Having spent time in a classroom studying the nuances of post-modernist literature, I have come to see that art can never be fixed. It will continue to transform in ways we cannot currently comprehend. I initially didn’t think it could transform further after studying modernism, but then postmodernist texts entered my life. That is when I learned how we will always be able to find new means by which to express ourselves. This review will contain spoilers. I will, however, aim to focus on thematic aspects of Atonement, including what enables the novel to belong within the literary canon. I won’t be simply outlining plot points.
In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, we follow young Briony’s accusations against her sister Cecilia’s lover Robbie. The lovers are separated because of these accusations, but Briony later realizes that they were a mistake. She spends the remainder of the novel attempting to achieve atonement, as the title implies.
Initially, we are made to believe that Briony aims to achieve atonement through attempting to reach out to law officials about her mistake. She aims to inform them of her false accusation: of how she mistakenly accused Robbie of raping her cousin Lola. Briony experiences a meeting between the lovers after years of not seeing them due to their resentment toward her. During those years, Robbie had to spend years in prison and war. In an afterward to close the novel, it is years later and Briony is writing. She is elderly. She tells us that she is actually the pen behind Atonement, and that a meeting between her sister and Robbie actually never happened. She only made it happen to fulfill the expectation of the reader. Cecilia and Robbie both died from circumstances of the war.
This is where a central postmodern-esque theme comes in. That is, the way meta-fiction works its way into the novel. Meta-fiction is simply fiction about the nature of fiction. Fiction about fiction. Throughout Atonement, we receive hints that Briony is in fact the brains behind the story. She manipulates “reality” to convince the reader that the two lovers of the story actually meet again. This tells us that fiction sets out to please the reader by attempting to fulfill their expectations. I personally did expect Robbie and Cecilia to meet again, so I can second what Atonement is saying about the nature of fictitious writing.
Another aspect of postmodernism is the depletion of the grand narrative. We can think of a grand narrative as a fixed storyline that the reader is waiting to be fulfilled. Think of the hero’s journey narrative, for example, where the hero adventures into the unknown, but eventually triumphs and returns a savior. Well, in the context of Atonement, having the two lovers meet again would fulfill a grand narrative. This is one of romance. McEwan feeds it to us at first, but then takes it away and crushes us. It is heart wrenching. McEwan actually fulfills our expectation, but then takes it away from us as a message of the extreme turn away from the grand narrative, even more so than modernist artists aimed to achieve.
If you are planning to dive into this novel, expect to have your heart broken a few times. Expect to learn a few things about literature. Expect to have your expectations fulfilled impermanently. Expect a novel that even shifts genres to separate lovers, while revealing the nature of storytelling right before your eyes.
**Featured Image is a still from Atonement the movie, from Tumblr.