Romeo and Juliet and Atonement


As a thirteen-year-old, Briony knew little about sexuality and also had a morbid imagination. She was narcissistic as well and only slowly came to realize that "other people are as real as you, and only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value" (McEwan 38).

Robbie Turner is the son of a servant whose education at Cambridge was paid for by the Tallis family, and while there he fell in love with Cecilia Tallis. Unlike Romero and Juliet, the two lovers are not from the same social class, and even though the Tallis family lives in a country house like the landed gentry, in reality they made their money in manufacturing. They have a picture of an aristocratic family on the wall which they claim are their ancestors, but no one really knows who they are. Like the Monatgue and Capulet families, the Tallis's are from a commercial background and now aspire to copy the manners of the nobility, but they do not (and cannot) go so far as Capulet's forcing his daughter into an arranged child marriage with the Count Paris in order for his family to join the aristocracy.

Unlike the stern patriarchs in Shakespeare's play, Sir Jack Tallis is a senior civil servant in London who never appears in Atonement at all. His marriage to Emily is a polite fiction and both engage in their own affairs, and hardly have any communication with each other. He will later divorce Emily and end up living with his new wife in a house in Bloomsbury, which was also the neighborhood inhabited by Virginia Woolf and other famous writers of the 1920s and 1930s. In the Tallis household, the women appear to be dominant, especially Cecilia, which was definitely not the case in Romeo and Juliet. Robbie had plans to qualify as a physician, but a tragic fate intervened in the form of Briony Tallis and a false accusation of rape.

Briony is the real villain of the novel, but also its writer, although perhaps her actions against Robbie were really unintended, and she imagines that she will be able to make up for them in the future. This never happens, though, except in her imagination. She did not understand the letter Robbie sent to Cecilia and thought that "something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal had been introduced, some principle of darkness, and even in her excitement over the possibilities, she did not doubt that her sister was in some way threatened and would need her help" (McEwan 106 -- 7). She imagined that Robbie had raped her sister and that he also raped Lola, so her testimony caused him to be sent to prison. Lola also plays a villainous part by failing to reveal that Paul Marshall raped her and that Robbie was falsely accused. She later marries Marshall because he is a wealthy industrialist who has made great profits from the war, ignoring the fact that he is literally a rapist who should have gone to jail instead of the innocent Robbie. In fact, Robbie would have remained locked up for many years had he not been given the chance to volunteer for the army during the Second World War.

In 1939 when the war begins, Briony attempts to make up for her crime by training as a nurse instead of going to Cambridge University, and by the time of Dunkirk evacuation she is a probationary nurse in London. At the same time, Robbie has been wounded in the battle and was having difficulty finding his way to the evacuation point. Other enlisted men follow him because he is a university graduate and speaks like an officer from a middle or upper-class background, although with his criminal record Robbie would naturally have had no chance of being promoted. Briony imagined that he was finally rescued at Dunkirk and reunited with Cecelia, who was no longer on speaking terms with anyone in the Tallis family. Five years later, in 1944, Briony wrote that she had met both of them, but they did not forgive her. She has also started working on the novel about them while employed in the hospital, but had not yet found a publisher.

At the end of Atonement, Briony is 77 years old and suffering from vascular degeneration that will result in dementia and ultimately death. She is not treated with much compassion by the busy physician, who tells her that it will not be as bad as Alzheimer's disease before calling in the next patient. Briony then reveals that Cecelia and Robbie never met again in real life, and that both died during the Second World War, just as Romeo and Juliet died shortly after being secretly married. She explained that writing a fictional ending in which they lived happily ever after was "a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end" (McEwan 351).


Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was actually ahead of its time in predicting that the future would consist of free men and women who chose their intimate and romantic attachments based on their own free will, rather than allowing these choices to be made by the authoritarian and patriarchal family. These changes were still in their infancy in the 17th Century, and only became the norm 200 years later as more Western societies became urbanized and industrialized and the size of the middle class increased. This also coincided with the abolition of slavery, serfdom and other forms of un-free labor, and with the rise of the women's rights movement. By 1935, at least in countries like Britain, women had received voting rights and increased opportunities for higher education and employment outside of the domestic sphere, although most of the social, political and economic power was still in the hands of men like Sir Jack Tallis. By the sexual double standards of the time, he was free to desert his family and carry on an affair with another woman, although this would not have been permitted to his wife and daughters. Both Cecilia and Briony Tallis do have chances for education and careers that would not been available to Juliet, and perhaps even to have relationships with people who were not part of their social class, although as Briony's actions against Ronnie revealed, they still suffered from sexual repression and sheer ignorance about sexuality far more than men.


Gender Roles, Marriage, Sex and Culture in History

There is of course no simple answer to this question since the definition and purpose of marriage have varied greatly over time and across cultures. For most of human history, except in some tribal or matriarchal societies, marriage was an institution that existed to protect, control and exploit women and children by male heads of households. In other words, marriage was literally a paternalistic and patriarchal institution by law and by decree of religious authorities. By Roman law, for example, the head of household (paterfamilias) was the governor of the women, children, slaves and servants under his roof, and controlled their labor and property -- even their physical persons. Real traditional marriages, including those in colonial North America, were arranged by the families of the young people concerned and could not be approve without the permission of the fathers of the bride and groom. They were a way of controlling resources and property, especially land, creating a bind between two families or even settling disputes. Women would bring dowries into the marriage, which was often "the biggest infusion of cash, goods, or land that a man would ever receive," and the male head of household had the use rights to it since married women did not own property (Coontz, 5). Needless to say, women in traditional households performed cooking, cleaning, spinning and childcare, which they learned from their mothers.

In a world where almost all economies were based on agriculture, control and ownership of land meant power, and the male head of household also controlled the labor of women and children under his command. A larger family meant a larger labor supply, although the patriarch was also responsible for finding suitable mates for his daughters (along with dowries) and setting his sons up in some occupation or profession so they could become independent householders. To modern students, all of this might seem shockingly alien and authoritarian, but before recent times, this was the nature of marriage in most cultures in the world -- arranged marriages with no divorce and the father was the lord and master of his domain. Early feminists in the 19th Century who thought that traditional marriage had much in common with slavery were not exaggerating. Perhaps husbands and wives in these arranged marriages would grow to feel affection for each other over time, but it was not essential that they did nor was…