Study Cecilia’s role in the novel and McEwan’s presentation of her. Is your sympathy for her absolute?
To what extent do you agree with this view? Remember to include in your answer relevant detailed exploration of McEwan’s authorial methods.
Cecilia never escapes the fictionalisation of her life. Both the readers and Cecilia are victims of Briony’s imagination, yet McEwan manipulates structure to reveal Briony’s re-writing of the narrative at the novel’s end. Cecilia’s initially cold, unsympathetic character thus produces a cathartic, sympathetic response, uniting her with McEwan’s audience as Briony’s victims.
Cecilia only becomes sympathetic through Briony’s evolving narrative voice. She is initially presented through an unsympathetic lens as McEwan appropriates Briony’s childlike voice of disdain for her sister. From the very beginning, McEwan uses repetition of negatives to demonstrate Briony’s derision towards Cecilia’s life (“unfolded”, “unmade”, “unemptied”, page 4), acting in binary opposition to the protagonist’s: The readers first meet Briony finishing ‘The Trials of Arabella’, and whose finished product they are themselves reading, whilst Briony herself foreshadows Cecilia’s unfinished life. This conflict does not align with the story she has written, where she imagines Robbie and Cecilia as her creations. She even calls the sequence “illogical” (pg. 39), as she doesn’t understand why they have not followed her intended plot. It is Briony’s older self in 1999 that recognises her own “illogical” perspective. While her sisterly relationship and the guilt of her crimes heavily influences her portrayal, Briony’s older self uses McEwan’s language to transform Cecilia into a fully realised character able to incite empathy. This is measured in structural patterning, as Cecilia is displayed from an omnipresent voice in contrast to Briony’s own interpretation (affected by childhood naivety). Despite the description Briony gives in Part Three of Robbie and Cecilia living together after his return from Dunkirk, the reader learns on the penultimate page that Robbie died before he could be evacuated from Dunkirk and that Cecilia was killed by a bomb three months later. The reader is lulled by the elongated Part One into the security associated with the classic realist novel (exaggerated by McEwan’s use of chapters and detail into characters’ psyche that builds anticipation before the crime) many critics dismissed the final coda as an example of “postmodern gimmickry”, as expressed by Brian Finney. This links to McEwan’s own ideology that pointed to a “study in cognitive psychology” suggesting that “the best way to deceive someone is first to deceive yourself”, highlighting the evolving narrative voice that eventually breaks free from Briony’s deception. Sympathy is then created through McEwan’s structure as Briony comes to understand the extent of her crimes and its effect upon the people closest to her.
Conversely, McEwan’s use of delayed sympathy failed to develop Cecilia’s character in order to reflect the criminal injustice served to the victims of crime. Cecilia becomes a foil of Lola, whose victimhood is never explored to the extent of Robbie’s, as a victim of class. In “Part One,” both Paul and Robbie engage in (or, in Paul’s case, commit) sexual acts, being introduced as each other’s sexual foils. However, McEwan contrasts their roles by depicting Paul as dominating Lola and by representing Robbie as Cecilia’s equal. Lola’s search for the missing twins introduces dramatic irony, as the tragic symbolism of twins and doubling (epitomized in Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Twelfth Night’s comic pairings used to create confusion) uses the nighttime setting to confuse the foil twins McEwan symbolically creates – not Jackson and Perriot, but Paul and Robbie. Despite Briony’s conviction that she had saved Cecilia from a similar assault (167), Cecilia’s interaction with Robbie in the library, though also overtly sexual, contrasts sharply with the scene of Lola’s rape. Cecilia “draw[s Robbie] with her deeper into the gloom [of the library]” (133), deliberately encouraging his advances. Similarly, rather than coincidentally being near the island temple as Lola is, Cecilia “[makes] a steeple of her hands to enclose her nose and mouth” (133), the steeple reflecting the shape of a temple, thereby exploiting previous imagery and choosing the location of her sexual encounter by creating it herself, radical in the patriarchal era of 1935 that sees women as “housewives”. In this way, McEwan presents Cecilia and Robbie acting as equals and demonstrating the societal advancements in his 2001 publication of Atonement. Whilst sympathy is thus created in response to Robbie and Cecilia’s love never getting to flourish, Cecilia is not a victim of class prejudice, and her voice remains heard in comparison to Lola’s. This internalised prejudice prevents Marshall, the real criminal, being found as even in Part Three, Cecilia doesn’t portray signs of growth but still the discriminatory idea to “question Danny Hardman”. Cecilia even identifies Robbie with his lower-class politics that “protected him and his scientifically based theories of class.” She goes onto state, “I am what I am”, explicitly linking Robbie to Iago, a Machiavellian figure of criminality. Similarly, Cecilia’s flair for the dramatic mirrors Briony’s in her use of imperative verbs: “Drowned in the lake, ravished by gypsies, struck by a passing motor car, she thought ritually” (pg. 101). The reference to gypsies creates a link to Austen, where gypsies were a threat to young women (like Harriet Smith in Emma), and blurs the distinction between the two characters, producing Briony’s sympathy for her sister but alienating a sympathetic audience through aligning the victim with the criminal.
Cecilia is defined by her relationship to other people. She is a sister to Briony, daughter to Emily, lover to Robbie and nurse to soldiers. She never escapes this, as she remains prison to Robbie’s PTSD at the end of the novel (“This narrow room with its stripes like bars” page 337), and remains fictionalised in Briony’s imagination (“Robbie and Cecilia, still alive, still in love, sitting side by side in the library”, page 372). She never defines herself. Letters function as a key narrative device as Robbie represents Cecilia through letters detailing her sexuality and McEwan’s epistolary that fictionalises her without consent – “with the letter, something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal had been introduced” (page 111). Letters come to define Cecilia’s role in the narrative – the first words she and Robbie say to each other involve the discussion of the literary merit of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, additionally an epistolary novel, and the step from friendship to romantic love is marked by letters: “Robbie and Cecilia had been making love for years – by post.” McEwan’s narrative voice is emphasized because, as stated by Hidalgo, Briony is presented as “a heroine whose perception is distorted by literature and imperfect knowledge”. Words aren’t the only thing used to define Cecilia, but mirrors that reflect a distorted image back to her – “the public gaze of the stairway mirror as she hurried towards it revealed a woman on her way to a funeral”. This is a motif utilized throughout the novel, foreshadowing Robbie’s demise and the theme of reputation, apparent from Chapter Three when Briony describes the “milky heat haze” that distorts her vision. This, as reflective of Briony’s “precious” style, as described by C.C, doesn’t evoke sympathy as the reader is yet to find the reality of Cecilia’s character. This is revealed in Part Three, but various intertextual links display allusions that McEwan employed in order to foreshadow. Cecilia never gets to define her own story, a fact suggested in the novel by McEwan’s allusion to Clarissa: In the novel, Clarissa is raped and betrayed by her family, much like Cecilia whose name bears similarities to the heroine’s. Austen similarly alludes to the novel Cecilia by Frances Burney in Northanger Abbey, a clear inspiration for McEwan as its quoted in Atonement’s epigraph, where an orphan heiress makes her own way in London in the same way that Cecilia does after disowning her family after Robbie’s trial. The fact that she is constantly reading and not finishing, again underlines the unfinished nature of Cecilia’s story and her separation from Briony. This creates reader sympathy as a character relating to the tragic heroines of canonical literature and her distorted representation by Briony, finally revealed to be unjust at the end of the novel.
The reader’s absolute sympathy for Cecilia is created as she transforms into a fully realised character. She begins the novel subject to Briony’s criminal voice, but as the protagonist understands the meaning of her actions, Cecilia’s character is revealed to be more than the passive, lazy character initially represented. As the readers realise Briony’s crime in rewriting Robbie and Cecilia’s narrative, they too understand Cecilia’s victimisation, and the victims finally unite against the criminal. Sympathy for Cecilia is thus fortified in Atonement’s Epilogue.