Monday, January 5, 2009

Discussion Questions on Atonement

These are the questions Julie found for us on

1.  What sort of social and cultural setting does the Tallis house create for the novel?  What emotions and impulses are being acted on or repressed by its inhabitants? (For example, on page 46, Cecilia lights a cigarette as she descends the staircase, "knowing that she would not have dared had her father been home.")  

2.  A passion for order, a lively imagination, and a desire for attention seem to be Briony's strongest traits.  Why does the scene she witnesses at the fountain change her whole perspective on writing?  What is the significance of the passage in which she realises she needs to work from the idea that "other people are as real as you"? 

(On page 36, during a break in the rehearsals of her play, Briony wonders: "was everyone else really as alive as she was?  For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was?"  Then on page 40, Briony thinks to herself that "[in her stories] there did not have to be a moral.  She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive.  It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.  And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value.  That was the only moral a story needed to have.")

3.  What kind of person is Emily Tallis?  Who, if anyone, is the moral authority in this family?

4.  What symbolic role does Uncle Clem's precious vase play in the novel?  Is it significant that the vase is glued together by Cecilia, and broken finally during the war by Betty as she readies the house to accept evacuees?

5.  Why is Robbie's uncensored letter so offensive within the social context in which it is read?  (It is read first by Briony, then Cecilia, then later Briony - without Cecelia's permission - shows it to the police, her brother Leon and her mother.  It is also read by Paul Marshall).  Why is Cecilia not offended by it?  

6.  The scene in the library (page 135 - 138) is one of the most provocative and moving descriptions of sex in recent fiction. (Do you agree?  Have you read anything more 'provocative' recently?).  How does the fact that it is narrated from Robbie's point of view affect how the reader feels about what happens to him shortly afterwards?  Is it understandable that Briony, looking on, perceives this act of love as an act of violence?

7.  Why does Briony stick to her story with unwavering committment?  At what point does she develop the empathy to realise what she has done to Cecilia and Robbie?

8.  How does Leon, with his life of 'agreeable nullity' (page 103), compare with Robbie in terms of honor, intelligence and ambition?  What are the ironies inherent in the comparative situations of the three young men present - Leon, Paul Marshall, and Robbie?

9.  Lola has a critical role in the story's plot.  What are her motivations?  Why does Briony decide not to confront Lola and Paul Marshall at their wedding five years later?

10.  What aspects of Atonement make it so powerful as a war novel?  What details heighten the emotional impact in the scenes of the Dunkirk retreat and Briony's experience at the military hospital?

11.  When Robbie, Mace and Nettle reach the beach at Dunkirk, they intervene in an attack on an RAF man who has become a scapegoat for the soldiers' sense of betrayal and rage.  How does this act of group violence relate to the moral problems that war creates for soldiers, and the events Robbie feels guilty about as he falls asleep at Bray Dunes?  (On page 262, as he falls asleep, Robbie feels guilt for walking past the dismembered leg of a small boy and not giving the boy's remains a proper burial.  He also starts to feel guilty for not saving a Flemish woman and her child, though he sort of talks himself out of that guilt because he did try to save them.)

12. Is Briony's novel effective, in her own conscience, as an act of atonement?  Does the completed novel compel the reader to forgive her?

There are more questions at www.