Can we critically analyse Ian McEwan's Atonement using psychoanalytic criticism?

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LIT1002                                                                        Sara Williams

Can we critically analyse Ian McEwan's Atonement using psychoanalytic criticism?

Atonement is a post-modern novel, that centres around the protagonist, Briony and her search for forgiveness from her sister Cecelia and a family friend Robbie, the word ‘atonement’, meaning ‘the action of making amends for a wrong or injury’. Briony is a thirteen year old, middle class girl whom is an aspiring writer, and at the start of the novel is conducting a play known as The Trials of Arabella. We see throughout the novel Briony is no ordinary 13 year old girl as her imagination is full of stories that can distort her image of reality; this is why the method of psychoanalysis may be applied. Psychoanalysis is ‘a form of therapy which aims to cure mental disorders by investigating the interaction between the conscious and the unconscious elements of the mind’. The novel explores the relationship between the conscious events that happen, and the different subconscious views the characters have on these events all though the creative act of story-telling.

The novel begins with the focus on Briony and her eagerness to get her play, The Trials of Arabella, finished for when her brother, Leon, returns home. This play shows Briony’s immaturity even through her intelligent wording, it still encapsulates a heroine being rescued by a prince, and thus we can see her understanding of love and relationships has not yet developed. The audience, then through the omniscient narrator recall on an event that happens between Briony’s sister Cecelia and the cleaning lady’s son Robbie, at first from Cecelia’s point of view and then Briony’s. From Cecelia’s point of view we are told how Cecelia does not think much of Robbie as it ‘bothered her that they were awkward when they talked’. We then encounter how Cecelia wonders outside to fill a vase of flowers with water from the fountain, where she finds Robbie doing the gardening, the pair of them passes awkward conversation then Robbie begins to help Cecelia fill her vase, to which she resists and this results in her dropping the vase into the fountain. They both stare for a moment then Cecelia starts to strip to her underwear and dives into the fountain to retrieve the vase, once retrieved she storms back into the house. The second view of this scene is from Briony’s point of view in which she watches out of the window Robbie and Cecelia conversing, she imagines that he is proposing to her, however she is startled when Cecelia starts to quickly undress and jumps into the fountain and then rushes off back in tot he house. She reflects wondering what sort of hold Robbie has over Cecelia and how Robbie should have rescued her from drowning before he proposes to her.

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Here is were Briony’s subconscious comes into view, this is as Freud explains ‘part of the mind beyond consciousness which nevertheless has a strong influence upon our actions or thoughts’ , here Briony thinks of the scene as a fairytale in which the heroine is to be rescued, this is based on her own upbringing as her parents never really spoke of their relationship as her father worked away a lot, therefore her only understanding of relationships were the ones she read of in books. This may be also understood in Freud’s repression, ‘forgetting or ignoring of unresolved conflicts, unadmitted desires ...

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