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Decoding the Coda in Atonement

In Ian McEwan’s award winning novel Atonement young Briony Tallis must try and make amends for her wrongdoings toward her older sister Cecelia and her love interest, Robbie. At the end of the novel, the short, twenty-page coda entitled “London, 1999” proves surprisingly necessary for the final realizations of the novel to fully occur. Though some would argue that the coda is unnecessary and ruins the fairytale ending McEwan has previously set up for his novel, the information that is revealed in this short final section of the novel does provide a sense of closure. The necessity is revealed through Briony’s words, actions, and ultimate revelation of her final motive.

The closure that develops involves Cecilia and Robbie, Paul and Lola, and Briony herself. Before the coda, the reader is lead to believe that both Cecilia and Robbie, after their lives have been separated by imprisonment and war, have reunited and are living happily ever after: a happy ending that one would expect to occur in any stereotypical novel. In the coda, however, it is casually revealed by Briony that both of the lovers have met their untimely end due to the war: “I can no longer think what purpose would be served if, say, I tried to persuade my reader, by direct or indirect means, that Robbie Turner died of septicemia at Bray Dunes on 1 June 1940, or that Cecilia was killed in September of the same year by the bomb that destroyed Balham Underground station” (McEwan, 350). This is a great shock to the reader, who by now has formed a sense of ownership and feeling with the characters. Another surprising aspect is revealed in the coda: the outcomes of Paul Marshall and his wife, Briony’s cousin, Lola. Paul is much older than Lola, and by this time is in his eighties. Lola, in contrast, is only in her mid-seventies, and is much more agile and youthful than her male counterpart; she was “still as lean and fit as a racing dog, and still faithful” (337). This liveliness upsets Briony. She even goes as far as to compare Lola to the famous maleficent villainess Cruella De Vil. Lola’s spryness irks Briony because she knows that she cannot publish the final draft of her novel until all parties mentioned are dead, for fear of being sued heavily for libel: “I might outlive Paul Marshall, but Lola would certainly outlive me. The consequences of this are clear…As my editor put it once, publication equals litigation” (338-339). She is very afraid that Lola will outlive her, and in turn her literature, and thus the truth, will never be published for the world to see; her atonement will never be fulfilled.

The reader is exposed to Briony’s newfound purpose in life (or purpose for the continuation of her life in general) in the coda. She must get the novel published, one way or another. It is through this novel that Briony feels that she has made right the wrongs of her childhood. Can one really atone for his or her sins through a work of fiction? In a sense, it would be easy to say yes, as long as the information in the narrative was factual. Therein, though, lies the overwhelmingly obvious problem: how do we know what is “real” and what is totally fictional?

One must, of course, look at the events in the coda with a grain of salt. All of this is, of course, fictional, made up by Ian McEwan. However, one cannot help but feel somewhat confused about the progression of the novel within a novel. Briony raises her own question about this matter when she asks: “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” (350). This “God complex” is obviously felt by Briony in regards to her personal novel of atonement, but one cannot help but ask the same question about McEwan and Atonement in its entirety as well. So, what can one truly believe? The answer is, quite simply, nothing at all. The novel is, after all, just a novel: everything that lies between the book’s cover and back is made up and fictional. There never was any Briony Tallis, no Cecilia, no Robbie, no scene by the fountain, no rape of Lola, no forbidden love. All of these events, characters, and dilemmas that arise in both Briony’s novel and Atonement as a whole are simply figments of McEwan’s creative mind.

What is one truly to make of a novel such as Atonement? When all is said and done, this work of literature is nothing more than the chronicling of a young girl as she attempts to make something of the world around her that she just cannot yet seem to fully understand. In her attempts to make amends for her childhood wrongdoings, Briony feels certain that her novel is the perfect medium in which to relay her feelings of regret; up to this point, she has failed miserably in her attempts, and her current attempt cannot, and more than likely will not, be completed in her lifetime. All she can seem to do is write her personal atonement, which is still yet to even be published. Who is to say if it will even get to that point? Either way, one cannot say that the coda at the end of Atonement has no purpose. It brings about great change in the overall scheme of the novel, and for that, it cannot be downplayed. The information that is given in the coda about the key characters of the novel is surprising, to say the least. The one thing the coda does do, very well at that, is give the reader a sense of the true sense of the fates of the main characters. Another aspect that the coda brings to light, which could potentially be more important than the prevalent sense of closure, is the fact that it causes the reader to think. After reading this short section, the reader begins to pose questions about the novel as a whole. Questioning is the basis for literary analysis; therefore, the coda allows for one to look at the novel as a legitimate work of literary genius instead of a simple work of escapism. All in all, the coda is most a vital portion of the novel. Its absence from publication would have diminished the overall acceptance and success of Atonement.

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