Landscape and Growing Up in Atonement and The Go-Between
Both Briony Tallis, of Atonement, and Leo Colston, of The Go-Between, spend significant periods of their adolescence in large country homes, both of which are surrounded by large estates. Hartley and McEwan use the landscapes which are present throughout much of these books to explore key themes such as that of growing up. There are several aspects of landscapes which mean that they lend themselves as a symbol for exploring growing up: the presence of boundaries, both natural and man-made, the existence of the visible and the hidden, and the fact that landscapes change over time.
One key difference between the landscapes in the two novels is the fact that Briony is very familiar with hers, calling the bridge ‘an ornament so familiar as to be invisible’. In contrast, Leo was a guest to Brandham Hall, and is unaccustomed to the landscape. This could be reflective of the comparative confidence with which Briony faces adulthood, declaring that ‘her childhood had ended’, though later admits that she may have only gained a ‘wiser grasp of her own ignorance’; this confidence could perhaps stem from her relationship with her mother, who is quite present in her life as well as the advice of her brother and sister, the former of whom she respects and loves. Conversely, Leo’s parents are predominantly absent from the novel and his main source of advice is Marcus, whom in reality has little more understanding of the adult world than Leo.
McEwan also explores Briony’s familiarity with the landscape during the night of the rape, when she is searching for the twins and the landscape becomes strange and unfamiliar to her in the darkness, as she notes ‘the oak was too bulbous, the elm too straggly’. One could perhaps draw parallels between this and her experience of growing up- she was surrounded by familiar events and people, and yet they were obscured and made strange by ‘adult emotion’, an ‘arena’ which Briony believes she has entered. This is similar to Leo’s ignorance in the adult world, but his difficulty is heightened by the fact that he is of a different social class to those around him. The summer therefore offers the opportunity to explore not only his maturing self, but also a new social setting with different rules. This is reflected in the way that Leo explores the landscape, particularly on the first afternoon that Marcus is ill; Leo adventures ‘further afield’, to the farm, which is representative of the adult world – it is dangerous, but offers ‘challenge’ and ‘adventures’ to Leo.
This is also one of the ways in which boundaries are explored, through the ‘deep-rutted farm road’ between Brandham hall and Black Farm. Through crossing this road, Leo meets Ted and this event is a catalyst for many changes and developments in Leo’ life, predominantly through carrying the letters. The farm road could therefore be representative of the boundary between the child and adult world; by crossing it Leo enters a very adult situation, for which he is somewhat underprepared. Whilst describing the road, Leo notes that he ‘could hardly get [his foot] out’ of the ruts and imagines what would happen if he were to be stuck there. Perhaps this is reflective of the difficulty that adolescents might have in transitioning from a child to an adult- it is far from a smooth process and this is demonstrated in the Lives of both Leo and Briony as both are often unsure of whether they are children or adults and struggle to overcome their own naivety.
In Atonement, McEwan seems to use water as a symbol of the adult world; both Celia’s undressing at the fountain and the rape, two situations which are representative of the adult world which Briony misunderstands, take place by water. It is particularly present in the fountain scene, when Cecilia immerses herself whilst Robbie looks on and the water has erotic connotations when Robbie later thinks about the event. The fact that both the bank by the island temple and the fountain are partly hidden from sight from the house suggests that the adult world is unsuitable for the eyes of children. When Briony witnesses these two events, with such detrimental effects, this is reinforced. Thus McEwan may be using the landscape to highlight the fact that children have no place in the adult world, particularly that of sexuality, but that part of growing up is exploring when to cross this boundary. Briony clearly crosses it too young in being exposed to these events and her ignorance has terrible effects on those around her.
A second significant difference between the landscapes in the two novels is the fact that The Go-Between has only one broad setting, Brandham Hall and its surroundings, whereas Atonement has many, including Brandham hall, Dunkirk and London. It could be argued that McEwan presents the process of growing up as more complex and that this is representative of that; Atonement looks at issues such as Briony’s relationships with her family members, her opinion of those around her, her thought processes and changing opinion of herself, as well as how other characters grow up or mature. It could be pointed out that The Go-Between does look at these things; however, McEwan explores them in greater depth. This is partly due to his different style of writing, in which he explores individual characters and events closely; over half the book is spent following the events of a single day, whereas The Go-Between, although not fast paced, does not explore the thoughts of each character in such depth. This gives opportunity for detailed exposition of Briony’s thoughts and feelings, such as in chapter 7, altogether giving off the impression that Briony’s experience of growing up is far more complex. In addition to writing style, this could perhaps be indicative of the differences in character between Briony and Leo. Though Leo is pensive, he has a clearer sense of right and wrong and his relationships and emotions are arguably not hugely complex (perhaps it is not an over-generalisation to suggest that this is a gender difference in teenagers).
The longer period of time over which The Go-Between is set allows Hartley to show change in the landscape, which is reflective of changes in Leo’s character. One example of this is the river, which we first see during the bathing excursion towards the start of Leo’s visit. It is described a second time just after he has been shouted at by Marian, after refusing to carry a letter. The river, which had been ‘sedgy, marshy’, is now ‘dry’ and ‘had sunk much lower’ and where ‘not a weed [had] marred the surface’, there is now ‘a tangled mess of water-weeds’. This could be representative of his enjoyment of life at Brandham Hall- whilst before he had been fairly carefree and greatly enjoying this new experience, by this scene, Leo is crushed regarding his relationship with Marian and disillusioned regarding her relationship with Ted. The ‘mad disorder’ and ‘mess’ could reflect the confusion of Leo’s emotions, particularly regarding Marian- he wants to please her, but feels torn by his conscience and his feelings towards Lord Trimingham. Hartley therefore uses the landscape to highlight the most significant aspect of growing up: change.
In conclusion, both McEwan and Hartley explore growing up extensively through the landscape. In both novels, there are particular aspects of the landscape which hold particular symbolic significance, such as the sluice and the road in The Go-Between and water in Atonement. Both present growing up as a difficult process and both draw particular attention to boundaries between childhood and adulthood.
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Both Briony Tallis, of Atonement, and Leo Colston, of The Go-Between, spend significant periods of their adolescence in large country homes, both of which are surrounded by large estates. Hartley […]