A Note on Writing: Ian McEwan, “Atonement”

Vanessa Redgrave played the elder Briony in the movie Atonement.

There is a shift in the focus of the novel in the last 70 pages of Atonement.  The author’s name appears at the end of Part Three and it brings up a revelation that all the previous chapters are kind of an autobiographical account from a third person point of view.  As the final section includes the writer’s reflection on writing, the novel Atonement then turns out to be a meta-fiction written by a fictional writer.  Her earnest thoughts about writing, however, speak through the pages and resonate in the hearts of those who enjoy thinking critically about the act of writing.

Way before that hot summer day in 1935, Briony had already discovered the wonder of words and realized that writing was a very subjective act.  She could create a world that was totally under her control by simply words.  She found out how a piece of writing, either a short story or a play, could direct or manipulate readers’ thoughts.  With a single word she could evoke a certain image or feeling in reader’s mind—for a young control freak, what could be a better hobby than this?  Although writing Atonement may not rejoice the writer’s heart as she wrote her first play, it provides a chance not just to reveal the truth but also to recreate the truth.  In her final draft of Atonement Briony made Robbie and Cecilia live together, while the tragic couple actually died in the war and never met again.  Briony also created a scene where she confronted with the couple and received their resentment, while the truth is she was too cowardly to make the scene possible.  These alternations are made not just out of the kindness to readers but also out of the writer’s wish to atone in the way she can:

When I am dead, and the Marshalls are dead, and the novel is finally published, we will only exist as my inventions……No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel.  I know there’s always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened? The answer is simple: the lovers survive and flourish.  As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love. 

Briony hopes to replace her past with her novel.  Can this really happen?  I don’t know, but it sounds plausible enough to make one consider its possibility.  This is just the way how a piece of writing speaks to the world:  it proposes a convincing possibility which may lead to action in reality, faith in the spiritual sense, or another piece of writing that eyes on itself, which is what you read here in four separate blog posts.  As an act of creation, writing prompts a response from its reader.  Since in a way Atonement limits its own attention on writing, its effect on the real world may be somewhat limited when it is compared to other works that are not self-conscious.  But the novel still speaks to those who are of interest.  I may reread the novel sometimes later and find something new to make this series of reading go on.   For now I just want to take a break and wave goodbye to all the people in the book.  I look forward to meeting them sometime.




Living at the corner of the (Third) world, the blogger herself is still in the middle of experiencing the wonder (or shock) of life. 太平洋的小島上的一位無名人氏。至今仍然在體驗生命中的各樣驚奇(或驚嚇)。



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