Robbie Turner sits in his bath and watches the dusky sky from the small bungalow on the Tallis grounds that is his home. He daydreams lustfully about Cecilia’s wet body emerging from the fountain. At Cambridge University, his interactions with her have felt awkward. Robbie imagines that Cecilia is unsettled by the fact that Robbie is her cleaning lady’s son, but Robbie is unbothered by his low social station.
Robbie is the spitting image of unbridled, youthful virility. His natural vigor is not dampened at all by his low social rank, and he seems—both to the reader and himself—to be utterly in control of his life. This moment of boyish daydreaming will stand in contrast to later parts of the work, when Robbie is wrongfully deprived of freedom by authority outside his control.
Robbie rises from his bath and thinks more about his encounter with Cecilia by the fountain. He worries about the anger she must feel towards him, but fantasizes that she will let her fury yield to romantic desire. He reconsiders; perhaps Cecilia’s goal was to humiliate him, or even to seduce him.
Robbie’s indecision shows that even from an insider’s perspective, the encounter at the fountain was hard to interpret. This suggests that Briony’s attempts to decipher it—based on even less knowledge of the event and of the world—will be seriously off-base.
Robbie sits before his typewriter, a gift from Jack Tallis, and surveys the schoolbooks scattered across his desk. He gazes at a photo of his parents, Grace and Ernest, as newlyweds. Ernest’s distance from his wife in the photo foreshadows an incident seven years later, when he quit his job as the Tallises’ gardener and abandoned his family without warning. Robbie’s eyes then shift to his admission packets for medical school, and Jack Tallis’s written promise to help pay his tuition.
The contrast this scene sets up illustrates just how much of a father figure Jack Tallis is to Robbie. At the same time, it establishes that no matter what Robbie’s individual capabilities may be, as a lower class man who wants to be a doctor he is completely dependent on the Tallises for their patronage.
After some more contemplation, Robbie begins to type an apology letter to Cecilia, but is unsure of what tone to use. He revises for some time, and suddenly writes a graphic description of his sexual fantasies. His anatomy book sits beside him, open to a diagram of the vulva. Robbie has ruined this draft of the letter, so he rewrites it in longhand, this time with the sexual language eliminated.
Like Briony’s stories, Robbie’s writing lets him create a universe in which he can manifest his desires, can make them real—though rather than accessing the consciousness of others, Robbie simply wants access to Cecilia’s body.
Robbie begins to get dressed in his suit for dinner, and starts to speak with his mother, Grace. Grace was taken on as the Tallises’ cleaning lady after Ernest abandoned her, because Jack Tallis could not bear to turn her and six-year-old Robbie away. Grace curried favor with the Tallises, and Robbie 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.
The Turners’ story illustrates their tenacity and merit, as well as the extraordinary generosity of Jack Tallis. It is doubtless this upbringing—and his confidence in Jack Tallis’s care for him and his status with the family—that has made him confident in his own abilities, rather than feeling limited by his social station.
After some small talk with his mother, Robbie places his letter to Cecilia in an envelope and bounds out the door, headed to the main house for dinner. He is fearful and excited to see Cecilia, but is convinced he is in love with her, and his bright academic future makes him feel optimistic. He enjoys the freedom that he feels, and longs to begin the next chapters of his life.
This moment, in which Robbie is full of unbounded promise and free to do as he pleases, is meant to stand in sharp contrast to later moments in the work. Later on, Robbie will find his liberties infringed by the judiciary and the military, as well as by the fact that the upper class naturally suspects the lower class, and this moment will be impossible to recreate.
On his way to the house, Robbie spots Briony standing alone in the driveway. He decides that it may be a good idea to send Briony ahead with his letter to Cecilia, lest Emily see him passing Cecilia a note and disapprove, or Cecilia reject his contact entirely. He asks Briony to deliver the letter to Cecilia and she runs away with the envelope in hand. Suddenly, Robbie realizes that he has placed the wrong letter in the envelope—instead of sending the non-sexual second draft, he has enclosed the vulgar typed letter. He tries to pursue Briony, but cannot catch up with her. She has already entered the house and closed the door.
Robbie’s writings, when introduced to the world, begin to shift and shape the narrative in a way that is beyond his control. This is very much akin to the way Briony finds herself unable to control the performance and reception of first her play, and then more destructively how the narrative she creates in her mind regarding Cecilia and Robbie’s relationship—and her own position as hero in that story—begins to assume power and influence beyond what she anticipates.