Important Quotations Explained
Quote 1 - "[Briony] felt foolish, appearing to know about the emotions of an imaginary being. Self-exposure was inevitable the moment she described a character's weakness; the reader was bound to speculate that she was describing herself... Only when a story was finished, all fates resolved and the whole matter sealed off at both ends so it resembled, at least in this one respect, every other finished story in the world, could she feel immune." (Page 6).
Explanation for Quote 1 - Briony's constant struggle with what is occurring in the minds of others is apparent in this quote. She feels silly trying to get into their heads and, evidenced in the fact that she sees their weaknesses as her own, reveals that she doesn't feel like she can actually do this. The fact that she feels secure after she's finished the story is shown again at the end, as she feels that the goal of Atonement (to atone) is out of her hands, and into the hands of the reader. In both cases, she steps away from the story after finishing, leaving it to rely on others (readers or other books).
Quote 2 - "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? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? ... Once could drown in irrelevance." (Page 34)
Explanation for Quote 2 - This is the best example of Briony's struggle with her mind in and the minds of others (and not being able to interconnect the two). By pondering this point, she delves deeper into character creation, which eventually culminates in the creation of her story telling of the fountain scene from three different perspectives. We see her trouble in reaching into the minds of others when she accuses Robbie of raping Lola (on merely misunderstood circumstantial evidence).
Quote 3 - "This would not be the first time [Cecilia] had rescued Briony from self-destruction". (Page 41)
Explanation for Quote 3 - This quote is a representation of the relationship between Cecilia and Briony, in that Cecilia had always been the big sister, the comfortor, and the support for Briony. Later, Briony's action against Robbie is her attempt to be the protector and supporter of Cecilia; she is repaying the favor. This also has is related to the quote on the same page: "Come back, she used to whisper. It's only a dream. Come back." As is explained for quote 9, Cecilia is always fulfilling her role as the protector and comforter of those around her, which leads Briony to feel as though she needs to reciprocate the action.
Quote 4 - "The very complexity of her feelings confirmed Briony in her view that she was entering an arena of adult emotion and assembling from which her writing was bound to benefit. What fairy tale ever held so much by way of contradiction?" (Page 106)
Explanation for Quote 4 - This quote is pivotal in the development of Briony's character. In the beginning of the book, Briony describes her past work as fairy tales, and we are able to see her develop as a person and as a writer throughout the book. As she anticipates opening the letter addressed to Cecilia from Robbie, she knows that she is entering a new chapter of her life. As it turns out, this letter is what first puts the idea in her head that Robbie is a vulgar, crude animal, and her first negative disposition towards him. From this moment, their relationship exponentially deteriorates, ultimately until Robbie's death.
Quote 5- "When France fell there would be no end of the war in sight. No letters from her, and no way back. No bargaining an early release in return for joining the infantry. The hand on his throat again. The prospect would be of a thousand, or thousands of incarcerated nights, sleeplessly turning over the past, waiting for his life to resume, wondering if it ever would." (Page 191)
Explanation for Quote 5- This shows Robbie's mentality to the war in comparison with his time in prison. He sees his chance to join war effort as a second chance away from the horrors of living in prison, and if he were to slack or fail this time, he would lose that chance and lose everything important to him. He wouldn't receive this same opportunity again, and this time, all of things he truly feared (permanent losses) would become a reality.
Quote 6- "I love you. I'll wait for you. Come back." (Page 201) Written in a letter from Cecilia to Robbie
Explanation for Quote 6 - "Come back to me" is something Cecilia said often. Briony describes how her older sister would save her from nightmares by cradling her and whispering these words. In the end, it is Robbie who Cecilia wishes would return to her. Ending her letter like this shows how much Cecilia loved Robbie, how much she believed in him, and how loyal and faithful she was to their relationship. It is even more powerful when taken with the context that Cecilia cut herself from everyone in her family after Briony condemned Robbie as a rapist.
Quote 7- "He knew by heart certain passages from her letters, he had revisited their tussle with the vase by the fountain, he remembered the warmth from her arm at the dinner when the twins went missing. These memories sustained him, but not so easily. Too often they reminded him of where he was when he last summoned them. They lay on the far side of a great divide in time, as significant as B.C. and A.D. Before prison, before the war, before the sight of a corpse became a banality." (Page 213)
Explanation for Quote 7- The detriment of Robbie's experience is characterized by this quote. He sees his life in two parts: before the incident and after. The memories from before are the only element of happiness he has in his life, but they're seeping through into the horrors of his current life. As such, he is losing what he felt as a free man and clings onto the things that help him retain those thoughts (like any new letter from Cecilia).
Quote 8 - "From this new and intimate perspective, she learned a simple, obvious thing she had always known, and everyone knew: that a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended." (Page 287)
Explanation for Quote 8 - This is in reference to the horrific night she experienced as a nurse. As she said, she learned everything she knew about nursing from this night. This is the moment she realizes how destroying a person can happen so easily, but fixing them is almost impossible. That's what happened with Robbie and Cecilia- she ruined their lives in a fleeting moment and she is unable to fix it, even after all this time. After seeing all the wounded soldiers on the brink of death, and not being able to help much besides offering empty comfort, she sees first-hand how hard it is to fix what is broken (Just like the vase!!)
Quote 9 - "It was her sister she missed- or more precisely, it was her sister with Robbie. Their love. Neither Briony nor the war had destroyed it." (Page 330)
Explanation for Quote 9 - Although disputable, many believe this is Briony's focal argument in her quest for atonement. This passage shows that, despite her selfish, immature actions that led to her sister and her lover's untimely and horrific deaths, it was unable to break the love Cecilia and Robbie shared. Neither that action, nor the war, was able to destroy it, because they died still passionately in love with each other. Nothing could take that away from them.
Quote 10- In relation to Paul Marshall- "It has often been remarked upon, how much good he did in the world. Perhaps he's spent a lifetime making amends. Or perhaps he just swept onward without a thought, to live the life that was always his." (Page 337)
Explanation for Quote 10- This quote represents Briony's unrelenting obsession with the night she accused Robbie of rape and how she's felt about Lola marrying her actual rapist of Paul Marshall. She attempts to rationalize Lola's decision by rationalizing Paul Marshall's life, but it comes out inconclusive either way (another example of her being unable to penetrate the minds of others).
Quote 11- "I've always been good at not thinking about the things that are really troubling me." (Page 341)
Explanation for Quote 11- This is extremely important information for how Briony's character acts (or thinks she does). By saying this, Briony is of the belief that she can push aside the things that cause her the most problems, but in actuality, this is not the case. The fact that she's spent the majority of her life working on a novel to atone for what she's done shows that she's had issue letting go her biggest trouble. Thus, she is deceiving herself.
Quote 12 - "The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her... The attempt was all." (Page 350)
Explanation for Quote 12 - Although this comes after Quote 2, this is Briony's plead with the audience. She is explaining how precarious her situation is, and how they are the only people that can, in theory, grant or deny her atonement for her despicable actions. Her argument, ultimately, is that there is no higher deity or person she can plead to, so the audience is the only entity capable of doing so. They are able to read her 'attempt', and decide whether it is enough to deem her actions forgiven.
Quote 13 - "Nothing in her life was sufficiently interesting or shameful to merit hiding; no one knew about the squirrel's skull beneath her bed, but no one wanted to know." (Page 5 in Kristen's book). "Who would want to believe that they never met again, never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism?" (Page 350)
Explanation for Quote 13 - In the first quote, there is an ominous, foreshadowing element. Alone, the passage basically states that nothing in Briony's life was really a secret, and the skull under her bed, which she made into a secret, no one cared to know about. Then, at the very end of the book, this quote is fulfilled. Briony now has a secret, a skeleton in the closet, so to speak, but no one wants to know it; it is too depressing, and would serve no purpose in a book.
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