Real Life as a Play on Stage - A Study of Guilt and Shame in Ian McEwan's "Atonement"
In the novel "Atonement" by Ian McEwan, questions of guilt, shame and redemption are in focus. The main character Briony Tallis is presented as making up for a crime by working on a novel for 59 years. In this essay the novel's proposition of atonement is discussed from three perspectives: Briony as the passive observer and the fictive author of the novel, as the actress in the drama of her life seeking atonement and as the actress in the drama of her own life as well as that of characters Cecilia, Robbie and the Marshalls. In contrast to a statement by McEwan that Briony has atoned for her sins through her efforts in writing the novel, my findings show that it is impossible to argue that fictional amendments qualify for atonement; nor is there any absolution from a religious point of view. On one hand she has matured and reached insight of her inner self, but she does not use her knowledge to make amends. She is more interested in keeping her highly appraised position as a famous writer. The novel's metafictional method complicates this interpretation. McEwan's argument, that history and autobiography are both narrated chosen memories under the same rules, is in this case not applicable since the fictive author neglects facts and transmutes reality into fiction. Briony is from a realistic point of view to be judged as morally flawed and not atoned. It appears that reconciliation with the "self" or redemption are more suitable terms. Considering the characterization given by McEwan I find that Briony is faithful to her passion for storytelling but not taking responsibility for her crime. She rather changes the facts. As the fictive author of the novel she is not trustworthy when turning the full story into a mystery, not controllable, since she has decided to publish the novel after her death. Hereby she dictates the biographies of all involved.