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 injuries he suffers will be in some way her fault. Moreover, she is haunted by the pain she has caused her sister by slandering her beloved and forcing the two lovers apart. What’s more, as the book’s conclusion reveals, Briony has written the entire novel in an attempt to exonerate Robbie and atone for her lies.
Since McEwan casts guilt as such a powerful and universal human sentiment, it is worth noting that Robbie’s wartime experience often forces him to forego feelings of guilt in the interest of self-preservation. In this way, the author shows that Robbie has been somewhat dehumanized as a consequence of Briony’s childish misconduct. Because Robbie’s own fate has been determined largely by factors outside of his control, a portion of his capacity for guilt seems to have been transferred to the person who precipitated his misfortune: Briony. Similarly, Lola actually ends up marrying her rapist, Paul Marshall, and the implication is that in doing so these two characters are both able to hide or escape their guilt in allowing Robbie to be falsely accused, and that Paul is able to further hide his own rape of Lola in exchange for making Lola, the daughter of a divorcee, wealthy by marrying her.
Guilt Quotes in Atonement
It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have.
The scene by the fountain, its air of ugly threat, and at the end, when both had gone their separate ways, the luminous absence shimmering above the wetness on the gravel – all this would have to be reconsidered. With the letter, something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal had been introduced, some principle of darkness, and even in [Briony’s] excitement over the possibilities, she did not doubt that her sister was in some way threatened and would need her help.
[Briony] would never be able to console herself that she was pressured or bullied. She never was. She trapped herself, she marched into the labyrinth of her own construction, and was too young, too awestruck, too keen to please, to insist on making her own way back…by clinging tightly to what she believed she knew, narrowing her thoughts, reiterating her testimony, she was able to keep from mind the damage she only dimly sensed she was doing.
Briony’s immediate feeling was one of relief that the boys were safe. But as she looked at Robbie waiting calmly, she experienced a flash of outrage. Did he believe he could conceal his crime behind an apparent kindness, behind this show of being the good shepherd? This was surely a cynical attempt to win forgiveness for what could never be forgiven. She was confirmed again in her view that evil was complicated and misleading.
To be cleared would be a pure state. He dreamed of it like a lover, with a simple longing. He dreamed of it in the way other soldiers dreamed of their hearths or allotments or old civilian jobs. If innocence seemed elemental here, there was no reason why it should not be so back in England. Let his name be cleared, then let everyone else adjust their thinking.
Reading these letters at the end of an exhausting day, Briony felt a dreamy nostalgia, a vague yearning for a long-lost life. She could hardly feel sorry for herself. She was the one who had cut herself off from home.
Growing up…godamnit! You’re eighteen. How much growing up do you need to do? There are soldiers dying in the field at eighteen. Old enough to be left to die on the roads. Did you know that?
[Briony] knew what was required of her. Not simply a letter, but a new draft, an atonement, and she was ready to begin.
The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.
I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me. Not quite, not yet. If I had the power to conjure them at my birthday celebration…Robbie and Cecilia, still alive, sitting side by side in the library…