Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Atonement, Book I, Chapters 1 and 2

Please use this space to share your opening thoughts on the novel.


  1. So far, I have found myself really enjoying Atonement. Unlike most books read for school, this one has really drawn me in, causing the first 30 pages to go by quite quickly. One aspect of the first two chapters I found particularly interesting was the seemingly large separation between Briony and her family. On page 5, for instance, Briony is described as “an only child.” Yet, in later pages we learn of her siblings, Leon and Cecilia. I know Leon is away at school in London; however, Cecilia is certainly present. With this in mind, I found myself wondering if Cecilia had done something wrong, ultimately distancing herself from the family. Then, adding to this familial separation, we learn on page 6 that Briony shows her completed works to “her mother, or her father, when he was home.” Another question; where does the father go? Why isn’t he usually home? It was questions like these that kept me moving through the pages, in hope of finding some sort of answer. In the second chapter, I also found the awkward relationship between Cecilia and Robbie interesting, to the extent that I found myself wondering; what was their previous relationship like before Cambridge?

    I would also like to comment on Briony’s intensity. On page 14, for example, she responds to her cousin’s cast as Arabella; “her only reasonable choice then would be to run away, to live under hedges, eat berries, and speak to no one…” This reaction seemed quite dramatic for a 9 year old (or maybe it was 11?) putting on a play for her family. I feel like I might have missed something. It was quite evident that she is very concerned with impressing her brother, Leon, but I feel like there is something more to the situation, causing her to react in this manner. Perhaps she just wants him home, and her play is her way of portraying this?


  2. Like Eve, I am finding Atonement to be the page-turner that Mr. Pellerin said it would be. I find Briony's fascination with writing very interesting. The descriptions of why Briony likes writing (on pages 8 and 9. ex. "Her passion for tidiness was also satisfied, for an unruly world could be made just so.") kind of reminded me why I like reading: it is because in these imaginary worlds, there can be our own versions of utopias. It is obvious that Briony likes order and to be in control, and she incorporates this into her stories and plays. This reveals that she probably lacks order and control in her own life. We must keep in mind that "self-exposure was inevitable the moment she described a character's weakness;" (7). This reminds us that most everything we read about Briony and her obsession with writing is probably also true for McEwan. Therefore, the qualities of Briony's stories might be similar to the ones that are included in this book as well. Even reading just these first few pages made me remember that writing and reading is about opening up a whole new world, something different from our own. Maybe that is what this book will do for us.

    I also found the relationships within the family to be very interesting. One thing I noticed about the book and the way it is written is that there is a lack of dialogue. The lack of communication emphasizes that the characters isolate themselves from the other members of this family. This must be true because Briony has hardly given us an idea of what her relationships are with the other members of her family, besides her brother who, coincidently, is away. She uses the most personal thing she can in order to connect with him again, which is her writing. Every relationship is very awkward, even Cecilia and Robbie. It is interesting how Briony does not communicate with her parents very much, as young children usually do.

  3. Atonement is one of those books I have been meaning to read but never get around to. So thanks Mr. Pellerin!

    The most striking part of the two chapters was the parallels of Cecilia and Briony. On the surface, they seem so different- Cecilia is messy and Briony is neat, Cecilia is jaded from romance and Briony is still dreaming of her prince. But in the core, they are the same; they both dream of somewhere more perfect than their current reality and they are both isolated in a certain way, as Rachel described. While Cecilia likes the look of natural, as seen as her fuss over the flowers, Briony likes to control everything within her reach to become the neat, architectural visions that she has in her mind. Both has different visions of perfection, but has a similar approach to attaining it. Their solitude is of the same nature- Briony feels that her lack of secrets make her less alluring, while Cecilia feels she is not needed at home. Both make attempts at attaining at least the appearance of losing that solitude, but inside, they know it is unsolvable. The parallels between the two sisters introduce a theme of solitude, the basis of individuality.

    I was also caught off guard by Ian McEwan’s elegant description of Briony’s inner workings. She no longer sounds like a child, but a mysterious, aged spirit, captured within the body of a child. The only hints otherwise are her selfishness (her seek for attention through her writing, as well as her need to put on her play with her unenthusiastic cousins) and her naïveté (her sense of justice as seen in “Trials of Arabella” as well as her sense of romance), both features found in adults.

    But overall, a charming novel thus far. I wish I read this before I watched the movie…

  4. I like Atonement ☺ I also like Amazon, for shipping it to me today when I ordered it on Sunday!
    Anyway, the thing I found most interesting about Atonement is that it has a VOICE. Each different character thinks differently. For example, Briony’s chapter is definitely more childish in her thoughts, actions, and attention to detail. I love this about this book-I’ve read a ton of books where they switch focus onto different characters, but all the characters still basically sound the same despite their different age, gender etc (ie, any Jodi Picoult book I’ve read, this book I read for creative writing called “Time of the Butterflies, etc.) I enjoyed how Briony’s chapter and Cecilia’s chapter were distinctly different,
    Briony sounds like the 13 year old that she is. Showing off to her family is “precisely why she loved plays, or hers at least.” When she looses the part of Arabella to Lola instead of dealing with it in an adult manner, she only wants to “run away, to live under hedges, eat berries…” I love Briony’s character, the way she just IS a 13 year old girl, creative and yet very alone since her family doesn’t pay much attention to her. (I agree with everybody else, why is she like “an only child?” Where is her father anyway?)
    Cecilia’s chapter reminds me almost of myself right now. She wants to get away from her home, from her family, but stays at home because this is “her last sustained period at home and she would see it through.” I can identify with her feeling that if she left home now, “something bad would happen, or worse, something good she couldn’t afford to miss.” I also am very interested in her relationship with Robbie…why is so awkward? And isn’t he going to get in huge trouble for breaking the vase?
    Also as a concluding note- I looked up the word Atonement because though I sorta knew what it meant I wanted to know the actual definition:
    Atonement: satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends.

  5. I definitely am having flashbacks to The Sound and the Fury! Like The Sound and the Fury, the novel’s first chapter is from the viewpoint of a naïve character (Benjy and Briony). Then in the second chapter, Quentin and Cecilia share a more realistic (and somewhat negative) view. The similarities between Quentin and Cecilia are defiantly worth noting. Cecilia mentions studying in Cambridge - I assume she’s referring to Harvard – which suggests she may have similar intelligence to Quentin. Also, both characters are intense analyzers. This is something that I picked up on constantly while reading chapter two. She first obsesses over finding the vase and making the wildflowers have a “natural chaotic look.” Then, when she interacts with Robbie, she comments on nearly everything he says or does: “There was something between then, and even she had to acknowledge that a tame remark about the weather sounded perverse,” “Was he pretending to be jealous to conceal the fact that he was?” “Had she sounded condescending?”

    She also shows a lot of resentment towards her family: “her mother, when she wasn’t nurturing her migraines, seemed distant, even unfriendly… Briony was lost to her writing fantasies.” It’s kind of funny because already the mother seems a lot like Mrs. Compson; they are both big complainers who dote on their youngest child. Cecilia obviously feels very distant from her family, so it surprises me that she hesitates to leave home. Maybe this ties in with the missing father-figure… maybe she feels an obligation to stay with her family.

  6. Gab, I also noticed this parallel to The Sound and the Fury; but unlike The Sound and the Fury, I actually enjoyed reading the beginning of the book because I was not constantly trying to figure out what just happened. I also particularly liked the elegant imagery which McEwan employs, such as on page 19: "the three faded Chesterfields grouped around the almost new Gothic fireplace in which stood a display of wintry sedge, by the unplayed, untuned harpsichord and the unused rosewood music stands." This type of description strongly conveys the wealth of the Tallis family.

    I particularly liked how each chapter has a limited point of view, the first from Briony's perspective and the second from Cecilia's (I assume we will also see other points of view, like Robbie's). This way, we can see from an intimate perspective how each character feels about the others; for example, Cecilia explains that she considers Briony's play idea a "frenetic vision" (20). It also allows us to see the innerworkings of each character's mind. I particularly found it interesting that Cecilia constantly contradicts herself about Robbie. When talking about the mood of their current conversations, she notes, "it was spikes, traps, and awkward turns that caused her to dislike herself almost as much as she disliked him, though she did not doubt that he was mostly to blame" (26-27). Furthermore, going off of what Eunice said about the similarities between Cecilia's and Briony, what I noticed most was their mutual insecurity. Cecilia's becomes evident when she is around Robbie, and Briony's when she is around her older cousin Lola who has "a full two year's refinement weigh against her" (12). However, unlike Cecilia, Briony does seem to have certain ambitions, in her writing.

  7. Like Rachel, I found Briony’s fondness of writing interesting and unique. I think that when someone likes something or has a hobby that is unique like that, unlike a sport or musical instrument or something along those lines, a unique hobby shows a lot about the person. I think that Briony’s willingness to write shows that she maybe is unhappy in her family and she uses writing as an escape to become her own person and be happy. I definitely agree on what Gab said. Briony feels resentment to her family, but not just resentment, but a feeling of being trapped or restrained by her family members. Briony is extremely proud of her play, but Cecilia doesn’t give her the praise or recognition Briony deserves from it. I think Briony feels misunderstood, and I think it will be interesting to see how her resentment towards her family shows itself in the upcoming chapters.

    Also, I did a little research about the author because I always like to draw parallels between the characters in a novel and the author’s life. McEwan was born in England but grew up in many different places during his life including East Asia, Africa and Germany because his father was in the army. McEwan also has made many humanist efforts to do with women’s rights. He has been a political activist in cases against the treatment of women in Islamic cultures. Also, his first wife took away his son from him after McEwan was granted custody. I’m not sure if any of this is relevant, but I thought it’d share what I found!

    All in all I really enjoyed reading the first chunk of this book and I am excited to see what else McEwan reveals about the characters and where “atonement” plays into the plot.

  8. An interesting beginning but it makes me feel that is a very elaborate introduction for something more interesting. It seems that the writer’s intentions are painfully clear, trying to underline the difference between Briony and her family or Briony and the reality surrounding her. I hope that it would develop in a more objective style.  The first chapter was interesting in the way that the writing seemed to match perfectly with Briony’s age and childish actions. A kind of sincerity and lack of censorship that seems to characterize all children.

    For example on page 14 she talks about self- pity and how it “needed her full attention”. There are definitely times in life when you think to yourself that you deserve some pity and if no one is there to acknowledge its full scale you rely on self-pity. But here the difference between an adult and a child comes into play; when the adult realizes self-pity he becomes embarrassed while the child wears it proudly. Her strong determination seems funny and cute in a child but the same traits in an adult I wouldn’t admire.

    The second chapter presents Cecilia’s lens that is associated a lot with nature and freedom, again contrsting with her sister’s chapter where all the action is set indoor. Also the mother’s relationship with Cecilia and Briony is very different; it seems that mother favors Briony.

  9. For me, the most interesting aspect of this section was the vivid descriptions of the characters’ emotions. I was first struck by the account of Briony’s disappointment when Lola asked to take the leading role in the play. “(Briony) was not playing Arbella because she wrote the play, she was taking the part because no other possibility had crossed her mind,” he writes (13). McEwan conveys juvenile emotions in an extremely accurate and beautiful way. His writing allows us to relive those intangible, obscure feelings that we all experienced as children. When reading the section, I felt as though I understood Briony’s feelings. I sympathized with her desire for perfection and order. Her character is sweet yet tragic, unaware of the world in which she lives. She is leading a life of innocence, something that I feel we all desire to some extent.

    While Briony reminded me of my childhood experiences, Cecilia made me think of the future. I fear her apathy for life. It seems as if she is simply going through the motions, living off her parents. Throughout the section, she lacks purpose and focuses on miniscule trials within her daily routine. On the other hand, I admire her desire for independence. She is clearly upset with her current position and wishes to make changes, even though she doesn’t know what those may be. Currently, we are engaged in much the same search. College provides us with boundless opportunity, yet we have no idea of what we truly desire. In a sense, we feel stuck between Briony and Cecilia: clinging to childhood yet searching for fulfillment.


  10. To be quite honest, chapter 1 really did not draw me in that much. I understand that the book is about far more than a little girl trying to have her somewhat misfit cousins put on a play, but I didn’t get any sense whatsoever of where the book was going from chapter 1. I particularly did not enjoy McEwan’s complex descriptions of the inner workings of Briony simply because I find it hard to believe that a girl of her age could have that complex of inner workings. It really came down to what was said on page 5 for me: all her secret inner workings shouldn’t really be cared about just as the regular secrets she keeps. And yet the whole chapter focuses on them.

    Moving into chapter 2, things improved a bit being able to compare Cecilia to Briony. I particularly liked the comparison made when she moves the flowers on page 22 to make them more chaotic, as opposed to Briony who prefers everything really ordered. However, her chapter soon turns into being all about her relationship with Robbie and how it never quite fit for either of them. In the end, I agree with the comparison to Sound and the Fury: random blips from several different peoples points of view put together into what seems like an insignificant order but is actually important. I just don’t understand why yet.

    Praying to god this doesn’t turn out like the Poisonwood Bible where you keep waiting for something to happen and when it finally does your like “I waited all this time for that?”


  11. Well I guess Atonement is a hit! I too really enjoyed reading these first two chapters.

    A couple things to build upon from what I read in everyone’s blogs before mine- I really agree with everyone that this novel is captivating. The way McEwan writes is so fluid and seems so effortless (perhaps represented in his portrayal of Briony?). Gab and Will- I definitely see where you can connect to The Sound and the Fury, there were a couple elements which I saw. In particular, there was an intense description of Leon by Briony at the beginning- “There were moments in the summer dusk after her light was out, when she burrowed in the delicious gloom of her canopy bed, and made her heart thud with luminous, yearning fantasies…every one of which featured Leon,” (4). This reminded me a lot of Quentin- he and Briony seem to be obsessed with one of their siblings, almost to the point when incestuous thoughts would not be far fetched. Also Gab I agree that Briony’s mother is portrayed as negative, but at the beginning in the description of her reading Briony’s play she seems very positive. I’m feeling that this was eluding to a problematic situation that occurred- perhaps there was a major change in the family?

    That leads to the bulk of what I wanted to blog about. I was really impacted by the beginning of the first chapter. I feel that McEwan eluded to so many things and really bore the personality of Briony on the page (agreeing with Eunice). He so artfully described her personality through her thoughts- while maintaining a third person narrative. This was really interesting to me- I just found it so artistic! Anyways, one thing I noticed was Briony’s obsession with the “miniatures”, or things that she can control. I believe that this personality trait arose in her as a result of an unsatisfactory family life. Something is obviously off in their family- another little connection to the ever-present uneasiness that was in Sound and the Fury. She is- perhaps- too smart for her own good. She seems to analyze every situation she is presented with in such an intellectual and academic way- like the way she plans the play she will show specifically for her Brother, but changes it when she finds out her cousins are coming, and also wants her parents to hear it. The tale she describes is also very deep subject matter for a 13 year old. She must be terribly bright. There is just something about her and her personality that intrigues me, I feel like I connect with her on some level. I can’t wait to keep reading!

  12. I loved the first thirty pages of Atonement. I’ve heard so many good things about this novel, so I can’t wait to read the rest! Unlike many school books, I actually enjoyed reading this section, which is not typical of the beginning of a book. In the first chapter, I absolutely LOVED Briony. She has such distinct qualities that make her an unusual thirteen year old; yes, her innocence is still obvious, but I admire her drive and passion for writing. I think her intelligence certainly sets her apart. She is stubborn, dedicated, and has a vision as shown with her cousins in her play. I’m very interested to see how the relationship between Cecilia and Briony works. With little dialogue and so much description of situations and opinions, I expected the two girls to talk a lot about their siblings, so I found it strange that they were barely mentioned. Like people have noted, Briony has a keen attention to detail whereas Cecilia is “messy”, but I don’t think this small detail is enough to attribute a bad relationship to. By reading the back cover of the novel, I know that Briony is going to do something or say something about Cecilia and Robbie that shows her innocence, and I’m so curious to find out how Briony reacts when she learns about her sister and Robbie.
    Like Dana, I found myself connected with Cecilia. Being at a similar place in our lives, we’re unsure of what to do next. Cecilia struggles with family, school, love, etc. It is clear that Cecilia’s relationship with Robbie is going to be of importance in the novel. She says in her chapter that they hate each other, but reading the section, you can tell that there is definitely something between them. Yes, when they dive in the lake without clothes on Cecilia storms off angry. But, the two have known each other since they were seven, so maybe they bicker like brother and sister, but there is some sense of attraction there.

  13. So far I like this book because it's the easiest to read out of all the ones we have read this year. It reads like something I would choose to read myself which makes it more enjoyable and easy to focus on the storyline. We don't know very much about the overall storyline yet, but the characters, specifically Briony and Lola, are getting more and more developed which is interesting. Briony reminds me of myself a little bit because of her bossiness, but unlike her I am the oldest child in my family and she is the youngest. She seems to be more gifted than regular children, almost to an abnormal point.

    Cecilia is an interesting character that I want to learn more about. She is kind of like us as high school seniors (even though she is done with college) because she is itching to get out of her house and away from her family, but once she realizes that they are okay with letting her go, she sort of wants to stay. I think this will make the book pretty easy to relate to and overall just a story that we want to read because it is interesting.

  14. I agree with Bridget - this book seems pretty readable so far. I like knowing what Briony is thinking, especially because it's clear that she is different. She is definitely gifted, and certainly has quite the imagination. Her narration was the last thing I expected when Mr. Pellerin told us Atonement was a war novel/Jane Austen story, so I'll be interested to see how Briony plays into it.
    Gab, Will, Monica, and so many other people - I agree that there are some striking similarities to The Sound and the Fury. It almost seemed to me that there were some similarities between Benjy and Briony, but intellectually the two are on opposite sides of the same spectrum. Benjy is mentally challenged while Briony is unusually bright - however both are naive, as well as the youngest in their families. Both are observant and both will play a much more meaningful role in their respective stories as the novels progress. Their chapters also both come first - I may be wrong but I think that was done pretty purposefully.

  15. Alright so we've seen one end with people loving it, and the other end with the "not so much" reaction. I am kind of in the middle on this one as of now. The first two chapters have not actually done much, save for introducing two characters and taking apart the inner workings of their minds. Though the content may not have been so interesting, the presentation and the ease with which the author connects with the readers is great.

    Starting with Briony's description, the author right off the bat establishes a sense of higher level thinking and living not common in your average 13 year old. Starting with the order and organization she dictates for her play and the way she treats her cousins, Briony is shown to be an advanced character. She's got all the ideas and the right mindset, but her age plays against her and she is sort of cast aside as unimportant. Cecilia is the opposite of her sister with the wild side in her and it is evident in the way she likes her environment at home and how she acts herself outside the home. The relationship between her and Robbie is still in the developing stages.

    So like I said, the first two chapter were like "ya, so what" chapters to me, and I am looking forward to seeing if the story picks up again in the chapters to come.

  16. lets get on with the warfare and killing already, seriously. it hasn't been bad thus far but I am certainly looking forward to the exciting parts. I anticipate plenty of build-up to the action. I do enjoy the character of briony, with her rather mature hobby and yet total naivety. I wouldn't call benjy naive so much as his mental growth was severely retarded, seems like a bit unfair to assign him the adjective. he never really had much in the way of expectations except simply that certain people would take care of him and that other people made him unhappy. Briony seems like she some potential to become quite the little writer, maybe not a director. Robbie seems destined for war as of now. he's the only male character besides the briony's father. he also is interested in medicine, maybe he'll recieve training as a medic or an orderly. I'm fairly certain we're in the early thirties. Clem died in 1918 at the end of WWI and Cecilia was 5 at the time. She is now out of college, presumably 16 or so years later. The geopolitical situation of Europe is due to start boiling up soon.

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  18. Alright! I finally have the book so now I can finally start blogging with you guys again!I agree with Evan this book hasn't exactly jumped out at me as a good book, but I'm sure once it gets into the action it'll improve. I also agree that the book is building-up before it gets to the action of the novel. Even though this book was turned into a movie it feels like a written screen play with the very descriptive language the narrator uses. The narrator tends to create a scene for each of the characters to reveal something new about them. It's interesting how the narrator put a main focus on Briony in chapter 1 and a focus on Cecilia on chapter 2.

    Briony's naive-ness (not sure if thats a word) comes from being a young chid. She's still growing up,maturing, and more importantly learning. Being naive probably isn't part of her personality. Beyond this she is a very perceptive girl and is lower on the maturity scale than her sister Cecilia.
    It'll be interesting to see how this novel plays out.

  19. I agree with Evan in the sense that chapter one really didn't draw me in too much. There just wasn't too much interest on my part in a girl who has a sophisticated thought process and hobby, but doesn't really show that she really is mature for her age. It is rather ironic that her character is kind of a contradiction of herself, as one side of her is more adult like while the other seems to not keep up with the literary side of her. She possibly could grow out of her more childish side throughout the book?

    The character of Cecilia is quite interesting as she reminds me of a high school girl. At first, she wants to leave, but once she sees that her family is ok with it, she wants to feel wanted by them. She also doesn't treat her boyfriend well, as she tries to impress another boy she has never met before. Her character as well seems pretty contradictory, as she is a girl that wants to feel wanted, yet she has a boyfriend who cares about her, but also feels frustration toward her because of her wealth and lack of treating him with respect. Chapter 2 was in my opinon much better

    Mike P

  20. Atonement begins with the relatively intellectually musings of 13-year-old Briony Tallis. Her narration is a series of unanswered inquiries, creating a lack of conflict. Thus, I found her part to be particularly boring. The introduction of Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner appear to be the primary source of conflict for the novel, with the two individuals representing the conflict between socioeconomic classes and gender roles in the novel. While Cecilia wants to be "needed" at home she is aware that she also has the education and skills to be independent and part of London's industrialized working class, a privilege which has been granted onto Robbie, who is taking advantage of it, regardless of the fact that he has to pay Cecilia’s father back for funding his education. The passage which describes the shattering of the vase symbolically shows that all things traditional and perfect in the Tallis home are about to break, as a result of the increasing sexual tension between Robbie and Cecilia. Here we have Robbie, a man who enjoys landscaping and making plants natural in their beautiful state, separated from Cecilia, who seeks to take the flowers and place them in her room, removing them for their natural place. The vase is the object that bridges them, but before it can ever be put into use, it is broken. When Cecilia reemerges from retrieving the broken piece of ceramic, her "movements are savage" and she "banishes" Robbie with her eyes, showing that she has domination over Robbie.

  21. I definitely agree with Abe on this one; I don’t hate the book, but I’m not exactly loving it either. I feel like the author does an excellent job describing the characters and showing us what they’re like through their actions, but frankly, I feel like not much has really happened in the first two chapters. What I think is compelling, though, is the language that McEwan uses and writes in. Each word seems as if it was thoughtfully picked out; nothing seems out of place. The imagery is also very vivid, as McEwan describes everything in such great detail. You learn a lot about these two characters in the first two characters. What is keeping me from reading, however, is not because I’m extremely interested, but instead because I want to know WHEN it will start getting interesting!

    What I really want to know is how Briony interacts with the rest of her family, particularly with her brother Leon. In class, we discussed that her infatuation with her brother seems almost eerie, but I don’t think that is the case at all. She explicitly just wishes that her brother be guided “away from his careless succession of girlfriends,” and to find a woman “who would persuade him to come back to the countryside” (4). This leads me to believe that Briony wants her brother close to her, as their relationship is probably one that is very strong- she looks up to her older brother and desires him to be by her side.

    Something else that is also intriguing and I would like to learn more about is the relationship between Robbie and Cecilia. (Yes, I want to know more about the romance!) What is going on between them and is something going to come out of it? I know for a fact that the book is going to address this, and when it does, I will most likely be hooked 100%! For now, however, I’m just patiently trudging along.