There was a crime. But there were also the lovers. Lovers and their happy ends have been on my mind all night long. As into the sunset we sail. An unhappy inversion. It occurs to me that I have not travelled so very far after all, since I wrote my little play. Or rather, I’ve made a huge digression and doubled back to my starting place. It is only in this last version that my lovers end well, standing side by side on a South London pavement as I walk away. All the preceding drafts were pitiless. But now I can no longer think what purpose would be served if, say, I tried to persuade my reader, by direct or indirect means, that Robbie Turner died of septicaemia at Bray Dunes on 1 June 1940, or that Cecelia was killed in September of the same year by the bomb that destroyed Balham Underground station. That I never saw them in that year. That my walk across London ended at the church on Clapham Common, and that a cowardly Briony limped back to the hospital, unable to confront her recently bereaved sister. That the letters the lovers wrote are in the archives of the War Museum. How could that constitute an ending? What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account? Who would want to believe that they never met again, never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism? I couldn’t do it to them. I’m too old, too frightened, too much in love with the shred of life I have remaining. I face an incoming tide of forgetting, and then oblivion. I no longer possess the courage of my pessimism. When I am dead, and the Marshalls are dead, and the novel is finally published, we will only exist as my inventions. Briony will be as much of a fantasy as the lovers who shared a bed in Balham and enraged their landlady. No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel. I know there’s always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened? The answer is simple: the lovers survive and flourish. As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love.
In the final pages of Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel Atonement, the narrator Briony explains in her words the importance of an ending, and its role in a story; therefore the ending of Atonement embodies many of the topics within our anthology theme of “Endings”. This metafiction in the novel makes the extract presented extremely relevant to our anthology as not only does it explicitly discuss endings, but it encourages one to think about why an ending plays such a vital role in a story and why it has such a major effect on the audience.
The first idea that will be addressed is also the main reason why I decided on this extract; in the ending of Atonement the narrator Briony addresses what constitutes a worthy ending, leaving the reader faced with the consequence of a real ending versus an ending in an ideal reality. She also admits to manipulating the ending in her play while attempting to justify this decision; in the extract she says: “It is only in this last version that my lovers end well, standing side by side on a South London pavement as I walk away. All the preceding drafts were pitiless.” Here she focuses on the notion of her lovers “end[ing] well”; therefore we see what her idea of a good ending in an ideal reality is. However we realise that her final version does not reflect the truth, as she describes the other drafts as “pitiless”; this adjective implies that their situation was inflicted upon them, as if there is someone controlling their fate. She is correct as she was able to give them a pleasant ending in her play, however the irony lies in the fact that her lovers Robbie and Cecelia were killed by events that were beyond anyone’s control. The readers are now presented with an ending that is untruthful, so despite Briony’s intentions, this makes the finale seem less significant as concealing the reality with a fantasy takes meaning away from the ending. Yet Briony believes that her fabricated fairy tale ending will atone her and make up for the hopeless truth; this is her way of making the characters’ endings serve some kind of purpose, rather than have their love and their death produce nothing but dismay for the readers.
This is why Briony discusses the importance of an ending, especially in light of the readers. For Briony, having a sense of hope in the end is essential; however for the reader this might not be the case, as when reading a piece of fiction, a “good” ending should have an impact on them in some way. As an author, Ian McEwan has offered a far more bleak and pessimistic ending, compared to his fictional character Briony, who seems to believe that an ending is only worthwhile if it provides closure for the reader: “How could that constitute an ending? What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account?” From this, it appears that Briony is creating an ending which provides closure for herself, despite the appearance that she is considering only the reader. This is because having “sense”, “hope”, and “satisfaction” would be more important to her than it would to someone who does not personally know the lovers in her play. Although her attempt to give herself closure with this ending is not entirely self-indulgent, as it would be unfair to say that she did not value the reader’s feelings at all.
Finally the theme of death and endings will be examined, as there is a large presence of death in this extract. Death and endings have a natural bond, as death is the ultimate end to some one’s life, and in most plays or novels, it is a way of indicating the end of that character’s existence or journey. But in this case, since the lovers Robbie and Cecelia die without having ever reunited, this means that there is no longer a chance for them to live the life that they deserve; since the worse has happened, Briony does not have to worry about their future anymore, and all she can do is try to redeem herself by changing their history.
In the end, what seems to be more valuable is the artefact (her play) that survives after death, as this is what people will remember: “When I am dead, and the Marshalls are dead, and the novel is finally published, we will only exist as my inventions”. So after death what was real and what was not real will remain unknown, as people will accept the version of the story that they are given. More than that, what happened in someone’s life no longer has an effect on them once deceased, so this is her way of justifying her deliberate change in the play; since they could not have their happy ending in reality, they are granted one through everyone else’s memories. This shows that after death or an ending, readers are left with how and what the ending was, meaning that they will always be affected in some way; so it seems that endings are not as abrupt as they seem, as when a novel has finished, it will leave readers with their thoughts and feelings. Not to mention that in a novel or play (film, etc.), people will assume that it is fiction, so to a certain extent, what happened to the characters do not matter because in the reader’s mind, these events did not actually happen in reality. Thus Briony uses her power as a writer to provide an ending that she finds worthwhile.
To conclude, it seems that endings do have a large effect on the reader, but it is a matter of opinion in whether they want an ending that is satisfying or one that reflects the truth. In the case of this extract, endings are strongly about closure and being hopeful, which in due course gives an ending meaning; therefore it is not important whether an ending reflects reality or whether it is fictional, because in the end when all of the characters (real or not) are dead, what people remember is the story told rather than what actually happened in reality.