The Sorrows of Young Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement KhadijaJafarova, PhD student ofAzerbaijan University of Languages, 2014 Printed:by DAKAM Publishing for November 3-5, 2014 Literary Criticism Conference ProceedingsIstanbul- 2014 Key Words: postmodernism,metafiction, catharsis. AbstractAtonement is a storytold to us by a seventy-seven year old Briony narrating herself as athirteen-year old girl with passion for writing. On a hot summer’s day of 1935she was to commit an innocent crime that would wreck the lives of two lovingpeople. Why would she do that, you may wonder.
It’s very simple, indeed, “Theroad to hell is paved with good intentions”. As postmodernists claim, there isno absolute truth or interpretation that can be achieved with the help oflogical reasoning or by the consciousness of the mind. The conflict between thedifferent perceptions of truth, facts and beliefs, truth and illusion willalways be there. The novel employs both postmodern and classic narrative techniquesand therefore, is treated as both realist and postmodern. On one hand there isa reality that’s misread by a young girl, on the other hand there’s ametanarrative reminding us that we’re reading a self-reflective novel.
Beingmulti-layered, Atonement has a strongromantic element, historical background and psychological subtlety thatcontinues the empirical tradition of British fiction, and, at the same time,questions the established values which makes it a fine postmodern novel. As apiece of modern fiction Atonement issignificant for the way it tackles the complexities of human life depicted innarration and has a cathartic effect on the reader. “But what was guilt these days? It wascheap. Everyone was guilty, and no one was.
No one would be redeemed by achange of evidence, for there weren’t enough people, enough paper and pens,enough patience and peace, to take down the statements of all the witnesses andgather in the facts. The witnesses were guilty too. All day we’ve witnessedeach other’s crimes. You killed no one today? But how many did you leave todie?” (Atonement, McEwan 2007, p.
261)Putin the broadest terms, contemporary British novelists combine a serious andcomplex response to the world around and try to refract it with distinctivemodes of narration. Although postmodernism has become an important feature ofmuch post-war British fiction many contemporary novelists continue to work in arealist mode. They use techniques associated with postmodernism for differentideological as well as formal purposes. Hence, when we talk about postmodernismin British literature we speak of ‘reworking of realism’, in other words,British postmodern realism. Atonement (2001),Ian McEwan’s most expansive and remarkable novel so far, employs bothpostmodern and classic narrative techniques and therefore, is treated as bothrealist and postmodern. It is a story told to us by a seventy-seven years oldBriony Tallis narrating herself as a thirteen-year old girl with passion forwriting. As a teenager she had onesorrow only: she had no secrets.
“Nothing in her life was sufficientlyinteresting or shameful to merit hiding” (McEwan 2007, p.5). She longed for aharmonious and organized world where you could easily make judgments of whatwas right and what was wrong. Thus marriage was “of virtue rewarded, dizzypromise of lifelong union”, whereas divorce went along with the “betrayal,illness, thieving, assault and mendacity” (ibid., p.9).Asa young writer she had to face pretense in words and encountered the danger ofself-exposure. But then she found all the pleasures of miniaturization andready-made “recipes”: A world could be made in five pages,and one that was more pleasing than a model farm.
The childhood of a spoiledprince could be framed within half a page, a moonlit dash through sleepyvillages was one rhythmically emphatic sentence, falling in love could beachieved in a single word—a glance. … A crisis in a heroine’s life couldbe made to coincide with hailstones, gales and thunder, whereas nuptials weregenerally blessed with good light and soft breezes. A love of order also shapedthe principles of justice, with death and marriage the main engines ofhousekeeping, the former being set aside exclusively for the morally dubious,the latter a reward withheld until the final page (ibid.
, p.7).One summer’s day in 1935, this imaginative girl witnesses amoment’s flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, theson of a housekeeper and Cecilia’s childhood friend. Later that day Robbie asksBriony to give a letter to her sister (that she opens), which he then realizesis the wrong one with sexual implication.
To make the matters worse, in theevening while everybody was in the drawing room Briony finds the two in thelibrary and misinterpreting what she sees as physical assault linking the threeevents comes to the conclusion that Robbie was ‘a maniac’. “Onthe day these events take place the family are being visited by their cousinsLola, and the twins whose parents are going through a divorce. After misreadingthe first stages of a love relationship between Robbie and Cecilia, Brionymistakenly accuses Robbie of attacking Lola by the lake in the grounds of thecountry house. She has observed Lola’s attacker in the half-light and becauseof her feelings toward Robbie at this time mistakenly assumes that he is theculprit (Bentley 2008, p.150)”. What she wanted wasto protect her sister and put this event as nicely as possible into “words” offiction. In her mind everything connected and “her eyes confirmed thesum of all she knew and had recently experienced.
The truth was in the symmetry,which was to say; it was founded in common sense. The truth instructed hereyes” (McEwan, p.169). We all love stories; human beings are story tellinganimals. Atonement is also a story ofa little Briony who eventually becomes a writer and realizing she did somethingirreparable and therefore, wrecked the lives of two loving people, atones allher life and this time makes up another story to undo her damage. In order toavoid justifying herself and bring about the forces that drive people’s actions,Briony, the omnipotent narrator, comments on the things that happen and thethoughts, as well as decisions of the characters. She is no longer adescriptive narrator whose single purpose is to moralize but the one who needsto show the single event from several different perspectives thus revealing tous how people can easily “get everything wrong, completely wrong”.
It’s what we call impartial psychological realism and it’s where the postmodernway of thinking starts:”The ageof clear answers was over. So was the age of characters and plots. Despite herjournal sketches, she no longer really believed in characters. They were quaintdevices that belonged to the nineteenth century. The very concept of characterwas founded on errors that modern psychology had exposed.
Plots too were likerusted machinery whose wheels would no longer turn. A modern novelist could nomore write characters and plots than a modern composer could a Mozart symphony”(ibid., p.281).
Meanwhile Robbie spends several years in prison and then is released on the condition to fightin the Second World War. Cecilia has trainedand become a nurse. She has cut off all contact with her family because theyall took part in sending Robbie to jail. Sixteen-year-old Briony also goes fornursing and finds courage in herself to ask for forgiveness. Although shedoesn’t actually get it she’s happy to see Cecilia and Robbie still in love andunited. It’s only in the epilogue headed “London, 1999” an elderly Briony, nowa famous novelist, reveals the “bleakest reality”; that Robbie died ofsepticemia at Bray Dunes on 1 June 1940, or that Cecilia was killed inSeptember of the same year by the bomb that destroyed Balham Undergroundstation; “and that Briony never sawthem in that year”.
“What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader drawfrom such an account? Who would want to believe that they never met again,never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that? (ibid., p.371)”These are the questions Briony, the “author” of the novel, asks us.
Indeed, wewouldn’t like to know such a cruel and unfair truth. And yet we get to know it,as it’s also a metafictional novel, which makes us aware that we are reading abook. There can be no illusion regarding the novel; even though it tells us astory with all kinds of psychological subtleties, romance and historicalbackground it’s mostly the imagination of the author who decides everything forus. We have no power to enter people’s minds or have a right to make thedecisions for them, be judgmental. We can only project ourselves into thethoughts and feelings of others.
And this act of empathy lies at the center ofMcEwan’s book. “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself isat the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is thebeginning of morality”, “for me novels are not about teaching people how tolive but about showing the possibility of what it is like to be someone else.”– These are what McEwan himself says.
It’s when you can feel empathy that youcan undergo catharsis and become a better person.Postmodernism can take away so manythings from us; beginning from grand narratives finishing with little illusionsand happy endings but what it can never take away is the love motif, for aslong as we have a heart we’ll fall in love and will glorify it and never stopreading and enjoying love stories. References: BENTLEY N. (2008), Contemporary British Fiction, Edinburgh:Edinburgh University PressMcEWAN I. (2007), Atonement, London: The Random HouseGroup Limited