- "To Make a Novel":The Construction of a Critical Readership in Ian McEwan's Atonement
Much of the critical response to Ian McEwan's novel Atonement has focused on the metafictional elements of the work's narrative structure, as well as Briony Tallis's revelation in the final pages that she in fact authored the text. Critics have asked whether the novel earns this epilogue or whether it is an abrupt rendering of a straightforward realist narrative into what David Lodge has called a "postmodernist metafiction" (87). Brian Finney counters readers who find that the ending "inappropriately resorts to a modish self-referentiality" (69) by asserting that the text's narrative structure actually supports Briony's final admission from the first page. He argues, "I read this novel as a work of fiction that is from beginning to end concerned with the making of fiction" (69). Of Briony's engagement with fiction, he states:
She attempts to use fiction to correct the errors that fiction caused her to commit. But the chasm that separates the world of the living from that of fictional invention ensures that at best her fictional reparation will act as an attempt at atoning for a past that she cannot reverse. Atonement, then, is concerned with the dangers of entering a fictional world and the compensations and limitations which that world can offer its readers and writers.(69)
Briony's attempts to make amends for her crime through fiction will inevitably fail; in fact, this seems to be the point. Although atonement is only possible through the act of writing, the result of that writing remains limited by the restrictions of fiction. To put it simply, fiction cannot absolve or undo transgressions that have taken place in the real world.
Although I agree with Finney's observations about these implications of fiction and their application within Atonement, his reading does not account for the fact that Briony is herself a fictional construct. The "reality" that she [End Page 88] renders as fiction is not a material reality; it exists only within the pages of the novel. McEwan's move to reveal Briony as the author makes transparent another narrative aspect that the novel explores: the relationship of the reader to the text. For if Atonement is a novel concerned with the "making of fiction," it is also a novel concerned with the reading of fiction, as well as the reading of experience. Briony's crime has been widely read as one of literary imagination, but it is also one of poor reading comprehension. Nevertheless, the adult Briony has learned the value of reading, and she constructs a narrative that continually reminds the reader of this crucial role. In this sense, McEwan positions Atonement against earlier narrative models that were also concerned with the author-reader relationship, specifically the 18th-century novel and the modernist novel. In his critique of the reader's role, McEwan presents an implicit argument about the ethical responsibility for readers of contemporary fiction. Readers hold the final power of interpretation, judgment, and atonement; to meet these aims, they must maintain a stance toward the text that involves both critical assessment and empathetic identification. As we will see, both tasks prove necessary for readers of Atonement.
By emphasizing the reader's role in this novel, and, in particular, the reader's position to grant or withhold the atonement that Briony seeks, my discussion speaks to broader debates within reader response criticism over whether (and how) meaning can be fixed within a text. Since the ascent of deconstructionist criticism asserting that all texts are inherently relative and decentered-a notion embodied in Roland Barthes's radical claim that "The birth of the reader must come at the death of the Author" (150)-reader response critics have had to reconsider certain foundational aspects of their theory. Who is "the reader" of a text in light of postmodern and poststructuralist theory? Do signs embedded within a text point toward a "correct" reading, or do individual readers determine anew their own authoritative meaning?1 To answer these questions in relation to Atonement, it becomes important to consider the novel's intertextual elements. Although several...