Robbie, now referred to as “Turner,” is a soldier in the British armed forces, walks through France with two comrades. He looks for a map that he has taken from the fingers of a captain lying dead in a ditch a ways back, and to his surprise, finds it clutched in one of his own hands. Their path is littered with debris, and they walk past a severed human leg suspended in a tree. Turner walks ahead of his companions to consult the map. He is pained by a shrapnel wound in his side.
Part 2’s abrupt shift to this bleak scene of war highlights the suffering and desolation that Turner has endured as a result of Briony’s false testimony. By jumping straight to this jarring scene, McEwan shows just how far-reaching the consequences of Briony’s words have been. That the novel now refers to Robbie as “Turner” illustrates that he is now a fundamentally different man, and that he is now molded by how society sees him—the class and legal status of his last name—as opposed to who he is as an individual, signified by his first name.
Turner’s two companions, Corporal Nettle and Corporal Mace, are above him in rank—Turner is a mere private. However, the corporals must rely on him to navigate towards the coast. Turner leads them westward. After crossing a stream and running past a swarm of bees, the men come upon a French woman in her farmhouse.
As he did in university, Robbie uses his wits to transcend class boundaries in the military. Though he is of the lowest rank, private, he is an indispensable member of the escape party.
The woman tells them that they may not stay with her, but they inform her that they will be sleeping in her barn, and request any food and drink she can spare. The woman insists that the men cannot stay; her sons, she explains, are “animals,” and will return soon. The three soldiers ignore her and take water from the house pump. The woman tells Turner that her sons will kill her and the Englishmen, but the men set up camp in the woman’s barn anyway. Mace, a cook, crafts impromptu mattresses. Turner warns his friends of the woman’s threats and tells them to keep their weapons handy.
The soldiers are focused entirely on their own basic survival needs, and this causes them to ignore the woman’s warnings. Turner’s military service has evidently forced him to devote all of his energies to merely staying alive.
A girl from the farm brings a basket of food and runs away. The men eat ravenously. After a while, two men appear at the door. They appear to be armed, and they announce that they have something for the soldiers. After a tense exchange, the Frenchmen reveal that they have brought a baguette, wine, and other foodstuffs. All of the men eat together and make toasts wishing for the defeat of Germany. The men relay traumatic news of a skirmish nearby, but have no idea which side has prevailed. Turner then tells the men the story of being separated from his unit, and explains that he and the corporals are walking towards Dunkirk.
The camaraderie the soldiers experience seems like a rarity in their situation. This exchange is designed to contextualize Turner’s trek across France, and explain why he has found himself part of an unlikely trio with Mace and Nettle.
The Frenchmen explain how their aging mother—the woman in the farmhouse—hates soldiers indiscriminately. She lost one of her sons in World War I. The Frenchmen lament the way that history is repeating itself, just 25 years after World War I. Turner, ashamed to be retreating from France, vows that the British will return to expel the Germans. With this promise, the two groups part ways for the night.
The war has trapped these men within a story that is far larger than them. Turner once again finds himself unable to control his circumstances, and his promise to return shows that his spirit has not been entirely broken by what he has endured.
Turner lies awake while the corporals snore. He manages some fitful sleep, but his thoughts keep wandering to the three and a half years he spent in prison. He thinks of Cecilia’s promise that she will wait for him, and realizes that he has some hope. His means of survival is the letter she has sent him. If he is overtaken by the Germans, his best hope is a prison camp, and he knows that without an end in sight, or letters from Cecilia, he has no hope of surviving. Trying to get back to sleep, he thinks about his most recent meeting with Cecilia, in a café in 1939. He had been out of prison for six days, and had one day left until he had to report for duty as a soldier.
Though his focus on survival may seem somewhat selfish, Turner’s devotion to Cecilia shows that she is more important to him than life itself. Without a chance to see Cecilia, Turner understands that he will not be able to continue living. In contrast to Briony’s fantastical ideas of reality, which had such negative consequences in earlier chapters, Turner uses an idealized vision of Cecilia for the noble purpose of motivating his own survival.
In prison, Turner was not allowed any female visitors other than his mother, for fear that a woman’s presence would “inflame” him. Cecilia wrote him weekly letters; sometimes, these letters—and his responses—were confiscated because they seemed to be too affectionate. The lovers developed a literary code to discreetly convey their sexual feelings.
The lovers’ literary shorthand illustrates the liberating power of literature. While the fantasies that literature brings to life can be harmful, like Briony’s, they need not always be.
At their first meeting in years, Cecilia entered the café in her nurse’s outfit. The moment of their reuniting is awkward—it cannot match up to the intimacy they have crafted in their years of written correspondence. They talk about mundane issues, and it is soon time for Cecilia to return to work. Turner wonders if Cecilia pities him for the way prison has diminished his appearance. After some small-talk, Cecilia must leave for work. Turner gives her his new address. Before she boards her bus, the two share a kiss, and Cecilia begins to cry. Afterwards, she gets on her bus, and Robbie immediately regrets not accompanying her all the way to work. He runs alongside the bus but is unable to catch up.
Once again, reality fails to live up to a literary fantasy that has been crafted in anticipation. The gulf between the two lovers illustrates the indelible damage Briony’s false testimony has inflicted upon them both. Further, the outside world continues to affect and constrain their relationship. Cecilia can no longer lounge about—having cut herself off from her family in devotion to Robbie and his innocence, she now must work.
The two exchange letters during Robbie’s training and share details of their lives—Cecilia’s as a nurse in the maternity ward, Robbie’s as a trainee private. The threat of war unnerves them both, and Robbie is certain that it will happen. Another troubling issue is Cecilia’s estrangement from her family: since Robbie’s sentencing in 1935, she has not spoken to Emily, Jack, Leon, or Briony. She corresponds with Robbie through Grace, who has moved off the Tallises’ grounds. Cecilia writes him indignant letters about the way her family abandoned him, and how the police failed to investigate Danny Hardman duly. She writes that she had to choose Robbie over her own family, because he is her “reason for life.”
Briony’s story has profoundly disrupted the lives of every single character in the book. (Robbie has joined the army as a way to reduce his prison sentence.) Note again that Cecilia’s blind condemnation of Danny Hardman suggests that she, too, has devised a fanciful narrative to explain the tragic events in a way that aligns with her perspective and bias. Having been cut off from everything else because of the events of that night, Cecilia and Turner live only for each other, for some ideal vision of what their love is.
Although Robbie was scheduled to spend time with Cecilia after his training was completed, the outbreak of war forces his leave to be cancelled. He is assigned a four-day break on very short notice, and Cecilia is unable to rearrange her nursing schedule to see him. Robbie tries to take trains to see her, but is forced to turn back, lest he end up reporting late for duty.
Yet again, the lovers’ chance to be together is foiled by factors outside their control. Turner’s futile, time-wasting attempts to seek Cecilia out illustrate how powerless he is in his current position.
The winter is full of dull work for Robbie. He writes a letter encouraging Cecilia to reconcile with her parents, simply because he would feel too guilty if one of them died without Cecilia making amends with them. Her reply, the last to arrive before the mail stops being delivered, reveals that Briony has contacted her. Briony’s letter reveals that she has started training as a nurse instead of attending Cambridge University. She has begun to feel remorse for testifying against Robbie, and wants to meet with her older sister and with Robbie, in order to try and remedy her misdeeds legally. Cecilia is interested to learn more about Briony’s evolution, but her letter to Robbie says that she will not contact her sister until she hears Robbie’s response.
As Briony has grown up, has become more mature and knowledgeable about the world, she can now understood more pieces of the puzzle that she put together so incorrectly as a child, and can see past her original narrative. Briony’s decision to become a nurse rather than go to university seems to be a kind of penance for what she’s done, a choice to serve others (and soldiers like Robbie, at that) rather than herself. But whether a person can legally recant testimony given years earlier is another matter—some stories may not be able to be taken back.
Turner is woken up in the barn by his comrades. They divide the provisions amongst themselves and get on their way. German bombers fly overhead, and the men must stay off the roads in order to avoid airstrikes. The men continue walking and arrive at a small village. There is a traffic jam of military and civilian vehicles, as the villagers try to evacuate. Turner is indifferent to the suffering around him, and “his thoughts had shrunk to the small hard point of his own survival.” He tries to ditch the corporals and walks quickly up the road. As he passes in front of a car, its driver honks at him. Turner opens the car door and prepares to hit the driver in rage, but Mace catches up and stops him.
Though Turner suffers the horrors of war alongside many others, necessity has forced his perspective to turn inward. He can focus only on his own survival, not on empathizing with others. The need to survive has in some ways made Turner similar to Briony as a child, who only really believed in her own existence or importance.
The three men continue on the road, passing debris and abandoned equipment as they go. Mace and Nettle favor getting a ride on a truck, but Turner has witnessed a truckload of men getting obliterated by a bomb and insists on walking instead. The men pass the French cavalry methodically shooting their horses in defeat, and the bodies of a family lying in a ditch.
The carnage the men witness seems absolutely apocalyptic. These overt symbols of defeat contrast with the freedom and power Turner felt when he was a young man in 1935, prior to Briony’s testimony against him. The powers of class, law, and war have completely surrounded Turner.
Later on, the men pass a major, who tries to enlist Turner and his cohort in a last-ditch effort to fight an advance party of German soldiers. The men are skeptical of the mission, and Nettle tells the major that he has orders from GHQ to advance directly to Dunkirk without delay. The major begins to reprimand the men, but Turner tunes out the officer’s words. He can only focus on a German bomber flying towards them in the distance. He runs for cover under a truck and just misses being strafed by the fighter. After the attack, the men find the major again. To the major’s disbelief, the fighter’s machine gun shot him through the hand. The major orders the men to assemble, and Turner tells the officer that they would prefer not to. The officer dazedly lets them continue along their way.
Once again, obligations of rank and class seem secondary to Turner. The fighter attack illustrates how dangerous it would have been for Turner to obey his commanding officer rather than focus on his own survival. This cynical self-preservation illustrates the way Turner has been permanently altered by his wartime experience. In the shambles of their retreat, even the rank order of the army loses meaning. All the men are for themselves.
After Turner helps take care of the wounded, he finds the corporals digging a grave for an adolescent boy. The men continue trudging onward, and Turner again notices that the inflammation around his wound is growing, and it is causing him more pain. As Turner continues along the exposed road, he dreamily imagines being exonerated, as Cecilia’s latest letter implies he might be. He walks through bombed-out areas strewn with corpses and imagines that he might be able to enroll in medical school and settle into a life with Cecilia.
Turner is still deeply uncomfortable with Briony, and does not know how he would deal with her if he were able to return to normal life. In jail, he longed for revenge against her. He tries to understand her perspective, and recalls a moment in the summer of 1932 when he was teaching her to swim in a river. After they had finished swimming and changed back into their clothes, Briony asked him if he would save her if she fell in. Robbie tells her that he would, and she proceeds to jump into the river. Robbie manages to rescue her, and is enraged that she would risk both of their lives in order to be saved by him. After he reprimands her, Briony indignantly explains that she wanted him to save her because she loves him. Robbie imagines that in the three years after this event took place, Briony held feelings for him. Then, when she read his letter to Cecilia and saw the two having sex, she was so wrathful and jealous that she decided to condemn Robbie. He acknowledges that she was a child when she testified against him, but recognizes that he will never forgive her for what she has done.
Unlike young Briony, Turner makes some effort to understand the perspectives of others to develop his understanding of a situation. The swimming story encapsulates Briony’s selfish impulses and storybook sensibilities perfectly. Because she childishly believes that “love” entails saving someone from harm, she recklessly contrives a storyline in which Robbie will save her from harm. Robbie is in the conflicted position of understanding Briony’s motivations, sympathizing with her foolishness, and yet being completely unable to forgive her, because of the far-reaching repercussions of her lie. And, at the same time, there is never any indication in the first section of the novel that Briony loves Robbie and feels jealous of him, so Robbie’s sensible theory may also be totally wrong.
** Turner and the corporals pass through a village. Above them, a group of German bombers begins to circle. Turner runs through a field to take cover. An indecisive woman holding a small child runs past him, and he pushes her towards cover. The fighter drops its bomb nearby, and Turner again tries to get the civilians to take cover and avoid the fighter’s return strafe. The mother and child refuse to move, and Turner is left with no choice but to take cover on his own.
Turner’s justifiable self-interest also leaves him with some culpability: by striving to save himself, he does not protect others to the utmost of his abilities.
Turner stands under trees with a group of other civilians. Once they hear the all-clear signal, they continue to stand dazedly in the forest. Mace and Nettle find Turner, and the three get moving once again. They come upon a crater where the mother and child had stood—the two have been annihilated.
In some ways, Turner is responsible for these civilians’ deaths, because he did not make every possible effort to rescue them. This disturbing sight undeniably compounds his sense of guilt.
As the men continue towards their destination for evacuation, the beach at Bray Dunes, they pass more carnage. Turner wonders whether his absent father served in World War I. Finally, they reach Dunkirk. They see soldiers destroying uniforms and equipment. As they cross a bridge into town, the men notice that able-bodied soldiers are being mustered for defense duties. The men decide that Turner should fake an injury to get them off the hook. Feeling dishonest, Turner feigns a limp, and Mace and Nettle support him. They continue past the checkpoint, and Turner limps until he is well out of sight. After a good distance, Nettle is overcome with frustration and decides to throw away his boots, which he maintains hurt his feet. Turner retrieves them and convinces Nettle to carry them.
The soldiers’ desperation to survive once again compels them to make morally ambiguous decisions. Turner’s feigned injury makes him guilty in much the same way as his failure to rescue the mother and child from the air raid: he has forgone opportunities to help others in the interest of his own survival.
** Turner continues walking, and feels as though he is in an illogical dream state. The men reach the periphery of a resort at Bray Dunes, and an officious lieutenant reprimands them for their bedraggled appearance. Turner feels as though he could shoot the man with no consequences, but is too dazed to locate his gun. At long last, the men reach the beach, which is a chaotic scene. Turner surveys the ocean and realizes that there are no boats that could reach the area for hours.
As basic survival becomes more and more of a struggle, the order of Turner’s universe continues to erode bit by bit, to the point that he seems prepared to subvert military hierarchy and assault a commanding officer.
The men duck into a bar. Nettle looks for alcohol, but the place has already been raided. A commotion starts up in the doorway: a puny Royal Air Force clerk is being hassled by soldiers, because the RAF did nothing to protect against German bombers. The soldiers begin roughing up the clerk, and Turner worries that everyone will set upon the clerk at once. Seeing that the situation threatens to escalate, Mace sways the mob by yelling to drown the man in the sea. Turner and Nettle understand that this is a ruse to get the clerk out safely. Mace takes the clerk and runs through the door, while Nettle and Turner block the doorway behind him. Once the angry crowd breaks through, Mace and the RAF clerk have disappeared.
Fortunately, despite his immense preoccupation with surviving, Turner has not lost touch with his altruistic impulses. He and the corporals risk bodily harm to protect the RAF clerk, and this offers confirmation that Robbie’s traumatic experiences of injustice have not completely eradicated his internal sense of justice.
In town, Turner and Nettle find an old woman and demand water. She tells them that she will give it to them if they can find her pig. After a struggle, the two men manage to bring the pig back to its owner, and she provides them with water to drink and soap for washing up. After thanking the woman, the two men acknowledge that they must do everything they can to get on an England-bound boat the next morning. They take cover in a cellar full of other sleeping soldiers. Inside, the two eat hidden under their blankets to prevent others from noticing that they have food.
While rescuing the pig may seem altruistic and hiding food from their comrades may seem selfish, the two men’s actions have largely progressed past morality—they are doing both not out of goodwill or malice, but simply to survive.
As he drifts off to sleep, Turner fantasizes about being acknowledged as innocent by Briony’s new testimony. He then understands that guilt is not clear-cut: he himself has left others to die that very day. He then replays his memories of the night of his arrest, and the traumatic images he has witnessed during the war. Corporal Nettle pokes him and tells him" that he has been shouting “no” and waking up the other soldiers. Nettle tells him to go back to sleep, because the navy is coming and will march the men to the boats at seven in the morning.
Turner, like Briony, is coming to learn that life does not conform to a clear, logical order. Turner’s misfortune has turned him into both a victim and a guilty party, just as Briony’s lies have harmed herself as well as Turner.
Turner falls asleep. Cecilia’s remark, “I’ll wait for you,” echoes in his thoughts. He is determined to return to her. He remembers being escorted to the police car in handcuffs and hearing Cecilia tell him to come back. Turner promises Nettle that he won’t say another word—but Nettle is no longer nearby.
Turner has lost touch with the real world in favor of his fantasy of returning to Cecilia.