Briony notices a growing unease at the hospital where she works, as people prepare for an influx of injured soldiers. On top of this nervousness is Briony’s anxiety about displeasing her supervising nurse, Sister Drummond. Briony, a trainee nurse or probationer, has made several mistakes that she fears will attract the sister’s ire. Another probationer was disciplined for revealing her name to an inquisitive patient in violation of a fundamental rule of nursing.
Briony’s false testimony has altered not only Robbie’s life, but hers as well. The constant stress she experiences as a nurse—a job she has likely taken as a way of making amends for wronging Robbie—is not unlike the harrowing pressure Robbie experiences in battle.
The nurses clean constantly, but they have little opportunity to conjecture about the reasons for their preparations. They are under constant supervision: when a friend and dorm-mate of Briony’s, Fiona, complains about the food, she is made to finish her vegetables while a nurse watches. Fiona is from a well-to-do London neighborhood and has a father who works a high position in government. She and Briony have in common their lack of prior medical experience.
Becoming a nurse seems an unusual step for upper-class young women like Fiona and Briony, and the trying circumstances highlight the sacrifice that Briony has made. Both of these high-class girls are neophytes when it comes to living in the “real” world of bad food and deadly injury.
However, relationships are difficult to develop. Briony feels as though her only relationship is with the stern disciplinarian Sister Drummond, who imposes uncomfortable routines on the trainee nurses. These practices are based on the military-style nursing system of Florence Nightingale. This authoritarian nursing job, Briony reflects, has replaced her life as a student at Cambridge. Though there is some comfort in the abilities she is developing, she is fearful of the uncertainty that the future holds.
Just as Robbie has been isolated and forced to focus on his own survival, Briony, too, has been consumed by her work and unable to cultivate interpersonal relationships. The inaccessibility of the college-student life she could have had illustrates the cost of her inalterable testimony against Robbie, just as Robbie’s own lost medical career does.
** Before bedtime in the dorms, the nurses cry to one another about homesickness. Briony is repulsed by this behavior and writes curt letters home. The letters she receives from Emily in return describe the evacuees the Tallises have taken into their home. Emily also relays that Betty dropped and shattered Clem’s vase after, as she claims, it broke apart in her hands. These letters make Briony feel nostalgic, but she has decided that it is important for her to stay away from home and write infrequently.
Briony’s sporadic contact with her family, and nostalgic reflections about her home life, show that this aspect of her past is now a fundamentally inaccessible one. Her departure from home is the beginning of a permanent shift in her persona. The shattering of Clem’s vase connects to the shattering of the Tallis family, and that the vase “broke apart” in the servant Betty’s hands seems to indicate that whatever Cecilia did to fix it didn’t hold—and so the shattering is linked to the encounter Briony secretly watched between Cecilia and Robbie at the fountain.
Briony keeps a notebook next to her bed, which she uses to describe her life in the hospital and sketch out stories. However, she has little time to think on her own, as her days are so filled with nursing obligations. Still, during some time off, she wrote constantly, and completed a 103-page story that she submitted to a magazine. She is no longer interested in clear, orderly characters—now, she prefers to emphasize perception and thought. After months, Briony has received no response from the magazine, neither for the first piece she submitted nor for a second.
Briony’s new direction as a writer reflects her growing maturity. Trying to control and constrain her characters with neat roles was the immature and two-dimensional attitude that fostered her disastrous condemnation of Robbie. By focusing instead on individual perception, she shows that she has come to understand just how devastatingly incomplete her own point of view was when she testified against Robbie. Though the lack of response may suggest that in her writing she has overcompensated for her earlier weaknesses.
** Preparations at Briony’s hospital intensify, and Briony begins new coursework on nursing. Her primary task is sanitizing bedpans and other implements in the sluice room. As she straightens a bed, she catches a glimpse of a newspaper, which euphemistically reports of a British retreat from France. This, she realizes, is the reason behind the dread she senses around her.
The grim difficulties Briony faces in London parallel the worsening circumstances that Robbie must endure in France. The retreat in France seems likely to be the very retreat Turner is enduring in the second section of the novel.
A letter from Briony’s father reveals that Paul and Lola are to be married the following week. Briony processes this news, and realizes that she is the one who made this marriage possible. Her guilt follows her as she performs her nursing duties that day. On a break, she tries to call her father from a phone booth, but cannot get a connection. As she walks back to work, she passes two young army medics and notices them smiling at her. She looks away form them and feels guilty for not meeting their eyes.
Jack Tallis continues to be a missing presence, while Briony realizes further consequences of her actions. How Paul and Lola go from rapist/victim to husband/wife is never explained, but it seems likely that there is some deep pragmatism involved: the marriage allows both to hide their guilt about what happened to Robbie, and for Paul to ensure Lola never speaks while Lola ensures her financial security as a wife of a rich man. Briony’s inability to meet the men’s eyes suggests her own inner shame connected to sex.
** The hospital is eerily calm. To Briony’s surprise, the nurses receive a half-day break. She and Fiona spend it listening to a band playing in St. James’s Park. The atmosphere is carefree, but as Fiona speaks about her family, Briony thinks about Robbie. If he is killed in combat, her false testimony will have contributed to the permanent separation of Robbie and Cecilia. Compared to Fiona’s guiltless life, Briony’s feels confined and tainted.
Briony is obsessed with retracing the far-reaching consequences of her false testimony. The way her misdeed plagues her illustrates how her actions have placed her into a world of adult obligations and guilt, rather than the relatively carefree life a young woman might be expected to enjoy.
As the band plays, the girls joke about hospital life. They begin to laugh, realizing that their nurse uniforms make them invulnerable to others’ disapproval. The girls have a fun time, but as they return to the hospital they see a dismal array of wounded men assembled outside. A doctor commands Briony to take the other end of a stretcher he is carrying, which holds a wounded sergeant. Briony’s left hand threatens to fail under the heavy load. Just as she is about to deposit the stretcher on a bed, her hand gives out. She manages to catch the stretcher on her knee, but not without jostling the injured sergeant. This earns her a reprimand from the doctor. She waits by the bed to see if she can be of more assistance, and a more experienced nurse tells her to stop standing idle and get to work.
Just as Briony’s actions as a 13-year-old ushered her into a grim new world of adult responsibility, the juxtaposition of her day in the park and the hospital’s emergent crisis underscores how much maturation she still has yet to undergo. Her clueless behavior in the face of this crisis reminds readers that she is in some ways still the insecure, eager-to-please girl she was at 13. Now, however, her motivations and ambitions are far nobler. At the same time, Briony still wants to save people, to be a hero of sorts, when what the experienced nurses want from her is to keep on working on not focus on one injured soldier.
Ashamed, Briony goes to attend to more wounded men. She passes Fiona holding a mangled man on a stretcher, and the two exchange a shocked look. Briony is asked to take some men up to a ward, and is shocked when they violate protocol by climbing, still dirty, into their hospital beds. She tries to stop the men, but they are undeterred, and Briony is again reprimanded by a more experienced nurse for interfering with the men’s sleep.
Briony’s impractical dedication to hospital protocol shows that she has not yet fully abandoned her adolescent interest in order and control that does not match up with the facts or needs of the real world. Fiona’s shock at the influx of hurt soldiers is an indication of how sheltered her upper-class life was.
Back in her own ward, Briony is ordered to clean a corporal’s leg wound. She peels away the bandage to reveal a grisly gash, which she cleans gingerly. Fortunately, what appeared to be gangrenous skin is simply dirt, and she is relieved. As she works, Nurse Drummond appears and tells her that her work is good, but needs to be faster. She continues working, and her responsibilities increase. She is tasked with removing shrapnel from an airman’s leg. When Briony removes the first piece, the soldier screams a profanity. Nurse Drummond promptly reprimands him for his misbehavior. Briony finishes the task and vomits in the sluice afterward.
Briony has now crossed a further threshold of adulthood. Her testimony as a 13-year-old taught her that actions can have far-reaching, sinister consequences, but only now is she beginning to understand how severe these consequences can be. Her knowledge that Robbie is in the same situation as these men can only compound the revulsion she feels.
As Briony tends to more and more injuries, including men who die shortly thereafter, she begins to realize that the human body is a fragile, material thing. Because she speaks French, she is sent to tend to a young French soldier who, in his deliriousness, is convinced that she is his lover. He tells her about his family in Millau, and when he asks her to adjust his bandage, she sees that half of his skull is gone. They talk more, and the soldier asks if she loves him. “Yes,” she replies. Just before the soldier dies, Briony tells him her first name, in violation of a rule of nursing.
Briony’s willingness to bend the rules of nursing to comfort a dying soldier demonstrates how much the past hours of work have matured her. Instead of sticking to order and protocol, she has begun to understand that soldiers’ well-being is paramount. In telling the soldier she loves him, she is creating a story, using fiction, to comfort him. It’s worth it to note that the soldier’s devotion to his French girlfriend is reminiscent of Robbie’s love for Cecilia.
At 4:30am, the probationers are permitted to sleep. Briony reads a letter she has received. It is a rejection letter from the magazine, but it contains supportive input on her story. Briony’s story, Two Figures by a Fountain, details the encounter between Cecilia and Robbie that she witnessed as a thirteen-year-old. The editor’s advice is strangely prescient, and the letter asks whether the young girl’s misunderstanding of the encounter might have disastrous consequences for the two lovers.
The magazine’s encouraging rejection letter is a symbol that Briony has matured significantly, but still has a long way to go before she is fully ready to confront the significance of her actions as a 13-year-old. Her literary reflections are growing closer to representations of the reality of the situation, but, as the perceptive editors note, while she focuses on perception or its lack, she still has yet to fully face the consequences of her actions.
** Briony spends the following days in a rigorous whorl of hospital labor. She fears a German invasion. Everything around her looks different; her perspective has been altered by a sense of an impending conclusion of some portion of her life. The wounded and dying men begin to blend together in Briony’s recollections.
Briony’s perspective has been irreversibly changed by the suffering she has seen in the past days. She will never be able to return to the naïve perspective she held mere days before, when she laughed in the park with Fiona.
That Saturday, Briony leaves the hospital and begins a long walk towards Clapham Common. She feels out of place in her nurse’s uniform, isolated from her peers. She walks past citizens preparing to be evacuated to the countryside, and assumes they too are preoccupied about the threat of German invasion. Briony reaches the Common and finds a stately brick barn with a Rolls-Royce parked outside. She enters; it is Paul and Lola’s small, private wedding ceremony. Briony feels that she does not belong there.
This marriage is the only traditional “happy ending” in the novel, and Briony knows it is far from happy. She is no longer comfortable in the situations that would have seemed normal to her when she wrote the Trials of Arabella with its tribulations leading to marriage. Now she knows the messier, often terrible losses and mistakes that make up life. She has left behind the negative characteristics of her youth, but also lost an innocent past that she will never be able to recreate.
Briony sees Paul and Lola at the altar and remembers seeing young, vulnerable Lola with the injuries she suffered at Paul’s hands. By casting blame on Robbie, Briony has allowed Lola to marry the man who raped her. The officiating vicar asks if anyone objects to the union, and Briony considers speaking out in opposition, but she remains seated. The ceremony continues and the couple is married; on her way out, Lola makes eye contact with Briony, and Briony thinks that her cousin frowns in recognition.
When Briony was 13, she feared speaking out to retract her story because of the social stigma it would provoke. Her unwillingness to speak up at the wedding is very similar. She cannot challenge the marriage because she is too constrained by the narrative of Robbie’s villainy that has been unchallenged for years, a narrative that she created. It is interesting that Lola’s frown is just something Briony thinks she sees—is it real or a product of Briony’s particular perspective?
After the ceremony, Briony walks towards Balham. She remembers the day off she spent with Fiona, and muses that it feels like a “far-off, innocent time,” despite being less than two weeks ago. She continues through the periphery of London until she reaches her destination, a boarding house. She knocks on the door and asks for Cecilia Tallis. The curt landlady who answers summons Cecilia, who is shocked to see her sister without warning.
Briony’s work in nursing has stripped her of still more innocence and naiveté, and she is increasingly aware of how her life has changed after spending a week face-to-face with the casualties of war. Briony did not speak at the wedding, but her surprise visit to Cecilia indicates she wants to try to fix what she has broken.
The sisters talk tersely about their work in nursing, and about mundane developments from back home. Briony admires Cecilia’s beauty. After the landlady barks at them for standing in the hallway, Briony follows Cecilia into her room upstairs. The room is tidy, and to Briony it suggests loneliness. After some silence, Cecilia tells Briony that she took her letter to a lawyer. The lawyer told her that Briony’s change of heart means very little unless new evidence surfaces. Cecilia says that their last hope was Old Hardman, who has since died of cancer. Briony is confused; Cecilia’s tone grows more aggravated. Cecilia tells Briony that she will never forgive her, and Cecilia’s derision makes Briony fearful.
Briony, for the first time, is able to see the loneliness that her testimony imposed upon Cecilia’s life. Worse yet, Cecilia’s response destroys Briony’s hopes of truly being able to remedy her false testimony: the lawyer’s opinion emphasizes that her past testimony, and its effects, are largely unchangeable. She can’t take her story back. It is bigger than her, now.
After more back-and-forth between the sisters, Robbie appears from the bedroom. He is haggard and dressed in military fatigues. Though he ignores Briony completely, Briony is reassured to see that he has not been killed. Robbie goes to the bathroom, and Briony and Cecilia exchange a few words while he is gone. When he returns, he sees Briony and recognizes her. Cecilia tells Robbie that Briony plans to disavow her false testimony, but Robbie is furious. He tells Briony that he wants to hurt her. They tensely talk about why Briony chose to incriminate him five years earlier.
Robbie’s appearance suggests that he made it back from the retreat in France, and he and Cecilia have reunited. Yet his response to Briony illustrates the trauma he has suffered as a result of her misconduct. His anger is perhaps the strongest indication that no matter what Briony does to atone for her false testimony, she will not be able to fully remedy the damage she has caused.
Briony recognizes Robbie’s fury and anguish, and does her best to withstand them. Her experience dealing with raging soldiers in the hospital proves useful. Cecilia inserts herself between Briony and Robbie and begins to comfort her lover. Briony turns her back and allows the two to talk between themselves. After some time, Cecilia outlines to Briony what she must do: Briony will go to her parents and retract her testimony as soon as possible, and sign a sworn statement to that effect. Afterwards, she will give them Cecilia’s address and tell them that she is expecting correspondence.
Briony’s growing maturity and understanding of others is on display here. Although Briony may not be able to correct the far-reaching consequences of her testimony, it does seem as though Cecilia’s plan will bring some benefit to the family and to Robbie. Briony’s story has developed past her control, but there is a chance she can rein it in to some degree.
The last thing Cecilia and Robbie ask Briony to do is try and remember what Danny Hardman was doing that night. Briony responds that Old Hardman was likely telling the truth—Paul Marshall was in fact the one who raped Lola. After Robbie and Cecilia express some doubt, Briony reveals that she has just come from their wedding. Robbie remarks that he wants to find and kill Paul. Cecilia and Robbie seem completely drained after this news, and Briony prepares to leave. On her way out, she hears Robbie saying that he owes an apology to “Able Seaman Hardman.”
The unfounded suspicions Cecilia and Robbie held towards Danny Hardman illustrate just how easy it is for anyone to craft a biased narrative of their own that disregards fact. Briony blamed Robbie because it fit with her preconceived notions; Cecilia and Robbie did the same to Danny Hardman. Paul’s high social class likely shielded him from suspicion. Robbie feels a guilt toward Hardman that is not so different (though certainly not as great) as Briony’s guilt toward Robbie.
Cecilia and Robbie walk Briony to the Balham Tube station, which will soon be destroyed in a bombing raid on London. As they are about to part ways, Briony apologizes for what she has done. Robbie tells her simply to do what she has been asked to do. Briony heads into the subway, and feels comforted that Cecilia’s love for Robbie has not been destroyed. After taking care of the letter to her parents and her formal statement, she understands that she will need to begin an “atonement.” The chapter ends with the signature “BT/London 1999.”
After confronting firsthand the harms that she has caused, Briony now has a better understanding of what she must do to begin her “atonement,” and at least she has a path toward that atonement because her actions did not put a permanent end to the love of Cecilia and Robbie. The signature at the end of the book reveals that the entire narrative was written by Briony herself, many years in the future—this illustrates the impressive degree to which her ability to empathize with others’ perspectives has improved. Moreover, it reminds the reader that the entire preceding narrative, which depicted the pitfalls of constructing incomplete narratives from personal biases, was itself a narrative constructed by an individual.