Friday, September 27, 2013

Contradiction and Complicity.

Contradiction and Complicity: The Nature of the Girl and her Atonement
By James Bezerra

Down below the epic historical sweep of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, below the tragedy of lovers separated and of dreams forever deferred, there lies a dark question of character and of human nature. Both
stereotypically and then - ultimately - with great humanity, McEwen explores, condemns, and finally forgives the flaws of human frailty through the exploration of the character of the Girl.

There is no one girl in the novel. In fact all of the characters play their girlish roles at some point (including
the men). However it is primarily through the lens of Briony that the Girl is explored in all of her strange, self-
justifying, contradictory glory. Though the narrative moves freely through time, Briony is a girl of thirteen for half the novel and she is both more and less than the typical girl. “She was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so” (4). Her sense of order and of nearly narcissistic knowingness manifests itself in her early prolific writings. It is not until decades later – far removed from girlhood – that Briony herself understands that her writing was a manifestation of the malevolence of her own character. Of the writer she says, “There is nothing outside of her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms” (350). Even in the atonement for her crime, there is still a hint of the self-servingly superior in her voice. Yet Briony’s Girl-ness is not the only way in which McEwen reflects on the contradictory nature of the human soul. Girlhood is often conflated with childhood and shown in contrast to adulthood. Specifically the Girl is
used here as the subject to create a more supple understanding and because within the plot (as in society when viewed by a girl) maleness is often paired with sexual aggressiveness. Therefore the subject of the Girl is one that is additionally under threat more so than that of the Boy. Boyhood, in fact, is largely mocked as a state of idle helplessness, as in the case of the twin boy cousins, “Jackson and Pierrot seemed typical eager little boys who would probably do as they were told” (10). The state of the Girl however, is much addressed and from many directions; “It was an awkward age in a girl” (88) reflects the tragically doomed Robbie as he watches Briony recede away from him into the night. The contradiction here being that even as he is completely unthreatened by the girl, she is about to be his undoing. Even Briony is aware of something changing in her own Girl nature as she witnesses what she believes to be some sort of sexually abusive game play out between Robbie and her sister Cecilia, “Briony had her first, weak intimation that for her now it could no longer be fairy-tale castles and princesses, but the strangeness of the here and now” (37). Is the Girl so delicate and mysterious, so mythically pixie-esque a thing that even she mourns the death of her own girlhood?

Not as such.

McEwan does not so much seek to define what a girl is, as use the Girl as a device. This lens offers the richness and vividness and fundamentally elusive indefiniteness of the Girl to explore his characters in all of their rage and sadness, their hypocrisy and folly without having to pass final judgment on them; after all, who would presume judge a girl? What is a girl if not one who is as yet incomplete and therefore not prepared for judgment?

Ultimately it is Briony’s lie about Robbie that shatters the lives of those around her and even alters the tone of the novel itself. The complex and damning nature of Atonement is not so much borne out of that lie, but out of the irreconcilable dilemma of whether or not a girl can be blamed for a foolish lie told out of a girlishly simplistic misunderstanding of the adult world.

Patriarchal society often seems to flirt with the notion of the Girl as innocence embodied and therefore beyond the scope of serious judgment by virtue of being so far beneath it. McEwan turns that concept on its head by imbuing girlhood with subtle power and using that power to prop up Briony’s lie. If we know girls to be innocence embodied, the thinking seems to be, then we know them to be incapable of telling such an adult lie. Here again is the contradiction of the Girl that reaches beyond simply duality: idealized by society for goodness and simplicity (because those must always exist in unison, apparently) yet capable – by virtue of that supposed innocence – of changing the course of adult lives irrevocably. Here one must reflect on the contradiction of the character of cousin Lola; “who saved herself from humiliation by falling in love, or persuading herself she had” (306). Attacked and raped, Lola had been victimized, but in eventually marrying her attacker she becomes complicit in her own victimization. To reflect on sister Cecilia is to find a haughty young woman who forges her own independence not for the sake of it, but out of a loving and bottomless devotion to Robbie, which could be seen as simply a different kind of dependence. Here one must reflect again on Briony, so certain and so headstrong even though her thirteen year old self already lamented that her “life had ceased to be simple” (114). This wavering between simplicity and complexity, this oh-so pious mourning of something not even completely lost, represents a sacrosanct sort of self-absorption. “Briony inhabited an ill-defined transitional space between the nursery and adult worlds which she crossed and recrossed unpredictably” (132). It was in that ill-defined transitional space where her lie was conceived and her crime committed.

Again though there is more contradiction because it was to that same space that she would return some
fifty-nine years later in order to atone for her lie. Without that girlishly contradictory and interstitial place within herself she would not have been able to both recognize what she had done – “she would never undo the damage. She was unforgivable.” (269) – and yet still seek a way to undo that unforgivable damage. Briony herself explains, “I like to think it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end” (351).

In this way the subject of the Girl is complicit in both the problem and the solution. She is both the alpha and the omega of Atonement, which is why McEwan’s narrative ultimately rescues even its own author, instead in favor of the aged dying Briony. She finds no problem being both character and writer. She finds no dilemma in herself, saying, “I still feel myself to be exactly the same person I’ve always been” (336). In this way it is only the Girl who is capable of committing the sin and atoning for it all on her own terms.

Works Cited

McEwan, Ian. Atonement. New York: Random House, 2002. Print

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