Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros55Cahier spécial AtonementA Cracked Construction: Postmoder...

Cahier spécial Atonement

A Cracked Construction: Postmodernist Fragmentation and Fusion in McEwan’s Atonement

Fragmentation et fusion postmodernistes dans Atonement d’Ian McEwan
Christian Gutleben


À l’instar de la terre sous les pieds de Briony et ses ‘floorboard cracks’ (11), à l’instar du vase en porcelaine et ses ‘three fine meandering lines in the glaze’ (43), à l’instar du contexte historique de la journée fatale du crime de Briony, contexte de tremblements de terre (59) et donc d’effondrements géologiques, et à l’instar de la mémoire craquelée de Briony, la romancière adulte, la structure de Atonement se distingue par de nombreuses fissures et cassures, une fracture profonde entre le récit de Briony et la coda de 1999, et plusieurs lézardes secondaires entre les diverses parties et sous-parties—et même à l’intérieur d’elles. Cet article se propose d’examiner le principe romanesque de la fragmentation comme un procédé structurel destiné à illustrer la béance entre les perspectives irréconciliables des différents personnages, le fossé entre la fiction et la réalité ainsi que la discontinuité entre divers courants esthétiques. Pourtant, tout comme le vase de porcelaine est ultérieurement recollé, le roman assemble des conventions fictionnelles, des influences intertextuelles et des genres romanesques fort variés. Dans sa tentative de représenter simultanément union et séparation, fusion et fragmentation, le roman de McEwan reflète la nature paradoxale du postmodernisme et son principe du patchwork, métaphore de l’écriture traumatique caractérisée par une série de fractures (dans l’ordre narratif, temporel et symbolique) et signe d’un rêve syncrétique qui associerait Jane Austen et Virginia Woolf, l’humour et la tragédie, le réalisme et la métatextualité, la romance et la fiction historique.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1According to Linda Hutcheon, the leading authority on the question, within the realm of postmodernist criticism, ‘linked to th[e] contesting of the unified and coherent subject is a more general questioning of any totalizing or homogenizing system. Provisionality and heterogeneity contaminate any neat attempts at unifying coherence (formal or thematic). Historical and narrative continuity and closure are contested, but again, from within’ (Hutcheon 12). Such a challenge to coherence, concord, continuity (formal or thematic) seems to be the purpose of McEwan’s Atonement, whose thematic concerns and structural organization reflect the ideas of fragmentation, ruptures, gaps and cracks, possibly in order to explore the plurality thus generated in the aesthetic and ideological fields, but probably also to express a traumatic type of bearing-after-witness defined by the protagonist’s belated or retroactive testimony and characterized by the dislocation of temporalities and perceptions. As it is generalized and pervasive, the principle of fragmentation paradoxically creates a unifying link between the various parts and sub-parts of the whole and this sense of unity is strengthened by the paradigmatic use of metafiction and inserted specular fragments. So, in spite or because of its numerous and visible cracks, McEwan’s novel forms a strongly unified architectural whole, an aesthetic unity made up of plurality. It is the purpose of this paper to analyze Atonement’s postmodernist amalgamation, its aesthetics of fragmentation, its paradoxical aggregation through division.

  • 1 To illustrate the overwhelming deregulation or disorder, one might quote the sense of a growing ‘co (...)

2When, early in the first chapter of Part One, the narrative instance mentions Briony’s nursery’s ‘floorboard cracks’ (11), the implication seems to be that the ground beneath her feet is unstable and these cracks can then immediately be read sylleptically, signifying literally a fractured dwelling place and implying metaphorically an endangered situation. Such literal and figurative instability is framing the whole work since it is echoed in the coda: ‘The floor seems to be undulating beneath my feet’ (371). That Briony’s circumstances are not individual but collective soon becomes evident when the newspapers of the day, the day with which Part One is exclusively concerned, point out ‘earthquakes’ (59), that is, superlative ground cracks—which reflect a general context of dislocation or disruption. The connection between Briony’s domestic situation and her historical environment is evidently strengthened by the prevalence of the theme and the mention of war. The looming figure of Hitler (50 and passim), the references to Jack Tallis working for the government in preparation for war and the fact that Paul Marshall, who sees the soldiers in terms of consumers, is called ‘a warmonger’ (50) make it unmistakable that a conflict is brewing on the global scene. The parallel with the private sphere becomes explicit when the text refers to ‘a bitter domestic civil war’ (8), a phrase which applies specifically to the Quinceys but which concerns also the Tallises since in both cases husband and wife are set asunder. The idea of a rift in the diegetic units and in the international context finds then an echo in the war sections when Robbie is separated from Cecilia and Briony from her family and when soldiers and civilians are repeatedly torn apart, exploded into ‘mutilated bodies’ (199). Among the various casualties Robbie witnesses on his arduous journey to Dunkirk, the following case of annihilation stands out: ‘Where the woman and her son had been was a crater. […] Mother and child had been vaporised’ (239). How could one conjure up a more striking image to convey the fissures of the war, the gaping holes of history into which the anonymous victims of the war disappear? This crater represents then the apocalyptic abyss where man is engulfed by the accidents of history. Similarly, Luc Cornet’s cracked skull metonymically stands for the dismemberment of the army and even for the mutilation of man at war in general. However, what best encapsulates the association of war and segmentation in Part Two and Part Three of Briony’s ‘last novel’ (369) is ‘the unexpected detail’ (191), namely ‘a leg in a tree’ (192). What might look like a surrealist image turns out to be a realist description, but a description of an unnatural nature, of a deregulated reality, of an order of disorder.1 This incongruous image becomes then the very image of war as a time during which the order of things is overturned, the laws of nature are violated, and the extraordinary becomes ordinary. The sense of deregulation introduced by this disembodied bodily part is confirmed and heightened by the central oxymoron characterizing this section about Robbie’s war experiences: in the phrase ‘[he] was abjectly grateful’ (206), the traditional dichotomy between grace and evil is shattered and replaced by a paradoxical, unnatural combination of joy and horror because in a context of war no joy can remain unsullied. As for the truncated leg, it appears conspicuous as an outstanding synecdoche, eloquently conveying the clear-cut discontinuity between the part and the whole, the sectioning of human integrity, and the fracturing of any sense of wholeness.

3The transition between the sense of fragmentation within the diegetic world and the fragmentation of the extradiegetic narrative can be provided by the example of the vase with its ‘three fine meandering lines in the glaze’ (43). As an object of family pride, its splintering manifestly stands for the cracking up of the family structure and [i]f one is ready to accept that the vase—German made and given by the French to an Englishman during WWI—might be a symbol of the fragility of peace in Europe after WWI, it may not be going too far to consider that the “three invisible meandering lines” are a metaphor of the conflicts silently breeding in Europe (and particularly in Germany) during the thirties that will finally lead to war and destruction. (Cavalié 132)

4The vase, though, is also a piece of ceramic craftsmanship, ‘the work of the great artist Höroldt’, an object of ‘great value’ (24) and as a work it can be seen as a specular double of the narrative work in which it is embedded, the latter representing then a sort of ode on a broken urn, or the parable of the broken urn.

  • 2 As such, this postmodernist architecture might represent McEwan’s contemporary response to the clas (...)

5Considering Atonement’s general organization, what does one notice? McEwan’s novel is divided into two distinctive parts: Briony’s three-part, nameless narrative of the events taking place in 1935 and 1940 and the coda or afterword entitled ‘London, 1999’. Atonement is then clearly not the title of any of Briony’s works, it applies specifically and exclusively to McEwan’s novel and its choice of a daring diptych. This two-sided work is monstrously misshapen, monstrously lopsided with one huge narrative part and one tiny explanatory addendum. Such architectural asymmetry constitutes in itself an unorthodox construction typical of postmodernism’s revision of traditional harmony.2 The monstrous nature of the amalgamation of such unequal portions is reinforced by their unlikeness. If the initial part is penned in the past tense by a third-person narrator accounting for a tragic love story from 1935 to 1940, the final part, written in the first-person and mainly in the present tense, concerns the observations from and about a seventy-seven-year-old writer suffering from vascular dementia. After a long narrative section partly romance partly historical novel, we have a fragment of autobiography. The tail (to which the coda etymologically refers) and the body are then ontologically and generically fundamentally mismatched and unalike. In other words, the body and its tail, the narrative and its epilogue, the novel and its afterword are of different natures, traditions and perspectives. This is not just heterogeneity, this is an unsettling collage, an audacious aggregation, a heteroclite and heterodox grafting worthy of a literary museum of contemporary art, worthy of the cause of postmodernism. What the ontological, generic and temporal chasm between the two parts of the whole also represents is a metaphor of, and possibly a warning against, the (apparent) gap between facts and fiction, fabulation and reality.

6The sense of fracture between two sections of radically unlike natures is further strengthened by the division of the first part into three sub-parts with emphatically different chronotopes. The choice of a ternary structure for what is presented as ‘the last version’ of Briony’s tale (370) may recall a triptych or a classical three-act structure with three panels or three stages corresponding to the exposition of the crime, the consequences and the expiation. Such a division may also refer to the Rule of Three, a writing principle supposedly effective to please the reader. Now this Rule of Three is conventionally illustrated by Briony and manifestly broken by McEwan who adds a final section which shatters the ternary structure and evinces the ‘double consciousness’ which Laura Marcus deems inseparable from Atonement’s establishment and subsequent subversion of a ‘realist framework’ (Marcus 84). So, by breaking up the three-act structure and subverting the Rule of Three, McEwan underscores the crucial and ontological difference between the diegetic novelist and the real novelist, between a fiction following a conventional structure and a novelist infringing traditional laws and practices. The careful implementation of a three-act structure and the subsequent undermining of this structure is then also a means for McEwan to emphasize, and possibly to advertise, his art of the unexpected, the unconventional, the unorthodox. What must also be stressed is the gaps between the three parts and particularly the five-year ellipsis between Part One and Part Two, a rift which conveys the brutal shift from England to France, from peace to war, from a bucolic country side to a hellish nightmare. Part One is the story of a lost paradise and of lost innocence, Part Two is the representation of hell after the original sin, the original sin being Briony’s and not the lovers’, Briony who has not eaten from the tree of knowledge, Briony whose sin derives precisely from a lack of knowledge.

7The crack between Part Two and Part Three is marked by a three-week analepsis, a spatial shift from Dunkirk to London and a change of focalization: from the front of the war to the home front, from the military operations to their consequences, and mainly from the victim of the original crime to its author and from the subject towards whom the atonement is directed to the agent of atonement. A sense of rebellion and injustice is thus superseded by a sense of guilt and contrition. The discontinuities between the three parts of Briony’s narrative reflect then at the structural level the ‘three fine meandering lines’ at the symbolical level of the vase and the broken urn represents clearly a mise en abyme of the cracked construction of the novel as a whole. Fragmentation, though, not only governs the structure of Briony’s many-layered tale, it also concerns her ideas, mainly when she grasps ‘the chasm that lay between an idea and its execution’ (17). Illustrating as it does the divergence between meaning and action, intention and reality, this ‘chasm’ finds numerous echoes in the novel’s extensive use of irony, which, according to Hillis Miller ‘exists pervasively’ in Atonement, ‘in the discrepancy between the narrator’s discreet, ambiguous wisdom and the characters’ foolishness or ignorance’ (Miller 94). When, for example, in the analeptic scene of Briony’s staged drowning, the young girl is reported to have said: ‘I want to thank you for saving my life. I’ll be eternally grateful to you’ (232), the irony is double-edged, first because the adult narrator later confesses that her ‘crush had lasted days and [she] immediately forgot about it’ (342) thus contradicting the eternal quality of her feeling, but mainly because her alleged gratefulness turns out to be of a lethal nature, Briony thanking Robbie by condemning him to prison and death. Such tragic irony is also at stake when, concerning Cecilia’s declaration of love ‘I’ll wait for you. Come back’, the extradiegetic narrator comments: ‘She meant it. Time would show she really meant it’ (265). The irony here is both subtle, the utterance being at the same time true (Cecilia did wait faithfully) and false (Robbie did not come back), and terribly cruel, the modal verb ‘would’ unambiguously designating the future in the past as if Cecilia’s rewarded patience were a narrative given, in other words, as if Cecilia and Robbie’s reunion were a part of the narrative, the future tense appearing then as the most blatant form of narrative deception and dramatic irony. Finally, ‘the chasm that lay between an idea and its execution’ may well refer to the terrible gap at the heart of the novel between the idea of or the attempt at atonement and its execution or fulfilment, the failure of Briony’s undertaking being implied in the hollowness etymologically associated with the word ‘chasm’.

  • 3 Adèle Cassigneul and Elsa Cavalié mention, in the same spirit, Derrida’s ‘disjointure’ and underlin (...)

8Both structurally and ideologically, fragmentation appears then as the novel’s ruling principle and Atonement seems to exemplify a poetics of disjunction or what Laurent Mellet calls ‘a fragmented aesthetic’ (Mellet 88).3 Such fragmentation represents, as I have argued elsewhere ‘a sort of minimum allegiance to the postmodernist spirit’ thus evincing ‘a form of postmodernism defined as a continuation and an intensification of modernism’s dispositions’ (Gutleben 142, 139-140). The intersection with the modernist agenda is confirmed by the narrative choice of multiple focalization and by the philosophical exploration of the concept and the reality of perception. Through the diversity and discontinuity of the diegetic points of view, Atonement highlights the lack of a comprehensive understanding of events, the fallibility of individual consciousness and the unattainability of knowledge, personal or historical, an epistemological emphasis which Brian McHale has famously identified as modernism’s hallmark (McHale 9). However, what this analysis wishes to stress is that Atonement also establishes a radical break with modernism since the modernist techniques and the modernist kinship are undermined by the revelations provided in the coda. The multiple perspectives of Part One do not only suggest the misleading nature of perception, they are misleading in themselves, being falsely multiple, all the perceptions happening to be in fact what Briony imagines them to have been. So, the modernist celebration of the idiosyncratic diversity of perception becomes a postmodernist game of deception of the reader and of retrospective reconstruction of hypothetical, that is, of fictional perceptions whose artificiality is not only acknowledged in fine but emphatically flaunted. McEwan thus seems to borrow modernist devices and to emulate the modernist spirit, but these borrowings, like the island temple described as ‘fake’ (73) and like the Tallis marriage called a ‘sham’ (148), turn out to be spurious, postmodernist hoaxes evincing Baudrillard’s ‘precession of simulacra’ and ‘age of simulation’ (Baudrillard 3). The order of simulation does not only affect the fake focalisers of Part One, it contaminates the whole of Briony’s reconstruction. In Part Two, what appears like Robbie’s impressions of and during the war happens to be the adult narrator’s conjectures about those impressions and since Briony has had no communication whatsoever with Robbie since the age of thirteen, the veracity of her assumptions seems more than questionable and unreliable. As for Part Three, everything that starts with Briony’s visit to her sister is purely invented, a fake account and narrative simulacrum, an ontological trick putting the stress on the blurring of fact and fiction—within the referential world of Briony’s tale, of course.

9The fascination of simulacrum or, to borrow the wonderful title of Umberto Eco’s work, the faith in fakes, affects not only Briony’s retrospective version but also McEwan’s contemporary creation. Indeed, the embedded letter penned by Cyril Connolly represents an outstanding example of postmodernist pastiche. This document is a forgery, a fake, a counterfeit and appears as such as a typically postmodernist instance of the fabrication of historical documents, an ostensibly fictional recreation of history, a simulacrum which represents in itself an ideological statement about the ontological kinship between historiography and fiction. As a fake, this fraudulent letter may signal an iconoclastic rejection or challenge of the idea of an original and, quite possibly, a veiled protest against the modernist sacralization of art and the artist. As an imitation of a famous critic’s practice, this case of pastiche perfectly illustrates postmodernism’s relation to the past and the canon. The very fact of forging a text in the manner of Cyril Connolly, of using his writing as a hypostyle, implies the existence of a model to be imitated, of a prototype that is worth reproducing. So, this imitation amounts to a sort of homage, and this all the more so since the fine discriminations, the subtle criticism and the learned references at stake in the letter seem to present literary criticism as a form of art. But there are also elements in this document which are presented by McEwan, the simulator, as tokens of mistaken or ill-advised judgements, in particular the injunction to ‘ignore’ the war (314), a piece of advice which is evidently overturned or subverted in Atonement and its lengthy and serious accounts of the war. So, the canon appears as a model and a countermodel, the source of a labour of appropriation and distanciation, of imitation and transformation, of acknowledgment and adjustment: such is postmodernism’s ambiguous resurrection or ironical reuse of the past and past texts. Linking the writer in the novel and the writer of the novel, the sense of simulation creates then cohesion within fragmentation. As Mellet argues, Atonement’s ‘fragmented aesthetic’ is accompanied by ‘a possible suturing or stitching aesthetic’ (Mellet 88).

  • 4 According to Domick LaCapra, traumatic testimony can only ‘be effected belatedly through repetition (...)
  • 5 The repetitiveness of traumatic time is also something Parey, Cloarec and Fortin-Tournès have analy (...)
  • 6 It must be specified, though, that no literary mode is left unqualified in Atonement and much of th (...)

10The various fragments, narrative or mnemonic, are also brought together by the traumatic mode which presides over Briony’s entire text. ‘It is the persistence of trauma’, according to Georges Letissier, ‘that links together the four blatantly disjointed chunks that make up the novel’ (Letissier 214). Indeed, Briony may be said to be suffering from multiple traumas, having committed a crime, taking in the tragic consequences of her crime and witnessing the horrors of war. The layered nature of her narrative reflects then the superimposed strata of her traumatic background and the discontinuity of her fragmented account is linked to the very principle of traumatic memory because ‘if trauma is at all susceptible to narrative formulation, then it requires a literary form which departs from conventional linear sequence’ (Whitehead 6). That her ‘earliest version’ (369) was written in January 1940, namely five years after her betrayal, corresponds to trauma’s inevitable Nachträglichkeit or belatedness,4 and that she has not stopped rewriting the same scenes for fifty-nine years reveals ‘the haunting quality of trauma’ which continues to possess the subject ‘with its insistent repetitions and returns’ (Whitehead 12).5 Also, Briony’s fictionalization of Robbie’s traumatic war experience can then be read as a trace of trauma’s logic of implication, its principle of ‘entanglement’ since ‘my trauma is (tied to) the trauma of another’ (Ramadanovic 62). When she voices Robbie’s putative thoughts and feelings, Briony tries to implement an ethics of justice by paying homage to a victim of a double scandal: the scandal of an unfair condemnation to death and the ensuing scandal of the impossibility of speaking or writing his outrage. And since, according to Cathy Caruth, ‘history, like trauma, is never simply one’s own, […] history is precisely the way we are implicated in each other’s traumas’ (Caruth 24), Briony’s vicarious traumatic reconstruction manages to fuse together the apparently disconnected narratives of the self and of the other, of the personal and the collective, of the fictional and the historical. Finally, because trauma narratives are essentially performative, ‘the knowledge of trauma does not exist, it can only happen through the testimony’ (Felman and Laub 204), Briony’s fragmented parts connect with the central and unifying motif of atonement, writing meaning in both cases attempting to come to terms with trauma and attempting to start to atone.6 For McEwan, the discontinuous accounts of several traumas, Robbie’s, Cecilia’s, Briony’s and even Henri’s, along with the inclusion of scraps of historical evidence (the importance and accuracy of which can be determined from the Acknowledgments typical of a novel buttressed by academic research), allow him to signal the ethical duty which is inseparable from his postmodernist undertaking, an ethical duty both to historical reconsideration and to individual testimony.

  • 7 Richard Pedot also stresses the paradoxical unity of the apparently kaleidoscopic presentation: ‘Re (...)
  • 8 James Dalrymple goes as far as calling Atonement a metafictional whodunit and argues that the detec (...)

11That Briony turns out to be the narrative instance of all the parts and subparts of the novel eventually transforms the seemingly kaleidoscopic presentation into a single-voiced, monolingual whole. The omnipresence of a unique conductor ensures then the unity between the various narrative sections and the several generic borrowings.7 When Briony self-reflexively defines her novel as ‘my forensic memoir’ (370), she suggests yet additional generic grids to read her fractured narrative jigsaw. The concept of a ‘memoir’ invites the addressee to decipher the whole novel as a veiled autobiography whereas the ‘forensic’ quality signals the novel’s fundamental ambiguity. Indeed, by insisting on the legal value of her testimony, Briony seems to contradict her confession of having radically transformed reality. How can her account have a legal value if it is ostensibly fictional? How can she simultaneously insist on ‘the exact circumstances’ (369) and invent those circumstances? The oxymoronic nature of this forensic fiction echoes and perfects the ontological ambiguities and paradoxes that have been pervading her imaginative historical record. The forensic aspect of her tale points to another structural or structuring genre: the detective novel.8 Reading Atonement as a detective novel amounts not only to identifying the culprits of the crime, but also to distinguishing between facts and fiction, imagination and reality, and, if one accepts Walter Benjamin’s association between the detective who reconstitutes the truth of the past and the materialist historian, to reconstructing historical genuineness. Briony’s forensic memoir constitutes then yet another means to bind together her own circumstances and a whole epoch, the particular and the general, the story and its historical context.

  • 9 Parey, Cloarec and Fortin-Tournès evoke ‘an ethics of deconstruction that consists in warning the r (...)

12In the final analysis then, Atonement’s heterogenous architecture, like the Tallis vase which has been broken and then provisionally glued together again, displays its cracks at the same time as it strives to convey wholeness. The novel’s conspicuous fragmentation allows McEwan to suggest his scepticism towards narrative or epistemological coherence and to underline the loss of harmony and therefore the disorder, chaos and possibly entropy of a family and a world in time of war. By splitting up the structure and by multiplying the narrative scraps presenting each a fragment of truth, a disjointed portion of the tale, he also expresses, postmodern-wise, an incredulity towards grand narratives or metanarratives. Finally, the diversity of literary modes, the ellipses and sudden temporal shifts seem to point to the plurality and fallibility of hermeneutic tasks9 and, since they stem from the same narrative subject, they also redefine the postmodern subject, in the wake of Patricia Waugh, as ‘an endless gathering and interpretation of fragments of experience’ (Waugh 8). As for the labour of fusion, it is effectuated by the unifying narrative voice who is characterized by a paradoxical mixture of true traumas and fake accounts and who invites the reader retrospectively to endorse the role of the detective—and possibly of the judge. Such fragmented fusion eventually expresses postmodernism’s syncretic and synthetic principles which commend the inclusion and admixture of any literary tradition and which result here in the unlikely combination of the estate novel and the modernist exploration of perception, of the war novel and an exercise in simulation, of the historical novel and romance, of the detective novel and autobiography, a combination which manages to carry out the feat of bringing together Austen and Woolf, Blaxland and Baudrillard, Benjamin and McEwan.

Haut de page


Baudrillard, Jean, Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman, New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Benjamin, Walter, On the Concept of History (1940), trans. Dennis Redmond, Frankfurt-am-Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974.

Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Baltimore, MA.: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Cassigneul, Adèle, and Elsa Cavalié, Atonement : Ian McEwan et Joe Wright, Atlande, collection Clefs-Concours, Paris : 2017.

Cavalié, Elsa, ‘“England is a long way off”: historical and ethical “elsewhere” in Ian McEwan’s Atonement’, Études britanniques contemporaines 37 (2009): 129-140.

Dalrymple, James, Jouer au détective chez Kazuo Ishiguro et dans le « whodunit » métafictionnel, Thèse Nouveau Régime, Université Grenoble Alpes, 2017.

Eco, Umberto, Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality, trans. William Weaver, London: Minerva, 1995.

Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

Gutleben, Christian, Nostalgic Postmodernism: The Victorian Tradition and the Contemporary British Novel, Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2001.

Head, Dominic, Ian McEwan (Contemporary British Novelists), Manchester: Manchester UP, 2007.

Hutcheon, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, New York & London: Routledge, 1988.

LaCapra, Dominick, Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994.

Letissier, Georges, ‘“The Eternal Loop of Self-Torture”: Ethics and Trauma in Ian McEwan’s Atonement’, Ethics and Trauma in Contemporary British Fiction, eds. Jean-Michel Ganteau and Susana Onega, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011, 209-226.

Marcus, Laura, ‘Ian McEwan’s Modernist Time: Atonement and Saturday’, Ian McEwan: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (2008), ed. Sebastian Groes, London: Bloomsbury, 2013, 83-97.

Mcewan, Ian, Atonement (2001), London: Vintage, 2002.

Mchale, Brian, Postmodernist Fiction (1987), London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

Mellet, Laurent, Atonement, Ian McEwan, Joe Wright: ‘The attempt was all’, Paris: Belin, CNED, 2017.

Miller, Hillis J., ‘Some Versions of Romance Trauma as Generated by Realist Detail in Ian McEwan’s Atonement’, Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Literature, eds. Jean-Michel Ganteau and Susana Onega, London and New York: Routledge, 2013, 90-106.

Parey, Armelle, Nicole Cloarec, and Anne-LaureFortin-Tournes, Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) and Joe Wright’s Film Adaptation (2007), Paris: Ellipses, 2017.

Pedot, Richard, ‘Rewriting(s) in Ian McEwan’s Atonement’, Études Anglaises 60.2 (2007): 148-159.

Ramadanovic, Petar, ‘When “To Die In Freedom” Is Written in English’, Diacritics 28.4 (1998): 54-67.

Waugh, Patricia, Postmodernism: A Reader, New York and London: Edward Arnold, 1993.

Wells, Lynn, Ian McEwan (New British Fiction), Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Whitehead, Anne, Trauma Fiction, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004.

Haut de page


1 To illustrate the overwhelming deregulation or disorder, one might quote the sense of a growing ‘confusion’ due to ‘abandoned vehicles’ or ‘shattered walls and doorways’, or, one might simply mention the exclamation ‘a bloody shambles’ which seems to encapsulate the general feeling of chaos.

2 As such, this postmodernist architecture might represent McEwan’s contemporary response to the classical and modern forms of architecture praised by Pevsner who is mentioned on page 19.

3 Adèle Cassigneul and Elsa Cavalié mention, in the same spirit, Derrida’s ‘disjointure’ and underline ‘l’irruption des prolepses et des analepses […] et les effets kaléidoscopiques et conjonctifs qui construisent un récit facetté’ (151).

4 According to Domick LaCapra, traumatic testimony can only ‘be effected belatedly through repetition, for the numbingly traumatic event does not register at the time of its occurrence but only after a temporal gap or period of latency, at which time it is immediately repressed, split off, or disavowed’ (LaCapra 174).

5 The repetitiveness of traumatic time is also something Parey, Cloarec and Fortin-Tournès have analyzed in detail (74).

6 It must be specified, though, that no literary mode is left unqualified in Atonement and much of the first part is suffused with a humorous streak which seems to belie the persistence of trauma in the adult narrator and her mischievously misleading tale of childish misapprehensions.

7 Richard Pedot also stresses the paradoxical unity of the apparently kaleidoscopic presentation: ‘Read with hindsight, the novel’s three parts are thus more densely intertwined than assumed at first reading, despite the stylistic shifts’ (150).

8 James Dalrymple goes as far as calling Atonement a metafictional whodunit and argues that the detective novel constitutes the generic frame of the novel (Dalrymple).

9 Parey, Cloarec and Fortin-Tournès evoke ‘an ethics of deconstruction that consists in warning the reader against reductive hermeneutic approaches of the text’ (132). A more in-depth analysis of the novel’s ethical function can be found in the same study by Parey, Cloarec and Fortin-Tournès 129-140 and in Laurent Mellet 140-160. For the novel’s ethical dimension, see also Head 162-166 and Wells 98-110.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Christian Gutleben, « A Cracked Construction: Postmodernist Fragmentation and Fusion in McEwan’s Atonement »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 28 septembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

Haut de page


Christian Gutleben

Christian Gutleben est professeur de littérature britannique à l’Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis où il est également directeur de la revue Cycnos. Avec Marie-Luise Kohlke il dirige la collection Neo-Victorian Studies chez Rodopi/Brill, collection dans laquelle il a, toujours avec Marie-Luise Kohlke, publié cinq volumes, le sixième et dernier étant prévu pour le dernier trimestre 2018. Il est également l’auteur de trois monographies (l’une sur le roman universitaire, une autre sur Graham Green et la dernière sur la fiction néo-victorienne) et de nombreux articles sur la culture britannique et postcoloniale.

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée
  • Logo ERIH +
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search