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Forgiving in Fiction: Thoughts on Atonement

(Via Goodreads)

Atonement (2001)

By Ian McEwan

So when the movie came out for this book, starring Keira Knightly and James McAvoy, I wanted to watch it but I didn’t have time to go to the theaters. I even wanted to read the book as well but never got the chance to until now for a class.

A young girl, Briony, witnesses an intimate scene between her sister, Cecilia, and Robbie and begins to question their relationship. Yet when her cousin, Lola, actually gets rape, she accuses Robbie as the perpetrator. Her evidence is the inappropriate letter written by Robbie to Cecilia. As a result, Robbie is sentenced to jail but agrees to be a soldier in WW2 in order to be released after his active duties.

Now, the type of reader I am is one that focuses on the story’s progression and characters, but this novel doesn’t seem to do that. In fact, McEwan doesn’t focus too much on the storyline—it’s there but there are other matters more pressing. In fact, the story isn’t as important as the lesson being told at the end. The story’s structure and narrative perspective are used to give commentary on the role of the reader and writer. We learn at the end that this whole story is written by Briony as a way of atoning for her sin she committed when she was younger: sending Robbie to jail under false accusations. She uses literature as a way to reimagine the lives of her family members and friends. Through writing, the writer is like a god because he or she has control over what happens to the lives of the characters, and so she creates a world that’s different from reality to “make things right and correct her wrongs.” Now is this enough for an atonement? That really depends on the reader and his or her morals.

Furthermore, this novel plays around with genre. McEwan divides his novel into three parts. The first part is more of a traditional Victorian novel which is the only section that has chapter dividers. The second part is a war novel; in which focuses on Robbie’s time as a soldier. As for the last part, it’s more of a personal diary as we learn about Briony’s life as a nurse. I think these different genres add to the different perspectives of how we can read a novel, which makes it very interesting.

While reading this novel, I was quite frustrated with the character, Briony. She mistakes the act of intimacy as rape and sends Robbie to prison. Now, Briony was still young and naive that she didn’t know the difference between love and rape, but she shouldn’t have continued to lie to the police about what happened and betray her sister. In fact, Briony invaded her sister’s privacy by reading her love letter and showing it to the police as “evidence” to prove her fictional story. In order to rewrite her wrong, she creates this book called, Atonement. (In this fictional world, she is the writer of Atonement and not McEwan.) I personally can’t forgive Briony for what she did to Cecilia and Robbie. Although she meant no harm to it, what she did trigger negative ripples and she ruined their possible future together. And that to me is something that cannot be forgiven, so easily. This book is a sincere confession to her crime as she writes the ending that Cecilia and Robbie deserve but it isn’t enough. Saying sorry and being forgiven comes easily for trivial matters, but when it comes to matters of the heart, sometimes saying “sorry” is not enough.

I haven’t watched the movie for this novel and so I can’t make comparisons. The book was enjoyable but some of the text feels like filler and not a lot goes on. However, I do like the prose as it is clearly written and has a lot of detailed descriptions.


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