Ian McEwan’s Atonement: Briony’s ability to Atone for her
Crime Through Fiction

In this essay, I will
discuss whether Briony’s authorship of her narrative was

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indeed an ‘act of
atonement’, or just a self-serving act of bad faith that only serves to

distort ‘what really
happened’. I will also examine the issue of how successful was her

attempt to find ‘atonement’
and forgiveness for her “crime”? I will examine some

implications of her
role as ‘author-as-confessor’ and also as her role as her own

‘absolver’, and I will
suggest how Briony manages to resolve that dilemma.

I would first of all
like to point out that this story is Briony’s story, and that she fills

two key roles in the
narrative, as one of the main protagonists, and also as the narrator.

It was she who wrote
all those “pitiless” drafts of the story (p. 370); and it was she who

repeatedly reflects on
the choices that she made, and did not make, that fateful night,

as, over the decades
between 1935 and 1999, she writes and rewrites her narrative. (p.

369). We see this
clearly, for example, in the final draft of the passage of page 162,

where she reflects
upon ‘what might have been’ if only she had “gone in to her mother”.

If she had, “she would
not have committed her crime”, and she must have reflected

upon that many times,
as she wrote and rewrote her narrative. Her quest for her

‘atonement’ needs to
be framed within that self-regret scenario.

As well as filling the
obvious roles of protagonist and narrator, Briony also

attempts to take on
the roles of confessor and absolver in regard to her “crime”. A

number of commentators
have pointed out the problems inherent in the mixing up of all

those roles: one such
being Worthington, citing Coetzee, who discusses the concept of

“secular confession”
as opposed to “religious confession” (150), and argues a thesis

that, in the absence
of some actual external confessor figure, that form of confession is

ultimately doomed to
failure. Unless, as Briony herself asserts, as there is “nothing

outside of her (self)”,
then, it is ultimately “an impossible task”, but, “the attempt was all”,

with the implication
being that the attempt in itself will suffice. (p. 371).

To that, I would add
that in her search for “atonement”, Briony has had to face up

to the fact that, “with
(Christian) God absent from the world, gone, too, is the promise of

unconditional
forgiveness” (Worthington 150). Briony is feeling the absence of the old

form of what Faucault
has suggested can be termed “pastoral power” (Foucault 131-

133), where the church
assumed responsibility for the salvation of people’s souls, and

as a part of that
responsibility, the church’s priests were empowered to confer

forgiveness and
absolution for ‘sins’. However, with the “secularisation of church

processes from the
Renaissance onwards (Worthington 148), the latter-day, state,

version of Foucault’s “pastoral
power” no longer has any equivalent form of confession

and absolution. The
nearest that the state comes to that is in the judging and punishing

of the people who are
adjudged to have been the perpetrators of ‘crimes’. Briony is

unable to follow that
path either, at least not in her own lifetime, because of the

1

Peter
Archer

ID
12216041

139.139
Assignment Three

combination of the
libel laws and the Marshall’s litigious nature (p. 370). That prong of

her “atonement”: the
public confession of the truth of her “crime”, and that of the

Marshalls, will have
to be performed posthumously, as she also discusses on page 370.

Turning now to the
issue of ‘what really happened’ regarding the fate of the

lovers, a good deal of
heat has been generated in discussions by various commentators

in regard to what
actually was ‘the truth’ of their fate? Were Briony’s “pitiless” (p. 370)

narratives, in all of
those earlier drafts, really ‘the truth”? In ‘taking pity’ on the lovers,

was Briony committing
an act of bad faith, for her own selfish purposes? Was she

hopelessly confusing
her own search for atonement with her compassion for the lovers,

and with her search
for meaning in her narrative?

My opinion is that the
question itself is irrelevant. Assuming that we accept that

McEwan’s story itself
is ‘real’, which it obviously is not; as it is, after all, just a fictional

novel, and, as Byrnes
points out “… such ‘truth’ as it contains is not necessarily related

to any fact or
objective reality” (41). However, if we examine the question as if it was

‘true’, where does
that take us? My answer is: nowhere much, apart from into the mire

of postmodernist
quicksand! It would be possible to argue for ever about the intricacies

of metafictional
narrative intersecting with postmodernist thought. At the ultimate level,

whatever way we look
at it, it is only McEwan playing with words on paper. To quote

McEwan himself “I
wanted to play seriously, but with something rooted in the emotional

rather than the
intellectual.” (Childs 131). Ultimately, there is only McEwan and his

readers, nobody else,
and, quoting McEwan again “… after she’s dead … she will only

exist in the frame of
the novel.” (ibid.). However, jumping back to within that frame of the

novel, let us now
examine the issue of whether Briony did indeed find a way of making

her ‘atonement’ for
her “crime”?

Leaving aside
therefore the intractable issue of which version of Robbie and

Cecelia’s fate was ‘true’,
I would however argue that ultimately Briony did indeed find a

kind of ‘atonement’
for herself, somewhat beyond just the “attempt” that she refers to on

page 371. In the end,
she goes to her own fate, to her impending appointment with the

onset of vascular
dementia, at peace with herself, and with the victims of her “crime”.

She knows that her
ultimate, public, form of confession will come posthumously. She

also knows that,
because of her status as a well-known novelist, it will be widely read.

She goes to her fate
serene in that knowledge, content to leave it to the future readers

of her
yet-to-be-published narrative. Those future readers, in the absence of a ‘God’
or

a priest, will wield a
secular version of the ‘pastoral power of absolution’. They will

confer (posthumously)
their forgiveness upon her, and also their judgment upon the coperpetrators

of her “crime”, the
Marshalls; once the Marshalls’ deaths have removed the

issue of legal
repercussions for her publisher.

Coming back to my
earlier point that this is Briony’s story: as narrator,

protagonist and
confessor; I now would like to change my earlier assertion that she is

also the sole absolver
of her “crime”. I would amend that to appoint the (future) readers

of her narration to
the role of absolvers, and suggest that this is actually the whole point

of her writing this
narrative, the main point actually: to surrender her fate to a future over

2

Peter
Archer

ID
12216041

139.139
Assignment Three

which she can have no
direct control. I would also suggest that a decision such as that

has not been taken
lightly, as it demonstrates a willingness on her part to relinquish her

former ‘control freak’
style, and to go to her fate leaving it to some ‘authority’ outside of

herself to make that
final decision regarding her forgiveness. For someone of Briony’s

nature, that is a
major accomplishment in itself.