Reader Response: Paul Marshall Gap
The Ian McEwing novel Atonement is a masterful work filled with numerous richly detailed characters. For me, the character of Paul Marshall piqued my interest because I did not know how he was going to fit into the plot of the story. My expectations for his character were the he would be a benign character written to give depth to a more central character, Celia. At first this assumption seemed to hold true, but then I read about Pauls dream and everything starts to take on a different meaning and I felt the need to turn back to re-read the earlier passages about Paul to see if I missed anything. It is at this gap that my feelings about this character began to change and where I start to look at Paul with the much darker perspective that he is a possible pedophile. At the same time, it is interesting to note that although Brionys characterization of Paul Marshall at the end of the novel is as a villain, McEwing cleverly leaves the Paul Marshall character open to interpretation by never truly identifying him as either innocent or a villain. I cannot convict him as because I still have doubts that he is a villain. I believe that his guilt or innocence is more ambiguous than that because the only real perspective given is by Briony, who spent her life trying to atone for what she did to Robbie.
When the character of Paul Marshall was initially introduced my expectation was that he was either going to be an innocuous side character or a potential source of comic relief for the drama that is the focus of this novel. I knew from reading the back of the book that there was a lie that Briony told about a situation that she misinterpreted, but I never suspected that Paul would be involved in that situation. I think that is because when Paul Marshall is first mentioned by Cecilia she describes him as the chocolate millionaire (25), a description that makes him sound like a sweet, wealthy man. Later, when Paul Marshal arrives at the Tallis estate with Leon, Cecilia muses that perhaps she is about to meet the man she will someday marry which says to me that he must be in a similar social class as Cecilia and is acceptable marriage material. His social class also led me to expect him to be a good and honorable character. Cecilia describes her first impression of Paul Marshal as having a comically brooding face and pubic hair sprouting from his ears, which to me did not sound at all menacing or villainous. When he speaks, he tells Cecilia that he has heard an awful lot about you (44) and Cecilia observes that as a conventionally dull conversation starter. Throughout the scene where Leon, Paul, and Cecilia engage in conversation the character is further described as being devoted to making his company a success through long hours and little social life. All of these descriptions cemented my initial expectations of Paul Marshall.
My expectations changed as I read about Pauls dream and the physical state he was in when he woke up from the nap. Paul dreamed of his four sisters standing around his bed touching him and pulling at his clothes, He woke, hot across his chest and uncomfortably aroused, and briefly confused about his surroundings (57) I interpreted this to mean that he woke up with an erection, which hinted at him being either incestuous or a pedophile. This was such a surprise that I immediately flipped back to reread the initial paragraphs about Paul Marshall to see if there had been any hint of this before and to be sure that I had read everything correctly. As I continued reading, subsequent statements by Paul Marshall that could have been innocent took on a more sinister tone because of his earlier statement about waking up aroused. The first time Paul met Lola he said, Those trousers suit you especially well, I think (57), and You remind me of my favorite sister (58), which could be construed as brotherly affection except for the gap that instead led me to believe that he noticed her body and found it attractive. Also, since we read earlier about the dream of his sister that had left him aroused, his comparison of Lola to his sister seemed vaguely sexual and definitely creepy. This impression was cemented further when He crossed and uncrossed his legs. Then he took a deep breath and told Lola Bite it, he said softly, youve got to bite it (59), about eating the Amo bar candy he had given her. This statement could have been made innocently, but the gap affected my thinking and gave the statement a sexual undertone.
In the end, I find it very hard to condemn Paul as a pedophile or even as a rapist. Because Briony initially insisted that she saw someone like Robbie leaving the scene and only through police pressure changed her statement to I saw Robbie I felt that she really had no idea who she had seen with Lola that night. It was only through retrospection that she finally decides that Paul is the guilty party, not because of actual proof. I believe that Brionys guilt may have altered her memories of that night so that she could live with herself. At the end of the book we find out that Paul and Lola are married and have lived a long prosperous married life together, which leaves me with several questions. Why would Paul marry Lola if he was a pedophile? Was the rape of Lola actually a consensual sexual experience? I went back a re-read the parts of the book where Lola was at the dinner table with scratches and bruises and the part where Briony discovered Lola on her way to search for the missing twins, but there were no overt or conclusive signs that Lola was not a willing partner for Paul. Lola seemed to know who she had been with, but she let Briony assume and report that is was Robbie which led me to believe that she was with Paul because she wanted to be. I think it was also very telling that Briony never published her accusations against Paul. Perhaps that is because she knows that there is a possibility that they are also untrue and could ruin another innocent persons life, Paul Marshall.
McEwing, Ian. Atonement. New York: First, 2003. Print.