Atonement conveys a dichotomous message. Ian McEwan - the reality, the tangible author - is supplemented by a deeper layer; his construct - the potentially unreliable narrator - Briony Tallis. Essentially, branding any of the enigmatic individuals offered to us in Atonement as 'heroes' and 'villains' is impossible - and indeed unjust - simply because of the sheer amount of ambiguity and subjectivity involved - "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so"1.
The select tendencies these individuals relay on the other hand is another matter; the notion of 'victimhood' must imply some malicious behaviour beforehand. Taking 'villainy', the Concise Oxford Dictionary, necessarily - though feebly - lists it as a derivative of 'villain'; alluding to it as an individual's moral essence. The Collins Dictionary, on the other hand, defines it as a "vicious behaviour or action"2, supporting the notion that select 'behaviour' and themes are the 'heroes' and 'villains' of the novel. For example, on the surface Briony is a 'villain' whose actions merely generate destruction and deprivation.
Yet, the Observer gives the view that "the personal story - especially Briony's childhood 'failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you', and her later struggle with remorse - is painfully strong"3, encouraging the idea that she can be considered both a victim and villain in tandem. Select 'villainous' vices of Briony - predominantly naivety - are ultimately responsible for Robbie's downfall. Contrarily, Briony assumes some distinctly 'heroic' roles throughout the novel; most noteworthy, her nursing occupation and the 'redeeming' atonement.
Her 'villainous' temperament is inadvertent (and nonetheless a literary construction) that affects both her and the other characters in the novel. She is by no means an embodied villain. Another notable argument for a specific character being a villain is that of Paul Marshall. Taking into account the whole text, we can debate as to whether the perceived 'malicious' actions of Marshall following this scene were consensual or forced. Lola's strive for maturity, her lack of action following the 'rape' scene, and their eventual matrimony definitely hints at the former. Presenting Marshall in this way McEwan, concurrent with the reader's knowledge of Briony's unreliable narration, is hinting that visual stereotypes are not necessarily accurate.
The surface can be misleading, conforming to the literary state of Atonement as a whole. Associated with this idea of stereotypes are Briony's thoughts in the opening pages of the novel; "beauty, she had discovered, occupied a narrow band. Ugliness, on the other hand, had infinite variation"5. Here McEwan gives us a literal image, maybe relating to body size or broad facial features - ironic considering Marshall's "scrunched up"6 face (which is, of course, still an indefinite notion).
Lola appears to take a liking to Marshall's unpleasant appearance, giving the reader varied interpretations; either Lola is a fool for falling into this paedophile's 'trap' - Briony's testament - or that ugliness is not necessarily a restriction on love and admiration - McEwan's oblique message. The quote can also be interpreted figuratively to the various roles that Marshall potentially occupies in the novel - an ugly figure giving the reader 'infinite variation' in their views.
Relating back to false perception, if Briony's testimony against Robbie was heavily inaccurate why is her later assumption that Marshall was even present at the scene of Lola's 'attack' often taken for granted? She presumptuously 'recollects' Marshall's scars and scenes in which she was not present, in doing so proving that her novel is heavily based on conjecture. One believes that Marshall's and Robbie's respective 'villainous' and 'heroic' roles are substantially manufactured, most probably in Briony's drive to find a 'scapegoat' through regret, and remorse for her sister.
Wouldn't this, then, determine Marshall as a moral 'victim', and Briony's guilt as a corrupt, 'villainous' trait, incapable of passing judgement? Throughout the novel McEwan, to an extent, discredits 'heroism' by associating it with downfall. The memory of Uncle Clem's exploits symbolically ruined by the broken vase, Robbie's 'heroic' return with the twins shamed by his subsequent arrest, and the vulgar letter ultimately destroying the relationship it once formed.
The imagery McEwan uses to progressively build an ominous aura during the day of Part One is fascinating, specifically the prolepsis of Emily's migraines - she felt "held at knife point"7 by her "animal tormentor"8, evoking the image of a violent attack. In Part Two, again, McEwan compounds the horrific results of Briony's actions with reference to "a vanished boy. Vanished. "9, explicitly linking to the idea of Briony causing deprivation and irreparable damage - repetition and the use of a minor sentence illustrating McEwan's intentional focus on this particular aspect of Briony's 'crime'.
Also worth noting is the juxtaposed effect that the war has on Briony; "she understood how the war might compound her crime"10 which - despite positively encouraging her idea for atonement - victimises her through regret. In this case, the war in itself can be interpreted as an oblique 'villain', an obstacle that Robbie must weave through - to persevere - in turn inflating determination's role as a 'heroic' trait.
McEwan also, to an extent, portrays Briony's atonement as a 'saviour', he himself claiming that "when this novel is published [after her death . . ] these two lovers will survive to love"11. It supplements "their love. Neither Briony nor the war had destroyed it"12, proposing that ultimately, Briony's regret - her victimhood - as a response to her 'villainous' flaws, has given Robbie and Cecilia their life back. Finney contrarily believes that "Robbie's and Cecilia's happiness cannot be restored to them by an act of corrective fiction"13, addressing the obvious faults with this somewhat fantastical idea.
Words are both Atonement's forte, and its flaw. Finney's own "reading of this novel is of a work of fiction that is from beginning to end concerned with the making of fiction"14, the metanarrative - words - consistently contributing to Atonement's ambiguity. Correspondingly, "conjuring him safely on paper"15 (and "closing his fate with the magic of naming"16) - in relation to Robbie's arrest - stresses this 'word power' motif, accordingly giving an image of 'magic' and fairytales.
Briony's immaturity sets in motion Atonement's forthcoming events. An example of Kamode's thoughts; "the entire novel is... a conflict or coalescence of truth and fantasy, a novelist's treatment of what is fantasised as fact"17 is portrayed by the synonymy between the "wicked count"18, in the Trials of Arabella, and Paul Marshall; proleptical of his impending presence as a fantastical 'villain' - the narrator's 'plaything'.
Her whole life and work has been defined by "wretched fantasy"19 - like "French bread... ll air and no substance"20 - and a stringent view of good and evil. Where she has predispositions of Robbie being a 'maniac' she automatically links this to "murderous thoughts"21 where there is nothing previously to suggest that murder is a remote possibility. Equally, "You saved me"22, in reference to the incident at the pond, strikes similarities with fantastical 'heroism' - that of a fairytale; Robbie being a "medical prince"23. Naivety is progressively Atonement's prime 'villain'.
This is not to rule out another 'villainous' theme in the novel - that of class divide. Briony's testimony was trusted over that of a servant, and there was evidently little attempt to obtain Cecilia's view of the situation - "McEwan subtly suggests the invidious nature of a class system that permeates even those seeking to reverse its effects"24 according to Finney. Cecilia later refers to this as "the snobbery that lay behind their stupidity"25, citing family members' personal contempt towards Robbie as the reason for his arrest.
The authorities too appeared to put class above all else, "they chose to believe the evidence of a silly, hysterical little girl. In fact, they encouraged her by giving her no room to turn back. "26 Indeed, this is a just representation of the general cynical mindset towards house servants in the 1930s; any excuse to arrest a 'lowlife' was a worthy one - Robbie's condemnation being orchestrated from above; not by Briony. Overall, then, Atonement offers us thematic, elemental 'heroes' and 'villains' rather than embodied ones.
Briony, despite being a focal point of 'villainous' behaviour, is concurrently a victim because of the attributes she herself has been burdened with. The idea of Paul Marshall being a villain is too ambiguous for clarity, and equally Robbie's 'heroism' is too reliant on the narrator Briony's consolatory mindset to be completely accurate. The final catharsis seals the novel's 'heroic' motif through the 'power' of words, which bizarrely - by the vulgar letter (the "typographical demon"27) - had previously set in motion Atonement's spiteful events.
McEwan's 'revelation' makes the reader consider how a narrator can let their own contempt for a character ruin a novel's clarity. Ultimately, because the reader is unable to pin a definite answer this, one can assume that McEwan's prime motive is to bring the reader's attention to those 'heroic' and 'villainous' tendencies that all humans must try respectively to prioritise and avoid; not individuals.