Postmodernism and Atonement

Postmodernism, Meta-Narratives, and Cultural Stereotypes in Atonement

By: Mirenda Gwin, Fourth Year, History; Media Studies

Jean-Francois Lyotard’s idea of Grand Narratives and Jean Baudrillard’s theory of truth as a social construction can be utilized in examining the manner in which the British film Atonement (2007) relies on contradictory visions of truth at the level of the script and at the level of the genre of ‘historical fiction.’ The script dramatizes the consequences of misinterpreting the truth; this trope is exemplified in the actions of Briony Tallis, one of the main characters in the film who wrongly accuses another of the central characters, Robbie Turner, of raping a young girl.[1] This dramatization becomes tragic based on the nearly universal supposition that truth can, at some point, be apprehended properly. However, this argument about truth implicit in the script contradicts the film’s reliance on carefully constructed, polished, and dangerous historical truths, like ideas about the postmodernist blurring of truth and fiction, the cultural imposition of hetero-normative sexual intimacy within marriage, and the imagined ‘British’ cultural stereotypes.

Atonement (2007) is a British film directed by Joe Wright and based on the novel by Ian McEwan. Brian Finney, a literary scholar, writes that a major theme of Atonement is Briony’s dangerous blurring of the fiction and nonfiction worlds—or, her inability “to make a distinction between the fictive and the real.”[2] This is an interesting argument that he fleshes out by using evidence of Briony’s storytelling that occurs in all three ages in which she is portrayed in the film. Briony Tallis is a precocious thirteen-year-old girl, from a wealthy family, who is obsessed with writing. She is working on a play (“The Trials of Arabella”) when we first meet her; she is working on “Two Figures by a Fountain” when she is an eighteen-year-old nurse in WWII; she is an older, established writer at the end of the film, and she has just finished her 21st novel, Atonement. At thirteen, though, says Finney, “she is too young…to understand the dangers that can ensue from modeling oneʼs conduct on such an artificial world.”[3] Briony’s version of the truth changes in each stage of her life, but her own personal ability to blend reality and fiction reflects a greater problem of Atonement: like Briony, the film seeks to construct its own version of history through blending the real and the simulated.

Jean Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard’s theories stem from postmodernism, and use concepts such as meta-narratives and the real and the simulated. In his famous work Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard writes that we have lost contact with the real world because we are so reliant on models—maps, he would say, guide us now, rather than reality.[4] Because of this lack of the real in our postmodern age, “truth” is a cultural construction with multiple meanings. Un-universal truth—Baudrillard’s concept of postmodernism—can be shown in the fountain scene and the library scene at the beginning of Atonement, and in Briony’s interview at the end of the film.

What is more, the very premise of Atonement can be interpreted as a rejection and critique of modernism; Richard Robinson writes that some critics think, “Atonement seems to ventriloquize modernism and then to silence it.[5] The film, especially, suggests a postmodernist leaning, which is why the theories of Baudrillard, Lyotard, and Appadurai are applicable when discussing the film (and book, although I will just be focusing on the film). Finney writes, “McEwan has said that in Brionyʼs first piece of fiction that reflects this modernist bias, “Two Figures by a Fountain,” “she is burying her conscience beneath her stream of consciousness,” which indicates the “hidden moral consequences” of modernism.”[6]

Marriage and Class Meta-narratives

Lyotard utilizes what he calls his Grand Narrative discourse, which can be fleshed out in the context of the sex scene in the library between characters Cee and Robbie in the film Atonement. Briony, Cee’s younger sister, interprets Cee and Robbie’s intimate embrace as rape. Briony’s interpretation of the rape can be tied to Lyotard’s theory that meta-narratives influence modernism: a universal truth, according to modernist thought, is that the scene that Briony witnessed was, without a doubt, a rape. Renowned British film critic Brian MacFarlane says of the scene that there are “…dangers inherent in summer’s loosening of the sexual stays but also involve children in matters beyond their youthful comprehension.”[7] Sexual acts can be placed in meta-narrative context because, Lyotard would say, sexual intimacy is only socially acceptable in certain situations between certain people. Kristine Baber and Colleen Murray, in their article on postmodern feminism, discuss the idea that,

“Postmodernism provides a sophisticated and persuasive critique of essentialism—rejecting the reductionism and naïve dualism that result in dichotomous, either-or thinking and embracing ambivalence, paradox, and heterogeneity…a postmodernist feminist approach to sexuality conceptualizes it as complex and fluid. Unitary, monolithic theories of sexuality are rejected, and contradictory representations of experiences and desire are accommodated.”[8]

In 1930s England, sexual acts were just for a married heterosexual couple of equal social standing—postmodernist pluralism and relativism did not yet abound as a social norm in British society. Briony’s misinterpretation of the scene hearkens back to a modernist presumption that there are universal truths, and the context for sex was considered one of these so-called ‘truths.’

Briony’s theory of sexual acts, and perhaps many of traditional British ideas about sexual intimacy, state that sex should only happen in private, between a married man and woman, who were of the same class. Cee and Robbie’s transgression of socioeconomic class barriers, as seen particularly clearly in the library scene, violates the ‘unitary, monolithic theory of sexuality’ that Briony (and many Brits in the 1940s) had in their minds. Baber and Murray’s definition of a postmodernist culture does not apply yet here, but because the film relies so heavily on shooting the same scene twice—Briony’s, then Cee and Robbie’s perspectives—implies that there is more to the story than just Briony’s interpretation of it; in other words, using Baudrillard’s idea, truth is but a cultural construction.[9]

Furthermore, sexual meta-narratives influence interpretation of class and sexual relationships in Atonement. William van de Ven uses the ideas of Michel Foucault from Foucault’s The Archeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language (1969) when he discusses how power produces truth, which in turn produces discourse.[10] According to William van de Ven’s analysis, “Foucault’s position is basically that there are no truths, no facts of the matter, independent of societal and disciplinary truth-establishing practices.”[11] In other words, Baudrillard and Foucault would agree on the nature of pluralistic truths that are based on societal norms and cultural contexts. Besides Atonement’s famous library sex scene, one other scene of errant sexual activity happens, on the same night, and both are construed as rapes by Briony. This time, however, it is a ‘real’ rape: Lola, Briony’s cousin, is attacked by Paul Marshall, a family friend. But Briony refuses to see the truth; in fact, the rape meta-narrative—that two people of different classes would never have sex—blinds her to the reality of the situation. Paul Marshall is the rich son of a chocolate magnate, while Robbie is the son of the Tallis’ housekeeper. Robbie, under the Grand Rape Narrative alive in the modernist 1930s British society, is more likely to be more suspected of misdeeds and crimes, and of being a ‘sex-maniac’[12] than a well-bred elite like Paul Marshall; this suspicion is ingrained in the imaginations of everyone, rich and poor, of the global community, because of the idea of modernist universal truth of class and sex and the particular parameters that surround each.

Atonement comments on class through ways other than sexual relationships: it gives definition to the oft-used phrase “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” The battle scene on the beach at Dunkirk really gives life to this phrase, especially considering the usage of a single, uncut film shot that emphasizes the tragedy of a single soldier (Robbie) amongst thousands of soon-to-be casualties. One of the major themes of the film is class struggle: the viewer can see Robbie, the poor gardener’s son, trampled underfoot by the wealthy Tallis family from the get-go. The powerlessness of the individual soldier—the film follows Robbie through the whole beach scene—highlights the inability of the lower classes in England during the 30s and 40s to rise above the class into which they were born. One long shot of the film shows him standing, hunched and alone, in front of two on-screen lovers kissing. He cannot have love or happiness, the film seems to be saying, because of a silly little (rich) girl’s lie—because the Tallis family, with their wealth and social influence, prevented him from being with Cee. The film goes great lengths to show Cee’s distancing of herself from her family and the British society’s class hierarchy.

Baudrillard theorizes that people can no longer use universal truth as the premise of analysis—Baudrillard’s assertion of truth as an ideal based on pluralism is also reflected in the famous fountain scene in Atonement. Professor Peter Childs writes in his film review, “Here, as elsewhere, the film pointedly shows contrasting viewpoints, and at the end of the second ‘true’ telling of the fountain scene the camera focuses on the fantasist Briony, who looks steadily at the viewer and invites our complicity or sympathy.”[13] In this scene, the viewer is shown the same incident from two different viewpoints: Cee and Robbie’s view from the fountain, and Briony’s view from the window. Which tale is ‘true’? In postmodernist form, the film shows the viewer how the true message becomes distorted by the child, Briony’s, interpretation of the events—she views the incident through glass, a medium used to literally and figuratively distort the true meaning of the event. The sensual fountain scene and the erotic library scene can be connected: they were both interpreted incorrectly by a naïve child, and both involved a sexual relationship between two people who socioeconomically should not have been together in the first place. Professor Childs further connects the two scenes to the note that Briony read, from Robbie and intended for Cee, by describing the note as “… a visually realized rendition of Briony’s final but not faithful ‘version’ of events.”[14]

Life and Death, Fact and Fiction

Postmodernism is also evident in the overall confusion of life and death in the film. Robbie’s death at the end of the film of septicemia further exaggerates the tragic irony and blending of truth and fiction that is involved in the film from the beginning. Briony has a futile desire to keep him alive, in a sense, by preserving him in her stories, because she could not keep him alive in ‘real’ life. Briony’s entire life is spent trying to atone for a lie she told as a child—one that ripped two lovers apart and ruined their lives, but also ruined Briony’s own life and prevented her from ever being able to forgive herself. Her entire life has been defined by guilt and by the necessity to atone. Much like her writing cannot bring back to life those she wronged, her obsession with the past cannot bring back the dead, or redo an incident (her lie, in this case), that caused the deaths of those she loved. So, at the end of the film, there is bizarre pseudo-reversal of life-death roles: we find out that Robbie is dead, but his life is preserved in literature. Briony, on the other hand, is in permanent psychological torment for what she had done to Cee and Robbie through that childhood lie.[15] This intertwined mesh of life and death confuses the characters, and the viewers, into disbelieving one or the other.

It is almost as if life and death, the bookends of a human’s existence, also depend on the context in which they are discussed—in other words, life and death, like Baudrillard’s idea of truth, no longer exist as a universal truth, either, because death and life for the characters in Atonement is ambiguous as well. According to Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, “Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map.”[16] In other words, in today’s postmodern society, the society that Atonement represents, the representation of “aliveness” (Briony’s retelling of a life in her novel) is more meaningful than the real life of the characters (Robbie, who dies young and does not do all the things Briony says he does). But the whole tragedy of the film is the knowledge of what might have, or what could have, been—and we only have that knowledge because Briony has interpreted the characters lives in ways that are not real.

The viewer only realizes at the end of the film, in Briony’s book interview, that Cee and Robbie died before they could be reunited. She says to the interviewer, “I had decided for a long time to tell the truth, no rhymes, no embellishments” she says, describing her novel. But, the entire second half of the film was another ‘lie’ that Briony told in her book; she asks the interviewer, when trying to justify her own tweaking of historical ‘truth’: “But what sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader derive from an ending like that [Cee and Robbie dying apart]?” She takes it upon herself to rewrite the stories of the couple whose lives Briony felt personally responsible for ruining. Brian Finney asserts that the “narrative is driven by her unconscious desire to win back the love of a sister who in fact died in 1940.”[17] This additional fact makes Briony an even more sympathetic character. She says that by writing an alternate story, telling of Cee and Robbie’s reunion and Briony’s courage to seek their forgiveness, she “gave them their happiness.” But did she? Brian McFarlane, at the end of his well-wrought film review, asks the following:

“The last shot of the film shows the ill-starred lovers running carefree on a beach: it is a beautiful image but does this novelist’s manipulation actually mean anything? Robbie died on war service; Cecilia was killed in the Balham Underground station during an air raid. If ‘atonement’ means ‘reparation for wrong or injury,’ isn’t it merely fanciful of Briony to think she has achieved it?”[18]

It seems that the character of Briony portrays postmodernist tendencies: the viewer of the film becomes more confused as to what is ‘reality,’ and what is a figment of Briony’s imagination. Scholar Ross Abbinnett summarizes Baudrillard by writing, “…the origin of the simulacrum in the ‘visible technology of icons’ has always threatened to overwhelm the transcendence of the real, and to transform the agon of representation into the instrument of limitless performativity…”[19] In Atonement, the ‘visible technology of icons’ is in the actual film itself (pictures of Cee, Robbie, and Briony together), Briony’s description of her book about her sister’s relationship, and the film’s dual shots of both the fountain scene and the library scene. By the end of the film, the icons, or Briony’s interpretation of events, and the real, are no longer distinguishable.

‘Britishness’ as a Meta-Narrative

Portraying marriage and class as culturally imperative ideals only makes sense within the context of British society and British identity. Not surprisingly, another meta-narrative is at issue in Atonement: the idea of Britishness itself. Marriage and its relationship to sexual intimacy serve textual purpose in Atonement, but also play a role in the cultural construction of ‘Britishness.’ Marriage and class are both products of institutions, and in Atonement, they are products of the public’s view of British culture. Marriage and class play roles in other British productions, like the television show Downton Abbey (2010) and film Pride and Prejudice (2005). Interpretation of sexual activity through the lens of hetero-normative marriage plays a central theme in all three British productions; outside of marriage, sexual acts are unacceptable in British culture. It seems that this particular interpretation of the relationship between sexual acts and marriage is contingent upon British national identity. Celik Norman writes about the portrayal of British culture as simply a reflection of what the global audience assumes to be British culture: “good taste, restraint, reticence….”[20] In the same way, Baudrillard seeks to show that truth is a product of institutional ideas rather than one universal idea. He says that British national identity has become more like a map of foreign cultural projections, and ‘true’ British cinema is lost now that the real meaning is obscured by these projections.

‘British’ cinema today is no longer inherently “British,” which also changes national identity; as a result, it is harder to make cinematic assumptions based on ‘British’ stereotypes. Scholar Celik Norman asserts that, “…the apparent cohesiveness of British society, detectable in the Depression years of the 1930s, did not endure beyond the immediate post-war period and since that time…the country has been subject to particular forms of social divisiveness which have acted as an insuperable obstacle to the emergence of a ‘British’ cinematic culture.”[21] So, in Britain’s war years, 1935-1950, British heritage and other cultural-type films were very popular. As in every war situation, an ‘us against them’ mentality reigned. But after the end of WWII, there is no longer a ‘real’ difference separating the British national identity from other identities in the Western Hemisphere.

Celik Norman’s argument about the disappearance of traditionally ‘British’ films is summed up nicely in his conclusion: he writes that “…the emergence of a tradition – including a set of conventions, stylistic preferences and themes – has been impossible because the British cinema, like British society itself, has been the site of conflict ever since the Second World War. The conflict is essentially rooted in class distinctions and inter-class antagonisms, which have occasionally…assumed a political guise.”[22] In other words, British national identity is no longer based on hatred of a common foe or on an activity that is inherently ‘British.’ Baudrillard writes in his first chapter of Simulacra and Simulation, “But it is no longer a question of either maps or territories. Something has disappeared: the sovereign difference, between one and the other, that constituted the charm of abstraction.”[23] Boundaries between countries and borders are now blurred; Britain is not like it was in the 1940s; today, national identities are more fluid and ambiguous than they have ever been, partly based on the rise of global media. Thus, when Atonement makes assumptions based on national identity, it seems a bit problematic to do so in the postmodernist society of 2007, or when the film was made. Fredric Jameson, a Marxist political theorist, echoes Lyotard’s vision of meta-narratives; according to scholar Lawrence Grossberg, “Jameson sees the “truth” of postmodern cultural practices, not on their surfaces…but in their relationship to a deep structure (a meta-narrative) of real historical processes…For Jameson, postmodern texts are the displaced signs of the new political-economic context, a displacement that is accomplished by the mediation of experience.”[24] In other words, Britishness has changed dramatically since WWII.

Atonement reveals these substantial societal changes through cultural stereotypes that still reside in the film, even though it is supposed to be a rejection of modernism. Several important scenes happen in Pride and Prejudice[25] focusing on class and marriage, and even traditional gender roles. As Cee does not seem happy until she realizes she loves Robbie, Mr. Darcy does not realize his own misery until he meets the love of his life, Elizabeth Bennett, in Pride and Prejudice. Mrs. Bennett’s sole life’s purpose is to see her daughters married, particularly to a man of the ‘right’ class (i.e. he is rich).[26] Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy’s match is looked kindly upon at the end of the film, partly because of class. Mr. Darcy is wealthy, not Elizabeth, which hints at another element at play here: sexism, because the woman, in British culture, could be financially reliant on her husband, but certainly not vice versa. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth’s union fits nicely into the British marriage narrative: sexual acts are not condoned outside the realms of hetero-normative marriage, and Elizabeth and Darcy’s courtship is free from sexual activity. On the other hand, in Atonement, the lives of Cee and Robbie are destroyed because Briony saw them being sexually intimate with one another. Not only were they of different classes, but Cee was of a higher class than Robbie. They were, most importantly, not married, and marriage, according to traditional cultural norms, is the only context in which sexual acts are condoned.

Marriage also plays a role in Downton Abbey, a British television show from Masterpiece Classics. Although much of the show in general revolves around ‘correct’ marriages, a particularly significant scene in Season One when Lady Mary has a sexual affair with a Turkish diplomat, Kemal Pamuk, who dies during the event.[27] Subsequent episodes show Lady Mary suppressing conversation about his death and her involvement; interestingly, she seems less concerned in the potential implication of her involvement and more worried about keeping the actual affair, and her ‘impurity,’ a secret. In Season Two, when she tells Matthew of her relationship with Pamuk, the point of that episode is for viewers to love Matthew when he ‘forgives’ her for transgressing the meta-narrative dominating British culture: one must be married to be sexually active.[28] Lady Mary and Mr. Pamuk were not social equals and were not married when they had a sexual relationship—again, we see characters transgressing and crossing social boundaries that, in British eyes, should never be crossed. Robbie and Cee die after their violation of the marriage meta-narrative, and Mr. Pamuk dies and Lady Mary is socially damaged after their violation of the British marital meta-narrative.

Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and Downton Abbey are just some examples of British productions that perhaps serve as an example of Appadurai’s idea of imagined nostalgia, or “nostalgia without memory.”[29] Other cultures have imposed what they imagine historical ‘Britishness’ to be (i.e. proper marital and class standards), but these collective memories do not remember these so-called cultural trends at all. Rather, to utilize Baudrillard, there are cultural maps that have been imposed in British cinema, and audiences today think that British cultural stereotypes of class and marriage are ‘true.’

In conclusion, philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s theorizes that a postmodernist cultural climate leads to the proliferation of the imaginary and to the ultimate death of the real—and this can be seen through the film Atonement. Baudrillard asserts that the world today is based on maps, which at one point were based on the concrete landscapes that they describe—but no longer. Our ‘reality’ is nothing more than a map: an imagined, simulated landscape. Baudrillard questions the common usage of universal truth; Lyotard theorizes about the cultural meta-narratives that exist in postmodernist societies. Atonement also reflects these particular theories regarding sex, class, and national identity, which, in a postmodern world, cannot be universally theorized. Atonement and other British media contain a blending of fiction and nonfiction, and that ‘truth,’ when taken understood to be universal and overarching, becomes little more than a fiction in itself.


Works Cited:

[1] Atonement. Dir. Joe Wright. Perf. Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Vanessa Redgrave,

Romola Garai, and Saoirse Ronan. Universal Pictures, 2007. Film.

[2] Finney, Brian. “Briony’s Stand against Oblivion: The Making of Fiction in Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement.’” Journal of Modern Literature. Vol. 27, No. 3, 2004. Indiana University Press. Accessed on JSTOR on October 23, 2013. (70)

[3] Finney 69

[4] Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Chapter 1, “The Precession of Simulacra.” Editions Galilee, 1981. (1)

[5] Robinson, Richard. “The Modernism of Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 56, No. 3, Fall 2010. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Project Muse. Accessed online October 23, 2013. (475)

[6] Finney 72

[7] McFarlane, Brian. “Watching, Writing and Control: Atonement.” Screen Education. 2008. (12)

[8] Baber, Kristine M. and Colleen I. Murray. “A Postmodern Feminist Approach to Teaching Human Sexuality.” Family Relations. Vol. 50, Issue 1, Feb. 2004. (23-24)

[9] Baudrillard 1-2.

[10] Van de Ven, William. “The Social Reality of Truth: Foucault, Searle, and the role of truth within social reality.” Tilburg University: The Netherlands, August 2012. (31)

[11] Van de Ven 31

[12] Atonement

[13] Childs, Peter. “Atonement: The Surface of Things.” Adaptation. Vol. 1, No. 2. (151)

[14] Childs 151

[15] Atonement

[16] Baudrillard 1

[17] Finney 81

[18] McFarlane 15

[19] Abbinnett, Ross. “The Spectre and the Simulacrum: History after Baudrillard.” Theory, Culture, and Society. 2008, Vol. 25, No. 6. (78)

[20] Norman, Celik. “Is There a Distinctive British Cinema?” Ileti-S-Im [serial online]. December 2010. Available from: Communication and Mass Media Complete, accessed October 22, 2013. (89)

[21] Norman 89

[22] Norman 102

[23] Baudrillard 1

[24] Grossberg, Lawrence. “Putting the Pop Back into Postmodernism.” Social Text. Duke University Press: No. 21, “Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism.” 1989. (173)

[25] Pride and Prejudice. Dir. Joe Wright. Perf. Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, and Donald Sutherland. Focus Features, 2005. Film.

[26] Pride and Prejudice

[27] Downton Abbey, Prod. Julian Fellowes, Season 1, Episode 3, 2010.

[28] Downton Abbey, Season 2, Christmas Special, 2011.

[29] Appadurai, Arjun. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Theory Culture Society. 1990, 7:295. (586)