Ian McEwan, Atonement

By Professor Betty Jay


In one of his discussions of Atonement, Ian McEwan draws particular attention to the encounter between Nurse Briony Tallis and a young French soldier, Luc Cornet, that takes place in part three of the novel. For McEwan, this scene allows him to give a necessary depth to Briony’s character:

‘The central love story does not concern Briony, it concerns her sister and another man. I felt that unless I had some sort of eruption of feeling from Briony—I saw it as a love scene, even though it’s a dying scene—there would be something too unreliable about her account of love.’ (John Sutherland, ‘Life was Clearly Too Interesting in the War’, The Guardian, 3rd January 2002) [2]

This ‘dying scene’, which is also a ‘love scene’, represents a moment in which Briony chooses to play the part of Luc’s remembered sweetheart. When Luc asks, ‘Do you love me?’, the ‘Yes’ with which she responds is delivered with the following explanation: ‘No other reply was possible. Besides, for that moment, she did. He was a lovely boy who was a long way from his family and he was about to die’ (Atonement, 309) [3]. Briony’s response represents both a truth (she does feel love for him) and a deception (it is not romantic, and she is not his beloved). Given Briony’s past, it is significant that, here, her lies alleviate rather than create suffering, representing a turning point in Briony’s moral and psychological development. This scene also demonstrates the novel’s wider concern with war and its remembrance. While Luc’s terrible injury gives readers a glimpse of the damage inflicted by war, and his confusion draws attention to the fragility of individual memory, it is his status as a soldier soon to be numbered among the ‘fallen’ that underlines an urgent need to mark what is lost in war. Whether acknowledged through ceremony, symbolism, the pages of a history book, or indeed the writing of a novel, all of these forms of collective remembrance are crucial to McEwan’s concerns in Atonement.

This focus is first indicated in the fountain scene and the tussle over the Meissen porcelain. Retrieved from the ruin of a French town’s ‘half-destroyed museum’ (23) during the Great War, the vase is presented to Uncle Clem in gratitude for ‘[p]erhaps fifty women, children and old people’ (23) saved by his actions when he evacuates the town. In 1935, it symbolises the fractured nature of memory and, still later, its disintegration. When war returns, the Tallis family anticipates the devastation previously endured by the French by moving its valuables to the cellar. This time, there is no tale of miraculous survival. The vase is dropped, and not everyone in the family will survive the war.

For McEwan, it is important to portray the war accurately. To achieve a degree of realism, he draws on first-hand accounts of the conflict, derived not just from soldiers, but civilians like Lucilla Andrews, whose No Time for Romance represents her work as a Nightingale nurse. McEwan also spent time at the Imperial War Museum Archives, a repository for all manner of war-related documents and artefacts. Briony herself makes use of these resources, including the help of a condescending but obliging ‘old colonel of the Buffs, something of an amateur historian’ (Atonement, 359). He scrutinises Briony’s writing and offers corrections based on his knowledge of the military. In 1999, Briony follows in McEwan’s footsteps and visits the museum, there to meet the Keeper of Documents and hand over ‘the bundle of letters Mr Nettle wrote’ (359). She understands the importance of remembrance, but it does not take a diagnosis of vascular dementia, or even a glimpse of Paul and Lola (now Lord and Lady Marshall), for her to realise how history can be distorted, memories eroded through time. 

If a concern with historical memory and its necessary preservation is indicated by the museum, the imperfect nature of that memory is never in doubt. Mr Nettle would seem to have been one of Robbie’s companions during the war, although his status is unconfirmed. The account of Robbie’s war experience, which may, in part, be derived from these letters, is of course actually imagined by Briony herself. This narrative represents the altered perspective of the soldier who, as well as experiencing trauma, gradually succumbs to septicaemia. As with Uncle Clem, Robbie’s account of the war is bound up with the fate of the civilians:

‘Walking with the soldiers were families hauling suitcases, bundles, babies, or holding the hands of children. The only human sound Turner heard, piercing the din of engines, was the crying of babies.’ (216)

The retreat to Dunkirk for evacuation is not the story of heroic escape one might expect from historical knowledge of this event (the 1940 rescue of some 340,000 British and French soldiers). Robbie does not survive the operation and his journey foregrounds the devastation he witnesses, the violence endured by soldiers and civilians alike. In this respect, his fate, like that of Cecilia, killed during the Blitz, suggests the extent to which Atonement moves beyond the battlefield to draw upon multiple experiences of the war, in order to create what the novel itself asserts can only be an imperfect, albeit essential, account of this history.


  1. Andrews, L. (1977) No Time for Romance. Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap
  2. Sutherland, J. ‘Life was Clearly Too Interesting in the War,’ The Guardian, 3rd January 2002
  3. McEwan, I. (2016) Atonement. London: Vintage. 





Dr Betty Jay is a Senior Lecturer in English at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research focuses on women's writing, contemporary fiction and feminism. Her publications include books on Anne Brontë and E. M. Forster.