By Beth Roberts
In the postscript of Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001), the authorial voice changes and the reader’s perception of the novel is profoundly altered. This postscript, named ‘London, 1999’ reveals that Briony, one of the main characters in the text and the instigator of its events, is the author of the novel and has been writing about herself in the third person. Postscripts are usually paratexts rather than sections of the novel; by writing an in-text postscript McEwan blurs the boundary between the real and fictional world by conflating Briony’s authorship with his own. But what is a paratext and how does it work within Atonement? Let’s find out!
What are paratexts?
Paratexts are any material in a published book that surrounds the main text. These can include titles, sub-headings, author’s notes or any other published text within the realms of the book. Postscripts are paratexts because they are after-thoughts; the word ‘postscript’ comes from the Latin post scriptum, meaning ‘written after’. This means that a postscript is separate from the main text, much like when they are used in the letter format. We’ve all written a P.S. at least once in our lives.
In his seminal work Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (1987), Gerard Genette states that paratexts are ‘what enables a text to become a book’ (1987: 1). Genette continues to say that paratexts are thresholds between the inner and outer worlds; generally, paratexts are read as separate from the main text representing a boundary between the fictional text and the real world the reader inhabits. This assumption that the paratext is a separate entity is what makes McEwan’s use of a paratext within the fictional world particularly transgressive.
What is metafiction?
Patricia Waugh defines metafiction in her text Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (1984) as a term ‘given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality’ (p. 2). This means that a metafictional text reminds the reader that they are reading something that has been constructed by an author.
A text may make its metafictional status known through a number of means. It may directly address the reader: for example, in Jane Eyre, Jane says ‘reader, I married him.’ It may use a framing device such as a letter or a diary, or it may use plot holes and/or inaccuracies to draw the reader’s attention to the construction of the narrative. As Waugh says, the purpose of the metafictional text is to disrupt the boundary between fiction and the real world. This is what makes the use of a paratext as a metafictional device particularly radical. A paratext is a boundary between the real and fictional world. By fictionalising the traditionally non-fictional, the author breaks down the division between reality and fiction, much like when a character like Deadpool looks directly into the camera and breaks the ‘fourth wall’ in a film!
How does McEwan’s postscript alter the novel?
Ian McEwan’s postscript at the end of Atonement works as a metafictional paratext that causes the reader to consider to what extent the work exists as a fictional text. The postscript also brings into question the reliability of the authorial voice and disrupts the ending of the novel.
The postscript in Atonement is written from the perspective of a seventy-seven-year-old Briony, who is a successful author. Briony explains that she has dementia and that she eventually will lose her cognitive function; this perhaps explains Briony’s reasoning for revealing the supposed ‘truth’ about the narrative, as she does not know how long she will remember what really happened. Drawing attention to the writing of the fictionalised ending, Briony reveals that Robbie died of septicaemia and Cecelia died in the Blitz, but appeals to her reader that she could not have ended her novel that way because ‘how could that constitute an ending?’ (Atonement, p. 478); perhaps Bryony believes the ending is too unhappy for it to be compelling to the reader. By acknowledging her writing, Briony reminds the reader that the story is her own fictionalised account.
Except it isn’t! Briony is a character created by McEwan and her narrative voice in this postscript is dictated by McEwan’s authorial voice. McEwan makes it appear to the reader that his choice in providing Cecelia and Robbie with closure in the main text of the novel is actually Briony’s emotional attempt at atonement for her mistake. Through this fictional paratext, McEwan disintegrates Briony’s closure, leaving his novel open-ended.
Ian McEwan’s use of a fictional paratext highlights Atonement’s metafiction and encourages the reader to ask questions of the novel: where in the novel does the real world start and fiction end? What does the narrator add to the text? What are the boundaries of fiction? And who makes the meaning in a text?
Beth Roberts is a PhD Student at the University of Surrey.