Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

The Absence of Atonement in Atonement

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

The Absence of Atonement in Atonement

Article excerpt

In Literature of the Global Age, Maurizio Ascari makes the following assertion regarding Ian McEwan's 2001 novel Atonement:

   McEwan offers us these pages as an act of faith in the redeeming
   power of words. By detaching themselves from reality, by turning
   into lying--as Wilde would say, in the sense of story or
   affabulation --words are capable of hurting, but also of healing.
   The possible worlds they create are perhaps devoid of substance,
   and yet they are so important in restating our love for life
   against the devastating force of cynicism and disillusion. (94)

Given the novel's title, one might very well expect there to be an element of redemption in the novel, as Ascari claims, achieved through "the power of words" or some other means, since atonement is usually concomitant with redemption. Such a reading is consonant with that of other critics who see McEwan's work as, in general, offering a profession of faith, whether in words or in some other human endeavor. Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate, for instance, see in McEwan a writer whose work is hopeful and consider him "the New Atheist novelist par excellence" (16). They write,

   For McEwan it may be that his own work represents a--fragile,
   skeptical, and always questioning--profession of faith in ... [the]
   possibility of secular transcendence: what fills the place of God
   in his own fictional world is, as he describes, "belief in family,
   love, scientific progress, and, most importantly, art," namely
   fiction itself. (16)

Bradley and Tate look to McEwan's 2003 novel Saturday as "a fragile profession of faith in the supernatural power of literature itself' (34).

These attempts at finding hope in McEwan's fiction are reasonable ventures, since they operate on the reasonable assumption that a fiction writer's work will, either explicitly or implicitly, serve as an expression of what he or she believes. And McEwan is candid in essays and interviews not only about what he rejects as false but also about where his faith ultimately lies. However, I believe that Atonement, his best known and most highly regarded novel, is striking not for the faith it presents to the reader but rather for the manner in which it obviates faith by cutting off all possible means of redemption. And pointing to itself as a failed act of atonement, it particularly addresses the impossibility of achieving redemption through art, even its own art, which ultimately proves itself powerless. I argue furthermore that this impossibility ultimately has something to do both with the novelist's function as God within the narrative and also with his orientation towards God.

That writers function as God in relation to their own works is a point that writers themselves have made for centuries. In his sixteenth-century "Apology for Poetry," Philip Sidney thought it not "too saucy a comparison to balance the highest point of man's wit with the efficacy of nature." Rather, he thought that it gave "right honor to the Heavenly Maker of that maker, who, having made man to His own likeness, set him beyond and over all the works of that second nature. Which in nothing he showeth so much as in poetry, when with the force of a divine breath he bringeth things forth far surpassing her doings" (Herman 65-66). And writers have, since Sidney, either not deemed the comparison too saucy or have liked it for its sauciness. Thus, they have employed the analogy in ways that suggest an almost universal applicability.

Writers of faith might seem most naturally suited to using it, as do Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of the Maker and J.R.R. Tolkein in his essay "On Fairy Stories" and the poem "Mythopoeia"; but romantics and transcendentalists such as Coleridge, Whitman, and Emerson have used it as well. (1) And realists and modernists have also used the analogy to explore the nature of their craft: Flaubert believed that "An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere" (Steegmuller 173). …

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