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Analysis of the opening chapter of 'Atonement'

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Atonement -The Opening Chapter As stated by Geoff Dyer the opening of Ian McEwan's Atonement "is almost perversely ungripping..." Set to inform rather than attract the reader, the first chapter of the novel is seemingly boring and pointless, on first inspection. However on deeper analysis the opening is found to be effective in setting up the rest of the novel, and foreshadowing the tragic events that occur as a result of the crime committed on that hot summers day. The focus of the opening chapter is to explore and describe the novels main character, Briony, and the aspects of her personality that lead to the novels conflict and heartbreak. This chapter also introduces many of the novels other main characters and relates them to the novels key concerns. The most important function of the opening chapter is to explore the character of Briony. From the opening sentence of the novel Briony is established as an imaginative and idealistic young girl, whose dedication to writing is lightly humoured by McEwan "the play was written in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch." The seriousness Briony sees in missing a "breakfast and a lunch" highlights a girlish innocence and naivety, which evidently fades as the novel progresses, and Briony's views on life change. ...read more.


bind the chapters with a piece of string, paint or draw on the cover, and take the finished work to show her mother." Briony's maturity in resolving "all fates" is contradicted by the child-like idea of painting "on the cover" and showing her mother her finished piece of work. This highlights the opening of the novel as a turning point for Briony in which she is beginning to experience the adult world, as her mother recognises "ah, that hot smooth little body she remembered from its infancy, and still not gone from her, not quiet yet." The arrival of her fifteen year-old cousin, Lola, furthers Briony's transition into adulthood, as Lola's sophisticated and mature appearance gives "Briony a constricting sensation around her sternum." This is symbolic of the maturity in which Briony wishes she has, the maturity to take control of situations like Lola controls the twins, and the maturity to be treated as and look like an adult. Briony feels patronised by "Cecilia's enthusiasm" which she sees "tainted with condescension" and victimised by "the advance of Lola's dominion." It is here, however, in the midst of her longing to become an adult that Briony slips back into her child-like self-pity and fantasises "to run away, eat berries ... ...read more.


This is reflected in the opening chapter when McEwan talks of her criticising "the impulsive behaviour of her younger sister and lament the situation of her three children" it is through this that she expresses her views on the ideal family being free of conflict when she states the children can stay "provided, the parents ... kept their quarrels away from the house." However Emily is so preoccupied with her illness and having her house appear normal that she does not take the time to properly acknowledge Briony. The exception being when she reads Briony's stories/plays, for which Briony is "the project's highest point of fulfilment." It is this longing and love of attention from her family that spurs Briony's passion for storytelling and fantasies and ultimately leads to the conflict that occurs in the chapters that follow. Geoff Dyers comment that "the opening is almost perversely ungripping..." is true of the first chapter of Atonement, to an extent. Though the opening appears dull and unlike the expected introduction of a novel, it is, upon closer analysis and effective way of setting up the rest of the novel. Particularly through its exploration of the main character, Briony and her connection to the other characters and the novels key concerns. ?? ?? ?? ?? [Type text] [Type text] [Type text] ...read more.

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Response to the question

This essay responds to the question strongly. I know it may seem colloquial to say that the opening to "the novel is seemingly boring and pointless" but I understand exactly why this essay has included this. It has enabled the ...

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Response to the question

This essay responds to the question strongly. I know it may seem colloquial to say that the opening to "the novel is seemingly boring and pointless" but I understand exactly why this essay has included this. It has enabled the argument to discuss how the opening offers an insight into the personality and narrative style of Briony, which has a great significance in the context of the novel. I feel that the novel's genre and form should've been discussed here. It can be seen that McEwan rejects the conventions of a gripping opening to emphasise his vision of literary creation. At A-Level, it is key that you are considering how McEwan shapes the story through techniques, and this essay does it well. Sentences such as "The most important function of the opening chapter is to explore the character of Briony" enable the examiner to see you have this understanding.

Level of analysis

The analysis here is strong. Techniques are explained fluently, and sentences such as "The seriousness Briony sees in missing a “breakfast and a lunch” highlights a girlish innocence and naivety" show the ability to draw upon meanings rather than simply retell the plot. At A-Level, you will gain very little credit for having numerous quotes and showing knowledge of the novel unless you are making relevant analytical comments to the question. This essay sometimes does this, for example saying "Her fantasies allow her to create any world she wants". I find if you change your style to say "McEwan constructs Briony's fantasies to show the reader she can create any world she wants" then you will naturally analyse the situation rather than just retell it. The "Trials of Arabella" become important in explaining the rest of the novel, and I feel this essay could've expanded on its points further. I think this essay could've been slightly more clinical when looking at techniques. I would be discussing the use of setting in the first chapter, looking how Briony's ordered bedroom shows her taste for the miniature, exploring how she yearns for control, similar to the "Trials of Arabella". Examiners will be looking for analysis of language, form and structure, so it's important you look at a variety of techniques. I like how this essay focuses on a critical argument from Geoff Dyer, but it would've been more sophisticated to include a few alternative interpretations of the opening, and then evaluate why they are weaker based on the candidates analysis and evidence.

Quality of writing

The essay has a good structure. The introduction is concise and including a critical quotation is often a brilliant way to pose a convincing argument. But, the conclusion adds little and mostly repeats what is said in the introduction. It is key that the conclusion is used for a final insight and a strong justified judgement, possibly arguing the extent to which the opening is effective, or how far the reader is able to detect the metafiction from the introduction. Such perceptive comments will gain credit, but a bland conclusion adds nothing. I liked how the essay talks of "in addition to the above" showing their ability to progress through an argument and weave together points. The opening sentence of each paragraph is good, focusing on a technique clearly. But the last sentences seem tenuous with regards to the argument, and focus on Briony in the plot rather than the effect of the opening to the novel's reception. Examiners will be looking for a sustained discussion, and often this essay can lose this slightly. Spelling, punctuation and grammar are fine.

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Reviewed by groat 22/04/2012

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