My Grandma used to tell stories of her experiences becoming a nurse. I think that my Grandma, an independent and strong woman, would have loved living right now in a world where women have more employment options than nurse or teacher (not there is anything wrong with being a nurse or a teacher!). Growing up she told stories of her mean head nurse and how she used to get in trouble because she had acne. I can’t even imagine such harsh and in-your-face training. I think that is why I loved reading Atonement by Ian McEwan: it reminded me of my Grandma.
“Between tasks, perhaps a dozen times a day, the students scrubbed their cracked and bleeding chilblained hands under freezing water. The war against germs never ceased. The probationers were initiated into the cult of hygiene. They learned that there was nothing so loathsome as a wisp of blanket fluff hiding under a bed, concealing within its form a battalion, a whole division, of bacteria. The everyday practice of boiling, scrubbing, buffing and wiping became the badge of the students’ professional pride, to which all personal comfort must be sacrificed” (Part Three, pg 272).
My Grandma wrote down stories of her training and I am curious to find her stories and reread them because I am certain that she wrote something very similar to what McEwan has his main character Briony recall in her training.
Yet memories of my Grandma and the joy that those memories brought me is not what I left thinking about after finishing McEwan’s novel. Yes, one could talk about the nod to Modernism and McEwan’s own critique of that style within the same book; one could talk about the power of persuasion and the innocence of youth; one could talk about the power of the human spirit to survive. What I was left with after reading this novel was the idea of forgiveness and what that means for me.
Growing up, and even now, I have the great sense that forgiveness is a gift. Forgiveness is not earned; it is given freely. Part of why I didn’t enjoy the ending to McEwan’s book was because I felt that my reading had been a waste:the entire story is about a woman who lives her life trying to buy the gift of forgiveness.
This is where you are thinking, “Duh! It’s called Atonement!”. True, yet I think that atonement is a painfully pointless and unnecessary exercise. How could Briony, the main character, ever hope to atone for the mistake that she made as a young girl? Her actions changed the lives of several people, including herself. Her actions and this idea of giving up studying literature (her passion) to become a nurse is such a waste. I suppose that is McEwan’s point. Absolution is a human craving that can only be found through forgiveness, which is something that has to be given to you by others. McEwan uses his novel to draw out this one point in such a painful way.
I feel that even if Briony received forgiveness for her actions, she would still not feel free from guilt. Her action of wrongfully/confusedly accusing the Gardener’s son of sexually assaulting her cousin changes the course of her entire life and because she spends so much time trying to earn and be worthy of forgiveness, she doesn’t live her own life. Because she doesn’t live her own life or develop her passions, she stunts her life and forever lives in the summer she made her mistake.
The whole miracle of forgiveness is that it provides a release from the wrong action. It erases the action and allows all people concerend to move on with life. Briony never grows. Say what you will about the film, but I think that it was genius to have Briony’s character with the same defining childish haircut throughout the film. It truly shows that no matter how much she atones, works, or confesses, she will never be able to reach true forgiveness or absolution. She remains childish and convinced that she has to spend her life atoning for her childish mistake.
I leave this book with the thought that even if I do not receive forgiveness from others, I need to learn to forgive myself. Forgiveness is a gift, atonement is a reaction, absolution is an ideal. Forgiveness is freedom; atonement is holding on. Forgive and be free.