- The Modernism of Ian McEwan’s Atonement
Atonement’s highly allusive relationship with the canonical English novel, from Samuel Richardson and Jane Austen onward, seems to suggest the confident belle lettrism of an established author making a bid for a place in the Senior Common Room of English Literature. The novel is distinct from the rest of Ian McEwan’s work in the sheer literariness of its self-fashioning, but its sense of canonical ancestry is, we find, consolatory rather than complacent. I agree with Dominic Head’s conclusion that “Atonement serves, if not to diminish the literary, then to hedge it in with many damaging reservations” (173). An important part of that “hedging in”—and, yes, even diminution—derives from the novel’s relationship to modernism.
The reader’s starting point is that Atonement began life as a modernist, more specifically Woolfian, short story called “Two Figures by a Fountain,” sent to “C. C.” (that is, Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon). McEwan commented that, in having Briony originally bury “her conscience beneath her stream of consciousness” in “Two Figures,” he wished Atonement “to enter into a conversation with modernism and its dereliction of duty in relation to [what he has Connolly call] the backbone of plot” (qtd. in Finney 71). “Two Fountains” evades the moral responsibility of telling stories—Briony’s whole story, Britain’s social and political history—and is routed from Atonement itself. This near-complete excision indicts modernism as a whole. The implication is that, unlike “Two Fountains,” Atonement has backbone and does its historical duty. [End Page 473]
A general picture of Atonement’s “conversation with modernism” is beginning to emerge. Brian Finney observes that, for McEwan, “the ideology of modernism (especially its prioritization of stylistic innovation) has hidden moral consequences,” manifested in Briony’s discovery that style “really does have ethical implications” (72). Hermione Lee has touched on how the novel is critical of fiction’s escapist tendencies and its supposed lack of moral force. McEwan seems to be implicating a certain form of modernism: “are some forms of fiction—modernist, middle-class, limited to personal relations—more unforgivable than others?” Lee senses that a political critique of high modernist literature “edges” into the novel (“Memories” 16). In an important insight, Alistair Cormack argues that the first section of the novel does not so much stand for “an undermined classic realism, but an undermined modernism” (77). The reconstruction of the Dunkirk retreat in the second section thus acts as a kind of reproach to unhistoricized modernism.
Critics have also modified this sense that Atonement is in direct opposition to class-bound, plotless modernism. Geoff Dyer writes that the “subjective and interior transformation” in the way human nature was regarded, and indeed brought about by modernists like Woolf and Lawrence, can be seen in Atonement “to have interacted with the larger march of twentieth-century history” (8). An “interaction” with history implies that modernism was intrinsically detached or solipsistic, but Dyer also recognizes that it had its transformative or progressive aspects. Laura Marcus thinks that McEwan’s engagement with Woolf remains ambiguous (94), as does Finney, who feels that her influence is both “positive and negative” (71).
What assumptions the novel covertly makes about modernism, both as a literary period and a poetics, and what remains of modernism in the finished text, is the subject of this article. Connolly’s appearance as C. C. alerts us to interwar debates about modernist innovation and prompts the thought that, to appreciate how Atonement self-consciously undoes and rewrites the modernist novel, the reader should return to its predecessors. Though numerous other modernist intertexts could be fruitfully analyzed in similar vein, direct comparisons are made here with Woolf’s The Waves, Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer, and Henry James’s What Maisie Knew. Atonement’s silence about the Joycean novel—a ghostly modernist trajectory—also furthers our understanding of McEwan’s dialogue with modernism.
Cyril Connolly and C. C.
Atonement seems to ventriloquize modernism and then to silence it. At least that is the diachronic literary evolution we are [End Page 474] asked to observe, though we may note that, unlike, say, A. S...