When God stepped into the story: reflections on Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’

I’ve just finished reading Atonement by Ian McEwan. (I’ve not seen the film.) The book is beautifully written with the amazing sustained descriptive passages that are characteristic of McEwan. It’s the story of a teenage , Briony Tallis, whose false accusations lead to a young man, Robbie, being wrongly imprisoned for se xual assault. Robbie and Briony’s older sister, Cecilia, are in love so Briony’s act destroys two lives. By the time Robbie is released, the second world war has begun and he has been conscripted. He and Cecilia, who has forsaken her family to become a nurse, meet only briefly before he is send away to France. As Briony realises what she has done, she endeavours to atone, leaving the privileges of her up-bringing and the pursuit of literature at university to devote herself to nursing during the war.

But she cannot self-atone.

On this first really fine day of May she sweated under her starchy uniform. All she wanted to do was work, then bathe and sleep until it was time for work again. But it was useless, she knew. Whatever skivvying or humble nursing she did, and however well or hard she did it, whatever illumination in tutorial she had relinquished, or lifetime moment on a college lawn, she would never undo the damage. She was unforgivable. (Ian McEwan, Atonement, Jonathan Cape, 2001, 285.)

At her side, Fiona talked of her adored little brother and the clever thing he had said at dinner, while Briony pretended to listen and thought about Robbie. If he had been fighting in France, he might already be captured. Or worse. How would Cecilia survive such news? As the music, enlivened by unscored dissonances, swelled to a raucous climax, she gripped the wooden sides of her chair, closed her eyes. If something happened to Robbie, if Cecilia and Robbie were never to be together … Her secret torment and the public upheaval of war had always seemed separate worlds, but now she understood how the war might compound her crime. The only conceivable solution would be for the past never to have happened. If he didn’t come back … She longed to have someone else’s past like hearty Fiona with her unstained life stretching ahead, and her affectionate, sprawling family, whose dogs and cats had Latin names, whose home was a famous venue for artistic Chelsea people. All Fiona had to do was live her life, follow the road ahead and discover what was to happen. To Briony, it appeared that her life was going to be lived in one room, without a door. (288)

We cannot atone for ourselves.

In the final chapter of book the writing becomes a first person account written by Briony at the end of her life. She has spent the second half of her life writing the story of all that happened. She says:

It is only in this last version that my lovers end well, standing side by side on a South London pavement as I walk away. All the preceding drafts were pitiless. But now I can no longer think what purpose would be served if, say, I tried to persuade my reader, by direct or indirect means, that Robbie Turner died of septicaemia at Bray Dunes on 1 June 1940, or that Cecilia was killed in September of the same year by the that destroyed Balham Underground station. That I never saw them in that year. That my walk across London ended at the church on Clapham Common, and that a cowardly Briony limped back to the hosptial, unable to confront her recently bereaved sister. That the letters the lovers wrote are in the archives of the War Museum. How could that constitute an ending? What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account? Who would want to believe that they never met again, never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism? I couldn’t do it to them. (370-371)

So Briony achieves a kind of atonement through fiction. She re-writes the story. But, of course, it is fiction. And so she adds:

The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, nor novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all. (371)

The result is ‘the bleakest realism’. ‘The only conceivable solution would be for the past never to have happened.’ But the past has happened. And we cannot now atone for the wrongs we have done.

But what if it is God who writes the story? And what is the story is for real? And what if God steps into the story? What is God is not simply the narrator, but has also now become part of the story? In Jesus God enters our story, shares our humanity, suffers our pain, dies our , pays our penalty, atones for our crimes.

‘She longed to have someone else’s past,’ McEwan says of Briony (288). But that is precisely the offer of the Christian good news: we can have the sinless, righteous past of Jesus. He takes our past with its crimes, its evils, its wrong, its errors and atones for them in full on the cross. And he gives his ‘unstained life’. A life ‘lived in one room, without a door’ can be transformed into an ‘unstained life stretching ahead’.

3 thoughts on “When God stepped into the story: reflections on Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’

  1. Haven’t read or watched it (having been put off by the endings of two of McEwan’s other books, Saturday and Enduring Love), and perhaps you have just put me off Atonement! It’s not that I don’t like the writing, but in the two I have read he attempts to do what he doesn’t in Atonement (he attempts a happy ending in the former two), but their neatness and contrived humanism rings false. At least as an atheist he is more honest in his ending to Atonement.
    I am SO glad God is the narrator of our story!

  2. Hi there, really interesting post. But I think you should put a warning at the top of this post that you give away the whole book.

  3. Thanks for this review. You’re the first person who has given me a clear idea of what it is trying to say. I might even read it now!

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