Cecilia spends the afternoon repairing the vase. Briony passes by in tears, and Cecilia endeavors to comfort her. Cecilia hopes to calm her younger sister and feel as though she is in control, but is bothered that Briony’s sadness seems to have “an element of autonomy.” Briony says, cryptically, that “the whole thing’s…the wrong genre” and runs away, leaving Cecilia confused.
In this scene, both Briony and Cecilia are upset by their lack of control over other people. Briony is distressed that the real relationship between Robbie and Cecilia doesn’t conform to her childish, idealized vision of it; while Cecilia is upset that Briony has feelings of her own—feelings too complex for Cecilia to comfort absolutely.
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 estate—Leon and his friend Paul Marshall, the son of the millionaire manufacturer of the chocolate Amo bar. She goes down to greet the men herself, since her mother is lying down with a headache and her father is out of town. She instructs an awkward adolescent servant, Danny Hardman, to bring the guests’ bags to the second floor.
Cecilia must take over roles as a hostess and a mother, because her absentee parents are not up to the job. As a woman, she can’t escape this role.
The visitors converse with Cecilia by the swimming pool. Paul talks at length about his work in the chocolate factory, and the plans to make the Amo bar a standard issue confection for every soldier in the event that England decides to fight against Hitler’s agitations. As Paul speaks, Cecilia contemplates how ugly and boneheaded he seems.
This scene illustrates not only that Paul is self-absorbed and tedious, but also that Cecilia is equally self-centered. Neither seem to have any empathy for one another; Paul is interested in the enlargement of his fortune and not at all about Cecilia or the harm that will be done to soldiers in the war, while Cecilia is reflexively judgmental of Paul’s mannerisms.
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 him, but soon resigns herself to dining with Robbie. An awkward silence ensues, which Paul breaks by offering to fix everyone a drink inside.
Just as the Quinceys ruined Briony’s conception of how her play was supposed to turn out, Leon has ruined Cecilia’s image of the dinner party. The sisters evidently share the desire to control their surroundings—and the resentment of others’ unexpected exercises of free will.