The entire plot of the novel centers on a woman who devotes her entire life repenting a crime
she committed while still a young girl. But is Briony the only person who should feel guilty? Who
else is at fault for the crime committed on that hot summer night in 1935?
Paul Marshall does not own up to the crime, knowing he will get away
with it due to his status and higher class. This is an element explored
within the theme that the class warfare is also to blame as the family are
all too ready to blame Robbie, who is of a lower class, than Paul Marshall.
Mama T is all too willing to selfishly make things easier for
herself by accepting Robbie as the culprit because it is less
hassle for her to prove, given she is dealing with her own
problems of her adulterous husband and poor health.
The second layer to the guilt theme has to do with the history of literature. Aside from the crime
she committed as a child, Briony feels guilty for her powers as a writer. She knows she has the
autonomy to write whatever story she so chooses. Just like she could send Robbie to prison, she
can make him survive the war. The reliance readers put in Briony to tell them "what really
happened" leaves her feeling guilty about her life's work, and she projects that guilt onto the
history of the English literature canon.
Briony can "make a world...in as little as five pages."
"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. There is nothing
outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms."
"How guilt refined the methods of self-torture, threading the beads of
detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime."
An allegory to religion: the rosary is a string of beads used in both
Catholicism and Islam. Religions in general use shame and guilt to
oppress human desire, invoke fear, and maintain order. By comparing
Briony's guilt to the beads on a rosary and a "loop" (a shape with no
beginning or end), the author is able emphasize the eternity of
Briony makes a big dramatic deal of feeling guilt, however,
this is undermined by her numerous efforts to justify her
behaviour subtly throughout the novel.
In Robbie's account she has him imaging her "on the end of his
bayonet" but going on to say he can't really blame her because
she was in love with him and was only 13.
Cecelia reinforces this through knowing that Briony was
jealous of her and acted in such a way to try and compete
with a sibling that was 10 years her senior, as seen in how
Cecelia calls out Briony for being "a tiresome little prima
donna" so knows she is an attention seeker.
As a self punishment, Briony decides to give up all the luxuries of an
upper-class life. No Cambridge, no fancy flat to live in, no traveling, no job at
the ministry. Briony hopes that her duties as a nurse during the war will serve
as some sort of penance towards her.
"I get the impression she's taking on nursing as some sort of penance"