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Content Note: Discussion of the sexual assault of a minor, and "evidence" of the innocence or guilt of possible suspects.


Atonement revolves around Briony, who as a child is the only witness to Lola being raped. Briony doesn't get a look at the rapist, but she's convinced it was poor neighbor Robbie - and testifies as much to the police. Meanwhile, the book clearly implies the true rapist is Paul Marshall, the chocolate manufacturer who Lola later, achingly, marries.

But by the end of the book, we learn that we are not reading a neutral narration of the events -- the entire book is revealed to be written by Briony, out of her guilt over accusing Robbie. And an unreliable one as well; she says how she's made changes and touches and written it from memory at best.

It's all very tragic -- except now we need to reassess everything we thought we knew about the actual incident.

  • The signs we thought were a clear implication of Marshall - scratches on his arm, lavishing attention on Lola - are no longer subtle authorial hints; they're tiny shreds of unreliable evidence that don't make sense for Briony to have remembered with any measure of certainty.
  • The signs we saw of Robbie's affability - e.g. the justification of clumsiness for sending Briony's sister a lewd letter - are now entirely fabricated.

As far as I can tell, this casts the story in a rather different light. While Briony has undoubtedly done Robbie wrong by perjuring herself, the book's assumption that Robbie is innocent and Marshall is guilty doesn't seem to have any concrete support. Unless I've missed something?

Is there any reliable evidence that Briony was actually witness to, as to who the rapist was?

2 Answers 2

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No, you are right. If you read through the actual passage describing her eye-witness testimony, she can't identify the figure. Briony just does the same thing twice; first by assuming it was Robbie because of the letter, and later assuming it was Paul because of his marriage to Lola. Objectively, the fact that the Marshalls are litigious is used to imply she must be right this time, but that is insufficient evidence for a court of law; Briony is just doing the same thing again, accusing someone without solid evidence. Cecilia and Robbie, both adults at the time of the original incident, unlike Briony, are both very certain it is Danny Hardman.

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But now I can no longer think what purpose would be served if, say, I tried to persuade my reader, by direct or indirect means, that Robbie Turner died of septicemia at Bray Dunes on 1 June 1940, or that Cecilia was killed in September of the same year by the bomb that destroyed Balham Underground station. That I never saw them in that year. That my walk across London ended at the church on Clapham Common, and that a cowardly Briony limped back to the hospital, unable to confront her recently bereaved sister. That the letters the lovers wrote are in the archives of the War Museum. How could that constitute an ending? What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account?

I'd assume that:

  • all told here is reliable
  • letters could give Briony an insight of Cecilia's and Robbie's POVs
  • she wouldn't lie about letters content as they are in a public access

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