Guilt in Ian McEwan's "Atonement" and Joe Wright's film adaptation

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

16 Pages, Grade: 3,0



1. Introduction

2. What is atonement ?
2.1. A Judaic and Christian doctrine based on culpability
2.2. Guilt and atonement in psychology

3. Social taboos in the 1930s England
3.1. Women start to smoke in public
3.2. Family collapse
3.3. Sexuality

4. Atonement attempts
4.1. Briony
4.1.1. Briony's perception of the events on the day of the “rape”
4.1.2. Was the accusation a revenge ?
4.1.3. Briony's “atonement”
4.2. Robbie
4.3. Paul and Lola

5. Transferring the concepts of guilt and atonement to the film
5.1. Treatment of Briony's character
5.2. Treatment of Cecilia and Robbie's characters
5.3. Treatment of Paul and Lola's characters

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Atonement, the novel by Ian McEwan published in 2001, is qualified by many critics as a “wartime love story”. It is an interpretation that suits the glamorous criteria needed by the public and provided by the media nowadays. But this interpretation focuses only on Cecilia and Robbie, as they are considered to be the victims in the story and therefore forgets the important part that Briony or her writing process play in the novel and Joe Wright's film.

A complete reading of Atonement should include a study of the title and its implications in the story. We will start by analyzing the meaning of the word “atonement”. The choice of this title has a special significance for the whole novel and should lead us readers and spectators to understand its message - to know whether the spirit of the novel has been respected by the film maker is a question to which we will also answer briefly.

The tragic event that happened in Part One of the novel would never have taken place if the social environment had been more opened. With other codifications, more courage and less things left unsaid, the story would have been different. We will examine some of the taboos that played an important role in the shaping of Atonement 's characters.

The notion of guilt is very present in the novel, thus it will be, in relation to atonement, the central focus of this paper. We will consider the main characters, i.e. Briony, Robbie, Cecilia, Lola and Paul Marshall and try to evaluate the degree to which each one of them is guilty, feels guilty and is willing to atone for his sins.

The last part of the paper will be essentially dedicated to the film, to Joe Wright's interpretation of the concepts we named above. Considering our paper's subject, was it a good or a bad adaptation?

2. What is atonement ?

The word atonement was invented in the sixteenth century by the reformer William Tyndale who recognized that there was no English equivalent for the biblical Hebraic concept.

2.1. A Judaic and Christian doctrine based on culpability

Christianity finds its roots in the Judaic doctrine and Christians were issued from the Jewish people. Therefore, both doctrines have common elements such as the belief in the necessity of atonement.

In Rabbinic Judaism, atonement is achieved through several different combinations of repentance, Temple service, confession, restitution, the occurrence of Yom Kippur, tribulations, the carrying out of a sentence of corporal or capital punishment imposed by an ordained court (nowadays not anymore) and the experience of dying. Which of these are required varies according to the severity of the sin and the implication into its performing (whether it was done willingly or not).

According to the Bible, atonement is the action of making amends for an injury or wrong, so that mankind and God can be reconciled. Sin makes impure and provokes a sanction that is inevitably death, the separation from God.

Genesis 2:17

17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it. For in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.

Romans 5:12

12 Therefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, so death passed onto all men, for all have sinned.

Romans 6:23

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

And yet Christ has atoned for all sins by taking on the responsibility personally and enduring the punishment for all mankind. The sin is atoned, i.e. forgiven, and mankind is freed from evil and from a fair sentence.

The Bible constantly warns against sin and sinful behavior, thus creating a feeling of guilt and the necessity to atone for every mistake.

Exodus 29:36

36And thou shalt offer every day a bullock for a sin offering for atonement; and thou shalt cleanse the altar when thou hast made an atonement for it, and thou shalt anoint it to sanctify it.

Exodus 29:37

37Seven days thou shalt make an atonement for the altar and sanctify it; and it shall be an altar most holy. Whatsoever toucheth the altar shall be holy.

2.2. Guilt and atonement in psychology

We have just acknowledged that guilt and atonement are concepts so important to the human being that they are evoked in the Bible, one of the oldest texts that exist.

Pruyser suggests that the satisfactory theory, that sees the death of Christ as being offered to provide satisfaction to assuage God's righteous anger at humanity's rebellion, and to enable him to be merciful, has a particular resonance for those who are easily overwhelmed by their feelings of guilt. Such people are likely to be dominated by their super-ego, an almost tyrannical entity. For them, the satisfaction theory brings the assurance that the price of guilt has been paid, releasing the fullness of God's forgiveness for wrongdoing.

Modern psychology draws a very fine line between guilt and atonement. Although guilt traditionally (Jewish, Catholic, Puritan) have a negative connotation, psychologists keep finding evidence of its usefulness. Allan Carr sees atonement as a positive process.

Atonement, too, has its benefits. When we atone for transgressions we reduce our feelings of guilt and may also elicit forgiveness from those against whom we have transgressed. Atonement and repentance may also improve psychological and physical well-being. However, there are barriers to atonement. Atonement entails acknowledging personal responsibility for wrongdoing, experiencing the feelings of guilt and shame that go with this acknowledgement, and accepting the punishment associated with the transgression […] this may involve legal penalties such as imprisonment. (Carr 255)

The following passage will help us a lot in the analysis of Briony's and other characters's attempts of atonement in Chapter 4.

Both forgiveness and atonement require us to put pride aside and be humble. Humility involves seeing oneself as no better or no worse than others. Both forgiveness and atonement require us to empathise with the other person's position (be they transgressor or victim) and understand how the situation looks from their perspective. Setting pride aside, humility and empathy - all extremely challenging processes since they render us vulnerable to attack - are major obstacles to engaging in forgiveness or atonement. (Carr 255)

Too little guilt can be catastrophic, like for sociopaths who feel no remorse, but also as early as for kindergartners who smack other children and steal their toys.

According to Grazyna Kochanska, children generally start to feel guilt in their second year of life. One of her studies showed that 2-year-old children that experienced guilt have less behavioral problems over the next five years. Some of these children later become more guilt-prone thanks to parents and other early influences.

Kant split the human person into two entities - body and soul, act and intention, objective and subjective, the world 'out there' and the world 'in here'. All that matters morally, is what happens 'in here', in the soul. But a culture that confines morality to the mind is one that lacks an adequate defense against harmful behavior: passivity or indifference, even without any bad intention, in a war context, for example, can be considered as condemnable.

3. Social taboos in the 1930s England

Feelings like remorse, guilt and shame often come from the fact of having done or doing something that is not aloud, considered as evil or that one should not mention in public. The environment in which the characters of Atonement evolve is suffocating because of left unsaid things. In this section, we will focus on the social taboos that influenced Cecilia and Briony's education.

3.1. Women start to smoke in public

Cecilia lighting a cigarette on the steps in part 1 of the novel is not the innocent scene that it seems to be. In the 1930s, women smoking in public was a new fashion that was not appreciated by everyone. This habit will become more and more common during the wartime.

Cecilia lights a cigarette during her father's absence, which is the only kind of rebellion she can afford. Throughout the book, this should be perceived as the sign of torment and this symbol is repeated in the film: the scene in the steps, the cigarette she smokes with Robbie outside (also provocative in a sensual way), the cigarette smoked alone on the porch outside while waiting for Robbie. Cecilia never looses her composure throughout the whole film, except while she read Robbie's note handed by Briony and in the library, but the lighting of a cigarette always signals impatience.

3.2. Family collapse

[…] We can't go home anyway...' He paused to gather his courage. 'It's a divorce!'

Pierrot and Lola froze. The word had never been used in front of the children, and never uttered by them. The soft consonants suggested an unthinkable obscenity, the sibilant ending whispered the family's shame. (McEwan 57)

In a society based on Christian values, divorce, still very often considered as a shame or crime, was a reality that was hidden to the children.

After this passage, Lola will ask Paul not to repeat anything of what he has read in the newspapers about their parents to her younger brothers.

Mrs Tallis turns a blind eye to Mr Tallis's very busy work schedule, although it is very probable that he in fact has a mistress with whom he spends more and more time. Does Mrs Tallis not know what is going on? We suspect that she does but refuses to risk to break the family's image by a fight or to loose the lifestyle she is used to if she were to divorce. She might also do this for the love of her children or because she loves Mr Tallis enough to forgive him. We should also not forget that Mrs Tallis has a fragile health condition and that she is therefore very likely to avoid any kind of unnecessary stress.

3.3. Sexuality

Preadolescents nowadays tend to know much or to be already interested by sexuality. They know that boys were not born in cabbages and that girls were not born in roses. This early awareness of their own body can be noticed in the dressing habits or the behavior of these young people. In 1998, Sean Stewart became the youngest father in the United Kingdom; he was only twelve years old. He was eleven as his four-year older girlfriend became pregnant, which is of course terribly early as he was not even a preadolescent yet, but a child himself. Paradoxically, such events are caused by the same fact that produced Briony's ignorance: the lack of sexual education.

A thirteen-year old girl in the 1930s in England did not know much about the mechanisms of love and desire. Although Briony is perceived by the reader and the spectator as extremely silly and even criminal (she “separated” two lovers), she is only the product of her education, an education made of fairy tales and princesses, without nudity or any reference to her anatomy. Although “it [is] right [and] essential, for her to know everything” (McEwan 113), she is not prepared to it. Briony therefore perceives an intensely erotic scene by the fountain as something strange and the scene in the library as an attack on the person of Cecilia.

According to Briony's education, sexuality, whatever it might be, is something that should not happen before or outside of marriage or, for Briony herself, that should better not happen at all: In Part One, chapter One, she thinks “A good wedding was an unacknowledged representation of the as yet unthinkable - sexual bliss”(McEwan 9).

Even if Briony saw things that she could not understand in the library or by the fountain, a little bit of dialogue could have avoided the following misunderstanding. Cecilia could have tried to explain to Briony that what she has seen is actually something normal and that it happens when two people love each other. She could have used the same motherly tone as the one with which she used to tell her baby sister to come back to her after a nightmare. Briony would probably have understood.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Guilt in Ian McEwan's "Atonement" and Joe Wright's film adaptation
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Department of British & Irish Studies / Translation Studies)
Seminar: Transferring & Translating Media (Novels to Film): Ian McEwan's Atonement
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
531 KB
Ian Mc Ewan, Joe Wright, Atonement, Guilt, World War II, Transferring, Translating Media, Novel to Film, British Studies, Cultural Studies
Quote paper
Carmen Odimba (Author), 2009, Guilt in Ian McEwan's "Atonement" and Joe Wright's film adaptation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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