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The Unchangeable Past Theme Analysis

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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 most important plot developments in the work stem from actions or experiences that can never be erased or counteracted. Once Briony testifies against Robbie, she takes on a responsibility for Robbie’s fate that she will never be able to shed, and she loses an innocence that she will never be able to regain. No matter what she does to atone for her misdeed, she will not be able to replace the future—love with Cecilia, being a doctor—that she has stolen from Robbie’s life.

Not surprisingly, Briony’s accusation leaves an indelible mark on Robbie, too. As a consequence of his imprisonment, he is unable to continue his prestigious education and must instead enlist in the military. The violence and suffering that Robbie witnesses in the war traumatize him and permanently alter his temperament. Similarly, after Briony works her first shift in the hospital caring for seriously wounded soldiers, she feels as though she has crossed into a new stage of maturity and worldliness from which she can never return.

This theme of irretrievability meshes interestingly with the novel’s theme of individual perspective. In many ways, the most irrevocable changes in the novel come when characters lose the ability to perceive their realities in a certain way. For example, as an aging Briony reflects on her past, she no longer sees the world with the tragically narcissistic perspective she held as a child—and in this way, her new perspective irretrievably reshapes the reality of her life.

The Unchangeable Past ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Atonement related to the theme of The Unchangeable Past.
Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

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.


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Part 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

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 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

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 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

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.