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How does McEwan capture a sense of desperation in Part 2 of 'Atonement'?

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How does McEwan capture a sense of desperation in Part 2 of 'Atonement'? The title 'Atonement' hints at a dark secret, a need for retribution and weighty themes, which McEwan duly delivers. The desperation in the narrative format of Robbie the soldier is paralleled by Briony's increasing desperation to obtain penance for her crime. It is a desire further complicated by her omnipotent narrative role; McEwan steps in and out of his characters' minds with unfettered confidence and in Part 2 he provides Briony with the same gift so that she might assume the mind of Robbie. This can therefore provide her with only a fabricated atonement, of which she is subconsciously aware will never fully purge her of her sin. Briony says that "it isn't weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end." The second half of the story opens as Robbie, is released from jail only to land himself in the British Army retreating toward Dunkirk. Along with Robbie's terror and his desperation to return to the woman he loves Briony, now a nurse, has realised the true ...read more.


Briony's desperation for retribution. The tone in which 'Robbie' gives his account of the horrors which "would not let him go" is one of desperation and exclamation but also ambiguity; it is not just the war which haunts him but his arrest and subsequent jail term too and it also hints at the horrors of Briony's crime which will not let her go either. Robbie's sole reason for living is Cecilia and it the memories of her which constantly drive him to fight for his survival: "This is why he had to survive.... he had one good reason to survive". The torment until he can see her, having endured three and a half years of sleepless nights, was like "a hand squeezing at his throat." Through Briony's narrative of Robbie, McEwan shows how memories of the past are essential to counteract Robbie's growing frustration and desperation: "when he wrote back he pretended to be his old self, he lied his way into sanity." Similarly Cecilia "[feeds] on the same memories", in an attempt to give herself hope and dispel her anxiety. ...read more.


He could become again the man who had once crossed a Surrey park at dusk in his best suit, swaggering on the promise of life, who had entered the house and with the clarity of passion made love to Cecilia." McEwan employs a shrewd and subtle foreshadowing literary technique where as a reader, our own sense desperation can be evoked on a second reading. Finally it appears that Robbie's torment is to be over and the corporal informs Robbie, "We're going home mate". Robbie's excited "Wake me before seven. I promise you won't hear another word from me" holds a deeper meaning as there will indeed be no noise from Robbie as by the next morning he will be dead. McEwan knows how to manipulate the sympathies of his reader, by teasing us with how close Robbie is to being with Cecilia and then killing him off while we desperately wish to see Briony's fabricated ending come true. In her letters to Robbie, Cecilia quotes from W. H. Auden's 'In Memory of W. B. Yeats', "Poetry makes nothing happen." Through this McEwan reminds us that Briony may write her own forgiveness, but she is never going to receive atonement for her crime from the two people from whom she craves it the most. Pandora Sykes ...read more.

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Response to the question

This essay responds strongly to the task, looking closely at the techniques which build the reader's perception of desperation. It was great to see a natural discussion of why this desperation is central to the novel, looking at how Briony's ...

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Response to the question

This essay responds strongly to the task, looking closely at the techniques which build the reader's perception of desperation. It was great to see a natural discussion of why this desperation is central to the novel, looking at how Briony's atonement simply becomes fabricated. Examiners will be keen to see a discussion of why the desperation shapes the narrative, and this essay does this well. The discussion of a second reading is sophisticated, but I personally feel as if these traits are revealed when the narrative is deconstructed in Part Four. It just seems quite basic to say reading it twice allows a different viewpoint, as that is the same in all literature. McEwan purposefully uses Part Four to change our gaze as a reader, and that's what I would discuss.

Level of analysis

The analysis here is good, but there is room for improvement. I don't feel as if the essay explains techniques fluently. For example "McEwan pretends to change the narrator to Robbie" seems very colloquial and doesn't come across as sophisticated. I would like to point out that the narrative position is that of Robbie's, but it is clear that older Briony is behind this construction. It is very easy to get confused with Atonement, as it has a number of levels. Comments such as "it is not just the war which haunts him but his arrest" are valid, but there needs to be a discussion of how the reader respond. How does this make the reader feel the desperation, and why does McEwan do this? Those are the questions I'd have if I were an examiner. The paragraph talking about the combat lexis is good, as this looks at the technique as a whole, rather than some essays which simply feature spot language. I do feel as if the inclusion of long quotes doesn't benefit this essay. Sometimes quotes could be cut down and then particular words and meanings could be analysed, then going further to explore how these are significant to the desperation and pace of Part Two. It would've been nice to see some consideration of the stark contrast of Part Two to the former part, as this would allow the examiner to see some exploration of structure and its significance.

Quality of writing

This essay has an okay structure. The introduction is strong, looking closely at how McEwan creates a sense of desperation whilst looking carefully at its significance. I'm not always a big fan of using a quote in the introduction, and the inclusion of one here seems out of place. They have bolded despair, yet the quote seems more fitting in an essay discussing metafiction and the manipulation of Briony's younger narrative. Sometimes the paragraphs don't start sharply, with the signposts not always being relevant. "Robbie’s sole reason for living is Cecilia" adds nothing to the exploration of desperation. The style here could easily be improved with phrases such as "this then shows" or "therefore" to present to the examiner a progression of the argument. I feel as if points aren't connected, and a lack of conclusion supports this. A conclusion can be used to weave ideas together, maintaing a critical voice to give a final insight. Not having one will often be penalised as examiners nearly always have an assessment objective looking at the quality of essay structure. Spelling, punctuation and grammar are fine.

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Reviewed by groat 21/04/2012

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