Atonement and the Failure of the General Point of View

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Jett McAlister
Narrative POV Seminar
2 March 2004

Atonement and the Failure of the General Point of View

Atonement’s chief narrative feature is McEwan’s use of an embedded author—Briony Tallis—whose text is nearly coterminous with the novel itself. This technique is of course not a new one: Sterne’s Sentimental Journey and MacKenzie’s Man of Feeling are both framed as the written accounts of their protagonists. McEwan’s trick in Atonement, though, is presumably that we are to be ignorant of the presence of this embedded author until very close to the end of the book. The chief effect of this is that we are forced to retroactively reconsider our epistemological position vis-à-vis the novel’s characters and its events, a reconsideration in which, I would like to argue, focalizations which we would (or should) have thought reliable become unreliable, and in which our acceptance of narrative as an entry into non-authorial points of view becomes undermined. That is, the novel implicitly asks whether—if because of the circumstances surrounding Briony’s authoring of these events, we cannot trust her technique of shifting focalization—we can take stock in any narrative in which point of view or focalization is different from that of the narrator (or, even, that of the author).

While the narrator of Mrs. Dalloway can reliably focalize through various characters, herself not being one of the novel’s diegetic characters, focalization in Atonement is thoroughly and self-consciously unreliable after we discover that the focalizing agent is not an external narrator, but a character who indicts her own ability to feel that other characters are as alive as she is. If various points of view in Mrs. Dalloway are unified and supported by a consistent narrative voice, the presence of a consistent diegetic narrator in Atonement undermines any discoveries or suppositions we can make through our experience of different points of view.

The structure of focalization...
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