Literary Criticism of Atonement from Psychological Trauma View

Last Updated: 20 Apr 2022
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In seventeen century, "??????" was a Greek word which means "wound". Later, Sigmund Freud in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used it to describe a kind of mental damage that occurs as a result of distressing and disturbing events or experiences. When a person is facing such highly stressful events analyzing and coping with it is not an easy process.

In this paper we consider the topic of psychological trauma in Atonement by Ian McEwan, defining first of all the concept and then studying its processes of formation and effects on the main character, Briony Tallis. According to Pearlman and Saakvitne, psychological trauma is an event which is a special experience of a person that needs to be confronted.

As a matter of fact, "The individual's ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed, or the individual's experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity" (p.60). Also, Jon Allen, a psychologist, in his A Guide to Self-Understanding (1995) said that: "It is the subjective experience of the objective events that constitutes the trauma…The more you believe you are endangered, the more traumatized you will be. […]

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Psychologically, the bottom line of trauma is overwhelming emotion and a feeling of utter helplessness. There may or may not be bodily injury, but psychological trauma is coupled with physiological upheaval that plays a leading role in the long-range effects" (p.14).

Psychologists categorized trauma into two groups: physical trauma based on serious physical damages or shocks to the body from war, physical injury, sexual abuse, illness, torture, rape, and genocide; emotional or psychological trauma is based on the inability to recover the full mental capacities of an individual, either in his personal or social life or any emotional shock or injury that cause a sentimental damage to spirit health.

It can range from depression, anxiety, different kinds of phobias to post traumatic stress disorder. Therefore, trauma is among those things that happen in everyday life which a person can experience by itself or witness of serious injuries, violence even death, putting the individual into a terrible situation followed by fear, helplessness or horror.

In fact, trauma is not the event itself but the effect that has on the person like, Brioney's belief about the event that happen in fountain. Atonement is a metafiction novel written by Ian Russell McEwan in 2001. Its events occurred in three different periods of time: firstly, in 1935 in England at Tallis family's building, secondly during World War II in England and France, thirdly nowadays in England.

The story tells about a huge mistake that an upper-class girl committed as a teenager that led to destroy lives. This thirteen years' girl had a big imagination as a young writer. As an adult she always wanted to confess that event but this process did not happen until she completed her novel as an aged author, at last, in England.

That mistake influenced on her life and also her style of writing until her novel ended with a kind of imaginary situation that gave her a chance to make up for her mistake. Ian McEwan was born in 1948 in England. His father was an alcohol addict and had spousal abuse toward his mother and the most interesting things about his life, is that Ian's mother suffered from vascular dementia, the same disease that Brioney Tallis – the heroine of Atonement – also suffered from.

To start with the novel "Atonement", events began with a kind of misunderstanding that occurred for Brioney. Her sister, Cecilia, came to fountain while Robbie, their servant's boy, was watching her almost bare body. Her sister looks ashamed and wear her clothes in front of him.

Brioney was in her puberty age and didn't know about sexual relationship as well, so she thought that if he is watching Cecilia in that situation, there must be something wrong about his behavior. She could not cope with this event and her mind was busy with it during that day. On the other hand, somewhere Brioney was telling her memory about his love experience to her friend.

We could realize that she loved Robbie as a child while she did not know about sexual relationship and her love was pure. She threw herself into a deep river to see Robbie's reaction and measure his feeling toward herself. It is almost clear that she was jealous of Cecilia and when she understands that Robbie tends to her sister, this makes her idea stronger about Robbie and his sexual problem.

Brioney was under a pressure of event in the fountain which another event happened. Robbie gives Brioney a letter to render her sister which was containing sexual words about Cecilia's body. She reads that letter without permission before give it to her sister and it causes to be sure about her belief. She could not cope with it and talks about it with her cousin, Lola, they found Robbie as a sex maniac and decides to protect Cecilia against him.

At night, Brioney saw Cecilia and Robbie in the library in the middle of their sexual affair that made a great shock for her. She thought that they committed a huge mistake that she never could realize it so her behavior against Robbie changed, became aggressive, and started to hate him. During dinner the family realized that the twin cousins are gone so all of them went to the woods to find them.

In the woods, Brioney saw a rape against Lola under a flashlight in her hands. For the second time she experienced a huge shock in one night and these stressful and disturbing chain of events made her nervous and caused that she connected all of her experiences with each other without thinking and saw Robbie as a sex offender.

It was obvious that Brioney did not experience a rape and were just a witness but this subject caused a great fear and shock for a teenager in her age of puberty so she could not have recognized and distinguished true situations. This psychological trauma was a reason which she could not able to think carefully about what she saw and her mind automatically omitted a part of her observation. She professed that Robbie was the person who act that rape and caused his detection.

By continuing the novel, it become clear that as Brioney grows up, her mind is busy about past events and doubt her witness. She becomes a nurse during the war to reduces her sense of sin and when suddenly see a news about the engagement between Lola and Paul Marshal, who came to their house with her brother in the year that those events happened, her mind becomes active and she tries to remember the exact things which occurred those days.

At last, after passing about five years from her fearful experience, she could recall her memories in peaceful situation and remembers the face of person who act rape, it was Paul Marshal. She wants to make up her mistake and withdraw her testimony but it was too late for Robbie and Cecilia because both died in the war so she uses her talent in writing a novel as a means of confessing.

Brioney experienced a psychological trauma during her young ages of her life that made an irreparable mental damages for her whole life. Therefore by seeing the effects of psychological trauma in the all aspect of main character's life, can be concluded that trauma can puts serious effects on individual's mental and physical health that accompanies an individual for his/her entire life.Citation:McEwan, Ian. Atonement.

Random House, 2005.Ellam, Julie. Ian McEwan's Atonement. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009.Pitt, Daniela. The representation of trauma in Ian McEwan's novels" Atonement" and" Saturday". Diss. 2010."What Is Psychological Trauma?", "what is trauma?""Emotional and Psychological Trauma." Emotional and Psychological Trauma: Healing from Trauma and Moving On,

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Literary Criticism of Atonement from Psychological Trauma View. (2018, Apr 25). Retrieved from

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