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And above all to make you see’: Vision, Imagination and the Aesthetics of Montage in Atonement

Adèle Cassigneul et Elsa Cavalié


Le présent article propose de lire Atonement d’Ian McEwan (2001) à travers les notions de vue, vision et imagination afin de redéfinir la poétique visuelle de l’auteur. Nous analyserons d’abord les cadres qui façonnent la vision de la jeune Briony, en tant qu’enfant et en tant qu’écrivaine novice. Scrutant le monde depuis sa nursery, le regard de Briony est explicitement perçu comme à la fois enfantin et littéraire (mélodramatique), captivé et rebuté, en somme contradictoire, ce qui se matérialise dans les points aveugles équivoques de ses obsessions visuelles. Nous terminerons en explicitant en quoi l’idée de « vision », à la fois comme thème et comme stratégie de représentation, relie McEwan à la tradition littéraire, à Conrad notamment, et contribue à élaborer une esthétique hybride du montage qui influe sur la lecture éthique du roman.

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1In his nineteen fifty study of the sea and the romantic imagination, The Enchafèd flood, or, The Romantic Iconography of the Sea, W.H. Auden notes that:

The degree of visibility = the degree of conscious knowledge
I.e., fog and most mean doubt and self-delusion, a clear day knowing where one is going or exactly what one has done. (Auden 74)

2Although the quote may initially seem almost simplistic, it appears to be strikingly relevant to Atonement. First, because of the connection with Auden, for the poet is one of the few intertexual references which are explicitly mentioned in the novel: an autographed Dance of Death lies on Robbie’s desk in the first section of the novel (McEwan 93) and ‘In Memory W.B. Yeats’ is quoted in the second (203). Critics such as Anna Gremlova or Peter Matthews have indeed studied the multiple references to Auden’s poetry in Atonement, emphasizing the fact that it constitutes a crucial intertext to the novel.

3Then, one should pay attention to the relationship Auden establishes between vision and knowledge, for it accurately pinpoints the meaning of the gradual blurring vision experienced by many characters throughout the novel, whether one considers Robbie being taken away by the police at the end of part one  (Robbie ‘vanished into the whiteness’ 187), Briony ‘gliding down [ing] through the soupy brown light’ (349) in the third section, or the coda describing the elderly Briony ‘watching the first gray light bring into view the park and the bridges over the vanished lake. And the long narrow driveway down which they drove Robbie away, into the whiteness’ (371). One could indeed imitate Auden’s phrase and say that Briony does not know ‘exactly what she has done’ for the characters that she tries to delineate, including her younger self, keep escaping the limits of her vision and, ultimately, her understanding.

4The final echo of Auden’s quote raises the issue of the relationship that the novel entertains with the romantic imagination. While Atonement has often been connected to the great tradition of nineteenth century realist novels (see Alistair Cormack for instance), the influence of the romantic imagination has largely been overlooked by the critics. Yet, envisioning Briony’s final refutation of realism (‘displace, transmute, dissemble. Bring down the fogs of the imagination!’ 370) as a return to the romantic imagination might help the reader go beyond the much-discussed ethical conundrum surrounding her rewriting of the ‘facts’.

  • 1 For the nursery is also the place where the rehearsals of the play are held.

5In this paper, we will consider the notions of sight, vision and imagination in Atonement in order to try and offer a new definition of McEwan’s visual poetics. We will first focus on the frameworks moulding Briony’s vision, as a child and a fledgling writer. Watching events from the nursery, Briony’s gaze is explicitly defined as both childish and literary,1 reluctant and fascinated, a paradox which is materialized in the problematic blind spots of her obsessive vision. We will finally explain how the exploration of ‘vision’, as a theme and a poetics, connects McEwan to the literary tradition, as an heir to Conrad but also creates an original and hybrid aesthetics of montage, which may ultimately have bearing on the ethical reading of Atonement.

A View from the Nursery

6In the first part of the novel, Briony’s gaze is explicitly informed by the world of childhood, a narrative feature that might at first strike the reader as puzzling. As Alistair Cormack notices:

Most of the chapters in the first section are given to 13-year-old Briony Tallis. To begin with, it appears strange that her perception of events should be the most significant. However, as the story progresses we realize that she has a role, in both the plot and its telling, that brings to mind L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953), a novel also narrated by a figure who as a child had been involved as intermediary in a tragic class-traversing love affair in a country house. (Cormack 74)

  • 2 And whose cinematic rendition constitutes the first scene in Joe Wright’s adaptation.

7Briony’s role as an intermediary, a ‘go-between’ who carries but also reveals secrets, is exposed very early on, in the oft-quoted description of her bedroom (4-5),2 a ‘shrine to her controlling demon’ (McEwan 5), in which the ostentatious exhibition of orderliness is counterbalanced by the compulsive need to hide things, although, she has, at first, nothing to hide (‘But hidden drawers, lockable diaries and cryptographic systems could not conceal from Briony the simple truth: she had no secrets’ 5). Despite the wealth of spy-like contraptions, it is only in her imagination that the young girl senses the potential for the exhilarating thrill of secret (‘But this first clumsy attempt showed her that the imagination itself was a source of secrets: once she had begun a story, no one could be told’ 6). Still, Briony’s bedroom almost seems to represent the domestic equivalent to the Romantic pathetic fallacy: not only does the familiar setting give away the fact that the young girl is obsessed with secrets, it also offers a glimpse of her future as a novelist (‘writing stories not only involved secrecy, it also gave her all the pleasures of miniaturization.’ 6).

  • 3 Joanne Watkiss has analysed Briony’s Gothic turn of mind and her (re)shaping of Robbie character: ‘ (...)

8As she literally moves from the bedroom to the nursery, Briony’s imagination is anchored in the parallel worlds of childhood and drama, for the nursery is the place where the rehearsals of her play, The Trials of Arabella, are supposed to take place. It is therefore only a short step to considering that Briony’s perception of the scene she is going to watch from the nursery window is informed by the one that has repeatedly taken place in the nursery (i.e. the rehearsals of the play): Arabella becomes Cecilia while Robbie is, interestingly enough, first ‘the prince’ disguised as ‘impoverished doctor’ (3) before turning into the ‘wicked foreign count’ (3), as if both male protagonists were fused into one in her vision.3

  • 4 Let us bear in mind that historically, melodrama originates in eighteenth-century French pantomime. (...)
  • 5 Or, as Philippe Hamon would put it: ‘son “cadre” annonce et découpe le spectacle contemplé, à la fo (...)

9Is it then no wonder that what follows, Briony’s observation of Robbie and Cecilia’s meeting at the Triton fountain, is concurrently perceived as a tableau (‘It was a temptation for her to be magical and dramatic, and to regard what she had witnessed as a tableau mounted for her alone’ 39), the setting of a play, and a scene taken from a film (the word ‘scene’ is indeed repeatedly used and emphasizes the artificiality of Briony’s vision, 38-39). The description indeed seems to borrow from cinematographic techniques; it starts with an extreme wide shot on the surrounding countryside and the Surrey hills, before zooming in on the Tallis estate (‘then, nearer, the estate’s open parkland’ 38), the garden (‘closer […] were the rose gardens’ 38), and eventually, the fountain (‘nearer still, the Triton fountain’ 38). That first shot is then followed by a still shot of Robbie, standing as the archetypal hero, his hands on his hips before silently, or so it seems to Briony, raising a hand to stop Cecilia. The scene thus simultaneously seems to belong to a dumb show of the pantomime sort, 4 a melodramatic theatre play inspired from The Trials of Arabella (Briony imagines stage directions such as ‘a proposal of marriage’) and a nineteen thirties mock-medieval film (such as Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn, for instance). But the rub comes when Briony tries to make sense of the plot, for what she sees, and the literary framework through which she considers it, do not seem to fit. Initially envisioned as a fairy tale (‘It was a scene that could easily have accommodated […] a medieval castle’ 38) it soon becomes obvious that the scene cannot be what she expected it to be. Thus, Briony’s first judgement ‘it made perfect sense’ is quickly replaced by an acknowledgement of failure ‘the sequence was illogical’ (39). The window thus serves as both a framework, limiting the scope of Briony’s vision, in a literal5 and metaphorical way (her comprehension of events is restricted by her limited knowledge of sexuality and the world of adults) and a transitional space, that allows the child-writer to transform events into fiction. Briony’s position in the nursery, watching events ‘two stories up’ then offers a nice metafictional pun on her place (and status) in the narrative. She is literarily and metaphorically two stories up: watching things happen from the window of the second storey of the house, but also acting as the hidden narrator of the secret story she had always wanted to write. As a result, the young girl is, so to speak, surrounded by stories: the ones she writes of course, but also the ones she reads, as the epigraph of the novel, a Northanger Abbey quote ironically commenting on the dangers of reading too much Gothic, reminds us.

Briony’s Quixotic Mind’s Eye

  • 6 After reading Robbie’s letter, Briony dissects ‘the word’ so as to understand its full meaning and (...)
  • 7 In his landmark study, Peter Brooks analyses melodrama as an ‘imaginative mode’ and an ‘inescapable (...)

10Just before she arrives ‘at one of the nursery’s wide-open windows’ and contemplates the fountain dumb show, Briony muses on the telepathic power of stories, a ‘magical process’ through which ‘you [see] the word castle, and it [is] there, seen from some distance, with woods in high summer spread before it’ (37). Nurtured on romances and author of melodramatic tales, the teenager believes that life, just like texts, is made of signs and symbols to be deciphered, interpreted and translated.6 Confident in her judgement, Briony is convinced that she masters the secret language of courting and love affairs. In what she sees, just as in melodramas, ‘[t]hings cease to be merely themselves, gestures cease to be merely tokens of social intercourse whose meaning is assigned by a social code; they become the vehicles of metaphors whose tenor suggests another kind of reality’ (Brooks 9).7 According to Briony, what is presented to her when Robbie stands in front of her sister ‘fitted very well. It made perfect sense’. Or rather, it makes perfect sense according to her interpretative framework. According to her, ‘[s]uch leaps across boundaries were the stuff of daily romance’ (38).

11Earlier, on her return home from Cambridge, Cecilia had noticed that ‘Briony was lost to her writing fantasies—what had seemed a passing fad was now an enveloping obsession’ (20-1). Later, when writing to Robbie, Cecilia asserts ‘she’s such a fantasist, as we know to our cost’. ‘Remember what a dreamer she is’ (212). According to her big sister, Briony is a ‘Madame Quixote’ (Doody xxii), she is a slave to imagination who turns her life into a fiction of her own and projects her private whimsical visions onto the outside world. Indeed, the young girl appears as the contemporary avatar of Charlotte Lennox’s female Quixote, Arabella. As Kathleen d’Angelo suggests, ‘Briony is the Arabella figure who views the world as an extension of her literary imagination’ (d’Angelo 92). Indeed, as Briony herself remarks, ‘what she knew was not literally, or not only, based on the visible’ (McEwan 169). What she sees with her own eyes is twisted by her mind’s eye. She reasons and makes sense of the world around her with her imagination.

When the young girl went back to the window and looked down, the damp patch on the gravel had evaporated. Now there was nothing left of the dumb show by the fountain beyond what survived in memory, in three separate and overlapping memories. The truth had become as ghostly as invention. (41)

12Between vision and revision, the actual view is turned into a memory-image, which is then interpreted and blended into her fabular version of events. And because she shares her reading of romances with Lennox’s Arabella, her imaginings too turn upon rape and sexual assault.

As far as she was concerned, everything fitted; the terrible present fulfilled the recent past. Events she herself witnessed foretold her cousin’s calamity. […] He was a maniac after all. Anyone would do. […] That his victim could easily have been her increased Briony’s outrage and fervour. If her poor cousin was not able to command the truth, then she would do it for her. I can. And I will. (168)

13Briony’s ‘frenetic vision’ (21) fuses actual images (what she actually saw) and virtual ones (what she remembers, interprets and refashions) to create a different order of reality, a vision of her own which, hobbyhorsically, she includes in the stories she fantasies and eventually she imposes on everyone around her.

Pleasure in Looking: On Briony’s Voyeurism

  • 8 Following Freud, Tatiana Peillon assumes that ‘la pulsion de voir [est liée] à la curiosité de savo (...)
  • 9 See ‘Briony’s [room] was a shrine to her controlling demon […]. In fact, Briony’s was the only tidy (...)
  • 10 In ‘The Scoptophilic Instinct and Identification’, Otto Fenichel posits that ‘looking has the uncon (...)

14Unseen, from two storeys up’ (39), Briony improves her visual powers by acting the part of the ‘hidden observer’ (40). She is indeed an obsessional watcher who imposes herself as the sole eye witness in the family (as well as in the narrative) and remains, until old age, a voyeuse. In the coda, she keeps hidden to ‘manag[e] a good look’ (357) at Paul and Lola Marshall whom, remaining true to her melodramatic frame of mind, she compares to a ‘stage villain’ (358). Through visual pleasure, or scoptophilia, Briony associates compulsive vision and desire to know.8 In Part 1, watching through the window means that she is moving out of the confined world of childhood, out of her nursery, and that she is starting to ‘look outside in the real world’ (Pellion 270, translation ours). As the demiurgic girl rules over, controls and manipulates her childish realm,9 her move towards the open window means that she aspires to embrace and comprehend the world, to seize it at a glance. In Joe Wright’s adaptation, this is convincingly illustrated by the use of extreme close-ups and pieces to camera of Briony in the fountain, library and rape scenes. Under the young girl’s darting eye, we feel her active, devouring gaze.10

  • 11 ‘On my desk was a framed photograph of my husband, Thierry, taken in Marseilles two years before he (...)
  • 12 According to Peillon: ‘La pulsion sexuelle se multiplie ainsi pour Freud à la puberté. Elle fait ir (...)

15Wright’s emphasis on the act of looking, and the scoptophilic tension it entails, also underlines the erotic pleasure that is derived from it. In the third part of the movie, when Briony visits her sister in Belham, Wright films the young woman’s strange fascination for her sister’s sexuality. He exposes Briony’s voyeuristic interest for Cecilia’s messy bed with a brief shot reverse shot, and a discreet pan further underlines the intensity of her indiscreet look. Joe Wright associates it with sexual frustration: ‘This moment of her studying their bed, of imagining the sex that happened, or imagining the smells. I don’t think Briony never has much sex. She never gets married’ (Wright)—which is false, in the novel Briony does get married to Thierry.11 And when Cecilia kisses Robbie to tame his violence, Wright catches the sudden surge12 of the sexual drive in Briony’s absorbed and ogling look.

  • 13 See Briony’s reflexion on marriage: ‘A good wedding was an unacknowledged representation of the as (...)
  • 14 Commenting on his work with children actors, Joe Wright explains: ‘if you get a kid to do absolutel (...)

16In part one, the teenage girl is obsessed by marriage and love affairs, a screen fixation which hardly conceals her interest in sexuality.13 Chapter after chapter, she is confronted to sex acts she identifies as ‘mysteries’ (McEwan 160) and which arouse turmoils of emotions. Briony is both fascinated, attracted (she wants to see and she actually sees) and shocked, confused (on screen, she symptomatically gasps, trembles and cries). Wright clearly plays on this hesitation between attraction and repulsion, desire and terror by resorting to the montage of attraction.14Confrontation rules the cinema of attractions, says Tom Gunning, in both the form of its films and their mode of exhibition. The directness of this act of display allows an emphasis on the thrill itself—the immediate reaction of the viewer’ (Gunning 1995, 122).

  • 15 According to Peter Brooks, the melodramatic imagination nurtures on ‘the moral occult’, which ‘bear (...)

17In the rape scene, for instance, the round halo of Briony’s torch blatantly stands out in the blinding darkness and turns the image into a voyeuristic device, some sort of peep show, as if we were peeping through a keyhole or through the peephole viewer of a kinetoscope. The alternating extreme close-ups on Briony and the emphasis on her facecam searching gaze exhibit the young girl’s desire to see and her will to know. For the third time, Briony is confronted to a primal scene: she unexpectedly discovers a naked backside and the crude vision makes her gasp of surprise and horror. Suddenly petrified, as if turned into stone, she drops her torch and is left in the dark. As Otto Fenichel points out, ‘to be turned into stone is, like losing [one’s] sight, a very frequent punishment for the scoptophiliac’ (Fenichel 389). Briony is literally blinded by what she has just seen. Just like the fountain and library scenes, the rape is beyond her understanding, but she nevertheless senses its morally occult dimension.15

18Throughout the first seminal part, Briony witnesses what she perceives as violent enigmatic sexual acts that she has difficulties in deciphering and comprehending. This brutal confrontation with the adult world provides her with a new, yet incomplete, understanding. As the adult Briony reflexively remarks,

[t]he fairy stories were behind her, and in the space of a few hours she had witnessed mysteries, seen an unspeakable word, interrupted brutal behaviour, and by incurring the hatred of an adult whom everyone had trusted, she had become a participant in the drama of life beyond the nursery. (McEwan 160)

19Gazing from behind her childhood window, the teenage Briony inhabits a ‘transitional space between the nursery and adult worlds’ (141), which breeds a hybrid vision that retains blind spots.

Blind spots: the failure of vision

20What is depicted in the novel (very prominently in the first part but also in the rest of Atonement), is the gradual failure of Briony’s vision, and how her imagination is gradually let loose to fill the void. As Laurent Mellet has it, ‘from the first to the last pages, Briony’s vision becomes more and more impaired and ineffective’ (Mellet 46). The problematic connection between seeing and understanding or, if we use Kantian concepts, perception and understanding is at stake here. Between perception and understanding, lies, according to Kant, Imagination. But what Kant calls ‘productive’ imagination, that is to say, a ‘synthetic act in which we combine the detached elements of perception’ in order to ‘connect concept to Image’ (Hume 487) is clearly lacking in Briony’s ‘understanding’ of the events that unfold in the first part of the novel. Without the rational anchoring to sound concepts, those very concepts that Briony does not and cannot master because she is not an adult yet, ‘understanding can[not] complete the cognitive synthesis’ (Hume 487) and the comprehension of the events remains outside of Briony’s scope.

21Again and again, it becomes obvious to the reader that despite Briony’s intense desire to watch and see things, vision fails her. The failure of vision is indeed obvious as early as the nursery episode in Part One. When Robbie and Cecilia have left the ‘scene’, Briony finds herself ‘staring unseeingly down the nursery’s length’ (McEwan 39) and the oxymoronic phrase draws attention to the fact that although the scoptophilic drive lingers, it clearly fails to create a vision, or to translate vision into comprehension (or Kantian ‘understanding’). Although the following paragraph teems with verbs denoting vision (‘stared’, ‘unseeing’, ‘regard’, ‘witness’, ‘tableau’ 39-40), it becomes increasingly clear that Briony obsessively watches things but cannot ‘see’. At that point, vision and imagination seems to be conflated, for the notion both designates the material sense of vision, or sight, and the metaphorical meaning of the term. Yet, during the nursery scene, the young girl’s failure to make sense of what she sees is paradoxically counterbalanced by her awareness of that very failure: ‘she accepted that she did not understand, and that she must simply watch’ (40). Just like the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave, Briony is epistemologically closer to the truth when she suspects that her vision of the world is lacking.

  • 16 Interestingly enough, almost the same phrase is repeated when Robbie comes back to Tallis house wit (...)
  • 17 In William Blake’s 1794 ‘The Tyger’.

22As the first part of the novel unfolds, it becomes obvious that Briony’s entire reasoning process, supposedly consisting in the passage from perception to imagination and then understanding, is flawed: the seeds of hermeneutic blindness which were apparently planted in the nursery scene come to fruition in the library scene, where the text is saturated with terms that draw attention to Briony’s inability to see, in both senses of the term: ‘dark’, ‘gloom’, ‘at first, … she saw nothing at all’ (123).16 Briony cannot materially see because of the darkness and she cannot properly imagine, in the Kantian sense of connecting perception to concept, what she sees. Later, as Briony enters the park in order to search for the twins, obscurity has taken over and the girl seems to be threatened by the engulfing darkness: ‘But there was nothing, nothing but the tumbling dark mass of the woods just discernible against the grayish-blue of the western sky’ (160). At that point, Kant’s triad connecting perception to Understanding seems to be turned upside down, and ‘truth’ precedes vision: ‘what she knew was not literally, or not only, based on the visible’ (169). Visual perception has disappeared, and Briony’s ‘truth’ is now what shapes her vision: ‘The truth was in the symmetry, which was to say, it was founded in common sense. The truth instructed her eyes’ (169). Briony justifying her actions because of the symmetry of events might of course remind us of Blake’s ‘fearful symmetry’,17 and of the fact that Briony, transitioning from innocence to experience, has become as dangerous as the poem’s tiger.

23Still, what had until then remained virtual and unstable, that is to say, the mounting threat of Briony’s confusion between vision and truth, only becomes real when it is put into words, during her interview with the inspector:

‘You saw him then.’
know it was him.’
‘Let’s forget what you
know. You’re saying you saw him.’
‘Yes, I
saw him.’
‘Just as you
see me.’
saw him with your own eyes.’
‘Yes. I
saw him. I saw him.’ (181, emphasis added)

  • 18 For more on McEwan and the Third Culture, see Elsa Cavalié, ‘“Who says that poetry makes nothing ha (...)

24In that dialogue, one can witness the battle between vision and understanding being transferred from Briony’s mind to the public realm that an interview with the police constitutes. As the text progressively becomes saturated with the word ‘see’, the verb paradoxically loses its literal meaning, connected to ‘sight’, to denote its metaphorical one, connected to ‘vision’. The strikingly paratactic form of the exchange (there is only one two-syllable word: ‘saying’) underlines the fact that language has become a trap for Briony. The verb ‘see’/’saw’ seems to be chanted like an incantation, displacing Briony’s testimony from the realm of reason to that of almost religious belief and it might seem that, as Daniel Zalewski puts it, McEwan once again wants to fight ‘the unexamined Romantic assumption that still lingers in the contemporary novel, which is that intuition is good and reason bad’ (Zalewski). Going against the Romantics, Atonement thus appears to uphold the primacy of reason over imagination, or perhaps, for McEwan has long been an advocate of the Third Culture,18 to deconstruct the Romantic opposition between reason and imagination in order to define a new form of literary imagination, whose originality might lie in juxtaposition rather than opposition.

‘It Dissolves, Diffuses, Dissipates…’: Briony’s Visions and Re(-)visions

25Briony has difficulties in defining the verb ‘to see’. Opposing her interrogators’ ‘austere view of the visual’, she ‘would have preferred to qualify, or complicate, her use of the word “saw”’. ‘Either she saw, or she did not see [says the Police]. There lay nothing in between […]’ (McEwan 170). She is trapped by language, by her own words, or rather by her listeners’ inability to perceive the potential polysemy of the word and their urge to have her articulate truths and certainties. But, ‘[w]hen the matter was closed, when the sentence was passed and the congregation dispersed, a ruthless youthful forgetting, a wilful erasing, protected her well into her teens’ (171).

  • 19 According to Samuel Coleridge, the imagination ‘dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recrea (...)

26Rewriting her childhood story, the adult Briony plays on the ‘in between’ quoted above. She reckons on the figurative sense of the verb—‘to form a mental picture of, to visualize’—and allows for potential misrepresentations. Acknowledging the imaginative dimension of vision, she endorses its creative power, its power to ‘dissolve, diffuse, dissipate’19 the factual truth of events. What she gazes at in the dark and assumes she has seen is in fact the sheer projection of her own interpretations. Breaking down the world of everyday perception, she creates a new reality.

Yet what she sees is further twisted by what she remembers to have seen.
Her memories of the interrogation and signed statements and testimony, or her awe outside the courtroom from which her youth excluded her, would not trouble her so much in the years to come as
her fragmented recollection of that late night and summer dawn. (173, emphasis added)

27Not only does vision fail as Briony does not actually see anything, but it seems that memory fails too and that the girl-turned-narrator only retains piecemeal recollections of what she thinks has happened. As she acknowledges in the novel’s coda, to shape her narrative she has had to ‘displace, transmute, dissemble. Bring down the fogs of the imagination!’ (370). She had to remodel experience into ‘some kind of whole made of shivering fragments’, to borrow Virginia Woolf’s words (Woolf xxv).

  • 20 On closing her story, the adult Briony confesses: ‘I've regarded it as my duty to disguise nothing— (...)
  • 21 Hayes and Groes have analysed McEwan’s ‘longstanding and intense’ fascination with television and c (...)
  • 22 One should indeed mention that other characters’ visions in the novel, like Robbie’s may be analyse (...)

28So, to overcome the double failure of vision and memory and manage to write her novel, Briony revisions her past, that is she both sees it again through incomplete memory-images and revises it, even alters it to make her ‘truth’ triumph.20 And to re-collect and compose her novelistic version of events, she fashions a virtual vision through montage.21 Montage, Eisenstein writes, is ‘an idea born out of the shock between two distinct elements’ (Eisenstein 49). Briony replaces what she failed to see in the fountain, the library and the rape scenes but also what she never saw22 (notably Robbie’s war experience in France in Part 2, composed out of notes and letters, and her conversation with Cecilia at the end of Part 3, which is a figment of her imagination) by a disjunctive form which juxtaposes details, scenes and events, makes them collide and confront each other so that, from their collision, readers might make sense of what really happened and finally understand her ‘truth’. To quote from Eisenstein again: ‘an emotion, an image and its dynamic development appear when static elements, that is given and imagined factors, are juxtaposed next to each other’ (234, translation ours). Taking her cue from Conrad, Briony wants to make us see what happened to her and her relatives through a dynamic narrative process which builds itself up on the visual imaginary power of words.

Conclusion: “ order to recreate”: hybridity and the aesthetics of montage

  • 23 In particular, about Dominic Head’s analysis of the ethical conundrum the novel represents, not onl (...)
  • 24 See Cassigneul and Cavalié 11.

29Much has been said about McEwan’s neo-humanist stance and how Atonement may belong to the early twenty-first century ‘ethical turn’ famously mapped by Davis and Womack. Still, and against the general trend in the recent literary criticism on Atonement, we would like to consider that what could be described as Briony’s ethically questionable use of history and real lives, her manipulation of fictional ones,23 is also part and parcel of McEwan’s poetics. Indeed, what has here been depicted as Briony’s ‘mentir-vrai’,24 that is to say, manipulating images in order to create a fictional connection between sight and vision that reveals an otherwise ungraspable truth, but also explores the artistic potentialities of visual montage is precisely what McEwan does thanks to a hybrid form that borrows from historical accounts and romance, or melodrama. Those hybrid forms are indeed often connected to the performance of trauma, as Jean Michel Ganteau and Susana Onega explain it:

Such a move can be seen at work in the hybrid liminal texts and genres used as instruments for the literary performance of trauma: the hybrid autobiographies in which the dialogue between referentiality and fiction is acutely at work; the liminal historical narratives, in which once again the referential and the poetic are made to collaborate without the ironic stance of historiographic metafiction. (Ganteau and Onega 13)

30Briony’s hermeneutically flawed hybridization of fact and fiction, trauma and romance, is echoed by McEwan’s superposition of two imaginations, a Kantian one connecting perception to concept through rational thought, and a Romantic one breaking the limits imposed by ‘facts’ (one remembers the coda’s famous conclusion ‘No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel.’ McEwan 371) in order to fully realize the aesthetic potentialities of visual montage.

  • 25 In an interview, McEwan famously evoked what he perceived as modernism’s ‘dereliction of duty towar (...)

31Interestingly enough, McEwan’s use of the aesthetics of montage is not limited to Atonement, but also very much central to the famous opening of Enduring Love, describing a balloon crash, or the striking, to say the least, wedding night in On Chesil Beach. Such a use of the visual power of words in order to provoke (at least initially) an emotional rather than a rational response in the reader, ultimately ties back to the dominant issue that has occupied Atonement’s critics for the last fifteen years: that of the ethical reading of the book. We are not implying here that there is no ethical responsibility in McEwan’s writing, but that eventually his poetics of montage, of juxtaposing striking images in order to appeal to the reader’s very own hybrid imagination transfers the ethical responsibility to the reader. Our final question could then be: is that transfer of ethical responsibility McEwan’s very own ‘dereliction of duty’25 (to use his words against him), or a neo-humanist trust in the reader?

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Primary Sources

McEwan, Ian, Atonement, 2001, London: Vintage Books, 2002.

Lennox, Charlotte, The Female Quixote (1752), London: Penguin Books, 2007.

Secondary Sources

Auden, W.H., The Enchafèd flood, or, The romantic Iconography of the Sea, New York: Vintage Books, 1950.

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1 For the nursery is also the place where the rehearsals of the play are held.

2 And whose cinematic rendition constitutes the first scene in Joe Wright’s adaptation.

3 Joanne Watkiss has analysed Briony’s Gothic turn of mind and her (re)shaping of Robbie character: ‘As with Catherine Morland’s misinterpretation of General Tilney, Briony’s misreading of Robbie’s character results in a Gothic narrative that warns of the dangers of misplacing villainy and heroism’ (Watkiss 50).

4 Let us bear in mind that historically, melodrama originates in eighteenth-century French pantomime. As Brooks, underlines: ‘Because stage melodrama was born out of a wordless form, pantomime, and because it made its message legible through a register of nonverbal as well as verbal signs, it offered a repertory of gestures, facial expression, bodily postures and movements readily adapted to the silent cinema, which could not help but be expressionistic in its acting and directional styles’ (Brooks x). Wright’s adaptation of the scene underlines this pantomime-like effect through play-acting (the actors’ movements, gestures and facial expressions are somewhat exaggerated) as well as close-ups and montage, which underline the dramatic turn of the events.

5 Or, as Philippe Hamon would put it: ‘son “cadre” annonce et découpe le spectacle contemplé, à la fois sertissant et justifiant le “tableau” descriptif qui va suivre, et mettant le spectateur dans une pose et une posture de spectateur d’œuvre d’art’ (Hamon 174).

6 After reading Robbie’s letter, Briony dissects ‘the word’ so as to understand its full meaning and purport: ‘The context helped, but more than that, the word was one with its meaning, and was almost onomatopoeic. The smooth-hollowed, partly enclosed forms of its first three letters were as clear as a set of anatomical drawings. Three figures huddling at the foot of the cross’ (McEwan 114).

7 In his landmark study, Peter Brooks analyses melodrama as an ‘imaginative mode’ and an ‘inescapable dimension of modern consciousness’ (Brooks vii) whose ‘relation to realism is always oblique—it is tensed toward an exploitation of expression beyond. It insists that the ordinary may be the place of the instauration of significance’ (ix).

8 Following Freud, Tatiana Peillon assumes that ‘la pulsion de voir [est liée] à la curiosité de savoir’ (Peillon 267).

9 See ‘Briony’s [room] was a shrine to her controlling demon […]. In fact, Briony’s was the only tidy upstairs room in the house. Her straight-backed dolls in their many-roomed mansion appeared to be under strict instructions not to touch the walls; the various thumb-sized figures to be found standing about her dressing table—cowboys, deep-sea divers, humanoid mice—suggested by their even ranks and spacing a citizen’s army awaiting orders’ (McEwan 5).

10 In ‘The Scoptophilic Instinct and Identification’, Otto Fenichel posits that ‘looking has the unconscious significance of devouring’ (Fenichel 374). He assumes the following symbolic equation: ‘to look at = to devour’ (373).

11 ‘On my desk was a framed photograph of my husband, Thierry, taken in Marseilles two years before he died’ (McEwan 360).

12 According to Peillon: ‘La pulsion sexuelle se multiplie ainsi pour Freud à la puberté. Elle fait irruption’ (Peillon 269).

13 See Briony’s reflexion on marriage: ‘A good wedding was an unacknowledged representation of the as yet unthinkable—sexual bliss’ (McEwan 9).

14 Commenting on his work with children actors, Joe Wright explains: ‘if you get a kid to do absolutely nothing and then cut to a shot of a couple having sex in the library, then cut back to a kid doing absolutely nothing, you're going to project all the fear and all the misunderstanding onto that kid's face. […] this was obviously also the experiments of Eisenstein and Vertov. It’s montage’ (Douglas 2007). On the montage of attraction see Gunning 1986.

15 According to Peter Brooks, the melodramatic imagination nurtures on ‘the moral occult’, which ‘bears comparison to the unconscious mind, for it is a sphere of being where our most basic desires and interdictions lie, a realm which in quotidian existence may appear closed off from us, but which we must accede to since it is the realm of meaning and value. The melodramatic mode in large measure exists to locate and to articulate the moral occult’ (Brooks 5).

16 Interestingly enough, almost the same phrase is repeated when Robbie comes back to Tallis house with the twins: ‘at first they saw nothing’ (McEwan 182): this time, cognitive, or hermeneutic blindness has apparently spread to the entire group at Tallis House, like a contagious disease.

17 In William Blake’s 1794 ‘The Tyger’.

18 For more on McEwan and the Third Culture, see Elsa Cavalié, ‘“Who says that poetry makes nothing happen?” Paradoxes de l’engagement chez Ian McEwan’, Études britanniques contemporaines 50 (2016), last accessed at on March 4, 2018.

19 According to Samuel Coleridge, the imagination ‘dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate’ (Hume 496).

20 On closing her story, the adult Briony confesses: ‘I've regarded it as my duty to disguise nothing—the names, the places, the exact circumstances—I put it all there as a matter of historical record’ (McEwan 369). And further down she adds: ‘No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel’ (371). Briony here underlines the dizzy spell cast by a narrative which intertwines personal experience and fantasy, and which posits falsehood as the foundation of a fictional truth which sometimes contradicts actual experienced truth. In this way Atonement foregrounds what Louis Aragon called the mentir-vrai. It reads as a powerful oxymoron, that of life—Briony’s life and that of her kin—when it has become fiction. As Frank Kermode puts it: ‘The entire novel is a grown-up version of this achievement, a conflict or coalescence of truth and fantasy, a novelist’s treatment of what is fantasised as fact’ (Kermode).

21 Hayes and Groes have analysed McEwan’s ‘longstanding and intense’ fascination with television and cinema (Groes 28), underlining his ‘attention to detail, above all visual perspective and point of view’ as symptoms of ‘an imagination schooled in the demands and conventions of visual media’ (27). Yet critics have never closely analysed the ways in which McEwan’s novels borrow from cinematograpic modes of narration and style. On McEwan’s cinematographic prose, see Cassigneul and Cavalié 85-96.

22 One should indeed mention that other characters’ visions in the novel, like Robbie’s may be analysed in a slightly different way. In the first part of Atonement, the failure of his vision seems to be extremely similar to that of Briony, for instance when he sees the little girl coming from the park: “a white shape which seemed at first to be part of the pale stone of the parapet. Staring at it dissolved its outlines, but within a few paces it had taken on a vaguely human form”. However, the evolution of Robbie’s own vision, from a ghostly one similar to Briony’s in the first part of the novel to a journalistic, almost surgical prose interspersed with quasi-surreal images such as that of the leg in the tree in the second one, may signal an epistemological change which could be interpreted in two ways. First as Briony’s attempt at conveying the radical foreignness of the war experience, but also as McEwan’s own attempt at going against a heroic and nostalgic contemporary rewriting of the Second World War.

23 In particular, about Dominic Head’s analysis of the ethical conundrum the novel represents, not only for Briony as a character/narrator, but also for McEwan as a novelist. See Head 172.

24 See Cassigneul and Cavalié 11.

25 In an interview, McEwan famously evoked what he perceived as modernism’s ‘dereliction of duty towards plot’. See ‘Interview Michael Silverblatt’, Bookworm, KCRW 11 July 2002a, last accessed at on October 24, 2018 on March 4, 2018. One could however argue that a transfer of ethical responsibility towards the reader may be construed as typical of modernism, thus hinting at the notion that McEwan’s relationship to Modernism when writing Atonement might have been tainted by his ‘anxiety of influence’.

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Adèle Cassigneul et Elsa Cavalié, « And above all to make you see’: Vision, Imagination and the Aesthetics of Montage in Atonement »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 11 mai 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Adèle Cassigneul

Dr in British literature, specialist of text/image relations, Adèle Cassigneul wrote her Phd on Virginia Woolf’s relations with photography and film and published articles on the subject both in France and abroad. She has edited a collection of article, “Virginia Woolf and Images: Becoming Photographic (EBC 53, 2017), co-authored with Elsa Cavalié the Atlande monograph on Ian McEwan’s Atonement and its film adaptation, and published Voir, observer, penser: Virginia Woolf et la Photo-cinématographie (PUM 2018).

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Elsa Cavalié

Elsa Cavalié is a Senior Lecturer at Avignon University. Her research focuses on Contemporary British fiction and Cultural Studies with particular emphasis on the notions of Englishness and Britishness. She has published several articles on contemporary British fiction (Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Alan Hollinghurst, Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, etc.) with a special interest in the representation of Englishness in novels revisiting the 1900-1945 period, a monograph, Réécrire l’Angleterre: l’anglicité dans la littérature britannique contemporaine (PULM, 2015), edited a collection of articles on E.M. Forster’s legacy with Professor Laurent Mellet (Only Connect: E.M. Forster’s Legacies in British Fiction, 2017) and recently published a study of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in collaboration with Adèle Cassigneul (Éditions Atlande).

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