Dear friends and readers,
This is another blog in progress: about McEwan’s poetic novel, Atonement and the visionary film adaptation made from it, Atonement by Joe Wright, Christophe Hampton, Ian McEwan and Tim Evan (among several named producers). I mean to come back and add to it after I meet with my students. For now here are the comments I will bring myself to the discussion.
The Dunkirk retreat includes not just a ferris wheel, merry-go-round, but a small dollhouse (recalling the opening doll house which was a replica of the family house) — not to omit thousands of people doing all sorts of frantic and ordinary things, among which is the systemic killing of horses
Rereading this book for a fourth time, it seemed to me a deeply painful and poetically great book. The story shows us how dangerous it is for someone of a lower class and status to allow himself to become the pet of a rich man and his family, for they will turn on him at a moment’s notice and everyone around the estate back them up.
Robbie typing the fatal note: but it was a catastrophe waiting to happen anyway
It reveals the self-punishing nature of atonement, and how only those who feel for the hurt couple will now help them.
Post modern books are self-conscious; the writers do not think they can reflect reality directly; they are aware they are often imitating a tradition and other books rather than writing simply as a mirror of nature; they distrust authority, conventions, traditional moralities, and question these are the products of self-interested groups. They look into psychoanalytical interpretations as the reflections of social preoccupations.
Another plainer way of seeing the book is as a gothic-inflected historical fiction. The depiction of war in it is about the truth of Dunkirk but it is also a critique of modern colonialist wars and how we destroy human lives and civilization wherever we take these wars. We do have those gothic elements we outlined in the beginning: storm, tempest, death, the past, time, vulnerable heroine, monstrous crimes, the uncanny, the house, the riven landscape, even ghosts — Cecila and Robbie are ghosts of Briony’s mind. And it’s about class today and sexuality (pathologies inside families) today too. Robbie is an outsider, and becomes an exile and wanderer. Briony is a prisoner of her intense self-inflicted flagellation; she never escapes her obsession (it was after all Emily who prosecuted Robbie, and Jack who let him do it). It’s possible that Robbie is Jack’s natural son; if so, then we have a semi-incestuous couple at the center.
One way to read it is of an male author in drag writing apparently androgynously, I am struck that the real way to read this 400 page flagellation by Briony against herself is that it’s a parable not to do this to yourself. If you do a bad deed, you have two choices: live with it ruthlessly and ignore what you did, or escape somehow. Briony couldn’t pull off either; she was the prisoner of her own mind. The idea of atonement itself is critiqued. The book is gothic because it dwells in this madness. Robbie is our male gothic figure: outsider who becomes exile and wanderer; Briony is the female undergoing live burial or imprisonment because she cannot rid herself of her obsession. She thinks she prevented Robbie and Cecilia from getting together because that was indeed a semi-conscious motivation: she loved Robbie as a rival.
Having done a paper studying the representations of rape, I’m bothered by McEwan’s "engagement" if that is what it is with Richardson’s Clarissa. Atonement falls into the very large category of novels about an accusation of rape whose result is harsh punishment for the woman who accuses; he deflects this by making the accuser a girl-child, but she is equally characterized (perhaps Clarissa the character meant here) as finding male sexuality when a child abhorrent. to his credit, Wood touches on this in passing. My paper showed that in fact accusations of rape are relatively rare in courts because women lose a great deal if they accuse whether it happened or not, and a huge percentage of rape goes unrecorded and unlitigated.
I put my paper on line and much of the above is in the bibliography — including articles on the litigation of rape in the 18th century by A. Simpson.
It’s a disturbing book: like so many by men, the rapist is not really brought forward until the end. He is blamed as a rich industrialist and war profiteer, and the women of the movie are seen as wanting punishment, ferocity. The girl who lies, Briony, is (I’ve experienced this) hated often as much by women as men readers, even though in the book McEwan goes out of his way to exonerate and how how much Briony suffered. The hostility to her reminds me of the hostility to the governess in The Turn of the Screw: two women who are accusing male sexuality, trying to control it, themselves refusing it.
It’s not really an exaggeration or too far an exaggeration to say that McEwan’s Atonement especially in the form Joe Wright gives it in his movie which salivates over Knightley’s super-thin (frigheningly gothic stance like body) takes a Lawrentian view of women (see my blog on Wright’s 2005 P&P): they are dying for men’s penises when they are healthy and give them that and they are happy.
On the post-modern nature of the book: this is a book which imitates and alludes to a number of earlier books, authors and styles. The heroine’s name (like that of Patrick O’Brian’s Sophie from Maturin novels) is probably chosen as a typical 18th century heroine’s name; it’s also the name of Fanny Burney’s Cecilia (in a novel cited by Austen in Northanger Abbey). It’s connected to Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and the movie is loaded with letters and we continually hear the clacking of the typewriter either Briony writing her novel (what we are watching) or the characters writing letters; McEwan has said he had Virginia Woolf in mind, Elizabeth Bowen’s Last September (about Ireland in the 1920s), and Heat of the Day (a WW2 spy novel whose hero is a Nazi), E. L. Hartley’s The Gobetween (about a go-between over sex), 18th century poetry and it opens with a long quotatoin from Austen’s one partial gothic novel, Northanger Abbey. Incidents can be connected to novels by Woolf, the atmosphere is Rosamond Lehman’s Dusty Answer (melancholy depression novel which takes place among upper class). Robbie quotes Twelfth Night, Yeats, Auden. The attitude towards sex is that of D. H. Lawrence and Robbie can be seen as a recreation in sympathetic terms (upper class, ambitoins) of the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
As Cecilia, Briony stand there, we do not notice inthe background Paul Marshall, face down (he’s the rapist)
They are watching Robbie rescuing the children no one cares for
On Jocelyn Harris’s theory that Atonement is centrally a rewriting of Clarissa, a deep engagement with the earlier epistolary book, while it’s intriguing, and sheds light on the book, I am not altogether persuaded. There are certainly parallels: Atonement is filled with letters and writing and this is central; the hero is a Robbie (as in Robert Lovelace) but he is accused (falsely) of rape (and thus the book is more like Fielding’s where false accusation of rape is a concern), and Robbie is a wonderful person, didn’t do it, is blamed because he is working class, and the accent or emphasis on the book is on Briony (the writer, the child — McEwan is often concerned with children) I’m not sure how central Richardson’s book is. McEwan prosecutes Briony: the reality is false accusation of rape is rare because the girl who is raped is herself a suspect, interrogated; the book takes a proto-feminist book like Clarissa and turns it into one which indicts a female who fears male sexuality and won’t accept its worst aspects (violence, ruthlessness, rape). McEwan must’ve hated Clarissa and sympathized deeply with the villain, Lovelace.
I suggest that Virginia Woolf as a model (her style, outlook) could arguable be made the central figure the book engages with. And there are allusions to 18th century poetry, to Rosamund Lehmann. It’s a highly literary allusive book. Prof Harris talked about the ferris wheel in the movie and the ferris wheel in Lovelace’s dream, but in the feature Joe Wright talks about that ferris wheel as there for quite different reasons. I think the essay cited doesn’t go into this that much. There’s an essay by Hermione Lee where she argues the book is androgynous in outlook: it’s a book which imitates ecriture-femme yet has a male in drag (personating Briony) at the center.
The quarrel by the fountain as seen by Briony
Hermione Lee said it well when she writes (I linked her review into our course materials) that the novel feels androgynous. This is a novel written by a man acting the part of a woman writing a ‘male’ subject, and the mood and feel is of a woman’s novel while the attitudes justify male sexuality that aggressive mostly as a reaction against how society has constructed him — what society has done to men, never mind women, particularly lower class who are thrown away.
The author: Ian McEwan:
He’s a respected well-known writer of our time. Born 1948 he’s been writing for a long time and won some prestigious prizes: Mann Booker more than once. The early part of his career was consumed in writing amoral horror fiction of a ugly and upsetting type.
Briony punishing herself for the rest of her life
If we look at the themes and what happens in the early books, we do discern a few things that anticipate this novel: such as people doing things to others without crediting the others for having as much consciousness, needs, minds and lives apart from them. They also swirl around rape and sexual crimes; often it is a man who is hurting a woman badly; ultimately it’s like Lolita where we have this crazed vicious narrator who many readers identify with and whose view of Lolita and the world the film has presented as true. Lola who is raped may allude to Lolita. It’s often a male or masculinistic point of view. The characters exist in solitude and they have been alienated from their society often by no fault of their own. A man was kept in a cupboard by his mother and not allowed to grow up and learn how to integrate into society. High violence is typical of what is seen and also the ugliness, banality of modern urban life. People don’t know each other.. The early fiction is fantasy and cut off from the world’s social concerns and breaks realistic conventions.
Mid-career shows a change; short novels which are partly realistic and he writes for TV and film scripts. In one mid-career novel, Child of Time, he has a couple whose child is stolen from them in a supermarket; in another, The Comfort of Strangers, a couple who seem to lack feeling get involved with a murderer in holiday to Venice. He’s interested in children; what they can see, and what they can’t, their simple and brutal view of the world, their anxieties and fearfulness and desire to play games, especially the games.
The later fiction shows a deep concern with how world of politics and their incorrigible effects on intimate alliances; the relationships within these novels reflect the changes—social, psychological, political—of the latter twentieth century. The class barrier in Atonement is pernicious in its effects. Cecilia and Robbie leap to the conclusion that Danny did it. Never Paul Marshall the man who grows rich putting candy in soldiers’ backpacks; there seems no risk he will have to go and fight
McEwan participates in the really fine TV films made for the BBC in the 1980s; British film-makers had to turn to TV to make a living as the American film-makers took over their cinema market. McEwan made The Ploughman’s Lunch and other films which show a detestation of the Thatcherite materialistic and anti-social era; she was a figure like Reagon, reactionary, turning the clock back deliberately to make a world of haves and have-hots, destroying unions, changing the tax code to punish the lower middle class, getting rid of social services. The values that underly this were exposed and dramatized in movies of the 80s in the UK.
Recent turn to more compassionate, more traditional books have garnered him prestigious prizes: Booker Prize for Amsterdam. Other books are On Chesnil Beach, a young couple who know nothing of sex go on their honeyman. He’s kept up his interest in film and he was one of the producers of the film Atonement and while he didn’t write the script he was there in all the changes, and editing and influenced it.
What happened cannot be undone
The irretrievability of acts; uselessness but need to atone by the person who committed the error or crime; ruthlessness and amorality of people (what is one to do with a slave-trader or say today a trafficker in women), the beauty and longing of history. There’s no doubting how the book and movie present us with this beautiful past. The vase is broken irrecovably; fragile
On our social and political carnage of one another: McEwan asks, What is responsible for the carnage? Why do societies go out and murder in big numbers? People or men don’t refuse except a very few. Is it the life of establishment England (with its diplomats planning mass bombings, its rapacious businessmen, its repression of women, its maintaining of feudal class systems) being held responsible for the carnage visited on the poor bloody infantry at Dunkirk. How are we fooled as well as coerced: Fantasy, day-dream, evasions, self-dramatization, all the powerful and dangerous work of the imagination, do battle with the facts, things as they are.
All this is realistic or part of traditional fiction; it is shot through with interiority of the characters minds: One of Robbie’s first statements is "’I was away in my thoughts." Emily (sexually betrayed and subject to migraines, holds onto class status as all she’s got) ‘Her daughter was always off and away in her mind.’
Last moment they ever saw one another: she looks at him from bus: this recalls (among other films), The Remains of the Day and Lean’s Dr Zhivago
He watches her longingly
The movie is post-modern too: it’s imitating an old classic called Brief Encounter, a remarkably romantic woman’s film equivalent in status to Casablanca and made in the same year; In Which we Serve, a pro-war proganda film (very good by Noel Coward), Rebecca. Also Robbie passes by a scene from Le Quai des Brumes (1938, Jean Gabin, Michele Morgan) where hero and heroine (who resembles Keira Knightley in face uncannily) are kissing and talking. This film is said to be an example of "French poetic realism;" it’s described as "hauntingly sad, quietly emotional," & the story line is parallel to that of Atonement: A young man, an army deserter, flees, falls in love in a small town, tries to create a new life with her; they are killed. Another one on longing for impossible happiness and the reality of loneliness. Wright is also thinking of movies of WW1 and 2 — like Coward’s In Which We Serve (also claimed as precursor movie)
The house is photographed from within at odd angles: emphasizing its gothic like (church) architecture, its labyrinths
The artful design:
I. The structure generally, using my edition.
A. Large forms: three acts and a coda. Act I, is chapters 1-14 and these are numbered, in my edition, pp. 3-239. It opens with Briony and more or less goes back and forth between, one part for Robbie with Briony dominating
Act II, pp. 243-341. This is unnumbered: Robbie’s point of view or consciousness with Cecilia’s letter, ends on dream state
Act III, pp. 345-451. Again unnumbered. Briony’s point of view, again interspersed with letters by Emily, ends with initials BT, 1999 September the way a novelist might sign the last page of her novel
Coda, pp. 455-480. The interview of Briony at 77 and devastating close.
B. Some details: the movie does follow the hinge points of the novel in the order they come and makes the crucial moments of the book its crucial moments.
II. Details within that structure:
Opening miniature of what’s to come
Act or Part I
1. Chapter 1, p. 3, Briony opens and she’s writing her play
2. Chapter 2, p. 22. Cecilia’s point of view enters and the story of the exacerbated love of Cecilia and Robbie begins. In this chapter the vase is broken. The scene by the fountain — old romance. They discuss or mention Clarissa.
3. Chapter 3, p. 40: Back to Briony who is watching the scene by the fountain and does not understand it.
4. Chapter 4, p. 54: Cecilia’s point of view. She used to whisper Come back to Briony to bring her out of nightmares (reminding me of Helen bringing Decclan out of nightmares); and we hear her use this phrase to Robbie in his rages and despair. P. 59 she reminds me of the character Clarissa in her early obedience to family and family values.
5. Chapter 5, p. 70: Briony trying to rehearse play. We see Lola and get to learn about their broken home a bit. Little sympathy for her mother, Hermioine, p. 84.
6. Chapter 6, p . 81. This the mother’s chapter, Emily, whose husband doesn’t come home, who spends as much of her life as she can in the bedroom in dim light. I suggest (we can’t tell for sure) that she is hearing Lola and Paul having sex through the wall on p. 89
7. Chapter 7, p. 92: this opens with a scene that recalls Northanger Abbey and picturesque in movies of 18th century. Briony looking at melancholy ruined temple, dreaming revenge. The style, mood and feel is Virginia Woolf like. She does not know it’s fake. Narrator is there dropping ominous hints, p. 98, last sentence.
The beauty of the landscape is continually emphasized by shots
8. Chapter 8, p. 99. Robbie’s one chapter and the tone is often bitter. The cleaning lady’s son who has his politics to protect him. Cannot get rid of bad memories. Like Lovelace in Clarissa writing guarded memories, pp. 108-9. He is writing letter, about thinking and feeling behind letter rather than words. Words often used to cover up rather than reveal ourselves. But resentment and genital needs come out and Freudian slip (?) he sends the wrong letter in which herites down the socially unacceptable and in our society ugly used word: cunt. Does include a small passage from Grace his mother’s point of view. pp. 110-113: she is happy to clean and cook for him; given no other outlet to show her love or services.
9. Chapter 9. p. 122: Cecilia: we get an inner history of this girl through her costume changes, p. 124. She can’t make up her mind what to wear and as she considers each garment her inner self comes out. In Clueless a teenage movie adapted from Austen’s Emma, this changing is a joke, not here. P. 139 McEwan’s hatred of Clarissa, the novel where a girl says no and has the right to say it, and the man is condemned rightly condemned. Lovelace is upper class and not at all like Robbie in deep emotionality
10. Chapter 10, p. 145: Briony who has read the letter, her over-reading and disgust and fear p. 147 :he is incarnation of evil. In this chapter Lola claims her bruises are given her by Jackson and Pierot but we have no proof of that and it seems unlikely. And then she sees them in the library. Repeat of misunderstanding of fountain scene only much worse.
11. Chapter 11, p. 159. Opens on Emily, super hot dinner. Narrator dropping hint: Lola subdued by physical assault, and in the next sentence’s it’s Paul who breaks the silence. (Maybe like Akaki in The Overcoat Robbie should not have come; remember Ashoke told us that all life was there in The Overcoat, all we needed to know). Paul is scratched running parallel to his nose, Robbie sees it. Everyone having sex but Emily and children. Robbie comes in at p. 166. Paul backs up Lola’s story, p 180
12. Chapter 12, p. 185: we are back in Emily’s point of view, she is remembering the family history, real history, the books she read at university (as opposed to Rob’s listed earlier), and she was given nothing to do afterward. Her resentment of Rob is for herself. What has she been allowed to study? to do in life. Leon’s moment, white with trouble, he’s not that bright if good-natured, p. 197
13. Chapter 13, p. 199. Back to Briony and Robbie blamed. Evidence is heaped up but we are supposed to know it’s not so because we are supposed to trust to Robbie’s character. She is out in the landscape. Lola found. Someone seen escaping. Briony says it was Robbie and Lola never denies this.
14 Chapter 14, p. 221. The interrogation. Remembering back.
Act or Part II
Begins p. 243: Robbie’s consciousness, the prison, the march, Dunkirk. Cecilia does reach him by one letter, pp. 272-74 Act of good faith. His mind ranges far and wide to childhood, and to a dream of a holiday, pp. 316-17. He writes it down to have it forever. Writing matters. Words matter. Extraordinary landscape, p. 319 He goes back again and again to the final moments before the arrest and his life was ruined, over. Is this romantic? Is a life really ruined by one act? no retrievability. Depends.
Act or Part III
Briony writing a first draft of the novel we are reading
Begins p. 345. Briony herself did not go to college, instead put herself under the tyranny of a nurse, self-punishing, p 353 We are told of Emily’s letters, p. 357-8 .Emily seems to know little of reality any more. Intensely moving scene of man with half his head blown off, and how she participates in a lie, pp. 393. So lies not always wrong.
pp. 401-405. Publisher’s kind letter: it won’t do, like Mrs Woolf, suggestions are there for us to see how to read Briony’s or McEwan’s book. It has a forward movement all right.
p. 428: the meeting and apology that never happened.
Coda, London 1999.
Begins p. 455, Briony, going back to the house, a vision of seeing Marshall’s wedding in film is dream-like not probable in the book it was in the past; back to house for party, it’s not Tilney’s hotel (a joke Henry Tilney hero of NA). Not an interview as in film, but that’s a good translatoin.
I find the close ambiguous. She wants to give them what they didn’t have, but they didn’t have it. She advertises that in a way. She says she no longer has the courage of her pessimism, could this be McEwan talking of the change in his own fiction. It is a final act of kindness too: is the demand to look at realty hard in the eye and insist on it with the idea you can change it, just useless and finally ill-nature. Better to pretend since life is going to get better anyway.
I suggest you can get "hold" of the book more easily by reading the screenplay which can act as a sort of outline or crib and the differences are interesting and revealing.
Poignant close where the dying Briony tells us the reunion never happened; she made it up as she now lacks the courage of her younger pessimism
The house where most of the filming was done
Joe Wright and Christopher Hampton’s Atonement
We’ve already said they changed the emphasis, so that Act I in terms of time spent no longer than Act II (road to Dunkirk and Dunkirk) and Act III (Briony as nurse and the invented meeeting between her, Robbie, and Cecilia. It may feel longer because it has many rapid jump, cuts, and literally separate scenes, but the other two phases get as much time. It increases Robbie’s role and our sympathy for him. Coda is not done by a return to the house, but an interview, what’s great is Vanessa Redgrave’s acting. She is so compassionate and yearning, her dream brings you to tears.
It’s important to contextualize a film-maker’s work with the other films. We will concentrate on Wright though looking at the other movies Hampton has made would be fruitful too: he has made many costume dramas, a number set back in 18th century. We saw another play by him as a movie this term: Mary Reilly, only his script is a rewriting of an first script by Roman Polanski.
Wright made a movie of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 2005, Universal Picture. The same crew just about are for both, the actress playing Robbie’s mother played Mrs Bennet, Keira Knightley the heroine, James McAvoy was in another Austen movie where he played Tom Lefroy supposed romance with Austen when young. INteresting to compare because both are visionary and high romance: we are led to believe in the ectascy of love and drawn to immerse ourselves in landscapes and feel highly repressed in houses. Joy for the lovers must occur outside social conventions and norms. Mostly silent — little dialogue in comparison with most movies, epitomizing lines rather.
In both movies the characters’ subjective inner worlds are made into landscape projections of their moods, with rapid & often wordless cutting & juxtaposition. Ian McEwan’s book Atonement imitates Virginia Woolf in its interiority and techniques, alludes to Northanger Abbey, uses picturesque landscape and poetry, and we have interjected flashbacks and repeated scenes (at the fountain, in the library) from the point of view of the character. He breaks realism. Wright would repeat for example, the scene of quarrel in front of Briony at the window twice: first the way and what she saw, and the second, close up what Robbie and Cecilia were feeling and how she began to recognize her hostility as a cover-up.
Atonement is a masculinist rewrite of Clarissa, the film which is itself loaded with letters (like the 1991 film Clarissa), and uses the sound of a clacking typewriter throughout also to suggest to us what we are seeing is the product of Briony’s writing a novel; it’s symbolic, visionary, moving from rich interior to nightmarish exterior.
There were many driving walking sequences, marching to typewriter
Joe Wright said he was thinking of Brief Encounter and Rebecca (1939 version) when he made this film. These are piece of intense romance, about the love that never happened, never came off — which is again, a theme one finds in the Austen films, e.g., 1981 film of Sense and Sensibility for Willoughby and Marianne. Since the photography is spectacularly lush and the production design high costume romance, while Brief Encounter is associated with all that is drab and sober in look, I thought this colloquy revealing.
And then you’d find yourself in deep dreamy sadness — the insanity of what’s happening softened
Within the movie, in a dream-sequence Robbie passes before a large screen on which Le Quai des Brumes (1938, Jean Gabin, Michele Morgan) are kissing and talking. This is said to be an example of "French poetic realism;" it’s described as "hauntingly sad, quietly emotional," & the story line is parallel to that of Atonement. A young man, an army deserter, flees, falls in love in a small town, tries to create a new life with her; they are killed. Another one on longing for impossible happiness and the reality of loneliness. Wright is also thinking of movies of WW1 and 2 — like In Which We Serve.
Yet for me one of the film’s greatest and most powerful and memorable moments occurred when Brenda Blethyn as Grace Turner met the police car taking her son away with a huge stick, umbrella of some sort, risked her life confronting the vehicle and screamed and screamed, "Liars! liars! liars!" I’ll never forget it. And there’s no accounting for it but the genius of the scriptwriter, director, producer and actress.
A memserizing photo of Keira Knightley: all in greens
To have a fuller context one really needs to look at these essays (Lee’s is online in public): I’ve gone over the matter of some of them, but not all. For example, Finney connects Atonement to NA, both of which can be seen to condemn women’s imagination and novels:
* Brian Finney’s "Briony’s stand against Oblivion" in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Journal of Modern Literature, 27:3 (2004 Winter), pp. 68-82.
* Hermione Lee’s review of Atonement, "If your memories serve you well …", The Spectator, 23 September 2001
* Peter Matthews’s "The Impression of a Deeper Darkness", ESC: English Studies in Canada, 32.1 (2006): 147-160
On 18C texts in Atonement you will also want to look at James Wood, "The Trick of Truth" in The New Republic, March 25 (2002), 28-29, and Greg Clingham, "Johnson, ends, and the possibility of happiness," in Samuel Johnson after 300 Years (Cambridge UP, 2009), 33-54.
An equally insightful and much less adulatory (critical) essay on McEwan’s book is by James Wood; it appears in the London Review of Books, Vol. 31 No. 9 · 14 May 2009 (it’s online, just google for it). It’s salutary, far less adulatory than much of what is written about McEwan today. Wood shows that McEwan’s novels work through manipulation of suspense and the exploitation of "secrets.
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