Metafictional Elements in Ian Mcewan’s Atonement

1 January 2017

That is, until the first-time reader turns a page to discover the epilogue entitled “London, 1999” and has this illusion shattered by the revelation that in fact Parts One, Two, and Three were penned by none other than the 77-year-old Briony Tallis. This epilogue, and what it divulges about the events we have just read, turns the book into a metafiction.

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A close rereading of the book turns up multiple references to the fact that it is in fact a manuscript written by the elderly Briony. McEwan’s metafictional strategies, evident in parts one to three only to the second time reader, call attention to the many changes Briony made to her manuscript in her attempt to atone for her crime. Her attempt is, in my opinion, unsuccessful. Early on in the text, McEwan begins making subtle references to the process of writing and rewriting that occurs when creating a piece of fiction.

For instance, after seeing her sister emerge dripping wet from the fountain outside, Briony considers asking Cecilia to explain the “prospect she was coming close to defining, at least emotionally” (40). This “definition would refine itself over the years” (40) and, it is implied, over the multiple drafts. What follows is a long passage that leaps forwards sixty years into the future to tell the reader that all of Briony’s fiction from then on was shaped by “an impartial psychological realism which she had discovered for herself” (41) that very morning.

By calling attention to the writing process, McEwan is also drawing attention to the number of times Briony rewrote her novella Two Figures by a Fountain in attempt to atone for the crime that stemmed from that moment. It seems, however, that atonement was not Briony’s original intent in writing Two Figures by a Fountain. The original manuscript, which we never see, seems to have been very much a fulfilment of 13-year-old Briony’s desire to “only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive” (40).

The novella appears to have been full of omissions; indeed “everything she did not wish to confront” (320) was left out of it in her attempt to “drown her guilt in a stream – three streams! – of consciousness” (320). After reading the rejection letter from C. C. , one will find that all of the suggestions made by C. C. are noticeable when one goes back and reads Part One again: another clever use of metafictional techniques on McEwan’s part. Briony’s consideration of the advice given to her by C. C. uggest that in fact it was this rejection letter that was the turning point where she decided “to use fiction to correct the errors that fiction caused her to commit” (Finney 69).

This is in fact the only thing she ever does to atone: as we learn in the epilogue, Briony never saw Robbie or Cecilia in 1940 and the second-time reader recognises McEwan’s subtle mention of this fact in Part Three. After witnessing Lola and Paul Marshall’s wedding, Briony walks along Clapham Common feeling “the distance between her and another self…who was walking back towards the hospital” (329), before seeing her sister and Robbie in Balham.

However, this is simply a metafictional strategy employed by McEwan to bring the possibility of Briony making up for her crime into the reader’s mind. In the epilogue, we realise that since “a cowardly Briony limped back to the hospital, unable to confront her recently bereaved sister” (371), Briony’s atonement is entirely fictional. In a further metafictional twist, the “imagined or ghostly persona” (329) that Briony could feel walking back to her life as a probationary nurse is in fact the real Briony – the Briony who became a famous novelist.

It is here in the epilogue that the possibility of atonement through fiction is opened up. The epilogue itself is what makes this text a metafiction, rather than a novel with metafictional asides. It contains multiple references to the process involved in writing a convincing piece of fiction, evidence for which can be found in the novel proper. For instance, the “letters Mr Nettle wrote [her] about Dunkirk” (359) that were the basis of Robbie’s experiences detailed in Part Two and the numerous rewrites that led to this final version in which her “lovers end well, standing side by side on a South London pavement” (370).

This implies that there is more that has been left out of and added to the manuscript by Briony over the years, and indeed McEwan makes reference to this earlier on in the novel when Briony realises “that whatever actually happened drew its significance from her published work and would not have been remembered without it” (41). This attitude towards the facts – and Briony’s editing of the truth despite her claims that she has “regarded it as [her] duty to disguise nothing” (369) – is the very thing that prevents her from achieving atonement.

For one thing, Briony admits that she is “too old, too frightened” (371) to not give Robbie and Cecilia a happy ending. Instead of “put[ting] it all there as a matter of historical record” (369), she has opted “to reanimate the marriage plot…that her accusation forestalled” (Walkowitz 512). If she has lied about this very important part of the story, then it is safe to say that she has lied about things elsewhere in the novel. This is why fiction can never be used as means of atonement: its very nature means that there is little truth in it, and without truth there can be no sincerity.

An old woman’s lie simply cannot make amends for the crime of a thirteen-year-old girl. Briony, at any age we see her in the novel, has been set up by McEwan as an unreliable narrator. If we believe that Briony has lied about so many other things for the sake of a good novel, we must also accept the possibility that there was not even a crime. We know from a second reading of Part One that Briony accepted and enacted all the other changes suggested to her by C. C. so it is not too big a leap to wonder if her ‘crime’ was merely a plot point given to her in the rejection letter.

As she walks to Lola and Paul Marshall’s wedding, Briony ponders his advice: “might she come between them in some disastrous fashion? Yes, indeed” (320). From this we can infer that thirteen-year-old Briony never committed a crime at all, but that it was simply a basis for a new plot. And if this is true, then she certainly never atones for her crime, because she never committed one.

The metafictional elements used by McEwan in this text suggest to the reader the idea of atoning for a 64-year-old crime through fiction. The references to multiple drafts and creative license in terms of omitting truths are important in foregrounding the writing process, as are the juxtaposition of two versions of events and the entirety of the epilogue, which serves as one big metafictional twist. However, the unreliability of Briony as a narrator convinces the intelligent reader that there is in fact no possibility of her achieving atonement.

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