General topics:

Atonement is the action of making amends for a wrong or injury. As well as being the title of both Ian McEwan’s (real) and Briony’s (fictional) novel, Briony’s search for atonement is a key theme throughout the narrative. Whether she does reach this state is for reader interpretation.

Postmodernism is an artistic movement that rebelled against, yet also drew from, the stylistic features and characteristics of modernism. 

Key features of postmodernism include:

Atonement is a quintessentially postmodern text as it is constantly drawing attention to authorship, utilises multiple perspectives, and leaves the reader questioning if Briony has actually attained atonement for her actions.

Metafiction is a very postmodernist technique wherein the author draws the reader’s attention to the fact that their work is but fictional, and disallows literary escapism. The twist ending, as well as Briony’s constant fixation with creating fiction, are both examples of metafiction.

Death of the author is the concept that anything the author says postscript can be ignored, and that once published, a text’s meaning should be open for interpretation rather than being dictated by the original creator or context (aka. birth of the reader). 

The dangers of creativity refer to the harmful, unethical and sometimes destructive impacts that art forms can have on the lives of those around them. This topic is explored throughout the novel as Briony’s imagination deludes her, and ultimately drives her to falsely accuse Robbie of rape.

Part based analysis:


Summary + analysis

Part 1

One day told in fourteen chapters, Part One of Atonement upholds rigid Modernist literary values, as well as the Victorian grand narrative. Pre-WWII classist sentiments are also extremely strong here.

Chapter 1

Third-person deep focus narration from Briony’s POV, centring around The Trials of Arabella as the play gradually falls apart. Characterises Briony as childish, yet passionate, determined and strong-willed.

Chapter 2

From Cecelia’s POV: shows first iteration of fountain scene, zeroes in on class/sexual tension between her and Robbie, as well as juxtaposing her messy spontaneity with Briony’s need for order.

Chapter 7

Briony’s POV: slashing at nettles- high use of irony as she condemns yet also engages in storytelling. 

Chapter 13

Briony’s POV: anticipation building towards her crime, as she finds, ‘consoles’ and coerces Lola into sharing her viewpoint.

Chapter 14

Briony testifies against Robbie, and he is arrested while his mother shouts in protest.

Part 2

From Robbie’s POV during the war: exposes horrors of warfare and is arguably the most truthful ‘Part’ of the novel, as elder Briony corroborated many real soldiers’ accounts to write it. No clear segmentation of time; subverting Modernist literary conventions. Upon second reading, the confusion within these pages can be attributed to Robbie hallucinating from Septicemia. 

Part 3

In a parallel time frame as Part Two: Part Three details Briony’s wartime involvement as a nurse, in her efforts to be useful and selfless to atone for her crime.

Part 4 (Postscript)

Part Four is where the story unravels, and Briony reveals that it was largely her own fictional account. 


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