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Getting an Angle on Truth: An Analysis of Narrative Viewpoint in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Part I

December 13, 2008 by · 3 comments

Linda Cruise

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In regard to storytelling, two facts remain constant: our human love affair with story and that the telling—when it is done well—begets art. What distinguishes one story from another is not its specific plot details so much as the way the writer handles the myriad of decisions that goes into the intricate act of crafting various story elements. That we consider literary fiction to be art takes into account that the writing, itself, encompasses craft.

Well-crafted fiction affords us the opportunity to have our preconceived ideas of reality deconstructed and our notion of truth broken down, only to be built up again, but each time in an original context, one that is framed with newly-acquired knowledge hewn from a journey through a fictional realm, a place previously imagined only in the mind of the writer.

Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) provides the reader with exactly that opportunity. He creates a convincingly clever narrative—one that arguably exploits the reader’s natural inclination toward trust, in both the narrator and the author. But the question of just who in fact is telling Atonement opens the door onto one of the most complex, metafictional examples in literature today. McEwan integrates his protagonist-author’s fictional novel within the structure of his own and, thereby, creates a tapestry of writing so tightly woven that there is little doubt as to his extraordinary crafting skills. At every turn, he puts the reader’s alertness to the test; and only through the utmost diligence is the reader able to foil McEwan’s ingenious attempt at deception.

What makes Atonement such a fascinating read is not just its compelling plotline, but rather the specific crafting method McEwan chooses to tell such a story. By far, the crafting technique used throughout the book (the “how”) surpasses any aspect of the story’s “factual” content (the “what”). Time and time again, McEwan demonstrates through his writing that truth can be revealed and validated from multiple viewing angles, or viewpoints. Subsequently, one comes away from reading Atonement with a better appreciation for how these viewpoints make up a continuum of perspectives, typically referred to as reality. How we “perceive” the concrete, surrounding world to be ordered is what we take for reality. McEwan reminds us that our perception of this tangible state of existence is just that—a perception—only one possibility among many, what, in essence, is one skewed and limiting perspective within the realm of omniscience.

Likewise, McEwan’s approach affirms that, just as in the case of our concrete world’s reality, literary reality consists of a multitude of equally-valid truths, all found within an analogous continuum. Each possible “version” of truth the writer portrays constitutes a different angle of observation by which the reader can “view” the story’s external and internal realities, what is commonly referred to as point-of-view (P.O.V.), or narrative viewpoint.

Henry James uses a beautiful metaphor to illustrate this concept, in his The Art of the Novel:

The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million…These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field glass, which forms again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from any other. He and his neighbors are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine…”

(qtd. in Hall 28)

As James intimates, here, no one character is capable of seeing all or knowing all; instead, that is left to an omniscient narrator.

However, at first thought, this notion of limited viewpoints may seem restrictive; but upon further consideration, it becomes apparent that truth is in fact multi-faceted and extremely pliable, allowing for distortion and manipulation by authors, narrators, and characters, alike. Each newly-told story presents the writer with an opportunity to manipulate the storyteller’s angle of observation, with the aim of creating an ideal narrative viewpoint—one that allows readers to experience the story for themselves, but only as it is filtered through the designated narrating-character.

Of course, the manipulation of truth through P.O.V. is no small task; and so, through the close examination of a work, such as McEwan’s Atonement, one can obtain a much deeper understanding, in regard to this elemental device, in all its most practical and most sophisticated applications. Certainly, Atonement represents a fine example from contemporary literature, in which the author chooses not to use the narrative viewpoint benignly, as if it were a commodity to be squandered or unappreciated; but, instead, McEwan manipulates the device with remarkable adeptness, revealing its subtle versatility while creating distortions in the story’s “factual” surface layer that ultimately impact the reader’s overall perception of truth. McEwan’s crafting-method demonstrates how narrative viewpoint can be manipulated with optimal effect, from both technical and aesthetic standpoints.

Atonement tells the story of how protagonist Briony Tallis spends nearly a lifetime attempting to find self-forgiveness for her unforgivable lie—an impulsive, yet calculable misjudgment made when only thirteen years old—which falsely accuses her sister’s lover (Robbie) of raping her cousin. In the course of one day’s pivotal moments and events, Briony’s life—as well as those of sister Cecilia and Robbie—are forever altered and their fates, sealed. As a result of Briony’s misguided testimony, both Cecilia and Robbie’s lives are doomed; and, indirectly, we finally come to understand Briony’s as well.

Understanding Briony’s socio-cultural-historical context is fundamental if one hopes to unlock Atonement’s multi-layering of truth. The book spans more than six decades of the protagonist’s life, beginning when she is thirteen years old and living on an English estate in the pre-war, genteel society of 1935; and it ends with her being an elderly, successful novelist, in the London of 1999. These contexts help shape the story’s characters, in that they factor into the formation of their idiosyncratic viewpoints.

The tragic trajectory of Briony’s life is jettisoned from the events that unfold on one fateful day, spent in the countryside, at her family’s estate. During that morning, while remaining undetected from an upstairs window, Briony observes an incident involving Cecilia and Robbie, the son of a Tallis-family servant, while the couple stands outside, near the estate’s fountain. Based only on visual cues of the couple’s actions, Briony erroneously assumes she is witnessing “a proposal of marriage” (McEwan 36); but moments later, she must discard this scenario when she watches Cecilia undress and submerge herself in the fountain’s pool, then get out and dress, only to walk off unaccompanied by Robbie.
At one point, during that afternoon, Briony acts as Robbie’s messenger of a sexually-explicit note, intended for Cecilia. Not surprisingly, given Briony’s predisposition for curiosity and a fertile imagination, she secretly reads the note and further compounds this breach in trust by sharing its very private contents with Lola, her visiting cousin. When the fifteen-year-old Lola labels Robbie “a maniac” for writing such graphic details, Briony is all-too-easily swayed to accept her cousin’s rash opinion.

McEwan writes, from Briony’s viewpoint: “A maniac. The word had refinement, and the weight of medical diagnosis. All these years she had known him and that was what he had been…Now his condition was named she felt a certain consolation…” (112). Within a matter of a few minutes—the time span of her conversation with Lola—Briony is prepared to betray her lifelong, friendly relationship with Robbie, with a very revealing statement about her underlying character. She tells Lola: “‘He’s always pretended to be rather nice. He’s deceived us for years’” (112).

Shortly thereafter, just before the Tallis family and guests gather for a late-night dinner, Briony again intrudes on another of Cecilia and Robbie’s intimate scenes, as they make love for the first time, in a darkened corner of the mansion’s library. Of course, by this time, Briony has read Robbie’s note and has filtered its contents through Lola’s revelation about the depravity of maniacs. Briony’s uninformed viewpoint leads her to “…cast herself as her sister’s protector…” (McEwan 115), no matter that it was an uninvited role. Instead, Briony deludes herself with the justification of her conduct: “In matters of selfless love, nothing needed to be said, and she would protect her sister, even if Cecilia failed to acknowledge her debt” (147-148).

Later, still, when Briony is the first to come upon the ravished Lola, she allows her “writer’s imagination” to smother any chance at better judgment. In her mind, she cannot steer clear of the idea that “[r]eal life, her life now beginning, had sent her a villain in the form of an old family friend” (148)—Robbie, her own father’s favored protégé. Not only does Briony convince herself that Robbie is guilty of rape, but she also unwittingly manages to provide Lola with the perfect scapegoat, in Robbie.

During this scene, McEwan reveals his mastery of manipulation through P.O.V. in the telling exchange between the cousins. Briony, just shy of using coercion, persuades Lola to implicate Robbie for the crime. McEwan writes: “Suddenly, Briony wanted her [Lola] to say his name. To seal the crime, frame it with the victim’s curse, close his fate with the magic of naming” (155). Briony says to Lola:

“It was Robbie, wasn’t it?”
The maniac. She wanted to say the word.
Lola said nothing and did not move.
Briony said it again this time without the trace of a question. It was a statement of fact. “It was Robbie.”

Briony said it again. Simply. “Robbie.”


In her impatience and naïve eagerness for fairytale scenarios, Briony supplies them both with the answer. Because McEwan has already established Briony’s highly-imaginative nature and “[powerful] instinct for order” (39), the reader is able to understand the motivation driving Briony’s manipulation of Lola, which leads to the girls’ complicity in accepting this distortion of truth (i.e., naming Robbie as the rapist) as fact.

Before the evening draws to a close—and in light of the day’s culminated events—Briony feels compelled to “commit her crime” (McEwan 146), by making her accusations against Robbie publicly known, to the Tallis family and authorities investigating the rape. McEwan writes: “And so their respective positions, which were to find public expression in the weeks and months to come, and then be pursued as demons in private for many years afterward, were established in these moments by the lake, with Briony’s certainty rising whenever her cousin appeared to doubt herself” (157).

Here, again, is a perfect example of how McEwan, in weaving together different time-periods so fluidly, is able to amplify the distortion of truth that occurs when perceptions are manipulated, either through characters or authors, whether intentionally or not. Brian Finney, in his article, “Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: The Making of Fiction in Ian McEwan’s Atonement,” refers to this technique as “temporal prolepsis,” a term coined by Gérard Genette, in the 1972 work, Discours du Récit (or Narrative Discourse, as later translated by Jane E. Lewin, 1980), to explain the use of “narrative anticipation” (75). As Finney’s argument suggests, the effect of McEwan’s reliance upon disclosing to the reader future plot events, particularly throughout Part One, is that he undermines—at least to a certain extent—his own potential for constructing narrative suspense (75). By its inherent nature, any anticipatory statement made by a narrator implies temporal distance, and thereby, through direct association, an opportunity for distorting truth.

Yet, the significance of McEwan’s creating frequent anticipation is that it provides the careful reader with the means to detect the high degree of distortion present in the narrative. The fact that McEwan tells us, as early as page 38, that the version of Atonement we presently possess took Briony sixty years of refining—the result of numerous drafts—confirms for us that her book’s described events (occurring between 1935 and 1940) are perceptions of the distant past; that is, they are based on the strength of her memory, where temporal distortions abound, as they would for anyone.

We later learn that these same “perceptions” were also most certainly influenced by feedback she once received from esteemed magazine editor, Cyril Connolly, of Horizon, in the form of a long-winded rejection letter (for the first draft of her novella, Two Figures by a Fountain). Connolly calls into question several stylistic choices used in Briony’s writing. For example, his letter states, in part:

…However, we wondered whether it owed a little too much to the techniques of Mrs. Woolf. The crystalline present moment is of course a worthy subject in itself, especially for poetry; it allows a writer to show his gifts, delve into mysteries of perception, present a stylized version of thought processes, permit the vagaries and unpredictability of the private self to be explored and so on. Who can doubt the value of this experimentation? However, such writing can become precious when there is no sense of forward movement. Put the other way around, our attention would have been held even more effectively had there been an underlying pull of simple narrative. Development is required.


Connolly challenges Briony’s artistic decisions, in particular, remarking about the fountain scene: “The woman goes fully dressed into the fountain to retrieve the pieces [from the vase]. Wouldn’t it help you if the watching girl [Briony] did not actually realize that the vase had broken? It would be all the more of a mystery to her that the woman submerges herself” (295).

This is an intriguing revelation, because it means the present-day reader can only speculate as to what in fact was included in Briony’s first draft, dating back to 1940. We can deduce from Connolly’s comments that Briony’s first version of the story disclosed upfront that the “watching girl” was privy to the vase being broken prior to “the woman” stepping into the fountain pool. This contradicts what readers of Briony’s final draft (1999) actually find in the text; it reads: “She [Cecilia] turned abruptly and picked up from the deep shade of the fountain’s wall a vase of flowers Briony had not noticed before…” (37). Logic dictates that Briony altered this account of events in an attempt at conforming to Connolly’s recommendations—clear evidence of intentionally manipulating the reader’s perception of reality through P.O.V.

What is also interesting about the narrative tie-in to Connolly is that, through this mechanism, McEwan is able to interject his personal bias of literary criticism while remaining discreetly concealed behind several mutual voices—namely, in the guise of Connolly’s written opinion (of Briony’s work) as it is being filtered through the narrative viewpoint of Briony—which of course is ultimately masking McEwan’s own authorial voice. Manipulation and distortion are the natural by-products whenever so many narrative layers co-exist within a single text, as each layer manifests a different angle of observation by which the reader discovers embedded truth.

Why this distortion technique works so well for McEwan’s purposes of craft is simple—Atonement is a metafictional story; meaning, its predominant theme and/context relates to writing—in this case, specifically, the crafting of narrative fiction. McEwan is able to create multiple layers of meaning throughout the book by paralleling his own narrative alongside that of Briony. He strives for his writing to accomplish one goal, while setting up Briony as a distinct novelist, intent on accomplishing an entirely different goal. Both of these narrative courses play out simultaneously, leaving it for the reader’s discernment to decide the matter. As Finney explains, “when novelists force us to understand the constructed nature of their characters, they invite us simultaneously to reflect on the way subjectivity is similarly constructed in the non-fictional world we inhabit” (76). McEwan’s crafting method does just that; through his use of metafiction, he is able to demonstrate not only how a narrative conveys multiple layers of meaning, but how its contained truth is able to be manipulated with such effectiveness (e.g., through distortion or deception), consciously and unconsciously, in both factual and fictive realms.

Likewise, because of Atonement’s metafictional component, it is not clear until the end (and maybe not even then, entirely), just who is responsible for which distortions: is it McEwan distorting his readers’ perception of truth? Is it the “real” Briony distorting her own self-image in a show of self-denial? Or is it Briony distorting truth as her “fictionalized self” (in her own novel version of Atonement)? Finney includes a relevant quote from Patricia Waugh’s 1984 book, Metafiction: The Theory and practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, stating: “Contemporary metafictional writing is both a response and a contribution to an even more thoroughgoing sense that reality or history are provisional: no longer a world of eternal verities but a series of constructions, artifices, impermanent structures” (76). How true this statement is in its necessity to remind us that we are the ones who write our history; again, this speaks to the idea of how all perceptions result from being filtered through the many possible angles of observation. Thus, taken in this context, McEwan’s work connotes even wider implications than perhaps gleaned from an initial read.

For the duration of the text, McEwan paves an avenue of narration so complex that it bypasses all regions of conventionality, only to detour through the domain of deception before dead-ending just over the border, into the territory of genius. What makes his approach to the element of P.O.V. so uncommonly clever is his use of a “hidden” third-person narrator as the single source for creating the illusion of multiple points-of-view. Atonement’s Part One is crafted to give the deceptive appearance of a multiple third-person P.O.V., with its narration shifting among several characters throughout the book’s first fourteen chapters, what amounts to half of the text’s overall length. Yet, in reality, its entire storyline is being told through Briony’s viewpoint.

Later, in Part Two, McEwan masks Briony behind Robbie by using a third-person perspective from the viewpoint of his role as a soldier during the British Army’s retreat at Dunkirk. In the final lines of this second section, the reader is left to wonder if Robbie has indeed managed to survive his wounds incurred during the retreat. McEwan launches into Part Three with the manipulation of the novel’s pseudo-linear narrative; thus, in essence, he “rewinds” the overall timing of the story, in order to have Part Three’s action occur simultaneously with that of Part Two. This structural shift lets McEwan change the story’s central consciousness, from Robbie to Briony, as well as that of the setting, from Dunkirk to London.

Still, McEwan opts for the story action to be told from the third-person perspective; but because it represents Briony, the novelist, writing from the fictionalized-Briony’s viewpoint, this crafting choice becomes an effective distancing device. In other words, crafting it as he does—to the effect that Briony is writing her own viewpoint’s storyline through third-person perspective, rather than first-person—McEwan successfully creates the illusion, for the reader, that Briony is not the author.
At the end of Part Three, McEwan dupes the reader into believing that Briony is, at last, being truthful and willing to take the necessary steps, to make amends for past misdeeds. He writes: “She knew what was required of her. Not simply a letter [stating the truth], but a new draft, an atonement, and she was ready to begin” (330). Owing much to the metafictional nature of the narrative, Atonement’s multi-authorial voices foster an opportunity for the reader’s misinterpretation. Does this represent McEwan writing about Briony’s action or is this really Briony writing about herself, through third-person perspective, as she is prompted to begin her final draft? Since her London encounter with Cecelia and Robbie never truly occurs (as it only appears in Briony’s fictionalized account), we are led to question what in fact serves as Briony’s final writing prompt.
This, in turn, sets up the subsequent, brilliant “twist” ending, when in the novel’s concluding section (titled “London, 1999”), the reader is presented with yet another shift in P.O.V. It is here McEwan finally chooses to use Briony’s viewpoint from a first-person perspective, to reveal the surprising truth on the penultimate page: the fact that Briony has been the “hidden” narrator throughout the novel. Because this fourth section is written in first-person as Briony’s diary entry (hence, the section’s title) on the occasion of her 77th birthday, it denotes a timeframe beyond the scope of Briony’s own novel-version of Atonement (Parts One, Two, and Three); it, therefore, can be construed as representing McEwan’s novel-version, alone. Equally significant is the point made by James Phelan, in his article, “Narrative Judgments and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative: Ian McEwan’s Atonement,” in which he mentions how this particular “diary entry reveals that her novel has mixed a factual account of her transgression with a fictional account of her atonement…” (322). Consequently, Phelan’s article addresses the same pertinent issue many critics of Atonement raised: how should the reader interpret McEwan’s method used “for springing all this on us so suddenly” (323) at the book’s close?

Being purposely deceptive with readers is a bold move by any writer, even one of McEwan’s stature. In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott writes: “…we want a sense that an important character, like a narrator, is reliable. We want to believe that a character is not playing games or being coy or manipulative, but is telling the truth to the best of his or her ability” (52). Initially, some controversy did result in the literary community, due to the questioning of McEwan’s decision to end Atonement with such a startling revelation.

However, as noted convincingly by Finney, several book reviewers (mostly British) misinterpret McEwan’s method of crafting P.O.V., by making the false assumption that he intended the story to be read as a “classic realist novel” and that his conclusion should be dismissed “as an instance of postmodern gimmickry” (70). This criticism relates to the “writer-reader contract” discussed by Janet Burroway, in her book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, where she writes: “Indeed, no writing rule is so frequently broken to such original and inventive effect as consistency in point of view” (256). The evidence for this kind of breach is apparent in McEwan’s crafting, when seemingly he uses multiple viewpoints to tell his story, only to disclose the “deception” he has used, all along, in Briony being the only, actual narrator.

Of course, in the midst of crafting fiction, as McEwan demonstrates throughout Atonement, prudent writers strive for as much concealment of their manipulation as possible. Indeed, it is this very factor that allows him to so successfully cast the unreliable Briony as a trustworthy narrator. In The Art & Craft of Novel Writing, Oakley Hall brands an author “as the ultimate manipulator” (29). According to Hall, one of the easiest ways to accomplish concealment is by establishing from the outset a trustworthy narrating character—or a “central authority”—for the reader to accept what is commonly referred to as the suspension of disbelief (28). Once this occurs, the writer is basically given free-license to take the reader not necessarily where the reader needs to go, but more importantly where the writer wants the reader to go. This distinction is significant, especially in terms of examining just how master-storyteller McEwan crafts Atonement; because he manipulates narrative viewpoint as a means to lead the reader astray, while ultimately forcing the question every serious novelist should allude to: what is truth?

Works Cited

Apstein, Barbara. “Ian McEwan’s Atonement and ‘The Techniques of Mrs. Woolf.’” Virginia Woolf Miscellany 64 (2003 Fall-Winter 2004): 11-12.

Brown, John Gregory. “Other Bodies, Ourselves: The Mask of Fiction” in Creating Fiction. Julie Checkoway, Ed. Cincinnati: Story, 1999.

Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 6th ed. New York: Longman, 2003.

D’Hoker, Elke. “Confession and Atonement in Contemporary Fiction: J.M. Coetzee, John Banville, and Ian McEwan.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. 2006 Fall; 48 (1): 31- 43.

Finney, Brian. “Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: The Making of Fiction in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Journal of Modern Literature, 27.3 (Winter 2004),
pp. 68-82.

Hall, Oakley. The Art & Craft of Novel Writing. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1994.

Hidalgo, Paul. “Memory and Storytelling in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Critique:
Studies in Contemporary Fiction
, 46.2 (Winter 2005), pp. 82-91.

Kellaway, Kate. “At Home with his Worries: An Interview with Ian McEwan.” Observer 16 Sept. 2001. 29 July 2007 .

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. New York: Random, 1995.

McEwan, Ian. Atonement. New York: Random, 2001.

Phalen, James. “Narrative Judgments and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative: Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” A Companion to Narrative Theory. 322-336. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

“Professor Wayne Booth: Wide-ranging American Scholar Who Strove to Rescue English Literature from the Clutches of New Criticism.” The Times, London: 14 Oct. 2005. 28 July 2007 .

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