"Atonement". A Lack of Absolute Truth. Postmodern Fiction

Term Paper, 2015

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction

2 Devices Used in the Novel and the Film Version
2.1 Metatextuality, Foreshadowing and Unreliable Narration in Atonement
2.1.1 Metatextuality at the Beginning
2.1.2 Foreshadowing I
2.1.3 Unreliable Narration
2.1.4 Foreshadowing II
2.1.4 Metatextuality towards the End

3 Conclusion

4 Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Since the brain seeks for patterns, to learn something well, the brain needs to recognize and categorize something and know what paradigm it fits into.”1: It is a biological fact that a human brain is always in need of structure, or in other words, humans are in search of the truth2 through which they may organize their perceptions and lives. But what happens, if this particular construct of the truth and reality is disturbed through representations that cause a human being to question his assumptions? In time, a chaos in mind will ensue which will have him repeatedly reconsidering his construct of the truth.

The same happens to Briony in and the reader of Atonement. “Bryony subsequently finds herself unable to deal with contradiction and imposes an interpretative ‘order’ on events […].3 Just like Briony, the reader establishes a construct of the truth and a meaning for himself by assembling the representations of the book in an order, to arrive at a point where they make sense. The reader, who has been led to assume a version of truth in which Robbie and Cecilia are reunited, has to accept the falsity of this assumption when he/she arrives at the third part of Atonement, in which Briony reveals that Robbie and Cecilia were never able to meet again because both of them died before they could do so. Such an abrupt unraveling of the reader’s constructed version of the truth lead him to reconsider all previously assumed beliefs. He has to go back over the story to search for a construction of the truth that makes sense to him again. This seminal point in Atonement stands for the postmodern theory of truth: There is no absolute reality or truth. The only existing truth is a construct made up by the reader because he has to feed this need for order.4 This theory of truth plays a central role in Postmodernism. The claim that there is no absolute truth is replenished by the statement that we assume something as being true through its representation.5 This is exactly the case in Mc Ewan’s novel, because the reader has been misled through representation leading to false assumptions. Language as well plays an important role when discussing the postmodern theory of truth. Language is perceived as an instrument creating the world and certainties, although they may not be true at all.6 This is also the case in Atonement where the choice of language and Briony’s choice of utterances lead the reader astray in his reading and subsequent interpretation of the words. One example is the description in Part 3 stating that “[…] Robbie stood before them”7, although as the reader will learn at a later point Robbie was already dead. Nevertheless, a lot of stylistic devices are used to possibly prevent the reader from being misled, such as metatextuality, an unreliable narrator and the foreshadowing of the inevitable end. Also, the film version of the novel makes use of numerous devices and elected scenes that foreshadow the postmodern theory postulating the nonexistence of an absolute truth and the questioning of the truth. Schier explains this phenomenon of postmodern truth like this: “Nothing is certain, neither what is truth, nor what is lie […]. Yet, it is also not certain that nothing is truth and everything lie.”8 Taking this quotation into account, it would be interesting to investigate the specific methods used in the book and the film version displaying the act of questioning the truth within the scope of postmodern theory as employed in Atonement and whether they are recognizable for the reader or the audience.

2. Devices Used in the Novel and the Film Version

In both versions of Atonement, particular methods illustrate the uncertainty of the by him assumed ending and truth to the reader/viewer. One main device is metatextuality, which means the inclusion of other independent texts in the novel and respectively the incorporation of extra film material in the main film.9 The other device used is foreshadowing. Through this method the reader and the audience are given indirect hints as to the direction in which the plot will go. Additionally, the use of unreliable narration which reveals itself through lies, mental illnesses and false claims10 occurs in Atonement and questions the truth. These stylistic devices cannot be separated though, as they flow into one another in every scene. In the next section, a closer analysis of the three devices will be carried out; hence the methods applied in book and film to question the truth, the way in which they question it and whether this denial of truth is accessible to the reader or not will be examined.

2.1 Metatextuality, Foreshadowing and Unreliable Narration in Atonement

2.1.1 Metatextuality at the Beginning

In the novel, we can find specific devices that question the truth abundantly. Already in the beginning of part one, the reader receives an indication in regards to the questioning of truth in the book, as exercised by Briony. She is described as a girl with a vivid imagination who likes to write and structure her world according to her own taste. She is writing a play and expresses an extreme desire for order in her life; this shows itself in the obsession regarding a tidy room or setting out a line of animals all facing in one direction. Her play “The Trials of Arabella” is a metatextual feature in the novel which illustrates Briony’s obsession with writing and forcing plots and figures into an order . By employing this method of metatexuality the reader finds himself unable to distinguish between truth and lies11. This is an intentional ploy in postmodernism as the reader is confronted with the need of wanting to question truth. Postmodernism aims to overthrow the assumed absolute truth by revealing fiction in the making.12 In this part of the book, the reader definitely encounters an upheaval of the truth as he becomes aware of metatextuality. Also, her passion for secrets is pointed out in the book: “In a toy safe opened by six secret numbers she stored letters and postcards.”13 and the reception of Briony by her mother: “She had vanished into an intact inner world of which the writing was no more than the visible surface […]. Her daughter was always of and away in her mind […].”14 There are other indications for the reader that Briony is not trust-worthy and a rather mysterious character.

The same mystery surrounding her writing hobby is depicted in the film version. Firstly, the title “Atonement” appears on the screen to the background noise of a clicking typewriter, making the audience aware of the fact that fiction is hiding within fiction. Subsequently, the scene cuts to Briony sitting in her clean room with the row of animals in the background. This is an allusion to Noah’s ark and God’s power to structure the world. This is equally true for Briony, because she structures the world according to her reception and liking15.

The image was removed for copyright reasons

Briony has structured animals in a row

Said need for structuring things stems from the desire for order yet this order or truth is lacking in postmodernism because such theories are mere social constructions.16 However, as mentioned above, the human being needs structure his life. Hence structuring and an absolute certainty17, although it may be human made, are essential for Briony, something that is increasingly revealed throughout the plot. Her finished play is followed by the sound of a clicking typewriter again. In combination with the restless camera work following Briony through the stairwell, the audience is given the impression that writing and structuring is her way of making sense of the world, which is quite untypical for a girl of thirteen, but seems to be logical when reminding oneself of the human search for structure and truth.

The image was removed for copyright reasons

Briony runs through the stairwell after having written her play

2.1.2 Foreshadowing I

One scene that makes the reader aware of Briony’s unreliability is the fountain scene depicting Cecilia and the broken vase. Here, two perspectives are offered: the perspective of Cecilia being annoyed with Robbie for having broken the vase and forcing her to jump into the fountain, and the perspective of Briony, who observes this situation but interprets it as Robbie’s sexual desire to see Cecilia in wet, transparent clothes. Apparently, postmodernism leaves the reader with many alternative narratives, which may upset a previously experienced truth later on.18 This criterion is undeniable in this scene because although the reader may actually perceive the correct version of this situation as Cecilia’s point of view, he nevertheless takes Briony’s remark on board which leads him to question it as the absolute truth: “This was not a fairy tale, this was the real […].”19

In the film version, this scene is realized a little differently due to the plot being organized somewhat differently: firstly, there is Briony’s perspective when watching the scene from a window followed by Cecilia’s perspective. This reversal increases the notion of doubt as to which version may be considered as true, but at the same time the close up shot of Briony’s face looking out through the window leaves the impression of her watching the scene as an outsider and thus being unable to judge the situation correctly. The window as a symbol and frame will be repeated throughout the film, depicting Briony’s view as limited, because she sees everything through a window from an inside- world without ever participating in the outside-world. This limitation is made even clearer through cinematographic devices: the window frame is still clearly visible for the audience at the right hand side of the picture.

Briony watches Cecilia and Robbie out of a window


1 Martinson 2008: 58

2 Cf. Schier 1993: 26

3 Marcus 2009: 89

4 Cf. Cormack 2009: 72

5 Cf. Schier 1993: 20

6 Cf. Schier 1993: 23,183

7 McEwan 2001: 338

8 Schier 1993: 193

9 Cf. Shuart-Faris; Bloome 2004: 375

10 Cf. Nünning 2005: 102

11 Cf. Schier 1993: 186

12 Cf. Hutcheon 1988: 48

13 McEwan 2001: 5

14 McEwan 2001: 68

15 Cf. Bolton 2013: 37

16 Cf. Moreland 2004: 3

17 Cf. Moreland 2004: 3

18 Cf. Frosh: 1995: 187

19 McEwan 2001: 40

Excerpt out of 19 pages


"Atonement". A Lack of Absolute Truth. Postmodern Fiction
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Anglistik)
British Literature II - Unfilmable: Postmodern Fiction from Page to Screen
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Postmodernism, Fiction in Literature and Film, Analysis of Atonement, Metatextuality, Foreshadowing, unreliable narration, cinematographic devices
Quote paper
Sarah Antonia Gallegos García (Author), 2015, "Atonement". A Lack of Absolute Truth. Postmodern Fiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/499091


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