Saturday, October 24, 2009

Atonement: Novel within a Novel

I enjoyed both the novel and movie immensely after putting them off for so long, but I still am struggling with how I feel about the ending. I'm hoping that writing this post will clarify my thoughts. Ready for a ramble?

I found the double ending and the shift to first-person narrator in the last part to be intriguing but unsettling. I thought of Hamlet and the play-within-a-play when I realized that Atonement is a novel within a novel. The next question I asked myself was whether McEwan also intended to use this literary device "to catch the conscience of the king" as Hamlet did.

The double ending certainly drives home the point that the story is a fiction, created by a godlike author, who can create a happy ending or a sad ending or a bittersweet, bleak, or hopeful ending. It also underscores beautifully the novel's theme of truthfulness and the fallibility of one's own perception. Readers depend on authors to tell them true stories, especially if those stories are fiction, but authors can only tell the truth as they perceive it at any given time.

Initially, I admired the artistic aspect of the double-ending and the novel within the novel, but on a purely visceral level found the experience jarring. I felt a bit as if the rug had been pulled out from under me. Hearing or reading stories fills a hole in my psyche--Atonement, because of its structure, didn't do that. When I finished the book, I felt a bit hollow, cheated, and confused--I wanted my happy ending back! The disconcerting part is that I also felt like I had just read a terrific book, and it's taken awhile to figure out how I could feel disappointed and impressed at the same time.

Watching the movie helped. I felt that the first part of the movie, which matches the first part of the book--i.e., the time at the Tallis's home in England--was probably the most faithful adaptation of a book I have ever encountered. It was almost as if the book provided the screenplay, that the screenwriter simply transposed one to the other. True, a bit of the backstory was missing--particularly that of Jack Tallis's philandering in London rather than coming home--but it wasn't really missed.

Harriet Walter as Emily Tallis was picture perfect--the headache-prone, upper-class matron who is more part of the problem than part of the solution. I think this might be my favorite role for Keira Knightley (i.e., as Cecelia Tallis) and James McAvoy as Robbie Turner was terrific. Saoirse Ronan as 13-year old Briony Tallis was much grimmer than I had imagined her in the book, but I quickly came to see that she played it with an eye towards how the 18-year old Briony was, and then it gelled for me. Benedict Cumberbatch and Juno Temple as Paul Marshall and Lola Quincy were both truly creepy--I was a bit surprised when I first saw Temple, but she worked for me as Lola.

The second part of the movie, that which follows Robbie on his voyage across France to Dunkirk, was far less faithful to the book in scenes though I think it did a good job of capturing the tone and horror and dislocation of war along with Paul's developing fever. I'm not sure that I would have understood this part of the movie at all if I hadn't read the book. So much of it was surreal, with flashbacks and hallucinations, that pinning it to a historical event would have been pretty challenging had I just watched the movie. I also kept on waiting for the German planes to attack them along the way, and was surprised when they reached Dunkirk without diving under trucks to escape strafing. That was such a big part of the book that I'm surprised they didn't include even one attack.

The final part of the movie digressed most from the book in that Briony's birthday party and the enactment of her first and only play, The Trials of Arabella, were completely left out. Instead, Vanessa Redgrave as the aged Briony, gives an interview and in so doing the novel becomes a novel within a novel. I think the screenwriter/director made the right choice here as the return to the Tallis house and the enactment of the play would have taken too much time for roughly the same affect--i.e., focusing on Briony's obligations as an author who is yearning for atonement.

However, the interview scene doesn't include one aspect of Briony's decision not to publish her novel, Atonement, sooner--the book makes it clear that she can't publish it while Paul and Lola Marshall are still alive, rich, and powerful. In the middle section of the movie, Briony (stoically played by Romola Garai)realizes that Robbie's name can never be cleared because once Lola is married to Paul she can't/won't testify against him. In the book, Briony waits to publish until after Paul has died. In the movie, no explanation is given for her waiting so long to publish the novel that is supposed to set the record straight.

This all leads back to the main question--does Briony ever really atone for what she did? I have to say no. As a child, she told a lie because she couldn't comprehend the truth. As an author, she told a lie when she changed the ending of Cecelia and Robbie's story. She said that she was trying to give Cecelia and Robbie the happy ending that her initial lie had robbed them of, but by changing the ending of their story she robbed them once. Once again, she's more concerned with herself (i.e., feeling that she has given them something back that she prevented) than the truth of their lives.

Initially, I felt sympathy for Briony when she is a nurse. The only time I cried during the book or movie was when she consoles the dying French man in the hospital, and at that point I felt that I could forgive her for everything. Upon reflection, however, I think the discomfort I felt at the end of the book is actually anger towards her. As a novelist, Briony has an obligation to tell the truth as she knows it. That's all a writer can do--that, and admitting when the truth eludes us. But to alter a story, to knowingly tell a false story, is wrong. It gets muddy here but the point I want to stress is that I believe there are true fictional stories and false ones. McEwan wrote a true story about a writer, Briony Tallis, who wrote false stories.

Good book. Good movie.


  1. The movie also helped me get my head around this book and my feelings about it. I also think that the movie gives a lot more hints that it's a story within a story, what with the typing sounds and all--that part is just brilliant.

    And yes! I agree that Briony doesn't really atone for her wrong-doing. She crafts a story to make herself feel better. The story she tells is a fantasy. But what makes Briony's own story so tragic, to me, is that there is no way she can ever really make it right. And so she's left with the guilt of a crime that she did when she was too young to know what she was doing. No wonder she's fantasizing a better one.

  2. I totally agree with you, Jane. I think Atonement is McEwan's best achievement. He did a wonderful job at connoting and giving psychological depth to Briony. She's a wonderful character, both as a child and as an grown-up woman. I can't but despise and hate her for ruining Robbie and Celia's lives but ...she is so wonderfully written. I particularly like the complexity of the narrative layout, too, the novel within the novel. I even read the book twice: in Italian as soon as it was published here, then in English to choose the chapters or pages to read with my students. They loved the movie much, but were so disappointed by its end! I think the story is so terribly good just because it is as it is, ending included. I wouldn't change a word in it. Though it made me so angry, even furious, the first time I met with the final tragic revelation of the true fate of the two lovers.Thanks for this beautiful posting.

  3. Unfortunately, I haven't read the book so maybe I'm missing out on something here. I have seen the film and did enjoy it but I also wanted my happy ending back. I found the character of Briony to be so poisonous as a child that I could hardly look at the screen. Even then, 13 year old girls knew exactly what they were doing. And she evolved into just the sort of adult that you would expect her to. All very well acted though.

  4. I agree with you that Briony doesn't atone for what she has done -- she's trying to cope with it, but not really atoning. I suppose I believe that fiction writers don't have obligations to anybody, and they can write what they want; however, they have obligations to themselves they can live up to or not, and Briony doesn't live up to her obligations to herself.

  5. Great review. I have not yet seen the movie but I think we are meant to understand that Briony was sheltered and too naive to understand what she has put into motion (unlike a girl of that age today), and is haunted by her inability to atone although she in theory wants to do so. For an article I wrote about nursing years ago, I read the Lucilla Andrews book that McEwan used as his basis for Briony's nursing experience, and found it very interesting.

  6. You took away from the book and movie exactly what I did. I did almost feel like I could have skipped the first half of the book since it was so close to the movie. But I was so glad that I just didn't give it up because the whole business about Paul and Lola made much more sense once I read the book.

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  8. Thanks for the fantastic comments, everyone. There is so much to talk about with this novel.

    I guess one point I've been thinking about since posting has to do with whether Briony at 13 knew what she was doing--my kids are 15 and 17, and at 13 they definitely knew right from wrong--at 13 I knew right from wrong.

    I'm actually wondering whether the real villain in the story is the parents. Symbolically, Briony's immature selfishness could be seen as an indictment on the society (parents, class system) that produced such a person. I don't think you can chalk up her behavior to being a child--she was immature, but not a child. One of the lines that really jumped out at me was near the end of the first part when the narrator said that Emily Tallis prosecuted Robbie with a vengeance. I can't look up the exact wording because I've lent my copy to a friend. However, the feeling I had is that Robbie was going to pay for Jack's infidelities, Cecelia's indiscretions, and everything else that came up short in her life.

    I loved reading all your comments--thanks for sharing them with me.

  9. This was the first Ian McEwan novel I read that I really enjoyed! I liked the film too - and I actually didn't have a problem with the ending (in some ways it reminded me a little of John Fowles French Lieutenant's Woman and his double-ending)

    I agree that Briony didn't atone for her actions - we see her at the start intent on scripting everything, she's the narrator and everyone has to do as she says and behave as she wants them to, which leads me onto your statement:

    As a novelist, Briony has an obligation to tell the truth as she knows it. That's all a writer can do--that, and admitting when the truth eludes us.
    Novelists have an obligation to tell a story which moves us in some way, or which engages us - but I've never thought that novelists have a mission to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, especially if they are writing fiction (which is what Briony Tallis writes). Even biography-writers tidy the truth up bit, to make it more entertaining/flow better.

    Did Briony know what she was doing? No. She has a story in her head, initially sparked by that infamous breaking the vase in the fountain scene at the beginning - the vase represents something fragile and valuable which is lost in a moment, it's loss could have been prevented if either protagonist hadn't been so obstinate. Briony was determined to make the facts as she saw them fit the story in her head. She really does tell tales.

    An alternative version just didn't figure in her mental landscape. She stuck to that version. But what really intrigued me was what the hell was going on in Lola's mind? She knew who the real culprit was, since he'd attacked her earlier. And yet she said nothing.

  10. >But what really intrigued me was what the hell was going on in Lola's mind?

    Agreed - Lola's story would make for very interesting reading.

    With regards to truth, I didn't express myself well and frankly I'm not sure the idea has gelled enough to articulate properly, but the idea is that I do believe that telling/listening to stories is fundamental to being human and sharing a culture, and that there are archetypal stories that fill a hole in the psyche and connect us to each other. Good storytellers tell true stories, bad ones simply manipulate plots and their characters/stories don't "ring true." That's what I meant by telling the truth--as a writer, you flesh out how a character (that you as a writer believe in) responds to life, circumstance, etc. I think that part of McEwan was doing was showing a bad storyteller who was manipulating plot because she didn't want to face the truth--in the end, all the characters (McEwan's and Briony's) are fictional, but some stories are more "true" than others.

  11. I'm not sure the idea has gelled enough to articulate properly, but the idea is that I do believe that telling/listening to stories is fundamental to being human and sharing a culture, and that there are archetypal stories that fill a hole in the psyche and connect us to each other.
    That's certainly very true (Have you read A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong?) or The Seven Basic Plots - why we tell stories by Christopher Booker?)

    Good storytellers tell true stories, bad ones simply manipulate plots and their characters/stories don't "ring true."
    That makes more sense.
    So, since Briony went from telling lies about Cecelia and Robbie to trying to tell the truth (though the truth will have to wait until the protagonists were all dead to be published) does that mean she went from being a bad storyteller to being a good one in the end? She is obviously a well-respected author by the end of the book, and the impression is given that she's a serious author, not someone who writes novels that rely on plot rather than skillful characterization.