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A Writer Unconsoled: Ian McEwan, “Atonement”

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

                                                                                –Exodus 20:16

I read Ian McEwan’s Atonement a few year ago and really liked it.  Although my enthusiasm does not make me memorize every word or sentence, the memory of it lingers on.  As I reread it this time, I cannot help being drawn to the story again. I have to read it slowly and keep a certain distance from it in order not to be overwhelmed by its sadness–a sadness that is so tragic for writers. 

For those who are not familiar with the story, here is a summary: on a hot summer day in 1935, a 13-year-old writer committed a crime and it became the source of her endless regret.  Briony Tallis, a young writer with the eagerness to reason out everything that came to her, made a false judgment about a scene between her sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner, the son of a cleaning lady for the Tallis.  In Briony’s eyes, Cecilia was forced by Robbie to take off her dress and jump into the fountain.  Later in the day, her misunderstanding toward Robbie was deepened by more scenes beyond her knowledge.  Briony peeked at Robbie’s private note to Cecilia and she was stunned by its obscenity.  The note was an indication of Robbie’s abnormality to her, and the sex scene between Robbie and Cecilia was taken as a physical attack out of malice.  Briony’s ignorance and self-righteousness eventually led her to crime: when her cousin was raped in the night, Briony firmly believed the rapist must be Robbie and voluntarily made a testimony against him.

There’s nowhere to know how and when Briony realizes her mistake, but she suffers no less than the tragic couple.  Her sister and Robbie die in the war, so by any chance she is not likely to be forgiven by them.  She rewrites her personal history in Atonement, gives the couple a better ending, but she still cannot receive the consolation she wants.  On her way to be an adult and a writer, Briony has paid a high price.  She is really a writer unconsoled.

By revealing a writer’s predicament, Atonement is not an encouraging story for anyone with the ambition to write.   Misreading seems so fatal and inevitable that no one can escape from it.  A writer is made humble not only before God or the Nature but also before his/her own ignorance.  Perhaps humility is the first thing we need when we reason out the surrounding world.  Empathy, compassion, tolerance, and gentleness will follow and so misreading won’t be so harmful as what Briony has experienced.

Besides this grievous arrangement, everything with or within the novel is remarkable.  I am amused by Briony’s reflection on the writing process and different literary forms like drama and fiction.  I don’t know if that is what McEwan wants to say about literature too. An argument from a fictional world is easy to be dismissed, but it still possesses the power that can influence the mind.  A reader’s mind is a place where reality meets fiction; it is a border area that allows them to co-exist.  As history wanes over time, fiction stands a chance of replacing the truth.  This is how the novel Atonement becomes a great comfort to Briony Tallis.  Even if there is no atonement for her, writing is the next thing closest to it.

Since this novel is basically a sad story, I feel it difficult to finish this article with anything more positive than what’s been said so far.  The very last sentence of Atonement is from Briony, who said “but now I must sleep.” Let’s leave the writer sleeping and talk about the wartime living described in Atonement next time.

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