Atonement

Briony Tallis Character Analysis

Briony is the novel’s protagonist. At the novel’s outset, she is a precocious girl with a gift for writing. However she is also a petulant child, both naïve and certain of her understanding, and her selfish stubbornness leads her to misinterpret a romantic encounter between her sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner. This jealous misconception leads her to wrongly implicate Robbie in the rape of her cousin, Lola Quincey, a crime for which Robbie serves three years in prison. Later in the book, Briony becomes a nurse and works to make up for the wrongs she has committed against Robbie. Towards the end of the novel, it is revealed that she has written the story o of the novel in an attempt to atone for the damages she has caused and rectify the falsehoods she spread. She narrates the book’s conclusion as an elderly woman who has been diagnosed with encroaching terminal dementia.

Briony Tallis Quotes in Atonement

The Atonement quotes below are all either spoken by Briony Tallis or refer to Briony Tallis. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Anchor Books edition of Atonement published in 2003.
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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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[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:

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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:

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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:

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Briony Tallis Character Timeline in Atonement

The timeline below shows where the character Briony Tallis appears in Atonement. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 1
Stories and Literature Theme Icon
13-year-old Briony Tallis self-importantly prepares for the debut performance of The Trials of Arabella, a short play... (full context)
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Briony is described as an orderly, if a bit fastidious, girl with a gift for writing... (full context)
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Briony’s cousins, the Quinceys—15-year-old Lola, and her nine-year-old twin brothers, Jackson and Pierrot—will be staying with... (full context)
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Briony returns to her room and wonders how she will cast her play. She rationalizes that... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 2
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Cecilia Tallis, Briony’s college-aged older sister, walks the grounds of the family estate and muses about the boredom... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 3
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Briony’s attempts to direct her play have been held up: Jackson wet his bed and was... (full context)
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Briony moves to a window and glances out across the grounds. She sees Robbie and Cecilia... (full context)
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Sixty years in the future, Briony will describe how this moment represents a crucial realization in her life—but that at thirteen,... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 4
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Cecilia spends the afternoon repairing the vase. Briony passes by in tears, and Cecilia endeavors to comfort her. Cecilia hopes to calm her... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 5
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To Lola’s and the twins’ puzzlement, Briony cancels the rehearsals for The Trials of Arabella. Lola walks around the house. She finds... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 6
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...as a banker and Cecilia’s as a college student. Emily then begins to worry about Briony, whom she believes is being mistreated by Lola. Lola’s free-spiritedness reminds Emily of her much-resented... (full context)
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Emily dozes off, and when she wakes she continues to think about Briony’s self-consciousness and talent. She reflects indignantly on Hermione’s self-indulgent abandonment of her children, and vows... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 7
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...island temple. From afar, it seems charming and serene, but it is actually in disrepair. Briony looks at the temple as she hits the lakeside nettles in frustration. She imagines some... (full context)
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Leon passes behind Briony, but she does not turn to acknowledge him. Instead, she continues swatting at the nettles,... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 8
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...was soon socialized with the other young children. A few years later, Grace’s help with Briony’s birth earned her ownership of the bungalow. (full context)
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On his way to the house, Robbie spots Briony standing alone in the driveway. He decides that it may be a good idea to... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 9
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As Leon and Cecilia walk back towards the house, they hear Emily reprimanding Briony and telling her to get ready for dinner. When Briony walks past Cecilia, she passes... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 10
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Briony has trouble deciding how she should feel after reading Robbie’s letter to Cecilia. She is... (full context)
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As she prepares for dinner, Briony tries to write about the interaction she witnessed between Cecilia and Robbie. Though her aim... (full context)
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Lola comes by Briony’s room and sits on Briony’s bed. She is covered in scratches and chafing, and explains... (full context)
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As Lola cleans up, Briony tells her of her interaction with Robbie, and the salacious contents of the letter that... (full context)
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As Lola continues to get ready, Briony descends to dinner and considers what strategy will be best to protect Cecilia from Robbie.... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 11
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Briony tells Robbie to leave Pierrot alone. Mrs. Tallis asks her daughter to apologize, as Robbie’s... (full context)
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...fantasizes about finding himself alone with Cecilia again. He remembers what happened after he chased Briony to retrieve the letter: Briony disappears into the house, and Robbie resolves to follow her... (full context)
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...by telling him that someone has entered the library. He looks behind him and sees Briony. He feels a pure, cold hate for the trespassing girl. The lovers put on their... (full context)
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...whisper to one another and then leave to go to the bathroom. As they leave, Briony notices that the two are wearing her socks, and screeches at them. Cecilia calls Briony... (full context)
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Briony says something that suggests she may give away what she saw in the library, and... (full context)
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As the family tends to Lola’s wounds, Briony finds an envelope left on Jackson’s seat. Emily demands that she not open the letter.... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 12
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Nevertheless, Emily thinks, Briony was out of line in her treatment of Robbie at the dinner. Paul Marshall eased... (full context)
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Suddenly, Leon, Cecilia, and Briony enter, comforting a ghostly pale Lola. Leon reaches for the phone and tells his father... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 13
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Briony searches for the twins in the night. “Within the half hour [she] would commit her... (full context)
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Briony continues searching for the twins. She moves towards the pool and admires the water’s calm... (full context)
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At this point, Briony could have gone inside to spend time with her mother. If she had, she would... (full context)
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Briony now feels that she completely understands what has happened. She rushes to comfort Lola, and... (full context)
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Lola then explains how her assault transpired. Briony emphasizes her conviction that she saw Robbie do it, though Lola tells her that she... (full context)
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The narration fast-forwards to describe what happens when Briony spreads her story of seeing Robbie. As more people hear and believe Briony’s story, she... (full context)
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Briony leads Lola back to the house. She hears Leon’s voice, and her brother comes heroically... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 14
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Briony’s memories of interrogations and sworn testimony in court will trouble her less than her patchy... (full context)
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...sedated and is now able to sleep. Everyone waits in the drawing room for Robbie. Briony decides to retrieve Robbie’s letter from Cecilia’s room. She finds it and brings it to... (full context)
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Briony stays up all night and shows the policemen the spot in the library where she... (full context)
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Finally, at around five in the morning, Robbie returns with the twins in tow. Briony is relieved to see the twins safe, but feels outraged that Robbie could try to... (full context)
Part 2
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...family: since Robbie’s sentencing in 1935, she has not spoken to Emily, Jack, Leon, or Briony. She corresponds with Robbie through Grace, who has moved off the Tallises’ grounds. Cecilia writes... (full context)
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...them. Her reply, the last to arrive before the mail stops being delivered, reveals that Briony has contacted her. Briony’s letter reveals that she has started training as a nurse instead... (full context)
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Turner is still deeply uncomfortable with Briony, and does not know how he would deal with her if he were able to... (full context)
As he drifts off to sleep, Turner fantasizes about being acknowledged as innocent by Briony’s new testimony. He then understands that guilt is not clear-cut: he himself has left others... (full context)
Part 3
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Briony notices a growing unease at the hospital where she works, as people prepare for an... (full context)
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...reasons for their preparations. They are under constant supervision: when a friend and dorm-mate of Briony’s, Fiona, complains about the food, she is made to finish her vegetables while a nurse... (full context)
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However, relationships are difficult to develop. Briony feels as though her only relationship is with the stern disciplinarian Sister Drummond, who imposes... (full context)
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** Before bedtime in the dorms, the nurses cry to one another about homesickness. Briony is repulsed by this behavior and writes curt letters home. The letters she receives from... (full context)
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Briony keeps a notebook next to her bed, which she uses to describe her life in... (full context)
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** Preparations at Briony’s hospital intensify, and Briony begins new coursework on nursing. Her primary task is sanitizing bedpans... (full context)
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A letter from Briony’s father reveals that Paul and Lola are to be married the following week. Briony processes... (full context)
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** The hospital is eerily calm. To Briony’s surprise, the nurses receive a half-day break. She and Fiona spend it listening to a... (full context)
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...the hospital they see a dismal array of wounded men assembled outside. A doctor commands Briony to take the other end of a stretcher he is carrying, which holds a wounded... (full context)
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Ashamed, Briony goes to attend to more wounded men. She passes Fiona holding a mangled man on... (full context)
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Back in her own ward, Briony is ordered to clean a corporal’s leg wound. She peels away the bandage to reveal... (full context)
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As Briony tends to more and more injuries, including men who die shortly thereafter, she begins to... (full context)
At 4:30am, the probationers are permitted to sleep. Briony reads a letter she has received. It is a rejection letter from the magazine, but... (full context)
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** Briony spends the following days in a rigorous whorl of hospital labor. She fears a German... (full context)
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That Saturday, Briony leaves the hospital and begins a long walk towards Clapham Common. She feels out of... (full context)
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Briony sees Paul and Lola at the altar and remembers seeing young, vulnerable Lola with the... (full context)
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After the ceremony, Briony walks towards Balham. She remembers the day off she spent with Fiona, and muses that... (full context)
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...sisters talk tersely about their work in nursing, and about mundane developments from back home. Briony admires Cecilia’s beauty. After the landlady barks at them for standing in the hallway, Briony... (full context)
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...appears from the bedroom. He is haggard and dressed in military fatigues. Though he ignores Briony completely, Briony is reassured to see that he has not been killed. Robbie goes to... (full context)
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Briony recognizes Robbie’s fury and anguish, and does her best to withstand them. Her experience dealing... (full context)
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The last thing Cecilia and Robbie ask Briony to do is try and remember what Danny Hardman was doing that night. Briony responds... (full context)
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Cecilia and Robbie walk Briony to the Balham Tube station, which will soon be destroyed in a bombing raid on... (full context)
Epilogue
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Now speaking in first person in 1999, Briony tells of her decision to visit the Imperial War Museum library on her 77th birthday.... (full context)
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Briony has just received dismal medical news. She has vascular dementia, and will slowly and inevitably... (full context)
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As she ascends in the elevator to the archives, Briony reflects that while she may outlive Paul, Lola will very likely outlive her. This means... (full context)
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Back in her flat, Briony packs her belongings for an overnight trip. She glances at a photograph on her desk... (full context)
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A car comes to pick Briony up. She makes small talk with the driver and then falls asleep. When she awakes,... (full context)
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Briony gets dressed in her hotel room and descends to the dining room. She is greeted... (full context)
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An announcement is made: there will be entertainment before dinner. Briony is guided to a front-row seat. Much to her surprise, the youngest Quincey children stand... (full context)
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After dinner and drinks, Briony returns to her room and stays up into the morning at her writing desk. Her... (full context)
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Briony reflects on her previous drafts. She acknowledges that this most recent version gives a happier... (full context)
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The problem Briony has pondered for her lifetime is how she may achieve atonement when she, the novelist,... (full context)