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

December 27, 2008 by · 2 comments

Linda Cruise

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Read Part I

Strangely, perhaps, when it comes to literary fiction, truth exists in the context of a paradox: fiction is dependent on truth—on multiple levels. If a story is to succeed as art, it must contain deeper meaning and relevance. This is to say that literary fiction permits the reader an opportunity to discover universal moral truth through the writer’s well-crafted fabrication. Appreciation for this discovery process cannot be overstated. In fact, according to John Gregory Brown, in “Other Bodies,
Ourselves: The Mask of Fiction,” “[i]t is where the power of literature resides” (31).

He further points out that the writer strives “to enlighten, to lay bare the soul and spirit, to declare the supple and subtle complexities of our existence” (28-29), in such ways that meaning and truth are extractable from utter fabrication. Brown stresses that “every writer of fiction must be, first and foremost, a liar—a liar with a noble aim, of course, but a liar nonetheless.

And the aim of the liar, his one true guiding light, is deception” (29). What makes the “deception” of fiction so “noble” is that it is buffeted by the shrewd and constant search for moral truth. It is Brown’s recommendation that authors set out “not merely to tell a good lie but to tell a lie so good that it has the very ring of truth” (31).

Without question, McEwan achieves this objective by stealthily crafting what can best be described as a novel-within-a-novel; for, in the end, it becomes clear that Atonement is not simply his book, but also that of his main novelist-character, Briony. As Finney succinctly indicates, the metafictional dilemma for Briony is this: “She attempts to use fiction to correct the errors that fiction caused her to commit. But the chasm that separates the world of the living from that of fictional invention ensures that at best her fictional reparation will act as an attempt at atoning for a past that she cannot reverse” (69).

Atonement’s metafictional component further complicates McEwan’s crafting method because it can be argued that two, authorial voices exist simultaneously—Briony’s and McEwan’s—throughout the story. With this being so, the multiple-layered narrative dictates what, when, and how information gets revealed to the reading audience. The result is that, in essence, both Briony and McEwan present distorted and filtered information—thus, manipulating the reader’s perception of truth to an even greater extent.

Granted, Briony is only a fictional character; but for the purpose of investigating this particular novel’s craft-technique, it makes sense to consider both writers’ contexts and influences, since both factor into the literary equation at work, in Atonement. No two writers are exactly alike; and so, presumably, neither will their crafting be exactly alike. Through the creative process, albeit consciously or subconsciously, writers impose their idiosyncratic styles and unique sets of sensibilities onto the written word, in order to produce original, multi-textual stories.

This is due to a natural, human bias—that inclination of perspective which is subjective and cannot be rendered entirely neutral, or objectified, even through efforts of the conscious mind. This, in and of itself, is the fiction writer’s most fundamental manipulation of truth.

Barbara Apstein explains in her article “Ian McEwan’s Atonement and ‘The Techniques of Mrs. Woolf,’” that as a youth, Briony is caught up in a reality ruled by “fairy-tale heroes and villains: the former are rewarded by marriage, the latter punished by death” (11-12). So much is this the case with Briony’s character that she is unable to distinguish between the realities of both real and literary worlds, particularly at what turns out to be the most pivotal moment in her life, when early on she observes Cecilia and Robbie during their fountain encounter.

As such, McEwan hints strongly at his narrator’s unreliability, writing: “The sequence [of the fountain scene’s events] was illogical—the drowning scene, followed by a rescue, should have preceded the marriage proposal” (36-37).

It is then that Briony accepts the fact that she does not understand adult behavior, due to her young age. McEwan writes: “Briony had her first, weak intimation that for her now it could no longer be fairy-tale castles and princesses, but the strangeness of the here and now, of what passed between people, the ordinary people that she knew, and what power one could have over the other, and how easy it was to get everything wrong, completely wrong” [italics mine] (37).

Clearly, this is an example of McEwan manipulating P.O.V., to the effect that it is the adult Briony looking back at her young self in an attempt to justify the motivation behind her past actions—for her having fabricated the lie which implicated Robbie with wrongdoing—even if only justifying it to herself.

Along the way, as to the motivation behind Briony setting this particular story down on paper, we discover that it is not so much for the high-mindedness most often associated with literary pursuits; but rather, it is with the sole intent of finding some measure of emancipation from the guilt that has burdened her for nearly sixty years. Indeed, the concept of atonement plays a key role, when considering McEwan’s crafting of P.O.V., because so much of his narrator’s experience is tainted by her obsession to find self-forgiveness.

A recent volume of Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction featured an article, entitled “Confession and Atonement in Contemporary Fiction: J.M. Coetzee, John Banville, and Ian McEwan,” in which writer Elke D’Hoker discusses the autobiographical nature of fiction writing that addresses this theme of self-forgiveness.

Her three categorical distinctions (i.e., confession [religious or secular], apology, or memoir) (32) are relevant to McEwan’s crafting because, arguably, Briony’s version of Atonement (i.e., her novel embedded in McEwan’s) fits well into all three types; and while the religious implications are not necessarily overt, the very fact McEwan chooses to use the term “atonement,” over another, more-neutral, secular term, obviously results in projecting that same idea, due to its such strong, religious connotation.

As Briony justifiably questions in the final passage of the book: “…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…In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms” (350-351). Still, D’Hoker asserts: “With a certain authority, Briony has finally completed her story. She has set down her story, her truth and is prepared to defend it” (41). Yet, is this really the case, when Briony is portrayed as being so feeble and soon to be affected so adversely, even to the point of death, by the ravaging progression of her terminal health condition, vascular dementia?

Some telling remarks, made toward the close of the novel, hardly indicate Briony is “prepared to defend” her tale, as D’Hoker suggests—even aside from the issue of failing health. D’Hoker makes no mention of the one, abiding issue preventing Briony from true liberation—from breaking out from behind the shadow of those events (real or imagined) and the choices she made on that critical day, back in 1935; for, it is the not-so-small matter of litigation that would arise if Briony published her novel before either her cousin, the now-named Lady Lola Marshall, or her cousin’s husband, Paul Marshall (the actual rapist) were to die.

Briony acknowledges to the reader: “I always thought the high life, cigarettes, would see her [Lola] off [first]. Even in our fifties I thought that. But at eighty she has a voracious, knowing look. She was always the superior older girl, one step ahead of me. But in that final important matter [death], I will be ahead of her, while she’ll live on to be a hundred. I will not be able to publish in my lifetime” [italics mine] (341). This statement does not so much shed light on Briony’s lifelong rivalry with Lola as speak volumes about Briony’s enduring cowardice.

Lola may have been the one who married her own rapist—a fact that Briony uses to condemn her cousin’s shrewd decision to trade whatever integrity she may have once had for a shallow life, filled with lonely pretense and luxury; nevertheless, Briony is the one too afraid still to unmask the hypocrisy and deception she has been a part of most of her life—certainly, all her adult life and equally as much as Lola (and Paul).

So, while D’Hoker may believe that because Briony’s narrative efforts constitute some semblance of completion—and therefore has somehow earned a satisfactory measure of atonement with any degree of certainty—it is ultimately left to the reader’s own determination. If the matter is to be decided based on Briony’s opinion, alone, then one must take into account her assertion: “No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all” (351).

Interestingly, during a 2001 interview, when McEwan revealed that his own atheism prohibits him from having a spiritual reckoning of the concept atonement, he explained that Briony need only to have “reconciliation with self” (Kellaway 2001), in order to find true atonement.

Thus, it would appear that even McEwan wants the reader to decide: who is right—Briony (no atonement is possible) or McEwan (only self-forgiveness is necessary)? Does she or does she not find atonement? That will depend on where the individual reader finds personal truth; for it no doubt resides somewhere within the many conceivable perceptions that exist simultaneously—side-by-side—in the confines of reality.

As to the matter of whether McEwan’s conclusion strays beyond an ethical literary boundary, some may argue that he does; but few would deny crediting McEwan for his mastery of craft. Certainly, his crafting of P.O.V., with the reliance on a “hidden” narrator, creates the perception of deception; but in all fairness to him, he does present a number of significant “clues” along the way that make it possible for the alert reader to recognize the story is indeed being told from the single P.O.V. of Briony, rather than from authentic multiple viewpoints.

To fully appreciate what McEwan accomplishes in his novel, Apstein argues the reader must realize that Atonement is “the story of a writer’s development [referring to Briony] and an exploration of the ways in which writing fulfills certain psychological needs” (11). Similarly, in “Memory and Storytelling in Ian McEwan’s Atonement,” Paul Hidalgo states: “The presentation of Briony’s nascent literary imagination allows the reader to follow her development…from folk tales, written when she was eleven, through melodrama to modernist and finally realist fiction” (85).

This is important because Briony’s personal, narrative-style development, at any and all stages, influences her perception of reality, and, thereby, impacts any of her subsequent story accounts, as told from varying angles of observation (both temporally and spatially).

The differences resulting from Briony’s evolving P.O.V. can be traced over a fifty-nine-year period through her novel’s multiple drafts, from her earliest attempts when she perhaps, as McEwan reveals, relied too heavily on “characters and plots”—those “quaint devices that belonged to the nineteenth century”—through her modernist “Woolfian” stage, responsible for her overindulgence of “thought, perception, [and] sensations” (265), to her final, publishable version in which she, as Apstein describes, “creates a suspenseful narrative with characters who engage the reader” (12). It is during this transformation process—during Briony’s growth as a novelist—when she feels compelled to judge her own “modernistic” narrative style as being responsible for the character flaws it masks. McEwan writes:

The interminable pages about light and stone and water, a narrative split between three different points of view, the hovering stillness of nothing much seeming to happen—none of this could conceal her cowardice. Did she really think she could hide behind some borrowed notions of modern writing, and drown her guilt in a stream—three streams!—of consciousness? The evasions of her little novel were exactly those of her life. Everything she did not wish to confront was also missing from her novella—and was necessary to it. What was she to do now? It was not the backbone of a story that she lacked. It was backbone.


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In 1961, literary scholar and critic, Professor Wayne Booth, of University of Chicago, coined the phrase “unreliable narrator” in his landmark book, The Rhetoric of Fiction. In writing as a direct response to the era’s popular New Criticism, Booth challenged the belief that literary meaning is synonymous with the reader’s interpretation. According to his obituary, published in London’s The Times, Booth’s work examined author-narrator dynamics and demonstrated “how, through the use of rhetorical techniques, novels manipulate their readers in order to invite particular kinds of responses” (2005). McEwan’s Atonement stands as testament to Booth’s claim.

And yet, the fact that standard literary practice is for the creative work to precede any critical work, one can only marvel at how McEwan’s use of metafiction lends critical reflection upon his own narrative process. This does not seem so far-fetched an idea when you consider all the critiquing McEwan includes about Briony’s rejection letter from Horizon’s Connolly, which includes critical input from one of Briony’s avid manuscript readers, Elizabeth Bowen , who found Briony’s prose to be “‘with redeeming shades of Dusty Answer’” (296).

McEwan includes so much material about crafting narrative, whether its Briony’s own insight into her development as a writer or some outsider giving her feedback, that we naturally must wonder what his true motives are—is he trying to sound brazen or coy—or just ironic? Whichever the case, without question, McEwan intends to establish Briony as an untrustworthy narrator—an extremely imaginative child, prone to bouts of daydreaming, brought about by “her godly power of creation” (72)—and he succeeds.

Much later in the novel (Part Three), we glimpse another dimension of Briony’s development as a writer, during the context of the writing of her first draft. The reader is informed that while visiting Cecilia at her London apartment, in 1940, Briony has her first conversation with Cecilia in over five years.

The events surrounding Robbie’s false arrest and ensuing imprisonment inevitably arise between the sisters, and Cecilia is forced to explain why it will do no good for Briony to come forward with the truth so many years after the crime: “If you were lying then, why should a court believe you now? There are no new facts, and you’re an unreliable witness” (317). Of course, what is revealing, more so, is Briony’s internal turmoil, following Cecilia’s remarks. McEwan writes:

Her sister’s confirmation of her crime was terrible to hear. But the perspective was unfamiliar. Weak, stupid, confused, cowardly, evasive—she had hated herself for everything she had been, but she had never thought of herself as a liar. How strange, and how clear it must seem to Cecilia. It was obvious, and irrefutable. And yet, for a moment she even thought of defending herself. She hadn’t intended to mislead, she hadn’t acted out of malice.

[all italics mine] (318)

Perhaps the reader might accept Briony’s innocence as to her intent, but there is no mistaking her propensity to distort, from the outset. Finney insightfully points out that in Atonement’s opener, the reader is given fair-warning about the need to maintain a judicious—even skeptical—eye, throughout. Found in the epigraph, McEwan uses a telling Jane Austen quote, from her Northanger Abbey, to set up his novel’s obscured P.O.V., as well as its metafictional premise and dilemma. It reads in part as follows:

‘Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English: that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you…Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?’ (qtd. in McEwan 1)

According to Finney, “Austen’s protagonist, Catherine Morland, who is reprimanded by Henry Tilney in the quoted extract for her naïve response to events around her, is the victim of reading fiction—the Gothic romances of her day—and failing to make a distinction between the fictive and the real” (70). Furthermore, Finney makes the sound argument that Austen’s portrayed accusation against Catherine (e.g., “what ideas have you been admitting?”) is just as apt for the fatally-flawed Briony, since it is her unbridled writer’s imagination that compels her to commit that fateful lie (70). He points out: “The difference is that Briony…sets out to use fiction to attempt to make amends for the damage fiction has induced her to cause in the first place” (70).

From near the beginning in the novel, McEwan makes this distinction known and thereby, as well, the unreliability of his narrator: “Six decades later she would describe how at the age of thirteen she had written her way through a whole history of literature…to arrive at an impartial psychological realism which she had discovered for herself, one special morning…in 1935” (38), referring to Briony’s multiple attempts at getting her story just right.

This also is evident in the telling lines: “that it was not the long-ago morning she was recalling so much as her subsequent accounts of it” [italics mine] (39); and: “She also knew that whatever actually happened drew its significance from her published work and would not have been remembered without it”(39).

As promised, McEwan reaffirms these early clues in the book’s closing pages, when he reveals his hidden narrator, through his final P.O.V. shift (to Briony’s, in first-person perspective).

In fact, in regard to Briony’s distortion of events, McEwan states unequivocally that her “definition would refine itself over the years” and that she would “concede that she may have attributed more deliberation than was feasible to her thirteen-year-old self” (38).

One could even argue that McEwan is generous enough to foreshadow the fact that Briony, as a budding writer, would go on to try her hand at recreating the same story from different viewpoints with these revealing statements: “She could write the scene three times over, from three points of view” (38); and: “Then the scene could be recast, through Cecilia’s eyes, and then Robbie’s” (39). This revelation, alone, vindicates McEwan in regard to his intent; and still, McEwan somehow pulls off the deception.

On careful examination one can begin to appreciate how the concealed McEwan weaves multiple points-of-view in and out, throughout Atonement, all the while blurring the “camera lens” of perspective, as it were, and thus challenging us to distinguish just who is the true narrator at any given point in time. For the most part, McEwan succeeds in disguising the fact that the story is being told exclusively through Briony’s P.O.V., until Briony’s startlingly last-minute confession reveals that:

It is only in this last version that my lovers end well…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 septicemia at Bray Dunes on 1 June 1940, or that Cecilia was killed in September of the same year by the bomb that destroyed Balham Underground station.


Interestingly, by the time McEwan discloses this truth to his reader, Briony has little regard for whether or not she has been a trustworthy narrator, as she confesses: “If I really cared so much about the facts, I should have written a different kind of book” (340). This particular quote unmistakably confirms the fact that Briony should not have been trusted as the story’s narrator. In the end, Briony has no choice but to try convincing herself that “[n]o one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel” (350).

Her only justification for having created such an imaginary world, in which Cecilia and Robbie share a harmonic life of love, is her compulsion to be freed from her life-long burden of guilt. Thus, she views her efforts as “a final act of kindness [toward Cecilia and Robbie], a stand against oblivion and despair” (351).

In a virtual-dual voice, barely veiled by Briony’s novelist-viewpoint, McEwan teases the reader by saying: “I know there’s always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened?” Again, through her, he responds, “The answer is simple: the lovers survive and flourish” (350), not so unlike the fairytale illusions Briony adheres to in her younger days that she had abandoned for a more modernist, then realist view.

So long as “a single copy…of …[her novel’s] final draft” remains in print, then in Briony’s mind her “sister and her…prince survive to love” (350), as if their mortal love could somehow be made immortal; and in that, Briony believes she has found her atonement.

Even so, sadly, she concludes: “It occurs to me that I have not traveled so very far after all, since I wrote my little play [the novel’s opening]. Or rather, I’ve made a huge digression and doubled back to my starting place” (349-350). This is also evidenced in her admission that she never in fact had the strength of will to visit Cecelia at her apartment, in 1940, as she claimed in the last section of Part Three—that in fact her “walk across London ended at the church on Clapham Common, and that a cowardly Briony limped back to the hospital [due to blistered feet], unable to confront her recently bereaved sister” (350).

This means not only did she avoid a final confrontation with Cecelia, but also with Robbie, and that there would not have been her opportunity to verbally apologize—other than in her fictional account of events.

McEwan’s innovative approach to crafting P.O.V. throughout this particular story is nothing less than brilliant. He meshes the narrative viewpoint so tightly with the story’s structure that to unravel either would cause the novel to lose all integrity.

This is easier to appreciate when one considers that from a reader’s perspective, a story seems to be laid out linearly—that is, our physical reading experience projects a book’s tangible structure of beginning-to-end and left-to-right experiences, while all along influencing our mind’s perception, subconsciously. Atonement seemingly begins with Briony as an adolescent and ends with her approaching elderly death, yet the story is by no means linear in its presentation.

Otherwise, how does one explain McEwan’s use of an adult narrative voice being used throughout? The early mentioning that Briony goes on to become a famous novelist sixty years later informs the reader that the story is being told from an adult’s perspective, not a child’s.

Atonement is the type of story that when it concludes, one gets the immediate urge to go back to the beginning and experience it all over again—only this time with the knowledge of the writer’s omniscient point-of-view. In fact, it cannot be recommended more highly for anyone interested in gaining more insight into the important relationship between crafting narrative viewpoint and creating good drama. G. K. Chesterton once said, “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”

Perhaps it can be said as well that with a great novel, the reader learns much truth about both. That is indeed the case with Ian McEwan and his artful masterpiece, Atonement. In due course, it is fair to say his reader comes away from the experience having learned a great deal more about 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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