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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. Her family has sent a car to pick her up after lunch, and she has decided to pay her respects to the people who work at the archives, whom she has gotten to know over the years. She will be donating her extended written correspondence with “old Mr. Nettle.”
And yet that moderately hopeful end of the third section does not end the novel. Briony appears to have dedicated a lifetime to atoning for the wrongs wrought by her adolescent mistake by providing a true narrative of what happened. Yet there is unease hidden in this discovery, as why would she have had to talk with these third-party sources to get the details of what happened?
Briony has just received dismal medical news. She has vascular dementia, and will slowly and inevitably sink into incoherence over the next few years. Briony is surprisingly upbeat about the news. As her taxicab arrives at the museum, she sees a black Rolls-Royce parked outside, which evokes memories of the Marshalls. Paul and Lola are now high-ranking socialites, actively involved in charity. As Briony walks up the steps, the Marshalls descend past her, surrounded by a gaggle of handlers and officials. Paul, she sees, is physically diminished but dignified. Lola is in impressive shape.
The source of Briony’s acceptance of her irreversible mental decay is unclear. Is she content with the work she has done to atone for her wrongdoing? Has she come to terms with what happened? Or is she looking forward to escape her feelings of guilt? Regardless, Briony’s impending loss of faculties means the last person to know what happened no longer will know. The only way to preserve what happened is through writing.
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 that Briony will not be able to publish a book without being litigated. At the archives, Briony hands over Nettle’s letters from Dunkirk, and receives in return a list of historical corrections to her manuscript, made by a fastidious old colonel.
Despite Briony’s impressive efforts to amend the historical record, she is still faced with the same inability to speak out that she experienced as a 13-year-old and as a young nurse at Lola’s wedding. As a writer, Briony may control her narrative itself, but she is still unable to control the way it is released into the world.
Back in her flat, Briony packs her belongings for an overnight trip. She glances at a photograph on her desk of her deceased husband Thierry, and realizes that she will someday be unable to recognize him. She calms her nerves by choosing an outfit for the birthday dinner that her family is throwing for her.
The brief mention of Briony’s late husband implies that she has undergone her fair share of personal joy and suffering as well. She has continued her maturation. She has lived life, and knows better than she did as a young girl or nurse the things she misinterpreted back then.
A car comes to pick Briony up. She makes small talk with the driver and then falls asleep. When she awakes, she is in the countryside, approaching a place called Tilney’s Hotel, which used to be the Tallis estate. She was last here for her mother’s funeral, 25 years earlier. Briony gets her room keys and finds it uncanny to walk through her old home and see numbers and locks on all the bedroom doors.
Briony’s return to her family estate highlights the dramatic changes that have taken place since her childhood. Not only is her perspective irreversibly different, the estate itself is also fundamentally altered, and will never be restored to what it was when she was younger. Her family has broken apart, just as the house has been divided up into separate suites.
Briony gets dressed in her hotel room and descends to the dining room. She is greeted by a large group of applauding relatives, very few of whom she recognizes. She sees Leon, who is doddering and wheelchair-bound, and greets Pierrot. She meets many generations of offspring, including the scions of Jackson, who died 15 years ago.
This family reunion recalls the dinner at the beginning of the novel, and suggests a cyclical quality to the narrative of Briony’s life. The applause she gets indicates how she is loved by her family, and the woman she has become, but also likely illustrates that few members of the family know of what she did as a young girl to tear the family apart.
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 up and perform The Trials of Arabella. Briony is quickly reminded of herself as a “busy, priggish, conceited little girl.”
Importantly, the meaning of The Trials of Arabella is fundamentally changed by the different perspective with which Briony now approaches it. Moreover, it should be noted that this performance of the play finally resolves the tension introduced at the beginning of the novel: for the first time, Briony’s work is actually performed, after it was long-ago waylaid by tragedy. She has come full circle on her youth, this time with a much wiser perspective. And yet this play which is now being innocently celebrated has a dark, unknown past.
After dinner and drinks, Briony returns to her room and stays up into the morning at her writing desk. Her many drafts of a memoir have never resulted in a publication, because it would be considered libelous to the Marshalls, who are known to be very litigious. Until the subjects of the book are dead, she may not publish it.
Unfortunately, Briony will never be able to truly atone for her wrongs in this lifetime. Just as she was unable to alter Robbie’s conviction, she will also be unable to publicize her revised perspective until Paul and Lola are dead.
Briony reflects on her previous drafts. She acknowledges that this most recent version gives a happier ending to the lovers Cecilia and Robbie. In reality, Robbie died of septicemia at Bray Dunes in June 1940, and Cecilia perished in the bombing of Balham Underground shortly thereafter. The visit to Cecilia’s after Lola’s wedding was a fabrication. This sad ending seems, to Briony, to be a disservice.
Until this moment, the reader likely believes that Robbie and Cecilia survived the war. Now suddenly it is clear that Briony invented their survival. Briony’s choice to let Robbie and Cecilia live on in writing illustrates the opposition between her literary fantasies and material reality. Her power as a novelist is to try to redeem herself by undoing the sweeping, tragic consequences she inadvertently caused. Just as created a happy ending for Arabella, she created one for Cecilia and Robbie.
The problem Briony has pondered for her lifetime is how she may achieve atonement when she, the novelist, cannot appeal to a power higher than her own creative abilities. Her imagination is the only deity. This attempt for atonement, then, was impossible—but it is the attempt that matters. Briony sees her choice to let the lovers live in her novel as a “final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair…I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forget me.” Briony muses that it isn’t impossible to imagine Robbie and Cecilia alive and together, enjoying the recent performance of The Trials of Arabella. “But,” Briony remarks that instead of trying to conjure this image, “now I must sleep.”
This final message offers an ultimate clarification of the role that literature can play in life. Briony’s work has allowed her to gain perspective on her actions, and to redeem herself in a limited way for her misdeeds. However, the absolute power she possesses within her own literary universe does not extend to the real world. Just as her neat-and-tidy imaginings of Robbie as a villain grew far more complicated, and far more dangerous, when they were introduced into the world, Briony’s literary attempts at atonement will never succeed as elegantly in real life as they do in fiction. Robbie and Cecilia didn’t actually live on, after all. Still, as Briony recognizes, this does not invalidate literary pursuits. Reflecting and reshaping her narrative in writing seem to have given Briony the closest thing to atonement that she will be able to achieve in life, and the happiness she gave her Robbie and Cecilia was a more mature happiness, one marked by the true sorrows and complexities of the world, and the happy ending Briony gave to her lovers did not spare Briony herself for her actions. Her story offers a limited atonement, but what other kind is there?