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Atonement Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ian McEwan's Atonement. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan was born in 1948 to David and Rose McEwan. Because of his father’s work as a military officer, McEwan grew up living in Asia, Germany, and North Africa. McEwan returned to England to study English at Sussex University. After completing his undergraduate degree, he enrolled in a creative writing master’s program. In 1975, McEwan’s first collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites, was released, and was given the Somerset Maugham Award. Since then, McEwan has written prolifically, in genres encompassing film, television, novels, and short stories. Additionally, he has received further honors like the Booker Prize, awarded for his 1998 novel Amsterdam. Atonement, acclaimed as one of his strongest works, was written in 2001. Following Atonement, McEwan has written one libretto and five novels, the most recent of which will be released in September 2014. He has two children from his first marriage to Penny Allen, which ended in an acrimonious divorce. McEwan is now married to Annalena McAfee, a British writer and literary critic.
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Historical Context of Atonement
Atonement’s plot is shadowed by Western Europe’s violent twentieth-century history. At the book’s beginning, World War I is still a relatively recent memory, and the later plot is dominated by World War II. Briony and Cecilia both dedicate themselves to the war effort by working as nurses, and Robbie conscripts in the military to fulfill his prison sentence. Various historical battles shape the plot: Robbie fights to repel the Nazi invasion of France, and dies on June 1, 1940 at Bray-Dunes, during the Dunkirk evacuation. Cecilia dies a few months later during a bombing raid on London’s Balham Underground station (though the novel actually misidentifies the date of this event as September 1940, when it in fact took place in October of that year).
Other Books Related to Atonement
Historical fiction based on World War II has emerged as an exceedingly popular literary genre. Prominent World War II novelizations include straightforward treatments of the conflict, such as James Jones’s 1962 book The Thin Red Line, as well as more humorous or surreal (but just as serious) works such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, published in 1961, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, published in 1973. Atonement also has common ground with widely popular non-fiction books such as 2000’s Flags of Our Fathers, written by James Bradley with Ron Powers. Notably, five years after Atonement’s publication, McEwan addressed allegations that Atonement had failed to credit the influence of the works of Lucilla Andrews, a novelist and a trained nurse whose 1977 autobiography, No Time for Romance, chronicled World War II’s hospital environments in detail.
Key Facts about Atonement
  • Full Title: Atonement
  • When Written: 2001
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 2001
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Setting: England and France; before, during, and after World War II
  • Climax: Briony Tallis’s false testimony, condemning Robbie Turner for the rape of Lola Quincey
  • Antagonist: Paul Marshall
  • Point of View: Limited 3rd person
Extra Credit for Atonement

Stranger than fiction. Family drama isn’t restricted to Ian McEwan’s novels. As a grown man, McEwan learned that he has a living, long-lost brother: a bricklayer named David Sharp. Sharp was conceived in an affair between McEwan’s parents, while McEwan’s mother was married to another man, and was given up for adoption in 1942.

Success on the silver screen. McEwan’s novels have been adapted to films at least seven times, including the 2007 movie version of Atonement that starred Keira Knightley as Cecilia Tallis and James McAvoy as Robbie Turner.