Atonement’s chief narrative feature is McEwan’s use of an embedded author—Briony Tallis—whose text is nearly coterminous with the novel itself. This technique is of course not a new one: Sterne’s Sentimental Journey and MacKenzie’s Man of Feeling are both framed as the written accounts of their protagonists. McEwan’s trick in Atonement, though, is presumably that we are to be ignorant of the presence of this embedded author until very close to the end of the book.
The chief effect of this is that we are forced to retroactively reconsider our epistemological position vis-a-vis the novel’s characters and its events, a reconsideration in which, I would like to argue, focalizations which we would (or should) have thought reliable become unreliable, and in which our acceptance of narrative as an entry into non-authorial points of view becomes undermined.
That is, the novel implicitly asks whether—if because of the circumstances surrounding Briony’s authoring of these events, we cannot trust her technique of shifting focalization—we can take stock in any narrative in which point of view or focalization is different from that of the narrator (or, even, that of the author).
While the narrator of Mrs. Dalloway can reliably focalize through various characters, herself not being one of the novel’s diegetic characters, focalization in Atonement is thoroughly and self-consciously unreliable after we discover that the focalizing agent is not an external narrator, but a character who indicts her own ability to feel that other characters are as alive as she is. If various points of view in Mrs. Dalloway are unified and supported by a consistent narrative voice, the presence of a consistent diegetic narrator in Atonement undermines any discoveries or suppositions we can make through our experience of different points of view.
The structure of focalization rests on the principle that the narrating agent can have a kind of sympathetic identification with the focalized character. Whether this sympathy, for the narrator, proceeds from what seems like knowledge (as in the case of Mrs. Dalloway’s narrator) or imagination (as in the case of Atonement’s), it must, for the author, proceed from imagination. It is precisely Briony’s failure of imagination, though, that leads her to commit her “crime” and will eventually prevent her from achieving “atonement” for it through authorship of her account.
Briony’s failure to comprehend the events she witnesses, and her subsequent repeated misrepresentations of those events, can be attributed largely to her failure to escape her own point of view; that is, she cannot experience sympathetic identification with those around her, or inhabit—or even conceptualize—a general point of view. Briony wonders, “Was everyone else really as alive as she was? ”; and though she realizes that the answer to this question must be “yes,” she rejects this as against “her sense of order”: “She knew [it], but only in a rather arid way; she didn’t really feel it” (34).
Her inability to “feel” that other people are as alive, as human, as she is, inhibits Briony from taking the mental steps necessary to interpret what she witnesses in a way that takes more into account than the evidence with which she is directly presented. An interesting wrinkle in Atonement’s presentation of the lack of a general point of view lies in Briony’s use of God as a metaphor for a novelist. We are told in the first part that “Briony had lost her godly power of creation” (72); later, Briony writes “how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? (350). If we compare the epistemological position of an omniscient God to that of a person, we can suggest that God can see things from a point of view that supercedes even the general point of view: God has an “absolute” point of view in which all points of view can be seen through and judged for their accuracy or completion; the individual’s point of view is limited and escapable only through imaginative sympathy.
Briony-as-God, however, lacks this absolute point of view; as an author, she imagines her characters points of view without instantiating them. Chapters focalized on Cecilia or Robbie show us not their points of view, but Briony’s imagination of them. But because she is haunted by her own epistemological limits—as well as her “feeling” that she is more “real” than other people—her imaginative creation fails to allow her to enter other points of view; she cannot, that is, be “at one” with her characters.
The distance between Briony and her characters, her inability to be “at one” with them, through the experience of either a general or an absolute point of view, makes atonement (“at-one-ment”) impossible. Questions 1. My point that, on a first reading of Atonement, we are “supposed” to experience different focalizations as reliable rests on the idea that McEwan, in writing the novel, attempted to keep Briony’s status as author from us.
But is this the case? To what degree is Briony’s status as author of the book we read predictable? If we are meant not to discover that what we are reading is Briony’s account, in what places does her screen become transparent? Further, even if we suspect Briony of being the author of the novel’s first section, is there anything in the second section, in which Robbie is the focalizer, that suggests that the account is “fictional”?
2. One of Atonement’s preoccupations is with class distinctions and representations of them. What roles do social position and wealth play in Briony’s ability to atone through the writing of a novel? 3. In Part Three, we read a letter from the editor of a journal, mentioning Briony’s indebtedness to Virginia Woolf. How significant is this detail? Is Briony’s connection to Virginia Woolf a sort of accident of time and place? Is McEwan exploiting Woolf’s project here, or revising it in a substantial way?