Atonement Cunt: Psychoanalytic Criticism in the Novel

Topics: Novels

This essay sample essay on Atonement Cunt offers an extensive list of facts and arguments related to it. The essay’s introduction, body paragraphs and the conclusion are provided below.

Atonement is a post-modern novel, that centres around the protagonist, Briony and her search for forgiveness from her sister Cecelia and a family friend Robbie, the word ‘atonement’, meaning ‘the action of making amends for a wrong or injury’1. Briony is a thirteen year old, middle class girl whom is an aspiring writer, and at the start of the novel is conducting a play known as The Trials of Arabella.

We see throughout the novel Briony is no ordinary 13 year old girl as her imagination is full of stories that can distort her image of reality; this is why the method of psychoanalysis may be applied.

Psychoanalysis is ‘a form of therapy which aims to cure mental disorders by investigating the interaction between the conscious and the unconscious elements of the mind’2.

The novel explores the relationship between the conscious events that happen, and the different subconscious views the characters have on these events all though the creative act of story-telling. The novel begins with the focus on Briony and her eagerness to get her play, The Trials of Arabella, finished for when her brother, Leon, returns home.

This play shows Briony’s immaturity even through her intelligent wording, it still encapsulates a heroine being rescued by a prince, and thus we can see her understanding of love and relationships has not yet developed.

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The audience, then through the omniscient narrator recall on an event that happens between Briony’s sister Cecelia and the cleaning lady’s son Robbie, at first from Cecelia’s point of view and then Briony’s. From Cecelia’s point of view we are told how Cecelia does not think much of Robbie as it ‘bothered her that they were awkward when they talked’3.

Which Type Of Theory Is Psychoanalytic Criticism And Why?

We then encounter how Cecelia wonders outside to fill a vase of flowers with water from the fountain, where she finds Robbie doing the gardening, the pair of them passes awkward conversation then Robbie begins to help Cecelia fill her vase, to which she resists and this results in her dropping the vase into the fountain. They both stare for a moment then Cecelia starts to strip to her underwear and dives into the fountain to retrieve the vase, once retrieved she storms back into the house.

The second view of this scene is from Briony’s point of view in which she watches out of the window Robbie and Cecelia conversing, she imagines that he is proposing to her, however she is startled when Cecelia starts to quickly undress and jumps into the fountain and then rushes off back in tot he house. She reflects wondering what sort of hold Robbie has over Cecelia and how Robbie should have rescued her from drowning before he proposes to her.

Here is were Briony’s subconscious comes into view, this is as Freud explains ‘part of the mind beyond consciousness which nevertheless has a strong influence upon our actions or thoughts’4 , here Briony thinks of the scene as a fairytale in which the heroine is to be rescued, this is based on her own upbringing as her parents never really spoke of their relationship as her father worked away a lot, therefore her only understanding of relationships were the ones she read of in books.

This may be also understood in Freud’s repression, ‘forgetting or ignoring of unresolved conflicts, unadmitted desires or traumatic past events so that they are forced out of the conscious awareness and into the realm of the unconscious’5 again due to her own parents relationship crisis Briony’s subconscious maybe bringing up imaginations of what constitutes a good marriage.

Furthermore this scene she witnesses seems to be a turn in her life as she now realizes ‘what power one could have over the other, and how easy it was to get everything wrong, completely wrong’6, as Hidalgo suggests ‘a young girl who cannot understand the world of adults’7, this then results in her terminating her play of the Trials of Arabella, instead she decides to work on a novel of what she had just witnessed instead. This fountain scene can also been seen as a key moment for the relationship between Robbie and Cecelia.

Never before had Cecelia stripped off in front Robbie and he notes this and remembers every part of her body, ‘a drop of water on her upper arm… an embroided flower, a simple daisy, sewn between the cups of her bra. Her breasts wide apart and small.. ‘8 he starts to realize he has feelings for Cecelia although he knows this maybe farfetched as she is from a middle class and he a lower class, he still believes they could be together Freud’s theory of displacement could be applied here.

Displacement is ‘one person or event is replace by another which is in some way linked or associated with it, perhaps because of a similar sounding word or by some form of symbolic substitution’9. We are told that in his bedroom Robbie has ‘various photographs ; the cast of Twelfth Night on the college lawn, himself as Malvolio’10 Malvolio is known in the play as deluded to think he can have a chance with his employer Olivia, Robbie could have displaced this play to his own situation.

The use of the fountain could be describe by Freud in terms of association in which an object can be associated with certain feelings’11, so in this case the fountain symbolizing the love between Cecelia and Robbie. ‘The use of an Italianate fountain as the site for an apparently trivial moment in the lovers’ story may contain an allusion to the Italian fountain in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

If this is so, it would be another ironic reversal because the country house that gives title to Waugh’s novel is the ideological, aesthetic, and emotional center of the novel’12. Also 13He is also quick to note ‘ What might Freud say? How about : she hid the unconscious desire to expose herself to him behind a show of temper’14, this invites the reader to start top think of the novel in a Freudian way, are the actions we read about what they seem?

Or are they all making up part of the subconscious that is delivered through unintentional actions? The rest of this chapter goes on to give more evidence to support these questions. We go on to read how Robbie wants to send Cecelia a note in which to apologize for breaking the vase, he writes this out in long hand but also he ends up typing a note saying, ‘In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt. In my thoughts I make love to you all day long’15, he ‘accidently’ gives the sordid note to Briony to give to Cecelia.

The writing of the sordid note can be first seen by Freud as a ‘Freudian slip’16’ this is where repressed material in the unconscious finds an outlet through such everyday phenomena as slips of the tongue, slips of the pen, or unintended actions’, therefore his desires for Celia subconsciously made him write the note without even thinking about what he was writing and secondly he had subconsciously given the sordid note as his subconscious was till focusing on the objects he was observing in his room mainly the ‘ Grays Anatomy, Splanchnology section, page 1546, the vagina’17. herefore causing his subconscious again to take over his actions. The content of the sordid note can also conjure up psychoanalysis development in the form of the language used. Lancan looks to language to analyse the subconscious in which he states, ‘how could a psychoanalyst of today not realise that his realm of truth is in fact the word’18 and that language ‘is a matter of contrast between words and other words… there is a barrier between signifier (the word) and the signified (the referent)’19.

When looking at the word ‘cunt’ which Robbie uses in his letter to Cecelia, the signified that Robbie intends it to be is the vagina of a woman, however when Cecelia reads the word, she believes it signifies the unnoticed love between her and Robbie ‘a simple phrase chased around in Cecelia’s thoughts, of course of course how has she not seen it? 20. Briony reads this word to mean that Robbie is a maniac,’ A maniac. The word had refinement and the weight of medical diagnoses.

This showing how each of the characters subconscious has effected the meaning of the term ‘cunt’, through Robbie’s desire of Cecelia, and Celia’s realization of love, to Briony’s analysis that he is mentally ill for using the word. It is then this word that inevitably changes all their lives forever, as now Briony thinks that Robbie is a ‘maniac’ and threat to the women in her family she then falsely accuse Robbie of raping her cousin Lola when the twins go missing, she believes she is protecting Cecelia from him therefore her lie is buried in her subconscious.

Freud sees this irrational decision due to the ‘Oedipus complex… eproducing the competition between siblings’21 The reason for her distorted view over the figure she though was Robbie who raped Loa may have been bcause she has feeling herself for Robbie and therefore does not want Ceceila to be with him. This can further be supported by the scene where she tests if Robbie loves her by saving her from drowning, ‘Do you know why I wanted you to save me?… Because I love you’22. Briony’s dream in which she is flying could bring with it sexual connotations of desire as Freud maintains in his dreamwork theory that ‘dreaming of flying represents sexual release, or expansion of your awareness’23.

Towards the end of the novel we realize how it is Briony who has wrote this whole story out of guilt and repentance. Instead of her leading a life at Cambridge, in which she was intended she follows the footsteps of her sister and becomes a nurse. Freud could interpret this as sublimation, which is ‘the transforming of an unacceptable impulse, whether it be sex, anger, fear, or whatever, into a socially acceptable, even productive form’ in this case Briony’s feeling of regret subconsciously lead her to becoming a nurse.

Here she helps out a French soldier who has been wounded and it is here “she learned a simple, obvious thing she had always known, and everyone knew: that a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended”24 realizing that when she was younger she was ‘brought up on a diet of imaginative literature, she was too young to understand the dangers that can ensue from modeling one’s conduct on such an artificial world’25.

Briony now realizes everything she did in the past she looked on with what Freud calls projection ‘negative aspects of ourselves are not recognized as ourselves’, at the time she sent Robbie to jail she did not realize she did it out of sub conscious feelings jealousy and spite of her sister, she was determined the figure she saw was Robbie, therefore attempting to use fiction to correct the errors that fiction caused her to commit.

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Atonement Cunt: Psychoanalytic Criticism in the Novel. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from

Atonement Cunt: Psychoanalytic Criticism in the Novel
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