Atonement Alternate Perspectives

Atonement Alternate Perspectives #

By Janet Strachan

Below, you will see notes about a Marxist and a Feminist perspective as well as on a Deconstruction of the text’s generic, intertextual and metafictional properties. One perspective is to see it as a novel about the novel form.

1. Marxist/ Materialist readings of Atonement #

Marxist or Materialist critics relate literary works to the social conditions that produced them and are reflected in them. A Marxist critic would focus on the social inequalities in England in the 1930s and 1940s that led to Robbie’s imprisonment. They would focus on the class system that would prefer to see Robbie as a rapist than Paul Marshall (The kind of attitude that generally causes characters in traditional country house murder mysteries to exclaim that ‘it couldn’t be one of us’ preferring the thought of the culprit being an outsider, or failing that, one of the servants!).

But as Atonement was written in the 1990s, a Marxist (or Materialist) critic could also be interested in drawing parallels between the class prejudices of England between the World Wars and contemporary prejudices relating to race, ethnicity and religion. Certainly such issues interest Mc Ewan; one of his more recent novels, Saturday, deals with the issues behind the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York City on 9/11/01.

2. Feminist readings of Atonement #

Feminist critics look at the representation of women in literature and the way this reflects and mediates social attitudes to women. The issue of rape and the attitudes of the characters to it (Briony’s sexual innocence, her parents’ role in making her stick to her story and the characterisation of Lola) would be central, as well as the Marshalls’ and the Tallis’s marriage. Does McEwan’s text appear to blame the victim in the characterisation of Lola, for example? (And is this conscious if so?)

3. Deconstructing Atonement. #

In Atonement McEwan is saying something about the limitations of fiction in general and the English novel in particular. Ultimately, he is also saying something about its value (as an escape from, an atonement for, and ultimately a shaper of reality, whatever that may be).

In order to do this, McEwan employs metafiction and manipulates readers’ expectations of the genre. He does this by making many intertextual references.

Genre: the text is a novel, an English country house novel, a Modernist novel and ultimately a post-modern novel (see below)
• Metafiction: the meta-narrative of the epilogue, ‘London 1999’, Cyril Connolly’s letter as well as Briony’s confidences about the art of writing fiction make this a text which is self-conscious about its construction and style (also see below)
• Intertextuality: references to other English novels are plentiful in the text (again see below). These are the clue to the fact that McEwan’s text is ultimately an English novel about the limitations and achievements of the English novel from Fielding and Richardson, through Jane Austen and the Victorians to Henry James, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster and L.P. Hartley.

The Genre of Atonement: The novel #

THE NOVEL FORM. Atonement is (1) a novel (2) an English novel from the realist tradition (3) a Modernist novel (4) a post-modern novel:

Although stories which shared the characteristics of the modern novel may have existed in classical times, it is essentially a form which came into its own after the invention of the printing press and reached its heyday during the nineteenth century. A novel is a prose narrative, generally involving the story of one or more human characters. It is designed to be read privately by an individual reader, although novels often were also read aloud, for entertainment or instruction. However, they were also often considered frivolous, even dangerous fantasies, especially for susceptible young ladies (!)

(a) In the eighteenth century, it was often considered necessary for fiction to have a supposedly non-fictional (‘real’) framing narrative. Robinson Crusoe and Lemuel Gulliver, although fictional characters, were introduced by their creators, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift respectively, as ‘real’ sailors whose adventures were recorded in the first person in a journal or ship’s log.

Epistolatory novels (novels written in the form of a series of letters) like Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, (see p24, Atonement) were also popular, the letters serving as a narrative device to create a non-fictional explanation of how the story came to be written down. (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a combination of these two forms.)

In Part 1, Chapter 2 of Atonement, Cecilia expresses a preference for Fielding over Richardson, though she feels stupid for doing so. It is likely that McEwan shares Robbie’s preference for Richardson’s far more refined insights into his character’s conscience (after all Robbie did get a Cambridge First!) although he now rejects the first-person narrative as lazy writing (see below, p. 9). The many significant letters in Atonement may well be an acknowledgement of this eighteenth century convention. A famous critic, Ian Watt, has described the difference between the narrative methods of these two early novelists as that between Fielding’s ‘realism of assessment’ and Richardson’s ‘realism of presentation’ (e.g. letters). Fielding wrote in the third person in a heavily ironic voice but assumed that the reader would suspend disbelief and accept the ‘truth’ of the story without the need for a realistic presentation, while Richardson was able to present a direct insight into each character’s thoughts and motives without the intrusion of a narrative voice.

The choice of the extract from a novel by Jane Austen as Atonement’s epigraph, also suggests that despite the modernist and post-modern aspects of McEwan’s novel (see below) it is ultimately in the realistic tradition. In the nineteenth century, first-person novels like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre continued to be written. The last chapter of this novel famously begins with a direct address, ‘Reader, I married him.’ Such great Victorian novelists as George Eliot, even though writing from the point of view of an omniscient narrator (like God, see p 371, Atonement) in the third person, would also address the reader directly, a device which required a willing suspension of disbelief in the reader, in order to accept the idea that the narrator’s ‘fly on the wall’ perspective allowed a privileged view of his/her characters’ thoughts. Jane Austen (it is becoming clear that she is one of McEwan’s most important literary influences in this novel) at the beginning of the nineteenth century, developed a much more sophisticated narrative method, creating the free indirect style in order to write from a particular character’s point of view while retaining the third person and without having to introduce the narrator’s voice or write constantly in dialogue (punctuated by the ‘she saids’ and ‘and thens’ which make Briony wince on page 6 of Atonement).

This technique was developed towards the end of the century by Henry James. He used it to explore the inner life of the characters and the workings of human consciousness, the true purpose of fiction for McEwan too. (See note on the free indirect style, below,)

3. THE MODERNIST NOVEL. Such revolutionary practitioners of the novelist’s craft as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce adopted the free indirect style to explore the thoughts, sensations and impressions of their characters in a ‘stream of consciousness’. Joyce’s famous novel, Ulysses (1922) adopted the inner voice of its protagonist, Leopold Bloom as he travelled the streets of Dublin during the course of one day, June 16, 1904, now celebrated as Bloomsday worldwide. (Mc Ewan’s Saturday is, in being a story of the events of one day, an homage to Ulysses.) More influential on Briony’s style in the first section of Atonement are the novels of Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)and The Waves (1931), the latter being a series of soliloquies by six characters, each revealing a different perspective on the world they inhabit. In Woolf’s novels, plot is secondary to philosophical introspection, about which McEwan’s misgivings are shown in the fictional letter from Cyril Connolly to Briony because ‘such writing can become precious when there is no sense of forward movement’ (Atonement, p.312). Certainly the leisurely description of irrelevant sense impressions in Chapter 2 of Atonement is almost painfully slow in its forward momentum because Cecilia describes all her sensory impressions in such detail and self-conscious literariness. Of course, this is McEwan writing as Briony adopting her sister’s voice in an act of literary ventriloquism, the full import of which only becomes apparent on a second reading of the novel and a retrospective application of CC’s criticism.

4. THE POSTMODERN NOVEL draws attention to its own fictiveness and like all postmodern art, wears its own devices on the outside, foregrounding its artificiality in order to draw the reader’s/audience’s/viewer’s attention to the fact that it is not ‘holding the mirror up to nature’, but is, in fact a cultural product, influenced by all the other novels/paintings/works of architecture/films (Joe Wright’s Atonement adapts McEwan’s novel into a film so HIS intertextual references are to other films, rather than to other novels) which have gone before. (See intertextuality, below.) Postmodern architects make no attempt to conceal wires and pipes, even situating them on the outside of the building and having them painted bright colours, while fashion designers may put seams on the outside to draw attention to the garment’s construction, often leaving ragged edges instead of neat hems. The forms and functions of art/design/literature are thereby questioned from within the work itself. This is often done metafictionally, by giving the reader a choice of endings perhaps, like John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, or by a comical disruption of the story by one of the characters directly complaining to the reader about the tediousness of the role he has to play in the story. In drama, metatheatrical devices were used by Bertold Brecht to destroy the illusion of ‘the fourth wall’ and to discourage the audience from suspending disbelief (Such alienation devices were designed to encourage the audience to think as well as feel). Of course Shakespeare had already done this himself – see the article above, on the metatheatrical moments in Hamlet.

Atonement can be read as a POSTMODERN ENGLISH NOVEL. The metafictional ending of the novel, in which we learn that all the early chapters, supposedly written from Cecilia’s, Robbie’s, Emily’s and Paul Marshall’s points of view were actually written by Briony, makes it a postmodern novel, designed to encourage the reader to recognise the illusory nature of the novel form. Re-reading the novel after the bombshell of Robbie and Cecilia’s ‘real’ fate dropped in ‘London 1999’ and CC’s letter (also fictional though Cyril Connolly was a real person as were all the authors mentioned by him), the text either becomes an intriguing puzzle or an annoying bucket of cold water, depending on the reader! McEwan’s ideal reader is one who is interested in literary theory, not one who is interested merely in finding out what happens next to characters who have engaged his/her sympathy. Despite her best efforts to atone for her ‘crime’, Briony cannot give Robbie and Cecilia a happy ending. The final section of the novel, ‘London, 1999’ appears to conclude that despite its ability to comfort and distract, fiction ‘makes nothing happen’ in the ‘real’ world. (Read the poem by Auden, In Memory of W.B. Yeats mentioned on pages 213 and 242 of Atonement; it contains the famous line, ‘Poetry makes nothing happen…’) What McEwan is saying is that fiction is not reality and cannot change ‘reality’, but it can provide comfort to the reader for the harshness of existence and give the artist an opportunity to live the examined life. There is a sense in which Briony, by dedicating her life to writing and rewriting Robbie and Cecilia’s story has indeed atoned for her own part in their tragedy. At the very moment before its descent into senility and disintegration, Briony’s mind has achieved wholeness, has become ‘at one’. For all his questioning of the narrowness of the English fictional inheritance, McEwan finally finds value in Briony’s (and of course, his own) project. This is one perspective on the meaning of the novel, the deconstructionist approach. (You might consider reading The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, another postmodern novel, which presents us with two alternative endings, a wonderful fable which has occupied most of the novel, and a naturalistic alternative which hard- nosed realists may prefer.)

Here is a quotation from Stefan Collini’s review in The Guardian Weekly (22.04.11) of an essay on Atonement by James Wood.

‘The formal tricksiness of Atonement…can be seen, Wood suggests, as both prosecuting and defending fiction-making: perhaps we are made uncomfortable by McEwan’s devices [changing the ending of the love story as ‘an act of kindness’ by Briony to atone for her ‘crime’] because, given our readerly desire for the story we have been reading to stay within the terms of the implicit contract and to pretend to be true, we don’t want to confront the ‘fictionality of fiction’. But every reader of every novel has to come to terms with the fact that that it’s all “made up”, [even Robbie and Cecilia’s deaths are ‘made up’ by Mc Ewan!] and that’s how it shows us something about what we lamely call “reality”.

Brian Finney in his essay, “Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion” also suggests that the novel’s slippery boundaries between fiction and life ask the reader to consider how reality and history are also “provisional” – our lives are determined by the expectations formed by fictions about roles, about class and race and gender. History quickly becomes myth – like the history of Dunkirk, in which an ignominious retreat was changed into a valiant sacrifice and heroic rescue by British propagandists. So perhaps poetry (poetry meaning all art) does make something happen after all.

There are many other aspects of the text which make it postmodern.



Intertextuality is a literary perspective which aims to show that works of art are not reflections of REALITY. Instead, they create a story which takes its structure, plot, stock characters and other literary features from other stories, rather than from life. An intertextual perspective on a text will focus on pointing out the references to and quotations from other texts. In the case of Atonement, McEwan has made constant references to other novels so it invites an intertextual approach because it shows that he is saying something about his own literary inheritance (of plot, characterisation and setting as well as narrative method). Richardson and Fielding, Jane Austen of course (see below) but also Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, about a child who observes an adult world she doesn’t understand; L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between in which a child carries a fateful love-letter; E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, in which a young man, a convenient declasse scapegoat perhaps, is accused of sexual assault and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which uses explicit and taboo sexual language. More than one of these novels involved sexual repression and a typical English preoccupation with class difference. More than one is set in an English country house. There are many other novels whose style is imitated (see note on Virginia Woolf). The plot, characterisation, setting, style and central concerns of the first part of the novel are familiar from other novels but McEwan moves away from this tradition in Part Two, in which Robbie and Briony move into the wider world in which history is being made. Ironically, it is the material in this section which is supposed to have been plagiarised from eye-witness accounts of the war, but it is clear that McEwan has acknowledged his sources and has transformed them (as he did in Part One) for his artistic purpose. (Shakespeare did much the same thing with a document about the history of Amleth written by the 12th Century Danish monk, Saxo Grammaticus.) Note: Because the meaning of Atonement involves, on the most important level, the question of its own ‘truth’ or ‘fiction’, the references to other novels are important. It is a good idea to see Joe Wright’s film to see how cleverly he has used references to other films to replace McEwan’s references to other novels.

The Epigraph from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey #

The epigraph from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, is an important clue to one of the central concerns of Mc Ewan’s novel. Catherine Morland, Austen’s heroine, is an avid novel-reader and like Brony Tallis in Atonement, expects people in ‘real’ life to behave like the stereotypical heroes and heroines of the Gothic melodramas she loves. She allows her imagination to affect her judgement and becomes convinced that her host at Northanger Abbey, General Tilney, is a stereotypical Gothic villain who was responsible for the death of his wife. In the extract selected for the epigraph, Catherine is chastised by Henry Tilney who informs her that he was himself present at his mother’s deathbed. Mortified, Catherine, like Briony, is filled with shame…This aspect of the novel then is concerned with the way art influences life. Our expectations of ‘real’ life are often conditioned by the fictions we read, the films we see, even the paintings to which we have been exposed. (Nobody admired views from the tops of mountains until Romantic painters portrayed them as ‘sublime’; it has also been argued that nobody found sunsets beautiful until Turner’s paintings of evening light became fashionable.) It is certainly true that stereotypes in films have conditioned our responses to such villainous ‘types’ as Communists. (Russians were always the villains of Cold War thrillers, replacing Germans (Nazis). Now Moslems are demonised as terrorists. The dangers are obvious!

Moreover, Jane Austen, who was one of the earliest of English novelists, has herself been accused of being a miniaturist (see Briony, page 5) writing small domestic dramas of courtship and marriage, set in country houses and rectories, with only occasional visits to London and Bath. There is no sense in Austen’s novels of the momentous events shaking the wider world; the Napoleonic Wars merely provide dashing military or naval officers to turn her heroines’ heads with their glamorous uniforms.

Can Briony in Part One of Atonement (the first half the novel), be seen as a representative writer of the English novel, from Austen through to the modernist novels of Henry James and Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence (or at least the D.H. Lawrence of Lady Chatterley’s Lover) E.M. Forster and L.P. Hartley, preoccupied as these are with the endless comedy (and tragedy) of manners, of the English class system with its sexual repressions and taboos?
Is McEwan atoning for the English novel’s cosiness, its lack of historical sweep and scale, its lack of a War and Peace? (In Part Two we do go to war with Robbie). Does the English novel need to atone for ignoring the injustices underpinning its cosy setting, taking for granted the Anglo-centric British Empire indirectly responsible for the suffering represented by Robbie in Part Two of the novel?