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Atonement (novel)

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Atonement (novel)

Atonement cover
Author Ian McEwan
Cover artist Chris Frazer Smith
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Jonathan Cape
Publication date
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 371 pp
ISBN ISBN 0-224-06252-2 (first edition)
OCLC 47231087

Atonement is a 2001 British family saga novel written by Ian McEwan concerning the understanding and responding to the need for personal atonement. Set in three time periods, 1935 England, wartime England and France, and present-day England, it covers an upper-class girl's half-innocent mistake that ruins lives; her adulthood in the shadow of that mistake; and a reflection on the nature of writing.

Widely regarded as one of McEwan's best works, it was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize for fiction.[1] In 2010, TIME magazine named Atonement in its list of the 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923.[2]

In 2007, the book was adapted into a BAFTA and Academy Award-nominated film of the same title, starring Saoirse Ronan, James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, and directed by Joe Wright.


  • Plot summary 1
    • Part one 1.1
    • Part two 1.2
    • Part three 1.3
    • Postscript 1.4
  • Main characters 2
  • References to other literary works 3
  • Awards and critiques 4
  • Controversy 5
  • Film adaptation 6
  • Opera 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10

Plot summary

Part one

Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old English girl with a talent for writing, lives at her family's country estate with her parents. Her older sister Cecilia attends University of Cambridge with Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallis family housekeeper and a childhood friend of Cecilia. In the summer of 1935, Briony's maternal cousins, Lola and twins Jackson and Pierrot, visit the family. Briony witnesses a moment of sexual tension between Cecilia and Robbie from afar. Briony misconstrues the situation and concludes that Robbie is acting aggressively toward Cecilia. Robbie, meanwhile, realises he is attracted to Cecilia, whom he has not seen in some time, and writes several drafts of a love letter to her, giving a copy to Briony to deliver. However, he inadvertently gives her a version he had meant to discard, which contains lewd and vulgar references ("cunt"). Briony reads the letter and becomes disturbed as to Robbie's intentions. Later she walks in on Robbie and Cecilia making love in the library. Briony misinterprets the sexual act as rape and believes Robbie to be a "maniac."

Later on at a family dinner party, attended by Briony's brother Leon and his friend Paul Marshall, it is discovered that the twins have run away and the dinner party breaks into teams to search for them. In the darkness, Briony discovers her cousin Lola, apparently being raped by an assailant she cannot clearly see. Lola is unable or unwilling to identify the attacker, but Briony decides to accuse Robbie and identifies him to the police as the rapist, claiming she has seen Robbie's face in the dark. Robbie is taken away to prison, with only Cecilia and his mother believing his protestations of innocence.

Part two

By the time that World War II has started, Robbie has spent several years in prison. He is then released on the condition of enlistment in the army to fight in the war. Cecilia has trained and become a nurse. She has cut off all contact with her family because of the part they took in sending Robbie to jail. Robbie and Cecilia have only been in contact by letter, since she was not allowed to visit him in prison. Before Robbie has to go to war in France, they meet once for half an hour during Cecilia's lunch break. Their reunion starts awkwardly, but they share a kiss before leaving each other.

In France, the war is going badly and the army is retreating to Dunkirk. As the injured Robbie goes to the safe haven, he thinks about Cecilia and past events like teaching Briony how to swim and reflecting on Briony's possible reasons for accusing him. His single meeting with Cecilia is the memory that keeps him walking, his only aim is seeing her again. At the end of part two, Robbie falls asleep in Dunkirk, one day before the evacuation.

Part three

Remorseful Briony has refused her place at Cambridge and instead is a trainee nurse in London. She has realised the full extent of her mistake, and decides it was Paul Marshall, Leon's friend, whom she saw raping Lola. Briony still writes, although she does not pursue it with the same recklessness as she did as a child.

Briony is called to the bedside of Luc, a young, fatally wounded French soldier. She consoles him in his last moments by speaking with him in her school French, and he mistakes her for an English girl whom his mother wanted him to marry. Just before his death, Luc asks "Do you love me?" to which Briony answers "Yes," not only because "no other answer was possible" but also because "for the moment, she did. He was a lovely boy far away from his family and about to die." Afterward, Briony daydreams about the life she might have had if she had married Luc and gone to live with him and his family.

Briony attends the wedding of her cousin Lola and Paul Marshall before finally visiting Cecilia. Robbie is on leave from the army and Briony meets him unexpectedly at her sister's. They both refuse to forgive Briony, who nonetheless tells them she will try and put things right. She promises to begin the legal procedures needed to exonerate Robbie, even though Paul Marshall will never be held responsible for his crime because of his marriage to Lola, the victim.


The fourth section, titled "London 1999," is written from Briony's perspective. She is a successful novelist at the age of 77 and dying of vascular dementia.

It is revealed that Briony is the author of the preceding sections of the novel. Although Cecilia and Robbie are reunited in Briony's novel, they were not in reality. It is suggested that Robbie Turner may have died of septicaemia — caused by his injury — on the beaches of Dunkirk, and Cecilia may have been killed by the bomb that destroyed the gas and water mains above Balham Underground station. Cecilia and Robbie may have never seen each other again. Although the detail concerning Lola's marriage to Paul Marshall is true, Briony never visited Cecilia to make amends.

Briony explains why she decided to change real events and unite Cecilia and Robbie in her novel, although it was not her intention in her many previous drafts. She did not see what purpose it would serve if she gave the readers a pitiless ending. She reasons that they could not draw any sense of hope or satisfaction from it. But above all, she wanted to give Robbie and Cecilia their happiness by being together. Since they could not have the time together they so much longed for in reality, Briony wanted to give it to them at least in her novel.

Main characters

  • Briony Tallis – The younger sister of Leon and Cecilia Tallis, Briony is an aspiring writer. She is a thirteen-year-old at the beginning of the novel and takes part in sending Robbie Turner to jail when she falsely claims that he assaulted Lola. Briony is part narrator, part character and we see her transformation from child to woman as the novel progresses. At the end of the novel, Briony has realised her wrongdoing as a "child" and decides to write the novel to find atonement.
  • Cecilia Tallis – The middle child in the Tallis family, Cecilia has fallen in love with her childhood companion, Robbie Turner. After a tense encounter by the fountain, Robbie and she don't speak again until they meet before a formal dinner. When Robbie is falsely accused of rape shortly after, Cecilia loses her love to jail and war, and chooses not to contact any members of her family again.
  • Leon Tallis – The eldest child in the Tallis family, Leon returns home to visit. He brings his friend Paul Marshall along with him on his trip home.
  • Emily Tallis – Emily is the mother of Briony, Cecilia, and Leon. Emily is ill in bed for most of the novel, suffering from severe migraines.
  • Jack Tallis – Jack is the father of Briony, Cecilia, and Leon. Jack often works late nights and it is alluded to in the novel that he is having an affair.
  • Robbie Turner – Robbie is the son of Grace Turner, who lives on the grounds of the Tallis home. Having grown up with Leon, Briony and Cecilia, he knows the family well. He attended Cambridge University with Cecilia and when they come home on break, they fall in love. Robbie is sent to jail when Briony falsely accuses him of raping Lola.
  • Grace Turner – The mother of Robbie Turner, she was given permission from Jack Tallis to live on the grounds. She has become the family's maid and does laundry for the Tallises. When her son is falsely accused of raping Lola, only she and Cecilia believe he is innocent, and Grace chooses to leave the Tallis family.
  • Lola Quincey – A 15-year-old girl who is Briony, Cecilia, and Leon's cousin. She comes, along with her twin brothers, to stay with the Tallises after her parents' divorce. Lola was supposed to assume the main role in Briony's play, until it was cancelled. She is also subject to rape while staying at the Tallis household. Lola appears later in the novel as a mature woman, married to Paul Marshall. She is red-headed and fair-skinned with freckles.
  • Jackson and Pierrot Quincey – Lola's younger twin brothers and Briony, Cecilia, and Leon's cousin. They come, along with their sister, to stay with the Tallises after their parents' divorce. Briony wants the twins to take a role in her play, but disputes mean the play is cancelled, upsetting them both. Pierrot appears later in the novel as an old man while his brother has died.
  • Danny Hardman – The handyman for the Tallis family. Robbie and Cecilia suspect he is responsible for Lola's rape until Briony tells them otherwise, prompting Robbie to say they owe him an apology.
  • Paul Marshall – A friend of Leon. He allegedly rapes Lola outside the Tallis household after dark; Briony however, accuses Robbie of Lola's rape, and many years later Lola and Paul marry. Paul Marshall also owns a chocolate factory that manufactures 'Amo' bars – fake chocolate energy bars supplied to army troops, which earn him a considerable fortune.
  • Corporal Nettle – Nettle is one of Robbie's two companions during the Dunkirk evacuation. In the fourth and final section of the novel, an elderly Briony alludes to an "old Mr. Nettle" from whom she received a "dozen long letters" but whether this is the same person isn't made exactly clear.
  • Corporal Mace – Mace is the second of Robbie's two companions during the Dunkirk evacuation. He is last seen presumably rescuing an RAF man from a possible lynching by some infantrymen under the guise of wanting to do harm by drowning him in the "bloody sea."
  • Betty – The Tallis family's servant, described as "wretched" in personality.

References to other literary works

Atonement contains intertextual references to a number of other literary works, including Gray's Anatomy, Virginia Woolf's The Waves, Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, Henry James' The Golden Bowl, Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Rosamond Lehmann's Dusty Answer[3] and Shakespeare's The Tempest, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night. McEwan has also said that he was directly influenced by L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between. Atonement also contains a (fictional) letter addressed to Briony by the literary critic and editor Cyril Connolly.

Awards and critiques

Atonement was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize for fiction. It was also shortlisted for the 2001 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the 2001 Whitbread Novel Award. It won the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the 2002 WH Smith Literary Award, the 2002 Boeke Prize and the 2004 Santiago Prize for the European Novel.[4] In its 1000th issue, Entertainment Weekly named the novel #82 on its list of the 100 best books from 1983-2008. Additionally, Time named it the best fiction novel of the year and included it in its All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels.[5] The Observer cites it as one of the 100 greatest novels ever written, calling it "a contemporary classic of mesmerising narrative conviction."[6]

Literary critiques:

  • Crosthwaite, Paul. "Speed, War, and Traumatic Affect: Reading Ian McEwan's Atonement." Cultural Politics 3.1 (2007): 51–70.
  • D’hoker, Elke. “Confession and Atonement in Contemporary Fiction: J. M. Coetzee, John Banville, and Ian McEwan.” Critique 48.1 (2006): 31–43.
  • Finney, Brian. "Briony's Stand Against Oblivion: The Making of Fiction in Ian McEwan's Atonement." Journal of Modern Literature 27.3 (2004): 68–82.
  • Harold, James. "Narrative Engagement with Atonement and The Blind Assassin." Philosophy and Literature 29.1 (2005): 130–145.
  • Hidalgo, Pilar. “Memory and Storytelling in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Critique 46.2 (2005): 82–91.
  • Ingersoll, Earl G. “Intertextuality in L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between and Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 40 (2004): 241–58.
  • O'Hara, David K. "Briony's Being-For: Metafictional Narrative Ethics in Ian McEwan’s Atonement." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 52.1 (December 2010): 72–100.
  • Salisbury, Laura. "Narration and Neurology: Ian McEwan's Mother Tongue", Textual Practice 24.5 (2010): 883–912.
  • Schemberg, Claudia. Achieving 'At-one-ment': Storytelling and the Concept of Self in Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, Black Dogs, Enduring Love and Atonement.' Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2004.
  • Phelan, James. “Narrative Judgments and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative: Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” A Companion to Narrative Theory. Ed. James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. 322-36.


In late 2006, it was reported that romance and historical author Lucilla Andrews felt that McEwan had failed to give her sufficient credit for material on wartime nursing in London sourced from her 1977 autobiography No Time for Romance.[7] McEwan professed innocence of plagiarism while acknowledging his debt to the author.[8][9][10] McEwan had included Andrews among the acknowledgements in the book, and several authors defended him, including John Updike, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Keneally, Zadie Smith, and the reclusive Thomas Pynchon.[11][12]

Film adaptation

A film adaptation, directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, was released by Working Title Films in September 2007 in the United Kingdom and in December 2007 in the United States.


An opera is to be written based on the novel, with music by Michael Berkeley and libretto by Craig Raine. It is hoped to produce the opera in the US, UK and Germany in 2013.[13]


  1. ^ Atonement, archived from the original on 16 May 2008, retrieved 1 July 2013 
  2. ^ "All Time 100 Novels". Time. 16 October 2005. 
  3. ^ The Modernism of Ian McEwan's Atonement MFS Modern Fiction Studies – Volume 56, Number 3, Fall 2010, pp. 473–495
  4. ^ About King's College London: News and What's On: King's College London
  5. ^ "All Time 100 Novels". Time. 16 October 2005. Retrieved 25 April 2010. 
  6. ^ "The best novels ever". The Guardian (London). 19 August 2008. Archived from the original on 10 May 2010. Retrieved 1 July 2013. 
  7. ^ "Ian McEwan accused of stealing ideas from romance novelist". Daily Mail (London). 25 November 2006. 
  8. ^ "An inspiration, yes. Did I copy from another author? No". Guardian Online (London). 27 November 2006. Archived from the original on 6 December 2006. Retrieved 27 November 2006. 
  9. ^ Hoyle, Ben (27 November 2006). "McEwan hits back at call for atonement". Times Online (London). Retrieved 27 November 2006. 
  10. ^ "McEwan accused of copying writers memoirs". PR inside. Retrieved 27 November 2006. 
  11. ^ Reynolds, Nigel (6 December 2006). "Recluse speaks out to defend McEwan". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 25 April 2010. 
  12. ^ Bell, Dan (6 December 2006). "Pynchon backs McEwan in 'copying' row". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 25 April 2010. 
  13. ^ the opera"AtonementBen Hoyle, "We’ve had the book and film, now it’s , The Times (London) in timesonline, 19 March 2010. Retrieved 19 March 2010.

Further reading

  • Rooney, Anne. Atonement: York Notes Advanced (London: York Press, 2006) ISBN 978-1405835619
  • Bentley, Nick. "Ian McEwan, Atonement". In Contemporary British Fiction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 148–57. ISBN 978-0-7486-2420-1.

External links

  • Atonement on McEwan's official website
  • AtonementIan McEwan discusses on the BBC World Book Club
  • Atonement on InÉdit
  • Complete Review review
  • Ian McEwan on
  • Salon review
  • Ian McEwan on
  • On ABC Radio National Interview with Ramona Koval
  • Photos of the first edition of Atonement
  • LiterapediaBook notes for McEwan's Atonement on
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