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  • Ian McEwan

Atonement - critical review

I read Ian McEwan's 'Atonement' after finishing Virginia Woolf's 'Mrs Dalloway' since I heard that they have been compared and in some cases, McEwan deliberately tried to imitate Woolf's work. After reading the novel, I also read the 'Short Connell guide' to it. The ideas that interested me the most within this novel were the exploration of literary tradition and storytelling (and how this should be done), different perspectives of narration, and the theme of the title: Atonement.

Hermione Lee argued that McEwan, through this novel, shows what the English novel has inherited, in which Briony makes her way through a 'whole history of literature while discovering for herself psychological realism'. The whole novel is structured by Briony's desire to write a novel, and we find out at the end that the book in itself is her finished work. Ian McEwan seems to incorporate ideas adopted by Woolf, in the way she wanted to "record the Atoms that fall on the mind.' In Woolf's 'Modern fiction' work of 1921, she argued that Edwardian predecessors were so concerned with the material world and describing this that they neglected the importance of psychology. McEwan makes direct interest to this through Briony referencing 'The waves' by Woolf, saying that she is impressed by this and says that 'it was thought, perception, sensations that interested her, the conscious mind as a river through time, and how to represent its onward roll.' However, McEwan seems to criticise this style of writing, possibly arguing that it is not enough in a novel. Briony sends her first draft as a novel into the publishers, in which she has only included the beginning of the novel where she sees the scene of Robbie and Cecelia by the fountain and explores different perspectives and her intrigue in this situation, without going in further to see the consequences of this. The fact that the publishers reject this draft, however, arguing that "you need the backbone of a story" in which there is also a plot and suspense, to please the desires of the reader, seems to echo the views of Ian McEwan, in which he argued that he wanted to escape the "dead hand of modernism" while still using some of its techniques. This argument, that there needs to be elements of both, is carried out within the novel itself: which represents Briony's response to her criticism: in which part two relies on the action, with much shorter, active sentences relying on the plot ("on the battlefield, the subordinate clause has no place".) Therefore, I took away the fact that the novel used elements of Wolf in a sense of phycological realism, mainly through the character of Briony, while contrasting that and complimenting it with the character of Robbie, mainly through the second part of the novel. It seems a post-modernist approach of literature, while still using elements of the past techniques that are evident in, for example, Woolf's novels.

Through this approach to storytelling, McEwan looks at different perspectives within the novel. The novel is narrated in free indirect style, through the third person narrative. However, it looks at different perspectives within this: Part one involving multiple perspectives of most of the dominant characters, part two being dominantly Robbie's and Part three Briony's. However, the reveal at the end of the novel that the third person narrator is Briony due to her being the writer of this 'novel', creates their perspectives to be merely an approximation. This makes the narrator unreliable and urges the reader to respond and create their own opinions about if Briony's interpretation of their perspective is correct. This unreliability is confirmed, looking back at the novel, through the statement that how "easily it was to get everything wrong" and this is shown further through Briony's misinterpretation of the fountain scene, in which she believes that Robbie ordered Cecelia into the water, when in fact it was the complete decision of Cecelia. This is further conveyed through Briony's statement that "I saw him", referencing the rape of Lola, declaring that it was Robbie. However, this creates the question of what "seeing" actually counts as, as it is always influenced by one's own perception. Ian McEwan confirmed this when he wrote that "the observer is part of what he observes", and further shows this idea that he was trying to portray that pure reality can never be achieved, since it is always influenced by the experience, thought and personality of the person. It portrays that reality is fractured and fringed, and can never be seen fully as 'pure' since it is seen by human beings, who are trapped in consciousness and therefore always influenced by other factors. This, therefore, makes the entire narrative questionable, necessitating the reader to try and separate the material world from the subjective person narrative, which is as impossible as a reader as it is in real life. It not only shows the unreliability in Briony as a narrator, since she is the novelist of the text and was mistaken at the beginning but also looks at literature as a whole, portraying that the author of the novel is always influenced by their own vision of the world through their own consciousness. This idea, however, does not necessarily criticise fiction but instead looks at it in an empathetic way. Briony's determination to "show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were alive" is exactly what she, and obviously MceWan and all authors do when they are writing fiction. McEwan himself, after the 9/11 attacks said that "imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. … It is at the beginning of morality." Therefore, although an individual can never escape one's own consciousness, I think McEwan defends fiction through arguing that even though the vision may be tainted, it is an attempt to try and achieve this necessary act of trying to understand other people's mind as equally alive and perceptive as one feels as an individual.

The title is almost a synecdoche for the whole plot of the novel, in which after the crucial turning point: when Briony declares that it was Robbie who committed the rape, she tries to atone for what she has done. However, this inability to do this, and doing it only through re-writing reality in her novel in which Cecelia and Robbie are reunited, may represent the theological view of humans inability to achieve salvation by themselves, after the fall. Briony tries to amend her crime, she takes on her nursing as a "sort of penance" and imagines being able to write to her parents and Robbie and re-verse her statement in the case. However, she tries to reduce her guilt by letting "my lovers live and unite them" and giving them "happiness." Briony recognises that this is not a real form of atonement, in saying that "how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?" Therefore, as a writer, she is merely consoling the imagination, in which in another world there was a different ending to reality. This both reflects on the power and powerlessness of humankind. The ability to use our mind to create a different reality seems to be looked at honourably in the novel, through the fact that the reader is not told until the end of the novel of the reality of the two lovers, and really believes alternative situation that Briony comes up with, in which Cecelia and Robbie live through the war and Briony has a chance to fix her crime. However, the powerlessness of human beings is portrayed, through the disappointment of the ending in which she admits it is only in her mind, and that she can never achieve 'atonement' for her action. The idea of this being a symbol of humanity as a whole and the result of the fall which granted us with original sin, is portrayed again in part two when Robbie reflects that "everyone was guilty", accompanied with the vivid description of injuries and war in parts two and three reflect further on the sinful nature of humanity, and how they have so much power over causing destruction, and can not achieve full redemption. This view is not completely pessimistic, however, since Briony portrays that we can attempt to achieve this salvation through admitting to our sinful action, and despite her reflecting that she can't fully atone, the cyclical structure of her at the end looking out the window represents a different person as was there at the beginning of the novel, in the way that she has admitted to her crime and thinks about the everlastingness of love through reflecting 'it's not impossible' that Robbie and Cecelia, were there, 'still alive, still in love.' Overall, however, the novel almost becomes a moral warning, that we are sinful in nature, and must be conscious of this since as humans we do not have the capability to atone for what we have done.

Overall, the novel looks at literature itself, and McEwan responds to the modernist approach of the 'stream of consciousness' within the novel itself and how it is written, incorporating both areas of this through looking inside sensations and thoughts, while also having a driving plot and suspense. It also looks at humanity in both an optimistic and pessimistic way, through looking at the idea that we can never achieve a 'pure' reality since we are always conscious therefore always influenced by our perceptions, situations and past, however, we can try and understand humanity itself through the idea that other people are as alive as ourselves, and this may be achieved through fiction. The unreliability of the text represents our vision of the world itself, however, this does not ruin but instead enhances the text, in the way that it is narrated by Briony, therefore looks into one persons (but overall McEwan's as the author of the novel) perception and view of the world, therefore allowing us as readers to understand other beings as alive as ourselves. It also reflects on Atonement itself, and humans capabilities in causing destruction and suffering, and incorporates the view of Original sin and that we are incapable of earning salvation ourselves.

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