Post Structuralist Literary Criticism English Literature Essay

Joe Wright’s Atonement – A Reader-Oriented Response

Semester 1, 2013

English Extension – Semester One

By Devon Hamley


Post-Structuralist literary criticism is a response to the rigid formalist school of analysis foregrounded throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century that endorsed the idea of limited interpretations that can be conceived from the authorial intended reader of a text. This modern method eliminates the requirement for exhaustive examination of the textual medium itself, and instead acknowledges the polyvalence of any text. Through this theoretical paradigm, theorists such as Stanley Fish (1980) present a pluralistic view of literature, with the perception of text governed entirely by an individual’s subjective interpretive communities, which are exclusively formed by their unique idioculture and exemplified by his/her unique dialogic interaction with the text. It is through this concept of reader-oriented analysis that I will deconstruct my individual reading of Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement. Contextualising the film in terms of my own idioculture and experiences, I will examine the classist discrimination depicted in the film, contrasted with my personal reflection of racism and Apartheid in South Africa. Underpinning this, I will observe the use of semiotics and character interactions evident throughout the film and analyse my personally conceived inter-textual links between Robbie Turner and Nelson Mandela, as illustrated in the film Invictus (Eastwood, 2009).

My reading of the base text Atonement is pervasively influenced by my upbringing in South Africa, and with values relative to, and fostered by a proudly European-African standpoint. This social conditioning, alongside a strong resonation with the film Invictus, has predisposed me to a unique inferred reading of the classist society represented in the base text. Adherent to my interpretive communities, I developed a strong, endorsed reading of the character Robbie Turner, as I subconsciously drew symbolic and ethical parallels between his own passions and those of the influential leader who famously ended Apartheid, Nelson Mandela. Specifically, Robbie’s determination, self-belief and courage to fight for his convictions, resonated deeply with my personal morals, and his time spent imprisoned for a misconstrued guilt was analogous to that of the former South African President. Furthermore, Robbie’s lucid understanding of the importance of ethical penance and honesty, embodied in his quote ‘How old do you have to be before you know the difference between right and wrong?’ (Wright, 2007) was reaffirming in my support and affinity for his character. This strength of character and sobriety shown throughout Robbie’s interactions with the atrocities of war and prison, and his dedication to Cecilia Tallis back home through these times of great hardship, came to represent the value and intrinsic worth of a pure heart. Similarly, the photographs he treasures throughout the Dunkirk campaign were for me, inter-textually comparable to the poem Invictus (Ernest-Henley, 1888) which inspired and motivated the life of Nelson Mandela. Another literary congruency between these two figures appears when Robbie discovers the schoolgirls massacred in the orchard, and the ensuing flashback to Briony’s childish attempt to seduce him. This event prompted my innate desire for catharsis, and at this pivotal moment I resisted the ideal reading prompted by the text, considering this as Robbie’s atonement and forgiveness of Briony.

In addition, my reading of the base text was enhanced by the secondary, subtler correlations between classist society and the historic representation of Apartheid. In the dénouement of the text, for example, my inferred reading is that Briony’s true nature is exposed to the reader in the final ‘reveal’. It is obvious that she appears to act not only as her own moral compass, but as if she holds power over the proletarian Robbie, and has the right to control his destiny. Her so-called ‘atonement’ for the sins of the past appeared to me as an egotistical accumulation of her self-absorbed, aloof personality and her background as a member of ‘higher’ social order. The intent of Briony’s every action seems to involve the purging of pain, suffering and regret from her own history, rather than making a real difference to Robbie and Cecilia, and clarifies my aversion to her character. My distaste for the prejudiced treatment of others, an echo of my interactions with discrimination of black Africans, reinforces my decidedly resistant reading of her character throughout Atonement.

As well as the perceptive insight gained by applying aspects of my idioculture to the film and resisting the implied reading of the text, Atonement reaffirmed my personal beliefs and moral standing with regards to integrity and discrimination. The vibrant library scene in particular, is suggestive of the important role tolerance and understanding can achieve in society, and the triviality of prejudice in the face of love and friendship. I believe Cecilia Tallis’ representation is an excellent demonstration of my endorsed reading, as her actions and behavioural ethics embody many values I can directly relate to. Despite her initial awkwardness with Robbie by the fountain, which I perceived as the result of classism that is thrust upon her, Cecilia remains true to Robbie and continues to trust in his honesty, undeterred by the accusations of violent rape. Following this tumultuous event, her unfaltering support for him, exemplified by the moral stand she takes by excommunicating her prejudiced and apparently ‘higher-order’ family, is particularly evocative. Her dedication is synonymous with Robbie’s determination, and is a quality that I value highly both in my own life and in the coterie with which I associate. An interesting dimension added to Cecilia’s character, that helps to concretise my impartial construction of her values, stems from her immediate suspicion of the gardener Danny Hardman in the rape once Robbie is ‘proven’ innocent. This slight twist appealed to the sense of realism I appreciate in films, and actualises the extensive depths to which discrimination permeates a community.

In conclusion, my subjective interpretation of the base text Atonement has been influenced by my own idioculture and interpretive community, bestowing me with enhanced insight and greater appreciation of the film studied. However, these inferential readings gleaned from the text have heightened my resistance to the reading of Briony Tallis and the depiction of classist society in Great Britain at the time, juxtaposed with the issue of racism and Apartheid. Developed further in my defence of this reading, will be consideration of the academic aspects postulated by prominent theorists such as Stanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser, whose documented clarification will aid in underpinning the hypothetical motives behind my unique response.


Throughout my subjective analysis of Atonement (Wright, 2007), I expounded upon the relevance of classism to my actual reading of the film, which involved the analogous prejudice of racism as formed by my hermeneutical interaction with the text itself. In this defence of my analysis, I will underpin the reasons behind my reader-oriented response through the postulations of the renowned theorists Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish and Umberto Eco in their prominent texts "The Act Of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response" (Iser, 1978), "Is There A Text In This Class" (Fish, 1980) and "The Limits of Interpretation" (Eco, 1990).

The principles foregrounded by the influential theorist Stanley Fish are applicable to the studying of my subjective reception of Atonement. Of specific relevance is his espousal of the concept of text as a tabula rasa or the blank slate onto which the reader projects his/her own unique interpretations. This can be related directly to my phenomenological construction and perception of the text with a discerning classist paradigm. This conception of the film is vindicated by Fish’s later explication on interpretive communities, essentially the conventions and pre-suppositions thrust upon the reader by their own social, ethical and moral standing. He argues that "knowledge is … always socially conditioned" (Lang, 2010) and is expressed by the formal patterns of interpretation displayed. I am of the opinion that my upbringing in a family environment that promotes the equity of all people, regardless of class, race or creed, and has witnessed the atrocities of Apartheid first-hand, is a prominent characteristic within my interpretive community, exemplified by my endorsed reading of Robbie Turner. In a similar proposition, Fish also posits that every reader is involved in a subconscious hermeneutical cycle whereby all preconceptions dictated by an individual’s interpretive community are continuously reintroduced to the text, while deeper understanding and meaning is gleaned (Lang, 2010). In my analysis of Atonement, this cyclic nature of knowledge is particularly evident through the expansion of my resistant reading to Briony Tallis. Initially, I partially accepted her portrayal as a young child making an innocent mistake upon assumptions. As the classist allusion developed through the film however, I began to experience a powerful disregard for her immaturity and narcissism. Moreover, her character altered my perspective on the concept of childhood innocence, and endowed me with a renewed outlook on empathy and taking the consequences for your mistakes.

The postulations of Wolfgang Iser also confront the concept of the reader’s active involvement in the creation of meaning from a text. He elucidates that the indeterminacies within the text will be filled by a reader’s existing stock of experience and animated by the idioculture or interpretive community of which the reader is a part (Selden, Widdowson, & Brooker, 2005). Furthermore, the actual reader, or the individual analysing the text, will be distinctly separate from the implied reader intended by the text itself. As an actual reader of Atonement, my cultural assertions on the class structure at the time, as well as my endorsed and contested readings of the specific characters, created a subconscious reading that underpins the egalitarian viewpoint depicted in my reading. This filling of indeterminacies with my own assumptions, central values and cathartic propensity is tantamount when Robbie encounters the horrific massacre of schoolgirls and I assessed this scene, with no significant implied evidence, as a final atoning forgiveness of the sin Briony has committed.

Umberto Eco (1990) defines a text as "a device conceived in order to produce its Model Reader," however supports the belief that this model reading can and will be misinterpreted. He emphasises that every reading is a misreading, and that there is no distinct ‘good’ or ‘bad’ reading of a text, as all analysis and understanding is unique to an individual (Bouissac, 1998). Eco further postulates that the holistic nature of reading a text is ‘use’ rather than ‘interpretation’ and involves projections of the reader’s own intuitive parameters onto the text to produce a coherent image of the reader’s own subjectivity (Eco, 1990). Within this active and dynamic sphere of literary criticism, my comprehension of Robbie as comparable to Nelson Mandela falls within the scope of ‘using’ the text and projecting my cultural assumptions onto the model reader presented by the text. Likewise, the inter-textuality between the poem Invictus and specifically the quote ‘I thank whatever Gods may be, for my unconquerable soul,’ has distinct correlation with the photographs that inspire Robbie’s moral fortitude. Eco, like the majority of post-structural theorists, stresses the inter-connectedness of all texts and also underlines its relevance in the underpinning of a subjective reading.

Conclusively, the nature of literature as expounded by reader-oriented critics including Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish and Umberto Eco, is that all texts have an infinite number of interpretations, depending on the interpretive community that each actual reader belongs to, and the prior knowledge that each individual brings to the reading. This post-structuralist method of literary analysis has facilitated my unique interpretation of Atonement, and concretised my awareness of the social conditioning that my African background, and inter-textual links, place upon the text.