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Essay: Ian McEwan – Austen’s Northanger Abbey

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Ian McEwan’s metafiction Atonement employs the device of intertextuality, alluding to great literary works of Clarissa by Samuel Richardson and Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen as a frequent reminder to the audience that the novel is a construct, designed to warn the reader of the dangers of an untamed imagination. The importance of the construction and structure of a novel therefore surpasses the narrative of the story.
McEwan’s use of an epigraph, sourced from Austen’s Northanger Abbey, immediately characterizes Briony as an imaginative writer, by providing links between her and Catherine. Much like Briony, Catherine boasts a vivid imagination, which leads her to turn a fiction in reality and accuse an innocent man of a crime he didn’t commit, much as Briony does. However, Catherine goes on to lead a ‘normal’ life whilst Briony continues to atone for her crime for the rest of her life. This initial foreshadowing immediately allows the audience to question what consequences Briony’s imagination may have on the rest of the novel. Northanger Abbey itself is used by Austen to question what makes a good novel and good protagonist, McEwan is able to suggest that Atonement will similarly question these values. Much like Austen, who uses the hapless Catherine as her protagonist, Atonement uses the unlikely heroine of “baby” Briony to question what makes a great writer and protagonist, explored through the development of ‘her’ writing throughout the novel. To further emphasize a writer’s construction of the novel over its plot, McEwan also provides subtle references to the gothic throughout the novel, with the Tallis home described as “lead paned- baronial Gothic” and by naming the Tallis home the “Tilney Hotel”, in reference to the accused General Tilney in Northanger Abbey. The imaginative facet of Briony’s personally is further established with a slow moving narrative, a convention which favours detailed character development and description of the afternoons events in ‘her’ writing. This slow pace of story is empathised through overly descriptive sentences, showcasing Briony’s imaginative and extravagant language such as “impetuous” and “impoverished” This slow paced narrative also allows for multiple perspectives to be exposed during Part 1. This convention of an intentionally unreliable narrator, which is also used in Northanger Abbey, not only allows the reader to see the story from multiple perspectives, but to also question the validity of the writing itself. This initial use intertextual allusions and other structural features warns against letting the imagination confuse fiction with reality from the very beginning.

Clarissa, which is alluded to by ‘Briony’ in the opening pages of Atonement, helps to build the characters of Briony and Cecilia and their relationship, and foreshadowing of the destruction of this through Briony’s imaginative tendencies. The synecdoche of “the play” Briony is scribing- “The Trials of Arabella” not only establishes her as ‘a writer’ but also deeply characterizes her. Arabella (Clarissa’s sister) is overshadowed by her sister in looks, knowledge and talent, which makes her feel highly jealous of her sister, as well as under appreciated by those around her. It is apparent to Briony that she should play the role of Arabella, not only in her play, but in her life: “she was not playing Arabella because she wrote the play … she was taking the part because no other possibility had crossed her mind… because she was Arabella”. This characterises Briony’s need to be the centre of attention, as well as her narcissistic nature. The character of Arabella in Briony’s play also suffers through many “trials”- Briony’s melodramatic way of suggesting that her life is a ‘trial’ in which she has gone through much “suffering” in her appeals to stand out from her other siblings. The use of this play also shows how boring Briony finds the real world compared to the constructed and imaginative universe she can create when writing: in which “a world could be made in five pages”

Briony’s older sister, Cecilia, is “[ making] her way through Richardson’s Clarissa”, which she remarks to Robbie is “boring”. This notion of being feeling bored and tired of being trapped at home is indicated with McEwan’s use of long sentence structure and continual comma use to represent a her

‘sighs’ of boredom-“she had made a half hearted start on a family tree, but on the paternal side, at least until her great grandfather opened his humble hardware shop,” Another use of this technique to indicate Cecilia’s need to move onto something new is: “Cecilia knew she could not go on wasting her days in the stews of her untidied bedroom” A further indication of the lack of direction Cecilia has in her life is shown in description of Clarissa to Robbie, in which Cecilia exclaims “I wish she would just get on with on it”. Whilst Briony may feel overshadowed by Cecilia, Cecilia feels a desire to be needed by someone: “she persuaded herself she remained for Briony’s sake” which allows them to have a strong relationship. The colloquial language used in conversation between them: “Darling, what’s up” further indicates this closeness. The end of use of these structural techniques indicates the permanent destruction of this relationship when Briony commits her “crime”. It is only through the inclusion of these structural elements of sentence structure, synecdoche and intertextual reference, that we are able to examine both characters desires and facets of their personalities.

The epistolary structure of Clarissa is also used by McEwan show the dangers of a wild imagination by using the motif of the letter and letter writing throughout the novel. Differing from a novel, a letter is generally not open for anyone to read, rather for a closed and specific reader. In the first instance, Robbie tries to write Cecilia an apology letter for breaking the vase, including his “erotic letter” which contains sentiments such as “I want to make love to you all day long”. It is highly likely that if Briony had not read this letter that the events of the afternoon would have been much different. Instead, Briony’s naivety and wild imagination changes her perception of the letters content, taking it drastically out of proportion. Throughout Part 2, during the war, letters are used as the main form of communication between Robbie and Cecilia. This use letter form allows the reader to see the intimate perspectives and feelings of the couple. It is later discovered however, that these letters were simply fabricated by Briony, and therefore do not accurately depict conversations between Robbie and Cecilia, suggesting that the imagination is dangerous as it can deceive people. By exposing these often private letters to the readers, McEwan suggests that whilst letters do play an important role in the plot, the greater importance of them lies more in their inclusion and less in the content of the letters themselves.

Literature is a narrative which expands our understanding of ourselves. Atonement allows the reader to look at the consequences of an untamed imagination through the construction of the novel, suggesting that how a story is told is greater than the story itself. Perhaps McEwan is trying to provide lessons in good judgement- advocating for a mature and measured approach to relationships and not allowing the imagination to take over from reality.

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