Atonement by Ian McEwan Review

Not once in my life, I was puzzled by the question: Where is the borderline between the reality we live in and the imagined world that this way or another we create every new minute of our life? The borderline is indeed rather fragile and the mystery of its existence affects human life greatly. I am speaking of the way the imagined world influences the real one. The novel titled Atonement (2001) by the British writer Ian McEwan appears to focus on the same problem. The novel shows how poisonous one’s imagination might turn to be for others if not applied correctly to real-life events. By the example of the main character, Briony Tallis’s, fatal misunderstanding of a series of events and rich imagination that does not always help the author shows that there is always a rigorous borderline between the real and the imagined world. Once it is neglected, the lives of many can be irreversibly ruined.

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The novel follows the several decades of the life of Briony Tallis from her childish attempt at the play The Trials of Arabella to its presentation six years later by her relatives. In the novel, Briony’s rich imagination plays a crucial role in the lives of two innocent people, her 23-year-old sister Cecilia and 23-year-old Robbie Turner, son of the housekeeper and childhood friend of Briony’s siblings. One day Briony passionately misinterprets Cecilia’s stripping to her underwear and jumping into the fountain to retrieve the fragments of the broken vase in front of the startled Robbie, later she reads the letter from Robbie to Cecilia and sees in the young man the threat for her sister, their sexual intercourse that she once witnesses also contributes to her seeing Robbie as a sexual manic. A bit later a disaster happens in Briony’s family: her cousin 15-year-old Lola is raped by someone, the power of Briony’s imagination wins and she testifies against Robbie. The victim of the rape acquiesces to this claim and the young boy is destined to spend three years in prison.

The magnificent deception the novel focuses on served the basis for the film under the same title. The novel adaptation was released in 2007 by Working Title Films. Directed by Joe Wright with Keira Knightley and James McAvoy playing the leading parts the film was recently nominated for seven Golden Globe. I would never attempt to argue the film’s magnificence here, but I cannot agree with some deviation from the plot that is clearly observed in the film, or be more exact, the difference in interpreting the plot that one can get after reading the novel and after watching the film. The thing is that the novel adaptation suggests that Briony testified against Robbie because she had her own sexual interest in him. I suppose that the novel does not allow the reader to draw the same conclusion.

Judging from the novel I can say that the driving force for Briony’s conduct was her desire to change the brutal world by means of her imagination work that, in its turn, was founded in her character. Being yet a child, Briony believes that through her invention “an unruly world could be made just so.” (McEwan 6) In the novel we find the following description of the main character’s room:

Whereas her big sister’s room was a stew of unclosed books, unfolded clothes, unmade bed, unemptied ashtrays, Briony’s was a shrine to her controlling demon: the model farm spread across a deep window ledge consisted of the usual animals, but all facing one way – towards their owner – as if about to break into song, and even the farmyard hens were neatly corralled. In fact, Briony’s was the only tidy upstairs room in the house. Her straight-backed dolls in their many-roomed mansion appeared to be under strict instructions not to touch the walls; the various thumb-sized figures to be found standing about her dressing table – cowboys, deep-sea divers, humanoid mice – suggested by their even ranks and spacing a citizen’s army awaiting orders (McEwan 6).

My point is that the girl wanted to see everything in her life being in the same order as her room was in. Her assumption that Robbie was a threat to her sister, no matter how unchecked it was, did not go along with the rules of life she once adopted as the only correct ones. Briony could not even suppose that her sister could be in love with Robbie. What she did instead was intentionally seeking more and more proof of the boy’s guilt. I am inclined to think that in this way the girl wanted to adjust to the world around her, she knew that everyone had his or her secret and strived to have her own one. Inventing the story of “sexual manic” Robbie was her own secret and she became gradually involved in making it more and more complicated. The mystery of Cecilia and Robbie’s relationship added to her life some sort of savor which she lacked before. The author tells about the girl:

she had no secrets. Her wish for a harmonious, organized world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing. Mayhem and destruction were too chaotic for her tastes, and she did not have it in her to be cruel. Her effective status as an only child, as well as the relative isolation of the Tallis house, kept her, at least during the long summer holidays, from girlish intrigues with friends. Nothing in her life was sufficiently interesting or shameful to merit hiding; no one knew about the squirrel’s skull beneath her bed, but no one wanted to know. None of this was particularly an affliction; or rather, it appeared so only in retrospect, once a solution had been found (McEwan 7).

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Robbie’s accusation was both a secret and intrigue for her. In this way, she could bring the elixir of life she unconsciously wanted to taste. Once Briony’s mother said of her daughter that she “was always off and away in her mind.” (McEwan 13). Robbie’s case seems to return Briony into reality, as all the coming years of her life she would suffer from understanding the mistake she once made. Briony’s nursing work and her novel about her family where Cecilia and Robbie are “still alive, still in love” are not enough for redemption. Briony is gradually dying from vascular dementia; the terrible disease seems to be Briony’s punishment for her letting the power of her imagination get control over her. Briony’s grief results from her personal egoistic goals to fill her life with some mystery and the ability to control the destiny of others she constantly lacked.

Therefore, the impression of the real causes that made Briony witness against Robbie that one gets from the film does not coincide with the one got from the novel. If we apply the interpretation that the film suggests to understanding the novel, the conception about Briony’s mistake as a result of her desire to change the world for the one she wanted to see will be totally ruined. Still, we do realize that people responsible for filmmaking are empowered to breathe their views on some problems in the plot and this in no way leads to some confusion of the reader or the viewer. The two points have equal rights for existence and we should thank both the writer and the director for giving an opportunity to consider Briony’s testimony against Robbie from the two perspectives.

The novel and the film interpretations though treat the problem differently do not differ in their overall message that one should be extremely cautious of his or her use of imagination as the drastic consequences of misuse can be irreversible. Imagination should not serve as a tool in someone’s hands if this tool is ruining other’s life. The poisonous power of Briorny’s invention is fairly demonstrated both in the novel and in the film. The two works encourage one to think of how images should be used to bring positive effects and not the ones the main character’s imagination brought.

Works Cited

Atonement. Dir. Joe Wright. Perfs. Keira Knightly, James McAvoy. Working Title Films, 2007.

McEwan, Ian. Atonement. London: Jonathan Cape, 2001.

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