Chapter 8. Creative confession

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This essay explores the act of self-authorising confession represented in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and the ethical considerations that are raised in consequence. Drawing on the work of Peter Brooks, J. M. Coetzee, Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas (and others) I argue that in Atonement McEwan points up the impossibility of attaining either truth or self-forgiveness via acts of (confessional) self-writing. McEwan’s probing portrayal of the limitations of individual perspective result in ethical insights that extend beyond the realm of (fiction) writing and cut to the heart of interpersonal engagement. He invites readers to recognised the extent to which even our most empathetic attempts to imagine the interiority of others are always, and inevitably, acts of authoritative appropriation. At the same time, however, McEwan encourages recognition of the limits and consequences of (self) authority; he suggests the ongoing need, of the self-narrating self, for the re-cognition of (reading) others. Briony, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, ultimately realises the impossibility of herself writing the forgiveness she desires and acknowledges the authority of the others who will finally write her in their (retrospective) readings.


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