People make mistakes. Some mistakes are minor, such as a child losing a new sweater at school. Others are major, such as driving drunk and killing someone. No matter the mistake, we expect an apology and the one the mistake is made to is expected to apologize. Yet, human nature makes it difficult to apologize or absolve others. Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement, beautifully illustrates man’s desire and struggle for atonement and forgiveness. The characters in the novel all deal with their need to move forward from past pains in different ways.
Through a series of paramount events, man’s desire for redemption and forgiveness shows itself in the actions and inner-desires of Briony, Robbie, and Cecilia. The immense guilt Briony, the main protagonist of the novel, feels in regard to her false accusation of Robbie causes her to change plans for her life and re-evaluate her future. Growing up, Briony always dreamed of being a writer. But it comes as a surprise “that Briony isn’t at Cambridge … she’s doing nurse’s training at my old hospital. She’s beginning to get the full grasp of what she did and what it has meant.
But I get the impression that she’s taken on nursing as a sort of penance” (199). This information about Briony’s new career comes from Cecilia in a letter to Robbie. In this letter, Cecilia is talking to Robbie about her family. Briony may have many reasons for deciding to become a nurse. However, the most logical reason is her attempt to move past the guilt she feels about falsely accusing Robbie. In her mind, she believes that if she works to help others and save lives, she atones for her childhood mistake. Briony clearly desires to make penance for her misdeeds.
Instead of apologizing to Robbie and Cecilia face-to-face, she makes an attempt at penance by choosing a career that involves helping others. Briony’s actions serve as an example of how often man makes mistakes, but cannot take the necessary actions to fully atone for the mistakes. Whether this comes from pride or fear may be unknown, but it is certainly a common tendency of humans. Later, at the end of the novel, Briony talks to Cecilia and Robbie about recanting her accusation. They both tell her what she needs to do and Briony leaves with the thought, “Together, the note to her parents and the formal statement would take no time at all.
Then she would be free for the rest of the day. She knew what was required of her. Not simply, but a new draft, an atonement, and she was ready to begin” (330). Briony leaves ready to forgive herself and move past this error in life. She sees the letter and statement as penance for her words and actions. She thinks the simple act of writing a letter and statement will make up for the years of pain she caused her sister and Robbie. Briony is confident that she will be able to do this seemingly simple task quickly and have time to enjoy the rest of her day off.
People desire apologizing because of the healing benefits. Huanf Zhong studied and wrote an essay about apologizing in civil law. In his abstract, he begins with discussion of the benefits of apologizing, “Apologizing can vent the victim’s resentment, patch mental wound in the greatest degree, cause the tortfeasor to obtain tranquility in his inner feelings,and repair his moral appraisal in the greatest degree as well” (Zhong). Zhong notes that apologizing not only benefits the one being apologized to, but also the one making the apology.
He sees that there is a deep psychological pain inflicted when someone does another wrong. In Briony’s case, her lack of apologizing has caused her to change her career path and anguish over the pain Robbie and Cecilia feel. Briony’s attempt at making amends shows her desire to remedy this pain she feels and feel at peace with everything again. Later, it is revealed that Briony did not actually talk to Cecilia and Robbie but instead, “my walk across London ended at the church on Clapham Common, and that a cowardly Briony limped back to the hospital, unable to confront her recently bereaved sister” (350).
Briony’s admittance to not talking to Cecilia and Robbie on that day epitomizes how people tend to not have the courage to forgive. Despite the heavy weight of guilt that may have caused her to become a nurse instead of a writer, Briony could not find the strength to actually talk to Cecilia and Robbie and apologize to them. Briony hides behind the fiction she can create in her head to lead the reader to believe she found the courage to apologize.
The scenario she pretends actually happened, is no more than her idealized situation if she had the courage to humble herself to try to make up for the hurt she caused her family and Robbie’s family. Robbie finds it hard to forgive Briony because her accusations put him in prison and forced him into war- both traumatic experiences that ruined him psychologically and socially. Robbie suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from his time in prison and his exposure to death and violence in war. He suffers from flashbacks, shows aggression, and most notably, has difficulty forgiving others.
A comprehensive study completed in 2008 shows that those with PTSD had, “a higher inability to forgive” (Cohen). Some people struggle with forgiveness because of their pride or out of fear. Because Robbie suffers from PTSD, he finds it difficult to absolve others, especially Briony, the one who inflicted him with so much pain. Robbie’s hardship is obvious when Briony comes to ask for forgiveness. When he questions why she wants clemency all these years later, Briony responds with, “‘Growing up’” (323). Robbie tells her in response, “‘Growing up… Goddamnit! You’re eighteen.
How much growing up do you need to do? There are soldiers dying in the field at eighteen. Old enough to be left to die on the roads. Did you know that? ’” (323). Robbie has seen traumatizing scenes while serving in the military. He witnessed death and unimaginable pain. He believes that it is because of Briony that he was exposed to those things. Therefore, due in part to his PTSD and human nature, he finds it nearly impossible to clear the air with Briony. He believes that at her age, she should be more mature emotionally. He also sees life as more fleeting than her because he has seen young men die at her age.
Coupled with his PTSD, Robbie suffers from crippling flashbacks to war, which makes it hard for him to forgive Briony because he may never be able to end the flashbacks. When they are talking at Cecilia’s house, someone mutters, ‘dying,’ and “At the mention of dying, a surge of feeling had engulfed him, pushing him beyond anger into an extremity of bewilderment and disgust. His breathing was irregular and heavy… She [Briony] knew enough to recognize the memories were crowding in, and there was nothing he could do. The wouldn’t let him speak” (324). The anguish Robbie feels while having a flashback is something he may never be able to escape.
These flashbacks cause him to go into a dark place alone despite being around someone who loves him. For Robbie, there will always be the pain of the flashbacks and the fear that something may trigger them. Despite Briony’s attempt at penance, Robbie will have the permanent memories of war. He lost years in prison and countless others in the future trying to move past the trauma of being a solider. His pain from war is paired with the pain from being imprisoned. While in France fighting against the Germans, Robbie thinks to himself, “He did not know how he survived the daily stupidity of it [prison].
The stupidity and claustrophobia” (190). While prison is never pleasant, for Robbie it is even more torturous because he was falsely accused and does not have a need for prison’s “rehabilitation” time. He is bored with the routines and feels confined. This monotony haunts him. Briony hurt Robbie so much, that he finds it difficult to forgive her despite her deep desire to do so. More than anything, Briony wants Robbie to pardon her so that she may move past the guilt she feels about her false accusation; Robbie wants to live a normal life again with the woman he loves, Cecilia.
Unfortunately for Robbie, he will never have this because Briony’s actions, in his estimation, are unforgivable. The pain she caused him cannot be mended with a few words. Cecilia takes Briony’s false accusation personally because she feels betrayed by her family’s lack of trust in Robbie. This anger causes her to cut her family off. Cecilia’s initial anger is justified because her family has read her private letter to Robbie. She notices, “the letter … exposed on her mother’s lap, and Cecilia was on her feet, then moving toward them… ‘How dare you! How dare you all! ’… It belongs to me… You have absolutely no right! ’” (167).
The letter is a piece of evidence that becomes incredibly important to establishing Robbie as a rapist. The letter contained a recollection of Cecilia and Robbie’s passionate romance in the library earlier that evening. She is hurt that her family violated her privacy and used something personal against her to imprison the man she loves. Her mother tells her she should have come to her sooner with this information to avoid the rape in the first place. Instead of comforting her distressed daughter, Cecilia’s mother blames Cecilia for her niece’s rape.
This lack of sympathy causes Cecilia to lash out and cut her family out of her life. Briony, the one who gave her mother the letter, manipulates this situation to boost her own ego. Briony believes her actions put a dangerous man in jail. Cecilia realizes this and decides to shut her family out from her life. Even years later, she tells her sister, “‘Don’t worry about that… I won’t ever forgive you’” (318). Despite Briony’s attempt to apologize and move past this incident, Cecilia refuses to excuse her family. It is a human tendency to not forgive those who have hurt us and especially those we love.
In Cecilia’s situation, her refusal to bear no malice against her family causes her isolation and unknown hurt. Even Robbie, while at war, encourages her to talk to her parents, even if it just in the form of a letter (198). Robbie, despite his own inability to forgive, believes Cecilia should pardon her parents and reach out to them, especially her mother. Robbie may encourage this because he has been separated from his family for years and understands that particular pain. It also might be because he thinks Cecilia suffered the least in this situation and therefore does not have the right to isolate herself from her family entirely.
Either way, Cecilia refuses to contact her family and in turn makes herself the black sheep in her family. Humans desire redemption and forgiveness. However, it is not easy for people to forgive and forget. Some people, like Briony, have difficulty admitting their wrong and apologizing. People, like Cecilia and Robbie, have a hard time moving past the pain someone else causes them, however, both in completely different ways. Despite it being an inner-desire of man to want to have made amends with everyone, people have a hard time swallowing their pride to forgive those who have hurt them and apologizing to those they have hurt.