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 wants The Trials of Arabella to turn out exactly how she envisioned it, and the wants Robbie and Cecilia’s interactions to fit nicely into a storyline of her own devising. Her self-centered musings—“was everyone else really as alive as she was?”—indicate that she is largely insensitive to others’ perspectives, and instead is quick to impose her own narrative on what she perceives. To her, everyone else is just a character in he story.
Briony’s narrow-minded and automatic judgment of others has disastrous consequences. Briony, in response to witnessing events she does not properly understand, constructs a story in which Robbie is a thoroughgoing villain. This story soon spirals out of her control—much like the Trials of Arabella did—and leads to Robbie’s years of imprisonment.
Later on, Briony again crafts stories—only this time, she relies on her writing to come to terms with the hurt she has caused. Her first attempts are too simplistic: she submits to a magazine a piece about witnessing Cecilia and Robbie’s encounter at the fountain, and the magazine’s rejection letter encourages her to delve deeper into the harms the naïve witness might bring to the older lovers. However, at the end of the novel, Briony is more prepared to reconcile with her past through writing. The entire book is an illustration of the deep power of writing and storytelling: Briony can use her writing to reframe her past misdeeds, empathize with the consciousness of others, and even bring Robbie and Cecilia back to life. Nevertheless, Briony’s adult writings remain as unable to affect reality as her childish flights of fancy. Though she seeks to attain “atonement” through her semi-autobiographical reflections, she does not have to power to remake the past and remedy her harmful actions. One of Briony’s final reflections captures this tension between the novelist’s absolute control of narrative and simultaneous powerlessness over history: “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 top or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her.” She ultimately comes to believe that literature both can and can’t offer atonement, that it will not change the world but that the doomed effort to do so through literature is what matters.
Stories and Literature ThemeTracker
Stories and Literature Quotes in Atonement
[Briony] was not playing Arabella because she wrote the play, she was taking the part because no other possibility had crossed her mind, because that was how Leon was to see her, because she was Arabella.
…was everyone else really as alive as she was? For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave, and did she spend time thinking about it…if the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated…but if the answer was no, then Briony was surrounded by machines, intelligent and pleasant enough on the outside, but lacking the bright and private inside feeling she had.
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 very complexity of her feelings confirmed Briony in her view that she was entering an arena of adult emotion and dissembling from which her writing was bound to benefit.
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.
Robbie and Cecilia had been making love for years – by post. In their coded exchanges they had drawn close, but how artificial that closeness seemed now as they embarked on their small-talk, their helpless catechism of polite query and response. As the distance opened up between them, they understood how far they had run ahead of themselves in their letters.
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.
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…