As Atonement’s characters develop over the course of the novel and are inured to the sufferings of the adult world, they grow progressively less innocent. This universal loss of innocence is largely catalyzed by Lola’s rape and Briony’s false testimony. As a 13-year-old, Briony naively believes that she understands love and virtue and can flawlessly interpret her surroundings—and her incorrect interpretations have disastrous consequences. Briony’s false testimony against Robbie is innocent in the sense that she cannot fully comprehend the harm it will cause, but after she maligns him, she is fundamentally changed. She will never be able to retrieve the naïve perspective she held at the beginning of the book. As her innocence is shaken by further exposure to an unforgiving world, particularly her experience nursing injured soldiers back to health, Briony grows less and less confident in her own perspective and more open to understanding the perceptions of others.
Lola, of course, also loses innocence when Paul rapes her. Not only is she traumatically introduced to a violent, unsafe world, in the aftermath she allows herself to become complicit in Briony’s lie. This complicity compounds itself further when Lola marries her rapist, Paul. From then on, she must consider her victimization from a coldly pragmatic perspective—to allow the truth to surface would undermine her husband, and her own high social station which she gained through the marriage. In this way, Lola’s rape precipitates far-reaching psychological changes that make it impossible for her to regain the youthful perspective she held previously.
Robbie and Cecilia, the two people most directly harmed by Briony’s lie, also lose a great deal of innocence as a result. Once a promising medical student, Robbie is instead forced by jail time and wartime to focus his attention on his own survival. Instead of cultivating his intellect and learning to treat suffering, he must overlook others’ suffering to ensure that he escapes France alive. In a matter of hours, Briony’s testimony turns Cecilia’s naïve infatuation with Robbie into bitter resentment of her own family. Of course, most importantly of all, when this innocence is lost, it cannot be replaced. Briony cannot amend her misdeeds with her writing, nor can she legally exonerate Robbie by revising her testimony.
Lost Innocence ThemeTracker
Lost Innocence Quotes in Atonement
It would have suited [Cecilia] better had Briony wept and allowed herself to be comforted on the silk chaise longue in the drawing room. Such stroking and soothing murmurs would have been a release for Cecilia…addressing Briony’s problems with kind words and caresses would have restored a sense of control. However, there was an element of the younger girl’s unhappiness.
[The twins] watched [Lola’s] tongue turn green as it curled around the edges of the candy casing. Paul Marshall sat back in the armchair, watching her closely over the steeple he made with his hands in front of his face. He crossed and uncrossed his legs. Then he took a deep breath. ‘Bite it,’ he said softly. ‘You’ve got to bite it.’ It cracked loudly as it yielded to her unblemished incisors, and there was revealed the white edge of the sugar shell, and the dark chocolate beneath it.
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.
One word contained everything [Robbie] felt, and explained why he was to dwell on this moment later. Freedom.
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.”
In that shrinking moment [Robbie] discovered that he had never hated anyone until now. It was a feeling as pure as love, but dispassionate and icily rational. There was nothing personal about it, for he would have hated anyone who came in.
If he could not be with Cecilia, if he could not have her to himself, then he too, like Briony, would go out searching alone. This decision, as he was to acknowledge many times, transformed his life.
[Briony] would never be able to console herself that she was pressured or bullied. She never was. She trapped herself, she marched into the labyrinth of her own construction, and was too young, too awestruck, too keen to please, to insist on making her own way back…by clinging tightly to what she believed she knew, narrowing her thoughts, reiterating her testimony, she was able to keep from mind the damage she only dimly sensed she was doing.
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.
Robbie and Cecilia had been making love for years – by post. In their coded exchanges they had drawn close, but how artificial that closeness seemed now as they embarked on their small-talk, their helpless catechism of polite query and response. As the distance opened up between them, they understood how far they had run ahead of themselves in their letters.
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.
Growing up…godamnit! You’re eighteen. How much growing up do you need to do? There are soldiers dying in the field at eighteen. Old enough to be left to die on the roads. Did you know that?
[Briony] knew what was required of her. Not simply a letter, but a new draft, an atonement, and she was ready to begin.
The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.
I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me. Not quite, not yet. If I had the power to conjure them at my birthday celebration…Robbie and Cecilia, still alive, sitting side by side in the library…