Woolf and McEwan: How the Modern Became Postmodern
Ian McEwan’s Atonement draws inspiration from and alludes to a vast number of 20th century modernist authors and works, both stylistically and thematically. For a novel to be considered a successful culmination to the reading of a large body of works, however, it must not be content with merely echoing the themes, styles, and forms of the past. Rather, it must extend them, add to them creatively, and attempt to pull them into contemporary readership. While his thematic and stylistic allusions to 20th century greats such as Virginia Woolf show his intellectual knowledge of and debt to 20th century modernist writing, it is McEwan’s ability to transform these stylistic and thematic elements and mold them into a postmodern classic that makes Atonement a more than adequate culmination to the readings of a 20th century British Literature course.Stylistically, McEwan draws most heavily from the works of Virginia Woolf for the opening portion of Atonement. The slow pace of the opening, allowing for the painstakingly detailed description of nearly every scene, in addition to the examination of the psychological motives of multiple main characters, closely mirrors the style of Virginia Woolf, which she incorporates into the majority of her works. To quote a characteristically slow paced, though psychologically enriched, passage from the opening of Woolf’s Between the Acts, “Mrs. Manresa bubbled up, enjoying her own capacity to surmount, without turning a hair, this minor social crisis—this laying on of two more plates. For had she not complete faith in flesh and blood? and aren’t we all flesh and blood? and how silly to make bones of trifles when we’re all flesh and blood under the skin” (Woolf 39). The passage, to one unfamiliar with the stylistically innovative style of Woolf, seems to meander under the weight of an overly descriptive narrative and, more prominently, under the psychological musings of a character that, until a few pages previous, was nonexistent to the reader. The majority of Between the Acts contains passages of a similar style, of which this is only one randomly chosen example. As is true of many of the passages that can be found in any Woolfian novel, advancing the storyline is secondary to fleshing out the motives, thoughts, and feelings of the characters. With the plot safely set behind in-depth psychological examination in rank of importance, Woolf is free to experiment with a stream-of-consciousness style narrative in which psychological elements of the story feature more prominently than physical elements.In addition to the stream-of-consciousness for which she is well known, there are other characteristics common to much of Woolf’s work. For example, she has the tendency to describe a scene, more often than not, a natural scene, in painstaking detail, reluctant to add action that would too quickly further the narrative. Another passage from Between the Acts provides and adequate example of this, reading, “Here came the sun—an illimitable rapture of joy, embracing every flower, every leaf. Then in compassion it withdrew, covering its face, as if it forebore to look on human suffering. There was a fecklessness, a lack of symmetry and order in the clouds as they thinned and thicked. Was it their law, or no law they obeyed?” (Woolf 23). This description of nature essentially is of no consequence to the narrative yet the full passage describing the weather proceeds for almost a full page. The flowing, exceptionally detailed descriptions coinciding with an apparently lacking story line and an in-depth psychological view that the reader is privy to as a result of the stream-of-consciousness style, are all aspects of Woolfian literature that McEwan attempts to draw from and mold to his own postmodernist designs.While McEwan draws inspiration from Woolf in a way that would be just as simple for an author of less talent to do, his aims are far deeper reaching than an author who simply wishes to garner a comparison to Virginia Woolf. McEwan does borrow quite clearly from the stylings of Woolf, even commenting it upon it himself, writing, “we wondered if it owed a little too much to the techniques of Mrs. Woolf” (McEwan 294). Rather than be content with merely keeping her modernist conventions intact, however, he completely alters their meaning within the context of his own novel. In the opening portions of Atonement, for example, McEwan, in quite a similar way as Woolf, attempts to gain entry to the psychological depths of his characters. With the exception of a few broad passages required to move the story forward through dialogue or action, the majority of the opening is devoted to the internal monologues of the characters and an examination of their needs, desires, and feelings. This is clearly defined in the earliest pages as the novel provides passages such as, “She wanted to leave, she wanted to lie alone, facedown on her bed and savor the vile piquancy of the moment, and go back down the lines of branching consequence to the point before the destruction began” (McEwan 14). This passage, one of many in a similar style throughout Atonement, attempts, in a stream-of-consciousness in the classic Woolfian sense, to examine the inner psyche of the character rather than force any sort physical, tangible action to occur. In this way, the story’s narrative may seem slow paced while the characters’ motives become more well known to the reader.This borrowing stylistically from Woolf is not necessarily important or groundbreaking, and is certainly no deciding factor in whether this novel should be viewed as a classic in coming decades. There have been many authors who have devoted the entirety of their works to the stream-of-consciousness fiction that Woolf helped to pioneer. As mentioned above, what makes McEwan an author deserving of longevity in his works is that the allusions are not merely presented, but are completely altered from their original meaning by the context of Atonement. He takes deeply alluded to modernist conventions and makes them Briony’s primary source of inspiration, seen most clearly when she ponders the new school of authors and realizes, “She no longer really believed in characters. They were quaint devices that belonged to the nineteenth century…Plots too were like rusted machinery whose wheels would no longer turn…It was thought, perception, and sensations that interested he, the conscious mind and how to represent its onward roll” (McEwan 265). There is a certain depth and complexity in the fact that McEwan represents these modernist conventions not as his own, but as those of a thirteen year old girl, the central character of his metanarrative. What McEwan does next with these modernist principles of writing is attempt to show that they too are vestiges of the past, doomed to fall in the face of a more ethical and moral fiction. Just as Briony rejects the realism of the authors of the nineteenth century, McEwan is rejecting the modernism of the 20th century in favor of a postmodernism. One of Briony’s internal monologues to which the reader is privy, begins, “The interminable pages about light and stone and water, a narrative split between three points of view, the hovering stillness of nothing much seeming to happen—none of this could conceal her cowardice” (McEwan 302). These characteristics, all of which have been shown to influence Woolfian literature, have all failed Briony’s attempt to hide what she knows she has done. The monologue continues in a similar vein with, “Did she really think she could hide behind some borrowed notions of modern writing, and drown her guilt in a stream—three streams!—of consciousness?”(McEwan 302). Her guilt and the moral and ethical implications of what she has done cannot be fixed through some outdated ideas of modernist fiction, which has no ethical consequences. There are allusions from dozens of modernists authors sprinkled throughout the length of Atonement. Unfortunately, the scope of this paper can give only one of the most prominent. In a similar fashion as with the Woolf example, however, McEwan nearly always thoughtfully engages the text to which he is alluding, but is not content to merely allow these allusions to sit idly in the novel with no sense of purpose. Rather, each of his numerous allusions has some greater purpose in Atonement as McEwan artfully transforms them into something that fits the overall scope of what he attempts to accomplish. Still, the question remains whether or not this book is an adequate culmination of all the readings in a 20th century British literature course. The fact that Atonement not only draws from modernist writers, many of whom are the focus of the aforementioned course, but attempts to extend them creatively and transform them from the 20th century modern to the 21st century postmodern makes Atonement an excellent novel and a fine culmination of a semester of 20th century British literature.Works CitedMcEwan, Ian. Atonement. New York: Anchor Books, 2001.Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. New York: Harcourt, 2001.
‘In Crime Writing There Are Always Victims”: Pinkie versus Rosie, and Briony versus Robbie
Throughout crime fiction such as ‘Atonement’ and ‘Brighton Rock’, unwitting characters fall to the machinations that antagonists – even immature antagonists – set for them. While some might argue that the characters in Graham Greene’s novel ‘Brighton Rock’ and Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ are responsible for their own fate and partake in criminality themselves, Rose, for example, is clearly presented as the victim of Pinkie’s criminality, and Robbie becomes the victim of Briony’s jealousy and fantastical delusions, as well as the victim of false imprisonment and of war.
Greene depicts Rose as a victim in ‘Brighton Rock’, creating a character with whom the audience can easily sympathise and pity. The author refers to Rose as having the “fear, obstinacy and incomprehension of a wild animal”; these negative adjectives evoke connotations of weakness and innocence, which are further emphasised by the description of Rose as a “wild animal”. Naturalistic imagery juxtaposed with Rose’s descent into criminal subservience enforces her status as a victim of Pinkie’s criminality as well as the poor socio-economic conditions that she faces. Rose cannot escape her subservience and subjugation, as prior to the Second World War, in the society in which Rose lives, women had little power in society whereas men occupied the majority of influential roles. As “a stranger in a country of moral sin”, Rose’s naivety is manipulated by Pinkie to fulfil his criminal intent; Pinkie barters with her father for marriage like Rose is a commodity “confused in the financial game” in order to ensure her silence. The noun ‘confused’ suggests that Rose is someone who is never able to impose her own will, be it because of her social status, the treatment of women in the pre-war society or the significance of Pinkie in her life. Therefore, there are always victims in crime writing just as Rose is utilised by others for their own gain, implying that she is a victim.
One could argue that, on the other hand, Rose wishes to be “bad” like Pinkie, so she chooses the criminal life, which contradicts the supposition that in crime writing there are always victims. Rose states that “I want to be bad if she’s good”; the verb ‘want’ infers that Rose actively wishes to become a criminal like Pinkie rather than a victim. In addition to this, the character believes that “they couldn’t damn [Pinkie] without damning her too”. Religion was still a dominant part of British society and Greene states that Rose is a member of the Catholic Church so for Rose to ask to be “damned” – a word inherently suggestive of sin and immorality – infers that Rose should be seen as a criminal rather than a victim. Even if she turns to criminality due to her upbringing and poverty, Rose still chooses to rebel against law and order by becoming impassive to Pinkie’s criminality thus, unwittingly, reducing the chance of justice for Hale.
In Ian McEwan’s crime novel ‘Atonement’, the statement is supported by Robbie’s continual victimhood, from being a victim of Briony’s need for control to a victim of war. Robbie bemoans that “to be cleared would be a pure state. He dreamed of it like a lover, with a simple longing”. The past tense form of the verb ‘dream’ and the noun ‘longing; convey that Robbie is desperate to be vindicated for a crime he did not commit rather than be tainted by lies. Robbie could be seen as a victim of a justice system which favours the upper class rather than the lower class like himself, the son of the cook. His desperation to be found innocent contributes to his portrayal as a victim of Briony’s fantastical desires which lead to her criminal behaviour. Robbie is also a victim of war, subjected to “the indifference with which men could lob shells into a landscape”. Like so many other men during the Second World War, Robbie’s fate is determined by the political will of others, dying “of septicaemia” to fulfil the purpose of an ideological struggle. His fate is also determined by Briony’s decision to incriminate him. However, this crime causes Briony to seek some form of atonement for her crime in later life, which leads to another crime: the distortion of the truth to appease her guilt. Briony lies to the reader, pretending that Robbie did not die during the Second World War, so she can give Robbie a preferable ending which lessens the severity of her crime. Just as Briony is presented as the criminal, Robbie is presented as the victim of her crimes, meaning that in crime fiction, there are always victims.
Despite this, it could be argued that Robbie’s decisions cause his pain and suffering, Briony cannot be seen as entirely responsible for his victimhood. Robbie recognises that “this decision, as he was to acknowledge many times, transformed his life”, as the verb ‘transformed’ implies that he chose to initiate the course of events which resulted in Briony’s accusation by indulging in his desires. He becomes the victim because he chooses to do so, moulding Briony and Lola’s view of him as the ‘maniac’ who pursues societal transgression – this gives Briony the ‘evidence’ of Robbie’s supposed criminality, in turn leading to his arrest. Even so, one could dispute this argument due to the fact that Briony has autonomy over her thoughts and actions so she, in fact, chooses to engineer Robbie’s downfall by misconstruing a fairly normal action as a criminal act because she is jealous of her sister and angered by Robbie’s rejection of Briony’s love for him. Whilst to an extent Robbie could be seen as responsible for his conviction, it is clearly Briony’s transgression that causes this, of which Robbie is a victim.
In crime writing such as ‘Atonement’ and ‘Brighton Rock’ there are, indeed, always victims. Rose and Robbie are the victims of criminality of others, namely Pinkie and Briony, as well as the status of women, socio-economic factors and the Second World War. One could argue that these characters are responsible for the actions which cause them to be viewed as victims, either due to their transgression or choice, yet it is obvious that Rose is coerced toward a life of criminality as she lacks the choice to reject Pinkie as a consequence of socio-economic conditions, and Robbie is betrayed by Briony because of her warped narrative and desire for order.
The Trials of Robbie and Cecilia: Intertextuality in ‘Atonement,’ from Shakespeare to Richardson
Woven throughout Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ are intertextual references, used to not only enrich the reader’s experience but to present the love affair between Robbie and Cecilia as indeed, all too familiar, classic and timeless in its predictability. McEwan utilises characters and themes from texts such ‘Twelfth Night’ (William Shakespeare) and ‘Clarissa’ (Samuel Richardson) to draw parallels between their respective love stories, but additionally to portray Cecilia and Robbie’s as another classic case of two forlornly hopeful lovers. Moreover, McEwan incorporates the notion of a ‘book within a book,’ with the “Trials of Arabella,” (as written by Briony Tallis) to illustrate the gleaming idea of possibility and fate, in reference to romance.
Thought the metafictive reference to Malvolio from ‘Twelfth Night,’ McEwan is demonstrating the remarkable similarities between these two tortured lovers who both forget their ways and act foolishly in love. During the scene where Robbie’s desk is described in minute detail, McEwan implores the reader to see Robbie as Malvolio; and foreshadows the tragic events to come. In fact, McEwan writes that there was a photo of “the cast of Twelfth night on the college lawn, [Robbie] as Malvolio, cross gartered.” The characterisation of Robbie as Malvolio implies that he is to carry out a regrettable action that will place the relationship he has with Cecilia in precarious balance. Malvolio exclaims in ‘Twelfth Night,’ that “nothing can come between me and the full prospect of my hopes,” a line that Robbie himself says. This not only draws the two texts closer, but heightens the tragedy of this novel; that Briony will inevitably come between Robbie and his aspirational love with Cecilia. Malvolio is a key symbol of not only fate, but how love can be disrupted. It also reflects the notion of the tragic novel, the play in which failure in imminent and inevitable. Furthermore, the Trials of Arabella present what this love could have looked like; if fate had not been distorted.
The Trials of Arabella is a rather melancholic reading of Briony’s desired fate; that Robbie is Briony’s “medical prince,” a “prince” who will love her wholly and passionately, ending in a fairytale marriage. However, this scene can be contrasted with the fictional ending our author gives her sister Cecilia towards the denouement of the novel, demonstrating not only a lack of change; but that Cecilia’s love affair truly is pure and true. A stark similarity between the two novels; Atonement and ‘The Trials of Arabella,’ is the “impetuous dash toward a seaside town,” a dash that Robbie himself undertakes in Part 2, with the horrifying events at Dunkirk. However, the most salient feature of the two novels are their respective endings. In ‘The Trials of Arabella,” the conclusion marks a happy voyage with the protagonists announcing; “Here’s the beginning of our love at the end of our travail. / So farewell, kind friends, as into the sunset we sail!” Similarly, an older Briony marks the end of her novel with a fantasy, a happy ending so to satisfy her readers. Here, the audience can see that the tragic nature of their love; that it can only exist in literature and fantasy, a chief concept that is carried throughout the novel.
Linked with the Trials of Arabella is Samuel Richardson’s ‘Clarissa,’ whose story can be contrasted with the love triangle between Cecilia, Briony and Robbie. Richard Lovelace is alike to Robbie in that he courts Clarissa (or Cecilia). However, Briony’s imagination likens Richard to Robbie in that Richard in fact falls for the sister, Arabella, personified by Briony herself. Evidence to support this can be seen through not only the use of the name Arabella, but Briony’s unchained desire to play her. She claims that “she was not playing Arabella because she wrote the play..” she wanted to play Arabella “because she was Arabella.” It is clear that Briony loves Robbie, after all, she confesses her love to him during a swimming lesson, but a later Briony when seeing the play performed live; sees the female protagonist as no longer herself but her sister, Cecilia. This change of mindset demonstrates a maturity never before seen in Briony, an acknowledgement of the true love between Robbie and Cecilia. The prologue of the piece exclaims that “the Arabella almost learned too late, that before we love, we must cogitate” a highly ironic line symbolising Briony’s rash accusation; and the latter consequences of this.
The commanding concerns of tragedy and love are explored and heightened through the plethora of intertextual references that McEwan employs throughout Atonement. By comparing respective love stories, one can analyse the affliction of affection.
Though Robbie Turner knows he is innocent of his purported crime, this knowledge hardly relieves his inner turmoil. Much of his time spent fighting in the war is also spent fighting with himself; he is unable to escape the constant fantasies of his potential life at home and the “what ifs” of his relationship with Cecilia. Though Robbie’s daydreams of a normal life are what keep him going, their unattainability drives him into a pit of despair. Eventually, to seek solace, he resorts to blaming everyone else for his problems. Throughout Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Robbie exhibits feelings of bitterness towards others while trying to reject the past, developing the theme of resentment.
Robbie channels his anger towards Briony as a way to cope with his situation and reject the events engendered by her actions. His hatred for her is born immediately after her false accusation, and it builds throughout his years in prison and the war. “Now he might be cleared, and that gave him joy . . . But he did not think his resentment of her could ever be erased” (McEwan 220). Even while cheering himself up by entertaining the thought of clearing his name upon his arrival back home, Briony’s name still brings him feelings of resentment. “Yes, she was a child at the time, and he did not forgive her. He would never forgive her. That was the lasting damage (McEwan 220). Robbie also recognizes that Briony’s mistake was made at a young age, but chooses to hate her regardless. This statement is ironic, because while trying to reject the past’s events, Robbie is actually prolonging their damage by refusing to forgive and move on. He is determined to get back home and move forward with his life, but his obsessive detestation of Briony holds him back. This hatred is the foundation of Atonement’s overarching theme of resentment; Briony’s inability to confess and Robbie’s inability to forgive make it impossible for many of the book’s characters to extinguish their resentment for each other. Cecilia and Briony are a prime example of this. Regarding Briony’s false accusation, Cecilia’s resentment for Briony is so strong that it cracks their bonds of sisterhood.
Robbie strives to reject the past by imagining what his life with Cecilia could have been had they experienced a normal courtship. He initially clings to Cecilia’s words of farewell as his way to endure the horrors of prison and war, but over time, the words diminish in meaning and Robbie begins to resent Cecilia for her lack of action. “The words were not meaningless, but they didn’t touch him now . . . One person waiting for another was like an arithmetical sum, and just as empty of emotion . . . She was waiting, yes, but then what?” (McEwan 246). Bitterness arises out of Robbie’s ultimate realization that there will be no future for him and Cecilia, and he resents her for not trying harder to clear his name. Robbie’s accumulated resentment for Cecilia epitomizes the book’s message about the frailty of the love and family ties; over time, even the strongest bonds of love can be broken.
Robbie grows up as an honorary member of the Tallis household, and Jack Tallis is well aware of Robbie’s integrity, but Jack’s failure to stand up for him is a cold reminder of Robbie’s lower status. “Robbie grew up with the run of the nursery and those other parts of the house the children were permitted, as well as the grounds . . . Jack Tallis took the first step in an enduring patronage by paying for the uniform and textbooks” (McEwan 82). Robbie resents Jack Tallis on a different level than he does Briony or Cecilia, because he knows that Jack could have used his affluence and high status to get him out of jail. “‘They turned on you, all of them, even my father . . . They chose to believe the evidence of a silly, hysterical little girl . . . Now that I’ve broken away, I’m beginning to understand the snobbery that lay behind their stupidity’” (McEwan 196). Cecilia witnesses the dire effects on Robbie of Jack’s classism and elitism, and thusly breaks ties with her father. In addition to the theme of classism, Jack and Robbie’s relationship also connects to the theme of shame. Jack’s absence at Lola and Paul’s wedding suggests that he knows the real culprit is Paul Marshall, and feels too shameful about his lack of action to attend. Jack is trying his hand at rejecting the past here; instead of attending the wedding of a rapist and his victim, he represses any feelings of guilt toward Robbie by staying away.
As Atonement progresses, Robbie gradually becomes a shell of the bright, generous, and curious man he once was. The horrors of prison and war contribute to this loss of self, but above all, resentment is what eats away at Robbie’s identity. His attempt to reject the past is counterproductive, instead leading to a fixation on unchangeable events, fostering resentment towards the Tallises, and hindering his ability to move on. Though none of Robbie’s problems would be present without the actions of Paul Marshall, his bitterness is seemingly more intense towards the Tallises than it is towards (mistakenly) Danny Hardman, and then towards Marshall. This ties back to the theme of the restorative and destructive powers of family ties. He is more hurt by the Tallis’ actions because he expected love from them, and got nothing in return.
The Unattainability of Truth
Truth is a universal theme that has been the fascination of people since the dawn of time. It is the underlying, almost primal reason that urges mankind to progress; a noble quest for knowledge, and an uneasiness that the essence of truth will always linger at our fingertips, nudged just beyond our grasp. Postmodern novelists, Ian McEwan and Tim O’Brien communicate a fascination for truth-seeking in their respective novels, Atonement and In the Lake of the Woods. This is displayed throughout both books, exploring perspective, the role of the subconscious and use of deceit, in order to engage readers in consideration of the importance of truth; not only in fiction, but in daily life.
In both novels, the author highlights the unreliability of subjective truths through the use of different character perspectives. In Atonement, the omniscient narrator shifts to present one perspective against another, at times offering several character’s viewpoints of the same event. An example where this is illustrated is in Robbie and Cecilia’s dramatic scene at the fountain, where McEwan juxtaposes a stifled, “writhing” account of events between the two with Briony’s imagined “proposal of marriage” as she watches the same scene, interpreting it initially to be the “stuff of daily romance”. McEwan then emphasizes the fallibility of recall “in three separate and overlapping memories”. Similarly in In the Lake of the Woods, the use of “evidence” and imagination or “hypothesis” provides vastly different perspectives for the reader. All characters have their own theory as to the disappearance of Kathy, each with their own preconceptions and factors that make their account biased and unreliable. For example, Tony Carbo “love[s]” John’s wife, and so may be predisposed against him; Vincent Pearson insists that the John “did something ugly” time after time, yet Arthur Lux claims that Pearson is a “theory man” and that he himself “deals in facts”. Yet, Lux also mentions that he voted for John for his “spit and vinegar”, creating another layer of intrigue. The differences in perspective presented around a single event serve to highlight the folly of relying on one’s own truth.
Another element that is present in both novels is the relationship between the subconscious mind and truth. The motif of Cecilia’s “blossoming need for a cigarette” in Atonement is used to represent her desire for Robbie who is “lighting it for her”. This is further expanded upon in the novel, where the narrator explains that Cecilia feels her father has “precise ideas about where and when a woman should be seen smoking” and that “being at odds with her father[…]made her uncomfortable” as she smokes on her descent down the stairs. Just as Cecilia’s father never manifests himself physically in the house and still has his presence felt, external societal expectations make Cecilia’s love for Robbie appear improper, and hence this truth becomes suppressed, only manifesting itself in her subconscious until her “blind[ness]” is lifted. O’Brien uses suppression and the subconscious in a similar way to reveal truth. John Wade, the protagonist of the novel, is known to be “secretive” and “the type to stew”, with an ability to “keep his mouth shut”. He loves “tricks” and has the ability to fool, not only others, but likely “himself” too. John keeps his dark past “locked inside” away from everyone including his wife, but his subconscious eventually brings it to light. The truth of how John’s past influences his “mental health” develops in his subconscious as his mind descends further into chaos and “absurd[ity]”, repeating “Kill Jesus”, “yell[ing] things in his sleep” and “boil[ing]” plants as though he “couldn’t stop”. In both novels, uncontrollable yearnings and actions that arise from the subconscious are used to reveal buried truths.
A final trait that is shared between the two novels is the use of actual events and settings to lull the reader into assuming truth. Atonement and In the Lake of the Woods are both metafictional works; the authors aiming to make the plot as believable as possible in the construct of the novel. The house in Part One of Atonement is described as “nothing more than an artificial island in an artificial lake”, being built in an older style despite being a newer house. In this way, the house serves as an analogy to the storyline, built in a way that disguises its actual construct, symbolizing deceit. Only at the end of Atonement does McEwan bring this symbol to relevancy, as the reader realizes that what was thought to be an account of “everything[…] relevant” to the events that occurred in “truth”, was in fact deception. In contrast to this, O’Brien begins In the Lake of the Woods with a short paragraph, telling the reader that the novel and its characters are “creations of the author’s imagination” and that the novel “must be read as a work of fiction”. However, the report-like structure of the book with chapters serving as “hypothes[es]” and “evidence”, used traditionally in scientific presentations, is a guise to deceive the reader’s subconscious into assuming logicality and reliability. In both novels, the event central is described in gritty and historically accurate detail: World War II for Atonement, and the My Lai Massacre for In the Lake of the Woods, providing relevancy and believability to both. Deceit is used by McEwan and O’Brien in their respective novels in order to make the reader question the role and importance of truth in a novel.
Both Atonement and In the Lake of the Woods are concerned with the role of truth: how it intertwines with and is virtually inseparable from fiction. Throughout both novels, the authors employ use of multiple perspectives of a single event to investigate the subjectivity that can be present in one’s own truth; the role of the subconscious mind in revealing truths, as well as deceit to further manifest the importance of such a thing. By doing this, both McEwan and O’Brien challenge the reader to consider where fact ends and fiction begins, or whether “the truth had become as ghostly as invention”. Ultimately, these two novels lead the reader to consider that “truth” may be confined to the unique experience and knowledge of the individual, and hence in essence, be unattainable.  Ian McEwan, Atonement (London: Random House, 2001), 29.  Ibid, 38.  Ibid.  Ibid, 41.  Tim O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 8.  Ibid, 303.  Ibid, 206.  Ibid, 30.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid, 181.  McEwan, Atonement, 18.  Ibid, 26.  Ibid, 46.  Ibid, 47.  McEwan, Atonement, 111.  O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods, 197.  Ibid, 103.  Ibid, 194.  Ibid, 46.  Ibid, 199.  Ibid.  Ibid, 133.  Ibid, 134.  Ibid, 191.  Ibid, 148.  Ibid, 133.  Ibid.  McEwan, Atonement, 163.  Ibid, 345.  Ibid, 346.  O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods, 0.  Ibid.  Ibid, 53.  Ibid, 25.  McEwan, Atonement, 41.
Jealousy and the destructive nature of love in Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, and Ian McEwen’s ‘Atonement’.
Compare and contrast the representation of jealousy and the destructive nature of love in Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, and Ian McEwen’s ‘Atonement’.
When comparing themes of jealousy and the destructive nature of love within literature, the canonical works of Shakespeare’s Othello, Miller’s The Crucible, and McEwen’s Atonement must be considered. The texts offer differing representations based on numerous key factors. Primarily, recognition that the texts were written almost four hundred years apart and as such are evidently influenced by the differing social cultures of their times, is important. Furthermore, they’re influenced by diverse literary trends of different ages; Othello was written during the renaissance and therefore uses conventions of renaissance literature, The Crucible was written during a politically turbulent period and consequently utilises standards of political pieces, and Atonement, written in 2001, reflects the precepts of post-modernism. Despite these conflicting literary styles, the same base ideas regarding the representation of jealousy and the destructive nature of love exist within all three writings, providing numerous areas in which the pieces can be compared with one another. One interesting reading proposed by literary academics such as Arogundade (2012) is that the motivation behind Iago’s destructive actions is a homosexual love for Othello. This is often substantiated through Shakespeare’s suggestive word choices. For example, Iago’s declaration of “I am your own forever” in Act 3, scene 3, does not just exhibit the (false) friendship that Iago displays throughout the text, but also carries a homoerotic undertone. Furthermore, Arogundade ncotes that the language is similar to that of marital vows, further evidencing this suggestion of homosexual love. In addition to this, it’s worth considering the coldness that Iago shows not just towards his wife Emilia, whom he kills without thought, but towards women generally. He displays these misogynistic attitudes within the piece through his deduction “you are pictures out of door”, (Act 2, Scene 1). Not only does he make a sweeping generalisation of all women, as demonstrated by his plural use of ‘pictures’, but ‘pictures’ also implies that women are outwardly false. Conclusively, when considering this interpretation of the text, the destructive nature of love can be considered a product of not just jealousy, but repressed love and sexuality. In Elizabethan England gay sex was a hanging offense, and as such any gay feelings would have to be inhibited. Certainly, numerous actors – Laurence Olivier in 1938, David Suchet in 1985, and Ian McKellan in 1989 – have all played the character of Iago as if he were gay, as pointed out by Dickson (2009). Throughout Othello, Shakespeare demonstrates that the main reason the antagonist of the piece, Iago, is so easily and destructively able to incite jealousy within love is through his omniscient, almost God-like ability to manipulate people into situations where these are inevitable outcomes. An example of this omniscience is given during one of Iago’s many soliloquies, in which he states ‘Trifles light as air/ Are to the jealous confirmations strong/As proofs of holy writ/’, (Act 3, scene 3, lines 332 – 334). Within this quote, Shakespeare uses two similes, (‘light as air’, ‘strong as proofs of holy writ’), in order to juxtapose the trivial reality of situations with what ‘the jealous’ perceive to be the very serious reality. In the case of Othello, the trivial reality is that Cassio and Desdemona are friends, yet jealous Othello perceives a much more serious ‘reality’; that they are secretly lovers. Shakespeare’s use of ‘proofs of holy writ’ is also relevant, implying that Iago is so adept in his insight into other characters that he is able to work them to a state of jealousy where his sly words are not just those of ‘honest Iago’, but are as infallible as the bible itself. What’s more, Iago’s exclamation of ‘By Janus!’ in act 1 scene 2, (Janus being a two-faced Roman God who proceeded over the start and finish of conflicts), is also pertinent here. It not only reinforces this ‘holy writ’ concept, but also foreshadows the conflict that Iago will cause through his ‘two-faced’ nature. Comparatively, Miller’s characterisation of Abigail Williams develops a more opportunistic antagonist. Iago’s manipulative nature means he can create situations with outcomes which suit his desires, (for example, through getting Cassio dismissed, and getting Desdemona to plead his case to Othello, he is able to further Othello’s suspicions regarding the two). However Williams is more adept in controlling situations presented to her to suit her best interests. This ability is demonstrated in act one when Abigail decides she will admit to ‘making compact with the devil’ – when she cries out that she wants to ‘open herself’ to reverend Hale, Miller’s stage directions state ‘they turn to her, startled. She is enraptured, as though in a pearly light’. Through this, Miller demonstrates how expertly Abigail is able to control situations for her own ends. Not only does she ‘startle’ those around her – intensifying the effect of her outburst – but through doing so ensures that she has their full and exclusive attention, distinguishing herself from everyone else ‘as though in pearly light’. Obviously, ‘pearly light’ provides connotations of God, and consequently there’s an implication of Williams receiving not just attention, but adoration – through ‘opening herself’ she will be helping cast out those under Satan’s influence within Salem, and therefore is almost seen as a saviour. This notion is reinforced through ‘enraptured’, with its connotations with ‘the rapture’ Christ’s resurrection, and can certainly be linked to Iago’s God-like insight within Othello; Iago’s omniscient, but within this situation, Abigail has become omnipotent. ‘Enraptured’ also indicates to the audience the satisfaction that Abigail gains from this powerful status. It’s possible that this desire for notice stems from the lack of interest shown to her by Proctor since their affair, especially given the way he rejected her advances at the start of the act. As such, Miller is suggesting that one of the truly destructive aspects of love is simply the loss of a loved one – though Abigail’s motive for later falsely accusing Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft is jealousy over her relationship with John, the numerous accusations that follow these stage directions are simply a result of the neglect that she feels now that her and John’s relationship is over. Contrastingly, the ‘antagonist’ within Atonement, thirteen year old Briony Tallis, is somebody whom the readers are intended to be more sympathetic towards, and is generally regarded as a protagonist instead. Throughout Atonement she only has any serious power is when she’s the sole witness of Lola’s rape, and even here she blames Robbie not through malice, but through perceived protection of Lola and Cecilia. Furthermore, a convention of post-modern pieces such as Atonement – the notion that you cannot impartially represent reality – is demonstrated well through Briony’s characterisation. Though she believes that she understands ‘maniac’ Robbie, her whole perception of him is based on events she was indirectly involved in, and as such is biased. Essentially, Briony is not only different to The Crucible’s Williams through the way Williams takes advantage of situations, or with Othello’s Iago in that he really does understand people, but also to both through the lack of malice behind her destructiveness. Both of the other antagonists are motivated by jealousy yet he only reasoning Briony has for her accusation is because ‘everything fitted’. In McEwan’s descriptions of Briony’s bedroom; ‘a shrine to her controlling demon: the model farm spread across a deep window ledge consisted of the usual animals, but all facing one way – towards their owner – as if about to break into song’, ideas of spirituality are conveyed to the readers. This is done through use of ‘shrine’,‘demon’, and the idea of all the animals ‘facing… towards their owner’, which demonstrates that although Briony doesn’t have the omniscience of Iago, or the omnipotence of Williams, she does covet the ‘God-like’ abilities to manipulate that come through these. ‘As if about to break into song’ reinforces this idea, given its connotations of hymns and praise. Overall the quote demonstrates that it’s Briony’s desire for order – her ‘controlling demon’ – that leads her to mistakenly piece together the information she haw about Robbie and accuse him. If Briony’s compulsions are what lead to her destructiveness, it’s relevant to consider Othello’s hamartia – a ‘fatal flaw’ concept common in renaissance literature which for Othello comes in the form of trust; he is dangerously over-trusting of Iago yet wrongfully suspects Desdemona. Essentially, the quote demonstrates to the reader that it is through his skilled understanding of human nature that Iago is able to orchestrate the sequence of events that lead to the play’s tragic conclusion. Oliver Parker (Othello, 1995) noted this in his film adaption of the piece, with repeated scenes throughout the production in which Iago is seen moving pieces around a chess board, illustrative of the way he ‘plays’ other characters off of one another. The Crucible is a political text, so the prevalence of ‘coldness’ within the piece is contextually germane. Use of ‘cold’ generates suggestions of the cold war, the ideological fight between American Capitalism and Russian Communism, and Senator Joseph McCartney. An especially significant example of this implication is given when Abigail comments of Elizabeth; ‘She is blackening my name in the village… She is a cold, snivelling woman’, (Act 1, Scene 1). Through this, the audience are given not only the link to the cold war through ‘cold’, but there is also relevance in ‘blackening my name’. Aside from evident connotations of racism – ‘blackening’ having undertones of dirtying, soiling, etc. – there’s also a link to ‘blacklisting’, the process in which someone became ostracised through links to Communism, again representative of McCarthyism. This theory is reinforced when Parris demands of Tituba ‘Their names! Their names!’, (Act 1, Scene 1), which has strong parallels to ‘naming names’ – notoriously associated with McCarthyism. Though The Crucible is often seen as a commentary on McCarthyism, it could also be considered a commentary on theocracy. In 17th century, theocratic Salem, the Fundamentalist Christian church and the state are not separate. Consequently, Karren (2007) asserts that Miller’s characters ‘rely on faith rather than reason’. Certainly, the quote ‘the Devil is precise; the marks of his presence are definite as stone’, which seems to blur the lines between science and faith, would support this. This emphasis on faith enables Abigail’s envy-fuelled accusations of witchcraft, and also allows them to be so destructive; spiritual belief suffices as ‘proof’ of the alleged crime. In Bringing’s (2014) theatrical performance of The Crucible, this emphasis on the piece being a criticism of theocracy and not specifically 1600s Salem was highlighted through the use of modern props and costumes, illustrating that the events of the text could depict the consequences of a theocracy in any time period. Similarly, the influence of Christianity is also demonstrated within Othello. When Iago refers to Othello as ‘barbary’, (Act 1, scene 1, line 113), he indicates to the audience that Othello is from North Africa. As such, a plausible assumption about Othello’s religious beliefs would be that he was raised Muslim. Yet, Othello makes Christian references throughout the piece, (‘For Christian shame’, ‘I would not kill thy unprepared spirit’, etc.), and this would suggest a conversion to Christianity – probably upon marrying Desdemona, who almost certainly would have been Roman Catholic. However, as Othello’s trust and faith in Desdemona’s fidelity decreases, so too does his relationship with Christianity. Reflecting on her murder, Othello likens himself to the ‘the base Judean, threw away a pearl richer than all his tribe’, and Hamlin (2011), offers a reading in which Othello is here comparing himself to Judas within the bible; in the Geneva bible in 1560 it is taught that Judas was ‘Judean’, a member of the Judah tribe. Consequently, this reading would equate Desdemona, ‘a pearl richer than all his tribe’, to Jesus – Othello’s saviour. By ‘throwing her away’, he has also thrown away his chance of spiritual redemption and protection. With this reading, it’s important to consider that if Desdemona saved Othello, Iago corrupted him. In the same way the devil debauches individuals within the bible, leading them away from God, Iago debauches Othello, leading him away from Desdemona and consequently, the Christian faith. As Othello gradually loses more and more faith in Desdemona, his trust in Iago increases, effectively finding assurance in the evil that Iago represents. Even at his most basic level, Iago is an immoral character and with “Virtue? A fig! … bodies are our gardens to which our / wills are gardeners”, (Act 1, scene 3, lines 361-63), Iago demonstrates the low value he places on morals and godliness, (‘Virtue? A Fig!’), and the comparatively high value he places on individual wills, (‘our wills are gardeners’). What’s more, ‘Our wills are gardeners’ has further biblical implications, carrying connotations of the ‘garden of Eden’, and the way that ultimately Adam and Eve’s ‘wills’ caused them to eat the forbidden fruit, ‘A fig!’, betraying God. This elucidation is particularly logical when comparing both the Bible’s assertion that a snake urged this original sin and the serpentine links to Iago throughout the text. Emilia speaks of Othello’s jealousy – incited by Iago – as ‘the serpent’s curse’, (Act 4, Scene 2), Othello likens his hatred of Cassio – also incited by Iago – to ‘ aspics’ tongues’, meaning snake venom, (Act 3, Scene 3), and when Iago’s wrongdoings are finally revealed, Lodovico refers to him as a ‘viper’ (Act 5, Scene 2). Essentially, throughout Othello, Shakespeare demonstrates not just the destruction of love through jealousy, but also the destruction of faith. At the beginning of the piece, having married Desdemona and converted to Catholicism, Othello is confident and religiously ‘protected’ – this is even potentially hinted at in the destruction of the almost definitely Muslim Turks on the way to Cyprus – yet as he is demoralised by Iago, losing faith in both Desdemona and God, he becomes a crazed, unstable murderer. Regarding the form of the texts, it’s worth noting that all three texts have recurring ideas – motifs – designed to be representative of jealousy and the destructive nature of love. Throughout Othello, Shakespeare uses a motif of disease which is reflective of jealousy. An example of this is given in the quote from Iago ‘I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear’ (act 2, scene 3, line 323), regarding his manipulation of Othello. Of course, ‘pestilence’ has connotations of infection – the most obvious of which indicates the way in which jealousy will ‘infect’ Othello’s thoughts, and gradually spread throughout the rest of his body, influencing his thoughts and actions. The quote also reflects jealousy and its effects through use of plosive alliteration, (‘pour’, ‘pestilence’), which jars and breaks up the sentence, echoing the way in which jealousy ‘breaks’ Othello. Another motif used by Shakespeare within Othello is that of water. This motif first becomes evident in Shakespeare’s choice of settings; it begins in Venice, famous for its waterways. This storm is referenced in one of the continuous speech references to water. In Act two, Othello says, “if after every tempest come such calms/ may the winds blow ‘til they have wakened death/and let the labouring bark climb hills of seas/Olympus-high, and duck again as low/ As Hell’s from heaven. If it were now to die/’twere now to be most happy”, (act 2, scene 1, lines 176-82). Within this quote, Shakespeare uses the idea of ‘tempests’ and ‘calms’ as a metaphor for his love for Desdemona; he feels so ‘calm’ in Desdemona’s company following the ‘tempest’ whilst travelling to Cyprus that he wills ‘winds to blow’ on himself to further instigate that feeling. This could be considered as foreshadowing – though no literal storms are wrecked on Othello, Iago’s actions are as emotionally destructive as a storm would be physically. In this sense, Shakespeare also uses dramatic irony; we know from Iago and Roderigo’s plotting prior to this that Othello’s life is going to go downhill from this point. As such he’s unknowingly ironic in talking about how this ‘tempest’ will ‘waken death’, and how this is the happiest he will ever be. What’s more, the structure of the sentence of the quote is also relevant. Because there are no linguistic features that break up or jar the sentence, and the lines each have a similar number of syllables, (ranging from 7-11), the rhythm flows well, to the extent of featuring some use of iambic pentameter – potentially mirroring the rhythmic motion of a wave. Generally, it can be argued that the continued referencing to water – particularly oceanic – creates a comparison in the audiences’ minds between love and the ocean. Consequently, through this comparison, Shakespeare demonstrates the potential destruction of love; in the same way that the nature of the ocean is constantly changing – alternating between peaceful and tempestuous – love also goes through periods of both calm and destruction. Additionally, the extended metaphor within the quote also conveys an essence of inevitability regarding this; destruction through love is as natural as the ocean itself. Within The Crucible, Miller also uses motifs. As aforementioned, there are repeated references to cold throughout. However, there is also a motif of heat. A primary example of this can be found in the text’s title; within science, a crucible is a piece of equipment used in heating chemicals at high temperatures. The significance of this becomes apparent when through the course of the play, Salem itself becomes a crucible – with continually more pressure and ‘heat’ added to the town as the witch hunt hysteria rises. This finally reaches its ‘melting point’ with the hanging of Proctor – a respected man. Of course, many characters also reach their individual ‘melting points’ when under duress they (falsely) admit to witchcraft. Undeniably, Abigail’s accusations – fuelled by her jealousy of Elizabeth Proctor – provide the ignition for this crucible. McEwan also deploys motifs to explore love’s destructive nature. The theme of triangles is reinforced throughout the novel, and these triangles often represent destruction; the Tallis’ vase ‘splits into two triangular pieces’, ‘Pierrot was missing a triangle of flesh from his left earlobe on account of a dog he had tormented’, a soldier described has ‘obliquely triangular’ injuries, etc. By linking the two ideas – triangles and destruction – McEwan demonstrates the inevitable destruction of ‘love triangles’. Nelson (2013) suggests this motif represents ‘the triangular relationship among the three main characters in the novel – with Briony present at the top of the triangle’, (see figure 1). Nelson then proposes that this exemplifies Briony’s controlling nature; from the top she oversees Cecelia and Robbie’s relationship and lives. However, another argument is that Briony ‘heading’ the triangle – whilst Robbie and Cecelia are placed alongside each other – signifies the isolation she receives following her accusation of Robbie. This idea of triangles, trios, etc. is also present in Atonement’s form, with the novel being split into three sections, demonstrating that love triangles divide individuals in the same way Atonement is divided. Retrospectively, it’s important to recognise the differing fates of the texts’ antagonists/protagonists, giving consideration to their contexts. Illustratively, the influence of heavily religious Elizabethan England on Othello necessitated Iago’s ‘punishment’ for his crimes; the piece concludes with his death and presumed damnation. Contrastingly, the effect of Miller’s disenchanted post-war American culture is demonstrated in Abigail escaping Salem and effectively ‘getting away with’ her crimes. In Atonement, the post-modern movement has had an obvious influence in generating sympathy for Briony, who in an outcome somewhere between Othello and The Crucible, isn’t physically affected, (like Iago), through her accusations, but nonetheless doesn’t escape their impact, (like Abigail), instead enduring immense guilt, forcing her to ‘atone’. Conclusively, the texts are on many levels similar in their representation of jealousy and the destructive nature of love. All three texts utilize semiotic motifs, for example. Shakespeare used motifs of disease and water to symbolise the way jealousy spreads and to demonstrate love’s ‘natural’ but potentially dangerous nature. Miller used hot and cold motifs to illustrate characters reaching their ‘melting point’ through jealous actions, and to generate ideas of theocracies. McEwan used a triangle motif to represent ‘love triangles’, and linked this with damage to indicate how damaging they can be. Furthermore, two of the texts exploit structure to demonstrate how destructive love can be; Atonement is broken into three sections in the same way love can split people, Othello features plosive alliteration, separating sentences for the same effect. Additionally, both Othello and The Crucible refer to religion whilst exploring jealousy and the destructive nature of love. The texts’ contrasts emerge through characterisation. In Othello¸ the antagonist, Iago, is demonstrated to deliberately create situations with outcomes to suit his desires; he is proactively malicious, and recognises human nature enough to manipulate emotions such as jealousy, and provoke destruction in love. In The Crucible, Williams is a much more adaptable antagonist, manipulating existent situations to suit her best interests, using threats to grasp at power which she then uses to satisfy her jealous intentions. McEwan’s characterisation of Briony is entirely different to both of the latter, and displays her as a more sympathetic protagonist who destroys love not through jealousy, but misjudgement. Succinctly, a comparison of the representation of jealousy and the destructive nature of love within the three texts reveals that in form and structure the texts represent jealousy and destructiveness of love similarly, but in content and characterisation, they differ.
‘Saint Maybe’ and ‘Atonement’: Childhood, Compensation, and Characters’ Fates
What does atonement mean to you? Each individual person will have to make up for something they have done at some point in their lifetime. Are you seeking atonement to be free from the burden of your sin in your everyday life? Maybe, you are seeking atonement to ensure your freedom in the afterlife. In either case, atonement is a personal journey to ultimately right a wrong. Just as every sin is different, so is everyone’s way of making up for them. Even though humans are very different in this sense, the reasons for what makes someone sin may not be so different from the next person. However, where people start the same, does not always mean they will end in the same place. One might be feeling more at peace than the other, even though their stories may have seen similar. This is demonstrated in the novels Atonement and Saint Maybe. Anne Tyler’s Ian Bedloe and Ian McEwan’s Briony Tallis directly feel the weight of their sins on their shoulders as each character sets out to atone for what they have done. In the novels Atonement by Ian McEwan and Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler, the main characters stories are connected through their similar mentalities, limited understanding of the adult world, and their atonement methods. However, differences prevail in each novel such as the precise methods of atonement and the drastically different endings for both main characters.
Both Atonement and Saint Maybe featured two young children who obviously were confused on the concepts of the adult world around them. Briony Tallis and Ian Bedloe were very similar in the fact that they were the only ones of their kind. They each had older siblings, however, both of the age differences were too vast, Ian and Briony could not relate to or understand their sibling. These misunderstandings would ultimately lead to their sins which they would spend the rest of their lives atoning for. Saint Maybe’s main character, Ian Bedloe, was the perfect all American teenager: “…Ian was seventeen and…large-boned, handsome and easy-going, quick to make friends, fond of a good time…”(Tyler 13), a popular senior in high school, on track to go to college, with a pretty blonde girlfriend, and very tight-knit family. His older brother Danny marries Lucy, mother of two young children from a previous marriage, Thomas and Agatha, very early on in the novel. Soon, Danny and Lucy have a child named Daphne. Ian often babysits for his brother and sister-in-law, picking up on some small mannerisms of Lucy’s such as staying out much later than expected, coming home with new and expensive items, and never being able to be reached by phone when out. All of these things lead to Ian believing that Lucy had been cheating on his brother. Angry at his brother for being so painfully stupid that he could not recognize this, Ian decides it is his place to tell his brother that he knows for a fact that Lucy is cheating on him. However, Ian’s mentality and limited understanding of the adult world leads him to believe this under false pretenses and tell his brother what he believes in the worst way possible: “Ian impulsively releases “a handful of tossed-off words” (96), which cause his older brother Danny to commit suicide…” (Durham). Ian immediately blames himself for his brother’s suicide. Things get worse when Lucy purposely overdoses on sleeping pills, leaving the three children as orphans and in the Bedloe’s care, with Ian wondering where to go from here and how he could possibly atone for the mess he has created.
Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis came from a very rich family, with a somewhat absent mother and father, an older sister, and older brother. Her older sister, Cecelia, has fallen in love with the family maid’s son, Robbie Turner. After Briony reads an X-rated letter meant for Cecelia from Robbie, she believes her sister is in immediate danger and that Robbie is some sort of psycho and talks to her cousin Lola about how she feels: “‘How appalling for you. The man’s a maniac.’ A maniac. The word had refinement and the weight of medical diagnosis. All these years she had known him and that was what he had been.” (McEwan 34). After walking in on a very intimate moment of Robbie and Cecelia’s, Briony is even more convinced that Cecelia is not consenting to any of this. Briony is given the perfect opportunity to ruin Robbie’s life and she takes it. After dinner, during a late night search party for the Tallis’s twin cousins, Briony finds her cousin Lola laying on the ground, alone and afraid. She has just been raped. Lola, unsure of who her rapist is, allows Briony to convince her that it was Robbie. The girls immediately take the matter to the police with no solid evidence, except for Briony claiming she saw Robbie in the woods that night, fleeing the scene of the crime. Robbie ends up being sent to jail and being torn apart from his love, Cecelia. Briony is held accountable for this throughout the whole novel by both her sister and Robbie. As she grows older, she starts to realize that she must atone for the terrible thing she has done. Briony’s childish mindset and limited understandings of the adult world are a direct cause of the lies told which ruined an innocent man’s life. Literary critics agree as it is obvious that if she had been older, she would have understood more complex topics such as human sexual desire and how actions affect not just one’s self but also everyone around them. According to Novels for Students Briony’s age, mindset, and limited understanding of the adult world directly correlate with her actions which sent Robbie Turner to jail:
Briony is thirteen when the story opens. She is on the verge of adulthood—curious about the ways of adults but having no experience with which to compare them. In the first part of the story, it is obvious that Briony overreacts, misinterprets, and twists events to make them match her beliefs. For example, her judgment of Robbie as being a monster because of his lust for Cecilia is typical of a child who does not understand human sexual desires. Briony’s misguided observations and interpretations go awry. They become seriously consequential, deeply affecting the lives of the people around her. (Constantakis) Briony’s age of thirteen is very important. She is still young enough to have a very creative imagination and to not fully understand the adults in her life. Had she been three or four years older, she may have understood her sister better. However, her childishness is the reason she had to spend the rest of her life atoning for Robbie’s jail sentence. Briony also had trouble with understanding the lust between her sister and Robbie. She did not think of her sister in that way, she believed Robbie was attacking her, it did not even cross Briony’s mind that her sister may be initiating the sexual encounters. So, she made the rash decision to blame Robbie for Lola’s rape, all because of the way she viewed the adult world.
The next step in each character’s life differs. Although they were very similar in their mentalities and causes for sin, the way in which they both begin their atonement process is very different. Although very different, they each have a major life-altering quality. In Saint Maybe Ian meets and becomes a part of the Church of the Second Chance. He talks to Reverend Emmet and is told that the way to achieve forgiveness from God is to something concrete: “Why raise them I suppose’…’Wait,’ Ian said. ‘You’re saying God would want me to give up my education. Change all my parents’ plans for me and give up my education.’ ‘Yes, if that’s what’s required,’ Reverend Emmett said” (Tyler 124). Ian, thinking Reverend Emmett is crazy, takes the time to truly think about what is required of him to atone for his sin. He decides that dropping out of school to take care of his brother’s children was the best idea, “he accepts the ‘burden’ of caring for Danny’s children to assuage his own terrible guilt feelings for the part he played in his brother’s suicide” (Nollen). This way of atonement continues throughout the novel and proves to change Ian’s life dramatically. He becomes a father figure in the children’s life, raising them to be children of the Church of the Second Chance. Some critics even believe him to have taken on a more maternal role, as he was all the children truly had left: “Ian drives the children to church camp, supervises their homework, and takes on all the traditional maternal duties” (Durham). He went from being the most popular boy in high school with the prettiest girlfriend to the college drop out with three children and no wife.
Briony Tallis’ story was quite different from Ian’s, resulting in a different way of atonement for her. However, her life is completely changed once she realized the severity of her lies. It took her years to truly realize what exactly she had done and how she wanted to atone for her sin. Her whole life, she thought she would go to Cambridge just like Cecelia had and pleased her parents as this was expected of her. The first step Briony takes is choosing to become a nurse in the midst of World War II. Cecelia, after cutting off all communication with her family, became a nurse while awaiting Robbie’s return to her: “…readers find Briony working hard as a student nurse and later as a compassionate woman who attends mortally wounded soldiers. She has forsaken her college education in order to serve her fellow citizens. She has followed in the footsteps of her sister” (Constantakis). Briony writes to her sister, explaining that she plans to atone for sending Robbie to jail by telling her parents she lied and taking back her legal statements, accusing Robbie of rape. Cecelia is starting to understand her sisters actions as she expresses to Robbie in a letter: “But I get the impression she’s taken on nursing as a sort of penance. She wants to come and see me and talk. I might have this wrong…but I think she wants to recant. I think she wants to change her evidence and do it officially or legally” (McEwan 199) After a planned meeting with both Robbie and Cecelia, they ask her to tell her parents about the lies, take back her legal statement, and write an explanation to Robbie telling him exactly why she felt the way she did at the time of her sin. She works on these requests. Readers later find out that the novel itself is her explanation of why she lied about Robbie. Briony’s main way of atonement was her devotion to giving back to the soldiers during World War II as a nurse, as well as attempting to apologize to and rekindle a relationship with her sister and Robbie. Literary critics agree that her choices do seem to move along her process of atonement, “And Briony’s decision does seem to function in this manner; the training of a nightingale nurse, as described in the novel, seems like the ultimate act of self-abnegation. For Briony it is the sacrifice of self” (Pastoor). She had her whole life set out for her, a life similar to that she grew up in after attending Cambridge. However, she chose to sacrifice herself in attempt to make up for what she had done, completely altering her life’s path.
The main difference between the novels (which may make or break the experience for the reader) is how each character and storyline is left. Ian ends up seeing the three children off into their own successful lives: “Thomas, Agatha, and Daphne have turned out well, and Ian claims that ‘You could never call it a penance to have to take care of these three. They were all that gave [my] life color, and energy, and … well, life’” (Nollen). He finds a lovely woman named Rita and decides to marry and start a family with her. Readers feel a sense of restfulness, especially in the last scene of the novel: “At the end of Saint Maybe, the reader is left with a touching picture of Ian holding his new son… Tyler leads the reader to believe that Ian, Rita, and Joshua will have the happy family life that so tragically eluded Danny and Lucy” (Nollen). Ian seems to be content with where his life is and how he has atoned for his sin. He turns down an offer from his Reverend to become the next leader of the Church of the Second Chance in order to focus on his family. He still stays involved, as this church essentially saved him. Ian is confident now in his skills as a father as he expresses in a phone call with Reverend Emmett: “‘I know absolutely that you’ll be a good father…’‘I believe I will,’ Ian said.” (Tyler 334). This gives the reader a sense of peace, knowing Ian is comfortable now and in a much better place compared to the previous parts of the novel. He was able to feel more at peace with Danny’s death while still accepting that he could never bring back his brother or Lucy. There is definite hope for Ian, Rita, his new son, and the three children. Readers leave Ian in a much better place compared to Briony.
Briony’s ending is tragic. In the epilogue, readers discover that this novel itself was her explanation to Robbie. However, the novel was not entirely true. It is stated that Cecelia and Robbie were never able to meet again, they both died at separate times during the war: “Cecilia and Robbie do not survive to love and to live happily ever after. They remain separated throughout the war… and they die apart–Robbie at Dunkirk, Cecilia in London.” (Cahill). Their tragic love story was not one that Briony wanted to tell in her novel, so she decided to keep them alive and let them live out their love story, again as part of her atonement for sending Robbie to jail on false pretenses. This means that she was never able to truly apologize to Robbie and her sister, leaving Briony feeling empty. In many literary criticisms, writers feel as though Atonement did not end in the best way, “Atonement does not make a tidy finish. Briony reveals Cecilia and Robbie, retrospectively, to be phantoms–the fantasies of Briony’s guilty consciousness” (Cahill). Readers also learn that the novel cannot be published until Lola and her husband die because they were specifically named throughout the book. She refuses to change the names because she wanted to tell the story from start to finish, free of lies, in order to atone for what she had done. So, Briony accepts that she may never see her work in publication (as she is very old and sick at this point in the novel) because she believes Lola will outlive her. Briony acknowledges that when the novel is finally published, it will not do what is it intended to do as they will simply be characters to everyone who reads it, not real people who suffered through this storyline: “When I am dead, and the Marshalls are dead, and the novel is finally published, we will only exist as my inventions” (McEwan 350). Readers do not get a sense of restfulness from Briony Tallis. They are left wondering, feeling as though she has not completely made up for ruining Robbie’s life. The novel does not fulfill its title: “The seeking for atonement in the novel all comes to nothing–Briony’s self-sacrifice, her penance, her attempts to make right what she has done wrong–are all illusory and insufficient…” (Pastoor). Briony’s ending can be described as insufficient. She has not atoned for what she has done.
The novels Saint Maybe and Atonement both told the stories of young children who made rash decisions which then changed life as they knew it. Leaving them feeling more than guilty, they were forced to make life-altering decisions to atone for what they had done. Not completely understanding the adult world and possessing very close-minded, childish mindsets was both Ian’s and Briony’s downfall and direct cause for their actions. Their way of atonement, while very different, were both similar in their life-altering qualities. Both characters were forced to give up their lives and completely change the paths laid out for them by their families, even though they did not necessarily want to. However, the main difference was each novels ending, with Saint Maybe providing a more closed, enjoyable ending and Atonement giving readers the true story of a tragedy. Ian Bedloe and Briony Tallis can teach readers a lot about atonement, although it is truly specific to every one person and every sin. It is important that people recognize the weight of sins and how atonement can be the way to help one feel more at peace with what they have done. However, some may have a similar experience to Briony in which they never feel completely okay again. Everyone’s atonement is an individual experience, as supported by both the story of Ian Bedloe and Briony Tallis.
“Atonement.” Novels for Students, edited by Sara Constantakis, vol. 32, Gale, 2010, pp. 1-27. Gale Virtual Reference Library, GLS?u=broo69771&sid=GLS&xid=e8190779. Accessed 7 Sept. 2018.
Cahill, Samara Anne. “An Untidy Finish: Atonement as Political Gothic.” The AnaChronisT, vol. 17, 2012, p. 245+. Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/ A514177298/GLS?u=broo69771&sid=GLS&xid=2e24fe2c. Accessed 7 Sept. 2018
Durham, Joyce R. “Anne Tyler’s Vision of Gender in Saint Maybe.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 205, Gale, 2005. Literature Resource Center, https://galeapps.gale.com/apps/auth?userGroupName=&origURL=https%3A%2F%2Fgo.gale.com%2Fps%2Fi.do%3Fp%3DGLS%26u%3D%26id%3DGALE%7CH1100065290%26v%3D2.1%26it%3Dr&prodId=GLS u=broo69771&sid=GLS&xid=f775d8e6. Accessed 10 Sept. 2018. Originally published in Southern Literary Journal, vol. 31, no. 1, Fall 1998, pp. 143-152.
McEwan, Ian. Atonement. Everymans Library, 2017.
Nollen, Elizabeth Mahn. “Fatherhood Lost and Regained in the Novels of Anne Tyler.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 205, Gale, 2005. Literature Resource Center, https://galeapps.gale.com/apps/auth?userGroupName=&origURL=https%3A%2F%2Fgo.gale.com%2Fps%2Fi.do%3Fp%3DGLS%26u%3D%26id%3DGALE%7CH1100065287%26v%3D2.1%26it%3Dr&prodId=GLS u=broo69771&sid=GLS&xid=cf7fc3cd. Accessed 10 Sept. 2018. Originally published in Family Matters in the British and American Novel, edited by Andrea O’Reilly Herrera, et al., Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997, pp. 217-235.
Pastoor, Charles. “The absence of atonement in Atonement.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, vol. 66, no. 3, 2014, p. 203+. Literature Resource Center, http:// link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A378680382/GLS?u=broo69771&sid=GLS&xid=597fdafc. Accessed 10 Sept. 2018.
Tyler, Anne. Saint Maybe. Knopf, 1991.
How do McEwan and Hartley use acting or theatre in ‘Atonement’ and ‘The Go-Between’?
Theater and acting fundamentally allow people to become something else- to transcend the bounds of their identities and present, or be presented with, a different reality. The process of writing, a theme particularly prominent in ‘Atonement’, is arguably comparable to acting- they both permit a person to gain a new control of themselves and their surroundings, in creating an imagined realm. Theater is overtly used in ‘Atonement’, the novel being framed by Briony’s ‘ The Trials of Arabella’, and in ‘The Go-Between’ can be seen more implicitly, through Leo casting himself in different roles throughout the novel, as well as imposing them on others. The medium of theater reveals much of both narrators- either through their reflections on it, or changes they undergo by it.
Firstly, by beginning his novel with the words, ‘the play’, McEwan immediately signals the emphasis on literature within the text, and invites the reader to be highly conscious, from the beginning, that they are reading fiction- a common quality of post post-modernist texts. This aids in setting up the reader as a ‘judge’ in later parts of the novel. Of equal significance, is the insight into Briony as a character, which McEwan’s descriptions of the play unveil to us. Indeed, the story of the play demonstrates the values and strands of life which the young Briony views to be of importance. For example, the dangers of ‘love which did not build a foundation on good sense’, the perfection in reconciliation and happy ending, and the romanticized notion of ‘saviour’- notions which remain of value to her through to her old age. As influenced by the fairy and folk tales Briony voraciously read, the significance of a happy ending is great to her, and reflects the intent of ‘her controlling demon’ and ‘her desire to have the world just so’. Suitably, by beginning and ending the novel with descriptions of ‘The Trials of Arabella’, a fitting cyclicality is created, complementing Briony’s characteristic penchant for control and order. Further, the play demonstrates her attempts to influence in real life, and control in an imagined world, the actions of those around her- in this case, those of her brother, Leon: ‘it was for her brother, to (…) provoke his admiration and guide him away from his careless succession of girlfriends’. The powerful verbs of ‘provoke’ and ‘guide’ certainly convey the force and influence which Briony intended her writing to have on the activity of others in real life , particularly through the more tangible, active form of theatre. It could alternatively be viewed that the ‘prince’ figure in the play was intended by Briony to be representative of Robbie as the ‘impoverished doctor’, channelling the childhood crush which is later revealed to the reader- considered vital to her actions by Robbie, and almost entirely denied by Briony herself. The poster and ticket booth being ‘the project’s highest point of fulfilment’ could therefore hold a subtle irony; her romanticized idea of Robbie being her saviour is quickly inverted, as in her mind he is transformed into a perverse villain- Briony’s planned role for him is never carried across to reality, just as the play never is. Indeed, her wish for ‘the beginning of love at the end of our travail’ fails- although she attempts to reconstruct this love between Robbie and Cecelia through her writing, the epilogue shows Briony’s inability to make the world conform to her imagination and ‘love of (… ) the principles of justice’.
Further, the collapse of Briony’s play and her consequent rejection of this literary form, allows McEwan to highlight the disorder Briony perceives in it, despite initially viewing it as ‘tidiness indeed’. In writing, the play is controlled and direct, as Briony deems, ‘a world reduced to what was said in it’- but when rehearsals begin, the interpretation of other minds causes her play, and world, to become ‘defaced’, creating a barrier between Briony’s perfect vision, and the communication of this to an audience. The ‘telepathy’ she values in story-writing cannot be achieved, which perhaps hints at McEwan’s ideas of the impossibility of finding ‘truth’ in a novel- the intentions of the author cannot always be seamlessly communicated from one mind to another. Arguably, in reality novels are closer to theater than Briony believes- truth is distorted and disordered by interpretation, and opinion and perception clash between the author and reader. Perhaps this prevents Briony from ever achieving atonement through novel form- she can never purge herself, as the events cannot be relayed transparently. Like theater, fiction forms a translucent layer between writer and receiver- the actors and stage play, just as the viewpoint from which a reader regards the text, blur the original meanings of the author.
In ‘The Go-Between’, the idea of acting and taking on different roles equally reveal much of the narrator, Leo. Stemming from his fixation with the gods of the Zodiac, Leo essentially rejects his own identity when he rejects his star sign, stating: ‘I could not identify myself with him’. When at Brandham, Leo elevates himself by taking on the role of ‘Mercury’- despite still only serving ‘the Gods’, he sees himself to be of the same transcendent nature. Hartley furthers this idea of role-playing with the introduction of Leo’s green suit which, like a costume for theater, helped to ‘alter (his) outlook on the world’. It is clear that Leo feels under obligation to adapt and improve himself in such a way, when he states, ‘I must increase my stature, I must act on a grander scale’ in order to ‘be in tune with all that Brandham hall meant’. The forceful repetition of ‘must’, emphasizes how compelled Leo feels to acclimatize himself, and when he associates himself with ‘Mercury’, he feels he has undergone ‘a spiritual transformation’ having been ‘cast for a new role’. In the same way that Briony finds control by casting roles onto others, such as Leon and Robbie, Leo seems to find order and control in his foreign surroundings by casting the ennobling role of ‘Mercury’ onto himself: Briony, as mirrored by her role in ‘The Trials of Arabella’, directs, whereas Leo acts. Further, Leo’s transformation into this new character only propels him to continue re-adapting and imagining different versions of himself, for example, ‘a Robin Hood in Lincoln green’, a role which fittingly emphasizes his position of servitude to Marian, while paradoxically aggrandizing Leo’s view of himself. In this way, Hartley demonstrates the power that the imagination brings in enabling Leo to ‘act’ thus, as further into the text Leo realizes that this duality provides him with ‘a sense of power’- as does his role as a magician, before he comes to Brandham. Similarly, Briony’s penchant for imposing roles onto others inspires power within her, such that it ‘dispels her own insignificance’, as it equally does for Leo.
Interestingly, in both texts the heat of their surroundings is greatly emphasized and seems to tie in with ideas of theatricality. Particularly in ‘The Go-Between’, the temperature appears as an evolutionary, theatrical medium which permits Leo to take up his new role: ‘the heat was a medium which made this change of outlook possible’. The heat adds another dimension to Leo’s reality, just as theater seems to be a level above reality- it permits one, in both cases, to cross ‘the rainbow bridge from reality to dream’. It is a filter which gives Leo the ability to live up to his zodiac ideals, leading him to claim that ‘one felt another person, one was another person’. The linguistic movement of ‘felt’ to ‘was’ shows the transition from potentiality to reality, enacting the effect that the filter of heat has upon the ideals in Leo’s mind- their being transferred from the imagination, to his perception of reality. In ‘Atonement’, the heat, arguably symbolic of Robbie and Cecelia’s acknowledged passion, accentuates everything; as in ‘The Go-Between’, it adds another layer to reality, acting as a theatrical medium which renders the events more pointed, intense and urgent- as Leon states it becomes ‘a different country. All the rules change’. Heat, then, allows for transgression over both social and personal boundaries, as theater allows a person to lift themselves above their self, and surroundings. These transformative powers of the heat enable Briony to elevate her imagination further, and to develop a more dramatic and exaggerated imagined scene, both at the fountain, and concerning Robbie’s alleged ‘attack’ of Cecelia and rape of Lola. McEwan and Hartley certainly both seem to employ ideas of theatricality, such as role-playing and the environmental mediums which allow for this, in order to emphasize their respective narrators’ imaginative aims to control and shape the world around them.
Additionally, in both texts, the authors’ use of the idea of acting has implications upon social order and compliance, particularly in ‘The Go-Between’. The narrative is interspersed by scenes depicting guests of the house, mostly unnamed, sitting around the dinner table and engaging in polite conversation. The final, most pointed of these scenes precedes the dramatic destruction of Marian and Ted’s love, and is rife with tension as to the unspoken doubts of Marian’s whereabouts. Throughout, the guests and family members seem to be following a social script, involving measured and courteous conversation about the rain, or Marian’s fondness of ‘Nanny Robson’. This is especially true for the unnamed characters, whose presence seems to form a Greek chorus; their speech building up in the dramatic unfolding of the truth. Their echoing, repetitive words such as, ‘Where can she be?’ followed by, ‘Yes, where can she be?’ certainly shows them to be abiding by the appropriate social script- making non-committal, off-hand queries in order to tiptoe around the already unstable social situation. Details such as ‘every action and almost every remark’ being ‘followed by a pause’ further the sense of the rehearsed theatricality of the situation. Interestingly, Hartley interludes these moments by a burst of crackers and smoke, which could be seen as evocative of the special stage effects used in theater: ‘the detonations, the tearing paper, the smoke, the acrid fumes’. This evident theatricality seems to be used by Hartley to build up a layer over the truth of the situation before the smoke and sound die away, and reveal the butler’s affirmation of Marian’s unexplained absence. This creates a sudden shift and change in atmosphere: the unspoken awkwardness of Marian’s absence cause the ‘chorus’ and members of the table to suddenly lapse out of the act- as described by Leo, ‘they had forgotten themselves’, and they neglect the requirements of their social stage directions. The image of the guests being cast in an eerie ‘dark-red’ lighting also seems pointedly theatrical, as if on stage. This breach of the social script is furthered, catastrophically, by Mrs Maudsley: ‘all at once Mrs Maudsley pushed her chair back and stood up (…) her body was bent and trembling, her face unrecognisable’. This lapse out of character and the social act, both for the guests around the table and Mrs Maudsley, seems to turn them into something monstrous and abnormal in Leo’s view- the guests with their ‘hobgoblin look’ and Mrs Maudsley with her distorted ‘unrecognisable’ face. In this way, Hartley appears to criticize the duplicity of such fake, social facades, in implying that underneath their courteous, conformed exteriors, is something completely different, exaggerated to the point of being inhuman. Notably Leo himself shows great interest in social order, as seen in his attempts to separate Marian and Ted through means of the occult, in the hope that ‘Puck or whoever he is (…) will vanish gracefully from the scene’. Alluding to ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream’ thus, Leo implies that the play of social order was disrupted by some force, and inverted ridiculously in their union- as Puck plays with couples and love, and upturns the former order of things. Hartley therefore uses the idea of theater and acting to demonstrate the facade of ‘high class’ society at the turn of the century, and thus criticize their strict conformity to social standards, which are only idealistic- a dream world, such that can only be reached through theatricality.
It could be viewed that similar ideas are conveyed in ‘Atonement’- Briony appears to abide by a social script, helpfully crafted for her by her surrounding authorities, when the conviction of Robbie is taking place. When being questioned, Briony relates how she became ‘anxious to please’ and how ‘it was comforting to feel that she was confirming what they already knew’. Although Briony is the one who relates what she ‘saw’, it appears that the inspectors put words into her mouth and help to form her ‘script’, in order to relay the events of the crime. Briony describes how they built a ‘sensitively created space’ in which they seem to craft her words: ‘”You’re saying you saw him?” “Yes, I saw him”. Essentially, the inspectors invoke her to change the word ‘know’ to ‘saw’, leading to her indignant repetition of ‘I saw him. I saw him’. Briony switches her choice of word to conform to the script which the inspectors laid out for her, in order to fit into their expectations and abide by what she believed they wanted to hear. Through this, McEwan may have been criticizing the force that authorities, particularly patriarchal authority, has over others- such to the extent of compelling them to comply with their ideas. Therefore, this scene can be compare to the dinner table moments in ‘The Go-Between’- in both, characters seem to be acting, taking on a role to please, or conform to, others or society’s norms.
Overall, both McEwan and Hartley appear to have crafted ideas of theater into their texts primarily to illuminate the characters of their respective narrators, as well as highlighting the falsity of society. Theater is a medium, like fiction, which allows actors or writers to lift themselves above reality, and attempt to create and control a new self and the effect of it on the audience; indeed, this is what Leo and Briony strive for with their apparent acting and directing. Both characters attempt to embellish and guide situations in their lives through means of the imagination, an effect which is certainly achieved through theater, but such control is never truly carried across to reality, for either Briony or Leo.
A Comparison of Atonement and Lantana
Through their respective texts, Atonement and Lantana, authors Ian McEwan and Ray Lawrence expertly convey the ideas of betrayal, atonement, loss and class. Within Atonement, McEwan employs stylistic features repetition, motif, symbolism and characterisation to explore the idea of betraying a loved one, the effort required to atone for this transgression, and the influence of class in pre-war British society. Contrastingly, Lawrence utilises mise en scene, soundtrack, camera shots and dialogue within Lantana to express his concerns regarding not only the infidelity and betrayal in contemporary urban life, and the importance of redeeming oneself, but the influence of socioeconomic status on the attainment of happiness.
Within Atonement, McEwan portrays the idea of betrayal through the technique of repetition. childish protagonist Briony believes Robbie is the rapist, and frequently repeats Yes I saw him. I saw him, ultimately betraying her family friend, and her sister Cecelia. Through repetition, McEwan conveys the intensity of Briony’s belief, and the vast extent of her betrayal, as she never considers the possibility of false understandings. Contrastingly, Lawrence conveys betrayal through John and Valerie’s relationship, in John’s ignorance of Valerie’s pleas to assist her, ultimately leading to her death. Mise en scene and editing is utilised through the image of the phone and answering machine, surrounded by family photos, to convey the harsh betrayal with which John ignores the voice over of her pleas for help. The stark contrast between the lighting of Valerie’s telephone box, and the cut to the warm lighting of their home highlights the intensity of John’s betrayal. Indeed, in contrasting ways, both McEwan and Lawrence convey the idea of betrayal through techniques of repetition and mise en scene respectively.
Similarly, McEwan and Lawrence display atonement, a concept that goes hand in hand with betrayal, through techniques such as motifs, and soundtrack respectively. Within Atonement, Briony’s realisation of her wrongdoings leads her to work towards redemption until her old age. Through writing Atonement, the novel itself, not simply a letter, but a new draft, an atonement, Briony recreates the story so Cecilia and Robbie can have the life they deserved, whilst punishing herself for her wrongdoings. Through this, McEwen conveys to the reader how significantly her transgressions have impacted her life, and the importance of rectifying her mistake. Alternatively, Lawrence conveys the idea of atonement through utilising the soundtrack. When Sonia and Leon dance, Leon begins to atone for having an affair by actively trying to repair his relationship. The music accompanying this scene, What do you know of love?, provides an upbeat, romantic atmosphere, suggesting to the audience that through atonement, damage can be repaired. Certainly, through the use of motifs by McEwan, and of soundtrack by Lawrence, both authors are able to convey ideas on the theme of atonement within their texts.
The idea of loss is also quite prevalent throughout McEwan’s text, Atonement, made clear through foreshadowing and symbolism. McEwan utilises foreshadowing when Robbie and Cecelia break the vase, symbolic of their relationship and it’s inevitable doom due to the actions of Robbie. This vase, of which …split into two triangular pieces […] and lay there, several inches apart, foreshadows how they will become separated, eventually losing each other and their lives. Through this, McEwan conveys the severity of Briony’s actions, and how two people lost their happiness because of her lies. In a similar way, Lawrence conveys the devastation associated with losing a child through techniques such as camera shots and dialogue. When John and Valerie share intimacy, a close up of their faces is shown, but never in the same shot, highlighting their isolation. Accompanied by the line look at me John, to which John averts his gaze, Lawrence conveys how the couple are united through their grief for their dead daughter, and nothing more, highlighting the immense impact loss can have on relationships within contemporary society. No doubt, through their use of foreshadowing and symbolism, as well as camera shots and dialogue respectively, both McEwan and Lawrence convey their ideas of the concept of loss through their texts, Atonement and Lantana.
Certainly, McEwan and Lawrence’s convey the idea of class and the distinction between characters through characterisation and mise en scene. McEwan employs the characterisation of Emily Tallis as a reflection of the upper class society of Britain in pre-war society. Whilst she waits for the search parties to return, Emily takes particular distaste to the presence of Robbie, and evaluates how she opposed Jack when the proposed paying for the boys education, a statement which conveys how she believes her family is above the lower class citizens of the time, so much so that she would believe the word of a child over an adult. Through Emily, McEwan conveys his ideas on the upper class of Britain during the late 1930s, and his distaste of the snobbery with which they conducted themselves. In contrast, Lawrence conveys the idea of class in a much more simplistic way, employing the technique of mise en scene. Lawrence places Jane’s house, a two story building made of fine and valuable materials, next to Nick and Paula’s, a run down one story house, reflective of their financial status. In this way, Lawerence conveys the idea that true happiness comes from mutual trust, respect and love from the people in your life, not wealth.
Clearly, though the use of characterisation and mise en scene respectively, both McEwan and Lawrence are able to convey their concerns regarding class and the influence of status in contemporary society.Through their respective texts, authors Ian McEwan and Ray Lawrence expertly convey their concerns regarding the prevalence of betrayal within relationships and the sense of loss this can generate, as well as the importance of redemption and influence of socioeconomic status on one’s happiness. Through the conventional stylistic features of repetition, motif, foreshadowing, symbolism, and characterisation employed by McEwan Atonement, and the mise en scene, soundtrack, camera shots and dialogue utilised by Lawrence Lantana, both authors of their respective texts not only depict these common ideas, but convey their concerns regarding these aspects of contemporary society, and the need for their consideration in everyday life.
The Meanings of Atonement
“I put it all there as a matter of historical record… We will all only exist as my inventions. No one will care what events and which individuals were misinterpreted to make a novel… How can a novelist achieve atonement when… she is also God? In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms” (Atonement 2001 p.369-371).
A reader’s interpretation of prose is fundamentally influenced by the narrator’s perception; therefore, an unreliable narrator has literary, theoretical, and moral consequences for the meanings that can be read from a text. Exchanging an omniscient, third person narrator, who supplies an apparently comprehensive and veracious account and encourages a willing suspension of disbelief on the reader’s part, for a focalised, subjective perspective, noticeably informed by ideologies and ethics, casts a shadow of doubt and ambiguity on the narrative. In the coda of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the manipulative narrator, Briony Tallis, delineates that this novel is her last chance to provide “satisfaction or reparation for [the] wrong [and] injury” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary 2015) she caused Cecilia, her sister, and her lover, Robbie Turner, by misinterpreting their interactions and motivations. Her reaction was, with catastrophic results, based on a Victorian class consciousness and horror of sexuality, and egocentrically subordinated the others’ reality to her fiction. The section “London, 1999” discloses Briony’s failure to achieve the titular meaning of the novel in its theological sense, but also depicts the maturation of her literary imagination, which allows her to atone through empathy. Yet the postmodern techniques infused throughout this prose fiction intimate that it was always about the nature and process of storytelling. McEwan’s adult oeuvre is characterised by a “private and psychological component” linked to a “public and historical one” (Finney 2004 p.68) which establishes the characters of Atonement as ideological products of their twentieth century British context.
Briony’s direct voice equivocates the coda, thus calling into question her moral fulfilment of the novel’s titular meaning, in its theological sense and through her imagination. Her character is imbued with late Victorian Puritan beliefs from her parents and her reading of Gothic literature. Briony’s first play, a Gothic fairy tale, concludes with “a good wedding” – “an unacknowledged representation of the yet unthinkable – sexual bliss” (9)– to which her mother, whose own husband’s “deceit was a form of tribute to the importance of their [strategic] marriage” (148), responds with “wise, affirming nods” (4). Nevertheless, she divulges in the coda that she never confessed her sin or sought forgiveness from her victims: “it is only in this last version that my lovers end well… as I walk away” (370). In the final draft, Briony claims she will retract her evidence after apologising to Cecilia and Robbie, the lovers reunited in London; in the epilogue, she reveals this to be a fabrication – she “never saw them that year” (370) before they died and Lord and Lady Marshall are legally untouchable. Even Nurse Tallis’ penance was motivated by a desire to construct herself as selfless and compassionate. “Sometimes, when a soldier… was in great pain, she was touched by an impersonal tenderness that detached her from the suffering, so that she was able to do her work efficiently and without horror. That was when she saw what nursing might be… She could imagine how she might abandon her ambitions of writing and dedicate her life in return for these moments of elated, generalised love.” (304) The oxymoron “impersonal tenderness” and repetition of “might” subvert her pretence, while the godlike adoration she craves is uncharacteristic of someone compelled by guilt and shame. According to the Puritan doctrine of limited atonement, Jesus’ death secured the salvation of the elect, those blessed with God’s grace (Woodlief), among which Briony would count herself, as a British upper-middle class author. Briony constructs Turner as a metaphorical Christ figure in Part Two through biblical allusions and imagery (Culleton 2009): he shares his ‘last supper’ with Nettle and Mace and later “put his arms around the corporals’ shoulders and… let his head droop” (244). However, in Briony’s tale, Robbie didn’t die, and thus, Briony forfeits redemption. Nonetheless, Briony achieved atonement through empathy. McEwan believes that “imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity” and thus “cruelty is the failure of imagination” (McEwan 2001). Briony originally committed her crime because she ironically forgot that “other people are as real as you” (40) and ruthlessly subordinated reality to fiction – “the truth was in the symmetry” (169), and in the coda Briony admits, “all the preceding drafts were pitiless” (370). Therefore, her victims’ fictional ending proves she has learned to empathise, to imagine others, as autonomous entities, authentically (Finney 2004 p.81). The contradiction of a theological and moral reading of the coda thus subverts the titular meaning of the novel.
The metafictional and metanarrational elements of the epilogue are intertwined with a reflection on the literary movements and genres parodied by the novel to discuss the nature and “making of fiction” (Finney 2004 p.69). First, Briony refers back to Part One: “I love these little things, this pointillist approach to verisimilitude, the correction of detail that cumulatively gives such satisfaction.” (359) Classical realism derives its quality not from the authenticity of its subject, but from accuracy of its representation (Watt 1957 p.11). Briony employed this technique to convince readers of a veracious narrator of Part One and of Robbie and Cecilia’s fabricated, fairy tale ending. Due to the ambiguity of the denouement, it is debatable whether it is cowardice and immorality or “sense [and] hope” that provokes an author to conceal an unsatisfying resolution, because “who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism?” (371) Secondly, Briony includes Lola and Marshall in the epilogue because they symbolise the modernist belief that corruption and decay lie beneath beauty (Rahn 2011). “He at last appeared the cruelly handsome plutocrat” and “there was an air of a health farm about her, and an indoor tan” (357), and yet they both rose above others by exploiting them. Revising Parts Two and Three in light of this suggests that behind modernism’s own aesthetic – prioritising style and innovation over character and plot (Wolfreys 2001 p.121)– lies artificiality and depravity, because it enabled Briony to “drown her guilt in a stream – three streams – of consciousness” (320). Thirdly, Briony connects her work – “the drafts are in order and dated, the photocopied sources labelled… everything is in the right box file” (353)– to her childhood – “the model farm… consisted of the usual animals, but all facing one way… her straight-backed dolls… appeared to be under strict instructions not to touch the walls; various thumb-sized figures… suggested by their even ranks and spacing a citizen’s army awaiting orders” (5)– through similarity of visual imagery. But her self-reflexive musing, “I’ve always liked to make a tidy finish” (353), reminds readers that this novel satirizes the bildungsroman genre; Briony never matures into a reliable narrator, with the ability to relinquish her reality and fiction to “disorder” (9) instead of imposing “symmetry” (169). Furthermore, she confirms evidence of a drafting process from Part Three: “the earliest version [of Atonement], January 1940, the latest, March 1999, and in between, half a dozen different drafts.” (369) In his letter, Cyril Connolly asks, “Wouldn’t it help you if the watching girl did not actually realise that the vase had been broken?” (313) Re-reading Part One, readers find Briony has taken his advice. He also criticises modernists for disregarding what lies at the core of prose: a reader’s “childlike desire to be told a story” (314), which in turn questions Briony’s artistic licence. Finally, “The Trials of Arabella” is performed in honour of all the texts Atonement referenced to “entail productivity” (Finney 2004 p.73), especially Richardson’s Clarissa, used to foreshadow Lola’s rape and explain the ideologies that supported Robbie’s incrimination and Marshall’s escape thereof. The blatant manipulation of various literary periods, genres and techniques, revealed in the coda, reminds readers of the dangers and construction of fiction.
According to Geoff Dyer, “McEwan uses his novel to show how the subjective or interior transformation” of his characters and the revision of his symbols “can now be seen to have interacted with the larger march of twentieth century history” (Dyer 2001), specifically the decline of the influence of Victorian ideologies on class and sexuality, and the traumatizing impact of the war on Britain. Victorian morality arose mainly from the nouveau-riche merchant class; they were impelled to control their libido rise above the natural order Charles Darwin proposed and the corrupting promiscuity of the aristocracy (Ping). Underlying Briony’s misinterpretation was the same snobbery and Puritan sexuality of the British upper-middle class in the early 1900s. She wishes to “spare herself the sight of her sister’s shame” (38) (being seen by a man in her underclothes); reads Robbie’s letter as “brutal” and “disgusting” (113); and describes him as “huge”, “wild” (123) and bestial, because of her prude and chaste attitudes towards love. Emily is a product of the naturalisation of the Victorian social hierarchy, and therefore “opposed Jack when he proposed paying for [Robbie’s] education” because it “smacked of meddling” (151) with the status quo. The Tallis’ Meissen vase represents the fragility of Cecilia’s virginity (Finney 2004 p.77), just as her romantic relationship with Robbie embodies the initiation of a more modern, liberal era of sexuality, and Briony’s false testimony, with a “glazed surface of conviction… not without its blemished and hairline cracks” (168), but also foreshadows the fracturing of the Tallis family, their class and British society. This is supported by Cecilia’s impression of her home: an “unchanging calm, which made her more certain than ever that she must soon be moving on” (19). The effect of World War II on the British psyche and empire was devastating: before World War II, having profited from World War I and dominating almost a quarter of the world, England was an empire at the height of its powers; after World War II, the humiliating conflict at Dunkirk and the massive waste of resources and lives left England broken. When Turner is sent to jail and then to war, his former life and hopes, like Britain’s naivety and peace, come to an abrupt and traumatic end (Finney 2004 p.78). Retrospectively, he sees “a dead civilisation… first his own life ruined, then everybody else’s” (217). This “connection between the microcosm of the lives that Briony has disrupted and the macrocosm of a world at war” demonstrates how “relationships… absorb outside pressure, influence politics, and… history” (Finney 2004 p.73). “London, 1999” sits in stark contrast with the rest of the novel, indicating how society has evolved and how the characters, as ideological constructs, now fit into it. Briony is an anachronism in a contemporary, meritocratic society: the tension between her and her cabbie is born of condescension from a deceased class system, symbolised by Emily’s funeral. However this new social order inspires respect for Lola and Marshall, perhaps even because he is a war profiteer and their union represents sexuality more permissive than Robbie and Cecilia’s. Briony’s first person narration of the epilogue explains how British society has developed from the start of the twentieth century, demonstrating how literature can represent history.
The utilization of the direct voice of Briony, a highly unreliable narrator, renders the coda ambiguous, and consequently effects the readings that can be made of Ian McEwan’s Atonement literarily, theoretically and morally. Briony arguably achieved the titular meaning of the novel by involving imaginative empathy in her fiction, but not by religious doctrine. This contradiction encourages a criticism of the literary periods Atonement explores, especially postmodernism and metafiction. Furthermore, the novel is an example of historiographic inasmuch as McEwan uses prose to subjectively represent history and society. Opening up Atonement to multiple interpretations demonstrates something that may have prevented Briony incriminating an innocent man, had she realised it: that literature, like reality, has no definite, universal meaning; instead, each person creates their own meaning. “Readers make the meaning of literary texts, and accordingly there is no such thing as a ‘right reading’” (Crosman 1982 p.357)
McEwan, Ian (2001). Atonement. Random House. Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2015). “Atonement”. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/atonement
Finney, Brian (2004). “Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: The Making of Fiction in Ian McEwan’s Atonement” Journal of Modern Literature. Indiana University Press.
McEwan, Ian (2001). “Only love and then oblivion”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/sep/15/september11.politicsphilosophyandsociety2
Dyer, Geoff (2001). “Who’s afraid of influence”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/sep/22/fiction.ianmcewan Crosman,
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Wolfreys, Julian (2001). The English Literature Companion. Palgrave Macmillan.
Rahn, Josh (2001). “Modernism”. The Literature Network. http://www.online-literature.com/periods/modernism.php