Theme Of Forgiveness In Atonement English Literature Essay

1803 words (7 pages) Essay

1st Jan 1970 English Literature Reference this

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“To sin is human; to forgive, divine.” Alexander Pope’s infamous words on forgiveness say a lot: everybody makes mistakes, we all sin, we all do hurtful things to one another, and most eventually will seek forgiveness. In the second half of his quote however, Pope makes it clear that forgiveness for our sins is much more difficult to attain than the act itself was to commit. Despite the difficulty, many still wish to be forgiven and to have the ability to make up for their wrongful actions. Ian McEwan explores this aspect of human nature in his novel Atonement. In Atonement, McEwan uses images of water as cleansing to explore a tension rooted in the idea of atonement: Are we really able to atone for our sins? Or will the lasting consequences make atonement impossible? In looking at two main characters of Atonement, McEwan argues that no, atonement is not possible.

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Water imagery is used by McEwan throughout the novel. Many scenes that are vital to the plot involve water, like at the fountain and Lola’s rape, which happens next to a lake. Robbie and the rest of the soldiers are traveling to get to the seaside at Dunkirk. Often, images of water represent cleansing; a character washing himself or herself to attain cleanliness. Robbie and Briony, vital characters to the novel, are most often associated with images of water. Additionally, these are the two characters that might have the most for which to atone; Robbie deals with having to leave Cecilia and being the reason for her cutting ties with her family, while Briony seeks forgiveness and retribution for her false accusation of Robbie in Lola’s rape. Consequently, images of water as cleansing or the act of cleansing with water are often associated with Briony and Robbie. In part three, for example, Briony becomes a nurse. She washes her hands extensively, sanitizes the hospital, and cleans the wounds of injured patients. Robbie also desires water, but in other ways. When he and his team are heading towards Dunkirk in the retreat, he is not only constantly thirsty with very limited access to water, but also uses water as a cleansing device. After he takes shelter from a bomb in a dirt field, he attempts to wash the grime out of his mouth with water. He also attempts to sanitize and clean his wound. Water is a constant and important presence through the entire plot of Atonement.

Water is used in Atonement to symbolize atonement or obtaining forgiveness for one’s actions. It connotes freshness, purity, and clean newness, much like forgiveness does. The OED defines atonement as “The condition of being at one with others; unity of feeling, harmony, concord, agreement” (OED, “atonement”, n). This also supports the idea of atonement being like water. We as humans are at one with water; it is within us, around us, in the air, and vital to our life. Atonement is also vital because most seek forgiveness for wrong that they’ve done. From this we can draw the conclusion that it is associated with atonement. Briony and Robbie are the two main characters that have sins they must atone for, and McEwan uses water imagery involved with them throughout the novel. Clearly, water is something that is vital to life, and it is seen as desirable in Atonement: in part two, Robbie is perpetually thirsty and seeking out water, and Briony in part three uses it to wash her hands very often. The importance of atonement is also seen in the title – if the novel is called Atonement, it is an important theme. Atonement, like water, is generally seen as desirable because people always want to be forgiven for their sins and to repent for their actions.

Cleansing images involving water often follow a situation during which a character does something sinful, supporting the idea of water being cleansing substance in Atonement. Water can be seen as cleansing both in a moral sense and a more tangible sense. Cleansing in the sense of morality is connected to atonement. Briony has perhaps the biggest guilt to atone for, having accused Robbie of rape when she knew he was innocent. Therefore, when she washes her “cracked and bleeding chilblained hands under freezing water,” she may be trying to wash herself of the guilt she holds because of her sin. Her attempts at cleansing aren’t working – her constant handwashing, “a dozen times a day”, only leaves her hands chapped and bloody. The healing she desires from the cleansing is impossible and her hands remain cracked. Similarly, the cracked foundation she caused in her sister and Robbie’s life and relationship together remain as well. At the hospital, Briony attempts to cleanse and heal others as a nurse. She cleans and dresses the wounds of soldiers and brings them water to drink. Because Robbie is a soldier himself, it begs the question as to whether Briony is serving the wounded soldiers water and cleaning their wounds in an attempt to atone for her sins. Her shame brings her to this career as a nurse where she takes care of soldiers, perhaps representing her wish to help Robbie. Additionally, Briony and her fellow nurses are often shown cleaning the hospital equipment in a nearly obsessive manner: “The everyday practice of boiling, scrubbing, buffing, and wiping became the badge of the students’ professional pride.” This constant washing, a source of pride, perhaps will distract herself from her guilt; she is attempting to wash away her guilt with water. Furthermore, her chosen career could be interpreted as self-given punishment. Life on the ward is a strict and difficult one – now she is the one taking orders and serving others, which is a stark contrast to her previous life. Part of the reason younger Briony was so dislikeable was due to her controlling and selfish attitude. The stories she created were all about her and she used and directed others to play into those stories. The way she uses water to clean both herself and others represents that she is seeking atonement and wants desperately for her sins to be forgiven.

Robbie’s water cleansing also represents his desire for forgiveness and to atone for his sins. He attempts to use water to clean, disinfect, and hopefully heal the wound he received in battle; he washes away the crusty blood, not only to clean the area, but to wash away the blood that reminds him of the violence he’s been through. Even when he doesn’t have any water, McEwan still associates water with Robbie’s cleansing: “[Robbie] sat and thought about water and tried to clean his tongue against his sleeve”,after running for cover from a dropped shell and leaving behind a woman who, too paralyzed with fear, refused to get cover for her and her young son. Soon after, he discovers that they died when he saw only a charred hole where they had been before. When he finally finds water later, he realizes he shouldn’t waste any that could be quenching his thirst by rinsing his mouth and drank the dirt with the murky water, perhaps to cleanse himself of the horror of what he’d just seen. Later, Robbie uses water to wash his face, “changing the water to rusty brown”. In this passage, McEwan is making it clear that Robbie was successful at washing his face, since the dirt is no longer on his face, it’s in the water. Perhaps he has successfully achieved atonement.

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Although our characters attempt to use water as a cleansing device, water is not actually utilized well for cleansing in the novel Atonement. Briony attempts over and over to wash away her sins, as shown in her perpetual hand washing, but they aren’t ever clean enough because she can never stop washing them. Her attempts to atone for her sins aren’t effective, as she never truly washes her hands of her guilt and the damage she has inflicted on other people, like Robbie and her sister. Evidence of this is visible in her chapped and chilblained hands, a painful representation of her sin. Although Robbie’s cleansing attempts might be more successful than Briony’s, he too is unable to wipe away his actions and their repercussions. Although he is able to wash the dirt from his face, it lingers in the water, turning it brown and turbid. We know that the cleansing of his wound failed, as he died from the resulting infection. However, McEwan writes, “When he was done he felt a pleasing lightness in the air around him which slipped silkily over his skin and through his nostrils” (226).

McEwan argues that no matter how desperately someone wishes to atone for their actions, their attempts at atonement are futile and true atonement is not possible. Water, like change, is an ever-present substance in our lives. A person’s actions and the subsequent effects remain forever, seen in evidence that water doesn’t always truly cleanse. Although atonement is desirable, it’s not realistic. When Robbie washes his face and dirties the water, it represents that his sins and mistakes will always be with him. Although they are gone from his face, they won’t truly go away. He cannot change the past, but only move forward. Likewise, Briony cannot change her past either, as much as she wishes she could take back the terrible thing she did. Her desperate want for atonement is shown in her job as a nurse where she must serve others and help wounded soldiers, but this still does not make up for the past; she cannot achieve atonement. This is can be seen as she washes her hands extensively to no avail, they are never truly clean. Similarly, she cannot make her past truly clean because her sins will always be there, as will her memories of the terrible things she has seen in the hospital. We only have to look at her raw and chapped hands as a reminder that her sins, memories, and past are all still with her. Her sins remain with her and cannot be healed.

Even if we cannot change the past and cannot truly achieve atonement, as seen in Ian McEwan’s Atonement through images of water, that doesn’t mean that we cannot change our actions in the future. A few words from Paul Boese illustrate this well: “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” It is impossible to achieve atonement and change the past, but we can move forward. We see this also in Atonement – although Robbie was not given the change to move forward with his future, Briony told the story of her wrongdoings in a novel for millions to read. The story Atonement serves as a lesson for the future not to repeat mistakes that cannot be reversed even if true atonement cannot be achieved.

“To sin is human; to forgive, divine.” Alexander Pope’s infamous words on forgiveness say a lot: everybody makes mistakes, we all sin, we all do hurtful things to one another, and most eventually will seek forgiveness. In the second half of his quote however, Pope makes it clear that forgiveness for our sins is much more difficult to attain than the act itself was to commit. Despite the difficulty, many still wish to be forgiven and to have the ability to make up for their wrongful actions. Ian McEwan explores this aspect of human nature in his novel Atonement. In Atonement, McEwan uses images of water as cleansing to explore a tension rooted in the idea of atonement: Are we really able to atone for our sins? Or will the lasting consequences make atonement impossible? In looking at two main characters of Atonement, McEwan argues that no, atonement is not possible.

Water imagery is used by McEwan throughout the novel. Many scenes that are vital to the plot involve water, like at the fountain and Lola’s rape, which happens next to a lake. Robbie and the rest of the soldiers are traveling to get to the seaside at Dunkirk. Often, images of water represent cleansing; a character washing himself or herself to attain cleanliness. Robbie and Briony, vital characters to the novel, are most often associated with images of water. Additionally, these are the two characters that might have the most for which to atone; Robbie deals with having to leave Cecilia and being the reason for her cutting ties with her family, while Briony seeks forgiveness and retribution for her false accusation of Robbie in Lola’s rape. Consequently, images of water as cleansing or the act of cleansing with water are often associated with Briony and Robbie. In part three, for example, Briony becomes a nurse. She washes her hands extensively, sanitizes the hospital, and cleans the wounds of injured patients. Robbie also desires water, but in other ways. When he and his team are heading towards Dunkirk in the retreat, he is not only constantly thirsty with very limited access to water, but also uses water as a cleansing device. After he takes shelter from a bomb in a dirt field, he attempts to wash the grime out of his mouth with water. He also attempts to sanitize and clean his wound. Water is a constant and important presence through the entire plot of Atonement.

Water is used in Atonement to symbolize atonement or obtaining forgiveness for one’s actions. It connotes freshness, purity, and clean newness, much like forgiveness does. The OED defines atonement as “The condition of being at one with others; unity of feeling, harmony, concord, agreement” (OED, “atonement”, n). This also supports the idea of atonement being like water. We as humans are at one with water; it is within us, around us, in the air, and vital to our life. Atonement is also vital because most seek forgiveness for wrong that they’ve done. From this we can draw the conclusion that it is associated with atonement. Briony and Robbie are the two main characters that have sins they must atone for, and McEwan uses water imagery involved with them throughout the novel. Clearly, water is something that is vital to life, and it is seen as desirable in Atonement: in part two, Robbie is perpetually thirsty and seeking out water, and Briony in part three uses it to wash her hands very often. The importance of atonement is also seen in the title – if the novel is called Atonement, it is an important theme. Atonement, like water, is generally seen as desirable because people always want to be forgiven for their sins and to repent for their actions.

Cleansing images involving water often follow a situation during which a character does something sinful, supporting the idea of water being cleansing substance in Atonement. Water can be seen as cleansing both in a moral sense and a more tangible sense. Cleansing in the sense of morality is connected to atonement. Briony has perhaps the biggest guilt to atone for, having accused Robbie of rape when she knew he was innocent. Therefore, when she washes her “cracked and bleeding chilblained hands under freezing water,” she may be trying to wash herself of the guilt she holds because of her sin. Her attempts at cleansing aren’t working – her constant handwashing, “a dozen times a day”, only leaves her hands chapped and bloody. The healing she desires from the cleansing is impossible and her hands remain cracked. Similarly, the cracked foundation she caused in her sister and Robbie’s life and relationship together remain as well. At the hospital, Briony attempts to cleanse and heal others as a nurse. She cleans and dresses the wounds of soldiers and brings them water to drink. Because Robbie is a soldier himself, it begs the question as to whether Briony is serving the wounded soldiers water and cleaning their wounds in an attempt to atone for her sins. Her shame brings her to this career as a nurse where she takes care of soldiers, perhaps representing her wish to help Robbie. Additionally, Briony and her fellow nurses are often shown cleaning the hospital equipment in a nearly obsessive manner: “The everyday practice of boiling, scrubbing, buffing, and wiping became the badge of the students’ professional pride.” This constant washing, a source of pride, perhaps will distract herself from her guilt; she is attempting to wash away her guilt with water. Furthermore, her chosen career could be interpreted as self-given punishment. Life on the ward is a strict and difficult one – now she is the one taking orders and serving others, which is a stark contrast to her previous life. Part of the reason younger Briony was so dislikeable was due to her controlling and selfish attitude. The stories she created were all about her and she used and directed others to play into those stories. The way she uses water to clean both herself and others represents that she is seeking atonement and wants desperately for her sins to be forgiven.

Robbie’s water cleansing also represents his desire for forgiveness and to atone for his sins. He attempts to use water to clean, disinfect, and hopefully heal the wound he received in battle; he washes away the crusty blood, not only to clean the area, but to wash away the blood that reminds him of the violence he’s been through. Even when he doesn’t have any water, McEwan still associates water with Robbie’s cleansing: “[Robbie] sat and thought about water and tried to clean his tongue against his sleeve”,after running for cover from a dropped shell and leaving behind a woman who, too paralyzed with fear, refused to get cover for her and her young son. Soon after, he discovers that they died when he saw only a charred hole where they had been before. When he finally finds water later, he realizes he shouldn’t waste any that could be quenching his thirst by rinsing his mouth and drank the dirt with the murky water, perhaps to cleanse himself of the horror of what he’d just seen. Later, Robbie uses water to wash his face, “changing the water to rusty brown”. In this passage, McEwan is making it clear that Robbie was successful at washing his face, since the dirt is no longer on his face, it’s in the water. Perhaps he has successfully achieved atonement.

Although our characters attempt to use water as a cleansing device, water is not actually utilized well for cleansing in the novel Atonement. Briony attempts over and over to wash away her sins, as shown in her perpetual hand washing, but they aren’t ever clean enough because she can never stop washing them. Her attempts to atone for her sins aren’t effective, as she never truly washes her hands of her guilt and the damage she has inflicted on other people, like Robbie and her sister. Evidence of this is visible in her chapped and chilblained hands, a painful representation of her sin. Although Robbie’s cleansing attempts might be more successful than Briony’s, he too is unable to wipe away his actions and their repercussions. Although he is able to wash the dirt from his face, it lingers in the water, turning it brown and turbid. We know that the cleansing of his wound failed, as he died from the resulting infection. However, McEwan writes, “When he was done he felt a pleasing lightness in the air around him which slipped silkily over his skin and through his nostrils” (226).

McEwan argues that no matter how desperately someone wishes to atone for their actions, their attempts at atonement are futile and true atonement is not possible. Water, like change, is an ever-present substance in our lives. A person’s actions and the subsequent effects remain forever, seen in evidence that water doesn’t always truly cleanse. Although atonement is desirable, it’s not realistic. When Robbie washes his face and dirties the water, it represents that his sins and mistakes will always be with him. Although they are gone from his face, they won’t truly go away. He cannot change the past, but only move forward. Likewise, Briony cannot change her past either, as much as she wishes she could take back the terrible thing she did. Her desperate want for atonement is shown in her job as a nurse where she must serve others and help wounded soldiers, but this still does not make up for the past; she cannot achieve atonement. This is can be seen as she washes her hands extensively to no avail, they are never truly clean. Similarly, she cannot make her past truly clean because her sins will always be there, as will her memories of the terrible things she has seen in the hospital. We only have to look at her raw and chapped hands as a reminder that her sins, memories, and past are all still with her. Her sins remain with her and cannot be healed.

Even if we cannot change the past and cannot truly achieve atonement, as seen in Ian McEwan’s Atonement through images of water, that doesn’t mean that we cannot change our actions in the future. A few words from Paul Boese illustrate this well: “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” It is impossible to achieve atonement and change the past, but we can move forward. We see this also in Atonement – although Robbie was not given the change to move forward with his future, Briony told the story of her wrongdoings in a novel for millions to read. The story Atonement serves as a lesson for the future not to repeat mistakes that cannot be reversed even if true atonement cannot be achieved.

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