Ian MacEwan’s novel Atonement is
a story of young talented girl, Briony, who wants to become a writer but due to
her naivety and misunderstanding of the adult world she destroys lives of her
sister Cecilia and an old family friend, Robbie. The novel has a very original
narrative style. Except for the final chapter it is written in the third
person, and there is multiple-perspective narration employed in the first part
of the book. This essay is going to focus on this narrative device and show its
usage and various functions.
The changing perspective is used in the third person limited narration in
order provide for the story to be told from several characters’ point of view. Although
it may sometimes appear distractive to the reader – they need to identify the
character, who they are in the story, their situation and why is focus brought
to them at that exact moment, it is definitely a thought-provoking way of narration.
It offers the reader a broader outlook on what is going on as well as it is a way to examine particular
character’s inner world, opinions and their understanding of what is taking
place around them. The usage of the multiple-perspective narration also makes
the characters and their doings and decisions more lifelike than if the
omniscient third person narration was used: in reality each person also only
understands the world from their own perspective or from what they have learned
from the others. The shifting perspective can be of considerable importance for
the plot itself as well.
In Atonement, the
multiple-perspective narration is employed abundantly in Part one, which takes
place at the Tallis house during one hot summer day in 1935. Seemingly there is
not much going on and the reader gets the tedious events of the day served from
various perspectives. It might be confusing or maybe even discouraging at
first, it, however, has its function.
The narrators in the first part are Briony, a thirteen years old naïve,
lonely child, who spends most of her time writing stories, Cecilia, her
disorganized older sister who is bored at the house and confused by her
feelings towards an old family friend, Robbie. He is a working class ambitious
and enthusiastic student and who at this point realises he is in love with
Cecilia, and lastly there is Emily, Briony and Cecilia’s mother, at the time incapacitated
by migraine, who spends a lot of time thinking and worrying about her family,
but who is never around to witness the events taking place in the house.
Most of the narration is delivered through Briony’s point of view as she
is the central character of the novel as well as the one who sets the events in
motion. The focus is moved from her on several occasions and for various
reasons such as to present what other events are taking place somewhere else on
the premises: the arrival of Leon and his friend Paul Marshall is shown from
Cecilia’s point of view (Chapter four), the mother thinking about her family, which
written from her own perspective, occupies Chapter six, or the Chapter eight in
which Robbie is struggling with composing his letter to Cecilia is focused on
him. These events are essential for the story as a whole and Briony herself is
not involved or even present.
The multiple-perspective narration is most notable in the scene at the fountain where it
functions as pre-shadowing of what is about to come. The incident is at first
introduced from Cecilia’s point of view. The reader gets the true account of
what happened – Cecilia is present
there. The narration follows her when she meets Robbie on her way to the
fountain where she plans to fill a precious old vase with water. The reader
gets the notion of the tension between the two of them which is clearly a
result of their unresolved feelings for each other. Robbie is just too eager to
help and Cecilia, confused by her feelings refuses and so they fight and the
vase to gets broken. Cecilia dives into the fountain to get the shards out and
then walks away.
Her idea was to lean over the parapet and hold the
flowers in the vase while she lowered it on its side into the water, but it was
at this point that Robbie, wanting to make amends, tried to be helpful.
“Let me take that,” he said, stretching out a hand.
“I’ll fill it for you, and you take the flowers.”
“I can manage,
thanks.” She was already holding the vase over the basin.
But he said, “Look, I’ve got it.” And he had, tightly
between forefinger and thumb. “Your cigarette will get wet. Take the flowers.”
This was a
command on which he tried to confer urgent masculine authority. The effect on
Cecilia was to cause her to tighten her grip. She had no time, and certainly no
inclination, to explain that plunging vase and flowers into the water would
help with the natural look she wanted in the arrangement. She tightened her
hold and twisted her body away from him. He was not so easily shaken off. With
a sound like a dry twig snapping, a section of the lip of the vase came away in
his hand, and split into two triangular pieces which dropped into the water and
tumbled to the bottom in a synchronous, seesawing motion, and lay there,
several inches apart, writhing in the broken light.
“You idiot! Look what you’ve done.”
He looked into the water, then he looked at back at
her, and simply shook his head as he raised a hand to cover his mouth. By this
gesture he assumed full responsibility, but at that moment, she hated him for the
inadequacy of the response. He glanced toward the basin and sighed. For a
moment he thought she was about to step backward onto the vase, and he raised
his hand and pointed, though he said nothing. Instead he began to unbutton his
shirt. Immediately she knew what he was about. Intolerable.
Her movements were savage, and she would not meet his
eye. He did not exist, he was banished, and this was also the punishment. He
stood there dumbly as she walked away from him, barefoot across the lawn, and
he watched her darkened hair swing heavily across her shoulders, drenching her
blouse. Then he turned and looked into the water in case there was a piece she
had missed. It was difficult to see because the roiling surface had yet to
recover its tranquillity, and the turbulence was driven by the lingering spirit
of her fury. He put his hand flat upon the surface, as though to quell it. She,
meanwhile, had disappeared into the house. (Chapter 2)
Later the focus is moved back to Briony who is in the house. She is distracted
by the fact, that her play is not going to be performed and also due to her
generally fantasy-prone personality she is again lost in her own imagination.
The physical distance as well hinders her from hearing what is really going on
and so she misinterprets the whole situation. She decodes her sister’s heated
discussion with Robbie as a marriage proposal of sort, but Cecilia dressing off,
jumping into the water and then walking away angrily, does not make any sense
She had arrived at one of the nursery’s wide-open
windows and must have seen what lay before her some seconds before she
registered it. It was a scene that could easily have accommodated, in the
distance at least, a medieval castle.
Closer, within the boundaries of the balustrade, were
the rose gardens and, nearer still, the Triton fountain, and standing by the
basin’s retaining wall was her sister, and right before her was Robbie Turner.
There was something rather formal about the way he stood, feet apart, head held
back. A proposal of marriage. Briony would not have been surprised. She herself
had written a tale in which a humble woodcutter saved a princess from drowning
and ended by marrying her. What was presented here fitted well. Robbie Turner,
only son of a humble cleaning lady and of no known father, Robbie who had been
subsidized by Briony’s father through school and university, had wanted to be a
landscape gardener, and now wanted to take up medicine, had the boldness of
ambition to ask for Cecilia’s hand. It made perfect sense. Such leaps across
boundaries were the stuff of daily romance.
What was less
comprehensible, however, was how Robbie imperiously raised his hand now, as
though issuing a command which Cecilia dared not disobey. It was extraordinary
that she was unable to resist him. At his insistence she was removing her
clothes, and at such speed. She was out of her blouse, now she had let her
skirt drop to the ground and was stepping out of it, while he looked on
impatiently, hands on hips. What strange power did he have over her? Blackmail?
Threats? Briony raised two hands to her face and stepped back a little way from
the window. She should shut her eyes, she thought, and spare herself the sight
of her sister’s shame. But that was impossible, because there were further
surprises. Cecilia, mercifully still in her underwear, was climbing into the
pond, was standing waist deep in the water, was pinching her nose—and then she
was gone. There was only Robbie, and the clothes on the gravel, and beyond, the
silent park and the distant, blue hills. The sequence was illogical—the
drowning scene, followed by a rescue, should have preceded the marriage
proposal. Such was Briony’s last thought before she accepted that she did not
understand, and that she must simply watch. Unseen, from two stories up, with
the benefit of unambiguous sunlight, she had privileged access across the years
to adult behaviour, to rites and conventions she knew nothing about, as yet.
Clearly, these were the kinds of things that happened.
She turned abruptly and picked up from the deep shade
of the fountain’s wall a vase of flowers Briony had not noticed before, and set
off with it toward the house. No words were exchanged with Robbie, not a glance
in his direction. He was now staring into the water, and then he too was
striding away, no doubt satisfied, round the side of the house. (Chapter three)
She later reads Robbie’s letter to Cecilia – not the one he intended to
give her, she starts considering him a sexual maniac. Then she accidentally walks
into the library, where Cecilia and Robbie are intimate with each other, which
in reality is an ultimate resolution of their confused relationship as
explained in Chapter eleven. She does
not understand what is going on, it, however, only strengthens Briony’s
previous inaccurate assumption about Robbie.
At first, when she pushed open the door and stepped
in, she saw nothing at all. The only light was from a single green-glass desk
lamp which illuminated little more than the tooled leather surface on which it
stood. When she took another few steps she saw them, dark shapes in the
furthest corner. Though they were immobile, her immediate understanding was
that she had interrupted an attack, a hand-to-hand fight. (Chapter 10)
She afterwards connects it to the rape of Lola. Even though she is not
sure whom she saw committing the deed, she, due to what she had discovered
earlier, she accuses Robbie.
She would have stopped immediately had she not still
been so completely bound to the notion that this was a bush, and that she was
witnessing some trick of darkness and perspective. Another second or two,
another couple of steps, and she saw that this was not so. Then she stopped.
The vertical mass was a figure, a person who was now backing away from her and beginning
to fade into the darker background of the trees. The remaining darker patch on
the ground was also a person, changing shape again as it sat up and called her
She was nauseous with disgust and fear. Now the larger
figure reappeared, circling right round the edge of the clearing and heading
for the bank down which she had just come. She knew she should attend to Lola,
but she could not help watching as he mounted the slope quickly and without
effort, and disappeared onto the roadway. She heard his footsteps as he strode
toward the house. She had no doubt. She could describe him. There was nothing
she could not describe. She knelt down beside her cousin.
Briony whispered, “Who was it?” and before that could
be answered, she added, with all the calm she was capable of, “I saw him. I saw
Meekly, Lola said, “Yes.”
“It was Robbie, wasn’t it?”
The maniac. She wanted to say the word.
“You saw him.”
Briony drew nearer to her and covered Lola’s hand with her own. “You don’t even
know yet what happened in the library, before dinner, just after we were
talking. He was attacking my sister. If I hadn’t come in, I don’t know what he
would have done . . .” However close they were, it was not possible to read
expressions. The dark disk of Lola’s face showed nothing at all, but Briony
sensed she was only half listening, and this was confirmed when she cut in to
repeat, “But you saw him. You actually saw him.”
“Of course I did. Plain as day. It was him.”
At this early stage, the inspector was careful not to
oppress the young girl with probing questions, and within this sensitively
created space she was able to build and shape her narrative in her own words
and establish the key facts: there was just sufficient light for her to
recognize a familiar face; when he shrank away from her and circled the
clearing, his movements and height were familiar to her as well.
“You saw him
“I know it was him.”
what you know. You’re saying you saw him.”
“Yes, I saw him.”
“Just as you see me.”
“You saw him with your own eyes.”
“Yes. I saw him. I saw him.” (Chapter 14)
This is a perfect example of how a situation differs depending on the perspective
from which it is seen and also how the author can use the multiple-perspective
narration to manipulate the reader. On many, seemingly not so important events,
the reader gets several viewpoints, but this one, crucial for the rest of the
book, is only shown from the child’s perspective. This appears throughout the
whole first part of the book – the adult issues seen through the eyes of a
thirteen-years-old wo does not fully understand it. It might give the readers
ground to empathize with Briony for what she did, as they are familiar with her
thoughts and notions, but it does not provide them with the true account of
events the third person omniscient narration would provide.
The multiple perspective is also employed in Part three, where it is
mentioned, that Briony used the fountain event she witnessed as a child as an
inspiration for a story ‘Two figures at the fountain’ which she sends to
Horizon magazine. She is aiming for a Modernist Virginia Woolf-like story, who also often used this
There are some good images—I liked “the long grass
stalked by the leonine yellow of high summer”—and you both capture a flow of
thought and represent it with subtle differences in order to make attempts at
characterization. Something unique and unexplained is caught. However, we
wondered whether it owed a little too much to the techniques of Mrs. Woolf.
So, for example, the child at the window whose account
we read first—her fundamental lack of grasp of the situation is nicely caught.
So too is the resolve in her that follows, and the sense of initiation into
grown-up mysteries. We catch this young girl at the dawn of her selfhood. One
is intrigued by her resolve to abandon the fairy stories and homemade folktales
and plays she has been writing (how much nicer if we had the flavor of one) but
she may have thrown the baby of fictional technique out with the folktale
Then we have matters from the man’s view, then the
woman’s—though we don’t really learn much that is fresh. Just more about the
look and feel of things, and some irrelevant memories.
Also, in the final chapter, ‘London 1999′ narrated in first person it is
revealed that Briony became a successful writer that the whole book is actually
her creation and that she adjusted some of the details and as an author, took
the liberty of fabricating the other characters’ thoughts and inner notions.
Atonement is definitely an
original and interesting book. It not only offers a look on life in England at
that period, but through the usage the multiple-perspective narration it opens
a way for the reader to explore inner world of its protagonists and show, as it
might work in real life, how view on particular events differs depending on where
one is standing at the time and how misunderstanding due to lack of information
may lead to catastrophe. It I also used as a way to manipulate the reader into
seeing only certain events and understanding them the was the author intends.