The Waiting Game: Medieval Allusions and the Lethal Nature of Passivity in Ian McEwan's Atonement

By Behrman, Mary | Studies in the Novel, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Waiting Game: Medieval Allusions and the Lethal Nature of Passivity in Ian McEwan's Atonement


Behrman, Mary, Studies in the Novel


In his seminal essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," T.S. Eliot claims that a writer's best work often occurs in places where "the dead poets, his [the writer's] ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously" (467). Novelist Ian McEwan certainly seems to subscribe to this view, for he imbues his works with references to the literary endeavors of his predecessors. McEwan's novel Saturday, for example, hinges on the recitation of Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach" (see Hillard), and in Atonement, McEwan creates a literary landscape haunted by the specters of famed characters from earlier fictional realms. Indeed, the intertextual quality of McEwan's novel about a young girl and the lifelong consequences of her terrible fabrication has fascinated critics of Atonement, particularly those who focus on the novel's first section. Brian Finney, for example, regards Atonement as "a rereading of the classic realist novel of the nineteenth century, just as it is a displacement of the modernist novel, particularly as instanced in the fiction of Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence" (73). Similarly, both Earl G. Ingersoll (249) and Maria Margaronis (142) note the author's indebtedness in the opening section of his novel to the country-house tradition, while Pilar Hidalgo stresses Part One's connection to works ranging from Austen's Northanger Abbey and James's What Maisie Knew to Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (84).

McEwan does not limit himself just to mining the works of his nineteenth- and twentieth-century predecessors for literary inspiration, however, for he also plumbs the literary productions of an era much more remote: the Middle Ages. The novelist peppers Atonement with references to storied medieval characters found in Chaucer's oeuvre and in Arthurian Romance, such as Troilus and Criseyde, Griselda, and Tristan and Isolde (McEwan 192). Additionally, McEwan subtly evokes King Arthur by having Briony, the youngest member of the self-involved Tallis family, mimic the legendary Briton in her desire to wait for a pre-dinner miracle (72).

However, unlike his allusions to more modern texts, McEwan's medieval references have received little critical attention. Those who analyze McEwan's intertextual habits seem interested primarily in determining Atonement's relationship with other novels. For critics consumed with the work's status as a novel, medieval narratives simply belong to the "wrong genre" (McEwan 42) and, therefore, do not warrant too much attention. Although Finney, for instance, does mention briefly the hero Robbie's transformation into a Petrarchan lover following his fraught encounter at the fountain with his benefactor's daughter, Cecilia (Finney 78), the critic concentrates predominately on the ways in which Atonement offers a trenchant critique of the realist novel, particularly its method of cloaking its status as fiction (73). Alistair Cormack takes issue with Finney, but Cormack too focuses on Atonement's position to other novels, claiming that, far from criticizing realism as Finney contends, McEwan's novel represents a "return to the heart of the 'Great Tradition' of English novelists" (79). Richard Pedot concentrates on Atonement's "conversation with modernism" (155) as opposed to realism, but he looks solely at modernist novels in his analysis, neglecting the potential influence of modernist poets like T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, poets to whom McEwan alludes in his story's pivotal chapter (McEwan 77). (1) Thus, like medieval writers, modernist poets, who, significantly, often hearken back to the medieval, find themselves--and their literary productions--relegated to the sidelines in analyses of McEwan's text.

Bringing works from other genres and, hence, other eras off the bench, however, enables critics to develop new ways in which to tackle McEwan's dense tale. As Finney notes, "once a text establishes its interdependence on other texts, its signification proliferates" (73).

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