No Atonement For God


In Atonement, Ian McEwan intricately weaves various conceptual threads, including psychological realism, subjectivism, irony, and Christian philosophy, into a contrived metafictional web that literarily simulates the human mind.  McEwan begins this intricate web by using stream of consciousness and alternating points of view(most notably through Robbie, Briony, and Cecilia), in order to establish psychological realism.  The form of psychological realism McEwan employs evokes the theme of subjectivism, which is interwoven with Christian concepts of atonement that guide the reader to Atonement’s ultimate question, “…how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one …she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her”(McEwan 350).  Briony, therefore, mirrors mankind by attempting to install order in the chaotic world of Atonement.  But she eventually realizes that her attempts at playing God are completely contrary to the harmonious world she desires, which she then attempts to redeem by creating a good, fictional world.

She ruthlessly subordinates everything in the real world to her need to serve the demands of her own fictional world.  Raised on a diet of imaginative literature, she is too young to understand the dangers that can ensue from modeling one’s conduct on such an artificial world.  When she acts out her confusion between life, and the life of fiction, the consequences are tragic and irreversible.  Thus, she attempts to use fiction in order to correct the very errors that fiction helped her to commit. But the chasm that separates the world of the living from that of fictional invention ensures that, at best, her fictional reparation will act as an attempt at atoning for a past that she cannot reverse.(Finney)

Briony’s selfish desire for order is first discovered through her attempt to “…guide (her older brother Leon) away from his careless succession of girlfriends, toward the right form of wife, the one who would persuade him to return to the countryside, the one who would sweetly request Briony’s services as a bridesmaid”(McEwan 4). She does so by directing her cousins to act out her play, “The Trials of Arabella”, for him.  Briony’s description of her controlling need for fairy-tale harmony rapidly transmute into obsessive, methodical implications regarding her toy “cowboys, deep-sea divers, humanoid mice-suggested by their even ranks and spacing a citizen’s army awaiting orders”(McEwan 5).  Briony’s three paragraph, direct and indirect characterization of her younger-self, ultimately changes into a ironically prophetic contradiction, “Her wish for a harmonious, organized world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing.  Mayhem and destruction were too chaotic for her tastes, and she did not have it in her to be cruel”(McEwan 5).  These sentences first appear to be simple, direct characterizations, but actually allude to ironic contradictions  once Briony’s wrongdoing is revealed.

Her desire for a harmonious world causes the destruction of Robbie and Cecilia’s love, and forms the paths they take to their deaths.  Briony devastated their lives by causing the loss of each other, that only remained connected through abstract love: a recurring theme in McEwan’s novels(Jensen). It is also clear that (in the words of another critic), childhood Briony “…lacks introspection and broad vision… and she’s most concerned that life line up in the order she prefers”(Vidimos).  Thus, Briony’s childish fantasies that seek harmony, ironically cause utter chaos she cannot control any other way in her mind besides completing herself through atonement(by creating an alternate fairy-tale with a happy ending for Robbie and Cecilia).

McEwan primarily establishes Briony’s carefully orchestrated point of view, because it “…manages to make the state of mind that leads Briony to make her false accusations against Robbie plausible, if not sympathetic… her willful naivete and self-dramatizing imagination lead her to ignore the truth, the ways in which her ignorance about the grown-up world would result in a terrible crime…(that) she will later try to expiate through… gestures of atonement”(Kakutani).  The crime Briony commits is persuading herself and the authorities that she witnessed Robbie rape her cousin Lola,(connecting it with events she childishly misunderstood between him and Cecilia) consequently sending him to jail, and separating him from his love, Cecilia(McEwan 169-175).  McEwan’s use of psychological realism subsequently develops into the theme of subjectivism, which is ultimately accentuated by his revelation that Briony is the fictional author of the novel, attempting to atone for the crime she had committed(McEwan 330).  Briony writes with self-consciousness, hence, she characterizes her younger-self with immaturity and a destructive desire for control-both of which compel her to stand by what would be a seemingly arbitrary lie(if it wasn’t for Robbie’s sexually explicit letter to Cecilia).

Although Briony seeks atonement for her sin, she cannot change that, in reality, Robbie died at Dunkirk, and Cecilia was killed by Luftwaffe bombers(hence they never reunite), except for her writings(which she explicitly confesses), “…I’ve made a huge digression and doubled back to my starting place.  It is only in this last version which my lovers end well…”(McEwan 350).  Hence, elderly Briony incorporates a subtle Christian element into the narrative, which introduces a whole new theme to Atonement.  First and foremost, Robbie is an apparent Christ figure, most notably when he shepherds the twin cousins back when they run away(an allusion to The Parable of The Shepherd that is expanded upon in Part Two), only to be wrongly arrested on arrival(McEwan 171).  The Christian Satisfaction theory of atonement, that Jesus is sacrificied for God’s plan, parallels Briony’s sacrifice of the innocent Robbie in order to fulfill the harmony of her dellusional fantasy world(Robinson).  Yet when Briony matures and realizes her catastrophic sin, her role changes to “…the individual Christian believer seeking wholeness”(Robinson) in the Moral theory of atonement.

Consequently, McEwan threads Briony’s psychologically realistic use of literary devices into her self-conscious, subjecive, and tragically ironic account.  Briony then supplements her literary devices with underlying Christian theories of atonement, in order to create an even more psychologically realistic portrait of herself. Thus, Briony’s Atonement is knowingly “…a philosophical novel, pitting the imagination against what it has to imagine if we are to be given the false assurance that there is a match between our fictions and the specifications of reality. The pleasure it gives depends as much on our suspending belief as on our suspending disbelief”(Kermonde). Briony’s Atonement is futile, but is necessitated by her moral obligation to repent for the sin she committed against Robbie the Christ-figure; hence, there is “No atonement for God, or novelists… It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all”(McEwan 351).  In Briony’s point of view, her life-long attempt at atonement, by writing Atonement, has  helped to redeem her, which alludes to the meaning of the novel: that atonement is the mind’s own self-satisfying and subjective product.

About Sean William Lynch
Sean William Lynch is a poet from New Jersey who was born in 1992. Lynch's first book of poems "the city of your mind" was published in 2013 by Whirlwind Press. Frank Sherlock, the poet laureate of Philadelphia, called Lynch's debut poetry book "visionary." CA Conrad claimed that the book was "marvelous!" S.W. Lynch's writing has been featured in numerous publications online and in print, including Milkfist, Poetry Quarterly, and Tincture Journal.

11 Responses to No Atonement For God

  1. wow- very indepth – have not gone this indepth since university – bravo

  2. You know there’s a psychological problem when you begin to try to take the power you have in your fictional worlds and apply it to reality.

  3. sampiper22 says:

    Great analysis of the novel – one of my favourites! I also loved Life of Pi which does a very similar – though less successful in my view – narrative shift in its conclusion. Definitely a two-reader (at least): to truly understand the ironies you need to re-read after you’ve finished it once.
    And, sorry Sean, I did sympathise with her! She was young and made a fatal mistake … But I accept the validity and power of her act of fictional atonement, even if it is only symbolic.

  4. This is a very good review. I read Atonement some time ago, but I think I read it too fast. I really liked how you explain the themes and ideas present in the book. Nice job.

  5. Giovanni says:

    I appreciated your take on a fine book. I believe that her attempt at atonement is “the atonement”. But I think that it falls short because forgiveness for such a ‘crime’ can only come from a higher power as the author seems to imply.

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