Home » 10th Season (2022-2023) » The Coleman Prize in English: Is Atonement Always Attainable?

The Coleman Prize in English: Is Atonement Always Attainable?

By Madison Hoang, V Form

The Coleman Prize in English: Is Atonement Always Attainable?

The Coleman Prize in English, endowed by Joseph G. Coleman Jr., Class of 1899, is awarded to that student, who, in the judgment of the English Department, has submitted the outstanding essay during this academic year.

“She [Briony] was calm as she considered what she had to do. Together, the note to her parents and the formal statement would take no time at all . . . She knew what was required of her. Not simply a letter, but a new draft, an atonement, and she was ready to begin. BT” (McEwan 321).

In a shocking conclusion to Part III of Atonement, author Ian McEwan inserts the initials “BT,” revealing the crucial fact that thus far, the whole novel had been a written retelling by none other than the novel’s protagonist herself, Briony Tallis. It is only after her confrontation with her victims, her sister Cecilia and childhood housekeeper Robbie, that Briony finally “begin[s]” her process of atonement. Readers soon realize that the narrative portrayed in Part III is entirely a product of Briony’s imagination; in reality, she never gets the chance to confront Robbie and Cecilia, and she never did write a  “letter” or “formal statement”  to begin her atonement. Instead, “a new draft” – alluding to the entire novel in of itself – shows how Briony’s role as a writer throughout earlier stages of her life is linked to her inability to face her wrongdoings.  She thinks that an opportunity to retell her story is the only way for her to seek true atonement.  As a writer, Briony grows by exploring new perspectives, experimenting with new stylistic devices, and developing her stories’ plots.    As an adult, Briony also matures by becoming a more empathetic, accountable, and courageous figure, which ultimately allows her to attain atonement for her past wrongdoings.

By exploring her innocent predisposition to fairytales as a young child, the older Briony recognizes how young Briony’s perception of herself as the righteous, morally superior hero of any situation leads her to falsely accuse Robbie Turner of sexual assault, with little understanding of the consequences involved. Shortly after Briony reads Robbie’s sexually graphic letter to Cecilia and witnesses Robbie and Cecilia making love in the library, she emerges with an entirely new perspective of the two characters and of her own role as an outsider to their relationship: “In matters of selfless love, nothing needed to be said, and she [Briony] would protect her sister, even if Cecilia failed to acknowledge her debt. And Briony could not be afraid now of Robbie; better by far to let him become the object of her detestation and disgust . . . Real life, her life now beginning, had sent her a villain in the form of an old family friend with strong, awkward limbs and a rugged friendly face” (147). As a young girl whose innocence prevents her from distinguishing between acts of aggression to acts of love, Briony misinterprets the letter and library scene.  She convinces herself that Robbie is a threat to Cecilia, and therefore seeks to “protect” her sister from Robbie. However selfless Briony believes her actions to be, they turn out to be entirely self-serving; in fact, Briony’s true motivation behind protecting Cecilia from Robbie stems from her inherently self-centered, egotistical, and controlling attitude. Just as in the fairytales that she reads, Briony positions herself as the “hero” of the situation, meanwhile she sees Robbie as the “villain” whom she must overthrow (38). When the opportunity comes for Briony to pursue her mission, she does not hesitate to do so by molding the narrative of Robbie sexually assaulting Lola to her very own imaginings: she conjures up a version of a story that places him and herself into their rightful positions, as hero and as villain. Briony shows no remorse or even slight consideration for the far-reaching consequences of her actions, demonstrating how her mistaken perception that fairytale heroes and villains exist in real life diminishes her capacity for human empathy and recognition of her wrongdoings.

As Briony matures into her young adult years, she explores a more fluid, experimental, and unstructured form of writing that demonstrates her exploration of truths long unknown to herself, and her deeper understanding of Robbie’s and Cecilia’s perspectives.  However, it also implies that she continues to avoid facing the consequences of her actions. During her time as a nurse during WWII, Briony attempts to publish a story which recounts the first instance during her childhood when her ideal image of Robbie had been shattered: the interaction between Robbie and Cecilia at the Tallis’ fountain. While 13-year-old Briony would have interpreted this scene as a “struggle between good and bad, heroes and villains,” a young adult Briony rejects this notion, believing that “[t]he age of characters and plots [was over] . . . The very concept of character was founded on errors that modern psychology had exposed” (38; 265). Despite a more mature outlook on human nature that allows Briony to abandon the traditional, “fairytale-like” distinctions of “good and bad” characters, the publishers reject her story on the grounds that it lacks any sort of plot “development” or “tension,” which leads Briony to make a startling realization:

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. (294-302)

While the younger Briony may have interpreted the lovers’ interaction at the fountain as an act of aggression by a domineering Robbie to a sexually submissive Cecilia, her consideration of Robbie’s and Cecilia’s first-hand perspectives through “three streams. . . of consciousness” shows her understanding  that the interaction was more of an argument on equal grounds between the two characters.  Ultimately, this allows Briony to acknowledge that her old narrative of Robbie as the “villain” was far from the truth. She realizes that narrowly perceiving things from her own perspective creates a biased narrative that may not always hold water. Her stylistic development and consideration of various perspectives a writer therefore reflects her own growth as an adult; it shows Briony’s bravery in exploring what was once unknown to herself as a child, and her openness to consider the perspectives of others involved in her crime, beyond merely that of her own. Ultimately, her moral development makes her a more empathetic figure who is unafraid to reassess the past and realize her own faults in interpreting others’ truths. 

Yet, despite her acknowledgement of others’ perspectives, Briony still fails to directly confront the consequences of her actions, as she professes, “It was not the backbone of a story that she lacked. It was backbone.” Referring to her story submission, the publishers note that there is a lack of “[plot] development” after the “man and woman [Robbie and Cecilia] leave [the fountain],” which indicates that Briony is still avoiding the consequences of her false narrative against Robbie, and her need to confront them in order to atone. As a young adult and as a writer, Briony becomes more empathetic with others and braver to face the truth, but her lack of “backbone” to confront her wrongdoings and their consequences ultimately prevents her from ever being able to do so in real life.  Cecilia and Robbie die in WWII, preventing Briony from making amends for many decades. 

It isn’t until late adulthood that Briony’s maturation as a moral figure finally comes full circle.  This very novel, Atonement, is her way of revealing the truth, guilt, and shame that she has buried for so many years of her life, and her way of amending for her crimes. In the epilogue to Atonement, an “older” Briony states that “[m]y [Briony’s] fifty-nine-year assignment is over. There was our crime—Lola’s, Marshall’s, mine—and from the second version onward, I set out to describe it. I’ve regarded it as my duty to disguise nothing—the names, the places, the exact circumstances—I put it all there as a matter of historical record” (349).  Briony believes that writing a novel is the best way for her to pursue confrontation and atonement for her crimes. Through the stripped-down version of the crime itself, through the exploration of various perspectives of individuals involved in the crime, through the realization of the far-reaching repercussions of the crime itself, Briony’s development as a moral person is evident.  As a 70 year old, she is finally unafraid to reveal her guilt to the world, empathetic enough to realize others’ truths, mature enough to portray herself as the “villain” of the story,  and brave enough to confront her victims and seek atonement for her wrongdoings. She has finally left behind her love of fairy tales, the narrowed perspective that she once exhibited as a child, and the more explorative and considerate – but still morally immature – narrative that she wrote as a young adult.   Briony finally approaches her story with complete empathy, total self-incrimination, and full confrontation, indicating how her growth as a writer parallels her growth into a morally righteous figure.

Though she matures over the course of Atonement, the older Briony herself questions whether her maturation and moral development will ever be enough for her to fully atone for her actions:

The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: 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. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. 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. (350)

Acknowledging that, in reality, the war actually stripped Briony of the chance to ever confront Cecilia and Robbie, she raises an insightful but crucial question: Does writing this novel, Atonement, allow Briony to pursue true atonement for her crimes? Does this novel absolve Briony of partial, if not all, blame? Some readers might agree with Briony’s view that she will never be able to fully atone because of her failure to confront the consequences of her action earlier in her life when she still had a chance, and because the most crucial aspect of apology and atonement – communicating contrition to those who were most affected by one’s crimes – is missing. However, perhaps the novel does allow her to fully atone for her actions and absolve herself of blame: the circumstances that made a direct apology impossible were beyond Briony’s control. Had her lovers been alive today, Briony would certainly have sought amends with them directly; and her demonstration of contrition and initiative to atone much later on in her life does not necessarily diminish the level of guilt, regret, and resolve that she has acquired throughout the years as she developed into a more moral being. While some readers might find it easier to sympathize with Briony if she had demonstrated a more pronounced, climactic epiphany and realized and accepted her wrongdoings, her gradual moral development as she matures throughout the novel only makes Briony into a more human character. Readers can see more of themselves in Briony because she is in a process of constant change and growth. Furthermore, is it not true that Atonement paints Briony out to be much more of a “villain” than the “anti-hero” that she is? Throughout Part One of the novel, Briony’s accusation against Robbie – no matter how horrible – was not made from malice, but from righteousness and a resolve to protect her sister. Briony truly believed that what she was doing was right, according to her limited knowledge of fairytale narratives and real-life romances as a young girl with an overactive imagination. Therefore, the older Briony perhaps deserves some credit for taking the initiative to portray herself as the villain of the novel, when in fact, other characters might also share the blame. Finally, if Briony’s crime had not taken place, would the fates of both lovers have been much different, given the inevitable onset of the war? It leaves one to wonder whether Robbie would become a soldier regardless, and whether this would have separated the two lovers anyway. Perhaps readers may appreciate Briony more for her growing desire to understand her actions and to amend her wrongdoings through writing, ultimately leading to her apology and atonement through her novel, Atonement.  Readers may come to forgive Briony for the faulty decisions that she made in her younger years, which were beyond her own control and even her understanding. 

Madison Hoang is a VI form boarding student from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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