Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Purloined Letters in Ian McEwan's Atonement

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Purloined Letters in Ian McEwan's Atonement

Article excerpt

In Ian McEwan's Atonement, letters function as a key plot device. Reflecting on his awkward behaviour around Cecilia Tallis, Robbie Turner realizes that he is in love with her. He drafts a letter to Cecilia to explain his awkwardness in which he impulsively adds his true feelings: "In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt. In my thoughts I make love to you all day long" (86). Robbie writes a courteous message in longhand, but accidentally puts the frank draft in the envelope. He gives his epistle to Briony, Cecilia's teenage sister, to deliver. Briony secretly reads the note and is shocked. The same evening the Tallis family discovers other startling information in a letter: their visiting twin cousins have run away. During the search the twins' adolescent sister, Lola, is raped. Briony is convinced that Robbie's letter proves that he is the rapist. Her statement is decisive in sentencing Robbie to prison, even though he is innocent.

Numerous other letters shape the plot of this novel. During his imprisonment Robbie keeps up his relationship with Cecilia by means of correspondence. Later, the grown-up Briony understands that she misinterpreted Robbie's note. She writes to Cecilia expressing her wish to be reconciled. At the same time Briony receives two letters that help her decide what she should do to atone for her crime. Lastly, during a confrontation Briony promises Robbie to write letters that will clear his name, but she never does. These promised but unwritten letters are as important as the actual letters, for they reveal how Briony understands the act of atonement. Her idea of atonement is grounded in her understanding of what being an author means. Thus the novel compares communication between its characters with communication between authors and readers.

Critics have noticed that Atonement refers to a specific intertext, namely, E.A. Poe's "The Purloined Letter." (1) They also perceive its use of motifs familiar from classical detective stories. The Tallis estate is the scene of a crime in which the detective looks for the criminal among a closed circle of suspects. In the first part of the novel there are suggestions that a crime will be committed, placing readers in the position of armchair detectives by inviting them to wonder what crime will be committed and by whom. Briony assumes the role of detective, although she concedes that she is among the transgressors (156). Readers learn early on of Briony's wrongdoing but the epilogue has a surprise in store, just as does the ending of a detective story. The thirteen-year-old Briony, who is an aspiring writer, understands the detective's role as dealing with the secrets of the human heart (40). She pictures herself as a detective of humanity. She is piqued about the problem of other minds: what can one know about another person's consciousness? How can one imagine someone else's mind given the limitations of one's own mind (36-37)? Briony's understanding of the detective's method reinforces the links Atonement shares with "The Purloined Letter," for the ability to imagine the workings of another mind is essential for Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, and this theme forms a focal point of his story.

In light of the identification of "The Purloined Letter" as an intertext, it is surprising that the functions letters serve in Atonement have not yet been probed. This essay argues that reading these two texts together provides a key to the ethical issues raised by this novel: guilt, taking responsibility for one's actions, and atonement. In contemporary criticism, "The Purloined Letter" has become inextricable from Jacques Lacan's "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter.'" Thus, it is not surprising that Brian Finney mentions Lacan while discussing Briony's theft (79). I examine the itinerary of this letter as well as other missives in the novel by placing my analysis in this well-known psychoanalytical context. This choice is grounded in the richness of Lacan's observations, which enable the study of the letter's circulation as a concrete event with tangible consequences and as a signifier of unconscious desire. …

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