Narrative unreliability and metarepresentation in Ian McEwan’s Atonement; or, why Robbie might be guilty and why nobody seems to notice
1325 - 1343 (19)
Textual Practice: an international journal of radical literary studies
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Unreliability and uncertainty are at the centre of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and discussions of the novel often emphasise this aspect of the text, arguing that it demands to be reread in light of its surprise ending. Yet such readings do not entertain a more radical doubt as to the reliability of the novel’s protagonist, Briony Tallis, and the accuracy of her adult attempt to atone for a childhood mistake. This article asks why this is the case and offers an alternative reading. It suggests that the force of the concluding section, as well as the way in which the preceding sections build to suggest that Briony’s revised version of events is correct, have effectively shut down a more far-reaching discussion of reliability and the ways in which meaning is revealed and withheld. Drawing on recent developments in narrative theory, it does not argue for an alternative orthodoxy about what ‘really’ happened and what Briony did or did not see, but rather suggests that the consensus that has accreted around her revised version of events raises important questions about the nature of narrative (un)reliability, the role of the implied author, and the ways in which narratives are read, and reread.
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