Atonement Summary

Ian McEwan


  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Atonement Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Atonement  by Ian McEwan.

Authored by Ian McEwan and published in 2001, Atonement is an award-winning fiction novel that spans the last two-thirds of the twentieth century. The multi-award-winning book was on the New York Times Bestsellers list for 7 weeks. Adapted for the screen, it won an Oscar and two Golden Globes. The English-born author/screenwriter is critically acclaimed with over a dozen novels and other works of fiction to his name, as well as a multitude of prestigious awards and fellowships.

At first, Atonement looks to be a coming of age story combining social discrimination with sexual misinterpretation, where an adolescent girl makes a tragic mistake for which she must atone. But by the end of the book, the story is flipped and the reader is left to ponder over what the story is actually about.

Atonement begins in 1935 with the main character, 13-year-old Briony Tallis, frantically trying to finish writing a play called The Trials of Arabella, which she hopes to present to her family later that evening when her twin cousins, Jackson and Pierrot, and their older sister, Lola, and Briony’s older brother, Leon, and his friend, Paul Marshall, are set to arrive at the Tallis family’s country estate. While Briony struggles to finish her script and cajole her cousins into taking part in the performance, Briony’s older sister Cecilia begins a budding romance with the housekeeper’s son, Robbie Turner.

Briony accidentally witnesses Robbie and Cecilia’s back and forth flirtations and misinterprets what is actually going on. In the young girl’s eyes, even though Robbie aspires to become a doctor, he still is considered to belong to the lower class, and therefore is unsuitable for anyone who has reached the status of a Tallis. Things get worse when Briony stumbles onto a sexually explicit letter that Robbie has written but throws away, never intending to mail it. Convinced that her sister’s health and reputation are at risk, Briony makes up her mind to break up their relationship before it’s too late.

At the Party that evening, Briony’s mother, Emily, decides that Briony’s play will not be performed. This causes the young twins to run away from the estate house. A search party is organized and everyone ventures out onto the grounds to look for the boys. During the search, Lola is attacked and raped. Briony is the only witness to the crime, and even though she could not make out the rapist’s face, she is convinced that it must have been Robbie Turner. Being the only witness, Briony’s word alone is enough for the police to arrest Robbie, and he is tried and convicted for the crime.

Part Two of the book takes place in France during WWII, as Robbie and two other British soldiers are trying to make their way to Dunkirk, where they hope to be evacuated. (After serving several years in prison, Robbie was given an opportunity to commute his sentence in return for service to his country during the war.) Now, badly wounded and separated from his unit, Robbie comes face to face with the horrors of war. This part ends with Robbie and his companions reaching the coast of Dunkirk just as Robbie passes out from his wounds.

In Part Three, we return to Briony Tallis. The war is still raging and Briony is now working as a nurse. We learn that several years ago, after seeing certain telltale scratches on Paul Marshall, Briony realized that it was Paul, her brother’s friend, and not Robbie who raped Lola. Paul and Lola have since married, and Briony decides to punish herself by giving up her life of money and entitlement to work for the war effort.

While going about her duties, Briony happens across one of the men that travelled to Dunkirk with Robbie and learns he has made it back alive. She goes at once to see her sister Cecilia to tell her the news. Upon arriving, she finds Cecilia and Robbie have already found one another. Briony tells them that she will go immediately to the authorities and sign any documents necessary to clear his name, but they tell her not to bother, as they want nothing more to do with her.  They send her away, but she vows she will do it anyway, then realizes it is too little, too late.

And this is where the story ends, except it doesn’t end here – for there is one more chapter. Up to this point, the story is told in third person omniscient, but in the last chapter it switches to Briony’s first person point of view. It is Briony’s seventy-seventh birthday, and she has just been informed that she has vascular dementia and will die within a year or two. It is at this point that Briony confesses she is actually the author of the book Atonement, which she has spent the last sixty years writing in an effort to right the wrong she did to Robbie and Cecilia. We learn that Robbie actually died in France, and Cecilia perished in a bombing raid during the war. We also learn that, because Lola will likely out-live her, and would almost certainly sue her if she published the truth about how her own husband raped her, it is unlikely that Briony will ever live to see the book in print.

This ending brings up many interesting questions about the nature of literature itself. We are lead to believe that the book Atonement is the work of Mr. McEwan, when actually it is the story about an author who writes a book called Atonement. So which is it? In the final chapter, Briony refers to other drafts of the book, which means there is no way to know what actually happened and what was made-up by Briony. And finally, we are faced with the irony that, because she will never see her work published, she may never find the atonement that she has spent her entire adult life seeking.