13-year-old Briony Tallis self-importantly prepares for the debut performance of The Trials of Arabella, a short play she has written about a young woman who overcomes various trials to elope with a penniless doctor. Her older brother, Leon, will be visiting home soon, and she hopes to impress him with the performance. Briony’s young cousins are scheduled to visit soon as well, and they will be cast in the play.
By opening with Briony’s play, the novel emphasizes its own status as literature and draws attention to the process of writing in general. Further, note that the subject of the play resembles the subject of Atonement, in which Cecilia seeks to be with the lower-class doctor-in-training, Robbie.
Briony is described as an orderly, if a bit fastidious, girl with a gift for writing and a tendency to misuse lofty words. She is eager to impress her family with her work, and sees The Trials of Arabella as having a particular potential to end in public failure.
At this moment, Briony’s storytelling is utterly self-serving: she has few aims other than to impress her family, and seeks control to ward off failure.
Briony’s cousins, the Quinceys—15-year-old Lola, and her nine-year-old twin brothers, Jackson and Pierrot—will be staying with her family to escape a feud between their separating parents. When the Quincey children arrive, Briony does not consider their state of mind and begins to harangue them about rehearsing her play, but her older sister, Cecilia, and mother, Emily, try to make the other children feel at home.
Briony cannot understand the feelings of anyone but herself. Instead of empathetically working to ensure her cousins’ comfort who must be hurting from their parent’s impending and acrimonious divorce, she tries to rope them into the activity that is most important to her: filling out the cast of her play.
Briony returns to her room and wonders how she will cast her play. She rationalizes that Lola’s colorful, freckled complexion makes her ineligible to star as Arabella, and considers herself better suited to the role—after all, Arabella is really based on Briony, and resembles her completely. However, when Briony assembles the Quinceys to talk about casting, she is intimidated by Lola’s painted nails and perfume. Lola manipulates Briony into letting her play the role of Arabella, and Briony reluctantly assents. The group begins to rehearse, and as the disappointing reality of her play takes shape, Briony begins to “understand the chasm that lay between an idea and its execution.”
Briony’s vision of Arabella further reinforces that her writing exists only to gratify herself. Instead of using writing to explore new perspectives, Briony simply inserts herself into the center of her literary universe. However, the narrow-mindedness of this approach becomes obvious when other free-thinking humans enter the picture: outside of her literary world, Briony cannot control every detail of her circumstances. It’s worth noting here, as Briony ponders the difference between an idea and its execution, the difference between her story of a girl and a doctor – girl overcomes trials and ends up with her true love, and the much messier real world story of Atonement, in which the girl and the boy both die, and boy never even succeeds in becoming a doctor.