Atonement - Major Themes

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Major Themes
Guilt / Atonement
The theme of guilt, forgiveness, and atonement should be extremely obvious to anyone who reads the book. The entire plot of the novel centers on a woman who devotes her entire life repenting a crime she committed while still a young girl. Articles of note that are not as obvious to the reader that have to do with this theme are things like, is Briony the only person who should feel guilty? Who else is at fault for the crime committed on that hot summer night in 1935? Where is Lola's guilt for not saying anything? What about Paul Marshall's--the real assailant who gets away with rape and stands silent while an innocent man goes to prison. Then there are all the adults in Part One of the novel. How is it that so many people who are capable of understanding so much more than a thirteen-year-old girl come to rely completely on her testimony? Should more not have been done in the investigation? The question is left open at the end of the book. Does Briony finally achieve her atonement by writing her story and keeping her lovers and allowing their love to survive? The second layer to the guilt theme has to do with the history of literature. Aside from the crime she committed as a child, Briony feels guilty for her powers as a writer. She knows she has the autonomy to write whatever story she so chooses. Just like she could send Robbie to prison, she can make him survive the war. The reliance readers put in Briony to tell them "what really happened" leaves her feeling guilty about her life's work, and she projects that guilt onto the history of the English literature canon.

"A world could be made in five pages, and one that was more pleasing than a model farm. The childhood of a spoiled prince could be framed within half a page, a moonlit dash through sleepy villages was one rhythmically emphatic sentence, falling in love could be achieved in a single word--a glance. The pages of a recently finished story seemed to vibrate in her hand with all the life they contained." Narration, Page 7

A major theme to Atonement, if not 'the' major theme, is the power of writing and a forensic look into the history of the literary tradition. A secondary theme, but one that is just as prominent, is the loos of innocence and the transposition from childhood into the adult world. This quote in the opening pages of the novel marries those two themes with precision and brevity. Briony, because of her passion for writing, is aware even as a child of the power one has with the pen. Even at the age of thirteen, Briony can "make" a world in as little as "five pages." More importantly, she understands that as the writer, she has complete autonomy to "spoil" lives and restore "love." Not only does the child Briony understand this capacity over her characters, it excited her--the story literally "vibrates" in her hand.What Briony is too young at this point to understand, is the difference between fictionally invented plots and characters and reality. Ian McEwan's ambitious and prize-winning novel, Atonement follows the actions of a young girl, Briony Tallis, who witnesses an event which she knows holds some kind of significance. Yet her limited understanding of adult motives leads her to co¬¬mmit a crime that will change the lives of everyone involved. As she grows older, she begins to understand her actions and the grief that has been caused. The entire novel is an attempt of reconciliation that Briony undertakes, yet the reader does not realize this until the closing twenty pages. As one begins to understand the implications of this revelation, the credibility of her story is considerably weakened. However, is the power of the story diminished by the shadow of a possibly unreliable narrator? In context of the novel, which is written as an atonement (the making of amends for a mistake or a sin), Briony would, perhaps, have a tendency to lie or, rather, avoid the truth in an attempt to disguise her...
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