Cecilia spends a long time trying on different outfits before coming down to dinner. After deciding on an ensemble and finishing her hair and makeup, she exits her room to find Jackson and Pierrot in tears over being unable to find their socks. She comforts the boys and helps clean their room.
Though Briony has matured too fully for Cecilia to be able to mother her, Cecilia is able to manifest her nurturing tendencies towards the twins, whose behavior is still fairly infantile.
As she descends to the dinner, Cecilia imagines how the evening will play out. Her father will stay in town because of another late night at work. Her mother will anxiously tend to the guests, out of guilt at spending time away to deal with her headaches. Leon will avoid assuming his father’s role. These arrangements are familiar to her, and she longs to move on.
While Briony’s focus is on dictating and controlling what others do, Cecilia’s is simply predicting those behaviors. However, much like Briony’s self-absorbed literary musings, Cecilia’s efforts to imagine what will happen end up dreadfully different than the actuality. Cecilia will move on after this dinner, and not at all how she expects to.
Cecilia enters the kitchen and sees the cantankerous cook, Betty, snapping at other servants. After a terse discussion, Betty, Cecilia, and Emily decide on what menu best suits the summer heat. Cecilia goes for a stroll outside with Leon, and he tells her stories about his life in the city. When it is her turn to explain what she has been up to, Cecilia feels embarrassed to tell of her abortive projects, like reading Samuel Richardson’s book Clarissa.
Richardson’s Clarissa provides a notable symbol here: the classic novel’s plot revolves around the titular heroine’s struggle against sexual depravity and a cruelly unhelpful family. In a few chapters, Cecilia herself will find her life profoundly altered by these very factors. Using another novel as a foreshadowing of the plot also self-consciously highlights Atonement’s status as a novel.
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 her Robbie’s note, unsealed. Cecilia reads the note, and begins to realize her infatuation with Robbie. However, it dawns on her that Robbie would not have sent the note unsealed, and asks Briony if she has read the note. Briony avoids her questions, and before Cecilia can pressure her more, Paul Marshall shows up, entreating the guests to try a cocktail he has prepared.
Robbie’s note highlights the pitfalls of literary invention: one message can mean two very different things to two different people. While the vulgar missive prompts Cecilia to realize her love for Robbie, it will likely elicit a vastly different response in Briony, who lacks the perspective and maturity necessary to understand the letter as Robbie intended it, as one expressing love through desire rather than bestial lust. Paul Marshall continues to appear as a rather dull non-entity to most of the other characters.