Atonement

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Robbie Turner Character Analysis

The bright, attractive, and ambitious son of Grace Turner, who is the Tallis family’s charlady. Robbie is studying at Cambridge to be a doctor, and his education is funded by the Tallises, who treat him like a son. He is also passionately in love with Cecilia Tallis. However, he is wrongly imprisoned when Briony misidentifies him as the man who raped Lola. After three years in prison, he enlists to fight in World War II in exchange for a reduced sentence. Later in the novel, Briony finds him at Cecilia’s apartment and attempts to make amends, though he is clearly still furious with Briony. Though still later in the novel it is revealed that Briony invented this encounter as a kind of atonement, to give him a life with Cecilia even though he was in fact killed in combat.

Robbie Turner Quotes in Atonement

The Atonement quotes below are all either spoken by Robbie Turner or refer to Robbie Turner. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Anchor Books edition of Atonement published in 2003.
Part 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

[Cecilia] always seemed to find it awkward – that’s our cleaning lady’s son, she might have been whispering to her friends as she walked on. He liked people to know he didn’t care – there goes my mother’s employer’s daughter, he once said to a friend. He had his politics to protect him, and his scientifically based theories of class, and his own rather forced self-certainty. I am what I am.

Related Characters: Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

As the narrative shifts to Robbie Turner, the unusual relationship between Robbie and Cecilia is explored in a more explicit way. Here, Robbie tries to imagine what Cecilia might think about this relationship, wondering if she would consider it "awkward." He contrasts this discomfort with his own openness about their differences in class. In one way, he is firmly below Cecilia in the social hierarchy, but in another way they are both students at a prestigious university. It is this merit-based system of distinctions that Robbie embraces in order to remain serene and confident about his own place. At the same time, of course, given that this passage is firmly within Robbie's perspective, it's impossible to tell whether this is an objective account, or whether he is merely claiming an assurance that he might not entirely hold. 

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One word contained everything [Robbie] felt, and explained why he was to dwell on this moment later. Freedom.

Related Characters: Robbie Turner
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

Robbie is confident in the love he feels for Cecilia, and he is optimistic about his future prospects in university and in his career. The freedom he feels is part of a sense that soon he'll no longer have to rely on the charity of others, but will be able to make his own choices based on his own desires and goals. However, even as the book describes these sentiments of Robbie's, a later, distanced perspective is folded into this depiction. 

This moment, like several others in the book, is a turning point, even if its status as such only becomes evident later on. Only with the hindsight of experience, is it suggested, can one fully understand the implications of experience, and come to terms with the complex knots of a life's narrative.

Part 1, Chapter 10 Quotes

The scene by the fountain, its air of ugly threat, and at the end, when both had gone their separate ways, the luminous absence shimmering above the wetness on the gravel – all this would have to be reconsidered. With the letter, something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal had been introduced, some principle of darkness, and even in [Briony’s] excitement over the possibilities, she did not doubt that her sister was in some way threatened and would need her help.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

As Briony goes over the events of the day in her mind, she acknowledges that they are ominous and complex, and yet she believes that she herself holds the key to determining what they mean. As readers, we recognize that what Briony interprets as ugly, brutal, or threatening could easily have a quite different meaning for Cecilia and Robbie. But Briony suffers from a limited perspective not only because she sexually immature, but also because she is already inclined to be suspicious of those different from herself - and Robbie, of course, comes from a lower class background than her family. 

At the same time, Briony seems almost eager to see what will happen next, as if the events were unfolding in a story she was reading. Of course, this notion allows her to forget that she may well influence the story herself, becoming involved in ways that change the narrative (and thus the shape of real people's lives) for good. 

Part 1, Chapter 11 Quotes

“Something has happened, hasn’t it? And you knew before me. It’s like being close up to something so large you don’t even see it. Even now, I’m not sure I can. But I know it’s there.”

Related Characters: Cecilia Tallis (speaker), Robbie Turner
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

Although this passage is a direct quotation from Cecilia, it is actually taking place in Robbie's mental recollection of the scene - returning us to the moments before Briony burst in on Robbie and Cecilia together in the library. Cecilia's difficulty in putting her feelings into words does suggest that there is something complex about her relationship to Robbie, but not at all in the way Briony has expected: instead, Cecilia's own perspective has been suddenly widened, such that she looks at Robbie in a way she never did, or never thought she did, before. 

Part of Cecilia's belated realization has to do with the fact that she and Robbie occupy separate social spheres, making the idea of a romantic interest between them unlikely given the clear boundaries between classes at this time and place. But it also has to do with her process of growing up, of having to grapple with sentiments that are complex for both social and psychological reasons.

In that shrinking moment [Robbie] discovered that he had never hated anyone until now. It was a feeling as pure as love, but dispassionate and icily rational. There was nothing personal about it, for he would have hated anyone who came in.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Robbie Turner
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:

Robbie is still recollecting the prior moments culminating in his moment of privacy and intimacy with Cecilia in the library, until Briony walked in on them. Robbie's feelings at this moment are described as acute and extreme. Briony has unwittingly interrupted both the act of love between Robbie and Cecilia, and the narrative that he has constructed regarding how their relationship will unfold. The intensity of these emotions underlines even further how much of a turning point this moment in the library will turn out to be, even if - or rather precisely because - it means such different things to the different characters experiencing it.

If he could not be with Cecilia, if he could not have her to himself, then he too, like Briony, would go out searching alone. This decision, as he was to acknowledge many times, transformed his life.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

The twins have disappeared, and the group at dinner is about to fan out to look for them. But here as elsewhere, the novel is focused through the minds of the characters in a way that moves around in time. We are experiencing these events with Robbie, but Robbie is also present here later in time, looking back on earlier events and picking out what was particularly important. This distanced perspective is, however, tragic: regardless of how much Robbie will learn later on, regardless of how well he will be able to trace the series of causes and consequences and understand how and why certain things happened, he won't be able to turn back in time and change them. 

Part 1, Chapter 12 Quotes

She liked [Robbie] well enough, and was pleased for Grace Turner that he had turned out to be bright. But really, he was a hobby of Jack’s, living proof of some leveling principle he had pursued through the years. When he spoke about Robbie, which wasn’t often, it was with a touch of self-righteous vindication.

Related Characters: Robbie Turner, Emily Tallis, Jack Tallis
Page Number: 142
Explanation and Analysis:

Emily is in her room musing on various things as usual, rather than going out and helping to look for the twins. Her thoughts turn here to Robbie, whom Emily considers in a distanced, even cold way, even though he is such a part of the fabric of the family household. Emily contrasts her own views to that of her husband's, but neither position ends up seeming very generous. Of course, Jack's "principle" of equality is seen through Emily's eyes, so he may be more earnest than she gives him credit for, but if Robbie is no more than a "hobby" for him, that suggests that Jack still thinks of him as lesser than other people of his own class, able to be molded and tinkered with like an object. 

Emily, in turn, is frank about failing to care for or about Robbie - for her, class relations should remain as they are. But she also thinks about Robbie instrumentally, using him largely as a means by which to critique her husband and find more things to complain about him. 

Part 1, Chapter 14 Quotes

Briony’s immediate feeling was one of relief that the boys were safe. But as she looked at Robbie waiting calmly, she experienced a flash of outrage. Did he believe he could conceal his crime behind an apparent kindness, behind this show of being the good shepherd? This was surely a cynical attempt to win forgiveness for what could never be forgiven. She was confirmed again in her view that evil was complicated and misleading.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Robbie Turner, Pierrot and Jackson Quincey
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

Finally, after hours, Robbie returns home, and he is carrying the twins with him. As Briony watches him, it becomes clear just how much her own narrative construction of the night influences how she perceives reality - and influences reality itself. No longer is Briony hesitating internally, patching over her mental doubts by reiterating her testimony again and again. Now she appears to really believe the story she has told, so much so that she is the one who is angry at the guilt that she has assigned to Robbie.

Briony believes that her conclusions are part of her process of growing up and maturing, gaining a more complete perspective of the adult world with all the evil it entails. Of course, we as readers recognize that Briony's presumed maturity is no more than another kind of innocence, though one that is powerful and threatening in nature.

Part 2 Quotes

Robbie and Cecilia had been making love for years – by post. In their coded exchanges they had drawn close, but how artificial that closeness seemed now as they embarked on their small-talk, their helpless catechism of polite query and response. As the distance opened up between them, they understood how far they had run ahead of themselves in their letters.

Related Characters: Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

After years of intense, passionate correspondence, Robbie and Cecilia are able to see each other in person for barely a few hours. Their reunion is nothing like either of them had hoped - they are awkward and uncomfortable, unaware of how to move beyond what is expected in polite conversation in order to get at what is real between them. They, too, have constructed a literary fantasy about their relationship, and now they are realizing that that fantasy is devoid of physical reality. Both Robbie and Cecilia have experienced a great deal as a nurse and a soldier, respectively, and yet this loss of adolescent innocence has in some ways forced them apart rather than drawing them closer. 

To be cleared would be a pure state. He dreamed of it like a lover, with a simple longing. He dreamed of it in the way other soldiers dreamed of their hearths or allotments or old civilian jobs. If innocence seemed elemental here, there was no reason why it should not be so back in England. Let his name be cleared, then let everyone else adjust their thinking.

Related Characters: Robbie Turner
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

As Robbie struggles with his day-to-day existence in war, what keeps him going is the thought of a new life - not the life he left, since that had been irrevocably ruined by Briony's accusation and by his conviction - but by the possibility that people might realize they were wrong and grant him another chance. Robbie's "simple longing" belies just how complex the process of guilt and condemnation is. He certainly recognizes how slim the possibility of having his name cleared will be, and yet this constructed narrative is powerful enough to serve as the dream that he and his fellow soldiers need in a horrendous situation.

Part 3 Quotes

Growing up…godamnit! You’re eighteen. How much growing up do you need to do? There are soldiers dying in the field at eighteen. Old enough to be left to die on the roads. Did you know that?

Related Characters: Robbie Turner (speaker), Briony Tallis
Page Number: 323
Explanation and Analysis:

Briony's meeting with Cecilia and Robbie is dramatic and painful. Here, Robbie unleashes much of his pent-up anger, frustration, and pain onto Briony. To him, it is unbelievably selfish and childish for Briony to consider the events of the past at all in terms of her own trajectory, her own process of growing up. Her actions, of course, have had an enormous impact on his and Cecilia's lives. In particular, it is because of Briony that Robbie has suffered as a prisoner and then soldier at all.

Robbie's time at war has provided him with an extreme contrast between Briony's privileged upbringing and the suffering experienced by people who should have had time to cherish their own innocence and youth. Robbie's outburst not only gives Briony an example of another perspective on suffering and maturing, but shows her first-hand just how irrevocably she has changed Robbie's own life for the worse.

Epilogue Quotes

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, sitting side by side in the library…

Related Characters: Briony Tallis (speaker), Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 351
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, we as readers are given a privileged glimpse into the mind of Briony as writer, having completed the draft of the novel that takes up the main portion of Atonement. Briony wants to make clear that she hasn't allowed Robbie and Cecilia to remain alive at the end of this novel in order to make herself feel better, in order to indulge in fantasies that would allow her to somehow atone for her sins. Instead, the definition of atonement as partial and unceasing attempt, to which she has committed herself, gives her the possibility of allowing the couple to live on in fiction as they could not do in life. 

However, we readers are not the readers of Briony's novel, because we do know that the lovers didn't survive - we have learned that the end of her draft is only a fictional conceit. As a result, Atonement has its readers bear Briony's guilt and responsibility with her. We can have no illusions about a long, happy life between Cecilia and Robbie: instead we, with Briony, must continually grapple with how unchangeable the past remains.

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Robbie Turner Character Timeline in Atonement

The timeline below shows where the character Robbie Turner appears in Atonement. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 2
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...clears up awkward feelings she feels towards her longtime friend and peer at Cambridge University, Robbie Turner. Robbie works as a gardener on the estate, and the Tallis family funds his... (full context)
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...She goes outside to fill the vase in the fountain, and begins to flirt with Robbie. He tells her about his ambition to study medicine and she wonders why he has... (full context)
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Robbie insists on helping Cecilia fill the vase in the fountain, but Cecilia resists his help.... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 3
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Briony moves to a window and glances out across the grounds. She sees Robbie and Cecilia standing before the fountain. Robbie raises his hand, as if commanding Cecilia to... (full context)
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...thirteen, she was too fixated on “self-mythologising” to fully comprehend it. After the interaction between Robbie and Cecilia finishes, Briony ponders what it could have meant, vowing not to be reflexively... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 4
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Cecilia putters around the house, indignant at the way Robbie has treated her, and sees from a window that two visitors have arrived to the... (full context)
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Once Paul finishes his monologue, Leon reveals that he has asked Robbie to join them for dinner that night. Cecilia is annoyed and asks Leon to disinvite... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 8
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Robbie Turner sits in his bath and watches the dusky sky from the small bungalow on... (full context)
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Robbie rises from his bath and thinks more about his encounter with Cecilia by the fountain.... (full context)
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Robbie sits before his typewriter, a gift from Jack Tallis, and surveys the schoolbooks scattered across... (full context)
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After some more contemplation, Robbie begins to type an apology letter to Cecilia, but is unsure of what tone to... (full context)
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Robbie begins to get dressed in his suit for dinner, and starts to speak with his... (full context)
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After some small talk with his mother, Robbie places his letter to Cecilia in an envelope and bounds out the door, headed to... (full context)
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On his way to the house, Robbie spots Briony standing alone in the driveway. He decides that it may be a good... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 9
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...telling her to get ready for dinner. When Briony walks past Cecilia, she passes her Robbie’s note, unsealed. Cecilia reads the note, and begins to realize her infatuation with Robbie. However,... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 10
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Briony has trouble deciding how she should feel after reading Robbie’s letter to Cecilia. She is convinced that the contradictions she sees in the scenario have... (full context)
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...prepares for dinner, Briony tries to write about the interaction she witnessed between Cecilia and Robbie. Though her aim is to not be judgmental, Briony finds that “she could never forgive... (full context)
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As Lola cleans up, Briony tells her of her interaction with Robbie, and the salacious contents of the letter that she has intercepted. Lola calls Robbie a... (full context)
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...Briony descends to dinner and considers what strategy will be best to protect Cecilia from Robbie. As she moves through the house, she passes the library door and is surprised to... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 11
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The dining atmosphere is suffocating. Dinner begins with an awkward silence. Robbie’s heart pounds, nervous to be so close to Cecilia. Paul awkwardly tries to start conversation,... (full context)
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Briony tells Robbie to leave Pierrot alone. Mrs. Tallis asks her daughter to apologize, as Robbie’s remark was... (full context)
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As the inane conversation moves along, Robbie fantasizes about finding himself alone with Cecilia again. He remembers what happened after he chased... (full context)
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Robbie and Cecilia begin to touch one another passionately, and soon after begin having sex. They... (full context)
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...says something that suggests she may give away what she saw in the library, and Robbie quickly changes the subject to how well-behaved the twins are. Briony tells him this view... (full context)
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...away because they miss their home. The group decides to break up into search parties. Robbie is one of the last to mobilize, and he feels “cheated”—he wanted to cavort with... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 12
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...like a holdover from her ten-year-old self. She reflects on the dinner and notices that Robbie looked somewhat “manic;” and wonders if perhaps he is smoking marijuana. Emily sees Robbie as... (full context)
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Nevertheless, Emily thinks, Briony was out of line in her treatment of Robbie at the dinner. Paul Marshall eased the tension “artfully,” thinks Emily, and she wonders if... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 13
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...is also on the prowl. She thinks of her obligation to protect her sister from Robbie, and wonders if Robbie’s hatred for her is such that he will ambush her murderously... (full context)
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...She continues to walk the grounds, thinking more about the “brutal” acts she has witnessed Robbie commit. Through the window, she sees her aging mother, and imagines how dignified she will... (full context)
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...Lola being assaulted. She asks Lola who did it, but Lola doesn’t respond. “It was Robbie, wasn’t it?” Briony asks, and still, Lola does not answer. “It was Robbie,” Briony tells... (full context)
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Lola then explains how her assault transpired. Briony emphasizes her conviction that she saw Robbie do it, though Lola tells her that she could not say for sure who her... (full context)
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The narration fast-forwards to describe what happens when Briony spreads her story of seeing Robbie. As more people hear and believe Briony’s story, she loses the ability to control how... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 14
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...been sedated and is now able to sleep. Everyone waits in the drawing room for Robbie. Briony decides to retrieve Robbie’s letter from Cecilia’s room. She finds it and brings it... (full context)
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...up all night and shows the policemen the spot in the library where she saw Robbie committing his “attack” on Cecilia. Later on, news arrives that Jack’s car has broken down... (full context)
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Finally, at around five in the morning, Robbie returns with the twins in tow. Briony is relieved to see the twins safe, but... (full context)
Part 2
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Robbie, now referred to as “Turner,” is a soldier in the British armed forces, walks through... (full context)
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Turner’s two companions, Corporal Nettle and Corporal Mace, are above him in rank—Turner is a mere... (full context)
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...The three soldiers ignore her and take water from the house pump. The woman tells Turner that her sons will kill her and the Englishmen, but the men set up camp... (full context)
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...relay traumatic news of a skirmish nearby, but have no idea which side has prevailed. Turner then tells the men the story of being separated from his unit, and explains that... (full context)
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Turner lies awake while the corporals snore. He manages some fitful sleep, but his thoughts keep... (full context)
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In prison, Turner was not allowed any female visitors other than his mother, for fear that a woman’s... (full context)
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...talk about mundane issues, and it is soon time for Cecilia to return to work. Turner wonders if Cecilia pities him for the way prison has diminished his appearance. After some... (full context)
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The two exchange letters during Robbie’s training and share details of their lives—Cecilia’s as a nurse in the maternity ward, Robbie’s... (full context)
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Although Robbie was scheduled to spend time with Cecilia after his training was completed, the outbreak of... (full context)
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The winter is full of dull work for Robbie. He writes a letter encouraging Cecilia to reconcile with her parents, simply because he would... (full context)
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Turner is woken up in the barn by his comrades. They divide the provisions amongst themselves... (full context)
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...equipment as they go. Mace and Nettle favor getting a ride on a truck, but Turner has witnessed a truckload of men getting obliterated by a bomb and insists on walking... (full context)
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Later on, the men pass a major, who tries to enlist Turner and his cohort in a last-ditch effort to fight an advance party of German soldiers.... (full context)
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After Turner helps take care of the wounded, he finds the corporals digging a grave for an... (full context)
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Turner is still deeply uncomfortable with Briony, and does not know how he would deal with... (full context)
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** Turner and the corporals pass through a village. Above them, a group of German bombers begins... (full context)
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Turner stands under trees with a group of other civilians. Once they hear the all-clear signal,... (full context)
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...continue towards their destination for evacuation, the beach at Bray Dunes, they pass more carnage. Turner wonders whether his absent father served in World War I. Finally, they reach Dunkirk. They... (full context)
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** Turner continues walking, and feels as though he is in an illogical dream state. The men... (full context)
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...did nothing to protect against German bombers. The soldiers begin roughing up the clerk, and Turner worries that everyone will set upon the clerk at once. Seeing that the situation threatens... (full context)
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In town, Turner and Nettle find an old woman and demand water. She tells them that she will... (full context)
As he drifts off to sleep, Turner fantasizes about being acknowledged as innocent by Briony’s new testimony. He then understands that guilt... (full context)
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Turner falls asleep. Cecilia’s remark, “I’ll wait for you,” echoes in his thoughts. He is determined... (full context)
Part 3
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...Park. The atmosphere is carefree, but as Fiona speaks about her family, Briony thinks about Robbie. If he is killed in combat, her false testimony will have contributed to the permanent... (full context)
...her story. Briony’s story, Two Figures by a Fountain, details the encounter between Cecilia and Robbie that she witnessed as a thirteen-year-old. The editor’s advice is strangely prescient, and the letter... (full context)
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...young, vulnerable Lola with the injuries she suffered at Paul’s hands. By casting blame on Robbie, Briony has allowed Lola to marry the man who raped her. The officiating vicar asks... (full context)
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After more back-and-forth between the sisters, Robbie appears from the bedroom. He is haggard and dressed in military fatigues. Though he ignores... (full context)
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Briony recognizes Robbie’s fury and anguish, and does her best to withstand them. Her experience dealing with raging... (full context)
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The last thing Cecilia and Robbie ask Briony to do is try and remember what Danny Hardman was doing that night.... (full context)
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Cecilia and Robbie walk Briony to the Balham Tube station, which will soon be destroyed in a bombing... (full context)
Epilogue
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...acknowledges that this most recent version gives a happier ending to the lovers Cecilia and Robbie. In reality, Robbie died of septicemia at Bray Dunes in June 1940, and Cecilia perished... (full context)
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...self-serving as to let them forget me.” Briony muses that it isn’t impossible to imagine Robbie and Cecilia alive and together, enjoying the recent performance of The Trials of Arabella. “But,”... (full context)