No Atonement for Me
“I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High”-Psalms 82:6
It is an impossible task for an author not to project his or her own private biases onto a page. Theistic writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were unable to divorce their faith from their respective writings. Ian McEwan, on the other hand, is found at the opposite end of the spectrum, unable to divorce his lack of faith from his writing. These private biases do not detract from the writings of these authors, but add an interesting perspective to each of their works. Tolkien was able to layer his work with biblical symbolism as well as incorporate many biblical themes. Lewis employed biblical allegory, having his characters and plot reflect specific events that occurred in the scriptures. In the case of McEwan’s Atonement, McEwan’s atheism enabled his work to challenge a well-established theme in writing; the belief that man has no business playing God. McEwan, utilizing scriptural references and biblical allegory, makes several subliminal comparisons that put man an on equal footing with God.
McEwan is first faced with a curious task: how can he challenge a literary notion that has been held for centuries on end? Literary works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein warn against the dangers of men who have the audacity to play God. McEwan would be unable to topple such a notion single-handedly, and instead relies on making subliminal comparisons alongside several biblical references and allegory. Through scriptural references, McEwan manages to impart some validity to his beliefs, as grounding his references soundly in Christian theology lends in itself a certain ethos that would be impossible to achieve if these biblical references were omitted. While using the Bible to disprove a popular religious notion does seem odd, it is a growing trend in modern and postmodern writing. As Foster puts it “Many modern and postmodern texts are essentially ironic, in which the allusions to biblical sources are used not to heighten continuities between the religious tradition and the contemporary moment but to illustrate a disparity or disruption” (Foster 52). And by employing subliminal messages, McEwan is able to make his statement without raising too many eyebrows.
The most obvious comparison comes at the end of the book, when Briony delivers one of the most famous quotes of the novel: “The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?” (McEwan 350). Here Briony notes that the author is God in a novel and poses the question of how God can achieve atonement when the author has no higher power to appeal to. However, McEwan curiously adds this quote at the end: “No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists” (McEwan 351). McEwan quips that belief in God is not a requirement for being God, allowing essentially anyone the ability to become God. This is something of a shocking revelation, as this concept goes against the often toted idea that man should not play God. Somewhat ironically, however, it fits the biblical description of God. In Daniel 2:21-22, when describing God, the author writes “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding; he reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness,” (Aitken 1059). This quote could just as easily be describing Briony and the absolute power of the writer. She, as the writer, has complete and autonomous control over the events of the novel, much like God has control over the universe. More biblical parallels can be found in the book of Hebrews; in Hebrews 12:2, Jesus is curiously called “The author and the finisher” (Aitken 1461). Such a reference cements the idea that Briony, as an author, is put on the same level as God. Briony, as an author, gives life to Cecilia and Robbie. She creates wars and kills characters. She crafts universes and grants wisdom. She topples the French government and delivers victory to the Nazis. She becomes God through her narrative actions.
McEwan utilizes more than just Briony’s godlike abilities as an author to reflect his belief that man is equal to God. Robbie acts as a prime example of a character who believes himself to be on equal footing with God. Right before he types his obscene letter for Cecilia, Robbie is seen in a moment of self-reflection, musing on how he is secure in himself and his ideas. He caps off this reflection with the statement “I am what I am” (McEwan 78). This statement directly mirrors a statement made in the Bible, in which God speaks nearly the exact same line to Moses in Exodus 3:14, telling his prophet “I am that I am” (Aitken 74). In the biblical example, God uses this line to establish credibility and to convince Moses that the Israelites will listen to him. When Robbie parrots the quote, he similarly uses the line to establish credibility in himself and have the reader believe that he is secure in his emotions. Whether or not Robbie is actually secure is moot: the main takeaway from this is that Robbie repeated the quote that God made in an attempt to send the same message that God sent. While certainly subliminal, Robbie makes a comparison of himself to God, unintentionally placing himself on the same level as the creator of the universe. While many writers discourage man playing God, McEwan seems completely fine with his characters acting as God. Robbie is later revealed in the novel as a non-religious man, acting as something of a reflection on McEwan’s own personal belief system. In this manner, McEwan’s personal belief that man is on par with God is reflected somewhat in the nature of Robbie, with Cecilia at first finding him pompous. When McEwan utilized Briony, he pointed out a method in which man can become God. Through Robbie, he shows the reader that man, inherently, is determined to himself set on an equal footing with God.
Robbie is not alone in this respect, as a slew of other characters throughout the novel believe themselves to be on an equal level with God. When talking to Leon, Cecilia, for example, makes a passing reference comparing herself to Jesus Christ when he multiplied a great feast from five loaves and two fish. Leon is noted not to have gotten the biblical reference, but the reference is made nonetheless. Cecilia’s passing remark does not seem very noteworthy, but as mentioned earlier, that is precisely the point. A more staunch example would be when the soldiers at Dunkirk choose to elevate themselves into a position where they themselves are, at bare minimum, equal to God, if not themselves being Gods. When a mob of soldiers begins to terrorize an innocent RAF man, the mob passes judgement. Believing the man to be responsible for their woes and the fact that they are stuck in France fighting a losing war, they hold him accountable for the sins of the government. The soldiers beat and torture the man, with every act of increasing violence against the man garnering praise and encouragement. When Mace declares that he wants to drown the man, the mob of soldiers becomes delighted, cheering and whooping at the thought of the man getting murdered. The idea that a man should be able to execute judgment on another man and kill him goes directly against biblical teachings, with Exodus 23:7 clearly stating “Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked” (Aitken 102). The only being delegated the ability to pass judgment on the wicked is God himself. For the soldiers to take on God’s responsibilities and pass judgment on the wicked would be to become gods themselves, a prospect which they welcome without worry.
The real genius that McEwan displays is not the absence of consequences that comes from the soldiers playing God or Cecilia comparing herself to Jesus, but rather his tactic of not drawing attention to the fact that, in both situations, characters were comparing themselves to and even taking the responsibilities of God. In this way, he is able to make it seem like man paralleling and even playing God is a normal occurrence, making a subtle statement that man is meant to play God and that there is nothing noteworthy in this occurrence, for man is God. McEwan’s efforts to place man on the level of God go unnoticed, exactly as he intended them to.
The question of whether or not man was meant to become an equal with God is a theological topic that is often fiercely debated, with both sides coming up with religious and scriptural references from different religions across the world in order to validate their respective claims. In the traditional literary world, however, there seems to be broad acceptance of the idea that man was never intended to toy with the factors of life as God does. McEwan, as an atheist author, certainly noted the irony of the situation, that those who could becomes “gods” through their writing felt obliged to write on the contrary, instead delving into how there are limits and boundaries, both spiritually and ethically, that man was not meant to cross. Through utilization of his characters and of the meta-textual author Briony, McEwan points out that the true sin lies not in placing man on equal footing with God, but in rather denying man his right to take his place next to God.
Aitken, Robert. The Holy Bible. New York: Arno, 1968. Print.
Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading between the Lines. New York: Quill, 2003. Print.
McEwan, Ian. Atonement: A Novel. New York: Doubleday, 2001. Print.
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“I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High”-Psalms 82:6 It is an impossible task for an author not to project his or […]