Briony searches for the twins in the night. “Within the half hour [she] would commit her crime.” As she walks the grounds, she thinks about the maniac who 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 in the darkness. Briony tells herself that she must not fear him, and longs to expose the way Robbie has wronged her sister, in spite of all the help that the Tallises have given him.
Even in the midst of an effort to rescue her young cousins, Briony hijacks the narrative to make it all about her. Her fantasies of being attacked by Robbie simply indicate a desire to be the center of a story that fits her sensibilities, and exemplify the scene-stealing behavior Emily detests in Hermione.
Briony continues searching for the twins. She moves towards the pool and admires the water’s calm glow; it is nice to be outside late at night, with parental permission. 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 get to seem at her mother’s funeral.
Briony is so eager to transform herself into the center of attention that she gleefully anticipates her own mother’s funeral, simply because the occasion will give her a dignified position.
At this point, Briony could have gone inside to spend time with her mother. If she had, she would not have committed her crime, and a great deal of things would not have happened. However, she decides to stay outside. Briony moves towards the temple in the lake. In her path, she sees a bush in her path start to move. It breaks up and turns into two figures, one of whom runs into the darkness, the other of whom stays seated and calls for Briony. It is Lola, who sounds helpless.
This moment is an unparalleled example of the theme of the Unchangeable Past. Had Briony made a seemingly insignificant different choice at the time—returning inside instead of staying outside, everything would have been different. But she chose what she chose, and could never go back after encountering Lola post-rape.
Briony now feels that she completely understands what has happened. She rushes to comfort Lola, and tells her that she saw 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 her cousin. Lola asks if she saw him do it, but Briony is already bemoaning Robbie’s maniacal nature. Lola asks again if Briony saw Robbie commit the crime, and Briony responds “of course I did. Plain as day. It was him.”
Briony imposes her own story on what she has witnessed, in order for it to make sense alongside her other biased ideas of Robbie the maniac. McEwan’s writing here emphasizes the process by which Briony alone convinces herself that she saw Robbie—with no input from Lola, she evolves from suggesting Robbie’s guilt to asserting it. Vulnerable Lola, meanwhile, seems to be looking for a way to hide, and Briony’s confidence that it was Robbie provides that.
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 assailant was. In this way, the two girls’ roles are determined: Lola the confused victim, and Briony the definitive witness. Seeing Robbie commit this crime solidifies the terrible suspicions Briony has held towards him, and she sees the novelistic qualities of his villainy.
Briony’s story puts her in a position she loves, giving her a well-defined role of novelistic heroism. By maintaining that Robbie is the culprit and ignoring Lola’s complicating testimony, Briony validates the self-centered stories she has imagined, without even realizing it.
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 they respond, and its repercussions grow. Whenever she qualifies the story or makes it seem less ironclad, people seem confused and disapproving. In her anxiety to please, she glosses over her hesitations. As the affair spirals out of her control, Briony knows she lacks the courage to withdraw her testimony. She tries to equivocate, but is afraid to seem like a silly, self-indulgent girl who wanted to be the center of attention. Still, she cannot take comfort in thinking she was bullied into confessing that she saw Robbie commit the crime—this testimony was entirely her own doing. She tries to counteract her doubts by repeating them with more and more conviction.
This marks the beginnings of Briony’s guilt for incriminating Robbie. Her story has taken on a life of its own, so much so that it even restricts her own capability to act. She is too cowardly to retract or revise her testimony and sacrifice her clear-cut role as the key witness against a clear-cut villain. She tries to correct this by sticking to her story more aggressively, but if past examples are any guide, it is unlikely that she will be able to get the complicated reality of the situation to align with the orderly vision she has concocted.
Briony leads Lola back to the house. She hears Leon’s voice, and her brother comes heroically to pick up Lola. On their way towards the house, Briony starts to tell Leon about what has taken place, “exactly as she had seen it.”
McEwan’s phrasing reflects the way stories and writing can modify reality. Because Briony has decided she has seen Robbie red-handed, the book can make the claim as well—even though it is not true.