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Cahier spécial Atonement

Ian McEwan’s Re-turn to Ethics in Atonement

Le re-tour éthique d’Ian McEwan dans Atonement
Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès


Il s’agira ici de prendre la mesure de l’étendue et du caractère fécond mais aussi des limites de l’engagement d’Ian McEwan en faveur d’une éthique dans son roman Atonement, en le comparant avec le tournant éthique qu’expérimente l’écrivain dans ses romans plus anciens tels The Child in Time (1987), The Innocent (1990) ou Black Dogs (1990) et en réinscrivant cet engagement dans le contexte général de l’émergence d’une éthique de la vulnérabilité dans les discours culturels et philosophiques contemporains. Si au début de sa carrière Ian McEwan privilégiait les descriptions plombées d’un monde déshumanisé peuplé de narrateurs moralement douteux et de personnages de pervers sexuels au point que les critiques l’avaient surnommé Ian Macabre, Atonement introduit pour sa part des variations dans le tour éthique pris par l’écrivain dans son œuvre la plus récente. En effet le roman soulève la question de l’écriture comme forme de responsabilité morale, et comme possibilité de réhumaniser, voire de réenchanter un monde tragiquement imparfait. La coda métafictionnelle du roman en est un des exemples les plus flagrants, qui met en lumière la foi que place Briony Tallis dans la persistance de valeurs s’articulant autour du pouvoir de l’écrit, de la capacité de l’écriture à articuler une vérité, et de la capacité éthique de l’œuvre historique de fiction. Cependant, la mise à distance par McEwan de son personnage de narratrice-écrivaine empêche le/la lecteur/trice de faire des amalgames trop rapides et le/la conduit à tracer son propre itinéraire dans le texte. Ainsi, le/a lecteur/trice peut décider de refuser toute clôture herméneutique pour se laisser porter par la prolifération du texte, comme l’indique la dernière suggestion de Briony selon laquelle les amants survivent et reviennent de nombreuses années plus tard assister à la mise en scène de sa pièce de théâtre le jour de son anniversaire, dans la coda. Le fait que la coda place le/a lecteur/trice devant des carrefours interprétatifs où des décisions de lecture cruciales doivent être prises montre que McEwan lui-même souhaite réintroduire la notion d’éthique de l’écriture et de la lecture dans ce que l’on pourrait appeler le paysage postmoderne de la fiction britannique contemporaine.

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1The themes tackled by Ian McEwan in his early career, his grim depictions of a dehumanised world, of morally dubious narrators and of sexually perverse characters, arguably placed the novelist outside the sphere of ethical writing, a position adopted in books such as The Cement Garden (1978) or The Comfort of Strangers (1981), which earned the author the nickname ‘Ian Macabre’. With novels such as The Child in Time (1987), The Innocent (1990) or Black Dogs (1992) however, McEwan started to engage with ethical issues revolving around individual and collective responsibility vis-à-vis history and engagement with the real world. Atonement, his 2001 novel, singles itself out in this ethical turn by giving it a metafictional, even a metamimetic inflection. Indeed, the novel explicitly addresses the production and reception of fictional representation as engaging with ethical issues. The central conceit of the novel posits that fiction may provide atonement for past crimes, even though this statement is somewhat qualified in the coda by Briony Tallis, the homodiegetic narrator and fictional author of the story. Thematically, the novel as a whole is an exploration of fiction’s capacity for moral redress. Part Two displays the novelist’s ethical concern for historical accuracy as it creates a sense of verisimilitude by avoiding any patriotic sabre-rattling in its representation of the British retreat to Dunkirk. Part Three associates writing fiction with an ethics of praxis by combining the evocation of Briony’s maturation as a writer with a representation of her hard physical and moral training as a nurse. The references to high modernism which pepper the text also foreground the questions of commitment and duty towards cultural memory and literary history. Finally, the metafictional coda brings the question of fiction’s ethical responsibility to a point of incandescence, by revealing Briony’s self-serving strategies as a writer, which complexify the question of the book’s capacity for ethical atonement. Interestingly enough, Briony’s concluding metafictional revelations question the power of the written word, the connection between truth and writing, and the possibility for an ethics of historical fiction. What she implies in the coda is that writing fictional representations of events matters ethically because fictions may perform actions, they may do things with words. For instance, they may be restorative, and make up for past crimes. Alternately, they may fail in their ambition to mend the past and still be considered as worthy in their sheer attempt to do so. What is voiced in the coda is a thus a consideration of literature as performative event based on the idea that ‘literature happens’ (Attridge xii). Not only does Atonement foreground the complex relation between the process of writing fiction and ethics, but the novel also investigates the ethical dimension of the reading process. From the very beginning the text equates ethical reading with pluralism and open-endedness, by showing the disastrous consequences of Briony’s imposition of monolythic, erroneous interpretations onto polysemic signs and events. In a typical postmodernist gesture the open-ended coda invites the reader to welcome a plurality of meanings while leaving it up to him/her to decide in favour of an open-ended ethical reception of the whole text. While taking those various elements into account, this article will address the singularity of Atonement’s embrace of ethics by showing in what way the text at first and deceptively seems to adhere to the confines of moral criticism and narrative philosophy only to move beyond them so as to explore a more Levinasian ethics and praxis of the sexual and textual other, which finally takes the shape of a deconstructive ethics of reception based on the necessity of democratic pluralism.

Atonement’s Conversation with Moral Philosophy and Criticism

2Atonement enters into a conversation with moral philosophy first and foremost through various references to F. R. Leavis’s literary criticism. Leavis’s belief in the moral value of mimetic adequacy transpires from Briony’s writing period of ‘psychological realism’ in Part One. Leavis believed in the exemplary nature of fiction as a reservoir of universal and timeless truth. This conception of literature hovers over the literary discussions held by Cecilia and Robbie before they come to acknowledge that they are in love with each other:

‘I know what you mean’, he said as they walked the remaining few yards to the fountain. ‘There’s more life in Fielding, but he can be psychologically crude compared to Richardson’. […] The last thing she wanted was an undergraduate debate on eighteenth-century literature. She didn’t think Fielding was crude at all, or that Richardson was a fine psychologist, but she wasn’t going to be drawn in, defending, defining, attacking (26).

3Similarly, Leavis’s notions of ‘felt life’ and ‘psychological subtlety’ (Leavis 168) are those used by the protagonists in their argumentation over the respective merits of Richardson and Fielding, a token of the great critic’s influence in the field of literary studies in the 30s the atmosphere of which McEwan is trying to recreate in the first part of his book. The protagonists’ literary discussion is an opportunity for the text to draw the reader in the literary debate and to invite him/her to reflect on the value of Leavis’s literary criteria in relation to the eighteenth-century authors. Even though Cecilia ironically dismisses the conversation as ‘an undergraduate debate on Eighteenth century literature’, it works as a trigger for an ongoing conversation between text and reader regarding the moral import of literature.

4Robbie, for his part, clearly conceives of literature in those terms, since he establishes a direct connection between the type of books he reads and the good doctor he intends to be. According to him, as to Leavis, literary works have a direct moral impact onto those who read them. They contribute to shaping their readers’ lives, which is why Robbie suggests that the reading of eighteenth-century poetry may have prompted him to become a landscape gardener. Even if Leavis’s restricted canon did not include all the authors Robbie values, the connection he makes between reading great literature and leading a good life is definitely Leavisian:

He thought of himself in 1962, at fifty, […] and of the weathered, knowing doctor he would be by then […] On the shelves, medical reference and meditations, certainly, but also the books that now filled the cubby hole in the bungalow attic–the eighteenth century poetry that had almost persuaded him he should be a landscape gardener, his third edition Jane Austen, his Eliot and Lawrence and Wilfred Owen, the complete set of Conrad, the priceless 1783 edition of Crabbe’s The Village, his Housman, the autographed copy of Auden’s The Dance of Death. For this was the point, surely: he would be a better doctor for having read literature. What deep readings his modified sensibility might make of human suffering, of the self-destructive folly or sheer bad luck that drive men towards ill-health! (93)

5The link between literature’s exploration of human feelings and sensibility and its capacity to provide rules for behaviour is perceptible in Robbie’s reverie about his future as a doctor. Incidentally, his systematically universalist conception of literature and the very lyricism he waxes make the reader surmise that some gentle ironic distance might be at play there. Since we learn in the coda that this part of the text was in fact written and revised by the elder Briony, we may wonder to what extent the mature writer condones Robbie’s Leavisian moral enthusiasm. Furthermore, McEwan’s own ambiguous position vis-à-vis his female persona complexifies the question: is the author developing an argument in favour of Leavis’s precepts at this stage or is he opening a dialogue with the moral critic the better to express a number of reservations regarding his systematised moral stance?

6When following Briony’s trajectory in the first part of the novel we might think that McEwan does indeed approve of Leavis’s connection between reading and life. Part One foregrounds the fact that ‘novels have effects on those who read them’ (Gibson 1). It suggests that Briony has committed her wrongful act because her wild imagination has been shaped by fanciful reading. If, according to Leavis, the type of fiction you read makes you who you are, then the first part of the novel suggests that the type of fiction Briony has read shaped her personality and behaviour in the wrong way, leading her to commit the irreparable, an interpretation that is born out by the foreword to the novel. Yet the double voicing of the novel, inherent in the fact that the elder Briony is revealed to be the narrator and author of the text, leads to ironic comments on her younger self’s appropriation of Leavis’s precepts. This is shown for example in the ironic description of young Briony’s naive ambitions regarding her play which is supposed to lead her brother towards the right kind of wife: ‘Her play was not for her cousins, it was for her brother, to celebrate his return, provoke his admiration and guide him away from his careless succession of girlfriends, towards the right kind of wife’ (4). The mockery lies with the text’s disclosure of the young girl’s self-serving use of Leavis’s precepts, since the ‘right kind of wife’ to her is ‘the one who would sweetly request Briony’s services as a bridesmaid’ (4). The irony invites the reader not to adhere to younger Briony’s self-serving interpretation of Leavis’s literary criteria and is used by McEwan to mark out old Briony’s critical distance with her younger self. The central Leavisian conceit of Part One, however, which traces back Briony’s crime to her wild imagination and bad reading habits is never completely disqualified by the text, even though it is later combined with other possible motives, such as spite, thwarted love or lack of sexual maturity. Young Briony’s repeated misprisions and misinterpretations of signs, however, suggest that the type of books she read was less a problem than the way she read them.

  • 1 See Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès, Armelle Parey and Nicole Cloarec, Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) and (...)

7Yet, as the narrative unfolds and Briony acquires maturity as a woman and a writer, she moves away from her early Leavisian conception of the moral duty of literature to a more Aristotelian form of narrative ethics redolent of twentieth-century moral philosophy as exemplified in Martha Nussbaum’s or Alasdair McIntyre’s works.1 Centred on the idea that morality is linked with the self’s capacity to produce a coherent narrative of itself and of the world, narrative ethics is indeed what Briony introduces in her novel after her first draft of Two Figures by the Fountain has been read and criticised by Cyril Connolly and Elisabeth Bowen (311-315). Their recommendation to introduce backbone to her story by adding ‘the pull of narrative’ does indeed perfectly dovetail with the moral philosophers’ Aristotelian conception of narratives as being ethical on account of their pedagogical coherence and teleology. Adding the pull of narrative is precisely what Briony does, when she rewrites the earlier and more modernist first version of Two Figures by the Fountain to accommodate the critics’ remarks. We realise then that the first part’s apparent dominant Leavisian mode was already combined with a strong sense of Aristotelian narrative ethics. Again, this raises the question of McEwan’s own positioning vis-à-vis the question of narrativity’s ethical import, for the source of utterance in the text remains fluctuating and shifty throughout the first part, because of the ventriloquism practised by Briony the elder as a narrator. Parts Two and Three, by contrast, in their accuracy of detail and careful retracing of historical facts, seem to foreground a concern for narrative ethics. In the coda, finally, narrative ethics is openly discussed and debated when the elder Briony discloses how morally important it was for her to find the right narrative to atone for her past crime. The coda reveals that the narrative form was used by Briony to explore a morally demanding situation, because only a coherent teleological narrative could help her overcome her own trauma by helping her understand the reasons for her act. Her decision to create a fictional alternative to the truth so as to be able to mend reality reveals her underlying belief in the power of fictional narratives to consort with and intervene in the real world.

8Interestingly enough, Briony’s demonstration regarding the ethical importance of fictional narratives is put into perspective by the text’s suggestions that underlying the character’s will to narrative stands a real will to power and desire for control. Briony’s totalising ambitions as a narrator are indeed debunked in the coda when she comments on her god-like position, for instance, and hints at the self-serving dimension of her whole novel. Her praise of an ethics of narrative then appears as prompted by her egology and desire to master and dominate the other.

9Her hesitations in the coda as to the right kind of narrative for her atonement, however, suggest that she is at least partially aware of her invasive self and of the hegemonic tendencies of her narrative impulses. This prompts her into proposing several interpretive paths to her story, when she opens up various alternative narrative avenues where for instance she imagines rewriting the very ending to the text with the two lovers actually taking part in her birthday party. As she offers other possible narratives at the end, Briony brings the question of the other into textual narrativity itself, suggesting a going beyond Leavisism and Aristotelian philosophy alike, through the opening up of the text to otherness. Her personal journey towards maturity and At-onement (Schneider 81) can in that sense be envisaged as fostered by “an intense experience of [these] other-directed impulses and acts” (Attridge xi) that take place at significant moments in the story.

Atonement’s Levinasian Ethics of the Other

10There is ‘a shift from Leavis to Levinas’ which is characteristic of postmodern fiction (Gibson 1) in Atonement’s ethical turn, as the text opens up to and redefines the question of the other as central to ethics. Levinas’s ethics revolves around the centrality and primacy of the other, which, as the philosopher argues, emerges in the demise of representation when the self ceases to try and fashion the world according to pre-established interpretive grids. According to Levinas it is in the event of the face-to-face encounter with the other that the self can experience and perform the ethical gesture. The ethical dimension of facing the other as such does not depend on a narrative, however. It comes forth precisely when narrativity fails, because the actual encounter with the other takes place prior to any narrative (Gibson 16-17). Not only does it take place prior to narratives but it also takes place prior to narrativity itself because it makes all narratives unravel by deconstructing pre-established knowledge. This deconstruction of knowledge represents an ethical necessity for Levinas, the only possibility to meet the other as other, and a close look at Briony’s evolution in Atonement tells us that it also characterises her own trajectory throughout the book.

11Briony’s evolution as a character and writer from Part One to Part Four shows her gradual opening to, recognition of, and possible ‘subjection to’ (Eagleton 224), the other. At the outset of the novel, Briony’s egology is debunked through various ironical comments peppering the text. She is presented as a self-centred teenager whose fear of what she does not know or has not experienced yet, like the sexual tension between her sister and Robbie, leads her to wrongly accuse him of sexual crime. Her desire for order makes her unable to accept other versions of reality than those she has turned into acceptable rational narratives for herself. The narrative voice’s distancing of Briony is of course rendered possible by the fact that it is in fact Briony the elder who is telling the story with some hindsight. On reading the coda, we understand that the more mature Briony has succeeded in putting her younger self behind her and is now able to take her distance with her most unpalatable psychological traits (a desire for order, a taste for secrets) that led her to wrongly accuse an innocent man. Thus, the elder Briony repeatedly mocks her younger self in Parts One and Three by turning her obsessive narrative tendencies and self-centredness into derision. As the plot unfolds, however, Briony’s character undergoes an evolution; in Part Three she is seen to begin to empathise with the wounded soldiers when confronted with the radical and ‘inherent vulnerability’ of their bodies (Ganteau 343). The coda also leads us to understand that Part Two, which originally reads as a moving picture of the horrors of the war through Robbie’s eyes had in fact been written by Briony herself, a proof of the evolution of her empathetic skills. Indeed, Part Two displays Briony’s ability to project herself inside Robbie’s head and feelings as he is trudging painfully towards Dunkirk during his retreat. This feat of writing demonstrates that she has acquired a capacity to feel with the other which shows her character’s maturation as a person and a writer. We also understand at that point that Briony’s newly acquired empathetic skills were made possible by her hard training as a nurse in Part Three, which constituted a period of penance for the young woman, but also by her encounter with the soldiers’ wounds as inspirational and fueling her narrative (Ganteau 340) in that they represent the radical otherness of abject organicity with which Briony has to come face to face and which opens her up to the ethical experience. Her training and practise as a nurse lead her to experience the fragility and vulnerability of the other’s body and to gradually open up to human beings around her. Indeed, as a nurse she works closest to the body of the other and as such, she becomes ‘subjected to the bruising demand of the Other, a demand which registers itself not in the mind “but at the surface of the skin, at the edge of the nerves”’ (Levinas quoted by Eagleton 223). At this point, the novel seems to imply that Briony is gradually embracing a redemptive ethics of praxis that stems from the experience of the ‘needy, afflicted, compassionate body’ (Eagleton 223) as she immerses herself in her work. The scene that illustrates best this evolution is when Briony attends to young Luc Cornet’s last moments. Indeed, the scene subtly suggests Briony’s transformation during her face-to-face encounter with the disastrous consequences of the war. When Luc Cornet’s wound reveals itself to her she understands that he is dying and starts feeling empathy for him, in a Levinasian demonstration that ‘the ethical is to be approached through sensibility rather than cognition’ (Eagleton 224). If at the beginning of the scene she kept correcting the young man when he deliriously believed she was his beloved and they were still in France, after she has taken the full measure of his vulnerability she becomes an accomplice to his hallucination and enters his narrative by complying with his elucubrations for him to die happily and peacefully:

She was not intending to remove the gauze, but as she loosened it, the heavy sterile towel beneath it slid away, taking a part of the bloodied dressing with it. The side of Luc’s head was missing. The hair was shaved well back from the missing portion of skull. Below the jagged line of bone was a spongy crimson mess of brain, several inches across, reaching from the crown almost to the tip of his ear. She caught the towel before it slipped to the floor and she held it while she waited for her nausea to pass. Only now did it occur to her what a foolish and unprofessional thing she had done. Luc sat quietly, waiting for her (308).

Only after Briony has taken in the seriousness of Luc’s case, as she literally comes face to face with it, does she take the decision to play the role Luc assigns her in his delirium:
‘What did you think of our baguettes and ficelles?’
‘That was why you came very day.’
‘Yes’. He paused to consider this. Then he said cautiously, raising a delicate matter, ‘And our croissants.’
‘The best in Millau’ He smiled. (309)

  • 2 My interpretation of that scene varies slightly in that respect from that of David K. O’Hara (84) w (...)

12The text stresses the ethical dimension of Briony’s response to Luc by highlighting the soothing effect of her lies onto the dying young man. In that perspective, her final whispering in his ear that her name is Briony, as he breathes his last, seems to contradict the ethical position she had previously adopted and sounds like her final assertion of her own narrative over that of the other.2 However, the text makes any final interpretation impossible at that moment, because it places the instant of Luc’s death in an ellipsis, since sister Drumond comes to interrupt the scene, so that one may think Briony is actually whispering her name in Luc’s ears only after he has died, thus allowing him to breathe his last while happily believing he is in France surrounded by his family and girlfriend. As McEwan himself highlights in an interview, this scene is key to Briony’s evolution and opening up to the other because it represents a moment of cristallization in her growing capacity for care and empathy which gives added credibility to her decision to recant her testimony.

13Interestingly enough, the coda complexifies Briony’s gradual opening up to the other and her move away from egology. Indeed, Part Four reveals that the character’s moral evolution in fact stopped short of recanting, and therefore of making up for her past crime. There, Briony reveals that she never went to see her sister in London because she was afraid of what she might tell her or do to her. This tends to invalidate her entire narrative which becomes unreliable and disqualified as a statement of the truth. How to reconcile the notion that Briony really did improve and become a caring person with her revelation that she self-servingly altered some of the facts in the narrative in order to brush a better portrait of herself? As it questions the validity of Briony’s capacity to open up to the other, the coda still places otherness at the core of the text. For it reveals the convergence of the character’s stance concerning the ethics of writing with that of the real author, thus placing her in the position of the real author’s female double, a persona which he deliberately casts as his sexual other. More importantly, the coda operates a transformation of the narrative voice which enables Briony to become a narrating subject at last, an ‘I’ which strikingly contrasts with the narrated object she was in parts Two and Three. By the same token, the reader understands that in fact this empowerment had been present all along since Briony was the source of utterance in the whole book. This has an ethical effect on the reader, in terms of gender: it introduces ‘gender equivocation’ (Gibson 46) by showing that the book was a metafictional reflection on the shaping of feminine identity through the writing process. Indeed, when during parts One, Two and Three the reader thought that an omniscient extradiegetic narrator identifiable with the author himself was actually manipulating and mastering Briony by spelling out the truth of her character, in the coda the reader realises that it was Briony who was in fact in command and in control of the wording of her process of subjectivation, which in terms of gender roles is not insignificant. Indeed, as the final revelation delivered by Briony destabilises narrational categories, it also comes to ‘destabilise gender categories’ (Gibson 46-47). By crossing over the divide and boundary between narrating subject and narrated object, the narrative ‘loosens the fixity of gender positions’ (Gibson 46). It deconstructs the illusion of mastery of the male author over the female narrator-character and by the same token invites the reader to revise his/her potentially gendered conception of the narrative he/she has just read. Thus, the coda reveals that on top of being an exploration of Levinasian ethics the book also proposes to open Levinas’s gender-biased conception of ethics to a form of narrativity that cuts accross gender distinctions.

  • 3 In Postmodernity, Ethics and the Novel, Andrew Gibson shows demonstratively that narrational catego (...)

14By choosing a female persona Ian McEwan triggers a loosening out of the fixity of gender positions in the text, thus prompting a welcoming of the other, understood as the other sex, in the text. A case in point is part Two which the reader at first believes to be narrated from a male viewpoint, that of Robbie Turner experiencing the retreat to Dunkirk, and which the reader understands after reading the coda to have been in fact narrated by Briony, who stands for Ian McEwan’s own alter ego in the novel given the similarity of her literary interrogations with those of the real author. The game of mirrors which the text plays with gendered identities induces a dissolution of the fixed gendered categories of narrating subject and narrated object3. The coda reveals that the narrated object that was Briony in parts One and Three was in fact a narrating subject all along. The novel thus corrects our assumptions about the source and the sex of utterance, and purposedly undermines any gendered prejudice regarding narrativisation and the writing practice.

15As it deconstructs gender categories, Atonement also debunks class prejudices, thus bringing the social other into the text. Briony’s indictment of Robbie, for instance, is shown to stem from her representation of masculinity as overpowering and dangerous outside the gendered narratives of the fairy tales on which she models reality. Indeed, the fountain scene is illuminating in that respect, which is interpreted by her as Robbie’s proposal of marriage to her sister, followed by an authoritative gesture on his part for Cecilia to remove her dress, which Briony finds irreconcilable with the marriage proposal, a mystery that will prompt her passage from writing plays to writing fiction. Her stereotypical vision of masculinity in her apprehension of the fountain scene (the authoritative male proposing marriage and then asserting his rights over his future bride) cannot incorporate the complexity of the budding love relation between Robbie and Cecilia, and founders on the possibility of exchanging gender roles in an amorous relation. Further down in Part One, as Briony intercepts Robbie’s letter to Cecilia her prejudices as to gender roles get confirmed, when she reads under the writing of the word ‘cunt’ an expression of Robbie’s sexual mania. Finally, the library scene clinches Robbie’s guilt in her mind when she interprets what she sees as Robbie’s physical assault on her sister: ‘Though they were immobile, her immediate understanding was that she had interrupted an attack, a hand-to-hand fight’ (123). The young Briony’s imagination of Robbie as the dangerous male predator demonstrates that her gender prejudices are linked with the class prejudices that were common at a time ‘when women were hardly awarded degrees at Cambridge’ (27). In turn the novel shows the responsibility of those gender and class prejudices in Briony’s indictment of Robbie. Indeed, the young Briony’s prejudices are put into perspective by the elder Briony who reasserts her presence by using temporal prolepses and irony, a presence that strangely resembles that of the male author himself, thus blurring gender boundaries further:

Six decades later she would describe how at the age of thirteen she had written her way through a whole history of literature, beginning with stories derived from the European tradition of folk tales, through drama with simple moral intent, to arrive at an impartial psychological realism which she had discovered for herself, one special morning during a heat wave in 1935. She would be well aware of the extent of her self-mythologising, and she gave her account a self-mocking, or mock-heroic tone. Her fiction was known for its amorality, and like all authors pressed by a repeated question, she felt obliged to produce a story line, a plot of her development that contained the moment when she became recognisably herself. (41)

16Briony’s role as McEwan’s persona is stressed here in the character’s overt allusion to the ‘amorality’ of McEwan’s own early writing career which earned him the nickname ‘Ian Macabre’. The quotation also places Briony in a symmetrical position to that of McEwan the writer of historical fiction, when it concludes that historical facts and memory are relative to the stories that relate them: ‘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).

17How destabilising of gender categories, then, is McEwan’s choice of a female persona in his novel? Does he attempt through the creation of this alter ego to really deconstruct the subject/object relation enacted in gender roles? Or is Briony used as a foil or an excuse for Ian McEwan’s arguably less ethical early novels? If, as Andrew Gibson shows in Postmodernity, Ethics and the Novel, ‘The ethical encounter with alterity takes place when the subject/object relation founders’ (Gibson 29), it seems in fine that it is up to the reader to decide whether the text manifests a real capacity to decenter the self and open it up to the other, including the sexual other.

Atonement’s Ethics of Deconstructive Reading

18As it invites the reader to reconsider his/her whole interpretation of the novel in a new metafictional light, the coda opens up the various possible meanings of the text and in doing so, actually performs an ethics of deconstruction that warns the reader against reductive hermeneutic approaches to the text. There is therefore a sense in which Atonement travels through the history of ethical criticism as the plot unfolds, spanning the period between the 30s and the beginning of the twenty-first century, as it moves from Leavis’s moralism to Levinas’s ethical deconstruction.

19The last Part in the novel is the metanarrative that reveals the origin of the story. It is a moment of postmodernist metafictional revelation (Lodge 87) which deconstructs the realist illusion that had previously been built by the text. The coda takes the reader by surprise and leads him/her to reconsider his/her entire interpretation of the novel, and to bring critical revision to it. What the reader realises, as Briony reveals that she has written the whole book in order to atone for the false testimony she gave against Robbie, is that the real subject of Atonement is not the love story between Cecilia and Robbie but the relation of fiction to facts and the responsibility of the writer vis-à-vis historical truth. This the reader grasps when Briony finally makes the devastating revelation that Robbie and Cecilia in fact never met again after Robbie’s arrest for alleged rape, but died separately, Robbie of septicemia at Bray Dunes, and Cecilia during the destruction of Balham station during the bombing of London. The romantic interpretation of the text which the reader had first formed, which was grounded in the centrality of Cecilia’s and Robbie’s relation to the plot, is thus made to unravel and to prove as mistaken as Briony’s own fanciful misinterpretation of Robbie’s behaviour towards Cecilia in Part One of the novel. The coda has therefore a strong pedagogical import on the reader, whom it warns against facile sentimental interpretations and whom it teaches how to read between the lines for signs of irony and metafiction present from the outset (Finney 69). Indeed, the coda reveals the whole text to be a hybridisation between the great realist tradition with its meticulous descriptions, the great modernist tradition with its stream of consciousness, literary montage and shifting viewpoints and postmodernist metafiction with its deconstructive strategies. Metafiction brings the whole ethical dimension of the novel a step further that of the education of the reader to be a better interpreter of signs and a deconstructive critic in the process. It teaches the reader that the ethical way of reading, in keeping with the postmodernist frame within which it is presented, consists in an opening up of the various layers of meaning of the text instead of bringing semantic closure to it. In its invitation to the reader to reread the whole story with the metafictional frame in mind, the coda prompts the reader into allowing his/her first uninformed interpretation of the novel to be revised, completed and made to open up and expand into a plurality of possible plots and interpretations.

20Briony plays a crucial role in this expansion of possible meanings and interpretations, because as a reader of signs she serves as a foil for the real reader, a mirror image of what he or she shouldn’t do. Indeed, Atonement showcases the ethical dimension of the reading process and its necessary deconstructive dimension by foregrounding her repeated and lethal reading mistakes. By doing so, the novel warns the reader against possible misprisions of its contents and meaning, and against reductions of its singular otherness to known logical and rational categories. The fountain scene, which Briony reveals to be momentous in her desire to embrace the career of a writer, is again a perfect illustration of this point. In this seminal excerpt, the text represents the reading activity as being of an equal ethical importance to writing. If Atonement has been repeatedly hailed by critics as a novel ‘concerned with the making of fiction’ (Finney 69), it is also haunted by the necessity to read adequately and centrifugally rather than centripetally. The fountain scene is the metanarrative behind the whole story, but it also plays a crucial role in guiding the reader through the maze of the novel’s intertextual allusions, being a high modernist scene with a recognisable stream of consciousness. It is also an obvious scene of misprision on Briony’s part. Indeed, the passage is a construction in retrospect by the elder Briony of the mythical point of origin for her writing desire, which coincides with her failure to interpret what she sees. Significantly enough, not only does the scene imply that it is the reader who holds the final power of interpretation, judgment, and atonement in the novel, but it also tells the real reader which qualities he/she should put to the use of textual interpretation by showing the lack of them in the young Briony. Those qualities are a combination of critical assessment with empathy and understanding, which Briony lacks because of her young age and inexperience of the world, her quasi pathological desire for order and her self-centredness, but also a capacity to open up to different types of experience that escape the realm of rationality. Indeed, the fountain scene teaches the real reader to open up to the unfamiliar, to otherness in its various guises, without passing hasty judgments and without reducing that otherness to what is known by the self. The elder Briony’s identification of the scene as crucial to her writing career is particularly enlightening in that respect, because the very seminal dimension of the scene, to her, lies with its capacity to have defied her young self’s intellectual skills and knowledge of the world. Thus, the fountain scene in that sense represents an eminently Levinasian moment of encounter with the other as taking place prior to any possibility of knowledge and narrativity. The scene opens with Briony’s attempt to identify what happens under her eyes; it ends on her recognition that this attempt fails and that she cannot in fact grasp what she is witnessing. The first part significantly concludes on Briony’s declaration of her failure to understand: ‘the sequence was illogical’ (36) and her decision to go on watching all the same (37). Then the scene moves on to a development of Briony’s reflections about the opacity of reality and the consequences of this resistance on the type of interpretation that is required. This self-reflexive moment is followed by a metanarrative prolepsis (38-9) ending the whole excerpt. At the precise moment when Briony tries to interpret what she sees, she understands how impossible the task is. The text, as the reader surmises, is therefore a reconstruction with hindsight by the elder Briony of what her younger self failed to understand, and to see. Indeed, in Part Three the real reader learns that this early seminal moment is a revised version of an earlier draft. The version which the reader has under his/her eyes is therefore Briony’s revision of her early text in which the focus is placed in retrospect on the life-changing and indeed epiphanic dimension of the scene by the fountain, a shift in focus made possible by the elder Briony’s process of maturation. Briony’s early interpretive mistakes are stressed, as well as the ambivalence of signs. But the elder Briony highlights the fact that the various stages of her early misprision, the successive revisions of her interpretations lead her to no deeper understanding of the scene: in the end, she had to admit that reality resists elucidation, a fact that the elder Briony singles out as decisive in her psychological development and career as a writer. Briony therefore reconstructs this fountain scene as a moment when for the first time she is confronted with the limits of her own mind, as she comes face to face with a type of otherness she cannot penetrate or reduce to her own experience, and which has to do with life itself, with the mystery of sex and desire. This confrontation with an other resisting her apprehension dawns on her like an epiphany. In turn, this tells the reader a lot about how he/she should read: interpretation should be made on the basis of connections that are not necessarily logical, but ‘informed’ so as not to miss their point. Interpretation should be open to what is not necessarily known, or mastered, to the apparently illogical or irrational dimension of what is radically other. Indeed, otherness always appears as illogical or irrational at first in its radical novelty. The fountain scene is therefore a lesson in reading for the real reader, a mise en abyme of the reading process as necessarily including the deconstruction of pre-established knowledge, a cornerstone of the ethical experience for Levinas.

21Briony’s misreading of the fountain scene reveals that trying to reduce the other to the same is unethical. This is exactly what Briony does in the fountain scene when she tries to make the reality she sees fit a pre-established interpretive grid derived first from her reading experience and literary culture, and then from what she takes to be the logical chronology of narrative. She must admit, however, that her logic does not apply to the scene, as she proves unable to decipher opaque reality for lack of experience. The adult Briony who has learned the value of reading signs correctly, reconstructs her younger self’s narrative as a warning to the reader but also as a treasurable moment of epiphanic revelation concerning the encounter with otherness. This takes the form of an event that teaches the reader to read deconstructively by welcoming moments of suspension of knowledge and rationality. Behind Briony’s reconstruction of her younger self’s lack of comprehension stands McEwan’s own critique of the reader’s role, which stresses the importance of an ethics of deconstruction in readers of contemporary fiction. What the fountain scene ultimately teaches us is that readers hold the final power of interpretation, judgment, and atonement in contemporary novels; but to meet these aims, they must be able to welcome the otherness in and of the text, and this may best happen when the events represented and performed by a text deconstruct our pre-established knowledge.


22In the dialogue it establishes with the tradition of moral criticism and the ethical turn in literature, Atonement presents the reader with a dialogical representation of ethics which ranges from Leavis’s moral conception of the link between literature and life and the Aristotelian conception of the ethical necessity of narratives, through Levinas’s ethics of the other, to a questioning of Levinas’s gendered conception of ethics and a concern for a possible deconstructive ethics of reception. In that, the book seems to advocate a Rortyan definition of narrative ethics as ‘free, democratic pluralism’ presenting the reader with a plurality of ethical discourses which are engaged but also taken issue with, for the reader to finally form his/her own interpretation of Ian McEwan’s ethical stand in his 2001 novel. The book’s absence of closure makes any totalising discourse on ethics impossible and allows for a deconstruction of the various discourses that would seek to impose a one-dimensional moral stance on writing and reading alike. Thereby, Atonement fundamentally partakes of the postmodernist episteme, not merely on account of its final metafictional revelation, but in the very way it embraces the possibility of a deconstructive ethics of writing and reading.

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1 See Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès, Armelle Parey and Nicole Cloarec, Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) and Joe Wright’s Film Adaptation (2007), Paris: Ellipses, 2017, 33-34.

2 My interpretation of that scene varies slightly in that respect from that of David K. O’Hara (84) who seems to include Briony’s revelation of her first name to Luc in the whole process of an ‘epiphany of the face’ calling her to moral responsibility for another human being that is constituted by her tending to Luc Cornet’s last moments. In the wake of Eagleton’s analysis of Levinas’s ethics, it seems to me, on the contrary, that Levinas describes the ethical experience as taking place precisely in the demise of the rational self-centred subject in its chastising ‘encounter with an unmasterable otherness, a transcendence encountered at the very core of subjectivity’ (Eagleton 225), which makes it difficult to read Briony’s reassertion of her own narrative and self at the moment of Luc’s death as pertaining to the Levinasian experience of the ‘epiphany of the face’ taking place in the whole scene.

3 In Postmodernity, Ethics and the Novel, Andrew Gibson shows demonstratively that narrational categories are not gender-neutral and the destabilization of gender positions in the relation between male implied author and female narrator-character triggers a blurring of hierarchical relations between narrating subject and narrated object (Gibson 46).

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Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès, « Ian McEwan’s Re-turn to Ethics in Atonement »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 25 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès

Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès is a professor of British literature at Le Mans Université (France). Her research focuses on contemporary and ultra contemporary art and literature. She has published books and articles on British contemporary art and fiction: Martin Amis et le postmodernisme (Rennes : PUR, 2003), Les Figures de la violence (Paris: Publibook, 2005) Parcours/détours (Paris: Publibook, 2008). Her current work revolves around the representations and imaginaries of the body in hypertext literature.

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