College Papers

Narrative Perspectives possess crucial importance in both Atonement

Narrative Perspectives possess crucial importance in both Atonement and Arcadia, predominantly in depicting the link between the past and present. Arcadia is set in Sidley Park, and takes place in both 1809/1812 and the present day. The activities of two modern scholars and the house’s current residents are juxtaposed with those of the people who lived there in the earlier period. Whereas, in Atonement, the activities that take place within the past appear to be detrimental to what is to happen in the future, which the character of Briony plays a constructive role in. The revelation of truth and the potential for narrative perspectives to close the class divide, thus allowing a multi class perspective also depict the varying abilities that placing contrasting narrative structures in a text can have. With regards to the depiction of the persistent link between past and present, this is particularly prominent between the early and older presentations of Briony. As a whole, the novel Atonement is Briony’s attempt to account for and redeem herself. Thus the unpicking of events is a central theme, especially in exploring how a particular event is borne as well as the consequences it gives rise to. The questioning that arises upon the arrival of events, leads to questioning from not only the readers but the characters as well. For example, Robbie wonders if Briony’s childish crush on him lies behind her accusation, and Cecilia thinks that she and Robbie are often awkward with each other as a result of their different social class. The disastrous effect that events of the past and present has placed upon Robbie, is evident as the dinner guests set out to search for the twins and we glimpse into the future to see how Robbie will reflect on his choice to search alone; ‘This decision, as he was to acknowledge many times, transformed his life’. Here McEwan uses the narrative voice to telescope time in order to suggest how one thing might lead to another. The future also intrudes again as Briony talks to Lola on the island and we see how she will reiterate her claim that she saw Robbie again and again until it is unchangeable. This same event, and the dominant role that Briony plays and the consequent events of this is documented in Chapter Fourteen.  The chapter opens with a foreshadowing, showing how Briony will be later tortured by remorse as a result of what happened in the immediate aftermath of the attack, that which she did not possess in her adolescent years. It is the night of the attack and the early morning that followed that will trouble her more than the legal processes that will unfold in the subsequent weeks. The rest of the chapter sets out how this future situation will come about. The role of varying narrative perspective allows us to view characters differentiation between their suggestions of causes and even contradicting versions of the same event. Largely evident with the character of Cecilia,  characters often consider a moment in that present time but also contemplate how it will be perceived in the future, and the impact it will have. Therefore, this gives rise to false futures being anticipated, which create small narratives of their own. This tendency to look forward in time allows for the disruption of narrative tensions, that depends on our desire to know what happens. McEwan tactically gives a glimpse of the future, albeit brief, in order to whet our appetite and increase tension. For example at the beginning of Chapter Thirteen: ‘Within the half hour Briony would commit her crime’. Elsewhere in Part One, it deflects our curiosity from what happens on to how and why it happens. The epilogue casts doubt on all that the novel appears to have previously said about events and their reverberations through history. The detailed plan of Part One accounts only for its own key point, the moment when Briony says: ‘I saw him’. It does not secure a single path for the future. Therefore the conclusion can be reached that the future cannot be known, but no more can the past.  The link between past and present is equally evident in Arcadia, as the lives of two generations from equally aristocratic families are explored. This exploration of past and present results in an articulation of the concept of history itself. The structure and content of Arcadia as a whole presents a dichotomy between the view of history as a linear oscillation. The opening dialogue between Thomasina and Septimus at the beginning of Scene One: “Septimus, what is carnal embrace?”, is echoed in the final scene of the play when these characters dance together on stage in an embrace of love. This final scene, in which the continuity of history is fully expressed in the merging of past and present, is very significant in terms of the pattern of repetitions and doublings pervading the whole play. In the latter half of the play, this link between the past and present in evident within the character of Bernard, who stands as the required link between the past and present due to his desire to piece together events of the past and how they have contributed to the present day. However, Bernard’s interests in the past derive solely from his lust for fame and thus this leads to some inaccuracy within his findings. By interlacing past and present action, the rigidity of the barrier between time periods is adjustable, allowing for visual as well as thematic resonances to develop and change as the two stories unfold, in a linear or inverted structure. By interlacing the time periods, Stoppard can deftly control when information is revealed to the audience and modulate resonances which develop across time periods. This creates a knowledge gap between what the audience knows of the past and what the modern characters have discovered. It is this gap that allows the audience to decide what the characters are looking for and what they are able to recover constitutes what really mattered about the past.Stoppard skillfully utilises the knowledge gap inherent in Arcadia’s structure to create and increase the sadness which runs under the surface of Arcadia, modulating the tone of the play from light comedy to pathos as the play progresses. The first line of Arcadia, Thomasina’s enquiry: “Septimus, what is carnal embrace?”, perfects the witty and almost manic scene where puns are excessively used. Scene 2 is set in the present and also suggests a farce, two pretentious academics struggling to reconstruct the past that only the audience is knowledgeable of. But instead of continuing in the purely comic vein, the play begins to transition to a more serious mode in the second half of Act 1. Further on in the play, in Scene 3, Thomasina movingly laments the vastness of knowledge lost when the library of Alexandria burned, with a speech ending “How can we sleep for grief?”. Thus, Stoppard illustrates that the gap between what was in the past and what is recovered in the present can be tragic as well as comical. When we are reverted back to the present day, we similarly see Hannah and Valentine’s conversations dominate Scene 4. Valentine is passionate and moving with his speech about why he is excited to be alive at this moment in time:  ‘It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew was wrong’. Rather than dwelling on the fact he hasn’t been able to access the entirety of something, he embraces the uncertainty. Encapsulating Bernard’s appearance between the more serious conversations of Hannah and Valentine allows the modern period to train out of its farce mode while maintaining Bernard as a comic caricature. While the tone has darkened at the end of Act 1, the possibility that Byron fought a duel and the mystery of the Hermits identity remain unresolved for both the audience and modern characters leaving the explanation of the mysteries in doubt, serves to counterbalance the increasing seriousness and earnestness of his later speeches. The evolution in tone in Arcadia can be seen as an arch from comedy to pathos. The revelation that Septimus will become a hermit “without discourse or companion save for a pet tortoise”, follows in the wake of Bernard’s dramatic presentation of his reconstruction and the emotional eruption it causes. Contrasting Hannah’s quest for the identity of the hermit with Bernard’s quest that revolves around Byron raises a key thematic question: is the recovery of the details of a famous personages life more important than the recovery of the life of someone unknown to history? In Arcadia, the characters known to history seem at first to overpower the unknown: Bernard’s Byronic quest overshadows Hannah’s quest in Act 1 and the unresolved mystery of the duel overshadows the resolution of the hermit’s identity. In terms of the revelation of truth in Atonement, this is arguably best depicted in the early and old presentations of Briony. In the earlier portrayal of Briony at the beginning of the novel, we understand how regularly she conceals the truth due to her overarching belief that fiction is neater than fact. It could also be due to her desire to have her world in a certain way that her need to conceal the truth is borne: ‘she was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so’. At the conclusion of the novel it is revealed that Briony has vascular dementia and is subsequently losing her memory and other mental faculties. This poses the overall question of how reliable Briony has been as a narrator, and in fact the combination of Briony’s need to disguise the truth as well as this dementia, further accentuates the unreliability of the depiction of events. However, this consequence for Briony could arguably be viewed as an almost divine justice for the damage she has caused with regards to her deliberately misconstrued portrayal of events. As summarised by Finney, “Briony attempts to use fiction to correct the errors fiction caused her to commit”. The epilogue confirms suspicions about whether the events Briony has relayed are fictitious, with the statement: ‘If I really cared so much about facts, I should have written a different kind of book’. Briony’s further point that it is not the business of a novel to present detailed historical fact, suggests a way of approaching Atonement. The revelation of truth is of little significance to the novel of Atonement, but rather coming to terms and accepting the untruth is far more important and consequential, as we can see distinctly within the character of Briony, hence her devising of the novel, Atonement. Briony has spent the whole of her life trying to atone for her actions and the publishing of her book is her final act. It can be largely inferred  that throughout Atonement it is McEwan’s intention to conceal particular information from the audience. According to Wood, McEwan is addicted to the withholding of narrative information, the hoarding of surprises and the deferral of revelations.  By withholding the truth from the audience, McEwan provides a rush of harmony that satisfies the reader and the most appropriate point of the story. The most enduringly destructive act within Atonement, is the ‘terrible untruth’ that Briony oversees. It is a lie that is detrimental to both her life, and the lives of Cecilia and Robbie. It can be largely argued that the concealment of truth, or rather, lying, is the main focus of the novel of ‘Atonement’, as much as it is about guilt, penitence, or the art of the this concealment that Briony plays a vital role in and that is partly what compels her to swear allegiance to her terrible lie. However this ‘untruth’ aspect cannot be largely attributed to the character of Briony, the falsity of her surroundings throughout her life has arguably contributed to this aspect of her personality. For example, the class status of her family, which is mentioned with an aura of mystery. The initial description of their stately home can be used to exemplify this, filled with ‘mostly junk’ as well as a portrait of ‘an aristocratic family…thin lipped and pale as ghouls’, all of it paid for by a grandfather ‘who grew up over an ironmonger’s shop and made the family fortune with a series of patents on padlocks, bolts, latches and hasps.’ As well as this, the mystifying marriage of her parents, which is largely organised around a refusal to acknowledge her father’s infidelity. Throughout the novel, people involve themselves in varying degrees of falsity with an overall aim to make their life more palatable. However, some are of a more serious nature than others. The quest for truth is illustrated in a number of ways within Arcadia and Atonement. The contrast between Thomasina and Briony is key, highlighting the different approaches that the characters take towards the truth, one being to pursue it and the other to obscure it. The two works also set out the dichotomy between sentimentality and rationality, revealed by Briony and Hannah who embody these attributes respectively. Stoppard and McEwan explore whether the two are antithetical, or if they can be brought together in synthesis, destroying the divide between faith and reason. Each author also employs literary techniques, such as multiple perspectives, and the unreliable narrator in Atonement, to drive the reader to consider how we know what we know, and examine our basis for knowledge. Additionally these works both deal with the approach to a quest for truth. While Arcadia is concerned with asking challenging questions about the nature of truth, it does not answer them. In Atonement, the character of young Briony is thrilled by the prospect of secrets and mystery, yet never seeks to uncover the truth or solve these mysteries. In this way, the two works are concerned with the issue of whether the journey to find the truth is of greater significance than the truth itself. Both these works collectively challenge the reader to discern for themselves what is fact and what is fabrication. The falsity of truth but also the determination to find out the truth is equally prevalent in Arcadia, shown through the clear-cut contrast between the characters  of Bernard and Hannah. Throughout the play, Bernard has a regular tendency to leap ahead of historic truths , and insteads twist these facts of the past to fit his current theories. However, the main ideas around the idea of truth stem not solely from the concealment of it but rather ‘mistakes’ of those in the present as they attempt to uncover the facts of the past. Thus, the characters of the present do not knowingly attempt to conceal the truth, but rather it is the fact they are misinformed that results in their theses becoming misconstrued.  The juxtaposition of the reconstruction effort against what it seeks to recapture illustrates the difference between fact and truth. Gus presents Hannah with Thomasina’s drawing of Septimus and Platus, the final ‘fact’ she needs to prove that Septimus became the Hermit. In contrast, the love between Thomasina and Septimus leaves no ‘facts’ behind. Hannah and Bernard’s reconstruction efforts have uncovered the foundations of the past – Byron was a visitor, a challenge was issued, Septimus became a hermit and Thomasina was a genius. However, because the audience is familiar with the past, they know that these facts do not capture its true essence.  Just as Thomasina’s translation captures the prose of the passage, the reconstructions realise the general shape of the past while getting details incorrect. Despite having all the crucial facts of history discovered, the ‘truth’ of what happened remains elusive to the modern characters. ‘While the truth of the past is unrecoverable, attempting to access the facts of the past is not useless.’  Another way in which narrative perspectives are used throughout ‘Atonement’ and ‘Arcadia’, are with the intention of closing the class divide and thus allowing a multi-class perspective. One way this is done in Arcadia is through the portrayal of different time periods. The early-nineteenth century and the present (1993) reveals a progression of knowledge and values across different generations and centuries. The time periods focus around 2 distinct stories; that of Hannah Jarvis and that of Thomasina Coverly. For the Early Age, it is depicted as refined and aristocratic. At the height of society, Thomasina and Septimus value new discovery and spend their days working on new problems and possible solutions. In Hannah’s tale, the Croom family has gone into a sense of insanity and disarray.  the Croom children however, Gus and Chloe are uneducated, the parents are absent and the children have developed questionable characteristics. The smart genes of the Croom family seem to have remain intact. Gus is the genius, Chloe is terribly perceptive, and Valentine is a chaos theory researcher. But as a whole, the family is no longer high society. Although they hold a ball for the county, the family dresses up in Regency clothing, harkening to a riper time in the power of the English aristocracy. In regards to the characters of Lady Croom and Noakes, class differences are also explored and arguably are thus weakened. Lady Croom is from a more prestigious class and regularly attempts to control her inferiors that surround her at Sidley Park, namely Mr Noakes, the gardener. She asserts her dominance and demonstrates how secure she is in her sense of her own power and superiority through regularly interrupting others:’ Lady Croom – Thomasina, you had better remain. Your knowledge of the picturesque obviously exceeds anything the rest of us can offer. Mr. Hodge, ignorance should be like an empty vessel waiting to be filled at the well of truth – not a cabinet of vulgar curios. Mr. Noakes – now at last it is your turn.’  Therefore, the over emphasis on Lady Croom’s dialogue depicts the prominent class differences. In terms of hierarchy, Lady Croom dominates Mr Noakes, given he is only a gardener and subsequently falls low in the rankings. In conclusion, McEwan and Stoppard use narrative perspectives with varying effects. In Arcadia the presentation of two generations and the attempt the families make to either pre-anticipate the future or discover the past arguably plays a strong role in depicting the class divide above all else. Whilst in Atonement, McEwan places the character of Briony and the centre of the narrative. Her attempt to depict the inside thoughts of other individuals in the story allows for this distinct class divide that is evident in Arcadia to be closed in Atonement. Through this sole use of Briony we can further comprehend the immense role she plays in concealing truth and twisting it for her own personal fulfillment and to satisfy the fantasy that she has conjured in her mind.