The Dangers of the Imagination in Atonement
In Atonement, Ian McEwan suggests the dangers of confusing our fantasies with reality; that we have become so accustomed to choosing to see what we wish to see rather than reality and this leads to destruction in our lives. Our refusal to accept or want to see reality creates a cycle in which we become alienated from others, just as Briony, Robbie and Cecelia did. Briony lives in her stories, Cecelia lives in her mind, and Robbie lives in his memories. Eventually they each end up alone and longing for a happy ending that is never given to them. As human beings we have a fundamental need for an answer. Even when we have limited information and perspective, we use our imagination to fill in the blanks in order to obtain an answer. Through gothic allusions and interchanging viewpoints McEwan emphasizes the detrimental effects of getting lost in what we wish or hope to see while seeking an answer and ignoring reality. Imagination is wonderful to an extent – we must be able to recognize and accept reality or else we will end up disappointed in situations with permanent consequences.
To begin, McEwan creates gothic allusions, particularly with Briony, in which he reiterates the dangers of denying reality and always expecting a life that contains “hidden drawers, lockable diaries and cryptographic systems” or in this case, a constantly exciting and adventurous lifestyle. McEwan illustrates these dangers through Briony. Briony is seemingly very mature and intelligent for her age, with a very wild imagination. While having an imagination, goals, and desiring excitement is not wrong, Briony takes these qualities too far. As scholar Brian Finney states, “when she acts out her confusion between life and the life of fiction, the consequences are tragic and irreversible” (Finney, 69). This further suggests that Briony has taken her imagination too far and the reader is shown why this is catastrophic when she accuses Robbie of raping her cousin due to her overactive imagination. This calamitous event illustrates why one cannot depend too much on what one thinks or want to be real and deny actual reality. As human beings it is within our own innate nature to desire answers to everything, so naturally when Briony sees her sister in an odd situation by the fountain, she seeks out an answer. Even though Briony claims, “This was not a fairy tale, this was the real, the adult world…” we as readers can identify the irony in this statement because Briony allows her imagination to take over her logic (37). This exact scene is where McEwan displays to readers how easy it is to be taken over by the thrill of a possible adventure or story. Life is not like a story in which a “woodcutter saved a princess from drowning and ended by marrying her” (36). If we constantly allow our imagination and desires for excitement to take over while seeking out an answer, we will ultimately end up disappointed because life does not always offer excitement and adventure.
Along with Briony, Robbie is a prime example of the disappointment one can run into if he or she becomes too immersed in what they desire to happen and ignore other possibilities. When Robbie is sent to war due to Briony’s accusations, he spends the length of his journey dreaming about seeing Cecelia again. He walks a great distance to get to the port of Dunkirk, in belief that once he reaches the beach his nightmares will be over. This explicitly alludes to gothic themes where there is always a happy ending. Robbie had “assumed that the cussed army spirit… would prevail. Without knowing it, that was the beach he had been walking to for days” (233). This implies that we expect a happy ending; that as humans feel we deserve to be rewarded with a happy ending for making it through a hard time. McEwan is not suggesting that we always should expect the worst or look at life through a very negative lens. Instead, he urges the reader to be careful not to rely too much on what we desire and hope for or else in the end, we can end up very disappointed like Robbie. Robbie relies on his desires and ultimately ends up extremely disappointed – “He thought he had no expectations–until he saw the beach” (233). Through these gothic “happy ending” themes shown in both Briony and Robbie, McEwan shows us why we must be careful to not confuse life and fiction based on our desires and need for an answer.
The vacillating narrators in Atonement gives the reader a view into most of the characters lives but it does not provide details for all events, which leads the reader to infer certain situations. As scholar Kathleen D’Angelo puts it, “readers are faced with a multiplicity of interpretations” (D’Angelo, 92). By creating a changing narration, McEwan shows his readers how easy it is to infer something when we have limited information. This causes us to rely on our imagination, the very thing that got Briony into trouble. To show the similarities between Briony and readers, McEwan first uses the “rape” of Lola. Never does McEwan explicitly state it was Paul Marshall who raped Lola. Never does he state that she was raped. We infer that she was raped, and we assume when Paul wakes up “uncomfortably aroused” after dreaming about his four younger sisters and his strange behavior at dinner, that he must be the one who raped Lola (57). While McEwan provides the reader with many strange examples that suggest it was Paul Marshall who raped Lola, the oscillating narrator makes it so the reader never knows exactly which character it committed the crime. – McEwan allows the reader to use our imaginations to make assumptions.
While the reader does this almost without thinking, the reader again becomes even more like Briony. In “Part One” of Atonement, Briony is described as a girl who has a “wish for a harmonious, organized world” and “mayhem and destruction were too chaotic for her tastes, and she did not have it in her to be cruel” (5). Like Briony, most readers do not mean to assume and overuse the imagination – is happens subconsciously like Briony. Briony has limited perspective, so she uses her imagination to fill in the blanks. She truly believes her version of the events, just as the reader truly believes Paul Marshall was the rapist. McEwan makes us dislike Briony but also shows us that as readers, we tend to do the same thing as the flawed character.
The vacillating narrator not only leads the reader to make inferences about Paul Marshall, but the limited information also leads the reader to do exactly what Ian McEwan warns about. As mentioned previously, it is within human nature to use imagination in order to infer answers when the information is not explicit. At the end of Part Three, Briony is finally content because Robbie and Cecelia are together and in love, despite her false accusation. She claims that neither she nor “the war had destroyed it” (330), a somewhat happily ever after for the couple. However, in the epilogue the narrator is a much older Briony and the reader learns that instead of having a happily ever after, “Robbie Turner died of septicemia at Bray Dunes…” and “Cecelia was killed in September of the same year…” (350). The reader assumed that there was undoubtedly a happy ending, relying heavily on desires and inferences. The fact that McEwan causes us as readers to feel content with what we think is the end and then takes it away from us shows how easy it is to rely on our desires and also how dangerous it is.
While the book may disappoint the reader because the happy ending is not actually real, McEwan does this in order to warn the reader for when it actually is real. The reader never actually sees into Robbie and Cecelia’s thoughts – they were made up. The reader cannot rely so heavily on preconceived notions, without having explicit facts. McEwan makes the reader so much like Briony that, as readers, we begin to realize the things we hate Briony for, we do ourselves. We assume who the rapist is, we assume that the narrator is reliable and then we assume there is a happy ending. We have limited information on what actually is happening, but McEwan leads the reader to believe we are right, which once again makes us even more like Briony. He uses Briony as a warning to all of us since she is so relatable – he warns us to focus more on facts and reality and to not get caught up in what we think happened or what we “know.” We were disappointed at the end of Atonement – if we continue to infer based off of our own limited perspectives, our disappointments can become reality and not just based off of fiction.
Ultimately, Atonement is a novel that presents it readers with the detrimental effects of getting lost in what we wish to see or be while seeking an answer and ignoring reality. While hyperbolizing the dangers of this through his characters and plot, McEwan emphasizes the importance of being able to accept reality and not letting imaginations run wild. While having an imagination is typically something that is considered fun and creative, it is important not to blur line of reality. McEwan illustrates the detrimental effects of ignoring reality through the gothic allusion of the happy ending and interchanging viewpoints.
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