Atonement, by Ian McEwan, is an exploration of the human imagination and its ability to obscure reality. In particular, the novel demonstrates how one lays a film of imagination over the landscape of reality, forming a new picture so deceiving that one can forget that the film is present at all.
Briony, the novel’s main character, is an imaginative young girl. She’s a storyteller at heart, already wrapped up in her imagination, destined to be a writer, and desperate for more drama in her simple life. McEwan writes of her, “But hidden drawers, lockable diaries, and cryptographic systems could not conceal from Briony the simple truth: She had no secrets” (5). She wishes more than anything that she had secrets to keep, but the pieces of her life that no one knows are the pieces no one wants to know. Briony’s craving for drama stems from her need for writing material, which is initially an admirable aspiration but becomes dangerous for everyone.
The way Briony floats away inside her own mind is another symptom of her literary inclination. Fixated on stories and unable to find worthy ones in her real life, she must search her own mind to find what she seeks, which draws her out of reality. Once again, this quality is endearing — tender and sweet — until it grows dangerous. Her ability to live entirely in her own mind disconnects her from reality and makes it easy for her to get lost in her own personal wonderland.
I would argue that Briony is one of the most controversial characters in literary history. One could easily sympathize with her, excusing her actions on the bases of her age and her terrified mental state, and defend her to the death. But one could just as easily denounce her as being satanic, holding her entirely responsible for telling a lie that destroyed at least two lives. One could even take both stances in the same essay. Ultimately, the debate over good Briony versus evil Briony comes down to one core philosophy: is a person’s morality measured in spirit or in actions? Are both pieces components in the ultimate judgment of one’s moral integrity? Does one weigh more heavily on the picture than the other? A subset of this question can be: do we believe in forgiveness? Can we redeem ourselves?
At worst, readers find Briony irritating in the beginning of the novel. She flutters around, she’s a bit nosy, she’s bossy. But others find her charming and endearing. Many have little opinion of her at all. It is only after her sin — telling a lie that destroys two lives, if not more — that these positions become polarized. The readership divides after this turning point into Briony haters and Briony lovers: the “kill Briony mob” and the “save Briony protectors.” The reader’s opinion of Briony says a lot about his or her own beliefs.
The “kill Briony” mob voices the cynical perspective. Briony is so desperate for something to write about — genuine drama — that she is willing to sacrifice the people closest to her. She presents a mere fantasy of hers as absolute truth, even when she is specifically given the opportunity to revise her statement. And she never clears innocent names by admitting that she lied to anyone who matters because she is a coward.
The “save Briony” protectors voice the sympathetic perspective. Briony was a young girl who witnessed an atrocity. Not knowing how to respond or where to file this painful memory, she attempted to bring herself and her cousin some solace by blaming someone. If she wavered in her accusation or far worse rescinded it, they would no longer have the comfort of knowing that the guilty man was behind bars. Not to mention, exchanging the truth for the lie would sacrifice more innocent lives just for the sake of punishing one guilty man.
I am inclined to side with the “save Briony” protectors, but I was originally a member of the “kill Briony” mob. What makes Briony such a controversial character is that she challenges our notions of right and wrong. The question that I find most provocative here is: if no one believed Briony, and everyone simply continued with his or her life, would readers still hate her? Would anyone perceive her as the antagonist if her lie had no effect? The cause would still be the same; the mistake itself would be identical to the mistake Briony makes in the novel. And yet, it’s difficult for me to believe anyone would have truly cared that she lied, or at least they would be more likely to be sympathetic.
Readers are quick to attack Briony. She causes the tragedy that the novel is centered on, which makes her the obvious antagonist and the clearest person to blame. It is far too easy to use Briony’s previously endearing qualities — her literary mind, her lofty imagination — against her. But deeper reflection upon her character presents a strong irony, which is that these readers make the same error for which they blame Briony. Briony wrongly blames an innocent man for a guilty man’s crime, and the reader wrongly blames Briony for not telling the truth when it is the same guilty man’s responsibility to come forward. The point I believe McEwan makes with this beautiful, complex novel is that we could all afford to be a bit more compassionate, a bit more sympathetic, and significantly more forgiving.
The sheer complexity of the characters in Atonement is the novel’s main stroke of genius.
McEwan writes with the kind of beautifully melded, yet down-to-earth language that makes book lovers smile to themselves as they read.
The plot is strong and rich. McEwan drives the novel through many different settings, masterfully navigating through each new scene. The plot is consistent enough not to perplex the reader, but changes so often that the novel feels fresh throughout the entire reading experience.
The ideas McEwan explores in Atonement are essential questions about the human condition that we spend our lives attempting to answer for ourselves. They’re not only complex and interesting, but are additionally important, home-hitting questions.
Difficulty: C (A is difficult, F is easy)
McEwan’s language is emotionally and intellectually accessible to a wide variety of readers. It’s neither overly emotional nor dry, neither convoluted nor juvenile.
Lanie is a first-year. She can be reached at email@example.com