Ian McEwan

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The Unchangeable Past Theme Analysis

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 Unchangeable Past Theme Icon

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 Cecilia, being a doctor—that she has stolen from Robbie’s life.

Not surprisingly, Briony’s accusation leaves an indelible mark on Robbie, too. As a consequence of his imprisonment, he is unable to continue his prestigious education and must instead enlist in the military. The violence and suffering that Robbie witnesses in the war traumatize him and permanently alter his temperament. Similarly, after Briony works her first shift in the hospital caring for seriously wounded soldiers, she feels as though she has crossed into a new stage of maturity and worldliness from which she can never return.

This theme of irretrievability meshes interestingly with the novel’s theme of individual perspective. In many ways, the most irrevocable changes in the novel come when characters lose the ability to perceive their realities in a certain way. For example, as an aging Briony reflects on her past, she no longer sees the world with the tragically narcissistic perspective she held as a child—and in this way, her new perspective irretrievably reshapes the reality of her life.

Related Themes from Other Texts
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The Unchangeable Past ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Unchangeable Past appears in each chapter of Atonement. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Unchangeable Past Quotes in Atonement

Below you will find the important quotes in Atonement related to the theme of The Unchangeable Past.
Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

One word contained everything [Robbie] felt, and explained why he was to dwell on this moment later. Freedom.

Related Characters: Robbie Turner
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1, Chapter 10 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1, Chapter 11 Quotes

In that shrinking moment [Robbie] discovered that he had never hated anyone until now. It was a feeling as pure as love, but dispassionate and icily rational. There was nothing personal about it, for he would have hated anyone who came in.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Robbie Turner
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:

If he could not be with Cecilia, if he could not have her to himself, then he too, like Briony, would go out searching alone. This decision, as he was to acknowledge many times, transformed his life.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1, Chapter 13 Quotes

[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.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1, Chapter 14 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis, Robbie Turner, Pierrot and Jackson Quincey
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Robbie Turner
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

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?

Related Characters: Robbie Turner (speaker), Briony Tallis
Page Number: 323
Explanation and Analysis:

[Briony] knew what was required of her. Not simply a letter, but a new draft, an atonement, and she was ready to begin.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis
Page Number: 330
Explanation and Analysis:
Epilogue Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Briony Tallis (speaker)
Page Number: 350
Explanation and Analysis:

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…

Related Characters: Briony Tallis (speaker), Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis
Page Number: 351
Explanation and Analysis: