Atonement: A Novel
The novel opens on a sweltering summer day in 1935 at the Tallis family’s mansion in the Surrey countryside. Thirteen-year-old Briony has written a play in honor of the visit of her adored older brother Leon; other guests include her three young cousins -- refugees from their parent’s marital breakup -- Leon’s friend Paul Marshall, the manufacturer of a chocolate bar called “Amo” that soldiers will be able to carry into war, and Robbie Turner, the son of the family charlady whose brilliantly successful college career has been funded by Mr. Tallis. Jack Tallis is absent from the gathering; he spends most of his time in London at the War Ministry and with his mistress. His wife Emily is a semi-invalid, nursing chronic migraine headaches. Their elder daughter Cecilia is also present; she has just graduated from Cambridge and is at home for the summer, restless and yearning for her life to really begin. Rehearsals for Briony’s play aren’t going well; her cousin Lola has stolen the starring role, the twin boys can’t speak the lines properly, and Briony suddenly realizes that her destiny is to be a novelist, not a dramatist. In the midst of the long hot afternoon, Briony happens to be watching from a window when Cecilia strips off her clothes and plunges into the fountain on the lawn as Robbie looks on. Later that evening, Briony thinks she sees Robbie attacking Cecilia in the library, she reads a note meant for Cecilia, her cousin Lola is sexually assaulted, and she makes an accusation that she will repent for the rest of her life. The next two parts of Atonement shift to the spring of 1940 as Hitler’s forces are sweeping across the Low Countries and into France. Robbie Turner, wounded, joins the disastrous British retreat to Dunkirk. Instead of going up to Cambridge to begin her studies, Briony has become a nurse in one of London’s military hospitals. The fourth and final section takes place in 1999, as Briony celebrates her 77th birthday with the completion of a book about the events of 1935 and 1940, a novel called Atonement. In its broad historical framework Atonement is a departure from McEwan’s earlier work, and he loads the story with an emotional intensity and a gripping plot reminiscent of the best nineteenth-century fiction. Brilliant and utterly enthralling in its depiction of childhood, love and war, England and class, the novel is a profoundly moving exploration of shame and forgiveness and the difficulty of absolution. From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Which of the following character traits does not describe Briony from what you have read thus far?
Ian McEwan is an award-winning British novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. He is known as one of the most influential British writers of his generation. (This annotation contains an image)
Briony's cousin Lola could best be characterized as
Chapter One gave us Briony's point of view, and now we are seeing things from Cecilia's perspective. What is this style of narration called? (This annotation contains a video)
Vases are highly symbolic in this novel. As you read, think about what this particular vase is a symbol for. (This annotation contains a video)
How does McEwan covey the tense nature of Cecilia and Robbie's relationship?
Have you noticed the preoccupation with social class in the narrative? McEwan is using Robbie's lower social class to draw a divide between Robbie and the members of the Tallis family.
What does Cecilia diving into the fountain in her underwear to retrieve the pieces of the broken vase serve to highlight?
"She raised her hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider on the end of her arm, came to be hers" is an example of metaphor. Watch the video below and look for more examples of smilie and metaphor as you read. (This annotation contains a video)
Briony, being thirteen, fails to understand the scene she witnesses at the fountain, but it inspires her to write it as a story. What would the moral of Briony's narrative be?
Cecilia, not her mother, is the one who soothes Briony. Based on Cecilia's thoughts, we can infer that their mother is often absent due to illness.
Paul Marshall's "ten-minute monologue" shows him to be
Cecilia is upset that her brother invites Robbie to dinner. Leon, not knowing about the sexual tension between his sister and Robbie, teases Cecilia, "You think he can't hold a knife and a fork." This again highlights the class differences between Robbie and the Tallis family.
Although Lola notes the ___________ in Paul's face, she is attracted to him.
Why are Paul and Lola quoting Hamlet, even though they only have a cursory knowledge of the play?
This part of the novel is set in 1935. While World War II is still a few years off, people in England are bracing themselves for a war that is beginning to seem inevitable. (This annotation contains an image)
Notice how sinister Paul appears here.
"At worst, unrestrained, a matching set of sharpened kitchen knives would be drawn across her optic nerve, and then again, with greater downward pressure, and she would be entirely shut in and alone."McEwan uses _______________ to describe Emily's fear of migraines.
So much of the action that is to come in the next chapters is the result of Emily being completely checked out. As you read, note how things would change if Emily were behaving as an involved parent and head of household should.
What does McEwan want readers to glean from this scene?
A motif is something repeated in a text for greater symbolic significance. McEwan takes care to mention all of the books that surround Robbie. Books, libraries, and the written word serve as a motif. They are present at many important moments in the novel. (This annotation contains an image)
Which of the novel's themes is present in the highlighted sentences?
How does McEwan's writing help you visualize this scene? He uses rich imagery to make you feel a part of this peaceful summer night. (This annotation contains a video)
The purpose of this passage is to
Yet again, we see Cecilia doing something that her absent mother should be taking care of. The strawberry socks will come back into the story as Briony makes an assumption and an untrue claim regarding them later. (This annotation contains an image)
__________________ is serving as a conflict in the novel.
Part One of this novel has an interesting structure. While it moves in a linear fashion overall, the different narratives allow for leeway moving through time. We have already seen Robbie write this letter and give it to Briony to deliver, but we will not know what happened in the intervening time until we have another chapter from Briony's perspective. (This annotation contains a video)
Who does Lola blame her injuries on?
We do not get to read a chapter from Lola's perspective, so we do not know what her internal conflict is regarding. Can you make an inference as to what it is?
What does Briony think she sees in the library?
Have you ever heard of wild behavior being caused by a full moon? Similarly, is the heat wave in Atonement causing lowered inhibitions? (This annotation contains an image)
The 1928 Orioli Edition of Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawrence was an incredibly scandalous book for the time. In fact, it would not be published in its uncensored version in England until 1960! Both Lady Chatterly's Lover and Atonement are about an upper-class woman who falls in love with a lower-class man. (This annotation contains an image)
It is in keeping with the motif of _________________ that this love scene takes place in the library.
Compare this account to Briony's. Can you imagine how two perspectives on the same thing could be so different?
This is the second time on this day that
"This decision, as he was to acknowledge many times, transformed his life" is an example of foreshadowing. McEwan makes much use of foreshadowing in the coming chapters. (This annotation contains a video)
Emily is wrong on practically every viewpoint she shares in this chapter. This makes her
Emily knows that her husband is staying away from home because he is having an affair, yet she doesn't care in the slightest, and proceeds to make small talk! This is further proof of how apathetic she is.
Briony is completely delusional, but she is young and thinks she is protecting her older sister. The highlighted sentences reflect the theme of
It is ironic that Briony thinks "the day had proved to her that she was not a child" when she is still seeing everything through the innocent and self-absorbed lens of childhood. The act that actually marks the end of her childhood has been foreshadowed, but has not yet happened.
What does Lola do when Briony asks if Robbie was her rapist?
This is it: the moment that has been foreshadowed as Robbie's undoing and the end of Briony's innocence. Briony "marched into the labyrinth of her own construction" by falsely accusing Robbie of Lola's rape. This is the act Briony needs to atone for.
What is the "evidence" Briony brings to the police?
Here is Briony's lie. The officer doesn't accept "I know it was him" so she commits to saying that she actually saw Robbie when she didn't. What do you think of her conviction?
Which of the following is the most accurate statement regarding the highlighted sentences?
It is clear that some time has passed between the end of Part One and beginning of Part Two. What is your prediction as to what has happened since we left Robbie in the police car? How did he get here?
What can we infer from the setting of Part Two thus far?
Part One was divided into chapters, each one showing the point of view of a different character. Why do you think Part Two is structured so differently?
How do Robbie and Cecilia show their love for each other while Robbie is in prison?
"Everything they had, rested on a few minutes in a library years ago. Was it too frail?" Libraries have become a symbol for Robbie and Cecilia's love.
"They chose to believe the evidence of a silly, hysterical little girl... She was a young thirteen, I know, but I never want to speak to her again."What is ironic about Cecilia's statement above?
Briony is developing as a character and has grown to learn that she was wrong. Cecilia says she is looking for penance, and, therefore, atonement. (This annotation contains a video)
Robbie is living through the German occupation of France during World War II. These passages regarding the war make this novel part of the Historical Fiction genre. (This annotation contains an image)
"He showed the major his empty palms" means that Robbie
This scene where the soldiers are burying the body of a fifteen-year old boy on the roadside is meant to show the brutality of war. Can you think of another book you've read with the same aim?
Why does Robbie think Briony wants to come clean and absolve him of Lola's rape?
Click the link at the bottom to watch the video of this scene then answer the following question. (This annotation contains a video)
Both the video and this passage in the novel show that Briony is
Robbie believes that Briony accused him of Lola's rape because she was in love with him and he betrayed her by loving her sister instead. Robbie thinks that Briony acted out of revenge. While learning that Briony was in love with Robbie casts things in a new light, Robbie doesn't know that Briony convinced herself that he was a dangerous maniac. This highlights the theme of differing perspectives.
What is the most likely reason McEwan toggles back and forth between Robbie's wartime march and flashbacks?
What is the connection between Robbie's feelings and the Auden poem?
These lines are from the poem "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" by W.H. Auden. Read the poem at the link below and answer the following question. (This annotation contains a link)
It seems that Robbie is delirious from an infection caused by his wound. Because we are only seeing things from his perspective, he is currently an unreliable narrator.
"Without them his face was empty. Like a mole in bright light, he peered around at his tormentors" is an example of
It is interesting to note that while the upper-class Tallis family effectively ruined Robbie's life, in his time of need a gypsy (Robbie's own people, since his parents are Romani gypsies) offered him a simple and great kindness. (This annotation contains a video)
This interaction with the gypsy and the video you have just watched serve to highlight which of the novel's themes?
Cecilia's last words to Robbie have been his life raft since his arrest, but now Robbie is in such a bad place that he is unable to conjure up the hope they usually bring him.
In Part Three the third-person narration changes to ____________ perspective.
What about Fiona makes Briony uneasy? How does this relate to Briony's past?
What is the significance of the vase breaking apart in Betty's hands?
Nursing was one of the most valuable ways women could help out in the war effort. In fact, the efforts of women during wartime led to more women working outside the home after the troops returned home. (This annotation contains an image)
What do the highlighted sentences tell us about Briony?
Since we know from Robbie's narrative what these soldiers have gone through, it seems silly that Briony would want to make sure the soldiers are clean before they lie down. Despite Briony's growth, she still lacks empathy. Do you think that is innate or something that can be learned?
Briony's daydream of Robbie forgiving her can best be described as
This is heart-wrenching work that Briony is doing for her penance. Do you think this will help absolve her? If not, what will?
Which of the following is this sentiment reminiscent of?
Briony caring for this young soldier Luc is a pivotal moment for her. This appears to be the first time she has actually been an empathetic character.
Who does the girl in Briony's story represent?
London was heavily bombed during the war, as the photograph below shows. It is very courageous of Briony and Cecilia to stay in the city as nurses, especially considering their upbringing. (This annotation contains an image)
Briony realizing that what is missing in her novella is the same thing that is missing in her life reflects the importance of _____________ in the novel.
Lola, seen with Briony below, is marrying Paul Marshall, her rapist. She must have some deep psychological scars. If Briony had not jumped to conclusions in Part One, do you think this could have been prevented? (This annotation contains an image)
Briony is having an internal conflict as she grapples with the repercussions of her lie. How can Briony help assuage her guilt? (This annotation contains a video)
Why would Lola be displeased to see Briony at her wedding?
By Cecilia's tone and body language, it seems that the forgiveness Briony craves is out of the question.
Which is the most likely reason that Briony doesn't think of herself as a liar?
Cecilia mistakenly believes that Danny Hardman was the rapist which is why Briony doesn't understand what her sister is talking about. This is an example of dramatic irony. Can you think of other instances of dramatic irony in the novel? (This annotation contains a video)
Watch the video below of this scene then answer the following question. (This annotation contains a video)
A main difference between the text and the movie is that
"During the silence that followed, Briony tried to imagine the adjustments that each would be making. Years of seeing it a certain way." How do these sentences highlight the theme of perspective?
Which is the shift in point of view in the last section of the novel?
We are now learning that this novel has been a book written by Briony of her life. This gives new meaning to the themes of writing and perspective.
Robbie's fellow soldier Nettle from the march to Dunkirk is fact-checking Part Two of this novel for Briony.
What has become of the Tallis estate?
How fitting that the novel closes with Briony finally seeing The Trials of Arabella, her autobiographical play, performed. Pierrot is crying. Could it be because he is thinking about that long-ago night, when he ran away with his twin brother and the events that followed?
Why does this novel remain unpublished?
The true ending is much more heartbreaking than Briony's most recent draft: Robbie and Cecilia both died in the war before they were reunited, and Briony was too cowardly to apologize.