- Briony's Stand Against Oblivion:The Making of Fiction in Ian McEwan's Atonement
For a long time Ian McEwan found himself trapped in the role of a sensational writer caricatured by the British press as Ian Macabre and the Clapham Shocker. The stories he wrote at the beginning of his writing career—First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets, and Other Stories (1978)—as well as his first two novels—The Cement Garden (1979) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981)—described in clinical detail the sexual and social aberrations of adolescent mentalities whose voices then offered him "a certain kind of rhetorical freedom."1 It is extraordinary to consider the distance McEwan has traveled in the intervening quarter century. Atonement (2001) employs the narrative voice of a 77-year-old English woman and focuses on a crucial period of British history between 1935 and 1940. Instead of the closed claustrophobic inner world of his early protagonists, Atonement ranges from an upper-class household in pre-War southern England, to the retreat of the British army to Dunkirk, to a wartime London hospital, ending with a coda in 1999.
McEwan first effected his escape from an exclusively subjective narrative perspective in his third novel, The Child in Time (1987), in which the lost child of the title represents an outer as well as inner world. This novel came after a gap of six years during which McEwan had turned to drama as his principal outlet. In particular, The Imitation Game (1981), a play for television, Or Shall We Die? (1983), an oratorio, and The Ploughman's Lunch (1983), a film, reveal his awakened interest in the world of politics and social action, in the nuclear threat, environmental pollution, and the oppression of women. As he confessed to John Haffenden in 1983, "England under Mrs. Thatcher leaves me with a nasty taste."2 Since he returned to fiction in 1987, every subsequent novel has had not just a private and psychological component, but a public and historical one as well: the government commission on which Stephen sits in The Child in Time (1987), the Cold War in The Innocent (1990), the ongoing influence of racism and fascism in Black Dogs (1992), the short-sightedness [End Page 68] of the exclusively scientific, rational mentality in Enduring Love (1997), and the corrupt world of political journalism and publicly commissioned art in Amsterdam (1998).
At the same time certain continuities persist in his work. He remains fascinated with the forbidden and the taboo, which he continues to describe with non-judgmental precision. Further, he entices the reader into sharing his voyeuristic obsession with this material. As Kiernan Ryan observes, "The writer's and the reader's deepest pleasure consists less in their sense of ironic superiority to the benighted narrator than in the vicarious delight of identification, which is rooted in finding the scandalous secretly seductive and its apologists convincing."3 McEwan has explained his fascination with evil or illicit behavior by arguing that this "projected sense of evil in [his] stories ... is of the kind whereby one tries to imagine the worst thing possible in order to get hold of the good."4 Atonement still embodies this premise, but it employs a degree of self-consciousness which far exceeds that found in any of his previous novels.
I want to concentrate on the self-conscious use of narrative in Atonement, as this aspecthas been seized on by a minority of reviewers to criticize what they understand to be an essentially realist novel that at the end inappropriately resorts to a modish self-referentiality. But I read this novel as a work of fiction that is from beginning to end concerned with the making of fiction. When we first meet its female protagonist, Briony, at the age of thirteen, she is already committed to the life of a writer. She ruthlessly subordinates everything the world throws at her to her need to make it serve the demands of her own world of fiction. Brought up on a diet of imaginative literature, she is too young to understand the dangers that can ensue from modeling one's conduct on...