Reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement: A Closer Look at Briony

From the onset of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the character Briony is painted as an attention seeking thirteen-year-old who is actually self-absorbed and immature enough to contemplate the wonder of her fingers: “she raised one hand 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. . .she brought her forefinger close to her face and stared at it, urging it to move” (33).

Here Briony demonstrates a strange combination of childishness with maturity; though she is clearly intelligent enough to consider something at some length and depth, that which she considers is as ordinary and self-evident as her own hand. Though at first it appears that Briony enjoys writing due to her active imagination, it is revealed when her cousin Pierrot remarks that plays are “just showing off” (11) that “this was precisely why she loved plays, or hers at least; everyone would adore her.”

What compels Briony to transform everything into a story, then, is partially due to her need to be the center of attention and partially due to her “controlling demon” (5), the two of which go hand in hand. It only makes sense that Briony wants everything the way she wants it – all the better for her to be the center of things.

When Briony oversees an interaction between Robbie, the cleaning woman’s son, and her older sister Cecilia, instead of recording what she sees and wondering about what she can’t know from her window, she casually fills in the missing details with her imagination, marking fiction as the truth. Briony assumes that Cecilia is only removing her clothes due to “his insistence” (36), that Robbie has “issued a command Cecilia dared not disobey.”

Though Briony realizes that “the sequence was illogical” (37), that what she essentially imagined as the truth does not make much sense, she never even bothers to doubt herself. In this way, Briony carelessly stumbles into the first misobservation in a series of many which come to wreck Robbie’s and Cecilia’s lives.

Perhaps because Briony is “one of those children possessed by the desire to have the world just so,” she has no ability to handle anything that does not fit into her perception of how the world should be. First her displeasure stems from what she sees from her window and then it grows when she intercepts a note from Robbie to Cecilia, in which he writes “in my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt” (80). It is apparent and fairly understandable that Briony has no understanding of adult motives or sexuality, but as she had just decided to be “delivered from the cumbrous struggle between good and bad, heroes and villains” (38), it does not seemingly follow that Briony decides Robbie is the “incarnation of evil” (108).

When taking into account the earlier mixture of childishness and maturity Briony emulated, however, it makes sense that she can stumble into an idea and dismiss it as soon as it does not easily fit into her world. It is easier to make Robbie into a villain and write herself as the heroine who will save Cecilia from evil then it is for Briony to realize that Robbie is a man who desires her sister and that she is merely a meddling child who wants to make every scenario revolve around her.

It should come as no surprise, then, when Lola takes advantage of Briony’s foolish misconjecture about Robbie and further urges her to believe that Robbie is a “maniac” (112) who could “attack anyone” (113). Briony walks into the library, where Cecilia and Robbie are making love, and believes that Cecilia is being attacked: “she had seen the letter, she had cast herself as her sister’s protector, and she had been instructed by her cousin: what she saw must have been shaped in part by what she already knew, or what she believed she knew” (115). When Lola is raped later that same night, by Paul Marshall, it is because of Briony’s tendency to manipulate the truth around what she believes the truth to be that causes her to become the key witness of a crime she did not actually see.

What she does see is merely a vertical figure in the dark that moves away, but because “it was her story, the one that was writing itself around her” (156), Briony eagerly names Robbie as the offender even though her cousin says she “couldn’t say for sure” (157) who it was. In the upcoming weeks, though Briony is seized by doubts because she didn’t see Robbie: “less like seeing, more like knowing” (159), she is so concerned with what everyone will think about her if she changes her story that she does not take back what she has said. Further proof of her insatiable need for attention, Briony finds herself in tears the night she names Robbie as Lola’s rapist due to the fleeting fear that nobody will believe her, feeling that even “more was lost, when there was no witness to her sorrow” (172).

When it is revealed, towards the end of the novel, that Atonement is written by Briony and that she has realized that her actions were wrong, the reader is barely satiated by this news, for if her memoir states that “it wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding above all, the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people were as real as you” (38), it does not seem that Briony is holding herself accountable for her actions. In Briony’s case, “confusion and misunderstanding” would be quite an understatement.

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