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Psychological view on The Atonement's Briony
In this essay, I will be analyzing Ian McEwan’s Atonement from the perspective of a psychoanalytical approach.

Atonement (2001) is considered one of McEwan’s best books. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and adapted into an award-winning film. One of its biggest strongpoints is its characters and their deeply developed psychology and mutual relationships which drives the entire plot. Overall, I would say the novel features many situations where the fate of one character is very dependent on how well the other character is able to cope with their own psychological state. Consequentially, the psychological approach seemed as an obvious way to deal with this novel. In the following sections, I will focus on how the psychology behind different characters’ (especially Briony’s) decisions and states of mind factors into the story and compare it with scientifically described psychological phenomena[K1] .

             The story revolves around thirteen-year-old girl Briony Tallis who has a talent and a passion for writing fiction. Right from the start we get a sense of who Briony is. She tends to get lost in her own imagination leaving the reality behind. Briony’s play The Trials of Arabella conveys the message that “love which did not build a foundation on good sense was doomed.”[1][K2]  In Briony’s point of view, Arabella contracting cholera is a satisfactory punishment for her “reckless passion” for a man. We see that Briony is still a child with a naïve view on love and relationships.

            The closest relationship Briony has is with her mother Emily. She’s the figure of authority who is supposed to have the biggest influence on Briony and who is responsible for her healthy development. However, Emily has become very distant and often doesn’t[K3]  leave her bedroom all day. She clings to the times when Briony was a little child and she’s not available for her in her starting puberty. Emily’s reaction to the play is described as “the project’s highest point of fulfillment”[2] with her calling it “stupendous”[3]. This way, Briony’s immature notion of love, stemming from inside – from her imagination rather than outside – empirical observations, is solidified by the approval of her mentoring figure.

            Further in the novel, we learn that Briony wrote the part of Arabella for herself. However, her cousin Lola who comes to live with the Tallis family along with her two younger twin brothers manipulates her into giving her the role. Lola is fifteen years old and the two-year difference is apparent between the two girls. Briony tries to make all children learn perform the play, but she finds out that it is not at all like she had imagined it. This is her first experience of discrepancy between what she has in her head and the reality. She doesn’t take it well and is very frustrated with Lola who uses her more developed maturity against her and also the boys who are on the contrary underdeveloped. It is also necessary to say that Briony’s motivations are to be celebrated and applauded for her play.

Later in the novel her frustration is increased when she has no power to influence the course of the rehearsals. She speculates whether she is the only sentient and cogitative being and whether everyone else is just a construct. Just to provide some interesting background, this notion corresponds to the philosophical concept of solipsism which is defined as an extreme form of subjective idealism that denies that the human mind has any valid ground for believing in the existence of anything but itself.”[4] Anyway, we are more interested in psychological implications. Briony’s heightened sense of self-importance and superiority is not unlike the symptoms of a narcissistic personality disorder with Briony specifically showing symptoms of agentic narcissistic features. These, according to my source, are characterized by assertiveness, beliefs of personal greatness, and feeling of superiority[5]. While positive self-view doesn’t necessarily entail unhealthy state of mind and is on the contrary fundamental to being a confident person, there is a simple yet defining difference between self-esteem and narcissism and that is that „unlike narcissism, self-esteem reflects a nonhierarchical way of viewing the self in relation to others”[6]. Briony clearly neglects the independence and comprehension of other people. She doesn’t show antagonistic narcissistic features. Instead she feels like she is the only one who sees the world in the true light, wants to educate everyone else and be applauded for it. Of course, many narcissists never admit their faults and Briony is trying to atone for what she does later in the novel, but many psychologists say that it is in a narcissist’s range of possibilities to change.

Her willingness to adapt her view to the reality is evident when she sees her sister Cecilia interacting with a boy named Robbie who works for Tallises and is supported by Mr. Tallis as his own son. She realizes that she their interaction has nothing to do with her and that others are independent. However, her tendency to adapt the reality to her view is prevalent. There is a sexual tension between high-class Cecilia and lower-class Robbie. Robbie realizes that he’s in love with Cecilia, but she misinterprets his change of attitude towards her as a sort of social class contempt and antagonizes him. Robbie begins to take his clothes off to jump into a fountain for a piece of broken vase – an important heritage from her uncle. Cecilia beats him to it, undresses most of her clothes and jumps into the fountain to grab the piece herself. She manifests despise towards him by showing that he’s not worth of her shyness. Robbies change of attitude is of another reason. He finds out he loves Cecilia. However, the way Briony sees it is that Robbie has power over Cecilia and orders her to take off her clothes and jump into the water.

This is quite a shock for Briony. Robbie used to take her swimming and Briony faked drowning to see if Robbie would save her. He did and he also scolded her for it. That’s when she admitted to him that she loves him. Briony’s later actions may seem to be at least partially motivated by jealousy or broken heart, but I suggest that Robbie was more of a father figure for her in her childhood with her real father often being away from home. Briony’s love for Robbie was the kind of love built on good sense, the way she always imagined it. However, not long ago did Briony realize that the reality is often disappointing – when her play couldn’t be rehearsed properly.

Meanwhile, their brother Leon arrives with his friend Paul Marshall. Leon invites Robbie for a drink with Cecilia and Paul. Cecilia is angry that Robbie should come. She is frustrated because of the discrepancy between Robbie’s change of attitude and the fact that she loves him which she has not realized yet. At the same time, Robbie is trying to write a letter to Cecilia to apologize for breaking the vase and making her angry. He writes several drafts with varying levels of politeness until he writes a note where he explicitly expresses his sexual attraction towards her. This could be reflected as a struggle between his id and his superego until he finally writes a satisfying version via his ego as described by Sigmund Freud[7]. Little does he know that he accidently put the explicit letter inside the envelope when he gives it to little Briony for delivery.

Sigmund Freud comes into play in one more aspect. In his article on creative writing, he likens writing to a child’s play including the remark that “the creative writer does the same as the child at play. He creates a world of fantasy which he takes very seriously – that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion – while separating it sharply from reality.”[8] These two planes merge in Briony’s case. Her game actually is writing. And as we have already noticed, it is naïve and definitely sharply separated from reality.

Briony reads Robbie’s letter before delivering it to Cecilia. Her interpretation of the fountain interaction has been confirmed. She is shocked by something that is a massive taboo for her. All the more when it comes from her paternal figure to her own sister. Cecilia feels like being struck by a lighting. Thanks to Robbie’s letter she realizes the source of the tension between them and that she loves him as well. They leave to library where they sexually engage until Briony interrupts. Robbie feels hatred towards Briony perhaps originating in his instinct-driven id which now prevails. Briony has a third proof of Robbie’s ‘disgusting animality.’

Then the little twins run away because they miss their home. The reason Lola and the twins came to Tallises in the first place was to get away from their parents going through breakup, so the theme of dysfunctional parenthood applies to all the children in the novel. At this point Lola has already been attacked by Paul Marshall who bruised her arms in the process. During the search for the twins Lola is raped by Marshall and runs away before Briony helps her. Briony’s deduction skills kick in and she proposes Robbie Turner as the originator of the rape. Lola incapacitated by a post-traumatic stress confirms Briony’s hypothesis to distance herself from the horrible experience. The image of Robbie being guilty fits perfectly to Briony’s pattern. This behavior fits Leon Festinger’s[9] theory of cognitive dissonance. When there is a discrepancy between our point of view and a new information, we tend to neglect the new information so that it doesn’t shatter the reality we have carefully been building and leaning to so far. For Briony it just made total sense that Robbie is the attacker.

Finally comes an opportunity for Briony to be listened to when the police come to interrogate the house’s inhabitants. However, she’s got it wrong again. She created another naïve story which is sharply separated from reality. This time it is based on a framework which is the exactly opposite extreme from the framework that the Trials of Arabella was based on. After she found out the reality is different from how she imagined it while writing the Trials of Arabella she demonized the features of reality that differed from the play’s moral basis. When Briony is interrogated we again see her playing and creating a story at the same time. Freud’s words are again relevant when he says that “a child’s play is determined by wishes: in point of fact by a single wish – one that helps in his upbringing – the wish to be big and grown up”[10]. Briony enjoys her seemingly crossing the line to adulthood and being appreciated as equal. As a matter of fact, I would say this quotation completely summarizes Briony and it highlights the importance of a parent’s guiding hand – something Briony had a shortage of.

All things considered, the novel might as well symbolically reproduce Freud’s classification of id, ego and superego with Paul Marshall representing the unmoderated instinctive behavior, Cecilia and Robbie representing the balance and Briony representing the absolute morality.

In the end, Briony writes a third story. After Robbie is imprisoned and fight his way through the second world war, he is reunited with Cecilia and they happily after. This is Briony’s ending. In reality, Robbie dies of blood poisoning from a shrapnel wound. We learn that Briony wrote the novel as an atonement for what she had done. Her childish mistake separated two people who loved each other and to an extent caused one of them to die prematurely. But did she truly atone? By writing a happy ending to a story that ended sadly because of her she dodges responsibility and refuses to accept her guilt. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross[11] proposed five stages of grief. I suggest that grief and guilt are similar in nature with the last stage being acceptance. If Briony embraced the real ending, she would accept what she has done. She could then forgive herself. I don’t think that is what she wants considering she also applied to be a nurse and exposed herself to very stressful situations. That’s why I will end this essay with thoughts by none other than Sigmund Freud again. Paul Alfred Hazard[12] summarizes Freud’s[13] attempts to explore minds of people suffering from unconscious guilt. According to him they had a desire for punishment and he says that “it was as though by suffering they could atone for some evil — as though, indeed, only by such suffering could they find happiness.”[14] Maybe this desire for suffering is what caused Briony to change the ending.











Britannica, Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Solipsism." Encyclopedia Britannica, June 14, 2019.

Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. The ego and the id. Translated by…. New York: Norton, 1962.


Freud, Sigmund. “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming (1908).” On Freud's “Creative Writers and Day-dreaming”. 1995, 1–14.


Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by….. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.


Grapsas, Stathis, Eddie Brummelman, Mitja D. Back, and Jaap J. A. Denissen. “The ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of Narcissism: A Process Model of Narcissistic Status Pursuit.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 15, no. 1 (December 5, 2019): 150–72. doi:10.1177/1745691619873350.


Hazard, Paul Alfred. “Freud’s Teaching on Shame.” Laval théologique et philosophique 25, no. 2 (1969): 234. doi:10.7202/1020145ar.


Kübler-Ross, Elizabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: Collier Books/Macmillan Publishing Co. 1969.


McEwan, Ian. Atonement. London: Jonathan Cape, 2001.


Pepitone, Albert, and Leon Festinger. “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.” The American Journal of Psychology 72, no. 1 (March 1959): 153. doi:10.2307/1420234.


[1] Ian McEwan, Atonement (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001), 3.

[2] McEwan, Atonement, 3.

[3] McEwan, Atonement 3.

[4] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Solipsism,” Encyclopedia Britannica (2019).

[5] Stathis Grapsas et al., “The ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of Narcissism: A Process Model of Narcissistic Status Pursuit.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 15, no. 1 (December 5, 2019): 150-72.

[6] Grapsas et al., The ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of Narcissism,“ 150-72.

[7] James Strachey and Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the ID (New York: Norton, 1962).

[8] Sigmund Freud, “Creative writers and Day-dreaming,” On Freud’s “Creative Writers and Day-dreaming”, 1-14.

[9] William A. Pepitone, Leon Festinger, “A theory of cognitive dissonance”, The American Journal of Psychology 75, no. 5 (1959).

[10] Freud, “Creative writers and Day-Dreaming,” 1-14.

[11] Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, On death and dying (New York, Collier Books/Macmillan Publishing Co., 1969).

[12] Paul Alfred Hazard, “Freud’s Teaching on Shame”, Laval théologique et philosophique 25, no. 2 (1969), 244.

[13] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1989).

[14] Hazard, “Freud’s Teaching on Shame”, 244.

 [K1]The outline of your theoretical approach is too general. Whose psychological approach? Freud’s? And if Freud’s, which concepts will you use, which part of his theory?

 [K2]In American academic style the sequence is : .”1

 [K3]In academic English we do not use shortened verbal forms.

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