Lombardo 1 Anna Lombardo English 083S Professor Lisa Sternlieb 21 Dec 2012 Picking Up the Pieces Ian McEwan’s

novel Atonement begins with the breaking of a precious vase. The events that follow facilitate the spread of physical, emotional, personal, and social chaos that, figuratively, the vase once served to contain. These events also demonstrate the fragility of the vase and how this delicateness parallels the lives of the characters and other events that take place in the novel. Atonement explores purposes the vase serves while it is still intact and what it means for the characters once this vase has been broken. The vase is literally a mechanism that should serve to hold water and, ideally, keep that water from spilling everywhere in a chaotic manner. Cecilia Tallis, one of the main characters in the novel, possesses a particular vase that serves this purpose, though it is broken in a struggle over the object between her and her family’s gardener, Robbie Turner. The breaking of the vase signals a release of chaos in several forms. Literally, water can now spill out of the vase because the barrier that once held it has been broken. However, the broken vase releases another kind of chaos, as well- the sexual tension between Robbie and Cecilia. After breaking the vase, Cecilia strips off her clothing in front of Robbie and jumps into the fountain to retrieve the broken pieces of the vase. This single action changes the dynamic of their relationship forever, releasing into the air feelings for each other neither of them knew that the other had. “So many emotions simply engulfed her,” McEwan describes of their relationship following the vase incident (126). Now that the emotions have been released, Robbie and Cecilia find, there is no way of restraining them.

Lombardo 2 The release of tension becomes more dramatic in the events that follow. After the vase incident, Robbie, in his haste to write a letter of apology, writes a more obscene note that essentially confesses his attraction to Cecilia. The latter piece is mistakenly given to Cecilia, who admits her mutual attraction to him. Before this occurs, their attraction for each other is contained- they neither spoke of the attraction nor acted on it. There is organization in their relationship with each other. However, catalyzed by the vase incident, not only does emotional chaos ensue, but physical disorganization also results. “His whole body opened up,” McEwan describes, “and he was able to step outside of himself and kiss her freely” (127). They remove parts of their clothing, breaking down what can be figuratively considered the intact vase, and scatter these things in a disorganized fashion- in effect, creating chaos and disarray. From another vantage point, Cecilia’s younger sister, Briony, watches the event unfurl. Stunned, Briony watches from her bedroom window as her sister’s head and nearly naked form disappear below the surface of the fountain’s water. The young girl, an aspiring storyteller and playwright, notes that the sequence of events taking place is “illogical,” and doesn’t follow the rules of “the stuff of daily romance” (36). She doesn’t understand why Cecilia takes off her clothes so quickly and jumps into the water. The broken vase, however, also breaks the barrier between Briony’s childish way of thinking and her first glimpses of maturity and adulthood. “As her sister’s head broke the surface,” McEwan describes, “Briony had her first, weak imitation that for her now it could no longer be fairy-tale castles and princesses, but the strangeness of the here and now, of what passed between people” (37). As the vase breaks, it releases Briony from the perfection of her imaginary world and into the real world of illogical events and disorder. The broken vase also parallels the events of the setting in which Atonement takes place. Up until the vase is broken, harmony reigns in the Tallis household. While tension exists

Lombardo 3 between the characters, each individual is able to contain any anger, frustration, surprise, or sadness that they hold against those around them. However, after the vase breaks, all of their emotions are released into a confusing mess. The actual events of the story’s setting follow a similar pattern. Prior to the invasion of Poland by Germany, the world’s nations had, for the most part, kept to themselves. However, after Germany took this single action- much like the single action of the breaking of a vase- all chaos broke loose. Nearly every major power declared war on at least one other country, and what followed was a six year disaster of battles, blood, and hate that turned out to be one of the deadliest and tragic conflicts in the course of human history. What Robbie says of the vase- it would “still be in one piece if she had not jerked it so suddenly from his hands”- can also be said of the war (75). Had Germany not taken so sudden and drastic an action, perhaps the relative peace of the 1930s could also have stayed intact. McEwan extends this allegory past simply the beginning of the war. Later on in the novel, we find out that Betty, one of the Tallis household’s housekeepers, has dropped the vase while walking down the stairs and it shattered irreparably. If the simple breaking off of one piece of the vase signals the beginning of the Second World War, then it follows that the shattering of the entire vase must be the failed attempts to resolve the conflict and the increasingly destructive turns that the war took. McEwan describes of the vase that the “pieces had simply come away in [Betty’s] hand” (262). Despite Cecilia’s determination to fix the vasemuch like the determination of the United States and other European countries to stop war from starting- she put the pieces together incorrectly and, as the war goes on, they simply fall out of place.

Lombardo 4 How easily things come apart, and how efficiently characters can put them back together, are major themes of the novel. Cecilia isn’t the only character who unsuccessfully tries to mend a broken situation. In a similar manner, Cecilia’s mother, Emily, attempts to put the pieces together of what is going on in her household- and does so incorrectly. Emily suffers from migraines, and because of them, she must spend long hours in a dark room resting. These periods alone in her room, she describes, have facilitated the development of a “sixth sense, a tentacular awareness that reache[s] out from the dimness and move[s] through the house, unseen and all-knowing” (63). Emily believes she knows exactly what is taking place in her home by simply sensing it; “only the truth c[omes] back to her,” as she puts it (63). However, Emily is wrong about nearly everything she believes is happening. Her knowledge is limited to what she believes that she can sense, while the reader is treated to a more accurate truth. For example, we learn only through many different points of view, outside of Emily’s, that a man named Paul Marshall raped Emily’s niece, Lola. Emily, however, believes that Paul was simply playing with the young girl, and deems him “not [to] be such a bad sort, if he was prepared to pass the time of day entertaining children” (66). We realize that the talents of which Emily boasts have led the woman to a conclusion that is horribly wrong. Briony makes this mistake, as well, and the cost is just as high. One night, Lola’s twin brothers go missing and the Tallis family begins a search for them. Briony finds Lola on the side of the family’s lake, crying; she admits that a man “pushed [her] head back and his hand was over [her] eyes” (157). Earlier, Briony had accidentally intercepted Robbie’s obscene letter from earlier and, after witnessing his and Cecilia’s intercourse in the library earlier that day, thinks that he must be the man who committed the crime. Absolutely sure of herself and proud of the mature way that she has put the pieces together, she formally accuses Robbie of the crime.

Lombardo 5 However, we know that Robbie isn’t interested in Lola- Paul Marshall is. Robbie has actually done nothing wrong. Much like Cecilia and the vase, Briony finds that instead of making things better by trying to mend things herself, she has only made things worse. The fragility of the vase permeates nearly every aspect of Atonement. Not only do we see the literal representation of this concept- when Robbie and Cecilia break the vase for the first time by the fountain- but we also see the figurative shattering of the characters’ lives and their attempts to put the pieces back together again. All of the events that contribute to this “shattering” effectively highlight the fragility not just of physical objects, but also of the human condition. Much like the vase, the characters of Atonement are easily broken- Lola by Paul Marshall, Cecilia by her family’s betrayal, Briony by her childhood crime, and so on. On a larger scale, we see how often the peace between individuals of differing nations can be disrupted and broken, an idea which is exemplified by the events of World War II. Atonement artfully demonstrates the ease of breaking people and things and the near impossibility of putting them back together again.

Lombardo 6 Works Cited McEwan, Ian. Atonement. Doubleday, 2001: New York. Print.

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