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Literature / Atonement

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"It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you."

Atonement is a 2001 book written by Ian McEwan about love, war, writing, guilt and, well, atonement.

Briony Tallis, a young writer from a well-off family, thinks her older sister Cecilia is being sexually harassed by her childhood friend Robbie Turner, also the son of her family's housekeeper. The two are in fact considering a consensual relationship. But the lie she tells leads to lasting, tragic consequences that threaten the happiness of the couple.

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For tropes on the film adaptation, see Atonement.


This book provides examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: Unlike Briony and Lola, when Cecilia reads the rude letter she guesses it was probably a joke and asks Robbie about it. While he's clearly mortified, Cecilia appears to have found it funny.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: When Briony is slashing nettles, she attributes to Lola the sins of Pride, Gluttony, Avarice and unco-operativeness.
  • Artistic License – History: The novel mentions the Balham station disaster (a German bomb was dropped on the road above the station - the tube platforms of which were being used as air-raid shelters - causing the northbound tunnel to partially collapse, flooding both platforms with water and earth from the ruptured water mains and sewers above), but gets the date of the event wrong: the novel says it happened in September 1940 rather than October 1940.
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  • The Atoner: Briony. But only in her book does she make explicit atonement. It's left more ambiguous in real life, where such clean, neat endings are not always found.
  • Bitch Alert: Briony from the scene where she tries to get her cousins to rehearse her play.
  • Bookends: The performance of The Trials of Arabella.
  • Boxed Crook: Robbie joins the army rather than stay in prison.
  • Break the Haughty: A rare self-inflicted example. After Briony realises what she's done, she turns down an offer to go to Cambridge and becomes a nurse during the War.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Unlike several other of Ian McEwan's other novels, this one does not contain any direct incest but even one of the actors in the film version thought the way Cecilia and Leon's interactions may have hinted at this.
  • Children Are Innocent: Played for Drama. Briony and Lola, being young and naïve, assume Robbie must be a sex maniac. They don't understand adult relationships at all.
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  • Country Matters: The word is actually a plot point in the book.
  • Downer Ending: Briony makes it clear that the final meeting between her, Cecilia, and Robbie never actually happened. Both died in 1940, having met only once for a short time since Robbie being put in jail. Paul Marshall gets away with his rape of Lola. Briony herself will die childless while literally losing her mind (though this may be seen as a comeuppance) and doesn't even write her book revealing the truth until decades after it happens and after many of whom were involved in the incident are dead.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: In the book, Briony openly states that there was no way she could end the story with the lovers dead, so she put in a happy ending. She furthermore tells the reader not to wonder what really happened.
  • Eureka Moment: Years later when Briony realises it was Paul Marshall she caught with Lola and not Robbie.
  • False Rape Accusation: What drives the plot.
  • Fix Fic: In a way, the whole book is Briony doing this in-universe.
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: While working as a nurse during the war, Briony tends to a French soldier wounded in the head. He mistakes her for an English girl he met in his childhood, but Briony plays along because she knows he's suffering. When he asks if she loves him, Briony says that she does (both the book makes it clear that Briony truly did, even if it was just for a few seconds). The soldier dies a minute later.
  • Gentlemen Rankers: Robbie's upbringing qualifies him for an officer rank, but he is forced to be a private because of his criminal record.
  • Gut Punch: Though the tone was bleak as it was, there was the faint Hope Spot that Robbie and Cecilia managed to survive and live happily together, but The Reveal shows that both lovers, the most sympathetic characters, died without seeing each other after the meeting in the cafe.
  • Heel Realization: Briony's 'discovery' that Robbie was innocent.
  • The Hero Dies: Both Robbie and Cecilia themselves at the end.
  • Hope Spot: For the audience. Robbie living in London with Cecilia makes the audience believe that he made it, that he got evacuated, Briony atones herself and everything goes back to somekind of normality. Only in the end we find out that all of this just happened in Briony's fantasy and both lovers died in 1940.

  • Irrevocable Message: The obscene letter Robbie accidentally sends to Cecilia.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: The book is narrated by Briony, who considers telling the story to be her "atonement."
  • It's Not Porn It's Art: The rather lengthy sex scene in the book.
  • Jail Bait Wait: Another interpretation of the rape of Lola is that she and Marshall were having an affair and he married her as soon as she came of age.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Paul Marshall who is guilty for raping Lola and allowing Robbie to take the blame for it. Briony doesn't realise his guilt until years later when it's too late to do anything about it.
    • It's implied in both the book and the movie that Lola knew exactly who was raping her, and saw Briony's False Rape Accusation as a way out of an encounter that she may or may not have consented to. Judging by Lola's reaction to Briony at her wedding, she seemed to know that she (Briony) knew the truth, which means that she was perfectly willing to let an innocent Robbie go to prison for Paul's crimes. In that case she gets absolutely zero comeuppance for this, instead living the rest of her days as a rich woman and is healthy and hale the last time book!Briony sees her.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Briony thinks she's Wise Beyond Her Years but she's still very naïve and ignorant of a lot of other things.
  • Last-Name Basis: When she's a nurse, Briony is reprimanded for letting patients call her by her first name. The ward sister only addresses her by her last name.
  • Let Them Die Happy: Briony tends to a dying soldier who thinks she's his fiancee. She plays along.
  • Love Letter Lunacy: Robbie is frustrated trying to write a letter to Cecilia, and writes a vulgar, sexually charged one to work out this frustration. Afterwards, he writes a perfectly lovely one and gives it to his love's young sister to deliver. Guess what? He hands out the wrong one.
  • Mama Bear: Robbie's mother assaults the police car after her son is taken away. It doesn't amount to anything but points for effort.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: Robbie who gets sent to prison and later the army for a crime he didn't commit. The rude letter he wrote Cecilia and Briony's testimony just implicates him even further, as does the fact that he's the gardener's son - and all other suspects are upper class.
  • Monochrome Casting: Mace is one of the only nonwhite characters in both the book.
  • Motor Mouth: Thomas Nettle, who rambles on while Robbie and Mace are walking to Dunkirk.
  • Nice Guy: Nettle clearly likes and respects Robbie and makes him as comfortable as possible when it becomes clear that Robbie won't make the night. He even takes his letters from Cecilia to return them when he makes it back.
  • Not What It Looks Like:
    • Briony spies Cecilia stripping off for Robbie and, combined with the rude letter she accidentally saw, concludes he must be a sex maniac. Cecilia was merely stripping off to get something out of the fountain and the letter was a joke.
    • And when she walks in on the two of them having sex, she assumes Robbie must be attacking Cecilia.
  • Oh, Crap!: In the movie when Robbie hands the letter to Briony and she's had enough time to walk away, he realises he gave her the rude one by accident and shouts out "Briony!" - but to no avail.
  • Out-of-Character Moment: When Briony visits Robbie in the London flat, he threatens to throw her down the stairs; quite different from the calm and soft-spoken Robbie we're used to. Especially compared to his Tranquil Fury when Briony faked drowning. This is a clue that the scene is entirely made up by Briony.
  • The Penance: A non-physical example. Once Briony matures and realises the extent of what she's done, she refuses a position at Cambridge and volunteers as a nurse.
  • Together in Death: see Died Happily Ever After
  • Perspective Flip: Happens a couple of times, with Briony's and Cecilia's viewpoints being shown out of chronological order before intersecting.
  • Poor Communication Kills: A lot of the drama would probably have been sorted out if Robbie and Cecilia just told Briony they were in love. Though they themselves didn't realize it until that same night, and Briony was still jealous of Robbie's feelings for Cecilia, the least they could have done is said something quickly after their encounter in the library instead of just awkwardly leaving.
  • Rape as Drama: The assault on Lola.
  • Retirony: A variation. A wounded Robbie has just a day to wait until he's evacuated, at which point he can meet Cecilia. Is it any wonder if he makes it or not?
  • Sexy Soaked Shirt: Or sexy soaked undergarments in Cecilia's case. She dives into the fountain to find the broken vase piece in front of Robbie which Briony totally understands correctly.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Robbie and Cecilia both die in the war, before either getting to be together or Briony attempting to make amends. Marshall and Lola get away with their crimes, and Briony eventually gets dementia. She says at the end that she changed the details in her book because she didn't want to tell a story like that:
    Briony: "How could that constitute an ending? What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account? Who would want to believe that they never met again, never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism? I couldn’t do it to them."
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Not initially. Although Cecilia is higher class than Robbie, he's a friend of the family and it's implied they probably wouldn't have objected to them getting together. But then Robbie is falsely convicted as a rapist and both of them later die in the war. Cecilia even states that her family stopped her from visiting Robbie in prison.
  • Trading Bars for Stripes: Robbie is forced to join the army to avoid a prison sentence.
  • Tsundere: Cecilia is Type A for Robbie who is actually Type B for her. Ironically, his rude letter helps them confirm their feelings for one another.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Briony. She is telling the story as a novelist several decades in the future, and (in the film) explains that a divergence from reality began at the Dunkirk evacuation. The revelation that Briony is the one telling the story calls the accuracy of other parts to question as well; her descriptions about the thoughts and feelings of other people (mainly Cecilia and Robbie) must be based on conjecture. The harsh, almost spiteful portrayal of young Briony can also be read as part of older Briony's regret and self-loathing.
  • Uptown Girl: Robbie and Cecilia's relationship at the start.
  • Wall Bang Her: Cecilia and Robbie in the library.
  • War Is Hell: Present but it isn't the bulk of the story. It is however the reason the lovers never get to be together.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Word of God has it that Briony creates such a mess because she's so goodly and so certain of herself. Probably also qualifies as Lawful Stupid.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: It's not said what becomes of Briony's family after the war. Cecilia breaks off contact with them as soon as she comes of age. Likewise, we never hear of Robbie's mother after her son was convicted.
  • Yandere: Briony for Robbie, at least her younger self. Jumping into a river to see if he would rescue her is one of the smaller things she did.

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