Crime and Atonement — A brief analysis of transgression and punishment in Ian McEwan’s Atonement


While perusing my old blog, I came across one of my very first book reviews, which happened to be about Atonement by Ian McEwan. I was fascinated by the immature and uncertain lines written by Past Ana. There is something wonderful about revisiting your younger self through the poor lines of a forgotten blog post, but I digress.

To celebrate the young Ana, here is Present Ana’s take on the book, analyzed this time through the crimes of its characters. And once again, I wonder what Future Ana will think of Present Ana's literary crimes.

Crime and Atonement — A brief analysis of transgression and punishment in Ian McEwan’s Atonement

The initial transgression in Atonement, although not a crime of morality, can be deemed a "foolish" mistake, as it is described in the book. However, what renders this mistake a wrongly punished crime is that it serves as the root or justification for many of the subsequent crimes that occur throughout the novel.

The moment when the mistake became a transgression can be found on page 94 of the novel, a brief interaction between Robbie and Briony:

‘I was wondering if you’d do me a favour,’ he said as he came up to her. She nodded and waited. ‘Will you run ahead and give this note to Cee?’ He put the envelope into her hand as he spoke, and she took it without a word. ‘I’ll be there in a few minutes,’ he started to say, but she had already turned and was running across the bridge. He leaned back against the parapet and took out a cigarette as he watched her bobbing and receding form fade into the dusk.

The letter was not intended for Briony's eyes, nor her sister's. It was destined to remain on Robbie's desk on that warm summer afternoon. However, Briony, in her naivety and inexperience, succumbed to temptation and opened the envelope. The words contained within had an extreme effect on the twelve-year-old, whose imagination proved to be a force of nature. Her gift for crafting narratives out of reality, combined with a tinge of jealousy, compelled the aspiring writer to commit yet another of the book's sins: a lie.

McEwan masterfully depicts the character of Briony, a young girl in the process of leaving her infancy behind and yearning for maturity. Despite the lack of discussion surrounding attraction and sexuality during the time period in which the novel is set, Briony becomes aware of these concepts and is drawn to them. Observing an interaction between Robbie and Cecilia, she misconstrues their disagreement as a sexual assault and becomes convinced that Robbie has been mistreating her sister. Briony's immaturity and inability to comprehend the situation did not prevent her from committing her first crime, a lie that would have far-reaching consequences.

The primary crime in the novel is committed by Paul Marshall, who is responsible for the abuse of Lolla Quincey. Despite her awareness of the true perpetrator, Briony Tallis falsely accuses Robbie of the crime in a vivid and passionate manner: "I saw him," she affirmed, "and was perfectly honest, as well as passionate." (McEwan 2001: 206). Ana-Karina Schneider, in her work Studies in the Rhetoric of Fiction, alludes to Briony's concerns regarding the consequences of her actions, stating that "When she realizes that the difference between the truthfulness of her conclusions and the factual truth will have severe consequences, she finds it impossible to explain her meaning." (Schneider 2015: 34) Briony worries that events are spiraling out of her control, and that her lie will have far-reaching consequences.

While Marshall's sexual crime against Lola and Briony's lie to the police are clear legal transgressions, all three characters are guilty of the crime of omission, as Briony reflects, "There was our crime... Lola's, Marshall's, and mine." (McEwan 2001: 476). Ironically, it is Robbie, who committed a mere foolish and thoughtless act, who is punished by the law, imprisoned, and sent to the front where he ultimately perishes. Marshall, the true criminal, is never brought to justice. Briony, while avoiding legal punishment, is left to grapple with her guilt and seek atonement through the happiness of Robbie and Cecilia, which she believes she has bestowed upon them. As she reflects in her elderly imagination, "There was a crime. But there were also the lovers." (McEwan 2001: 477).

Briony's act of atonement is achieved through her writing. She claims that her novel has given Robbie and Cecilia the happiness that she took away from them. Through its examination of these transgressions, Atonement raises questions about morality, justice, and the possibility of redemption.


McEwan, Ian. Atonement. Random House, 2002.

Schneider, Ana-Karina. Studies in the Rhetoric of Fiction. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015.


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