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Atonement

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In this short passage, we are given a vivid picture of the environment where the physical movement, and to some extent (it could be argued) the molding of the personalities of the main characters take place. Through a seemingly simple narrative that sees Cecilia move from the outdoors to the ‘doorway of the drawing room’, the Tallis’ family home is described to us in a way that alludes to the reader the nature and habits of those who inhabit it.

However, what is really striking about this passage is how through a deceivingly narrative prose that certain explanations and prolepsis for future events are revealed to us. Through this passage, we see the scope for the possibility for a catastrophe to happen, borne out of restlessness and a sense of ‘not belonging’. Of course, it is important to note the historical context of the setting of the book. Part Two of the book is concerned with World War Two, a time of great change to Britain in almost every aspect of life.

With this passage in mind, it is more important to inspect the pre-war situation. Tensions between Germany and Britain were high at this time, and this feeling of tension and a need for change is highlighted dramatically in this short passage. One of the most effective ways that this has been done is to show us why exactly there was tension in the Tallis household – or at least, a need for change in Cecilia’s opinion.

McEwan has strived to present the Tallis home in an imposing way, reflective of the rigidness and perhaps unfriendliness of a family as a whole in Cecilia’s eyes. The light is explicitly said to be unable to ‘conceal the ugliness of the Tallis home’ and the critics’ verbal attacks on the structure (which we can assume to be real condemnations that were made ‘one day’ through the factuality of “Pevsner, or one of his team…and by a younger writer of the modern school’ and quotation marks around ‘charmless to a fault’) is almost cruel in its bluntness.

Here it is important to remember that the whole point of the novel is that it is Briony (and not some omniscient narrator who sees and knows all) who controls the plot of the story. Perhaps these brutal attacks on her childhood home shows her resentment and an almost childish inability to separate her sin (for which she means to atone for in the form of rewriting a different ending for the two lovers) from the environment in which this crime happened.

Another important point to note about the house is that it is supposed to represent artificiality and a false sense of security, which is the reason why it seems so uninviting from the outside. The house had been built to replace one tragically ‘destroyed by fire’ and the only thing that remained was an ‘artificial lake’. Likewise, the Tallis family is simply a mere imitation of a seemingly happy family that has it all – land, servants, a Cambridge educated daughter (although she only receives a third in her degree) and a high-flying father who works in the government.

However, its artificiality and sense of oppression, which perhaps the ‘squat, lead-paned baronial Gothic’ house contributes to, is perhaps what drives Briony to become a child fascinated with creating a reality of her own. Moreover, the fact that Cecilia’s grandfather had built the house with ‘padlocks, bolts, latches and hasps’ in mind hints that it is meant to keep evil things out – but also to contain evil things within.

The spoilt demands of Briony who is doted on, a mother ever absent, an aloof father (who we suspect to be having an affair) and the resentment of Cecilia towards Robbie (which she herself cannot understand until all is made clear to her in the library scene) is meant to be metaphorically contained by all the security devices. Sure enough, Cecilia’s rebelliousness (she seems to permanently have a ‘blossoming need for a cigarette’) will not allow her to stay in a place where her freedom is clamped down upon and where there is a ‘timeless, unchanging calm’.

This ‘calm’ is exactly what strikes up a certainty of having to ‘soon be moving on’ and therefore, a sense of restlessness that will soon be satisfied by the fateful event of Briony witnessing the two lovers in the library. Here we can already see that McEwan means to intertwine Cecilia’s inner thoughts and feelings with the factual narrative prose – Cecilia ‘went indoors’ and ‘crossed the black and white tiled hall’ (this detail is reminiscent of a detached voice).

However, what comes next is a thought, put into parenthesis to make the shift from narration to personal thoughts all the more clear and increasing its emphasis and therefore importance – ‘how familiar her echoing steps, how annoying’. Although at this point we could link this opinion to Briony’s resentment towards the house and that the ‘her’ here is actually referring to Briony herself’, I personally feel that this is actually Cecilia’s own thoughts.

In my opinion, it is Cecilia’s view that she feels restrained by everything that feels familiar as she later describes ‘strangeness’ as being ‘delicious. Furthermore, through the descriptions of herself, Briony admits to being, as a child, possessing ‘a desire to have the world just so’. She sought comfort in the familiar and it would be impossible have your world perfectly in order if you did not even know of what there was in your world to order up in neat rows and ‘even ranks’, as Briony’s ‘thumb-sized figures’ were.

Even without having to use the meaning of words to shape our impressions, McEwan has skillfully manipulated the allusions of words and language techniques to show us Cecilia’s absence of, and struggle for, identity within her own home, as well as the feelings of oppression she feels. For example, we can see Cecilia is struggling with an inner sense of not belonging to an identity, reflected in her observation of the ‘American cherry-wood by the French windows’. If the house itself cannot determine its own culture by throwing two entirely different countries together in the same room, how can Cecilia determine her own identity?

This feeling of not really being a part of the family is explained explicitly at the bottom of page 20 where Cecilia thought that ‘her family was owed an interrupted stretch of her company’. This shows her desire to feel important and needed within the family. At the same time, she feels torn between this maternal instinct and the feeling that because of her education and skills she has acquired, she was destined for greater things in the workforce or possibly in the City (where she does eventually move to become a nurse).

This links back to the previous idea of restlessness and a need for change. It also ties in with the fact that it was not until World War Two when most men were away at war that feminism really got into full swing – therefore at this point in time, McEwan (who is a strong advocate for feminism himself[1]) strives to show Cecilia’s desperation to break free of the shell that society has molded for her as a woman in the early 1940’s.

Lastly, I would like to point out that it seems light is quite important in setting up circumstances for later events. A more primitive interpretation of light in this passage would be that it shows the house to be foreboding. The use of light being ‘permitted’ to enter the drawing room enhances the idea that the family is all about rules. This is because light, which is, in theory, transcendent and not restrained by human actions, had to request permission to enter the drawing room.

However, light is used as a literal metaphor for the perception of truth – firstly, it shows the Tallis family as it really is. Of course later, the absence of light, and therefore the absence of truth, means that Briony thinks that Lola’s rapist is Robbie. It is therefore clear that light serves to act as the necessary bridge between ‘knowing’ and ‘being sure’. In conclusion, what is clear in this passage is the need for change.

Cecilia obviously feels repressed by her surroundings, and her house illustrates cleverly how the Tallis family is restricting itself by keeping everything literally in – there is no space to breathe (as shown on page 20, where a single sentence stretches itself over 12 lines from “her breathing slowed…”). We know with foresight that the end of the passage, describing Briony’s artistic frustration with writing and need for excitement that drives her to commit her terrible sin. It is this passage that gives such an ominous sense of an impending disaster through its seemingly carefree and light-hearted words.

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