- Turning Points:Atonement, Horizon, and Late Modernism
Any first book is always in the nature of a tardy settlement of an account with the past.Cyril Connolly, The Rock Pool
Even a reader who misses the epigraph from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey should realize by the end of the first chapter—the first sentence, even—that Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) is at least in part about the literary imagination, about writers and writing. The novel opens with a description of our protagonist (who, we only later discover, grows up to become the implied author of the text we’ve been reading) at work: “The play—for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.”1 Within the early chapters, we learn that Briony Tallis has already, by age thirteen, experimented with several literary genres: fairy tale, short story, melodrama naïvely harking back to eighteenth-century accounts of “virtue in distress,” and finally the nascent form of the “impartial psychological realism” that would become the hallmark of her adult work (38).2 These same chapters introduce us to Briony’s older sister, Cecilia, and Tallis family charity case, Robbie Turner, who just so happens to have earned a first-class degree in English at Cambridge, where he was, at least briefly, one of F. R. Leavis’s disciples. Cecilia, not incidentally, is making her way through Richardson’s Clarissa, though she’d “rather read Fielding any [End Page 715] day”; Robbie offers qualified sympathy, pointing out that “there’s more life in Fielding, but he can be psychologically crude compared to Richardson” (24). So it begins. The first hundred pages not only reference the “rise” of the genre within which McEwan himself is working but also make mention of Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, and Keats, in addition to a multitude of moderns, from Eliot and Owen to Conrad and Lawrence. Given all of this—the host of allusions, the urbane conversation about literary craft (how many thirteen-year-olds do you know who can pronounce the French word “genre” ?), the narrative self-consciousness, the deliberate echoing of novels from Mansfield Park to Mrs. Dalloway—it is by no means a stretch to claim that literature itself is a major character in Atonement.3
However, it is on one of the novel’s seemingly minor characters—one who never materializes in person, no less—that much in Atonement turns. Cyril Connolly’s name appears in full only once in McEwan’s novel (200), and the reader must wait almost one hundred pages to peruse the letter he writes kindly rejecting the novella Briony, now eighteen, has submitted to his new magazine, Horizon. This story, as are so many first works, is based on personal experience: as a girl, Briony observes from a distance an encounter between Cecilia and Robbie that both baffles and inspires her. She resolves to write her way to a fuller understanding:
She could write the scene three times over, from three points of view; her excitement was in the prospect of freedom, of being delivered from the cumbrous struggle between good and bad, heroes and villains. None of these three was bad, nor were they particularly good. She need not judge. There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have.(38)
For a variety of reasons, including her “sense of obligation, as well as her instinct for order,” Briony does not put her ideas on...