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English Literature - Atonement (Essay 2)

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"Atonement offers us no heroes and no villains- only victims" How far, and in what ways, does your reading of Atonement lead you to agree with this view? Atonement conveys a dichotomous message. Ian McEwan - the reality, the tangible author - is supplemented by a deeper layer; his construct - the potentially unreliable narrator - Briony Tallis. Essentially, branding any of the enigmatic individuals offered to us in Atonement as 'heroes' and 'villains' is impossible - and indeed unjust - simply because of the sheer amount of ambiguity and subjectivity involved - "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so"1. The select tendencies these individuals relay on the other hand is another matter; the notion of 'victimhood' must imply some malicious behaviour beforehand. Taking 'villainy', the Concise Oxford Dictionary, necessarily - though feebly - lists it as a derivative of 'villain'; alluding to it as an individual's moral essence. The Collins Dictionary, on the other hand, defines it as a "vicious behaviour or action"2, supporting the notion that select 'behaviour' and themes are the 'heroes' and 'villains' of the novel. For example, on the surface Briony is a 'villain' whose actions merely generate destruction and deprivation. Yet, the Observer gives the view that "the personal story - especially Briony's childhood 'failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as ...read more.


The imagery McEwan uses to progressively build an ominous aura during the day of Part One is fascinating, specifically the prolepsis of Emily's migraines - she felt "held at knife point"7 by her "animal tormentor"8, evoking the image of a violent attack. In Part Two, again, McEwan compounds the horrific results of Briony's actions with reference to "a vanished boy. Vanished."9, explicitly linking to the idea of Briony causing deprivation and irreparable damage - repetition and the use of a minor sentence illustrating McEwan's intentional focus on this particular aspect of Briony's 'crime'. Also worth noting is the juxtaposed effect that the war has on Briony; "she understood how the war might compound her crime"10 which - despite positively encouraging her idea for atonement - victimises her through regret. In this case, the war in itself can be interpreted as an oblique 'villain', an obstacle that Robbie must weave through - to persevere - in turn inflating determination's role as a 'heroic' trait. McEwan also, to an extent, portrays Briony's atonement as a 'saviour', he himself claiming that "when this novel is published [after her death . . .] these two lovers will survive to love"11. It supplements "their love. Neither Briony nor the war had destroyed it"12, proposing that ultimately, Briony's regret - her victimhood - as a response to her 'villainous' flaws, has given Robbie and Cecilia their life back. ...read more.


- had previously set in motion Atonement's spiteful events. McEwan's 'revelation' makes the reader consider how a narrator can let their own contempt for a character ruin a novel's clarity. Ultimately, because the reader is unable to pin a definite answer this, one can assume that McEwan's prime motive is to bring the reader's attention to those 'heroic' and 'villainous' tendencies that all humans must try respectively to prioritise and avoid; not individuals. 1 Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2 2 Collins Dictionary and Thesaurus: Two books in one, 2000 3 Hermione Lee, The Observer, 23 September 2001 4 Atonement p. 47 5 Atonement p. 7 6 Atonement p. 58 7 Atonement p. 64 8 Atonement p. 69 9 Atonement p. 202 10 Atonement p. 288 11 Ian McEwan, Silverblatt interview 12 Atonement p. 349 13 Brian Finney, Briony's Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan's Atonement, 2002 14 Brian Finney, Briony's Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan's Atonement, 2002 15 Atonement p. 157 16 Atonement p. 165 17 Frank Kermode, Point of View, 4 October 2001 18 Atonement p. 10 19 Atonement p. 212 20 Atonement p. 213 21 Atonement p. 157 22 Atonement p. 231 23 Atonement p. 371 24 Brian Finney, Briony's Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan's Atonement, 2002 25 Atonement p. 209 26 Atonement p. 209 27 Atonement, p. 114 ?? ?? ?? ?? 1,507 words, candidate number 5635 1 ...read more.

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4 star(s)

Response to the question

This essay responds strongly to the task. I was particularly impressed with the way the introduction engages with the quote. This question is a perfect example of the necessity to pick apart the connotations and definitions of key words to ...

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Response to the question

This essay responds strongly to the task. I was particularly impressed with the way the introduction engages with the quote. This question is a perfect example of the necessity to pick apart the connotations and definitions of key words to build an argument. This essay does this well for the most part by looking at what villain, hero and victim mean. I'm not quite sure I like how they ended the introduction by stating the dictionary definition then disagrees with the argument set up. In my opinion, at A-Level you should be posing a clear and convincing argument from the beginning of your essay. Yes, you can evaluate weaker arguments and alternative interpretations, but these are best included in the analysis when you have the ability to use evidence to disregard them.

Level of analysis

The analysis here is strong, but I would've liked to have seen more reference to McEwan's constructions. For example "For example, on the surface Briony is a ‘villain’" would come across better if it read "For example, McEwan presents Briony to be a 'villain' on the surface to show how it is not easy to judge". By looking at McEwan manipulating the presentation of his story, you naturally focus on the effect techniques have and why they are used. I liked how points were linked here, as it shows an argument is being built. Phrases such as "Relating back to false perception" aren't the most sophisticated, but the attempt is there. The discussion of class divide being villainous is very perceptive, and hits the assessment objective of looking at context of reception and production. Techniques such as prolepsis are well analysed, and there is always a sharp focus on how McEwan presents villainy or heroic acts.

Quality of writing

The structure here is good. There is a strong introduction, engaging with key terms, and the conclusion doesn't simply repeat this but builds a strong insight and justified judgement. I feel this essay could benefit from more succinct signposts to paragraphs. This would enable a reader, and an examiner to distinguish what new points are being added. This candidate doesn't have the most concise style, so would benefit from a clearer argument. By doing this, the essay will become much more convincing as points are easier to follow. I would like to note that quotations from the book do not have to be placed in footnotes. Critical viewpoints from articles and journals, however, should be included as is done here. I'm not quite sure why this essay includes rhetorical questions, as this is completely out of place with the style set up here. You shouldn't be trying to build an emotive response from an essay, so I would advise you not to use rhetoric devices.

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Reviewed by groat 22/04/2012

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