Metafictional Elements in Ian McEwan’s Atonement
At first reading, Ian McEwan’s Atonement seems to be a modernist novel that owes much of its stylistic techniques to classic novels by authors such as Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen. That is, until the first-time reader turns a page to discover the epilogue entitled “London, 1999” and has this illusion shattered by the revelation that in fact Parts One, Two, and Three were penned by none other than the 77-year-old Briony Tallis. This epilogue, and what it divulges about the events we have just read, turns the book into a metafiction. A close rereading of the book turns up multiple references to the fact that it is in fact a manuscript written by the elderly Briony. McEwan’s metafictional strategies, evident in parts one to three only to the second time reader, call attention to the many changes Briony made to her manuscript in her attempt to atone for her crime. Her attempt is, in my opinion, unsuccessful.
Early on in the text, McEwan begins making subtle references to the process of writing and rewriting that occurs when creating a piece of fiction. For instance, after seeing her sister emerge dripping wet from the fountain outside, Briony considers asking Cecilia to explain the “prospect she was coming close to defining, at least emotionally” (40). This “definition would refine itself over the years” (40) and, it is implied, over the multiple drafts. What follows is a long passage that leaps forwards sixty years into the future to tell the reader that all of Briony’s fiction from then on was shaped by “an impartial psychological realism which she had discovered for herself” (41) that very morning. By calling attention to the writing process, McEwan is also drawing attention to the number of times Briony rewrote her novella Two Figures by a Fountain in attempt to atone for the crime that stemmed from that moment.
It seems, however, that atonement was not Briony’s original intent in writing Two Figures by a...
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