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Perspective Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Perspective Theme Icon
Guilt Theme Icon
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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.
Perspective Theme Icon

The most essential theme of Atonement is the way an individual’s perspective inevitably shapes his or her reality. At various points throughout the novel, McEwan filters the narrative through a particular character’s point of view. By juxtaposing the distinct, and frequently conflicting, ways his characters understand the world, the author illustrates that each individual’s reality is as much a product of their own biases, assumptions, and limited knowledge as it is a reflection of an objective, external truth.

The most powerful and consequential example of perspective influencing reality is Briony’s inaccurate incrimination of Robbie. A long chain of self-centered reasoning leads the young girl to believe that Robbie is responsible for raping Lola. First, her resentment at being excluded from Robbie and Cecilia’s mutual love predisposes her to view Robbie negatively. Later on, her childish imagination leads her to fabricate a sinister backstory to explain why she saw Robbie and Cecilia cavorting semi-clothed in the fountain together. These biases in turn drive her to surreptitiously read the lewd letter Robbie accidentally sends to Cecilia and conclude that the young man is a depraved maniac. Together, these hasty conclusions and unnoticed biases make Briony convince herself that she saw Robbie assault Lola, and attest this misconception to the police. At this point, Briony’s flawed perspective combines with the incomplete perspectives and biases held by authority figures like the police and Mrs. Tallis, and this is all it takes to fabricate a reality in which Robbie is guilty—even though that reality has no basis in actual fact.

However, even though Briony’s biased reality certainly causes the furthest-reaching repercussions, McEwan shows that no character is capable of seeing the world in a truly objective, balanced way. For example, despite being so deeply harmed by others’ hasty judgments, Robbie and Cecilia themselves (snobbishly) assume that the servant Danny Hardman was Lola’s true rapist, even though the facts indicate otherwise. Through this and other shifts in perspective, McEwan illustrates the crucial, yet capricious, role that narrative plays in our individual understandings of truth.

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Perspective Quotes in Atonement

Below you will find the important quotes in Atonement related to the theme of Perspective.
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 3 Quotes

…was everyone else really as alive as she was? For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave, and did she spend time thinking about it…if the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated…but if the answer was no, then Briony was surrounded by machines, intelligent and pleasant enough on the outside, but lacking the bright and private inside feeling she had.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Briony is frustrated by Lola's condescension as they rehearse the play - in general, the practicing is not going the way she hoped or expected. This frustration prompts Briony to reflect on feelings and lived reality in general. It's difficult for Briony to imagine that other people have as rich an inner life as she does, because while she feels her own frustration acutely, for instance, the feelings of someone like her sister Cecilia remain abstract and distanced to her. 

For Briony, the possibility that others do have complex inner lives is unappealing, since it makes things "unbearably complicated." She is absolutely bound to her own perspective on things, unable to see that others might be as human as she - and she is even unwilling to see that there might be something problematic about refusing to see that others are real people with their own complex emotions as well. Even the idea that Briony is surrounded by machines is unpleasant to her because of what it means for her life. In general, this passage is meant to show Briony as a thoughtful and, in some ways, mature girl, given that she is asking herself such deep questions at all. But it also shows her attitude as profoundly limited and self-absorbed: ironically, despite her eagerness to write and share stories, she remains uninterested in other narratives unless they are directly related to her own.

It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

As Briony watches the scene by the fountain between Robbie and Cecilia unfold, she initially feels distanced from the event, alienated by the realization that the scene doesn't have anything to do with her. However, Briony soon massages this understanding into a perspective that is more aligned with the way she already sees the world. Briony's perspective is limited in several ways here: she cannot hear or see everything that is going on, and she lacks a more mature conceptual understanding of what the relationship between Robbie and Cecilia might be like - and, in addition, she doesn't even realize that her perspective might be limited at all.

This scene is not exactly dramatic, and yet the older Briony characterizes it as a turning point in her life. In some ways, the "truth" that Briony seems to grasp here is, indeed, something that will become a crucial lesson for her, one that the book itself hopes to convey. And yet Briony's apparent realization, ironically, doesn't actually touch her - she is, at this moment, still unable to "enter these different minds" and instead continues to fix her own narrative on the experiences of others. Part of the tragedy of the past, then, is this gap between theoretical ideas and true understanding.

Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we are introduced to Cecilia's own inner thoughts, after having remained in Briony's mind for awhile. Briony is clearly upset, and Cecilia, though she wants to comfort her younger sister, is confused as much as she is sympathetic. The book's emphasis on the existence of multiple perspectives comes into sharp relief here, as both Cecilia and Briony hold different expectations about the other, even while they remain unable to understand each other's different experiences. Although Briony's mistakes will prove most tragic and irrevocable in the novel, here we see that Cecilia too is hampered by her lack of perspective, and by her desire for Briony's sadness - her gradual loss of childhood innocence - to conform to a framework that would make more sense to her.

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.

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. 

One word contained everything [Robbie] felt, and explained why he was to dwell on this moment later. Freedom.

Related Characters: Robbie Turner
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

Robbie is confident in the love he feels for Cecilia, and he is optimistic about his future prospects in university and in his career. The freedom he feels is part of a sense that soon he'll no longer have to rely on the charity of others, but will be able to make his own choices based on his own desires and goals. However, even as the book describes these sentiments of Robbie's, a later, distanced perspective is folded into this depiction. 

This moment, like several others in the book, is a turning point, even if its status as such only becomes evident later on. Only with the hindsight of experience, is it suggested, can one fully understand the implications of experience, and come to terms with the complex knots of a life's narrative.

Part 1, Chapter 9 Quotes

Initially, a simple phrase chased round and round in Cecilia’s thoughts: Of course, of course. How had she not seen it? Everything was explained. The whole day, the weeks before, her childhood. A lifetime. It was clear to her now.

Related Characters: Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

Briony has passed Robbie's note to Cecilia, and although - or, perhaps, because - it is so graphic and even vulgar, she begins to realize that she too has feelings for Robbie. In this passage, she returns to images and events from her past, reliving them in the light of this new knowledge: both Robbie's feelings for her and hers for him, as well as the way their relationship has developed over time. Her renewed understanding suggests that limited perspective is not just a quality of a certain character with respect to another - someone can also fail to truly see the full implications of his or her own experience, only gaining a broader perspective with the passage of time and with greater knowledge. 

Part 1, Chapter 10 Quotes

The very complexity of her feelings confirmed Briony in her view that she was entering an arena of adult emotion and dissembling from which her writing was bound to benefit.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

Briony is convinced that she has participated in something momentous, now that she has read Robbie's letter to Cecilia. Notably, she frames this experience in terms of participation, even though the letter was not meant for her, and she shouldn't have read it at all. But here as elsewhere, Briony considers other people's experiences and other people's relationships as relevant insofar as they affect her - relevant, in particular, as fodder for the narratives she constructs herself. 

Briony does in fact recognize that the world she has spied upon through this letter is more complex than she realized earlier. But she holds an instrumental view of this complexity: that is, once again, she considers it interesting and important in terms of what it can provide for her. Briony's relationship to these events remains distanced in the sense that she isn't, in fact, a full participant in such complexity - and yet what she considers as aesthetically, artistically intriguing will turn out to have irrevocable effects in real life as well, as a result of her own actions.

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.

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.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Robbie Turner
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:

Robbie is still recollecting the prior moments culminating in his moment of privacy and intimacy with Cecilia in the library, until Briony walked in on them. Robbie's feelings at this moment are described as acute and extreme. Briony has unwittingly interrupted both the act of love between Robbie and Cecilia, and the narrative that he has constructed regarding how their relationship will unfold. The intensity of these emotions underlines even further how much of a turning point this moment in the library will turn out to be, even if - or rather precisely because - it means such different things to the different characters experiencing it.

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.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

The twins have disappeared, and the group at dinner is about to fan out to look for them. But here as elsewhere, the novel is focused through the minds of the characters in a way that moves around in time. We are experiencing these events with Robbie, but Robbie is also present here later in time, looking back on earlier events and picking out what was particularly important. This distanced perspective is, however, tragic: regardless of how much Robbie will learn later on, regardless of how well he will be able to trace the series of causes and consequences and understand how and why certain things happened, he won't be able to turn back in time and change them. 

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 13 Quotes

[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.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

Briony has wholeheartedly embraced her version of what happened to Lola in the woods: she has claimed that Robbie assaulted Lola, and she clings to this story even as she begins to doubt it herself. As the story spreads, it becomes increasingly difficult for Briony to retract it. This passage, though, is focused not through Briony's confused thoughts at the time but through a later, more clear-eyed Briony, who situates this as the first moment of her wrenching guilt and acknowledges just how wrong she was.

Here, the narration is quite clear about Briony's blame and responsibility for falsely accusing Robbie, for letting the narrative running in her own head color not only how she saw things, but also how everyone around her could then interpret these events. Such events are certainly quite complex, as this passage makes clear, but Briony is the one who has constructed the "labyrinth" where she now finds herself irrevocably trapped.

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

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.

Related Characters: Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

After years of intense, passionate correspondence, Robbie and Cecilia are able to see each other in person for barely a few hours. Their reunion is nothing like either of them had hoped - they are awkward and uncomfortable, unaware of how to move beyond what is expected in polite conversation in order to get at what is real between them. They, too, have constructed a literary fantasy about their relationship, and now they are realizing that that fantasy is devoid of physical reality. Both Robbie and Cecilia have experienced a great deal as a nurse and a soldier, respectively, and yet this loss of adolescent innocence has in some ways forced them apart rather than drawing them closer. 

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.

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?

Related Characters: Robbie Turner (speaker), Briony Tallis
Page Number: 323
Explanation and Analysis:

Briony's meeting with Cecilia and Robbie is dramatic and painful. Here, Robbie unleashes much of his pent-up anger, frustration, and pain onto Briony. To him, it is unbelievably selfish and childish for Briony to consider the events of the past at all in terms of her own trajectory, her own process of growing up. Her actions, of course, have had an enormous impact on his and Cecilia's lives. In particular, it is because of Briony that Robbie has suffered as a prisoner and then soldier at all.

Robbie's time at war has provided him with an extreme contrast between Briony's privileged upbringing and the suffering experienced by people who should have had time to cherish their own innocence and youth. Robbie's outburst not only gives Briony an example of another perspective on suffering and maturing, but shows her first-hand just how irrevocably she has changed Robbie's own life for the worse.

[Briony] knew what was required of her. Not simply a letter, but a new draft, an atonement, and she was ready to begin.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis
Page Number: 330
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final lines of the main section of the novel, Briony finally sees a way forward, a means by which she can potentially undo some of the damage she caused. She is going to revoke her testimony against Robbie, a small action but one, she hopes, that will begin the process of clearing his name. This is one of the few places in the book where the past doesn't seem so unchangeable after all. There are second chances, Briony's plan suggests: a "new draft" of the narrative whose power she has only slowly, over the years, come to understand.

And yet, of course, at the end of the book, it becomes clear that this small hope will be erased by the deaths of Cecilia and Robbie. Their deaths are a final, extreme reminder that, after all, the past cannot be undone and a new draft cannot always be rewritten. Atonement, then, takes on a slightly different meaning upon rereading. No longer, for Briony, does it suggest erasure of guilt or past faults, but rather an unending process of coming to terms with the past and its irrevocability, one that can never be satisfactorily completed.

Epilogue Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis (speaker)
Page Number: 350
Explanation and Analysis:

The question that begins this passage can be understood as a motivating force for Briony's writing of her novel, a writing that has taken up years of her life. We see here just how all-consuming the process of atonement has been for her, and how Briony has attempted to complete it through her writing. And yet she also is faced with the paradox at the heart of using a narrative in order to atone for her sins. Atonement has deeply religious overtones: it suggests completing a set of actions so that a higher being, like God, will forgive you. And yet when Briony writes a novel, she decides what happens to her characters - she is a kind of god - which means that she can never be forgiven.

This paradox is lucidly and powerfully stated, but while Briony accepts the tragic reality of the failure of stories and imagination to atone for the past, she doesn't deny the power of the "attempt." Instead, she embraces a notion of atonement as an unceasing process, one that can never be fulfilled but one that she is committed to enacting again and again.

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…

Related Characters: Briony Tallis (speaker), Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 351
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, we as readers are given a privileged glimpse into the mind of Briony as writer, having completed the draft of the novel that takes up the main portion of Atonement. Briony wants to make clear that she hasn't allowed Robbie and Cecilia to remain alive at the end of this novel in order to make herself feel better, in order to indulge in fantasies that would allow her to somehow atone for her sins. Instead, the definition of atonement as partial and unceasing attempt, to which she has committed herself, gives her the possibility of allowing the couple to live on in fiction as they could not do in life. 

However, we readers are not the readers of Briony's novel, because we do know that the lovers didn't survive - we have learned that the end of her draft is only a fictional conceit. As a result, Atonement has its readers bear Briony's guilt and responsibility with her. We can have no illusions about a long, happy life between Cecilia and Robbie: instead we, with Briony, must continually grapple with how unchangeable the past remains.