Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The Impression of a Deeper Darkness: Ian McEwan's Atonement

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The Impression of a Deeper Darkness: Ian McEwan's Atonement

Article excerpt

   Knowledge which goes so far as to accept horror in order to know
   it, reveals the inner horror of knowledge, its squalor, the discrete
   complicity which maintains it in a relation with the most
   insupportable aspects of power. I think of that young prisoner of
   Auschwitz (he had suffered the worst, led his family to the
   crematorium, hanged himself; after being saved at the last
   moment--how can one say that: saved?).

   Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster

OPENING IN 1935 AGAINST THE LOOMING BACKGROUND of World War II, Ian McEwan's novel Atonement (2001) centres on the guilt felt by the protagonist, Briony Tallis, for the consequences of her erroneous accusation that Robbie, her sister's new boyfriend, molested their young cousin Lola. The novel is a meditation on the act of testimony, beginning with Briony's initial accusation and extending ever outwards as, over the following years, she begins to rethink the reliability of her position as a witness. Each new chapter forces the reader to revise his or her understanding of what was revealed earlier, sowing seeds of doubt that make the text blossom into a set of irreconcilable uncertainties. James Harold writes that Atonement "reveals that narrative imagining is not static or unified, but dynamic and multi-polar," as it skilfully manipulates the imprecision of language by playing with the complicated link between knowledge and ethics (130). While the novel demonstrates the potentially tragic results of hasty judgment, its increasing ambiguity self-reflexively turns this logic of shame back onto the reader, so that the book's conclusion leaves us, as witnesses, to ponder our own ability to testify about the story that Briony has just described.

At the centre of the book's narrative is a secret, an obscured truth, which McEwan uses to lure the reader into the story. Like Briony, the reader is pushed toward a moral judgment by this act of concealment, even though the information necessary to make an ethically informed decision is withheld. Each secret contains two possible destinies, writes Maurice Blanchot, "the stratagem of the secret is either to show itself, to make itself so visible that it isn't seen (to disappear, that is, as a secret), or to hint that the secret is only secret where there is no secret, or no appearance of any secret" (137). The crucial quality of a secret, in other words, lies in its form rather than its content, making the source of its attraction entirely negative. The paradoxical result is that the positive content at the heart of the secret, the evidence that can be gathered and analyzed, is effectively sidelined by the act of obscuration that frames it.

McEwan's awareness of this paradox is evidenced by his symbolic exploration of the empty, purely formal secret. In the novel's first chapter, for instance, the reader is told that Briony's fascination with storytelling is rooted in her "passion for secrets" (McEwan 5). All of Briony's passions--her storytelling, her love of secrets, her penchant for miniaturization--stem from an obsession with order, in both a moral and a physical sense. Her secrets are made up of things she has literally sanctified from the everyday objects of her life:

   [I]n a prized varnished cabinet, a secret drawer was opened
   by pushing against the grain of a cleverly turned dovetail joint,
   and here she kept a diary locked by a clasp, and a notebook
   written in a code of her own invention.[...] An old tin petty
   cash box was hidden under a removable floorboard beneath
   her bed. In the box were treasures that dated back four years,
   to her ninth birthday when she began collecting: a mutant
   double acorn, fool's gold, a rainmaking spell bought at a funfair,
   a squirrel's skull as light as a leaf. (5)

Briony's treasures possess a symbolic value: each provides the promise of something greater, a promise that is cancelled by its own formal status. …

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