upper-class girl's half-innocent mistake that ruins lives, her adulthood in the shadow of that mistake, and a reflection on the nature of writing.

Widely regarded as one of McEwan's best works, it was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize for fiction.[1] In 2010, Time magazine named Atonement in its list of the 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923.[2]

In 2007, the book was adapted into a BAFTA and Academy Award-winning film of the same title, starring Saoirse Ronan, James McAvoy, and Keira Knightley, and directed by Joe Wright.

Plot summary[edit]

Part one[edit]

Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old English girl with a talent for writing, lives at her family's country estate with her parents Jack and Emily Tallis. Her older sister Cecilia has recently graduated from the University of Cambridge with Robbie Turner, the Tallis family housekeeper's son and Cecilia's childhood friend (Robbie received a first in English while Cecilia received a "humiliating third"), with whom she eventually develops a relationship.

In the summer of 1935, Briony's maternal cousins, Lola and her twin brothers Jackson and Pierrot, visit the family after their parents are going through a bitter divorce. Briony's immaturity, and her inability to grasp certain situations which are beyond her understanding, lead her to misinterpret a scene she witnesses of a struggle between Robbie and Cecilia. What she believes to be a moment of sexual tension between Cecilia and Robbie is far from the reality of the situation and is the spark that begins Briony's fantasies. Briony misconstrues this situation and concludes that Robbie is acting aggressively toward Cecilia, due to their differences in gender and Briony's idea of male dominance over women.

Robbie, meanwhile, begins to realise he has developed an attraction towards Cecilia, whom he has not seen in some time, and writes several drafts of a love letter to her expressing the feelings he has for her. He decides to give the letter to Briony to deliver to Cecilia for him; however, he inadvertently gives her a version he had meant to discard, which contains lewd and vulgar references ("In my dreams I kiss your cunt"). It becomes too late for Robbie to rectify his mistake and despite his instructions to Briony not to open the letter she disobeys him and reads it.

Later the same evening, she walks in on Robbie and Cecilia having sex in the library. Briony misinterprets this as an assault and believes Robbie is a "maniac" from whom she must protect her sister.

Later, there is a family dinner party attended by Briony's brother Leon and his friend Paul Marshall. When it is discovered the twins have run away, the party breaks into teams to search for them.

In the darkness, while everyone is searching for the twins, Briony discovers her cousin Lola being raped by an assailant she cannot clearly see. Lola is unable/unwilling to identify the attacker. Briony accuses Robbie and identifies him to the police as the rapist, claiming she has seen his face in the dark. Her previous misinterpretations of seeing Robbie and Cecilia's struggle at the fountain, the letter, and the scene she witnesses in the library, lead Briony to accuse Robbie of raping Lola, despite having no solid proof that he was responsible. Robbie is taken away to prison, with only Cecilia and his mother believing his protestations of innocence. Briony perceives her actions to be heroic, fulfilling her fantasies of the criminal being locked up. As a result of this, Cecilia cuts off her family and refuses to speak to them again.

Part two[edit]

By the time Second World War has started, Robbie has spent several years in prison. He is released on the condition he enlists in the army.

Cecilia has trained and become a nurse. She has cut off all contact with her family because of the part they played in sending Robbie to jail.

Robbie and Cecilia have only been in contact by letter, since she was not allowed to visit him in prison. Before Robbie has to go to war in France, they meet once for half an hour, during Cecilia's lunch break. Their reunion starts awkwardly, but they share a kiss before leaving each other.

In France, the war is going badly, and the army is retreating to Dunkirk. As the injured Robbie makes his way there, he thinks about Cecilia and past events such as teaching Briony how to swim, reflecting on Briony's possible reasons for accusing him.

His single meeting with Cecilia is the memory that keeps him walking; his only aim is seeing her again. His condition deteriorates over the course of the section: He weakens and becomes delirious. At the end of part two, Robbie falls asleep in Dunkirk, one day before the evacuation begins.

Part three[edit]

Remorseful Briony has refused her place at Cambridge and instead is a trainee nurse in London. She has realised the full extent of her mistake and decides it was Paul Marshall, Leon's friend, whom she saw raping Lola. Briony still writes, although she does not pursue it with the same recklessness as she did as a child.

Briony is called to the bedside of Luc, a young, fatally wounded French soldier. She consoles him in his last moments by speaking with him in her school French, and he mistakes her for an English girl whom his mother wanted him to marry.

Just before his death, Luc asks, "Do you love me?" Briony replies, "Yes," not only because "no other answer was possible" but also because "for the moment, she did. He was a lovely boy far away from his family and about to die." Afterward, Briony daydreams about the life she might have had if she had married Luc and gone to live with him and his family.

Briony attends the wedding of Paul Marshall and her cousin Lola—who has decided to marry her rapist—before finally visiting Cecilia. Robbie is on leave from the army, and Briony meets him unexpectedly at her sister's.

Cecilia and Robbie both refuse to forgive Briony, who nonetheless tells them she will try to put things right. She promises to begin the legal procedures needed to exonerate Robbie, even though Paul Marshall will never be held responsible for his crime because of his marriage to Lola, the victim.


The final section, titled "London 1999," is narrated by Briony herself in the form of a diary entry. Now 77, she is a successful novelist who has recently been diagnosed with vascular dementia, so she is facing rapid mental decline and death.

The reader learns that Briony is the author of the preceding sections of the novel. On the penultimate page, Briony reveals that Robbie Turner died of septicaemia—caused by his injury—on the beaches of Dunkirk, that Cecilia was killed when a bomb destroyed Balham Underground station during the Blitz, and Briony never saw them in 1940. Briony did attend Lola's wedding to Marshall, but confesses she was too "cowardly" to visit the "recently bereaved" Cecilia to make amends. The novel—which she says is factually true apart from Robbie and Cecilia being reunited—is her lifelong attempt at "atonement" for what she did to them.

Briony justifies her invented happy ending by saying she does not see what purpose it would serve to give readers a "pitiless" story. She writes, "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."

Main characters[edit]

  • Briony Tallis – The younger sister of Leon and Cecilia Tallis, Briony is an aspiring writer. She is a thirteen-year-old at the beginning of the novel and takes part in sending Robbie Turner to jail when she falsely claims that he assaulted Lola. Briony is part narrator, part character and we see her transformation from child to woman as the novel progresses. At the end of the novel, Briony has realised her wrongdoing as a "child" and decides to write the novel to find atonement.
  • Cecilia Tallis – The middle child in the Tallis family, Cecilia has fallen in love with her childhood companion, Robbie Turner. After a tense encounter by the fountain, she and Robbie don't speak again until they meet before a formal dinner. When Robbie is falsely accused of rape shortly after, Cecilia loses her love to jail and war, and chooses not to contact any members of her family again.
  • Leon Tallis – The eldest child in the Tallis family, Leon returns home to visit. He brings his friend Paul Marshall along with him on his trip home.
  • Emily Tallis – Emily is the mother of Briony, Cecilia, and Leon. Emily is ill in bed for most of the novel, suffering from severe migraines.
  • Jack Tallis – Jack is the father of Briony, Cecilia, and Leon. Jack often works late nights and it is alluded to in the novel that he is having an affair.
  • Robbie Turner – Robbie is the son of Grace Turner, who lives on the grounds of the Tallis home. Having grown up with Leon, Briony and Cecilia, he knows the family well. He attended Cambridge University with Cecilia and when they come home after graduating, they fall in love. Robbie is sent to jail when Briony falsely accuses him of raping Lola.
  • Grace Turner – The mother of Robbie Turner, she was given permission from Jack Tallis to live on the grounds. She has become the family's maid and does laundry for the Tallises. When her son is falsely accused of raping Lola, only she and Cecilia believe he is innocent, and Grace chooses to leave the Tallis family.
  • Dolores 'Lola' Quincey – A 15-year-old girl who is Briony, Cecilia, and Leon's cousin. She comes, along with her twin brothers, to stay with the Tallises after her parents' divorce. Lola was supposed to assume the main role in Briony's play, until it was cancelled. She is also subject to rape while staying at the Tallis household. Lola appears later in the novel as a mature woman, married to Paul Marshall. She is red-headed and fair-skinned with freckles.
  • Jackson and Pierrot Quincey – Lola's younger twin brothers and Briony, Cecilia, and Leon's cousin. They come, along with their sister, to stay with the Tallises after their parents' divorce. Briony wants the twins to take a role in her play, but disputes mean the play is cancelled, upsetting them both. Pierrot appears later in the novel as an old man while his brother has died.
  • Danny Hardman – The handyman for the Tallis family. Robbie and Cecilia suspect he is responsible for Lola's rape until Briony tells them otherwise, prompting Robbie to say they owe him an apology.
  • Paul Marshall – A friend of Leon. He rapes Lola outside the Tallis household after dark; Briony, however, accuses Robbie of Lola's rape, and many years later Lola and Paul marry. Paul Marshall also owns a chocolate factory that manufactures 'Amo' bars – fake chocolate energy bars supplied to army troops, which earn him a considerable fortune.
  • Corporal Nettle – Nettle is one of Robbie's two companions during the Dunkirk evacuation. In the fourth and final section of the novel, an elderly Briony alludes to an "old Mr. Nettle" from whom she received a "dozen long letters" but whether this is the same person isn't made exactly clear.
  • Corporal Mace – Mace is the second of Robbie's two companions during the Dunkirk evacuation. He is last seen presumably rescuing an RAF man from a possible lynching by some infantrymen under the guise of wanting to do harm by drowning him in the "bloody sea".
  • Betty – The Tallis family's servant, described as "wretched" in personality.

References to other literary works[edit]

Atonement contains intertextual references to a number of other literary works, including Gray's Anatomy, Virginia Woolf's The Waves, Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, Henry James' The Golden Bowl, Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Rosamond Lehmann's Dusty Answer,[3] and Shakespeare's The Tempest, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night. McEwan has also said that he was directly influenced by L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between.

Atonement contains a (fictional) letter addressed to Briony by the literary critic and editor Cyril Connolly. Like Connolly, Elizabeth Bowen is revealed to have reviewed Briony's earlier novel.

Awards and critiques[edit]

Atonement was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize for fiction. It was also shortlisted for the 2001 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the 2001 Whitbread Novel Award. It won the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction, the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the 2002 WH Smith Literary Award, the 2002 Boeke Prize and the 2004 Santiago Prize for the European Novel.[4] In its 1000th issue, Entertainment Weekly named the novel #82 on its list of the 100 best books from 1983 to 2008. Additionally, Time named it the best fiction novel of the year and included it in its All-Time 100 Greatest Novels.[5] The Observer cites it as one of the 100 greatest novels ever written, calling it "a contemporary classic of mesmerising narrative conviction."[6] In 2019, the novel was ranked 41st on The Guardian's list of the 100 best books of the 21st century.[7]

Literary critiques:

  • Crosthwaite, Paul. "Speed, War, and Traumatic Affect: Reading Ian McEwan's Atonement." Cultural Politics 3.1 (2007): 51–70.
  • D'hoker, Elke. "Confession and Atonement in Contemporary Fiction: J. M. Coetzee, John Banville, and Ian McEwan." Critique 48.1 (2006): 31–43.
  • Finney, Brian. "Briony's Stand Against Oblivion: The Making of Fiction in Ian McEwan's Atonement." Journal of Modern Literature 27.3 (2004): 68–82.
  • Harold, James. "Narrative Engagement with Atonement and The Blind Assassin." Philosophy and Literature 29.1 (2005): 130–145.
  • Hidalgo, Pilar. "Memory and Storytelling in Ian McEwan's Atonement." Critique 46.2 (2005): 82–91.
  • Ingersoll, Earl G. "Intertextuality in L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between and Ian McEwan's Atonement." Forum for Modern Language Studies 40 (2004): 241–58.
  • O'Hara, David K. "Briony's Being-For: Metafictional Narrative Ethics in Ian McEwan's Atonement." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 52.1 (December 2010): 72–100.
  • Salisbury, Laura. "Narration and Neurology: Ian McEwan's Mother Tongue", Textual Practice 24.5 (2010): 883–912.
  • Schemberg, Claudia."Achieving 'At-one-ment': Storytelling and the Concept of Self in Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, Black Dogs, Enduring Love and Atonement." Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2004.
  • Phelan, James. "Narrative Judgments and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative: Ian McEwan's Atonement." A Companion to Narrative Theory. Ed. James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. 322–36.


In late 2006, it was said that McEwan had plagiarised the work of romance and historical author Lucilla Andrews, and that he had failed to give her sufficient credit for material on wartime nursing in London sourced from her 1977 autobiography No Time for Romance. McEwan professed innocence of plagiarism while acknowledging his debt to the author.[8][9][10] McEwan had included Andrews among the acknowledgements in the book, and several authors defended him, including John Updike, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Keneally, Zadie Smith, and the reclusive Thomas Pynchon.[11][12]

Film adaptation[edit]

A film adaptation, directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, was released by Working Title Films in September 2007 in the United Kingdom and in December 2007 in the United States.


  1. ^ Atonement, archived from the original on 16 May 2008, retrieved 1 July 2013
  2. ^ "All Time 100 Novels". Time. 16 October 2005. Archived from the original on 16 February 2010.
  3. ^ The Modernism of Ian McEwan's Atonement MFS Modern Fiction Studies – Volume 56, Number 3, Fall 2010, pp. 473–495
  4. ^ About King's College London: News and What's On: King's College London
  5. ^ "All Time 100 Novels". Time. 16 October 2005. Archived from the original on 22 October 2005. Retrieved 25 April 2010.
  6. ^ "The best novels ever". The Guardian. London. 19 August 2008. Archived from the original on 10 May 2010. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  7. ^ "The 100 best books of the 21st century". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 September 2019.
  8. ^ "An inspiration, yes. Did I copy from another author? No". Guardian Online. London. 27 November 2006. Archived from the original on 6 December 2006. Retrieved 27 November 2006.
  9. ^ Hoyle, Ben (27 November 2006). "McEwan hits back at call for atonement". Times Online. London. Retrieved 27 November 2006.
  10. ^ "McEwan accused of copying writers memoirs". PR inside. Archived from the original on 26 March 2007. Retrieved 27 November 2006.
  11. ^ Reynolds, Nigel (6 December 2006). "Recluse speaks out to defend McEwan". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 4 September 2007. Retrieved 25 April 2010.
  12. ^ Bell, Dan (6 December 2006). "Pynchon backs McEwan in 'copying' row". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 25 April 2010.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]