Atonement and All My Sons Comparing Analysis
The ways in which Miller and McEwan explore guilt and shame are very similar, with both texts set against the backdrop of the Second World War, although McEwan was writing years later in 2001. The majority of ‘Atonement’ is giving two accounts of the war, firstly from the perspective of a soldier retreating to Dunkirk and then from a young nurse working in London, while ‘All My Sons’ is set in the American suburbs in its aftermath. Both Miller and McEwan show how society, whether it is that of the English countryside in 1934 or post-war 1940s American suburbia, imposes guilt and shame upon others in their community. However at the same time, both writers show that a character’s own guilt and shame can be the ultimate punishment, destroying them to a greater extent than societal condemnation, whilst also being the only path to redemption. Although this is true for characters that have accepted their culpability, those who do not are forced to create new realities and live in denial – the single escape from the torment of their own degradation.Guilt is presented in ‘Atonement’ as something that society tries to force upon characters, specifically Robbie.
He is condemned by a hypocritical society and his adopted family as “morbidly over-sexed” and in need of “correction”: common pseudo-medical terms that transform his perfectly natural feelings into dangerous abnormalities. His desire for Cecilia becomes evidence that he raped Lola, as he has already shown himself in their eyes to be a “maniac”, making it easier for the family to send him to prison on the word of a 13 year old girl. However it can be argued that the most damning evidence against Robbie is his social class. He is the son of a servant, elevated above his station by the man of the house, who finances his education, and resented by Mrs Tallis. Before the social reforms brought into effect by the Second World War, British society had a rigid class structure, with the educated middle and upper classes, like the Tallis family, believing in their own moral superiority over the working classes, like the Turners. In other words, it is easy for the Tallis family to blame Robbie because he is expected to be less moral than them due to his low social standing.
However, despite this, Robbie never truly feels ashamed or guilty because he knows he has done nothing wrong and that all his actions have been done for love. At the end of Part 3 it is revealed that Robbie believed the actual perpetrator to be the worker Danny Hardman – he too makes a judgement based on class prejudices despite his own unjust treatment. The strength of his societal conditioning makes it impossible for him to even consider Marshall as a suspect and the late positioning of this revelation shows the reader that this classist attitude permeates the entire novel and is unchanged throughout the 1940s.The wrongful demonisation of Robbie is similar to the treatment of the Keller and Deever families in ‘All My Sons’. Like Robbie, the children and wives of the two businessmen are (perhaps to a lesser degree than Robbie) innocent, but the neighbours in their closely knit community in the American suburbs continue to condemn them throughout the play.
Ann remembers one incident at the time of the trial where a neighbour, Mrs Hammond, is “standing in front of our house and yelling that word [Murderers!]”. These harsh actions and exclamations are perhaps understandable given the gravity of the actions that Keller and Deever were responsible for but still seem shocking aimed at children. However, years later, when the actions of the play take place, another neighbour claims “I resent living next door to the Holy Family. It makes me look like a bum”. Comparing them to biblical characters is ironic given the atrocity committed and the subsequent cover up, but shows that this neighbourly condemnation is different to the first: Sue is not righteously enraged by crooked businessmen purposefully endangering the lives of twenty one pilots; she is resentful that it is not her prospering and receiving material wealth and social acceptance.
The play is set after the Great Depression in 1930s America and the neighbours seeing others make successes of themselves and achieving the American Dream while they struggled would obviously cause resentment (and maybe some guilt as they could not have the same “recovery of dignity and self-assurance” after their own inability to provide for their families). This causes Sue and other neighbours to continue to try to enforce guilt upon this family, despite Joe Keller being (wrongly) exonerated and the abuse being aimed at members of the family who did not partake in the crime. Therefore guilt and shame are presented by both McEwan and Miller as something forced upon characters by a resentful society where crimes involving them are used as excuses to ostracise them for deeper grievances. However although the two characters receive the same treatment, the circumstances surrounding them differ as Robbie is isolated for a crime he didn’t commit while Keller is cleared for a crime he did.Shame and guilt are also presented in ‘Atonement’ as the ultimate punishment: Briony is just as destroyed by her act as Robbie and Cecilia are, perhaps more so, as she spends the rest of her life trying to atone for her unforgivable deed. She undergoes the greatest change throughout the novel “from egocentric and foolish she develops into a person who has remorse and conscience”.
She does this first by becoming a nurse, cutting herself off from her family and giving up the Cambridge education that she could have had (although at the time she would not be a full student and would not receive an official Bachelors degree due to her gender), then by writing a book to clear their names posthumously. Especially telling of Briony’s torment is her thought that “Guilt refined the methods of self-torture, threading the beads of a detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime”. This makes the unbearable pain Briony is experiencing evident, but also emphasises the infinity of her suffering as it is like a “loop” that has no beginning or end. The fact that the guilt will remain for a “lifetime” also foreshadows for the reader that her sin will not be made right until the very end of her life when her book will finally be released, revealing the truth. The metaphor comparing guilt to a rosary is interesting because of how religion has used guilt to maintain order and invoke fear in the masses throughout history, particularly through the idea of hell. Therefore in this way guilt is the ultimate punishment for Briony, but experiencing this guilt is the only way she can atone for her crimes and redeem herself. Interestingly, Paul Marshall, who has the most to feel guilty for in the novel, never outwardly shows any signs of shame even years later: blaming the twins for Lola’s bruises, allowing Robbie to be imprisoned and marrying his victim. As they are for Briony, guilt and shame are the ultimate punishment for Joe Keller in ‘All My Sons’, but only once he is forced by his son to unwillingly accept his culpability (in contrast to Briony who is able to independently comprehend her guilt as she matures). Up until near the end of the play, Keller seems to be able to avoid responsibility for his crime by excusing himself as a pragmatist – he did what he had to do in order to support his family during the Depression.
Survival was his motivation after seeing, as Bigsby suggests in his 2005 critical study, “how fragile a grasp” people have on the world, and this protected him from contemplating the consequences of his crime, unlike Briony who bears her guilt and makes reparations. In this way ‘All My Sons’ becomes a damning criticism of the bloodthirstiness of capitalism and the American dream. He finally accepts his accountability delivering the line that provides the play with its title, “I think to him they were all my sons. And I guess they were. I guess they were”. The repetition here shows that Keller is finally comprehending the full consequences of his crime, but the remorse brought on by this revelation proves too much for him and the play ends after he commits suicide offstage, marking the complete decimation of his family and escaping any possibility for the redemption that Chris wants for him: “You can be better! Once and for all you can know there’s a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it”. Alternatively another reading of Keller’s suicide is that he shoots himself in order to avoid the humiliation of Chris’ condemnation and any subsequent jail time, destroying the fragile remnants of his reputation. But the idea that guilt and shame is the paramount punishment is shown throughout the play, with the actions of the father creating guilt in the children.
Larry kills himself out of disgust at Joe’s actions, writing in his letter to Ann “I can’t bear to live any longer”. Chris’s guilt is different and less destructive; he is ignorant of his father’s actions, but struggles with his privilege after the ruin of the war. His words to Ann “I felt […] ashamed somehow […] I felt wrong to be alive” show him to be suffering from survivor’s guilt but also finding that nothing “was changed at all”. Despite the prosperous life he is leading due to his father’s crimes, he feels shame that his fellow soldiers had been killed (and he had survived) for nothing. His guilt, combined with his father’s actions, eventually destroy his family and result in a guilt he will have to live with for the rest of his life. The end of the play marks the end of the Kellers, with only a grieving and guilty mother and son left alone on stage.
Therefore in both ‘Atonement’ and ‘All My Sons’, guilt and shame becomes a destructive force in the protagonists’ lives. In both ‘Atonement’ and ‘All My Sons’ regret forces characters to live in denial. In ‘Atonement’, Briony copes with the knowledge of her crimes by creating a new world through the power of imagination where her victims are finally given a happy ending. She “lets [her] lovers live and unites them at the end. [She] gave them happiness”. As Brian Finney suggests, “she attempts to use fiction to correct the errors that fiction caused her to commit”. She says “As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love”. In this case, Briony does not actually believe the untruths in the story she is writing, but the metafiction McEwan has created provides her with comfort anyway, the same way her miniaturist toy farms or ‘The Trials of Arabella’ did. Although we are never truly given Lola’s perspective, it is clear that she too is living in denial. Lola is in a similar way creating a new truth for herself after the trauma of her rape out of a necessity to escape dishonour. The reader discovers from Briony that she “saved herself from humiliation by falling in love, or persuading herself she had, and […] what luck that was for Lola – barely more than a child, prized open and taken – to marry her rapist”.
The violent and forceful imagery of Lola being “prized open and taken” is juxtaposed against the idea of “falling in love” and marriage showing the conflict within her as she becomes trapped at 16, her innocence is stolen, forced to live her life around a man she might have been naively infatuated with. The fact that Lola feels humiliated after her rape is obviously completely misplaced but understandable given the attitude towards rape victims or sex outside of marriage at the time (even now victims of rape are often blamed for their own assault) and this causes her to live the rest of her life in denial. It is possible that Lola begins to believe the lies Briony concocted and suggests that she was an accomplice through her silence as this was easier than the truth. This denial allowed her to marry a powerful and rich man and become the grown up socialite she aspired to be at 16.Kate Keller in ‘All My Sons’ is also forced into denial in order to escape the pain of her guilt. She, like Lola, is involved in the concealment of a crime and denies an important and traumatising event, but she is not the perpetrator of a crime like Briony or Joe.
Kate wants her family to “wait […] till he comes; forever and ever till he comes!”, the impossibility of her request’s “forever and ever”, in addition to her liberal use of exclamatives show her to be consistently on the edge of hysteria in an effort to deny her son’s death and defend this delusion to her family. In order to find evidence for this she turns to superstition: Kate’s dream and Ann’s return during Larry’s birth month, the “horoscope” which she cries out for “desperately” according to the stage directions, but most importantly the fallen tree – the single element of discord in the prosperous and idyllic backyard opening, and a symbol of Kate’s delusion which we see shatter throughout the play, just as the tree is snapped during the unseen storm. Kate lives in denial not only because the pain the death of a son would cause a mother, but also because Larry’s death has become intrinsically linked with her husband’s actions. The confirmation of Larry’s death would finally make the deaths of all the other pilots a reality, shown in her outburst that “God does not let a son be killed by his father”. Even after Kate is forced to accept the consequences of her husband’s actions, it seems she has learnt nothing over the course of the play as the advice she gives her son at the end is to “Forget now. Live”. While this could be seen as a positive encouragement to move past a traumatic event like she never did in the wake of her son’s death, she can also be seen as advising her son to follow the same route she did in attempting to forget about Joe’s crimes and live as if nothing had happened. In order for Joe to assuage his guilt he also creates a new reality for himself: “he must” as Alison Ross claims “deceive almost everyone: his son, neighbours, society at large”.
Maybe at some point he also began deceiving himself like his wife had, as sometimes he seems to believe his own lies after the years of playing the role of the “benevolent patriarch”. This being particularly evident when he asks his wife “What have I got to hide?” when Kate tells him to stop playing jail with the neighbourhood kids. Even if he isn’t in denial in the same way as his wife, he denies responsibility in a different way by telling himself that he is simply a pragmatist, an ‘average Joe’ as his character name suggests, just trying to make his way in the world. Therefore Miller presents guilt and shame as something only avoidable through denial. In conclusion, almost every single protagonist in both ‘All My Sons’ and ‘Atonement’ experiences guilt and shame at some point during the texts, but both Miller and McEwan show that the biggest difference between characters is the way they handle and experience these emotions. Guilt and shame are shown as a terrible punishment forced upon characters by society or by an individual finally accepting their actions as something to be ashamed of, which denial prevents. In all these presentations, it is only once blame is accepted and guilt is felt, that atonement can be made and a person can begin to heal – even if some choose not to.
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