Love, Pride, and the Futility of Cowardly Atonement

I saw a movie recently – “Atonement.”   From a literary standpoint, one might say that it was a great story. It had the protagonist heroine and hero who were hopelessly in love, the antagonist who was repentant, but only to herself – not repentant enough to do anything about the wrong that she had caused, except in a seemingly superficial way.

So here is the story in a nutshell (Spoiler Alert if you haven’t seen the movie and want to — media companion here:  Atonement with James McAoy and Keira Knightly, 2007, Universal Studios.)

Setting – England, 1935.

A young girl, Briony (age 13), witnesses her crush (Robbie, recent college grad age) in a (very) passionate embrace with her older sister (Cecilia, recent college grad age). She (Briony) is livid! In anger, she accuses young Robbie of being the perpetrator the molestation of her young cousin (Lola, approx 13 yrs old).  Robbie goes to jail and later to the army to continue “serving penance.” Cecilia “divorces” her family for pressing charges against Robbie and for not believing his side of the story after how wonderful he had been to their family.  So what if their family was rich and Robbie was just the housekeeper’s son? Plus, Cecilia reminds everyone, little sister Briony is always writing stories and plays and has such a “fanciful imagination.”  In defiance to her family, Cecilia becomes a nurse for the war.  Cut to later in the story … Robbie dies in 1940. Cecilia dies in 1940.

You’d think that in this 5 year period, Briony (now growing up and understanding the difference between right and wrong) would tell her family that she’d lied … that she would identify the real perpetrator of the molestation – especially since she saw him very clearly. And so what if the real criminal was rich, and powerful, and a supposed class-equal, and friend of the family?

Does she do this? Does she tell the truth? YES! SHE DOES! In a BOOK! Nearly 60 years later! Not in real life … she writes it in a book! At age 77, she publishes her 21st novel (she has become a famous author) and tells the truth which allows Robbie and Cecilia to live and love and be free … in the book, IN THE BOOK (the BOOK!!!) …  not in real life.


And so Briony “atones” for her sin of lying by allowing Robbie and Cecilia to have a life … in a book. By telling the truth … in a book. In a book!  (A book!!) Not only does she tell the truth … in a book, But Robbie and Cecilia are still dead and both still suffered in life because of Briony’s cowardice.

Now I know that this is a story. A screenplay made into a movie, based on a really gripping novel by Ian McEwan.  It was a great movie, but it makes me think of life.  Do we run away from wrongs by trying to fix them later without actually confronting the situations?

Let’s not do that in our real lives.  Let’s ask for forgiveness, right wrongs, and tell the truth … now. Atone in real time … regardless of the consequences.