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Abby Broadhurst

AP Literature
Mrs. Flather
September 16, 2013

Lost Innocence

One’s childhood is often remembered as a time of carefree joy and imaginative adventures, but

what if this is not the case? What if these memories, rather than enhancing one’s view on life, only serve

to condemn the future? This idea of a dysfunctional childhood and its consequences is evident in Ian

McEwan’s Atonement, in which he presents the story of a young girl, Briony Tallis. Briony learns the

dangers of such an innocent childhood through her own devastating mistakes, which come to impact

many people throughout her life. While sitting in the nursery, Briony observes a mysterious scene take

place by the family fountain between her older sister Cecilia, or Cee, and Robbie Turner, a family friend.

Caught up in her own skewed perspective of the situation, Briony finds herself questioning the innocence

of the life she has known thus far. The misperceived encounter by the fountain precipitates Briony’s

moral and psychological journey as it causes her to question the innocence of childhood, enter the

complexity of the adult world, and make a decision that will continue to haunt her throughout her life.

The dangerous vulnerability of childhood and the power of misperception are revealed throughout

Briony’s pervasive journey to find herself.

Briony’s naive understanding of human interactions first begins to shatter after she views a scene

contrary to her fairy tale standards. The beginning of the novel highlights Briony’s love of the imaginary,

characterizing her as being an innocent and impressionable girl. In preparation for her older brother’s

return home, Briony composes a play entitled The Trials of Arabella, a romantic drama exhibiting the

features typical of a classic fairy tale. Socially removed, Briony is able to express herself through her

writing which enables her to fantasize about topics such as love and loss and to believe that she fully

understands these adult complexities. This misconception is a significant factor with regards to the

fountain scene’s effect on Briony’s outlook. The romantic filter which Briony seems to apply to her

everyday life is introduced through the fanciful language which surrounds Briony, both in the textual
descriptions of her character as well as in her character’s own life as a young writer. The narrator notes

how “there were moments in the summer dusk after her light was out, when [Briony] burrowed in the

delicious gloom of her canopy bed, and made her heart thud with luminous, yearning fantasies” (McEwan

4). The image presented of a young girl wrapped up in the folds of her imagination is enhanced by the

whimsical word choice incorporated through vocabulary and phrases such as “delicious gloom” and

“luminous, yearning fantasies” (4). Although clearly a romantic, Briony’s sense of understanding and of

being aware of the world is threatened when she sees Cee and Robbie by the fountain. While looking out

through the “nursery’s wide-open windows,” Briony witnesses an unfamiliar scene taking place (47).

Seemingly in response to an order from Robbie, Cee appears to remove her clothes in submission and

enter the fountain. Observing this strange and unusual encounter, Briony is shocked by the illogical

nature of the scene before her, mentally noting that “the drowning scene, followed by a rescue, should

have preceded the marriage proposal” (49). The evident contrast between what is “meant” to happen and

what “is” happening, forces Briony to realize that “this [is] not a fairy tale” but rather “the real, adult

world in which frogs [do] not address princesses” (50). The construction and inclusion of this scene is

extremely important as there are various underlying messages, the most significant of which revolves

around the location and position of the nursery windows. The nursery windows are symbolic of

childhood, perception, and transition. Wide open, the windows reflect Briony’s simplistic view on life as

she initially believes that everything is as transparent as her childhood fairy tales. However, the

observation of this seemingly immoral confrontation though the nursery windows demonstrates the power

of this scene as Briony is made aware of her own naivety and is introduced to the complexities of life she

has remained ignorant of thus far, those existing outside the boundaries of the nursery. Briony’s

innocence is quickly debased by the scene she observes, her realization that life does not model fairy tales

prompting her to question all that she knows and to suspect that convoluted intentions exist beyond her

innocent world.

The conflicting feelings which arise from the mysterious fountain-scene between Cecilia and

Robbie thrust Briony into the complexity of the adult world, her childish misperceptions prompting
disastrous decisions indicative of her progressing transformation. After observing the fountain scene,

Briony finds herself captured by the idea of transcribing the scene and her newfound “revelation” into

words (52). The more she contemplates the possibilities and explores her new perspective, Briony begins

to fantasize about the potential causes of the interaction to the extent that “the truth [becomes] as ghostly

as invention” (52). The mysterious and translucent connotation of the word “ghostly” implies the

unreliability of Briony’s imaginative witness. This idea of unreliability is advanced further in the midst

of a tumultuous evening consisting of Briony’s intercepting Robbie’s sexually explicit letter to Cee-a

letter which Briony describes as being “brutal” and “perhaps even criminal” (145). The negative

connotation of the language Briony uses to describe Robbie clearly exhibits the change in her perception

of his character. The letter is followed by Briony’s interruption of a consensual sexual affair taking place

in the library between Cee and Robbie, which she understands to be an attack on her sister, and later of an

attack on her cousin Lola by a mysterious figure cloaked in darkness, a figure Briony assumes to be

Robbie. In the events following the fountain scene and leading up to Robbie’s condemnation, the idea of

misperception is key. First introduced through the image of the nursery windows, the contrast between

light and dark is now representative of the disparities of Briony’s transforming perspective as well as the

more literal idea of perception and misperception. Both of the “attacks” which Briony witnesses take

place in the shadows, the details of each interaction obscured by the darkness. Although her

understanding of the intricacies of adulthood have expanded somewhat, Briony continues to be inhibited

by the strength of her imagination which seeks expression. Despite her realization that the “truth [is]

strange and deceptive,” Briony is still inspired by the desire to transform reality into another of her

melodramatic stories (202). Therefore, when Briony only sees the outline of a male figure by her cousin,

she is quick to assume that the attacker must be Robbie. If Robbie “the maniac” were the villain, it would

only serve to enhance the drama of the events that unfolded in the library (212). When Briony asks Lola

for confirmation, she does not wait for a response but says simply, “Robbie” (213). Lola, clearly shocked

and confused, seems to latch onto Briony’s certainty whereas Briony simply ignores the doubt emanating

from Lola as “the dark disk of Lola’s face” is hidden in shadow (213). The motif of light and dark is
representative of the transition that Briony seems to be undergoing. Although she seems to be moving

closer towards the light, the knowledge of worldly affairs, the fact that each event occurs in the darkness

demonstrates that Briony’s childish perspective has not yet been overcome. Thus, when she has the

opportunity, she does not hesitate to accuse Robbie, ignoring the fact that literally, the darkness prevented

her from knowing the truth, and figuratively, that she is still ignorant of the many nuances of adulthood,

despite her own self-perception. The repeated contrast between light and dark highlights the power of

misperception and the dangerous nature of childhood innocence as the culmination of the two factors

results in the condemnation of an innocent man, Robbie Turner.

The fountain scene and all its ramifications culminate in Briony’s sincere search for atonement

after a life haunted by the repercussions of naivety and misperception. It is only after the false accusation

that Briony is able to reconsider her past actions and recognize her error. Later in her life, while

reflecting on the fateful day that she condemned Robbie, Briony remembers how even at the time she

made her accusation, there were still doubts in her mind. She realizes that “whenever she was conscious

of them...she was driven back, with a little swooping sensation in her stomach, to the understanding that

what she knew was not literally, or not only, based on the visible” (215-216). She is plagued by guilt

knowing that she did not make the effort to explain the nuances of her accusation to the investigators –

the fact that it was intuition that allowed her to “see” in the darkness and not simply the light of the moon.

Employing a simile, McEwan describes the situation, stating that Briony “was like a bride-to-be who

begins to feel sickening qualms as the day approaches, and dares not speak her mind because so many

preparations have been made on her behalf” (217). At thirteen years old, Briony remained a naïve child

searching for attention and praise underneath her own sense of having entered adulthood. Thus, when

she duly received attention and praise, she was reluctant to say anything that might change others’

perceptions of her. However, despite her childish refusal to address the potential truth, it is clear that the

memories and the guilt have severely impacted Briony’s life, Briony having become a nurse rather than

attend university when she reaches eighteen years old. Briony seems to comfort herself with the

anonymity of being a nurse and the “stripping away of identity” as the strict schedule prevent her from
delving too far into the past (353). Cutting herself off from her family, Briony begins a journey of self-

discovery and atonement. Although the duties of nursing help to distract Briony from the past, she

realizes that “whatever skivvying or humble nursing she did…she would never undo the damage” and

even refers to herself as being “unforgiveable” (366). The word unforgiveable has an extremely powerful

connotation as it implies that whatever action or thought it refers to is beyond the scope of absolution.

This realization, along with the threat of coming war, appeals to Briony’s sense of guilt as she fears that

“the war might compound her crime,” forever separating the innocent Robbie from Cecilia if he is to be

recruited for the military. With the “memories, the needling details, like a rash, like dirt on her skin,”

Briony takes a significant step towards atonement, writing a letter to Cecilia explaining her desire to

recant her past evidence (417). Despite her efforts to forget the past, Briony’s guilt is overwhelming and

eventually forces her to disregard her pride and take the steps necessary to right her wrongs.

In life, retrospective thinking often enables one to better understand the self. The mistakes made

in childhood seem blatantly obvious and the individual is forced to reevaluate his or her past and present.

This is evident in Atonement as demonstrated through the character of Briony Tallis. The novel is

separated into three parts, the first being Briony’s childhood and “unforgivable” act, the second being

Briony’s search for atonement, and the third being Briony’s introspective reflection on her life from the

perspective of an elderly woman nearing the end of her life. The novel follows the transformation of

Briony’s character as she learns of the consequences of the childhood pride and confidence that made her

place extensive faith in her own intuition and ignore her outright misperceptions. Briony’s much

considered reflections are interjected throughout the novel to highlight her change in perspective. She

certainly matures as a result of her childhood and her condemnation of an innocent man. Having

subjected Robbie to prison and harsh societal judgment, Briony inflicts similarly harsh criticism upon

herself. Although it is a lifelong lesson, by the end of the novel, it is clear that Briony recognizes the

shadows that will always permeate one’s life, the shadows that harbor secrets and obscure fact.