For on this day atonement is to be made for you to cleanse you from all your sins; you must be clean before the Lord. 23: 27


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Written by Ian McEwan (novel), Christopher Hampton (screenplay)

Directed by Joe Wright

16:30 “for on this day atonement is to be made for you to cleanse you from all your sins; you must be clean before the Lord. 23:27 “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It is to be a holy assembly for you, and you must humble yourselves and present a gift to the Lord. 28 You must not do any work on this particular day, because it is a day of atonement to make atonement for yourselves before the Lord your God
- Leviticus 16:30; 23:27-28
In an Australian interview McEwan had revealed if he wasn’t a writer, he’d like to be a scientist. “…science is a wonderful invention. It’s an amazing thought system unlike any other in that it can correct itself…Religion can’t do that, religion has its sacred texts, they’re fixed in time. People worship them. What’s great about science I think is its flexibility…they’re realistic about problems but they also have this sense that they can be solved, whereas us liberal art humanists, we love pessimism and it’s the badge of any decent intellectual to feel that civilisation is going to hell…” (, 2008). Therefore, ‘Atonement’ speaks for itself in the sense of having the possibility of a scientific explanation – the truth, or a religious input to open up the possibility of ‘what could have happened’ – one foolish girl’s interpretation of events, as appose to what actually happened, leading us down the path of love, betrayal and a complete misunderstanding that shaped the course of three precious lives one hot summer’s day in 1935.

Looking in depth into the Writer’s Journey of Vogler inspired by Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, we will explore the Hero Journey through the eyes of the protagonist Hero Briony Tallis within this essay. Certain scenes will be addressed shaping the Hero Journey along with an analytical approach to link mythical narratives, characters and symbolism into this questionable tale. Theories will be evident in supporting the Hero and their Journey which can be debatable by many.

Vogler stated that “A title is an important clue to the nature of the story and the writer’s attitude” (Vogler, C, 2007: 85). The opening title spells out ‘Atonement’ in the shape and sound of a typewriter font which symbolizes “…purity, honesty, simplicity and a hard working attitude

(, 1999-2012). Immediately we as the audience can suggest that this film is connected somehow to a story, the narrative itself written by the author or perhaps the story from one character’s perspective within the narrative.

Dario Marianelli composed the score for ‘Atonement’ supported with a skilled chamber orchestra, along with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and cellist Caroline Dale. The infectious score is played around the true essence of a typewriter. “…this story about the power of words, the power of imagination to curse and the bless, is woven into every aspect of the film, including the score

(, 1998-2009).

The composition plays on around other sound elements that work with the composition to go through the transition of design to score. Some of these examples include Cecilia plucking a piano string to end the score, one of the twins throwing a ball against a wall to introduce the next track, “Still, the authoring of letters and stories, represented by typewriter, is the central symbol of the movie and is the score’s most prominent and dynamic facet”.


Ultimately the typewriter is the backbone of the score therefore having major significance to the film with the journey it takes us on. Ironically the typewriter composition track is called “Briony” which is the first track that opens the story. The track itself can also be described as a meme for Briony as this particular sound is played whenever Briony is on screen.

According to Vogler, “Myths take place within a context of mythical history that goes back to the Creation, and events leading up to the entrance of the main character may have to be portrayed first” (Vogler, C, 2007: 86). The opening scene is crucial in making the first connection with the Hero and the audience’s first impressions of them in the Ordinary World.
The opening scene fills our screen with a dolls house which coincidently is the Tallis’ family home, which we get to see an up close shot of during the film. Interestingly enough it could be argued that this miniature replica of her house would be the start of what’s to come as the story unfolds with Briony in control of her ‘doll house’. “The hero’s problems and conflicts are already present in the Ordinary World, waiting to be activated” (Vogler, C, 2007: 87).

As the camera pans down to the entrance of the house, it zooms out to see a line of animals, as though they are following someone or something which answers our thoughts with the camera panning up the see the back of Briony sat at her desk on her typewriter. Along with these animals are people and a signpost having arrows pointing to the house and to Briony. Indistinctively we question why the director has done this and assume many possibilities of are they not safe in the house? To follow Briony is the right way or because she thinks it is the right way? Many explanations can be argued, such as relating the myth of Noah and his Ark, “And God spoke to Noe, saying: Go out of the ark, you and your wife, your sons and the wives of your sons with you. All living things that are with you of all flesh, as well in fowls as in beasts, and all creeping things that creep upon the earth, bring out with you, and go upon the earth: increase and multiply upon it” (Genesis 8:15-17). This illusive theory is merely opening up the possibility of Briony controlling the situation and to lead others into her own self inflicted Odyssey.

Act I
Briony’s journey continues in her Ordinary World where she meets the acquaintance of many archetypes that she gets introduced to in her odyssey, many that she learns from within her ‘Self’ as the story unfolds. “Jung suggested that these archetypes reflect different aspects of the human mind – that our personalities divide themselves into these characters to play out the drama of our lives” (Vogler, C, 2007: 4).
Briony is out on the lawn sunbathing with her sister Cecilia, the first time we see Briony Meeting the Mentor. “…the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure…” (Campbell, J, 1993: 69). The audience, can see how Briony looks up to her sister. We know of Briony’s envision of her sister being her Mentor, but from Cecilia’s point, I beg to differ. It could be argued that Cecilia may in fact be regarded as a Threshold Guardian, to Briony’s bemusement. “The Guardians seem to pop up at the various thresholds of the journey, the narrow and dangerous passages from one stage of life to the next…I realised that this Threshold Guardian’s apparent attack was potentially a blessing, not a curse” (Vogler, C, 2007: xxx). It is Briony who interferes with the loved up graduates, Robbie and Cecilia. If only she did realise how much the couple were in love and perhaps if she left them be, then their fates would have turned out differently.

For now Robbie and Cecilia’s stubborn veiled affections for one another continue. “Ovid tells the story of Pyraamus and Thisbe…They became friends and then began to love each other, but their parents forbade them to marry. They could only exchange loving words through a chink in the wall…” (Grant, M, 1994: 379). It could be argued that the class system forbade Robbie and Cecilia to marry as Cecilia being an upper class graduate and Robbie a working class gardener, despite his Cambridge education paid by Cecilia’s father.

Interestingly enough the chink in the wall could be a representation of Briony who always seems to be there witnessing the couple’s antics.

In Hindu mythology Indrani was said to be the goddess of wrath having one thousand eyes. Later in Hindu mythology, it was said that Indrani came to “…personify jealousy and was regarded as of evil intent

(, 1998). Indrani can be labelled as an influence on Briony’s character in the fact how she ‘sees’ things that are not meant for her eyes but have subsequently fallen on her that could perhaps trigger jealousy of Robbie and Cecilia’s relationship.

The story takes us to see Briony in her bedroom with the sound of a bee buzzing annoyingly but loud enough to get the audience’s attention. A bee symbolizes reincarnation, concentration, prosperity and in connection with the goddess Diana, the bee understands female warrior energy

( Scientifically “…the honey bee (Apis mellifera) has compound eyes - hundreds of single eyes (called ommatidia) arranged next to each other, each with its own lens and each looking in a different direction…But there are differences between the bee's view of the world and ours.” (, 2009). Conclusively this explanation has also come across ‘eyes’ in that the bee sees more than a human does therefore Briony may think she ‘sees’ what’s happening simultaneously but in fact scientifically proven, a bee in literal sense can see more.

As the story unfolds, she asserts her focus of what is going on behind the bee, Robbie and Cecilia at the fountain where here by unravels Briony’s First Threshold. “Such custodians bound the world in the four directions-also up and down-standing for the limits of the hero’s present sphere, or life horizon” (Campbell, J, 1993: 77).

The fountain scene itself is a key event into the journey as this was where Briony first encounter of her misunderstanding arose. From what Briony can see is Robbie holding up his hand outstretched which leads Cecilia to start getting undressed and jump into the fountain. He doesn’t move, he doesn’t try to save her. (Strangely enough, Briony when she was eleven had a crush on Robbie and asked if she jumped into the river, would he save her. With Robbie agreeing he would, Briony foolishly jumped into the river leaving Robbie no choice but to save her, literally. With Briony confessing of her love for Robbie, he turned her down completely still angered that she endangered both their lives). Bearing that in mind, Briony still intrigued, sees Cecilia come up to the surface of the water, standing tall on the fountain dripping wet with her under garments sticking to her. She does look naked to which Robbie just standing there looking at her. Briony has seen enough and sits back in her chair coming to terms with what she has just seen. Odd behaviour yes, but instead of telling her mother, questioning over this bizarre behaviour of the two, she instead looks deep into her imagination of the possibilities of what it all means.

Roman poet Ovid tells the story of Narcissus and Echo, “…when the nymph Liriope-ravished by the river-god Cephisus – gave birth to Narcissus, the prophet Tiresias was asked if the baby would live to a ripe old age. He replied: ‘if he never knows himself’ ; and the prophecy came true in this way…When Narcissus, a beautiful youth of sixteen, was driving deer into his nets, he was seen by the nymph Echo, who cannot herself speak first yet cannot remain silent when others speak” (Grant, M, 1994: 381).
Hence the term Echo defines “the reflection of sound or other radiation by a reflecting medium, esp a solid object

(, 2011).

However, one of the youths whose love Narcissus had likewise mocked made a plea to heaven that Narcissus, too, might fall in love, and be unable to gain the object of his passion. This prayer was heard by the goddess Nemesis” (Grant, M, 1994: 381).
Nemesis a name, as the Encyclopedia Mythica states that “Nemesis is the goddess of divine justice and vengeance” (, 1997-2000).
And so Nemesis’ punishment for Narcissus was for him to fall in love with his own reflection and to die alone. “What Narcissus loved was but a shadow, yet he gazed upon this and could not leave the place. Distraught since he knew that he and his reflection must die together, he pined away; while Echo, though still angered by him, grieved and repeated his lamentations” (Grant, M, 1994: 382).

This is the mirour perilous

In which the proude Narcisus

Saw al his face fair and bright

- Roman de la Rose translated by Chaucer

(Grant, M, 1994: 383)

Two years on and this very confused thirteen year old girl is looking into the Special World trying to understand all that she sees despite her knowing her own mind. In terms of Briony being associated with Narcissus, you can say she falls in love with her own reflection in the sense that she falls in love with her own enchanting imagination and sees only hers not anybody else’s point of view. “…early modern interpretations of the Narcissus myth that primarily associate self-love…” (ed Stanivukovic, G.V, 2001: 95). Realistically in the movie, we see the exact meaning behind the fountain scene as we, the audience, eavesdrop into Robbie and Cecilia’s conversation of how Robbie accidently broke the vase and a piece went into the fountain.
Many interpretations of the Narcissus myth have sparked debates with theories leading to ‘male deformities’ and ‘psychoanalysis’ to name a few. “Arthur Golding’s influential 1567 translation of The Metamorphoses, for instance, moralizes the myth as a ‘mirror’ of vanity and pride: ‘Narcissus is of scornfulnesse and pryde a myrror cleere, / Where beawties fading vanitie most playnly may appeere’. For emblematist Geoffrey Whitney, Narcissus symbolizes the inflated self-esteem that afflicts people at all levels of society…” (ed Stanivukovic, G.V, 2001: 95).

According to Jonson who wrote Cynthia’s Revels, “…we learn that Jove has commanded Mercury to restore to Echo her body and voice so that she might finally mourn Narcissus’s death. Cursing the ‘Fountain of Self-Love’ at which Narcissus died…” (ed Stanivukovic, G.V, 2001: 96) Briony could also be described as Echo in the way Echo acts as her subconscious. We hear it but essentially it repeats what we say, not necessarily think. “Emphasizing the disastrous social, political, and economic consequences of self-love, Echo’s complaint accords with traditional moral commentaries on the Narcissus myth” (ed Stanivukovic, G.V, 2001: 96). If Briony had gone into her subconscious then it could be argued that the journey would stop there.

In reference to psychoanalysis, Freud take’s Ovid’s myth of Narcissus and Echo and conceptualises the human acquisition of a sense of self bringing forth the idea that it ties in with gender and sexuality. Freud manages to put forward two arguments, “…narcissism can occur as a fully developed perversion or an attitude manifest in a broad range of other phenomena and disorders…However, he also argues that narcissism, first and foremost, designates a stage in the “regular” course of human psychosexual development. Freud dubs this stage primary narcissism and describes it as a necessary intermediary stage between auto-eroticism and object-love, that is, a stage linking the initial amorphous and the eventually fully structured states of the human psyche” (Petek, P, 2008: 1). Conclusively to the myth of Narcissus, Freud has put forth a theory linked into Briony’s character which gives us more of an understanding of her true ‘Self’ that Narcissism is not only “…absolutely indispensable to human subjectivity and socialisation, but also because it interprets narcissism as a dynamic process and it detects in it a “darker” force that lies at the core of the human self” (Petek, P, 2008: 11).

Act II
Briony’s curiosity continues as she prepares for more frivolous encounters coming across Tests, Allies and Enemies in Act II. “Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials” (Campbell, J, 1993: 97).

Here Briony comes across several tests in order for her to conquer in order to understand. Briony comes across a letter from Robbie to deliver to Cecilia. Briony reads this in order to seek information from the Special World, which does read a detailed sexual endeavour that Briony wish she didn’t read but all the more relieved as to what her conscious is saying about Robbie, and to puzzle together what she saw at the fountain. Briony also stumbles across Robbie and Cecilia’s first sexual encounter in the library when Cecilia is splayed across the bookcase with the arms outstretched as though crucified. Briony is thinking this violent ordeal speaks rape but the audience can see it is a sign for passion, lust and love for one another.

In Greek mythology the story of Eros (Cupid) and Psyche resemble Robbie and Cecilia today, Eros = love and Psyche (the soul). With this undying love came another, “…that Psyche’s child by Cupid is called Pleasure, and that the animals who help her in her labours suggest the desire of all creation to stand well with love” (Grant, M, 1994: 421). It can be argued that Briony yearns to be Pleasure in the sense of wanting to be a part of Robbie and Cecilia’s lives in the Special World. Interestingly enough, the animals who help Pleasure, remind me of the opening of the first scene where we see the animals in a line following Briony. It still isn’t enough for her; she still can not see it – the true picture.
The unconscious sends all sorts of vapors, odd beings, terrors, and deluding images up into the mind – whether in dream, broad daylight, or insanity; for the human kingdom, beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves

(Campbell, J, 1993: 8)

After her two twin cousins from the north write a letter of them running away, Briony goes in search of them in Approach to the Inmost Cave. “This is the crisis at the nadir, the zenith, or at the uttermost edge of the earth, at the central point of the cosmos, in the tabernacle of the temple, or within the darkness of the deepest chamber of the heart” (Campbell, J, 1993: 109). Briony then faces her biggest ordeal yet, she witnesses a rape on her eldest cousin, Lola. Because Lola could not see her rapist, Briony takes control of the situation by revealing who she saw – Robbie. Detectives ask if she saw him or if she knows she saw him. Her reply, “yes I saw him. I saw him with my own eyes” (Atonement, 2007). This reflects on Briony’s mythic identity of Indrani and the symbolic bee that we encountered before. In actual fact we learn that Lola’s true rapist was Cecilia’s brother’s friend, Paul Marshall. Regardless, with Briony testifying, working class Robbie has just been wrongly committed of a vicious crime to which Briony looks on through a stained glass window. “The origin of stained glass is unknown, but the symbolism, represented by the influence of the people and events, depicts a strong history

(, 1999-2012).

We see during the film that Briony is in actual fact looking through the eyes of Saint Matilda – Patron Saint for Girls. “…she at an early period tasted all the sweetness of prayer and penance…” (, 2012). After making a poor judgemental decision she chose in favour of one out of her three sons for the throne, which “Matilda had committed a great error, but God made her atone for it, by the serious trials He sent to her

( Coincidently this was the moment Briony changed the course of the lover’s journey and her self forever. Here now begins her atonement which she will come to realise in the third Act.

In relevance to Saint Matilda and Briony, a poem by Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) entitled ‘Matilda - Who Told Lies, And Was Burned To Death’

(, 2004).

Water is a recurring theme that happens throughout the film as though it represents not only the literal meaning of cleanliness and the spiritual meaning of purification, but in religious terms has an effect on all faiths. In Greek philosophy for example, “…water was believed to be the original substance that all things were made from” (, 1997-2012). In the film you would have realised that water is used to clean or even wash away the character’s feelings.


Five years later and Briony, now eighteen, has received her reward, “Society is jealous of those who remain away from it, and will come knocking at the door” (Campbell, J, 1993: 207). Her reward is the self realisation of her mistakes down to her growing up.

She now is a nurse in London as well as her sister, of course not at the same hospital. Briony has not spoken to any of her family for five years as has Cecilia. Robbie is now fighting in the war, given the choice of prison or the army. Even after five years apart, Robbie and Cecilia still love each other as they write letters when they can. The story takes place seeing Briony much older come to terms with the damage she has done to her most dearly. Briony wrote a letter to Cecilia detailing of how she is now a nurse and would like to see her and explain all that happened that fateful night back in 1935. Cecilia remains to ignore.
We see that Briony still is not parted with a typewriter as she hides in the hospital at night and writes. The story called ‘Two Figures by a Fountain’, we learn in the film as she’s explaining the synopsis to a friend that it’s about the day at the fountain. As well as writing her secret novel, she is taking her nurse role rather seriously especially her hygiene when scrubbing her hands with a nail brush. It could be said that Briony is trying to wash away all her sins, “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (, Psalm 51, 2004-2011), this is the theme of her life; she can never truly atone for what she did.
Atonement (at-one-ment) consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster – the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be Sin (repressed id). But this requires an abandonment of the attachment to ego itself, and that is what is difficult” (Campbell, J, 1993: 130).

According to Freud, “Narcissus is displaced by the interplay of the ego, the ego ideal and the super-ego, a triangular constellation that traverses all three systems of the first topography” (Petek, P, 2008: 9).

The Road Back for Briony is the time where she can put things right with her sister and Robbie. “Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the casual deep and back…” (Campbell, J, 1993, 229). After coming back from Paul Marshall and Lola’s wedding, she informs Robbie and Cecilia the true rapist which Briony is now able to reveal and ready to atone for. The fact how they’ve now married, Lola won’t testify leaving Robbie to carry the burden of a crime he did not commit which will scar him forever. His only request for Briony is to write a full detailed account leading up to the rape of her cousin, “no rhythms, no adjectives, no embellishments, then leave us be

That would have been a great ending, Robbie and Cecilia together but at Briony’s resurrection; she is now able to share with us the truth. “A realization of the inevitable guilt of life may so sicken the heart…” (Campbell, J, 1993: 238).
Briony now an old woman speaks of her new novel ‘Atonement’ in televised studios giving us the impression that she is a successful novelist and from the young age, of using her typewriter, it has got her here today. Her interview she reveals she’s dying from a disease called Vascular Dementia which is a series of tiny strokes, your brain closes down and your memory starts to fade. This is when Briony felt like she had to write the novel before she died, she wrote many drafts as far back when she was a nurse but couldn’t finish it, she didn’t want to finish it as it would mean the end, of her story and possibly the end of her life. Her atonement wasn’t over for her, she wasn’t ready to let go of them.

Briony revealed that she didn’t go see her sister in June 1940 and the last scene which we saw was purely imaginative, she was too much of a coward to go see her sister and put things right. How could she? Robbie Turner died of septicaemia June 1st 1940, the last day of the evacuation. It would be valid to point out that Robbie’s infection came from a bullet wound, just as accurate to point out that Briony put it there. And Cecilia’s fate resulted in her drowning in the underground October 15th 1940. They never had the time together that they both longed for and deserved. “But what sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader derive from an ending like that? So in the book, I wanted to give Robbie and Cecilia what they lost out on in life. I’d like to think this isn’t weakness or evasion, but a fine act of kindness, I gave them their happiness” (, 2007).

What Narcissus loved was but a shadow…Upon the grass beside the waters he died…the body of Narcissus was no where to be seen. In its place, they found a flower, yellow-centred, and with white petals” (Grant, M, 1994: 382). Remarkably Narcissus’ flower could signify Briony’s novel – her life and her atoning ‘Self’.
Ironically in an interview with novelist Ian McEwan he brought up Homer’s The Odyssey to make a point that ‘human nature doesn’t really change’. Asked if that was depressing or reassuring to McEwan his thoughts were, “…neither really, it’s fact…people from vastly different societies with hugely different concerns still have an immediacy for us because we understand their emotions primarily and their motives and so from that I would draw the conclusion that we do have a sort of core human nature and part of the business of literature is to explore it, investigate it…” ( Homer wisely appointed the Gods to represent a human conscience, our conscience, our inner voice which we either sometimes follow or ignore. Within The Odyssey, Odysseus longed for home, that was his mission. With Briony, home is where she belonged, where she thought she was in control in her own conscience. Suffice to say, the Gods were looking out for her where she could have revealed the true rapist yet she chose to ignore and follow her own conscious which has consequently tortured her for all these years, the mistake she could have prevented but instead atoned for.

Knowing that we have been drawn in to Briony’s journey and seen the mistake that she made which could have been easily prevented if she only thought about somebody other than herself, it angers us more that she has in fact lied about the fate’s of the two lovers. How dare she imagine their happiness knowing that she is responsible for their deaths. However with years and years of atoning for what she did do as a foolish young girl does bring sympathy on this old sorrowful woman. In her interview there wasn’t any mention of a husband or any children, grandchildren, but for her to finally be brave and speak of it all, the truth, for the first time. You can say that Briony has atoned with Robbie and Cecilia looking down in earnest, how Briony wanted them to have their happiness above all and to finally be free.

"Atonement will make you happy in at least three ways: It offers a love story, a war story and a story about stories, and so hits the heart, the guts and the brain. It’s Ian McEwan’s best novel (…..) Atonement is the work of a novelist at peak power; we may hope for more to come."
- Adam Begley, The New York Observer

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Academic paper hand out in lecture

Author unknown (15th April 2012)


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