Analysis of Major Characters
Briony is the youngest of the three children of the Tallis Family although she called herself an only child due to the age difference between her and her siblings. She has a passion for writing and a need for perfection. As a child she is very self-centered. She thinks that the world revolves around her and that she understands everything that she sees even though she really doesn’t. This misunderstanding is the basis of the entire plot of Atonement. Briony witnesses a series of events (fountain scene, letter, library, forest) that cause her to believe that Robbie raped Lola. In actuality she misinterpreted everything she saw and accused the wrong person of rape. This resulted in Robbie going to jail, Cecilia disowning her family, and Robbie and Cecilia never being able to see each other again before they both die in the war. Once Briony realizes the gravity of what she has done she tries to atone for her ‘sins’. In the novel she does this by leaving her family to become a nurse (just like Cecilia) and tries to write to Cecilia and get her to talk to her to no avail. She ends up going to see Cecilia at her house and Robbie is there. She explains herself to both of them and they tell her what she can do to ‘atone’. However none of that actually happened, Robbie and Cecilia died before they could see each other again and Briony never talked to either of them after the incident. What Briony does to ‘atone’ instead is write the book which is parts one two and three of the Atonement. She believes that in making ‘her’ lovers live and telling the world that she has done something wrong that she will be forgiven and everything will be okay. There are a few turning point throughout the novel in which you see different parts of Briony’s character. One big point that is made is when Briony question if everyone is really as ‘alive’ as she is but the first big part is when she stops the play and goes to break nettles in the forest because it’s not perfect; this is a perfect example of her need for perfection and her frustration with everyone else who isn’t ‘perfect’. Another part of her character is shown in the fact that she thinks she’s ‘protecting’ her sister from a ‘maniac’ when in fact she was just ruining them. This is an example of her need to control everything and the fact that she thinks she’s right about everything no matter what. A different component of her character is shown when she describes becoming a nurse. This part shows that she has grow in the past years and that she is not as self-centered anymore but it also shows that she still has the need for perfection when she’s trying to make the wounded soldiers follow procedure. The last major advancement we see in Briony’s character is when she is talking to the French boy Luc. Here she learns a lot about not only herself but she realizes the severity of war and he makes Briony think about other people’s lives for the first time in a sincere way. Briony’s character is the one that is most advanced throughout the book but this is partly because at the beginning of the book she was much younger than everyone else in the book and started off a lot more naïve and immature. Also, at the end of the book she is elderly and has been diagnosed with dementia which is the reason that she decided to write Atonement in the first place. She didn’t want to forget without ‘atoning’ first and I think that says a lot about her character. Another thing to keep I mind is the fact that Briony wrote the entire book in order to ‘atone’ for what she did. We don’t know how much of Briony we can believe because she might have had an agenda in writing the book. Because of this, it is difficult to know if what she says is true. It’s hard to know what part of what’s written is truth and what part is her portraying herself in a way that would make the reader want to forgive her for what she did. As a whole, Briony’s character grew with the story and helped advance its plot because without her, there would be no misunderstanding.
Cecilia is Briony’s older sister and is kind of the odd one out in her family she decided to go to college and get an education (which her mother thought was stupid because no man wants to marry an educated woman). It is important to note that the reason she can take the time and go to college and focus on what she does is because of her upper class background. This also affects her relationship with Robbie. She is Robbie’s other half in the “love story”. When she read the letter that Robbie sent her she is shocked but the letter gives the freedom to have feelings for Robbie, which she thinks she may have had before but repressed them. On Cecilia’s side of the “love story” she basically falls in love with him but then he is taken away and put in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Cecilia disowns her family because they prosecuted Robbie and believed that he committed the crime; when she leaves she goes to train to be a nurse. Cecilia’s character is not as deep as Briony’s or Robbie’s because we don’t really get many chapters in which you hear her thoughts and feelings. Nevertheless Cecilia actions said a lot about her. How she took off her clothes to go get the vase shows her stubbornness and will and then her choosing her dress for dinner and helping the twins find socks show a softer side of her that she seems to keep hidden. Her character is also developed through her interactions with Robbie, from the letters she sends him signed, “come back” or her encounter at the café in which they simply pick up right where they left off without a moment of hesitation. This shows her trust and belief in Robbie and proves that she really did love him all those years. Cecilia doesn’t grow as much as a character in the book but she does go from caring about Briony to hating her which you can tell through her thoughts about Briony telling the police Robbie raped Lola and her actions such as disowning her family or refusing to answer any of Briony’s letters in part three. Same as with Briony, Cecilia’s character is also written by Briony; this means that the thought that Cecilia has are the thoughts Briony thinks she had. Also, if Briony did have an agenda she could’ve portrayed Cecilia in a way to benefit her goal instead of how Cecilia actually was. In the end, Cecilia is a character that is essential to the plot, in that she herself is the love story, whose thought and actions change along with the plot of the book.
Robbie is from a lower class background, he lived on the Tallis’s land when he was little because his father worked there and when his father abandoned him and his mother the Tallis family gave his mother a job and Jack Tallis took it upon him to pay for Robbie’s education (although Emily Tallis was strongly against it). At the start of the book you see him from Cecilia’s point of view about how he seems to have changed since he went to college. Later in the book you find out that Cecilia’s thoughts of him are very different from his reality. He is one of the main characters in the book because of his “love story” with Cecilia. They both grew up together and then went to the same college. In college they didn’t socialize with each other because of the difference in ‘social class’ but when they have finished their schooling and are back at the Tallis’s home then the tension between them comes to light. Robbie and Cecilia have a scene at a fountain in which a vase is broken (see chapter analysis for more info). After this incident, Robbie decides to write Cecilia a letter in order to apologize for his behavior. In a spur of the moment thing he writes and additional letter in which he professes his feelings for her in a manner that is deemed inappropriate (see chapter analysis). On accident he gives Briony the inappropriate letter to give to Cecilia and a significant part of the plot is when Briony reads the letter(even though she’s not supposed to) and thinks Robbie is a “maniac” who her sister needs protection from. The next time Robbie and Cecilia meet after Cecilia reads the letter they show their love fors each other. This love is a key factor in both the book, and Robbie’s character. When he writes the letter to Cecilia he doesn’t know what his feelings for her really are (love or lust or something else) but as we see his character develop throughout the book we come to realize that he is truly in love with Cecilia which is shows in the few scenes they have together as well as during part two of the book where he is constantly thinking about Cecilia and their letters back and forth. Robbie is accused of raping Lola although it was not him who did it but Paul Marshall instead. People are so quick to believe it’s him a lot of the reason behind that is that he is from a lower class background whereas no one suspected Paul Marshall because he was from upper class. Robbie is sentenced to jail for the rape even though he didn’t do it. He gets to leave jail early because he volunteers to fight in the war. He grows a lot as a character in this book, especially in part two. We see his thoughts and actions and motivations. Like how he’s thinking about Cecilia or about his absent father, or when he leads Mace and Nettle around, acting as a fatherly figure to them, or when he tries to save the women and child from getting bombed but has to save his own life instead. In the third part of the book however, when he is present, he comes off full of anger and resentment which is something that he doesn’t seem to posses during parts one or two. Like the rest of the book, Robbie’s character is written by Briony who has a goal in mind so even though she talked to Nettle and had letters that Robbie wrote, a lot of Robbie’s thoughts (especially in part two) is speculation. Overall, Robbie one of the few characters in Atonement which have depth to them; he progresses throughout the book from a child to a man and we can see that change mostly through his thoughts and action but through others views of him as well.