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Atonement Setting Essay Thesis

England And France, 1935 To 1999

Yeah, that's a lot of setting included right there. Luckily, everything doesn't happen everywhere at once, which would be confusing both in the book, and in real life. So, let's see where the homeys at. First, at home:

The Tallis Home

The Tallises are not exactly stinking rich, maybe, but they are pretty darn rich. They've got servants; they've got a pool; they've got gardens and a fancy fountain and grounds big enough that they need to send out search parties when Jackson and Pierrot wander off.

The whole first section of the novel is set at the house in 1935, before World War II. The setting is idyllic (who wouldn't want to live in a giant house with servants to do your gardening?) and also fragile (like the vase Robbie and Cecilia break). The war is coming, like the "black-furred creature" of Emily Tallis's migraine (1.6.3), and everyone's dreams for the future—not just Robbie's and Cecilia's—are going to shatter.

After the first part of the book, we learn bits and pieces of what happens to the Tallis home. During the war, the Tallis family has to take in refugees from London and elsewhere who are fleeing the upcoming German air strikes (the Blitz). And finally, in the last section set in 1999, the Tallis home has been converted into a hotel. Which gives you an idea of how mega-honking-huge it is.

France And Dunkirk

The second part of the novel is set at the end of May, 1940 in France just after the British Expeditionary Force has had its butt kicked by the Nazis. The BEF is retreating to Dunkirk on the French coast, where they're hoping they'll be picked up and transported back to England.

Dunkirk is often presented as a triumph of sorts. The British government asked individuals with boats to help with the evacuation, and thousands of people with small crafts responded, helping rescue thousands of soldiers.

In Atonement, however, Dunkirk is a giant, chaotic, steaming pile of mess. British soldiers are wandering haplessly around the countryside. The Royal Air Force (RAF) is nowhere to be found, and German fighters drop bombs on tired, hungry, retreating soldiers at will. Officers issue ridiculous orders and there's no food or water. The retreat is less a courageous example of pluck, and more an ill-planned devastating defeat.

The setting itself, and all its "unexpected detail" (2.1)—the boy's leg in the tree, the troops attacking the RAF officer—serves as a kind of criticism, or parody, of Britain's self-image and self-mythology. In a similar way, it contrasts with the first part of the book, where the Tallis family home is supposed to signify both their wealth and the security that supposedly comes with it.

This is also the setting where McEwan gets to get gory and grimy and show you dead bodies and severed limbs and veins in your teeth. McEwan was known as "Ian Macabre" for a while because his early books had yucky details like that. Atonement is much less horror-filmy, but maybe McEwan wanted to throw in just a little gore for his old-school fans.


The third part of the book is set in London, mostly in the hospital where Briony works. Again, here we get to see the horrors of war, this time as wounded soldiers stream in with terrible wounds. This is also the section where we see, by letter, glimpses of Emily Tallis complaining about having to deal with evacuees. The contrast between happy idyllic rich people upset because their gardens are being trampled on and soldiers getting their limbs blown off is not subtle—but hey, who wants subtle all the time?

  • 1


    How successful is Briony Tallis in achieving her "atonement?"

    Answer Key:

    The writer should identify that this is a question the 77 year-old Briony struggles with herself. Attention should be made to her decision to keep Robbie and Cecilia alive after the war and why she did that. It should also point to her decision to become a nurse in London over attending Cambridge. Answers should discuss a life full of guilt, and how the act of writing can both enhance or repent guilt.

  • 2


    Over the course of the entire novel, we pick up Briony Tallis at three different stages of her life. One, as an ambitious, imaginative child. Two, as a repenting, guilt-stricken nurse. And three, as an aged, and dying successful author. Identify three or four personal characteristics or qualities unique to Briony and discuss how these qualities change, stay permanent, or disappear and reappear from beginning to end.

    Answer Key:

    Possible characteristics to be discusses are: writing, imagination, identity, guilt, penance, shame, narcissism/egotism. Answers should clearly identify which personality traits they are discussing and discuss each one at each stage of the book, whether it is absent or present in the text, it is still relative.

  • 3


    Pick two of the following objects and discuss how McEwan uses them as literary devices in "Atonement." Water; windows; light/dark; senses; the human anatomy; literature/writing; nature; temple/church/God/religion.

    Answer Key:

    Essays should be able to identify the purpose of the symbol and clearly state what it stands to represent. They should then be able to select numerous incidents in the book when that object is used or discussed (at least four). Finally, the writer should be able to comment on how the object fits into an overall point that the book is trying to make or at least draw attention to.

  • 4


    What would Briony Tallis, the 77 year-old author, say about the power of autonomy a writer has? Are omniscience and manipulation good for a novel, or bad? Why does she compare "author" to "God?"

    Anser Key:

    The student must identify that BT recognizes this as an extraordinary power to have. Attention should me made around the idea that regardless of the age of the writer, the power never weakens. Briony had just as much power for make-believe as a 13 year-old when writing "The Trials of Arabella" as she does as a 77 year-old writing "Atonement." There could be something said about how text outlasts life.

  • 5


    "From this new and intimate perspective, she learned a simple, obvious thing she had always known, and everyone knew: that a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended" (287). Discuss.

    Answer Key:

    The answer should discuss both WWII and Briony's crime. War tears bodies apart, Briony tore Robbie's soul, spirit, identity apart. It should be identified as coming while Briony was serving as a nurse--meaning the physical object of amputation leads her to recognize the invisibility of psychological amputation. The attempt to "mend" should also be discussed. The writer should argue that Briony either can or cannot mend what she has torn between Robbie and Cecilia.

  • 6


    In one sense, "Atonement" is a book about misreading situations and the consequences this can have. Identify episodes of misconception from the book and discuss what the says about the human condition to invent story in order to make sense, or place order, into an otherwise chaotic world.

    Answer Key:

    Essays should identify at least three episodes from the novel in where what actually happens is misunderstood by at least one other character. Strong essays will discuss less obvious instances beyond Briony's misinterpretation of events. Students should tie this back into the themes of writing, literary tradition, and how imagination is as powerful as sensory perception.

  • 7


    What agent do "the twins" and "Nettles and Mace" serve to the book?

    Answer Key:

    It should be noted that they are interchangeable. It should also be noted that they have no separating identity and that they both rely on Robbie Turner for survival. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in "Hamlet," they both contribute directly to the tragedy of Robbie (the accusation in 1935 and his death in 1940) as well as being innocent victims themselves.

  • 8


    What does "Atonement" tell us about social class in England in the 1930s? How much has it changed by the time the book reaches 1999?

    Answer Key:

    Robbie is a victim of social distinction, but he is too proud to care. Cecilia denies its existence rising above it. Briony continues to always have it in her mind, at all three stages (she "knows" she is a nurse when she is one, and then goes back to having a driver in the end). It should be argued that the war did not solve the problem. The inversion of nobility and integrity (Robbie is a gentleman, Paul Marshall is not).

  • 9


    Discuss the use of war in "Atonement." How does it serve as a metaphor to the internal struggles of the characters? What does Part One presuppose about the future condition of Europe? What is the end result of war in the final section?

    Answer Key:

    There is war both outside and inside. It creates guilt unworthy of atonement. Like the imagination, it can destroy all that is pure and innocent in this world. The primate nature of man is not like Leon sees it, but like Paul Marshall. Lola's rape by PM is a juxtapositional metaphor for the land of Europe during WWII.

  • 10


    Did Briony Tallis do the right thing by falsely keeping Robbie and Cecilia alive through the war? Defend.

    Answer Key:

    The writer should be able to obviously identify between Ian McEwan and Briony Tallis as author, they should show an understanding that "London, 1999" is part of the book. The student can argue either way, but he/she must discuss the autonomy and power Briony Tallis feels as a writer. They should be able to recognize, regardless of which side they argue, that it was this act alone that Briony identifies as her final atonement.

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