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Cahier spécial Atonement

As into the sunset we sail. An unhappy inversion’ (370). The Sense of Destiny in Atonement

« Vers le soleil nous voguons. Une inversion malheureuse » : le sens du destin dans Atonement
Georges Letissier


Dans The Sense of an Ending (1967) Frank Kermode cherche à établir un lien entre fiction et histoire, apocalypse et eschatologie. Cet article montre que dans Atonement de Ian McEwan le sens de la fin est remplacé par le sens du destin. En effet tout le roman apporte un démenti à l’épilogue de la pièce Les tribulations d’Arabella, écrite par Briony enfant : « Ainsi éclot l’amour, nos épreuves ont pris fin. […] Vers le couchant voguons enfin ! » En effet, in fine les épreuves d’Arabella n’ouvrent pas tant la perspective de nouvelles aventures qu’elles ne ramènent au point de départ, à cette œuvre de jeunesse qu’elles ne cessent de récrire tout au long du roman, scellant ainsi une destinée textuelle. Dans un premier temps les formes littéraires du destin sont étudiées dans ce roman à dominante métatextuelle, puis le concept de « retour du balancier » (recoil) forgé par Slavoj Žižek est appliqué à l’économie du roman. Dans une dernière partie le destin est analysé en complémentarité avec la notion d’impersonnalité par référence intertextuelle avec l’œuvre de D.H. Lawrence peu abordée par la critique consacrée à McEwan.  

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1In an interview for BBC world service, Ian McEwan accounted for the genesis of Atonement in the following terms:

This is one of those few novels in my writing life that really just came out of doodles. I mean, I had no real plan, I had no idea what I was doing and I found myself one morning writing a paragraph about a young woman coming into a rather elegant drawing-room with some flowers that she had just picked. I didn’t know who she was. I didn’t know when it was. I didn’t know where it was going. By the end of the morning I had maybe seven hundred words, two or three paragraphs and I sat on them for several weeks thinking, who is this?

Then I wrote what is now the second chapter of Atonement and I was still completely baffled. I left it, put it away for a few months and when I took it out again, I immediately found myself writing the first chapter. I thought I’m gonna give her a younger sister, and only then writing about play, writing about this overheated, rather priggish little girl, only then did it start to open up in front of me. And the first thing that gave me a source of freedom was the idea that she was going to commit a crime.

And within these three or four months I knew that it was really Briony writing.1

  • 2 Slavoj Žižek and Boris Gunjevi, Inversions of Apocalypse (New York: Seven Stones Press, 2012).
  • 3 Geoff Dyer, ‘Who’s Afraid of Influence’, The Guardian, 21st September, 2001, last accessed at https (...)

2This statement brings out the randomness of human affairs, taking here the shape of literary improvisation, and destiny; the sense that, in hindsight, a succession of haphazard steps turned out to be getting somewhere: the novel under study. Granted, destiny, implying preordination and fate, may sound a little outdated, something to be found under the appellation of Providence, in both Fielding and Richardson whose respective merits Cecilia and Robbie discuss at the beginning of the novel. Today it has been superseded by what philosophers like Slavoj Žižek call the ‘inversion of the apocalypse’,2 meaning that the apocalypse is not something that will have to be faced in some distant future, but that it has already happened. The point seems to have been ironically confirmed by the fact that Atonement came out in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, so that McEwan found himself having to make a stand on this unprecedented turn of events whilst promoting his just-released fiction. But what if a sense of destiny still lingered in many guises in Atonement? What if it still persisted in a novel that has sometimes been seen as steeped in the English literary canon, even if it does not cultivate any commemorative stance? To quote Geoff Dyer: ‘It is less about a novelist harking nostalgically back to the consoling uncertainties of the past than it is about creatively extending and hauling a defining part of the British literary tradition up to and into the twenty-first century’.3

  • 4 Frank Kermode, ‘Point of View. Atonement by Ian McEwan’, London Review of Books 23.19 (4 October 20 (...)

3In The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode sought to establish a bond between fiction, history, the apocalyptic and eschatology. Imagining an end of the world, or an ending for fictions, is according to the American critic, crucial to shape a pattern for (his)story, as it allows for a ‘signifying consonance with the origins and with the middle’ (Kermode 17). In the review he later wrote on Atonement,4 Kermode took up the same idea of pattern, by referring this time to Robbie Turner’s vagaries, as he sees himself straddling C.P. Snow’s famous two-culture divide between science and the humanities. Robbie entertains high expectations of being this ‘kind of doctor […] alive to the monstrous patterns of fate, and to the vain and comic denial of the inevitable’ (A 93. I underline). This idea of inevitability is of course common to both fate and destiny, even if the former connotes death and destruction while the latter, destiny, is linked to words like destination and as such proves more neutral by laying emphasis chiefly on a certain outcome bound to occur, whatever human attempts may be made to interfere with the course of events.

  • 5 Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Pour un catastrophisme éclairé. Quand l’impossible est certain (Paris: Seuil, Sc (...)

4The purpose of this paper is to investigate the persistence of the inscription of fate and destiny in a novel that falls within the remit of what Jean-Pierre Dupuy calls ‘enlightened doom saying’;5 i.e. the conviction that what might seem impossible, namely a final catastrophe (for example, ecological, see McEwan’s own Solar); a disaster that would end the present order of things, is nonetheless absolutely certain based on the state of actual knowledge. The analysis will be threefold, firstly, patterns of fate will be envisioned within the largely metatextual format of the novel, then narrative recoil will come in for analysis and, in a last part, destiny will be analysed through its link with impersonality, by drawing from D.H. Lawrence’s œuvre, a modernist intertext that is not often studied by critics in relation to McEwan.

Patterns of Fate in a Metatextual Novel

5The novel opens parodically on sensational, melodramatic plottings which make up the staple diet of a budding writer’s juvenilia. The synopsis of The Trials of Arabella exposes all the crude ploys of the ‘rusted machinery’ of plots, ‘whose wheels no longer turn’ (A 281), as the adult Briony subsequently realizes. The one-threaded plotline triggered by the reckless passion of the eponymous, hypodiegetic Arabella is disclaimed by the whole novel as a half-baked, juvenile endeavour. Even if some allowance should be made for the fact that staging a play might prove temporarily chaotic and escape the playwright’s control, Briony, as a child, still sticks to the basic principle that it should build a foundation of good sense (A 3). This implies that ‘all fates [be] resolved and the whole matter sealed off at both ends’ (A 6). The tongue in cheek, or metatextual irony, inherent in such phrasing is soon evidenced by the many self-referential comments from the elderly writer. They underscore the inappropriate use of fate and destiny, and of what might be termed the fatalistic fallacy, in Atonement.

6To begin with, Briony as a child entertains strange notions. Of divorce, as a narrative segment, she claims both that it has an implacable logic of its own that cannot be disrupted and also that it is disorderly. Such combination of order and disorder may seem perplexing: ‘It [divorce] was a mundane unravelling that could not be reversed and therefore offered no opportunities to the storyteller: it belonged in the realm of disorder’ (A 9). On a more serious note, Atonement, with its ‘writer in disguise’ (A 280) straddling the dividing line between fictitious autobiography and historiographic metafiction, propounds a number of objections to the use of fate, or destiny, ‘design’ or ‘accident’ (A 313) to quote Cyril Connolly, in novel-writing. Indeed, in a post-Darwinian world, ‘the thread of continuity’ (A 280), forming destiny as destination, is seldom, if ever, single-tracked: ‘at each turning point, at each bifurcation, there is the shadow of an alternative history, the phantom of what has never existed, but might have existed’ (Žižek, 101). This is an idea shared by a host of contemporary British novelists, from Margaret Drabble to A.S. Byatt, or from Graham Swift to Will Self, for example. It could be summed up through the constant presence of the ramifications of plots at any point in time. The split between what actually happened and the failed alternatives that were forsaken without being totally eradicated, at least at the mental level, makes for a whole array of actualized and non-actualised destinies, precluding any sense of one single destiny. Thus Briony as a nurse contemplates the other, alternative road she could have taken: ‘a ghostly parallel life in which she was at Girton, reading Milton’ (A 275). There are also ghost narratives which are ramifications of unwritten plots, nipped in the bud, that haunt the narrator’s, or characters’, consciousness because they are relegated to limbos outside the template of the actualized fiction. The riddle of Ernest Turner’s destiny is hinted at through prolepses: ‘Ernest’s mind was already elsewhere, already drifting seven summers ahead to the evening when he would walk away from his job as the Tallises’ gardener’ (A 83), before it gets bogged down in the morass of formless time, till it is granted a new lease on life in the wasteland near Dunkirk (A 241). So, in the final resort, a character’s erratic destiny makes for an unpredictable narrative strand that resurfaces to stir up emotional tension.

7Destiny may no longer be narratologically viable, nor epistemologically tenable, but it is still the stuff our minds, let alone the characters’minds, are made of. Ian McEwan, through his characterisation, illustrates Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of ‘homo narrator’ (26) to account not only for the human propensity for story-telling but the correlative tendency in human beings to turn their inner, mental life into a scripted film. Seen in this light, the characters, who are of course Briony’s playthings and as such the recipients of her own yarn-spinning passion, may be construed as narrative nuclei. If the whole novel is caught up in a ‘not quite not yet’ suspension, precluding any sense of finality, it is amply compensated by the hankering characters have to think of their own plight in terms of destiny and fate. Interestingly, a whole range of tones and moods can be conjured through these characters’ tendency to dramatise their own lives. Robbie Turner has all the liveliness and possibly crude psychology of a Richardson character when he pictures to himself his coming destiny like a picaresque tale: ‘There was a story he was plotting with himself as the hero, and already its opening had caused a little shock among his friends’ (A 91). He is like a creation hardly out of Briony’s own toolbox when he sets off with a vengeance on his way to the Tallises’ party:

The hard soles of his shoes rapped loudly on the metalled road like a giant clock, and he made himself think about time, about his great hoard, the luxury of an unspent fortune. He had never before felt so self-consciously young, nor experience such impatience for the story to begin. (A 92)

8The self-aggrandizing portrait condenses, in cartoon-strip fashion, the ingredients of a good eighteenth century novel, chief among them the towering presence of time, as a vector of destiny. The giant clock is a reminder of God, the clockmaker of Natural Theology and the great hoard full of bounty, an apt allusion to Providence. However, as any savvy reader of fiction will know such a happy-go-lucky fellow is fated to get his comeuppance. The irony being in the present case that destiny acts on a totally different scale from a retributive scenario. In a post-apocalyptic world, what counted as fate in the past is no longer humanly manageable or intelligible in the age of all-devastating world wars.

9In Atonement, perception is inflected with a sense of destiny. To the phenomenological apprehension of the present through the senses, informing consciousness, may be superadded a narrative matrix. Thus, on meeting a man for the first time, Cecilia wonders whether this encounter will remain forever sealed as a landmark memory. Said differently, whether a casual meeting will morph into destiny. Gaze is seminal, as has often been shown by critics, yet to visual perception is added an eerie sense of foreboding through a double temporal lens. If the June day of 1935 needs to be remembered as fateful, by being firmly fixed in time, it is nonetheless focalized through an odd sensation of temporal displacement and spectral persistence, which has sometimes been studied as traumatic time. Cecilia affords an example of this grasp on the present permeated with uncanny, ominous premonition: ‘seeing strangely, as though everything was already long in the past, made more vivid by posthumous ironies she could not quite grasp’ (A 48).

10Atonement is literally a palimpsestic text, as it went through no less than half a dozen drafts, and it may never get published in the end. It also elicits the impression that the reader may stumble upon different stages in the writing process within the same section, with vestigial remnants of a previous version coexisting with more recent passages. So, ultimately, what Briony labels her ‘forensic memoir’ (A 370) may be deprived of a textual destiny and merely subsist as the uncompleted assignment of a lifetime. However, Ian McEwan’s novel, through its unprecedented success, belies the fate of its fictitious content. The storyline is in fact chiefly concerned with the vicissitudes of a literary adventure which, quite embarrassingly or perhaps unethically, feeds on both a personal and a collective tragedy. In this respect, the final result qualifies as Künstlerroman. Snidely, the critics that we all are as readers could advertise Atonement as the magnus opus that never saw the light of day. Yet, even Briony as an experienced writer, too clever to subscribe to any teleological success story, does not quite renounce the delusion of turning the ‘hard mass of the actual’ (A 76) into a ‘story line, a plot of her development’ (A 41).

11The novel’s artistic approach rests on the two hands writing the two authorial personae into reciprocal existence. Leaving aside the Ian McEwan/Briony Tallis’s dual authorship, it could be interesting to consider how young Briony Tallis writes her elderly double into existence, and how, conversely, the well-established writer recreates her juvenile other. In this respect, as Dominic Head points out, a parallel may be established with Pip and Mister Philip Pirrip in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, with Briony qualifying as ‘extra-homodiegetic in narratological terms’ (164). Yet, the development, or Bildung pattern, present in Dickens, is eclipsed by a circular figure. Indeed, the elderly writer is already very much present in the writings of the young girl and, conversely, the girl’s early writing experiments shape the skills of the woman who much later becomes an acclaimed author. So, instead of a linear progress, there is the idea that at any point in time, either the young Briony, or her older self, may take precedence one over the other. It is therefore perfectly consistent that the last section, set in 1999, should loop back to the juvenile writing exercises which are slipped into the main text without any quotation marks or indentation: ‘Lovers and their happy ends have been on my mind all night long. As into the sunset we sail. An unhappy inversion’ (370. I underline).

12Slavoj Žižek cited Escher’s famous ‘Drawing Hands’ lithograph6 to illustrate the form of plot reversal at work in McEwan’s 2012 novel Sweet Tooth (Žižek 113). It would seem that this image is equally relevant to the aesthetic process at work in Atonement. Escher was indeed fascinated by the shift from two-dimensional flatness on a sheet of paper to the production of the illusion of the three-dimensional volume of a pair of hands. Form is developed as the two hands come alive before returning to the irredeemable flatness of the sleeve on the square sheet. The move is endlessly repeated in a continuous loop. ‘Threading the beads of detail into an eternal loop’ (A 173) is an appropriate definition for the novel’s textual destiny. It originates in the sleeve on paper, i.e. the original spurt of ink on the blank page:

At that moment, the urge to be writing was stronger than any notion she had of what she might write. What she wanted was to be lost in the unfolding of an irresistible idea, to see the black thread spooling out from the end of the scratchy silver nib and coiling into words. (A 115)

13So words take a life of their own and trigger destiny. A four-letter word, lending itself to a list of near anagrammatic rewritings, has a lot to answer for, and not only as ‘typographical demon’ (A 114). The novel’s textual destiny unfolds between The Trials of Arabella and the prospect of ‘the end of our travail’ (A 368), which does not spell out any plain sailing into the sunset. It is with Atonement as it is with Escher’s ‘Two Hands’: the coil of penmanship is indistinguishable from the recoil, in endless repetitions, of the loop.

Narrative Recoil

  • 7 ‘The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, (...)

14Etymologically, fate—fatum—stems from fari: to say, to tell. Briony demonstrates that fate may be trivialized into fabula or affabulation. Her meandering, recanting narrative is proof of the sheer absence of any numenous power vested in the speaking voice: ‘how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or high form that she can appeal to’ (A 371). Yet, despite her attraction to the Modernists, Briony is not the artist ‘paring her fingernails’7 either, she has her own axe to grind, pace James Joyce. This said, Atonement, notwithstanding its attempt to strive towards some sort of narrative achievement—witness the final birthday celebration—, is constantly pulled back by a contrary recoil movement, or retroactive thrust culminating in the coda: ‘But now I must sleep’ (A 372), and holding the promise of yet another take on the story with ‘Robbie and Cecilia, still alive, still in love, sitting side by side in the library, smiling at The Trials of Arabella?’ (A 372).

15At first glance, the recoil movement is perceptible through the repetition of similar scenes from different points of view and angles. These repetitions with variations liberate the act of telling from the enslavement of a single deterministic narrative chain of causality. They indeed consider the possibility of coexisting sets of cause and consequence to account for one single event. The different takes on the fountain scene, which are subsequently transcribed into a modernist piece of fiction within the novel, offer a good example. Likewise, recoil is also graphically, or perhaps cinematically, used in mental, rewind scenes such as when Robbie, shortly before dying, retells the whole second section by reversing the arrow of time: ‘So he would go back the way he had come, walk back through the reverses of all they had achieved […] along the ribbon road that lay across the miles of undulating farmland […] an overnight stop at the brothers’ [The Bonnets’] farm […] And the tree. […] the shreds of his pyjamas […] the poor pale boy’ (A 262), and so on. Yet recoil is not to be solely regarded as this retroactive drive but, as Slavoj Žižek argues in Absolute Recoil, as the realization that in the end there is no firm, solid foundation to turn to. To take up Žižek’s notion of retroactivity, the outcome of downward spiralling is that something is negated, nothing is gotten. In the end, there is less than nothing: ‘a deficit of reality […] empty possibilities with no actualisation’ (Žižek 103). ‘It’s not impossible’ (A 372), as Briony puts it laconically in the epilogue. To return to Robbie, his hallucinatory recoil starts off with the child’s leg, then the twins under a tree, Pierrot on his shoulders, and he Robbie, on his father’s shoulders (A 241), the long-vanished father, and it tails off with ‘the dreamed-up children, mentally conceived on the walk into Dunkirk, and later made flesh’ (A 242). Made flesh, or not, since ‘an event is not something that occurs within the world, but just a change of the frame through which we perceive the world and engage in it’ (Žižek 92).

16Precisely, the whole economy of Atonement rests on such changes of frames. As Laurent Mellet convincingly demonstrates, there is no tangible referential anchorage underpinning the fiction, as a result of ‘Briony’s reversal of the empiricist core logic’ (Mellet 165). ‘[W]hat she sees proves what she already knows […] and what she knows distorts her vision’ (Mellet 165). So, no knowledge of positive reality as a solid foundation may be established in the final resort. Mellet is right to recall, after some other critics, that the more plausible denouement, death by blood poisoning for one, and death by drowning for the other, is just a hypothesis that is floated. The fact no doubt deprived some disgruntled readers of the neat sense of finality that partakes of fate and destiny.

17A double level of distanciation from any positive reality was in fact implied from the very beginning: with Briony’s so-called crime. Firstly, through the interference of Briony’s warped frame, and secondly through the very nature of what was at stake, or at least the little that could be gathered or inferred thereof. A sexual attack, but at one remove, because this is not Briony herself who is sexually assaulted. And to put it mildly, the victim only goes through the motions of acting the part devolved upon her: ‘Lola was required only to remain silent about the truth, banish it and forget it entirely, and persuade herself not of some contrary tale, but simply her own uncertainty’ (A 168). Be it as it may, what comes to be regarded as a traumatic scene serves as the novel’s trigger event. It takes the form of one blurred episode which challenges the very possibility of representation. No plain words or clear explanation can indeed ascertain what really happened in the bush near the temple. And the descriptive passages calling up the attack are indeed singularly devoid of any neat or fixed contours (A 164-165). The momentous passage is rendered through anamorphosis: ‘the bush that lay directly in her path […] began to break up in front of her, or double itself, or waver, and then fork. It was changing its shape in a complicated way’ (A 164). What should be borne in mind is that this primary scene, the one on which the novel’s plot rests, is actually undermined by an ontological vacuum, a hole in reality: ‘the understanding that what she knew was not literally, or not only, based on the visible’ (A 169). This gap between the information that the senses, here eye-sight, could have provided and the girl’s own (hasty?) deduction, may only be imperfectly stopped. Only the ensuing police reports fill in the blanks and adulterate hesitating statements by couching them in positivist terms: ‘either she saw, or she did not see’ (A 170).

18Moreover, Žižek, in Absolute Recoil, propounds another definition of truth than the one that may be arrived at, by relying exclusively on hard, rational facts. Precisely, his demonstration rests on what characterises the testimony from someone who has undergone an act of violation: ‘what makes a rape victim’s report (or any other trauma narrative) truthful is precisely its factual unreliability, confusion, or inconsistency’ (Žižek 105). This does not mean of course that the violence or pain inflicted is any way a matter of conjecture, but that the extent of the damage caused is perceptible in the victim’s incapacity to come up with a firm, rational statement. So, linguistic flaws, or deficiencies in the argumentation, would be as confirmations of the gravity of the sufferings endured. The foundational event in Atonement, the one from which the whole novel proceeds, is marked by an absence or lack of tangibility, for at least two reasons; firstly because of the nature of the crime which does not lend itself easily to any faithful transcription through words, and secondly, because it relies on an act of witnessing which is hampered by external circumstances: spatial distance, darkness and the perceiver’s own state of excitement and confusion. This original episode, fraught with guilt, sparks off the recoil movement informing the whole narrative, in so far as all that follows is predetermined by it and invariably returns to it. Ultimately, McEwan’s achievement therefore consists in sealing his contribution to the thriving revival of the historical novel by building up his whole novel from a fallible, or flawed, originary source. The lack of any firm, hard core beneath the triggering event induces a relativist approach to history whose shreds of factual truth may only be retrieved from the gaps between different narratives. Besides, could it not be claimed that McEwan goes one step further back in the recoil process by tackling the arcane riddle of decision making, in this he may be helped by his interest in the neurosciences, especially Antonio Damasio and the neurobiology of consciousness?

19If Atonement is basically about how a silly decision by a wayward pubescent girl entailed unforeseeable consequences, leading to the overlap between individual histories and grand History in the age of mass destruction, the ultimate recoil would be the attempt to come as close as possible to the instant that was to change everything. Admittedly, McEwan is concerned with what might be called the mystique of decision making. This may be seen in different cases. Moves that cannot be accounted for, which only reinforces the mystery of their having taken place retrospectively, as when Briony marvels, perhaps somewhat ironically from the distance of time at her decision to go and take a glimpse through the window, precisely when Robbie and Cecilia were having their tiff: ‘Only chance had brought her to the window’ (A 40). Or, again, when she wonders about the precipitating factor that caused Lola to suddenly leave the room where the rehearsals were taking place: ‘There was no pivotal moment of creative difference, no storming or flouncing’ (A 55). Atonement is filled with such moments of decision making, even where ethical commitments may be at stake, as when Robbie realizes the catch-22 situation of coming to the rescue of the bespectacled RAF man about to be lynched, an undecidable dilemma which he articulates through an aporia: ‘It was madness to go to the man’s defence, it was loathsome not to’ (A 252). It is of course where Briony’s decisions are concerned that the unaccountable is repeatedly evoked: ‘Briony was to have no memory of what suddenly prompted her’ (A 177); ‘Difficult to describe the impulsive moment’(A 180); ‘Briony did not know how the decision was made’ (A 181). It is as if, in an anticlockwise movement, McEwan aimed at going back to the incipient moment prior to the unleashing of a set of coincidences determining a course of action.

  • 8 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, ‘The Body without Organs’, Anti-Oedipus. Capitalism and Schizoph (...)

20Disappointed by the hampered progress in the rehearsal of her play, Briony stares at her hands and becomes mesmerized by the time lapse between cerebral intention and its bodily enactment: ‘how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider on the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command’ (A 35). She then contemplates the possibility of accessing a pre-individual intensive corporeality, prior to any centred organization: ‘Or did it [the hand] have some little life of its own?’ (A 35). What strikes her is the possibility of a corporal life consisting in the circulation of flows of energy which are not determined by any controlling consciousness: ‘She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect’ (A 35). The transfer of the nervous flux comprises this moment of suspension in which bodily functions are poised in temporary inaction before organic determination fixes a course of action. McEwan adumbrates an etiology of the bodily process of decision implementation, by touching upon this subliminal instant when the individual condition recalls Gilles Deleuze’s ‘body without organs’, which is by no means a body devoid of organs but the transmission and capture of bodily energy not yet supervised by a central, towering consciousness.8 This moment of introspection, putting the soma rather than the cogito as the subject of metaphysical investigation, may be regarded both as an attempt at self-exoneration on Briony’s part and as a way to probe into the primal cause in the chain of action: ‘she might find the secret of herself, the part of her that was really in charge’ (A 35). This is probably how far back a writer may go in tracing the origins of his text.

Destiny and Impersonality: D.H. Lawrence

  • 9 Ian McEwan, ‘Literature, Science and Human Nature’, Human Nature, Fact and Fiction, Literature, Sci (...)

21In Nutshell, his last novel to-date, McEwan has his foetus-narrator toy with the idea of biology as destiny: ‘Biology is destiny, and destiny is digital’ (144). In the same way as Briony wondered how her finger moved, without her being quite conscious of willing it to, the embryo has just realised that one of his fingers has ‘brushed past a shrimp-like protuberance between [his] legs’ (144), leaving no doubt as to his anatomy whilst probably leaving the question of destiny open. Indeed, shortly after, the narrator points out that a ‘social-media site famously proposes seventy-one gender options—neutrois, two spirit, bigender…’ (145). McEwan’s interest in Darwinism, evolutionary biology and the neurosciences is well-known, if only through some of his novels such as Enduring Love (1997) or Saturday (2005), not to mention Solar (2011) which is more concerned with environmental issues. So, with McEwan, destiny should not be solely apprehended from a metaphysical, neo-romantic perspective but set in the wider context of epistemology, or at least its transmission to the layman. The novelist has been influenced by Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene (1976) argued that humans do not so much act of their own free will as they unwittingly carry out the programme of their genes, driven by their own needs in a context of ruthless competition and search for maximum benefits. Seen in this perspective, destiny is played out at the microscopic, genetic level and humans are dispossessed of their ascendency. However, McEwan is strongly committed to ethical engagement and this means that science should not be divorced from the humanities. This probably accounts for his endorsement of the idea of ‘consilience’ upheld by E.O. Wilson: ‘This gene-culture co-evolution, elaborated by E.O. Wilson, dissolves the opposition of nature versus culture’.9 Precisely, in Atonement destiny may be read at the impersonal level, by taking into account a novelist and poet whom McEwan acknowledges in his fiction, even if he has not elicited analyses in the novel’s intertextual sources so far, D.H. Lawrence.

22D.H. Lawrence may count among those writers who have spontaneously applied consilience in their writings, long before the notion had even been coined:

  • 10 Jeff Wallace, D.H. Lawrence, Science and the Posthuman (Houndsmill: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) 17.

In the early drafts of what was to become his Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence began to elaborate a combined theory of psychology and physiology which became known, notoriously, as his ‘solar plexus philosophy’, and which he himself described as an attempt to write ‘pure science’.10

23On the other hand, Lawrence proposes an unusual definition of destiny which is clearly expressed in his 1922 novel Aaron’s Rod: ‘Your destiny comes from within, from your own self-form. And you can’t know it beforehand, neither your destiny, nor your self-form. You can only develop it. You can only stick to your own very self, and never betray it’ (295). Yet, this focus on the ‘self’ is by no means an endorsement of the single, isolated individual, as appears clearly in this letter to Edward Garnett by Lawrence, dated from June 1914:

[…] it is the inhuman will, call it physiology, or like Marinetti—physiology of matter, that fascinates me. I don’t so much care about what the woman feels—in the ordinary usage of the word. That presumes an ego to feel with. I only care about what the woman is—what she IS—inhumanly, physiologically, materially—according to the use of the word: but for me, what she is as a phenomenon (or as representing some greater, inhuman will), instead of what she feels according to the human conception. (Letters II, 183)

  • 11 ‘There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognizable and passes throug (...)

24If the self is not a stable, limited identity but goes through ‘allotropic states’, to take up another very famous Lawrentian image,11 destiny lies in the moment when the character is revealed to his/her inhuman, or impersonal will. Atonement stages such a moment of encounter, in the library scene.

25The fact that D.H. Lawrence is present in Briony’s mind as she goes back over the events of the fateful June day is evidenced before the decisive episode of lovemaking in the library. When she pictures to herself the environment Lola, Jackson and Pierrot come from, she probably reminisces her reading more than any actual experience of the North: ‘The family in the north—Briony imagined streets of blackened mills, and grim men trudging to work with sandwiches in tin boxes’ (A 118). To anyone familiar with Lawrence, this might call up the neighbourhood of the Morels in Sons and Lovers or, more aptly, Hermione and Gudrun ‘passing between blocks of miners’ dwellings’ (115) in Women in Love. The spectacle of hard-working men resting after a hard day’s work arouses erotic fantasies in the two sisters: ‘In the back yards of several dwellings, a miner could be seen washing himself in the open on this hot evening, naked down to the loins, his great trousers of moleskin slipping almost away’ (115). Besides, the overall mood of sexual promise is confirmed only a few lines later: ‘the broad dialect was curiously caressing to the blood. It seemed to envelop Gudrun in a laborer’s caress’ (115). So it hardly comes as a surprise that the following allusion to Lawrence in Atonement should be to the fiction that caused an unprecedented scandal, leading to an equally memorable trial. It comes just as Robbie is about to enter the Tallis’ house as Cecilia coldly warns him that Briony has read the note that was not destined to be sent:

He had been about to conjure for her a private moment of exuberance, a passing impatience with convention, a memory of reading the Orioli edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which he had bought under the counter in Soho. But this new element—the innocent child—put his lapse beyond mitigation. (A 132)

26Most interestingly, this liminal passage precedes what is probably the most Lawrentian episode in Atonement, a scene which also seals Cecilia and Robbie’s meeting with their destiny.

27Through his treatment of love as an experience of impersonality, McEwan is indebted to the Modernists, chief among whom D.H. Lawrence. In the library scene (A 135-139) what is immediately striking is the shift from the personal: ‘They felt watched by their bemused childhood selves’ (A 135) to the impersonal: ‘What had been self-conscious was now impersonal, almost abstract’ (A 135), before a return to the personal in a last swing of the pendulum: ‘and now it was the impersonal that dropped away’ (A 137). At first, the narrator is concerned with the minutiae of a first sexual act between two inexperienced lovers, in a way that already announces On Chesil Beach (2008). The awkward, embarrassed gestures are underscored: ‘she was pulling at his clothes, plucking ineffectually at his shirt, his waistband […] There was some inexpert fumbling’ (A 135). All the mundane, unromantic details are clinically recorded. Due to an absence of previous experience, both lovers strive to replicate the little they know about lovemaking, turning a most private and intimate moment into an instance of cultural replication, which is the very definition of Dawkins’s ‘memes’ (Dawkins 192): ‘His experience was limited and he knew only at second hand’ (A 136) and ‘As for her, beyond all the films she had seen, and all the novels and lyrical poems she had read, she had no experience at all’ (A 136). However, the narrative forcefully demonstrates that the intensity of their physical exchange grants them an innate knowledge of how to proceed. The tension between unknowing ‘She had no experience at all’ and the plain evidence of their mutual, reciprocated passion, which neutralizes all minor impediments, is poetically expressed through binary repetitions: ‘thrilling and swelling […] fabric on fabric […] and skin on fabric’ (A 136). At this stage, the allusion to their individual selves has become irrelevant; it is as if they were one single entity harmoniously fused in their lovemaking. Even the contours of their respective bodies are effaced because they are twined/twinned together: ‘Her arms were looped around his head and when she tightened her grip he rose through it’ (A 135). The mutual bodily movements weld the two bodies together: ‘she pulled his hair and pushed his face down against her breasts’ (A 135) and ‘He tilted her face up, and trapping her against his ribs, kissed her eyes’ (A 136). This splicing of the two lovers is underscored by specular reflection, each mirrors the image of the other: ‘he thought her look of uncertainty mirrored his own’ (A 136). Briony who has probably read a lot—what she says of her sister: ‘all the novels and lyrical poems she had read’ (A 136) is probably truer of herself—may have in mind Aristophanes’s myth of the primitive androgynous creature which, in Plato’s Symposium, is used as an etiological allegory, to account for the birth of desire. More strikingly, she also draws from D.H. Lawrence’s theory of impersonality. In Women in Love Birkin desires to be united with Ursula on the plane of the ultimately impersonal:

‘There is,’ he [Birkin] said, in a voice of pure abstraction, ‘a final me which is stark and impersonal and beyond responsibility. So there is a final you. And this is there I would want to meet you—not in the emotional, loving plane—but there beyond, where there is no speech and no terms of agreement. […] because no understanding has been reaped from that plane. It is quite inhuman—so there can be no calling to book, in any form whatsoever—because one is outside the pale of all that is accepted, and nothing known applies. (146)

  • 12 Fiona Becket, ‘Lawrence and Psychoanalysis’, The Cambridge Companion to D.H. Lawrence, ed. Anne Fer (...)

28Echoes of this theory of impersonality are interspersed throughout the extract, the ‘pure abstraction’ is taken up by ‘almost abstract’ (A 135), the ‘final you’ may lie in the instant when the self is depersonalized by the acme of pleasure, which is synonymous with the little death: ‘Her spine went rigid, then juddered along its length. For a moment he thought she had passed out’ (A 135). The loss of virginity is invested with a universal dimension ‘the membrane parted’ (A 137), as if it was not explicitly connected to the girl: ‘They held their breath before the membrane parted’ (A 137, emphasis added). So, the membrane is not so much Cecilia’s hymen as a bond sealing the two lovers’ fate. And the idea of a common Rubicon which has been crossed jointly is confirmed by the unexpected, and somewhat bizarre, comment: ‘Robbie stared at the woman […] thinking the change was entirely in himself’ (A 137). However, McEwan does not fully endorse D.H Lawrence’s ars erotica, as the experience of impersonality is only transitory. In the end, once the act of union has been fulfilled, the acknowledgement of the two lovers’ social selves is reasserted: ‘The son of Grace and Ernest Turner, the daughter of Emily and Jack Tallis […] confronted the momentous change they had achieved’ (A 137). Through this intimate scene, which transports Cecilia and Robbie beyond themselves and confronts them to the impersonal abstraction of the inhuman will, Briony grants the two lovers the wedding they are never going to have; a coupling, which unlike Lola and Paul Marshall’s does not imply any sexual assault, let alone violent deflowering. ‘They were stilled not by the astonishing fact of arrival, but by an awed sense of return’ (A 137) is a variation on the novel’s central mantra, which incidentally has become the title of the French translation: ‘Come back’. This arrival is indeed a coming or jouissance, in the physiological acceptation of climax, and this return is the narrator’s prerogative to bestow a new lease of life on his two characters. So, this intimate assignation with destiny may be construed as a literary rebirth through the jouissance of writing as maieutic: ‘Lawrence is in fact interested in the birth, and rebirth, of the self’,12 and so is Briony in her act of atonement.


  • 13 ‘In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of ge (...)

29Destiny, as destination, postulates a sense of order and development which is at odds with the progressive and retrogressive logic underpinning the novel. Briony, the child, prepares the novelist she is going to become and, conversely, the acclaimed writer looks back on what is fated to remain as an irrecoverable mistake. Significantly, the novel’s title proves misleading, as it underscores a destiny that can never be achieved. No atonement process is indeed completed, unless the term is construed as the repeated attempt to find oneself at-one-ment with the ghosts of the past, through the endless loop of retelling. Destiny would then lie in the Sisyphean act of going over and over again the same story, without any promise of reaching a denouement: ‘not quite, not yet’ (A 372). And yet, rarely in a novel do characters entertain such a superstitious relation to destiny, from Robbie who, at one stage, wishes to prevent his mother’s death by avoiding the pavement cracks (A 255), to Cecilia who sees some sort of portent in the cracking of the Meissen porcelain vase. And, Briony, the extra-homodiegetic narrator and ‘writer in disguise’ (A 280), does not refrain from exploiting the benefits of destiny, to build up suspense and slip in prophetic revelations, through the use of vaticination in particular: ‘In the years to come he would often think back to this time…’ (A 90); ‘twenty years would sweep him forward to the futuristic date of 1955’ (A 92), or ‘It was her future self, at eighty-five, in widow’s weeds’ (A 97) etc. However, could it not be said that McEwan/Briony also warn future writers against any complaisance towards textual destiny: ‘Everything connected. It was her own discovery. It was her story, the one that was writing itself around her’ (A 166). Indeed, allowing the story to ‘writ[e] itself’ may prove fateful. Following Vladimir Nabokov,13 McEwan values the collection of painstaking details and arduous research work as a corrective to whimsical plotting. It is what he owes readers, and possibly the anonymous actors of the past too. ‘I love these little things, this pointillist approach to verisimilitude, the correction of detail that cumulatively gives satisfaction’ (A 359), remarks Briony who has just stood corrected for her little historical imprecisions. The question is: would Atonement stand the test of time without the lure of destiny which lends it the flavor of a romantic novel?

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Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene (1976), Oxford: OUP, 1989.

Gould, Stephen Jay, ‘So Near and So Far’, The New York Review of Books Octobr 20, 1994, last accessed at on June 2, 2018.

Kermode, Frank, The Sense of an Ending, Oxford: OUP, 1967.

Lawrence, D.H., Aaron’s Rod (1922), ed. Mara Kalnins, Cambridge: CUP, 1988.

Lawrence, D.H, Women in Love (1920), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1995.

Lawrence, D.H., The Letters of D.H. Lawrence volume II, ed. James T. Boulton, Cambridge: CUP, 1979.

McEwan, Enduring Love (1997), London: Vintage, 2004.

McEwan, Ian, Atonement (2001), London: Vintage, 2016.

McEwan, Ian, Saturday (2005), London: Vintage, 2006.

McEwan, Ian, On Chesil Beach (2007), London: Vintage, 2008.

McEwan, Ian, Solar (2010), London: Vintage, 2011.

McEwan, Ian, Nutshell, London: Jonathan Cape, 2016.

Mellet, Laurent, Atonement. Ian McEwan, Joe Wright “The Attempt was All”, Paris: Belin, 2017.

Žižek, Slavoj, Absolute Recoil. Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism, London New York: Verso, 2014.

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1 last accessed on December 23, 2017.

2 Slavoj Žižek and Boris Gunjevi, Inversions of Apocalypse (New York: Seven Stones Press, 2012).

3 Geoff Dyer, ‘Who’s Afraid of Influence’, The Guardian, 21st September, 2001, last accessed at on January 18, 2018).

4 Frank Kermode, ‘Point of View. Atonement by Ian McEwan’, London Review of Books 23.19 (4 October 2001) np.

5 Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Pour un catastrophisme éclairé. Quand l’impossible est certain (Paris: Seuil, Sciences Humaines, 2004).

6 See last accessed on April 22, 2018.

7 ‘The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails’, James Joyce, A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man (1916; London: Collector’s Library, 2005), 249.

8 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, ‘The Body without Organs’, Anti-Oedipus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972; London and New York: Continuum, 2004), 9-19.

9 Ian McEwan, ‘Literature, Science and Human Nature’, Human Nature, Fact and Fiction, Literature, Science and Human Nature, Robin Headlam-Wells, Johnjoe MacFadden and Anthony Clifford Grayling (London and New York: Continuum, 2006) 48.

10 Jeff Wallace, D.H. Lawrence, Science and the Posthuman (Houndsmill: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) 17.

11 ‘There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognizable and passes through […] allotropic states […]—states of the same radically unchanged element.’ Colin Clarke, ed., D.H. Lawrence. The Rainbow and Women in Love: a Selection of Critical Essays (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire and London: Macmillan, 1969), 29.

12 Fiona Becket, ‘Lawrence and Psychoanalysis’, The Cambridge Companion to D.H. Lawrence, ed. Anne Fernihough (Cambridge: CUP, 2001), 225.

13 ‘In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected’, Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, ed Fredson Bowers (New York: A Harvest Book, 1981), 1.

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Georges Letissier, « As into the sunset we sail. An unhappy inversion’ (370). The Sense of Destiny in Atonement »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 05 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Georges Letissier

Georges Letissier is professor of English Literature at Nantes University, France. He has published articles both in French and in English, in France and abroad (Aracne, Palgrave Macmillan, Rodopi, Routledge, Dickens Quarterly, Manchester U.P.) on Victorian literature (C. Dickens, G. Eliot, W. Morris, C. Rossetti) and on contemporary British fiction (P. Ackroyd, A.S. Byatt, P. Duncker, M. Faber, A. Gray, A. Hollinghurst, L. Norfolk, I. McEwan, W. Self, W. Stace, G. Swift, S. Waters, J. Winterson). He has published a monograph on Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (Éditions du Temps, 2005). He has edited a volume entitled Rewriting, Reprising: Plural Intertextualities, Cambridge Scholars (December 2009) and co-edited with Michel Prum a book on Darwin’s legacy in European cultures (l’Harmattan 2010). He has published regularly on Dickens and After Dickens and is currently working on the somatic reception of the Inimitable through the hermeneutic grid of empathetic reading. His interest in Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad and Ronald Firbank as hinges between late Victorianism and Modernism has been unflagging over the years, he has published a chapter ‘Paris fluctuat… Ford Madox Ford’s Urban Psychogeography’ in Ford Madox Ford’s Cosmopolis; Psycho-Geography, Flânerie and the Cultures of Paris (A. Becquet and C. Davison eds.), Brill Rodopi, 2016. His most recent publications include ‘From Dog Alterity to Canine Sublime: A Cross-Reading Reading of Victorian Fiction’, in Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens. 85. Printemps 2017, ‘Nomadic Transgender Identity: Patricia Duncker’s James Miranda Barry and Wesley Stace’s Misfortune’, Neo-Victorian Studies 9:2 (2017); ‘Our Mutual City: The Posterity of the Dickensian Urbanscape’ in Dickens and the Virtual City, (E. Murail and S. Thornton eds), Palgrave 2017; ‘Voicing Inarticulate Childhoods in Troubled Times’, in Études britanniques contemporaines, ‘Bare Lives’, 53, dec. 2017 and ‘Between the English Nuvvle and the Novel of Aloofness: Charles Dickens’s Proto-(High) Modernism’, in Beyond the Victorian/Modernist Divide (A.F. Gillard Estrada and A. Besnault-Levita eds.), Routledge (March, 2018).

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