The dining atmosphere is suffocating. Dinner begins with an awkward silence. Robbie’s heart pounds, nervous to be so close to Cecilia. Paul awkwardly tries to start conversation, and Robbie notices that Paul has a scratch on his face. Robbie continues the exchange by asking about the weather, and Pierrot, who is seated next to him, thinks he is expected to respond but is too petrified to speak.
The superficial awkwardness of the dinner obscures the more threatening developments looming beneath. Paul’s scratch further suggests that Lola’s scratches came not from her brothers but from Paul. But nobody questions the mark on Paul, likely because nobody believes the dull, high-class Paul to be in any way suspicious.
Briony tells Robbie to leave Pierrot alone. Mrs. Tallis asks her daughter to apologize, as Robbie’s remark was perfectly harmless. Briony apologizes reluctantly. The conversation turns to the heat, and Leon innocently begins to pester Cecilia about whether it has caused her to misbehave. Cecilia handles herself calmly, but Briony speaks threateningly, and Robbie worries that she will give away what she has seen.
Briony’s demonization of Robbie is so out of hand that she pounces on him for making innocent small talk. She has so fully imposed her interpretation of the facts onto reality that she cannot distinguish the most harmless of gestures from the most threatening.
As the inane conversation moves along, Robbie 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 and confront Cecilia. He rings the doorbell and Cecilia answers with the note in her hand. The two go to the library to talk privately. Robbie apologizes for the letter, calling it a “mistake,” and Cecilia reveals that Briony has read it. They continue talking, and Cecilia tells him that she has feelings for him that she cannot put to words. Robbie tells her he feels the same way. Robbie comforts her, and the two start to kiss.
Robbie’s memory of his encounter with Cecilia fully dispels the veracity of Briony’s suspicions. Interestingly, while circumstances do spiral out of Robbie’s control as a result of his mix-up with the letters, this lack of control actually leads to a positive outcome—at least in the short term. Robbie’s indulgence in fantasy—and that fantasy’s intersection with reality—is what allows the lovers to finally realize, communicate, and consummate their long-held feelings for one another.
Robbie and Cecilia begin to touch one another passionately, and soon after begin having sex. They are both in awe of the intimacy they experience. Suddenly, Cecilia breaks Robbie’s ecstasy 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 clothes; their moment of intimacy is over.
From Robbie’s perspective, the library encounter is vastly different that what Briony observed. Briony has intruded upon a monumental manifestation of love, rather than the sinister assault she believes she has witnessed. Now Robbie, too, feels frustration when other individuals ruin his romantic visions; this is not unlike Briony’s frustration at the Quinceys for usurping her control over her play.
The narration fast-forwards back to the dinner. Jackson and Pierrot 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 a “tiresome little prima donna,” and explains that she took some of Briony’s socks when she noticed the boys didn’t have enough clean pairs. Briony feels “betrayed, by the one she only longed to protect.”
Again, Briony’s carefully-crafted perception of reality is broken when Cecilia shows that she is fed up with Briony’s nosiness, rather than grateful for her protection. Yet the jilted feelings Briony has here only cause her to withdraw further into her wrongheaded convictions and displace the blame onto Robbie.
Briony says something that suggests she may give away what she saw in the library, and Robbie quickly changes the subject to how well-behaved the twins are. Briony tells him this view is mistaken, and points out the scratches that Lola suffered at their hands. Emily seems shocked by her niece’s wounds. Paul volunteers that he saw the twins attacking Lola and had to break up the fight himself. Robbie wonders why Marshall had not brought this up earlier, given the extent of Lola’s injuries.
Paul’s eagerness to blame the twins for Lola’s scratches again suggests that he may have played a role in causing Lola’s injuries. Still, this far more suspicious behavior receives less scrutiny than Robbie’s innocent missteps, simply because nobody at the table’s preconceived notions—notions further influenced by their relative class—depict Paul as a threatening character.
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. Once her daughter has handed it over, Emily opens it and reads it aloud. It is a note from the twins explaining that they have decided to run away because they miss their home. The group decides to break up into search parties. Robbie is one of the last to mobilize, and he feels “cheated”—he wanted to cavort with Cecilia on the grounds that night. As the others move out to search, Robbie decides to go looking for the twins alone, and “this decision, as he was to acknowledge many times, transformed his life.”
It turns out that even the twins are too autonomous to be controlled by any of the other characters. Their choice to run away is unexpected to everyone, even the reader—this serves as a reminder that the narrative of the book itself is incomplete, and leaves readers open to surprises that subvert their expectations.