The tension that drives the book’s early plot is the scandalous love affair between the wealthy, well-bred Cecilia Tallis and the low-class Robbie Turner, the son of one of her family’s servants. Although Robbie has been largely incorporated into the Tallis family, both by growing up alongside the Tallis children and by enjoying a stellar education sponsored by the family, he is nevertheless an outsider. Robbie’s future depends on the charity of the Tallises. His outsider status undeniably contributes to the swift and uncompromising isolation he experiences after Briony accuses him of raping Lola.
McEwan emphasizes that an individual’s social status has little correlation with his or her moral and intellectual worth. The chocolate heir Paul Marshall’s high social status likely allows him to escape suspicion for the crime he committed, and he never acknowledges his misdeed, and in fact even “buys” his way out of trouble by marrying, and thereby making rich, the girl he raped. Meanwhile, low-born Robbie is one of the brightest and kindest characters in the novel. However, while he may be morally and intellectually exceptional, Robbie’s low class does inhibit him from exercising the power to choose his own fate that other, higher-status characters do throughout the novel. Instead, he is left at the mercy of a biased system while other, more morally reprehensible characters go unpunished largely because of their greater social clout. And, further, Robbie is also not immune to class prejudice, as he assumes the even lower class Danny Hardman raped Lola, never imagining that it might have been Paul Marshall who did it.
Class Quotes in Atonement
No one was holding Cecilia back, no one would care particularly if she left. It wasn’t torpor that kept her – she was often restless to the point of irritability. She simply liked to feel that she was prevented from leaving, that she was needed.
[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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
Reading these letters at the end of an exhausting day, Briony felt a dreamy nostalgia, a vague yearning for a long-lost life. She could hardly feel sorry for herself. She was the one who had cut herself off from home.