Atonement by Ian McEwan

In Atonement by Ian McEwan, the editor of the literary magazine Horizon sends a letter to the main character Briony rejecting her work. In it he says, “Warfare, as we remarked, is the enemy of creative activity” (315). I could not disagree more. Writing stems from a desire to create something or send a message. People need this outlet because they are uncomfortable. Discomfort in their homes, political atmospheres, and social circles can

Briony in Atonement (2007) from the IMDb photo gallery

Briony in Atonement (2007) from the IMDb photo gallery

all be inspiration, and what is war if not uncomfortable?

In Briony’s case, it is her discomfort with her lack of control and with her guilt that urge her to write. In the first introduction to Briony as a child she is described as “one of those children possessed by the desire to have the world just so” (4). She has all of her animals and toys lined up and facing the same direction, and her room is pristine. It is proposed that part of her controlling personality included her love of secrets, but that “her wish for a harmonious, organized world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoings” (5). However her “first clumsy story showed her that the imagination itself was a source of secrets: Once she had begun a story, no one could be told” (6). Briony wrote often, sometimes for days without much break, even missing meals. Her stories allowed her to have her secrets, and “Her passion for tidiness was also satisfied, for an unruly world could be made just so” (7). She also experiments with plays, but finds that when actors and other people get involved her control is compromised, which is unacceptable. Her “self-contained world she had drawn with clear and perfect lines had been defaced with the scribble of other minds, other needs” (36). Her need for order is not satisfied by the real world, where other people control some of the outcomes, but rather in her stories she where is all-powerful.

She also writes to curb her guilt over condemning Robbie to prison and to war and for ruining her sister’s happiness.  She thinks that if she writes “not simply a letter, but a new draft, an atonement,”

Briony and Robbie in Atonement (2007) from the IMDb photo gallery

Briony and Robbie in Atonement (2007) from the IMDb photo gallery

then she can be resolved of her guilt (349). She documents what happened, regarding it as her “duty to disguise nothing” (369). However, at the end of her story, instead of having her sister and Robbie die, as they actually did within the world of the novel, she lets them live, seeing it not as a “weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and unite them at the end” (372). This need to change what happened and atone for her mistakes moved Briony to write her story over and over again, finally writing the final draft that allows the lovers to be together at the end. However, because she is all powerful in her stories, satisfying her need for order, she wonders “how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?” because there is no “entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with or that can forgive her” (371). The discomfort caused by living with her guilt and regret, along with her lack of control drive Briony to write, fueling her stories so that she can create a world in which she would be more comfortable.

Photo citations:

“Photo Gallery.” IMDb., n.d. Web. 13 July 2014. <;.


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