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The Trials of Arabella Symbol Analysis

The Trials of Arabella Symbol Icon
The Trials of Arabella is the title of the play that Briony composes at the beginning of the novel and imperiously directs Lola, Jackson, and Pierrot to perform with her. At the end of the book, a new generation of Briony’s family performs the play to commemorate Briony’s 70th birthday. Because Briony authors and appears in The Trials of Arabella in much the same way that she authors and appears in the book as a whole, The Trials of Arabella serves as a synecdoche—a part of a thing that represents that thing as a whole—for the larger book that contains it. The play’s reappearance within different contexts of the narrative illustrates the way that Briony’s role is beyond her control, even when she herself has authored the part she plays. It is also worth noting that the Trials of Arabella also mimics the actual story of Atonement, as it tells the story of a heroine and her doctor, which matches up with the story of Cecilia and Robbie. And just as in the Trials of Arabella, in writing the story of Cecilia and Robbie the author, Briony, insists on giving her protagonists a happy ending. And yet the ways that Briony’s play don’t match up with reality—in the play it is Briony as Arabella who ends up with the doctor, Robbie in actuality doesn’t end up actually a doctor, the happy ending does not resolve all their misfortune or anger at Briony herself—create a kind of resonance that illustrates both how people both grow while staying in some ways the same, and how literature both can and can’t capture and affect the real world.

The Trials of Arabella Quotes in Atonement

The Atonement quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Trials of Arabella. 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:
Perspective Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Anchor Books edition of Atonement published in 2003.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

[Briony] was not playing Arabella because she wrote the play, she was taking the part because no other possibility had crossed her mind, because that was how Leon was to see her, because she was Arabella.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Leon Tallis
Related Symbols: The Trials of Arabella
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Having written a play, The Trials of Arabella, Briony now contemplates how she should best cast the work. By opening the novel with this series of events, McEwan emphasizes right from the start possible correspondences between this fictional realm and the messier, real-life events that will lack the comforting cohesion of a child's play. In addition, the casting helps us to see Briony's self-absorption (even if this is relatively normal for a young teenager).

Briony doesn't consider writing stories as a way to empathetically inhabit different lives or to imaginatively construct different possibilities. Instead, her writing reinforces her own perspective - she has created the character of Arabella to correspond with, rather than reimagine, how she sees herself. Briony's stubborn insistence on this limited perspective is portrayed as largely harmless and innocent here, even if it will lose this innocence later on.


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Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

Poor darling Briony, the softest little thing, doing her all to entertain her hard-bitten wiry cousins with the play she had written from her heart. To love her was to be soothed. But how to protect her against failure, against that Lola, the incarnation of Emily’s youngest sister who had been just as precocious and scheming at that age, and who had recently plotted her way out of a marriage, into what she wanted everyone to call a nervous breakdown.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Lola Quincy , Emily Tallis
Related Symbols: The Trials of Arabella
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

The book shifts in perspective once again to the viewpoint of Briony and Cecilia's mother, Emily, who suffers from severe migraines and retreats periodically to her room to rest and to think. In this passage, the narration takes on the stream of Emily's consciousness as she considers Briony and what she sees as the potentially damaging power that Lola holds over her (just as, presumably, Lola's mother held power over Emily herself when they were children).

Although Emily is one of the few adults whose perspective is described, at least at this point in the novel, her limited view on what is really going on between Briony, Lola, and the others only further underlines how little any one person can claim to be all-knowing. Emily does think of Briony as naive, but not in the harmful way that we have seen - rather, for her Briony's innocence is something to be cherished and protected against the evil that only exists beyond her.

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The Trials of Arabella Symbol Timeline in Atonement

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Trials of Arabella appears in Atonement. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 1
Stories and Literature Theme Icon
13-year-old Briony Tallis self-importantly prepares for the debut performance of The Trials of Arabella , a short play she has written about a young woman who overcomes various trials... (full context)
Stories and Literature Theme Icon
...misuse lofty words. She is eager to impress her family with her work, and sees The Trials of Arabella as having a particular potential to end in public failure. (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 5
Perspective Theme Icon
To Lola’s and the twins’ puzzlement, Briony cancels the rehearsals for The Trials of Arabella . Lola walks around the house. She finds her brothers, and they confess tearfully that... (full context)
Perspective Theme Icon
The Unchangeable Past Theme Icon
Stories and Literature Theme Icon
...a front-row seat. Much to her surprise, the youngest Quincey children stand up and perform The Trials of Arabella . Briony is quickly reminded of herself as a “busy, priggish, conceited little girl.” (full context)
Perspective Theme Icon
Guilt Theme Icon
Lost Innocence Theme Icon
The Unchangeable Past Theme Icon
Stories and Literature Theme Icon
...isn’t impossible to imagine Robbie and Cecilia alive and together, enjoying the recent performance of The Trials of Arabella . “But,” Briony remarks that instead of trying to conjure this image, “now I must... (full context)