Atonement

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Atonement Part 1, Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Briony’s attempts to direct her play have been held up: Jackson wet his bed and was forced to wash the sheets as punishment, which has wasted valuable rehearsal time. Meanwhile, Briony attempts to direct her cousins, and finds that Lola treats her with deep condescension. Later, Briony sits by herself and wonders if anyone else has thoughts and feelings like her, or if she is the only person in a world of “machines” who has inner feelings. She is frustrated that she cannot absolutely control the order and scheduling of her rehearsals.
Once again, the neat and tidy universe Briony has constructed herself is disrupted by others’ actions, which lie outside of her control. This prompts Briony to reflect whether people can really be as complex as she is—an indication that she has a great deal of maturing to do before she can understand that the world is not like one of her stories, where she is both the main character and the omnipotent author.
Themes
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Stories and Literature Theme Icon
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 remove her clothes and enter the water. Briony is unable to understand the adult scenario she beholds and grapples with the realization that it is an encounter between two independent individuals that has nothing to do with her. She recognizes that the power of writing is its ability to show different perspectives and prevent misunderstandings by helping readers understand that others are as real as they are.
Briony’s limited perspective—both in not being nearby enough to hear and in being a child—prevents her from understanding what the encounter truly means to Robbie and Cecilia. She begins to grasp that she in fact has no control over how others act, and that their feelings are just as autonomous and powerful as her own. Still, Briony conceptualizes this moment in terms of her own writing work: she treats Robbie and Cecilia more like characters than like real, live human beings. Just as she assumed she would be the hero of the Trials of Arabella, she makes herself the center of the action here.
Themes
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Class Theme Icon
Stories and Literature Theme Icon
Sixty years in the future, Briony will describe how this moment represents a crucial realization in her life—but that at 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 judgmental of her sister, and begins to consider what it could have meant through both Cecilia’s and Robbie’s perspectives as well. She decides that she will write about this encounter when she has more time to do so.
Witnessing this encounter gives Briony a powerful introduction to the independent inner lives of others. However, her “self-mythologising” instinct prompts her to treat it as a writing exercise rather than as an intimate, significant event in the lives of Robbie and Cecilia. Their individual perspectives merely represent a challenge for Briony to master through writing.
Themes
Perspective Theme Icon
Lost Innocence Theme Icon
Stories and Literature Theme Icon