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Narrative Structure in Atonement Essay


Assignment 4: Final Essay

The narrative structure of Atonement is a complex but significant feature of the novel and it does a great job of reflecting Brionys attempt to make amends for her crime through her writing of fiction. By writing her novel of fiction, Briony endevours to re-write history by changing the outcome of real- life events and creating her own ending. Her writing of fiction is a confession of her crimes against Cecilia and Robbie. Her use of multiple and variable focalisation is an act of empathy, depicting Robbie as a hero in part two of her novel is her way of setting things right with him, and she creates a different ending for the two lovers; Cecilia and Robbie. Briony starts off as a coward, but her endeavor to make things right shows that she has courage. She accepts the fact that what she did all those years ago was wrong and humbles herself by refusing to allow the fictitious characters of Robbie and Cecilia to forgive her. In the end though, her attempts at finding atonement are in vain and unsuccessful because her fictitious writings are exactly that: fiction.

In Brionys novella, Two Figures by a Fountain, she only skims the surface of the techniques of multiple and variable focalisation. In her reply letter from CC from Cyril Connolly's Horizon Magazine, CC encourages her to elaborate, on a more personal level, the other characters perspectives. He says, Then we have matters from the mans point of view, then the womans- though we dont really learn much that is fresh. Just more about the look and feel of things, and some irrelevant memories. (page 313) Simply put, you need the backbone of a story. (314) Briony shows a lack of empathy because of her inability to cast aside her own perspective and completely submerge herself into the minds and emotions of Cecilia and Robbie, which given her age and ignorance is understandable. After all, She is a child who becomes involved in an adult sexual relationship that she is ill equipped to understand. (Finney, Brian)

Briony has only half achieved the technique of multiple focalisation in her novella. However, when she revises her novella, thus producing her novel Atonement, Briony, having all the experience and understanding of a lifetime (Finney, Brian), completely embraces the two techniques that play such a significant part of telling the story. Briony knew that she, more than her story, lacked backbone, What she needed, Briony told herself, was backbone. (320)

By using such intricately descriptive language in her novella, she dances around, but fails to fully tackle the confronting elements that her story so desperately required. 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. (320) She knows she is about to embark on a journey of atonement; a journey that will require the backbone that she herself confesses she lacks.

In her attempt at achieving atonement, Briony shows a certain amount of courage and strength of character by humbling herself and setting aside her own account, her own feelings and perceptions, and opens herself up to the thoughts, feelings and perceptions of Cecilia and Robbie. Opening oneself up to imagining what it would be like to be someone else requires courage, especially when you are faced with the guilt from the knowledge that you are responsible for that persons circumstances. Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity (Finney, Brian). The letter from CC feels like a condemnation, which she knows she has to confront and accept: Might she come between them in some disastrous fashion? Yes, indeed. (320)

In part 3 of Atonement, Brionys refusal to allow the fictitious characters of Robbie and Cecilia to forgive her is also proof of her courage and strength of character. What I did was terrible. I dont expect you to forgive me. Dont worry, her sister resumed, I wont even forgive you. (337) I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me. (372) She takes ownership of, and accepts the fact that what she did was wrong.

Rather than promote an extreme individual perspective, narrative must help readers understand human experience. As Woolf suggests, a successful modernist narrative engenders identification and empathy (Kathleen D'Angelo). Briony shows empathy in Part 2 of Atonement, which is dedicated to Robbie and his experience as a prisoner and a soldier in the war. In writing this, she gains understanding of the horrors of Robbies prison and war experience, an understanding that would have been difficult to obtain because she was responsible for putting him there. Part 2 is Brionys way of confessing that it was ignorant of her to accuse Robbie of being a maniac and a monster when in truth, Robbie was anything but. There are memorable descriptions of hideous events in the second and third sections of Atonement, but they are depictions of the surreality of war They lead us not into the psyches of the unhinged but into the psyches of ordinary people in an unhinged time. (Claire Messud) She depicts Robbie as somewhat of a hero, someone who is mature and is able to take charge. She fictitiously writes Robbie as the leader of his group of three: Mace, Nettle and himself. The two men look up to Robbie and even though they are higher in rank, and Robbie is basically an ordinary man with no official training in leadership, they allow Robbie to take the leadership position because of his knowledge in map reading. Briony also draws attention to Robbies compassionate side. The things he sees on his journey to Dunkirk easily affect him; particularly the lone leg in the tree, an image that haunts him. An example of Robbies generous spirit (228) is when he carries the mother and child across the field under attack (236); he sees their vulnerability and helplessness and is compelled to help them. He had touched her, and made her decision for her, so now he felt that he could not abandon her. (236)

As part of her writing of fiction in finding atonement, Briony also creates a false happy ending for the two lovers, Cecilia and Robbie. The only way she can bring Robbie and Cecilia back to life is by using her imagination to imbue them with a fictional life The writing of Atonement, which vividly imagines a reunion of Cecilia with Robbie after his return from Dunkirk (where in fact he died), is the form that Briony?s atonement takes. (Finney, Brian). Because the two lovers never did reunite, Briony creates their reunion in her novel. In doing so, Briony gives them what she took from them all those years ago. She gives Robbie the one thing that spurred him on in the war: Find Cecilia and love her, marry her, and live without shame. (228)

In the Epilogue, the aging Briony is faced with the reality that her work is indeed only fiction, and that Robbie and Cecilia never did see each other again. Briony herself admits to the futility of her search for atonement when she asks, how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? Meaning, the only atonement that she receives is that which she conjured up, and how can that be satisfying?

Robbie and Cecilia?s happiness cannot be restored to them by an act of corrective fiction. (Finney, Brian), and Briony herself concedes to this fact when she says that atonement was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all. (371). Briony knows that even though she strove to obtain forgiveness and resolution through her act of atonement, in the end, the closure she gains is of her own creation, thus meaning nothing. She knows and accepts the fact that she cannot be forgiven for what she did, but as she confesses, the attempt was all she needed in order to try and gain atonement. She finds peace in the fact that Cecilia and Robbies love lives on through her novel. As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love. (371)

Briony recognises "that a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended." (286) Cecilia and Robbies lives were so easily torn in a moment of accusation by an ignorant thirteen-year-old girl, and Briony spent her whole life trying to mend her mistake. As much as I want to grant Briony the atonement she so earnestly strove to attain, I cannot. Because for all her efforts at creating a happy ending for Cecilia and Robbie, the truth still remains that in real life, the life that truly matters: the two lovers were never reunited. For this reason, Brionys attempt at atonement was too little, too late.

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