Is Atonement that similar to The Caine Mutiny?
What can be done to achieve atonement? This is the main theme of Atonement, although it can be argued that, in the case of this novel, atonement is not achieved. That leads to the question, what did Briony do that led to her needing atonement? “She hadn’t intended to mislead, she hadn’t acted out of malice." The end of the book suggests that perhaps Briony is still making the whole thing up, including the resolution. If that is the case, perhaps she made up the crime itself.
Anita Brookner, a reviewer for The Spectator, says that Briony’s guilt were an inspiration for her life’s work and success as a writer. This reminded me of a quote from the movie The Caine Mutiny. Lt. Barney Greenwald drunkenly confronts Lt. Tom Keefer, whom Greenwald blames for the mutiny Steve Maryk led. The trial led to clearing of Maryk and the ruination of Captain Queeg. Greenwald says that Keefer thought up the entire mutiny and handled it so none of the blame would fall on him if it came to a trial.
“I wanna drink a toast to you, Mr. Keefer. From the beginning you hated the Navy. And then you thought up this whole idea and you managed to keep your skirts nice and starched and clean, even in the court martial. Steve Maryk will always be remembered as a mutineer. But you, you’ll publish your novel, you'll make a million bucks, you'll marry a big movie star, and for the rest of your life you'll live with your conscience, if you have any. Here’s to the real author of the Caine mutiny. Here’s to you, Mr. Keefer.”
Even though World War II is the common bond between the two stories, there is a common idea: Can creative types manipulate “reality” to serve their own ends? Keefer didn’t drive Queeg crazy, and Briony didn’t attack Lola. But the two of them manipulated the situations to their own ends: Keefer to protect the Caine and Briony to protect her family. In both cases, the “family” has to be protected from a madman. But Keefer knew Queeg was crazy, while Briony was only mistaken that Robbie was crazy.
So, does this mean Briony hated Robbie? Did she take advantage of Robbie’s faults to ruin him? Did Briony keep her skirts nice and starched and clean? Robbie’s faults were his awkward sexual feelings for Cecelia. If these faults weren’t there, Briony would never have even considered that Robbie was the one who had attacked Lola. No, she just saw the unusual event in the fountain and drew the wrong conclusions due to her imagination. The “so what really happened” question on page 350 could raise the theory that whole thing was made up by Briony: Robbie could be ruined with no damage to Briony because Robbie never existed in the first place.
Like Keefer, Briony publishes her novels, makes a million bucks and for the rest of her life she lives with her conscience. But does she have one? Is she really wracked with guilt over saying she saw Robbie attack Lola? The epilogue suggests she could not have been that guilty, if she never went through with fixing the problem. The epilogue also suggests perhaps the entire story Briony is talking about is made up. If the whole thing suggests only in Briony’s mind, then there is nothing for her to feel guilty about.
One page 330, Briony asks herself: “The poor 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?” So then, is everything we have read “true” or not? Did the ending really happen? Did anything in the novel “really” happen? Is the whole story, Robbie, Cecilia, Lola, as fictional as a mutiny aboard a U.S. Navy ship?
There is question over whether or not Briony is making the whole thing up: every event in the entire story, and just cannot come up with the right ending. Perhaps McEwan is trying to have his cake and eat it to: the good upbeat ending, and the nebulous emotionally vacant ending. And since the whole thing is fictional anyway, McEwan seems to say, what does it matter? Briony’s skirts remain as starched as ever.