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Stories and Literature Theme Analysis

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The end of the book reveals that all of Atonement is a semi-autobiographical novel that Briony has written decades after her youthful mistakes took place. This framing device gives new signifying power to the self-conscious storytelling and narration that appear throughout the plot. As Briony grows up, her approach to storytelling evolves to reflect her maturity as a human being. When she is a petulant teenager, Briony obsesses about mastering her surroundings and peers: she wants The Trials of Arabella to turn out exactly how she envisioned it, and the wants Robbie and Cecilia’s interactions to fit nicely into a storyline of her own devising. Her self-centered musings—“was everyone else really as alive as she was?”—indicate that she is largely insensitive to others’ perspectives, and instead is quick to impose her own narrative on what she perceives. To her, everyone else is just a character in he story.

Briony’s narrow-minded and automatic judgment of others has disastrous consequences. Briony, in response to witnessing events she does not properly understand, constructs a story in which Robbie is a thoroughgoing villain. This story soon spirals out of her control—much like the Trials of Arabella did—and leads to Robbie’s years of imprisonment.

Later on, Briony again crafts stories—only this time, she relies on her writing to come to terms with the hurt she has caused. Her first attempts are too simplistic: she submits to a magazine a piece about witnessing Cecilia and Robbie’s encounter at the fountain, and the magazine’s rejection letter encourages her to delve deeper into the harms the naïve witness might bring to the older lovers. However, at the end of the novel, Briony is more prepared to reconcile with her past through writing. The entire book is an illustration of the deep power of writing and storytelling: Briony can use her writing to reframe her past misdeeds, empathize with the consciousness of others, and even bring Robbie and Cecilia back to life. Nevertheless, Briony’s adult writings remain as unable to affect reality as her childish flights of fancy. Though she seeks to attain “atonement” through her semi-autobiographical reflections, she does not have to power to remake the past and remedy her harmful actions. One of Briony’s final reflections captures this tension between the novelist’s absolute control of narrative and simultaneous powerlessness over history: “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 top or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her.” She ultimately comes to believe that literature both can and can’t offer atonement, that it will not change the world but that the doomed effort to do so through literature is what matters.

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Stories and Literature ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Stories and Literature appears in each chapter of Atonement. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Stories and Literature Quotes in Atonement

Below you will find the important quotes in Atonement related to the theme of Stories and Literature.
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 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 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.

[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.