Although many reviewers assumed that Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement, was just another regular realist fiction and were both blindsided and angered by the reveal at the end, the truth of the matter is the unreliability of Briony as the narrator is the point of the story. As we later find out, the actual narrator of the story is an adult Briony, not the child we meet in the beginning, and this Briony is eaten by guilt and regret, tinging her story in the process.
We are first introduced to Briony through her play, not a description of her. She is a writer and a storyteller, and that is the most important aspect of her character, even to herself as the author. Briony is constantly looking for new material to add into her stories to sophisticate them, or as Brian Finney writes, “she ruthlessly subordinates everything the world throws at her to her need to make it serve the demands of her own world of fiction” (69). So, when she spies her sister, Cecilia, and the servant’s son, Robbie, in the midst of what appears to be a romantic scene to her fantastical imagination, she adds the scene into her play. Her older self comments, “she knew that…her mockery distanced her from the earnest, reflective child, and that it was not the long-ago morning she was recalling so much as her subsequent accounts of it” (Ewan 39). It has been roughly sixty years since this moment being described, and Briony realizes that she only remembers the stories she told about it, and not the actual memory itself.
Though easily overlooked, moments such as these occur throughout Atonement and emphasize the inherent unreliability of Briony’s account and its retrospective reconstruction from memory and later research: there are revisions and refinements that, given the novel’s repeated references to the limitations of subjectivity and memory, cannot be read as a gradual winnowing away of falsehood to reveal the hard grain of truth.Huw Marsh, Narrative unreliability and metarepresentation in Ian McEwan’s Atonement
This moment Briony witnesses seems innocent at first glance, but between her romanticizing and her blatant invasion of privacy reading of Robbie’s explicit letter to Cecilia, she builds it up in her mind. She believes “that she was entering an arena of adult emotion and dissembling from which her writing was bound to benefit” (106). After living a very sheltered thirteen years of life, Briony has no idea what is actually going on between her sister and Robbie, leading to a misunderstanding that ruins both of their lives.
Not understanding men, Briony believed that “something irreducibly human, or male, threatened the order of their household, and Briony knew that unless she helped her sister, they would all suffer” (107). Later that same day, she catches Cecilia and Robbie having sex, but because of her innocence, she believes that Robbie is attacking her sister. Her cousin Lola is then raped, and Briony testifies that Robbie was the attacker, despite only having seen a shadow in the darkness. This is her greatest crime, her reason for atonement, and the reason the elderly Briony is telling this story: “She attempts to use fiction to correct the errors that fiction caused her to commit” (Finney 69).
The narrative she weaves of Robbie and Cecilia finding love and happiness together after getting past this horrible time is all a lie. In truth, Robbie dies during the retreat from Dunkirk during the second World War and Cecilia dies soon after from a bomb detonated at the hospital in which she worked as a nurse.
I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me. Not quite, not yet. If I had the power to conjure them at my birthday celebration…Robbie and Cecilia, still alive, still in love, sitting side by side in the library, smiling at The Trials of Arabella? It’s not impossible.Ian McEwan, pg. 351
Briony knows she will never receive atonement. Cecilia and Robbie can never forgive her. But, she can still do this for them, and allow them to find a happy ending, even if it is just fiction.
McEwan, Ian. Atonement. Anchor Books, 2003.