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Themes and Colors
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Guilt Theme Icon
Class Theme Icon
Lost Innocence Theme Icon
The Unchangeable Past Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Atonement, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
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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.

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Class Quotes in Atonement

Below you will find the important quotes in Atonement related to the theme of Class.
Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

As Cecilia wanders around the ground of the family home, she reflects on the boredom she's been feeling all summer. As the daughter of a wealthy family, Cecilia has nothing she must do during the summer holidays. Here, her problems might seem frivolous when viewed from the outside: after all, she is incredibly privileged, and feeling "restless" because of a lack of obligations is hardly a severe problem. However, this passage suggests that wealth and opportunity can cause problems of their own as well. Cecilia's desire to feel urgent and needed will affect a number of her decisions later on, just as her class background will set a contrast to Robbie's own socioeconomic status.


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Part 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

[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.

Related Characters: Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

As the narrative shifts to Robbie Turner, the unusual relationship between Robbie and Cecilia is explored in a more explicit way. Here, Robbie tries to imagine what Cecilia might think about this relationship, wondering if she would consider it "awkward." He contrasts this discomfort with his own openness about their differences in class. In one way, he is firmly below Cecilia in the social hierarchy, but in another way they are both students at a prestigious university. It is this merit-based system of distinctions that Robbie embraces in order to remain serene and confident about his own place. At the same time, of course, given that this passage is firmly within Robbie's perspective, it's impossible to tell whether this is an objective account, or whether he is merely claiming an assurance that he might not entirely hold. 

Part 1, Chapter 10 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

As Briony goes over the events of the day in her mind, she acknowledges that they are ominous and complex, and yet she believes that she herself holds the key to determining what they mean. As readers, we recognize that what Briony interprets as ugly, brutal, or threatening could easily have a quite different meaning for Cecilia and Robbie. But Briony suffers from a limited perspective not only because she sexually immature, but also because she is already inclined to be suspicious of those different from herself - and Robbie, of course, comes from a lower class background than her family. 

At the same time, Briony seems almost eager to see what will happen next, as if the events were unfolding in a story she was reading. Of course, this notion allows her to forget that she may well influence the story herself, becoming involved in ways that change the narrative (and thus the shape of real people's lives) for good. 

Part 1, Chapter 11 Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Cecilia Tallis (speaker), Robbie Turner
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

Although this passage is a direct quotation from Cecilia, it is actually taking place in Robbie's mental recollection of the scene - returning us to the moments before Briony burst in on Robbie and Cecilia together in the library. Cecilia's difficulty in putting her feelings into words does suggest that there is something complex about her relationship to Robbie, but not at all in the way Briony has expected: instead, Cecilia's own perspective has been suddenly widened, such that she looks at Robbie in a way she never did, or never thought she did, before. 

Part of Cecilia's belated realization has to do with the fact that she and Robbie occupy separate social spheres, making the idea of a romantic interest between them unlikely given the clear boundaries between classes at this time and place. But it also has to do with her process of growing up, of having to grapple with sentiments that are complex for both social and psychological reasons.

Part 1, Chapter 12 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Robbie Turner, Emily Tallis, Jack Tallis
Page Number: 142
Explanation and Analysis:

Emily is in her room musing on various things as usual, rather than going out and helping to look for the twins. Her thoughts turn here to Robbie, whom Emily considers in a distanced, even cold way, even though he is such a part of the fabric of the family household. Emily contrasts her own views to that of her husband's, but neither position ends up seeming very generous. Of course, Jack's "principle" of equality is seen through Emily's eyes, so he may be more earnest than she gives him credit for, but if Robbie is no more than a "hobby" for him, that suggests that Jack still thinks of him as lesser than other people of his own class, able to be molded and tinkered with like an object. 

Emily, in turn, is frank about failing to care for or about Robbie - for her, class relations should remain as they are. But she also thinks about Robbie instrumentally, using him largely as a means by which to critique her husband and find more things to complain about him. 

Part 1, Chapter 14 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Robbie Turner, Pierrot and Jackson Quincey
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

Finally, after hours, Robbie returns home, and he is carrying the twins with him. As Briony watches him, it becomes clear just how much her own narrative construction of the night influences how she perceives reality - and influences reality itself. No longer is Briony hesitating internally, patching over her mental doubts by reiterating her testimony again and again. Now she appears to really believe the story she has told, so much so that she is the one who is angry at the guilt that she has assigned to Robbie.

Briony believes that her conclusions are part of her process of growing up and maturing, gaining a more complete perspective of the adult world with all the evil it entails. Of course, we as readers recognize that Briony's presumed maturity is no more than another kind of innocence, though one that is powerful and threatening in nature.

Part 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Robbie Turner
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

As Robbie struggles with his day-to-day existence in war, what keeps him going is the thought of a new life - not the life he left, since that had been irrevocably ruined by Briony's accusation and by his conviction - but by the possibility that people might realize they were wrong and grant him another chance. Robbie's "simple longing" belies just how complex the process of guilt and condemnation is. He certainly recognizes how slim the possibility of having his name cleared will be, and yet this constructed narrative is powerful enough to serve as the dream that he and his fellow soldiers need in a horrendous situation.

Part 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

As Briony reads the letters she receives from home, she thinks about her family and life at home almost as if it belonged to someone else. The nostalgia she feels underlines just how much Briony has cut herself off from home - and not only from the physical place, but also from the past and what it represents for her. Briony's past choices have changed the future for good, but by leaving home and becoming a nurse she hopes not only to atone for what she did, but also distance herself from who she was then as much as possible. 

Briony's refusal to feel sorry for herself suggests, too, that she has finally lost some of the "innocent" childhood self-absorption that led to so much suffering for others. Still, the way in which she considers the letters from home as relics of another world and life implies that she still secretly hopes that these narratives are firmly separate from her. If, instead, they still have something to do with her own life, that would suggest that she hasn't succeeded in atoning for or escaping her sins.