Ian McEwan

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Themes and Colors
Perspective Theme Icon
Guilt Theme Icon
Class Theme Icon
Lost Innocence Theme Icon
The Unchangeable Past Theme Icon
Stories and Literature Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Atonement, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.


The most essential theme of Atonement is the way an individual’s perspective inevitably shapes his or her reality. At various points throughout the novel, McEwan filters the narrative through a particular character’s point of view. By juxtaposing the distinct, and frequently conflicting, ways his characters understand the world, the author illustrates that each individual’s reality is as much a product of their own biases, assumptions, and limited knowledge as it is a reflection of an…

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As the book’s title suggests, guilt is a primary theme of Atonement. After she realizes the damage that her callous testimony has wrought, Briony spends a lifetime burdened by her guilt and attempting to atone for her misdeeds. Instead of going to college, she becomes a nurse, perhaps sensing a duty to help soldiers like Robbie. She worries endlessly about whether Robbie will be harmed in the line of duty, understanding that any…

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The tension that drives the book’s early plot is the scandalous love affair between the wealthy, well-bred Cecilia Tallis and the low-class Robbie Turner, the son of one of her family’s servants. Although Robbie has been largely incorporated into the Tallis family, both by growing up alongside the Tallis children and by enjoying a stellar education sponsored by the family, he is nevertheless an outsider. Robbie’s future depends on the charity of the Tallises…

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Lost Innocence

As Atonement’s characters develop over the course of the novel and are inured to the sufferings of the adult world, they grow progressively less innocent. This universal loss of innocence is largely catalyzed by Lola’s rape and Briony’s false testimony. As a 13-year-old, Briony naively believes that she understands love and virtue and can flawlessly interpret her surroundings—and her incorrect interpretations have disastrous consequences. Briony’s false testimony against Robbie is innocent in the sense that…

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The Unchangeable Past

The most important plot developments in the work stem from actions or experiences that can never be erased or counteracted. Once Briony testifies against Robbie, she takes on a responsibility for Robbie’s fate that she will never be able to shed, and she loses an innocence that she will never be able to regain. No matter what she does to atone for her misdeed, she will not be able to replace the future—love with…

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Stories and Literature

The end of the book reveals that all of Atonement is a semi-autobiographical novel that Briony has written decades after her youthful mistakes took place. This framing device gives new signifying power to the self-conscious storytelling and narration that appear throughout the plot. As Briony grows up, her approach to storytelling evolves to reflect her maturity as a human being. When she is a petulant teenager, Briony obsesses about mastering her surroundings and peers: she…

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