The world has had its fair share of wars that have ravaged countries and their populace. The first and second world war, in particular, are still remembered as the most challenging moments in the history of humanity due to the massive toll that they had on both the soldiers and civilian population caught up in this maze. Families were often separated, with others losing their loved ones in active duty or as collateral damage. Literature has done its fair share in giving a presentation of war, but there are moments when these events take an interesting turn. Such is the case in Atonement, a masterfully crafted work of literature by Ian McEwan. The story is set during three different time periods and tells the story of a naïve upper-class girl who makes foolish decisions that end up ruining lives and relationships while continuing to haunt her well into adulthood. The novel doesn’t feature much of the actual action that takes place on the battlefield but focuses the authors attempt to right her wrongs, most of which occurred during the war period. Briony is a young girl who doesn’t seem to understand what falling in love is all about and what affection is all about. She doesn’t seem to realize that her sister Cecilia is probably in love with Robbie Turner, a childhood friend, and mistakes the advances for aggression. It is her warped view that leads her to accuse Robbie of raping her cousin Lola falsely. It is this accusation that sets off a chain of events that are directly influenced by the war. In this essay, I will discuss the impact of war on families and the relationships depicted in the novel.
It is evident that the Second World War creates a state of chaos in the relationship that Robbie once had with Cecilia. He is jailed after being falsely accused by Briony and is only released on condition that he joins the war campaign in France. All this is as a result of the betrayal he suffered from Briony’s confession which ultimately separated him from Cecilia. The second part of the book begins in the middle of the Second World War in 1942 where Robbie is struggling as a soldier. The war differs starkly from the life he led back in England. Life as a soldier was devoid of any normalcy as death and desperation became part of the scenes he witnessed on a daily basis. There are even descriptions of the gore that he saw as he made his way throughout the terrain like finding a human leg atop a tree: “It was a perfect leg, pale, smooth, small enough to be a child’s. The way it was angled in the fork, it seemed to be on display, for their benefit or enlightenment: this is a leg” (McEwan and Messud 180). Relationships would have to change because the war brought death and destruction, forcing those affected to deviate from ordinary lives. It was a period when humanity had failed with the war raving the lives of innocent individuals caught in the crossfire and loved ones lost. Robbie is separated from Cecilia with his life now in utter chaos. He had enjoyed a beautiful relationship with his lover, but all this now seemed as though it was a dream that was quickly vanishing due to the war. The fury of the war had replaced the normalcy that he once shared with Cecilia.
The war is also responsible for the abrupt nature in which the Tallis household lost its relative peacefulness. During the switching of the scenes, it is immediately apparent that everything that Robbie cared for was taken from him in a matter of seconds. In this particular case, the war is essential in invoking the sheer drama that develops the characters and their families. The punishment accorded to Robbie was unfair and the main reason why he had to lead an abnormal life. He is full of hurtful emotions after his accusation and how they would affect his relationship with the Tallis family. Frustration and bitterness caused by Briony’s actions tear apart the once cordial relationship that he shared with the Tallis family. However, it is the love lost between him and Cecilia that is the bane of his life, considering he felt very strongly about her from the onset. Robbie’s heart is stranded with her in the same sense the soldiers are stuck at Dunkirk awaiting help from England. In this case, the war becomes instrumental in helping the readers understand the psyche of a character that is deeply troubled by all the events that have taken place in his life thus far. Moreover, the family’s patriarch, Jack Tallis is away from his family for extended periods as he works for the Ministry that was responsible for organizing the war effort. All this is worsened when Robbie is falsely accused by Briony and sent to prison. Cecilia chooses to distance herself from her own family and moves to London, near the tube where she ultimately dies.
The war also scatters family members that were once very close. Briony and Cecilia were separated when the war reached Britain. Due to the guilt felt when she ultimately realized that she had accused an innocent man falsely, Briony abandons her earlier plans and starts training as a nurse. In a way, Briony was looking for a way to redeem herself for all the hurt she had caused to those who were closest to her. As a nurse, she treats wounded soldiers and keeps tabs on the war effort: ‘Perhaps she was the last person in the hospital to understand what was happening. Now she saw how the separate news items might connect, and understood what everyone else must know and what the hospital administration was planning for’ (McEwan and Messud). The war is now responsible for bringing everything into perspective and helping Briony understand the implications of the accusations she made in 1935. Guilt consumed her for what she had done to the two young lovers which partly explains where she changes professions and decide that it is better if she dedicated her life to helping those who were in need of her services.
In conclusion, Atonement by Ian McEwan provides the reader with a poignant description of war and all the horrors that those involved had to go through. The battle shapes the story’s plot due to the effects it had on the characters and their families, mainly affecting those involved directly. Robbie, in particular, bears the full brunt of the military campaign as it separates him from Cecilia and ultimately from the life he intended to lead.
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