Struggling with Guilt: Atonement

[(Essay dated 29 May 2010) In the following essay C.F. analyzes how Ian McEwan’s main narrator, Briony, struggles with her guilty conscience regarding her delusions as a child. Ian McEwan’s Atonement focuses on her struggle to let the truth be known and to find atonement.]

Guilt might be defined as an emotion that a person feels when they have committed an act not accepted by society. Guilt is something that stays with a person, sometimes for a short period of time, sometimes for the rest of their life. Amends can be made, if the person is lucky, but in Briony Tallis’s story, she will never find atonement. She will attempt, but in the end she fails, even though she knows it in the beginning. What begins as an innocent delusion turns into a nightmare that will haunt her and torment her for the rest of her life. McEwan redefines self-torture in Atonement as his protagonist attempts to make amends for her wrongdoings as a child, “How guilt refined the methods of self-torture, threading the beads of detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime” (McEwan 162). Throughout her life Briony goes over the events, the details, wishing they hadn’t happened. Burdened with guilt, Briony dedicates the rest of her life so that she can make amends with both the victims of her delusions and herself.

As a child Briony Tallis believed that she could do no wrong. “Her wish for a harmonious, organized world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing” (5). She lived in a world of imagination, writing sophisticated plays and tales of lovers. Her own tale turned out to be quite different and was one was would torment her for the rest of her life. She was thirteen when she committed her “crime” that would later ruin the lives of those she loved. She was only trying to be the protective sister, but she ended up taking things too far. Her first crime was imagining what she believed to be an attack against her sister Cecelia. In reality her sister was making love to Robbie, a childhood friend. Briony let her imagination take over reality and believed only what her eyes saw. Her crime continues when she witnesses her cousin Lola’s rapist fleeing the scene. Once again her imagination takes over and she convinces Lola that her rapist was Robbie. Lola never found out who her rapist is, even as she married him. Briony’s false perception of the events sent Robbie to jail, and later to war where he later died in 1940. Her sister Cecelia suffered a similar fate in the same year, dying in one of the bombings of London. Briony’s imaginative false witness is what tore the two lovers apart. In her youth she was not troubled by her self-deception, mainly satisfied with her actions because she believed she had done the right thing. She would have, had her story been true. Briony had believed her actions were justified; however, reality told a different story. She never knew the full-extent of her crime until she was older. “Growing up” made her realize what she did was wrong and she was a false witness to a terrible crime that someone else committed, a rapist who would never be punished. Briony is tortured by her guilt, and spends the rest of her life attempting to make amends for her actions.

Briony felt tormented by her actions and wished to be “someone else”.

Her secret torment and the public upheaval of war had always seemed separate worlds, but now she understood how the war might compound her crime. The only conceivable solution would be for the past never to have happened […] she longed to have someone else’s past, to be someone else (271).

She could not live with her actions and the guilt was eating away at her. Because of her actions she found herself tortured by her memories. She knows that she will never be able to apologize to Robbie and Cecelia because they are dead. She will always be surrounded by objects that will remind her of her actions. The war reminds her that the two lovers never reconnected because they were both killed by the war. Had Briony been more mature and less imaginative in her youth, things might have been different. Perhaps they still would have died, but at least they would have had some time together. They never knew of the life they could have had because of Briony’s crime. For the rest of her life she will be tormented by her actions and by what could have been. Briony, determined to make things right with the victims of her imagination, writes a novel that tells the truth about the false accusations made by the mind of a thirteen-year-old girl.

The year is set in 1999 and McEwan’s protagonist is seventy-seven years old. Briony Tallis is finishing her tell-all novel that sets record straight about what really happened.

I’ve been thinking about my last novel, the one that should have been my first […]my fifty-nine-year assignment is over. There was our crime— Lola’s, Marshall’s, mine— and from the second version onward, I set out to describe it. I’ve regarded it as my duty to disguise nothing (349).

Names, places, actions are to be kept the same. It is Briony’s way of finding atonement and making amends for her actions. She wishes to clear Robbie’s name, even though he has since past on. It is her only attempt to find atonement. She says that it should have been her first novel because she feels as though she should have done something a long time ago. Briony says that it is her “fifty- nine-year assignment” which tells the reader that she has been working on this novel since she was eighteen. Briony goes on to say that she gave her characters, Robbie and Cecelia, happiness as an act of kindness. She even tells the reader that she wasn’t “so self-serving as to let them forgive me. Not quite, not yet” (351). In her novel Briony visits Robbie and Cecelia in their home and promises to make amends. In reality the two lovers never experienced true happiness because of Briony’s crime. She wanted to be kind, thus she gave them a happy ending so that she might feel somewhat better about her actions. Yet she is still struggling with her guilt, because by giving the lovers a happy ending she is trying to give herself one as well. Briony gave them the happiness and life they never had. She believes this will help her make amends with her past and with the lovers. It is apparent that Briony is struggling with her guilt because she doesn’t want them to forgive her, at least not entirely, because she knows that she will never be forgiven. She wishes to make peace with Robbie, Cecelia, and herself. Writing the book is the only way that she will find some kind of atonement, or something close to it.

Amends may be difficult to make, especially when one owes amends to the deceased. Briony knew it would be difficult, yet she continued to dedicate her entire life to making things right. “No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all” (350). Briony comes clean about her intentions for writing the book. Not only was it so she might come clean, but so that she could feel better about her actions. She knew that she would never find atonement, but she attempted. It was a task that took fifty-nine years to complete and it still wasn’t enough. The guilt that she has from her mistakes as a child has been with her for her entire life. Writing a novel was an attempt to make peace with herself and those she betrayed. She tried to give what the lovers what they didn’t have: happiness. What began as an innocent protective stance turned into a life-changing event in which she would have no hope for atonement.

Briony never imagined that her life would turn out the way it did. At the age of thirteen she was an imaginative storyteller whose tales told of lovers who were not torn apart by anything. Her own story did not have a happy ending because that thirteen-year-old girl let her imagination take over. Her imagination destroyed the happiness of two lovers. The realization of her actions came five years too late and left her tormented by guilt. Briony would spend the rest of her life trying to make amends, but words on a page could not transform into reality. Her hope of finding atonement was an illusion, and she knew it. It was the attempt that mattered, that is all it was meant to be.

(C.F. 2010)


A Tale of Morality: Amsterdam

[(Essay dated 8 June 2010) In the following essay C.F. analyzes how selfishness can drive a person to think and act immorally, and ultimately lead to their death, in Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam.]

The opening scene in the novel is the funeral of Molly, a woman known to have had many lovers. Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday, two of Molly’s lovers, happen to be best friends. From the beginning pages there is evidence of immorality which is only the beginning for these two characters. It is at this funeral where they meet Julian Garmony, a politician who is in line to be the next Prime Minister, who had connections to Molly. Vernon, after learning about Garmony’s past decides to use it against him in order to ruin his political career. Clive disagrees with Vernon’s judgment, yet his own judgment is just as bad as Vernon’s. These two characters set themselves on a path of self-destruction that leads them to their deaths. Throughout the novel, these two characters find themselves acting on their immoral impulses and criticize each other over their irrationality, however, they never think about their own immorality, only each others.​

The readers learn within the first few pages that Vernon Halliday is the editor of the newspaper, The Judge. Vernon is given controversial photographs of Garmony cross-dressing and decides that he will do all that he can to destroy Garmony’s political career. This includes putting his own career on the line, something he does not realize until later on. Vernon plans to publish the photographs in his newspaper. The only reason that Vernon wants to demolish Garmony’s career and publicly humiliate him is because he is jealous of Garmony’s connection with Molly. Clive does not agree with Vernon’s plan because he believes Vernon is being too harsh. Vernon later criticizes Clive for not supporting him and feels “personal betrayal”. He does not even stop to think about his own actions and criticizes other people because they do not agree with his ridiculous and immoral plan. The following conversation is between Clive and Vernon regarding Vernon’s immoral approach:

“It’s a really terribly idea.”
“Meaning?”
“It’ll ruin him.”
“Dead right it will.”
“I mean, personally”
“Yup” (77 McEwan).


Vernon fails to see that what he plans on doing is wrong in so many ways. He does not think about the possible outcomes because he is only thinking about himself. A day before releasing the photographs, Garmony’s wife holds a press conference in which she criticizes Vernon and his newspaper. The following day, the photographs are published, making Vernon look like the self-centered man that he is. He is later forced to resign because his selfish act hurt the reputation of the newspaper. As Clive pointed out, it would ruin him personally. To attempt to humiliate Garmony publicly in hopes of ruining his life, all because of his affair with a woman who had many lovers, is absurd. Clive brings up another reason why Vernon should not publish the pictures. “These are her pictures and have nothing to do with me or you or your readers. She would have hated what you’re doing. Frankly, you’re betraying her” (81). Vernon is thinking only of himself, rather than the people it will affect. It is ironic because he shares a friendship with Clive, a former lover of Molly’s, yet he is not wishing death upon him, at least not yet.

It is learned that Clive Linley is Britain’s most successful composer. At first he seems to be the voice of reason when comes to Vernon’s decision-making, however, it is later learned that Clive is no angel either. In the novel, Clive is preparing for the premiere of his latest symphony, which is near completion. Clive, having difficulty finishing his symphony, decides to go for a hike to find inspiration, and he does. What he also comes across is a woman being attacked, later found out to have been raped. Clive’s selfishness blinds him and he ignores the cries. He considers going down to help however he fears it will “destroy fragile inspiration.” He allows his selfishness to take over and puts himself first. “Clive knew exactly what he had to do. Even as he was easing himself back down the slope, he understood that his hesitation had been a sham. He decided at the very moment he was interrupted” (95). Clive decides to walk away to find a quiet place where he can focus on his work, leaving the victim behind to fight her attacker. He calls the situation a “sham,” showing how selfish he really is. He blames the victim for his loss of concentration, as if she had much control over the attack. Later Clive tells Vernon of what happened. Vernon tells Clive that he should go to the police and tell them what he witnessed. Clive responds by saying, “I’m in the final stages of finishing a symphony” (130). He would rather finish a symphony than bring justice to a crime that he could have prevented. Vernon later criticizes Clive again by saying, “he would rather see a woman raped in front of him than have his work disrupted” (159). What Clive did was despicable and this incident shows how selfishness can affect a person’s ability to make the right decision.

Some may argue that what Clive did was significantly worse than what Vernon did. In both cases the characters did not think of the aftermath of their actions. They had only been thinking of their own gratification, not of the effects their actions had on the lives of others. During the entire novel the McEwan’s characters continue to criticize each other for their immoral acts, however, they never think about their own. Perhaps it is a way of hiding their own guilt by attacking someone else. During an argument Clive asks Vernon, “How can you live with yourself” (130). The question is how can they both live with themselves? It is ironic because that quote took place after Vernon witnessed a woman being raped and did nothing to stop it. Clive also says during the same conversation, “You’re telling me my moral duty? You? You of all people?” (130). Once again these two characters do not see that they are both at fault for their actions. Vernon wanted to ruin another’s life because he was jealous of Garmony and Molly’s affair. Meanwhile, Clive ignored an attack that he could have prevented, and refused to go to the police, all because he did not want his work disrupted. In the end their arguments tear them apart, ultimately leading them to poison each other. In the beginning of the novel they had made a pact that if they made “terrible mistakes” and “errors in judgment” that they would help each other kill themselves. Ironically, they kill each other, not because of the pact, but because of their selfish thoughts. They got to the point where they could not stand to be in the same room with each other. Their behavior became so irrational that they did not see the destruction that was self-inflicted. Their selfishness killed them. Some might say it was karma or merely coincidence, but in the end they were both blinded by their immorality and did not see the inevitable: death.

Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam shows that selfishness often goes hand-and-hand with morality. It blinds the person from what is morally right and leads them down the path of self-destruction. McEwan’s characters sought gratification in their lives, but it was selfish gratification.

(C.F. 2010)