In the third part of Atonement we see Briony again. While Robbie was striving to survive in a foreign land, the young writer was learning to live in the real world. She gave up her dream of Cambridge and took nursing courses. As a way to make amend her choice makes no difference actually, but as a way of education it enriches the writer’s knowledge of the world and enhances her connection to it.
From the outset, the nursing course and hospital work bring an inhuman confinement to a mind that is used to control everything around her and create a world under her control. Briony has to follow the rules of medical system, and working under a strict supervision is full of pressure for a probationer with no background like her. The fear of humiliation in public also increases the pressure. Such an education seems cruel for an eighteen-year-old girl, but she takes it all and keeps on writing, protecting the writer inside her with high caution. Why does she want to hide it? A reason should be that she does not have much private time and can only write at the time she is not allowed to stay awake. The content of her writing, which is based on her past, may be another reason for her reticence. The letter of rejection from a literary magazine does not affect her decision about her own writing. She is managed to go on, keeps on revising it, and she will make it published someday.
Through Briony, we see the Dunkirk evacuation from another setting: hospital. For wounded soldiers, hospital is an extended battlefield. Instead of fighting for the country, they are fighting for themselves. The pain they feel under the treatments challenges their will to live, and this is a unanimous test for all military ranks. For nurses, their primary task is to stay calm and professional no matter how the soldiers are yelling, howling, grumbling, pleading, or swearing. But this does not mean they are immune to the patients’ feelings and just follow the rules. Briony was told to relax when a group of soldiers slept on the beds before the beds are properly distributed. Briony was also sent to accompany a dying young soldier for a few hours, sitting next to him and hearing him talk. Under the strict regulations and heavy routine works lies a compassion for life, which is too important to be dismissed. With her career Briony becomes part of an organization with great mission, and her participation connects her more to the world around her. But under the uniform Briony is still that young writer, who feels guilty about what she has done. After passing the test of being a professional nurse, there is another test for her: to face her sister and the irreversible past.
After having done two blogs about the same novel, writing this small piece is a harder than I thought in the way I hope to connect it to the previous two but at the same time make it still readable as an independent article. While I wrote the sentence “Instead of fighting for the country, they are fighting for themselves.” I couldn’t help thinking how banal it may sound if the article was written for a more academic purpose. But how come did I think of it as banal? I could only keep going as I told myself to relax and I don’t have to write everything according to a certain academic standard, a standard in my imagination that has to be concise, brilliant, witty, sharp, and enlightening. It does not have to be useful to the world but it has to be brilliant enough to make your readers say, “Wow, I never thought of it that way.” Is this what a piece of writing really for? I used to keep this secret belief inside me, but now I am not so sure of it. Still I hope my writing can be good, sounds more like English, but I am not so craving for exclamation as I used to. I just hope to catch something for future reference in case I forget and think my life is nothing and “begets nothing.” I still haven’t been able to accept the possibility that my life can be evaporated someday and leaves no trace in this world. So it seems I’ve got to learn to deal with this ultimate fear this year, just as the wound soldiers in the novel.