Empathy the novel in ian mcewan s atonement
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Empathy the novel in ian mcewan s atonement

Empathy & the Novel in Ian McEwan’s Atonement

Saving the world, one point-of-view at a time.


Empathy the novel in ian mcewan s atonement

  • At some moments chilling, at others desperately sad, the play told a tale of the heart whose message, conveyed in a rhyming prologue, was that love which did not build a foundation on good sense was doomed.

    Ian McEwan, Atonement


Empathy the novel in ian mcewan s atonement

  • ’Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? …what ideas have you been admitting?’

    Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey


Atonement a tragicomedy of failed remarriage

Atonement: a tragicomedy of failed remarriage

’…the genre of remarriage is an inheritor of the preoccupations and discoveries of Shakespearian romantic comedy.’ Stanley Cavell

  • Settings

    • Part One: Hottest day of 1935

    • Part Two: World War 2 – Dunkirk, 1940

    • Part Three: World War 2 – London, 1940

    • Epilogue: London, 1999

  • Literary models

    • Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen, 1817); Clarissa (Samuel Richardson, 1748); What Maisie Knew (Henry James, 1897); The Go-Between (L. P. Hartley, 1953); The French Lieutenant’s Woman (John Fowles, 1969)

  • Literary allusions

    • Twelfth Night (William Shakespeare, 1601); Lady Chatterly’s Lover (D. H. Lawrence, 1928); “In Memory of W. B. Yeats“ (W. H. Auden, 1940)


  • Atonement a posthumous novel

    Atonement: a posthumous novel

    About the author:

    • Briony Tallis was born in Surrey in 1922, the daughter of a senior civil servant. She attended Roedean School, and in 1940 trained to become a nurse. Her wartime nursing experience provided the material for her first novel, Alice Riding, published in 1948 and winner of that year’s Fitzrovia Prize for fiction. Her second novel, Soho Solstice, was praised by Elizabeth Bowen as “a dark gem of psychological acuity,” while Graham Greene described her as “one of the more interesting talents to have emerged since the war.” Other novels and short-story collections consolidated her reputation during the fifties. In 1962 she published A Barn in Steventon, a study of domestic theatricals in Jane Austen’s childhood. Tallis’s sixth novel, The Ducking Stool, was a best-seller in 1965 and was made into a successful film starring Julie Christie. Thereafter, Briony Tallis’s reputation went into decline, until the Virago imprint made her work available to a younger generation in the late seventies. She died in July 2001.


    Anachrony an ak r ni

    anachrony [an-ak-rôni]

    • A term used in modern narratology to denote a discrepancy between the order in which events of the story occur and the order in which they are presented to us in the plot.


    Adjective anachronic

    Adjective: anachronic

    • Anachronic narrative takes two basic forms:

      • ‘flashback’ or analepsis

      • ‘flash-forward’ or prolepsis.


    Focalisation

    focalisation

    • The term used in modern narratology for ‘point of view’; that is, for the kind of perspective from which the events of a story are witnessed. Events observed by a traditional omniscient narrator are said to be non-focalised, whereas events witnessed within the story’s world from the constrained perspective of a single character are ‘internally focalised’.


    Focalisation1

    focalisation

    • The nature of a given narrative’s focalisation is to be distinguished from its narrative ‘voice’, as seeing is from speaking.

    • The events of Atonementare ‘internally focalised’ in incredibly subtle ways through the many narrative voices of its characters, particularly Briony, Robbie and Cecilia.


    Narrative technique

    Narrative technique

    • McEwan’s use of focalisation complicates the authorial partiality of a Jane Austen novel, when the ‘omniscient narrator’ of the older Briony-as-author, compromised by her need for atonement, can no longer be seen as non-focalised.


    Narrative technique1

    Narrative technique

    • McEwan employs this particular ‘modal determination’ for two reasons:

      • to distinguish his narrative from the classic realist novel’s association with an omniscient narrator (Briony’s lie came from positioning herself as such a narrator in her fictionalised scenario of events)

      • to demonstrate Briony-as-the-adult-narrator’s attempt to project herself into the thoughts and feelings of her characters, an act crucial to her search for forgiveness.


    Metafiction self reflexive texts

    Metafiction: self-reflexive texts

    • Fiction about fiction; or more especially a kind of fiction that openly comments on its own fictional status.

    • Atonement draws attention to its own construction as a fictional narrative because such an awareness is crucial to its ’truths’ about the human condition.


    Critical reading of a narrative sequence

    Critical reading of a narrative sequence

    • Atonement Part Three (p.312):

      • ‘We found Two Figures…’

        to ‘Development is required.’


    Critical reading of a narrative sequence1

    Critical reading of a narrative sequence

    • Atonement Part Three (p.312):

      • Cyril Connolly’s letter is an odd interpolation in the narrative – the first time the novel turns on itself, creating a sense of dislocation that makes us pause to reflect on the process of writing and the whole artificial construct: a product of drafting and redrafting, criticism and adaptation. His recommendation for an ‘underlying pull of simple narrative’ is already there in the vase episode, because Briony’s observation of it does now lead somewhere.


    Against oblivion

    Against Oblivion

    • No late twentieth century text can subscribe to the simplified wish fulfilments of classic realist fiction. ‘The development of nuclear weapons,’ McEwan has said, ‘shows the dissociation of science from feelings,’ of outer and inner worlds we inhabit.

      • Interview with John Haffenden (1985), quoted in Brian Finney’s essay “Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan’s Atonement“ (2002)


    Against oblivion atonement

    Against Oblivion – Atonement

    • World War Two, that introduced the world to mass ethnic cleansing, the Cold War and the permanent threat of nuclear deterrence, appears to have brought forth mainly aesthetic structures that reflect the complexity and horror of life in the second half of that century. It is a time in history when the Marshalls, who, equally guilty, lack Briony’s conscience, use the War to make their fortune and are then treated as public benefactors. Compared to Briony, they “have no remorse, no need for atonement“ (McEwan, 2002 interview).

      • Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Brian Finney (2002)

      • http://www.csulb.edu/~bhfinney/McEwan.html


    Against oblivion atonement1

    Against Oblivion – Atonement

    • Atonement ends not just with the revelation of the deaths of Robbie and Cecilia, but with the diagnosis of Briony’s vascular dementia and her refusal to have the lovers forgive her even in her fictional account of their survival - proof that in her literary act of atonement Briony has finally learned how to imagine herself into the feelings of others. Responding to the criticism that his endings are too pessimistic, McEwan has said, “I never did trust those novels where, for all their dark insights, or that they ended in a funeral, there was always someone walking away and bending to pick up a flower“ (2001 interview).

      • Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Brian Finney (2002)

      • http://www.csulb.edu/~bhfinney/McEwan.html


    Empathy the novel in ian mcewan s atonement

    • Yet, as McEwan admits, Part Three “has about it both an act of cowardice [. . .] but also it’s her stand against oblivion ­ she’s seventy seven years old, her tide is running out very fast [. . .] She does not have the courage of her pessimism. [. . .] She knows that when this novel is finally published [. . .] she herself will only become a character“ (McEwan, Silverblatt).

      • Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Brian Finney (2002)

      • http://www.csulb.edu/~bhfinney/McEwan.html


    Empathy the novel in ian mcewan s atonement

    • Is Briony’s work of fiction an evasion or an act of atonement or both? What exactly does she mean when she says that atonement “was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point” (351)? Is she implicitly recognizing the contradiction at the heart of her narrative – the impossibility of avoiding constructing false fictions around others at the same time as one is required to enter imaginatively into their lives?

      • Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Brian Finney (2002)

      • http://www.csulb.edu/~bhfinney/McEwan.html


    Empathy the novel in ian mcewan s atonement

    • Or is McEwan suggesting that the attempt is all we can ask for, an attempt that is bound to fail, but that can come closer to or stray further from the reality of others? Robbie’s and Cecilia’s happiness cannot be restored to them by an act of corrective fiction.

      • Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Brian Finney (2002)

      • http://www.csulb.edu/~bhfinney/McEwan.html


    Empathy the novel in ian mcewan s atonement

    • Nevertheless the attempt to imagine the feelings of others is perhaps the one corrective that we can make in the face of continuing human suffering. The novel ends on a note of ambiguity. Yet an appreciation of ambiguity is just what would have prevented Briony from indicting Robbie in her first fictionalized narration of these events.

      • Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Brian Finney (2002)

      • http://www.csulb.edu/~bhfinney/McEwan.html


    What is really wrong with the classic realist novel

    What is really wrong with the classic realist novel?

    • In classic realist fiction the events seem to narrate themselves, thus removing any sense of the literary work as a product of a controlling voice.

    • Discourse – language that draws attention to its production – assumes a speaker and a hearer, thus opening itself to resistance, dispute, critical questioning.


    What is really wrong with the classic realist novel1

    What is really wrong with the classic realist novel?

    • From his earliest collections of short stories Ian McEwan has consistently drawn attention to the status of his fiction as discourse by alluding to or parodying traditional literary genres, thereby forcing the reader to take note of the presence of a self conscious narrator.

      • Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Brian Finney (2002)

      • http://www.csulb.edu/~bhfinney/McEwan.html


    Intertextuality as antidote to the classic realist novel

    Intertextuality as antidote to the classic realist novel

    • McEwan consciously modelled Atonement on the work of “Elizabeth Bowen of The Heat of the Day, with a dash of Rosamund Lehmann of Dusty Answer, and, in [Briony’s] first attempts, a sprinkling of Virginia Woolf” (McEwan, Begley 56). At least one reviewer has seen a parallel between Atonement and Bowen’s The Last September (1929) “with its restive teenage girl in the big house” (Lee 16).

      • Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Brian Finney (2002)

      • http://www.csulb.edu/~bhfinney/McEwan.html


    Intertextuality as antidote to the classic realist novel1

    Intertextuality as antidote to the classic realist novel

    • Elizabeth Bowen also directly influences the form the final novel takes. After reading Briony’s first neo-modernist attempt to give fictional shape to the events of 1935 submitted to Cyril Connolly at Horizon, Bowen reacts by first thinking the prose “ ‘too full, too cloying,’” but with “‘redeeming shades of Dusty Answer’” (Rosamund Lehmann’s first novel of 1927 about a young girl’s growing up). Cyril Connolly voices Bowen’s final criticism of the modernist obsession with consciousness at the expense of plot by reminding Briony that even her most sophisticated readers “retain a childlike desire to be told a story” (296). Briony’s rewritten Part One owes its mounting tension to Bowen’s criticism passed on to Cyril Connolly and the example offered by Bowen’s earlier novel.

      • Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Brian Finney (2002)

      • http://www.csulb.edu/~bhfinney/McEwan.html


    Intertextuality as antidote to the classic realist novel2

    Intertextuality as antidote to the classic realist novel

    • The numerous allusions to other texts warn the reader not to treat Atonement as a classic realist text. … Atonement offers particularly clear instances of … the different ways in which a text, in relating to other texts, becomes productive of further meanings, ways such as rereading and displacement. McEwan’s novel is most obviously a rereading of the classic realist novel of the nineteenth century, just as it is a displacement of the modernist novel, particularly as instanced in the fiction of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence.

      • Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Brian Finney (2002)

      • http://www.csulb.edu/~bhfinney/McEwan.html


    Intertextuality as antidote to the classic realist novel clarissa

    Intertextuality as antidote to the classic realist novel: Clarissa

    • Atonement makes an ironic literary allusion to the early English epistolary novel Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson. Arabella, the melodramatic heroine of the thirteen-year-old Briony’s playlet, shares Clarissa’s sister’s name and thereby places “The Trials of Arabella“ within a literary tradition of sentimentality and sensationalism, while inevitably lacking the psychological complexity of the original. Cecilia is spending the vacation after graduating at Cambridge by reading Clarissa, which Robbie considers psychologically subtle and she boring. Their disagreement over this text helps determine the reader’s response to the rape which takes place later the same day and which is sprung on the reader with none of the lengthy preparation that Richardson provides.

      • Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Brian Finney (2002)

      • http://www.csulb.edu/~bhfinney/McEwan.html


    Bildungsroman

    bildungsroman

    • The coming-of-age story involves the maturation from child to adult by means of a journey, typically defined by an acquisition of education, which leads to a confrontation of one’s past, recognition of familial guilt and burdens, and finally, a fuller awareness of one’s self and eventual accommodation into society.


    Bildungsroman1

    bildungsroman

    • Isabel Allende used the same genre in her second novel Eva Luna to negotiate a similar cultural cross-over between North (Europeans) and South (Latin-Americans), colonisers and colonised, etc. In her novel, she used a Northern European character displaced by war in parallel with its Latin-American protagonist, to enable multiple crossings over the ‘colonial divide’.


    Bildungsroman2

    bildungsroman

    • While McEwan’s use of the bildungsroman in Atonement seems to be quite straightforward, Briony’s particular maturation from child to adult perfectly fitting every element of the genre, the ambiguity of her relationship to narrative truth upsets our easy acceptance of its ideology of identity formation. Like the eponymous protagonist of the classic film Citizen Kane, there is more than one discrete Briony Tallis in the novel.


    Critical reading of a narrative sequence 2

    Critical reading of a narrative sequence #2

    • Atonement Part One, Chapter 1 (pp.5-6):

      • ‘But hidden drawers…’ to ‘…when he was at home.’


    Critical reading of a narrative sequence 21

    Critical reading of a narrative sequence #2

    • Atonement Part One, Chapter 1 (pp.5-6):

      • There are ironies in Briony’s worry about readers speculating on her self-representation – we later discover that this is indeed the older Briony writing about her younger self – and in her assertion that ‘she did not have it in her to be cruel’ (p.5), with such an ordered life denying her the possibility of wrongdoing – she manages to create chaos & destruction through the very urge that seemingly prevents her from wrongdoing: the urge to make everything neat.


    Critical reading of a narrative sequence 3

    Critical reading of a narrative sequence #3

    • Atonement Part One, Chapter 13 (pp.168-9):

      • ‘As early as the week…’ to ‘…would be put at risk.’


    Critical reading of a narrative sequence 31

    Critical reading of a narrative sequence #3

    • Atonement Part One, Chapter 13 (pp.168-9):

      • The extended investigation of the rape is compressed into a short, vital passage of reflection. Briony’s doubts about what she saw are acknowledged and we see the process by which they were quashed at the time. The image of the ‘glazed surface’ of her conviction with ‘hairline cracks’(p.168) recalls the Meissen vase, mended so they’re barely visible. Both vase & Briony’s story will come apart again later. The final image of the ‘bride-to-be’ (p.169) who has doubts before a wedding, prefigures Lola’s wedding to Paul in Part Three & recalls the marriage-centred plot of The Trials of Arabella, as well as the unsatisfactory marriages of the novel so far.


    Critical reading of a narrative sequence 4

    Critical reading of a narrative sequence #4

    • Atonement Part One, Chapter 3 (pp. 39-42):

      • ‘The sequence was illogical…’ to ‘…The writing could wait until she was free.’


    Birth of the author

    Birth of the author

    • Irony (‘how easy…to get everything wrong’; p.39)

    • Prolepsis (‘Six decades later she would describe…’; p.41)

    • Reflective metafiction (‘I watch myself watch myself writing…’)

      • this explicit acknowledgement of bildungsroman as an authorial device undermines its credibility as narrative realism, even as it works to establish Briony’s fundamental character flaw


    Critical reading of a narrative sequence 5

    Critical reading of a narrative sequence #5

    • Atonement Part One, Chapter 14 (pp. 186-7):

      • ‘It should have ended there…’ to ‘…finally vanished into the whiteness.’


    Narrating an ending

    Narrating an ending

    Part 1’s conclusion is filled with layered ironies: it should have ended, but it effectively begins Briony’s journey of atonement; wanting her mother but knowing she ‘wouldn’t come now’(p.184), Briony witnesses Robbie’s mother coming for him instead; knowing ‘she had never loved her sister more than now’(p.186) [but not knowing Cecilia would never return that love], Briony fails to show the same empathy for Grace Turner. In fact, Briony’s pointed failure as narrator to express any sympathy for the ‘characters’ in this ‘concluding drama’ (Robbie and Grace) renders the moment far more poignantly than if she expressed it as she had just previously done for Cecilia and herself. The empathy she describes on p.41 may have been achieved in the reader, but has taken ‘six decades’ to perfect. For now, Briony’s sympathy ‘vanishe[s] into the whiteness’ of a blank page.


    Narrative architectural motifs

    Narrative (architectural) motifs

    • Alongside his use of metafiction and intertextuality, McEwan also draws attention to the constructed nature of his narrative by employing parallel or symmetrical motifs:

      • Marshall’s rape of Lola takes place by the eighteenth century, crumbling, stuccoed Greek temple in the Tallis grounds with its ‘row of pillars and the pediment above them’ (72).

      • The wedding of Marshall and Lola turns out to be at a London church that looks ‘like a Greek temple,’ especially its ‘low portico with white columns beneath a clock tower of harmonious proportions’ (323). Separated by five years, the rape and marriage are brought into shocking juxtaposition by purely narrative means.

        Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Brian Finney (2002)

        http://www.csulb.edu/~bhfinney/McEwan.html


    Narrative architectural motifs1

    Narrative (architectural) motifs

    • The last occasion on which Briony encounters the Marshalls at the end of the book takes place outside the Imperial War Museum which echoes the other two buildings in being based on Greek temple design and featuring columns and a portico. Behind the neo-classical facades that come to represent the ‘mausoleum of their marriage’ (325) lurk respectively ruin, a joint lie, and the destructive memories of a war from which Marshall made his fortune. [cf: Blake’s ‘marriage hearse’]

      Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Brian Finney (2002)

      http://www.csulb.edu/~bhfinney/McEwan.html


    Narrative architectural motifs the tallis family estate s island temple

    Chiswick House and Gardens

    Stourhead estate, Wiltshire

    Narrative (architectural) motifs –the Tallis family estate’s island temple

    • McEwan uses very particular references to architectural and landscape design in his characterisation of the Tallis family estate as a setting for the novel (p.19 & pp. 72-3).

    • Architectural writer Elizabeth Hornbeck comments in her blog, Stationary Nomad: Journeys in Visual Culture, that Ian McEwan’s elaborate description of the island temple advances his work by:

      • managing in passing to associate the temple, which becomes the scene where the novel’s central crime will take place on the night the twins run away, with delinquent behavior;


    Narrative architectural motifs the tallis family estate s island temple1

    Chiswick House and Gardens

    Stourhead estate, Wiltshire

    Narrative (architectural) motifs –the Tallis family estate’s island temple

    • using architectural history to position the Tallis family within the landed aristocracy, the 18th century patrons for such Adam style houses (though only one half of the family is aristocratic; the other belongs to the nouveau riche, descended from a grandfather “who made the family fortune with a series of patents on padlocks, bolts, latches and hasps” – a subtle gesture towards Briony’s fallible desire for secrets and obsessive tidiness);

      Stationary Nomad: Journeys in Visual Culture, Elizabeth Hornbeck (2002)

      http://itinerantprofessor.blogspot.com/2008/03/atonement.html


    Narrative architectural motifs the tallis family estate s island temple2

    Chiswick House and Gardens

    Stourhead estate, Wiltshire

    Narrative (architectural) motifs –the Tallis family estate’s island temple

    • creating a metaphor for the Tallis family’s descent, being a time-honored theme in British literature: the degeneracy of Britain’s aristocracy (also providing an ironic counterpoint to Mr. Tallis’ efforts raising the prospects of working class Robbie Turner);

    • alluding to the situation of the children in the novel, who suffer because of the adults’ neglect, much like this temple has been abandoned by its parent, the vanished Adam house.

      Stationary Nomad: Journeys in Visual Culture, Elizabeth Hornbeck (2002)

      http://itinerantprofessor.blogspot.com/2008/03/atonement.html


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