← Back to portfolio

A Defense of Atonement: Examining the Synchronicity between War Memoirs and War Novels

Published on 25th March 2017

Synchronicity is a term that has been around for a rather short period of time. It was coined by Carl Jung as referring to individuals and events that do not necessarily have a causal relationship, but appear to be related nonetheless. While the word may be new, the concept is not, as the idea of Yuanfen, or fateful coincidence, has existed in China for centuries, along with many other analogues in other cultures. When analyzing relationships, this idea of synchronicity suddenly becomes quite useful, perhaps nowhere more so than in the wide and confusing realm of the war narrative.

As William T. Sherman put it, “war is hell,” and such powerfully moving experiences often yield a bevy of literature. Knowing this, it should not be surprising to discover that World War II, a conflict which had dire consequences for the vast majority of the world’s people, creates a veritable cornucopia of pertinent literature, from the third-person objectivity of John Hersey’s Hiroshima to the artful depiction of the same incident in the Studio Ghibli film, Grave of the Fireflies. However, two particularly relevant types of narrative include the war memoir, in the form of works like Eric Lomax’s The Railway Man and E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed:At Peleliu and Okinawa, and also the fictional narrative, namely Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

At first glance, these works could not be more different, as Lomax and Sledge actually lived the war and their experiences did occur. McEwan’s novel, on the other hand, never happened. None of the characters ever existed. Stylistically, the two memoirs are direct and concise, like one would expect military works to be, with the novel being fluid, highly complex in syntax, and altogether “flowery.” Such stark differences have led many to question whether Atonement really is a war novel, or perhaps a novel in which there just so happens to be a war. However, while it would be easy to make this dismissal, further inquiry reveals that not only is Atonement a war novel, but World War II itself plays an essential role in the fiber of the work, thus supplying a rightful sense of validity to the work’s inclusion in the pantheon of war literature. In other words, the synchronicity in themes such as empathy, resentment, and atonement between this fictional war-related novel and the two aforementioned bona-fide war memoirs is perhaps more evident than one might first assume.

All of this brings into question some key details, specifically those that define what a war memoir really is, and how this applies to the works in question. According to Samuel Hynes in his work, A Soldier’s Tale, such memoirs take on various roles, such as that of autobiography, history, or travel writing. However, the key, he asserts, is that wars are lived by those who fight them, and the recollections of these individuals have an authority unmatched by other accounts. He writes, in reference to David Jones, a World War I-era soldier, “Jones lays a soldier’s claim to authority for what he has written…It is true because he was on the field; if you don’t know that, you don’t understand anything” (Hynes 1). Hynes essentially asserts that empathy in regards to war is impossible and, as such, the war narrative assumes primacy.

Having thus established the authors’ perspective of the war narrative, it is easier to establish several common themes and points of synchronicity, or perhaps direct relationships. War is a passionate affair, stripping individuals down to the most basic motives of survival. Such extreme circumstances often lead to resentment and anger as a result of misunderstandings related to empathy and sympathy, and thus to an inner moral confrontation. As Hynes puts it in reference to Caputo, “The two stories that war narratives tell are…the things men do in war” and “the things war does to them” (Hynes 3). This can be seen in both war memoirs discussed here.

The initial theme of empathy is displayed readily in The Railway Man. After the end of World War II and his captivity, Eric Lomax struggles to find points of relation with those who have not experienced what he has and those who have not lived the personal metamorphosis that he has undergone. He relates that “I could not help noticing that most of the veterans had done very little in the war; their complaints about how awful firewatching duties had been did not, under the circumstances, engage my full sympathy” (Lomax 226). His postwar experience is littered with this lack of a connection. Sledge’s work displays this as well, though perhaps more preemptively. In reference to his relationship with his company, he claims that “No matter how bad a situation was in the company, it was still home to me,” and, to him, nobody else outside of the company would ever understand that (Sledge 98). In seeing men who had not been involved in the fighting, he states that “the sight of clean, comfortable noncombatants was depressing, and we tried to keep up our morale…” (Sledge 103). In so stating, Sledge consciously accepts a loss of understanding with those outside of his personal experiences.

It can be posited that the idea of resentment leading to a moral conflict is the driving force behind the writings of both Lomax and Sledge. The narrative constructed in The Railway Man is built around Lomax’s experience in a Japanese prison camp and how he copes with it. After the war, he becomes quietly obsessed with his captivity, and with his captors. In describing everyday life, he relates that “when confrontation came, I would resist with immense stubborn energy, revenging myself on the Kempetai and the guards in every encounter. Although I could not have admitted it, I was still fighting the war in all those years of peace” (Lomax 232). In reference to his captors, he muses: “I wanted to do violence to them…to revenge myself on the goon squad from Kanburi and the hateful little interrogator…I wished to drown him, cage him, and beat him…” (Lomax 220). Lomax’s anger is understandable, as he was tortured at the hands of the Japanese military for years, but nonetheless, this anger becomes his motive for being and thus drives his actions throughout a large portion of the book.

Sledge feels similar war-related resentments. While he generally takes on a more soldierly view of his enemy, he does reveal strong emotions, such as when he states: “I had quickly developed a feeling of strong personal hate for that machine-gunner…My terror subsided into a cold, homicidal rage and a vengeful desire to get even” (Sledge 115). In perhaps one of the most visceral passages of the work, he describes a gory scene in which some Marines had been killed and horribly mutilated: “My emotions solidified into rage and a hatred for the Japanese beyond anything I had ever experienced” (Sledge 148).

These ideas of resentment are muddled, however, by the fact that the world is not merely split on moral lines of good and evil. As much as Lomax hates Nagase, his captor, he is moved by the man’s postwar work and gestures toward reparation. In Sledge’s case, while he hates the Japanese in general, he consistently expresses in his narrative a certain admiration for them as soldiers and makes various attempts to relate to them as human beings. This moral conflict leads both characters to grapple with the idea of atonement, although perhaps not in the classical sense. In Lomax’s case, this atonement deals with both himself and Nagase. When confronted with his captor many years after the war, Lomax struggles mightily with Nagase’s attempts at atonement. Even though the man has helped locate bodies, built a temple, led awareness efforts, and contributed towards overall good will postwar, Lomax at first regards him with disdain. He states: “I could not believe in the idea of Japanese repentance…I had not seen a Japanese since 1945 and had no wish ever to meet one again. His reconciliation assembly sounded to me like a fraudulent publicity stunt” (Lomax 242.) However, over time, Lomax begins to soften and realize Nagase’s humanity as more than the interpreter from the prison camp. This humanistic metamorphosis is no doubt aided by Nagase’s sincerity in lines such as “The dagger of your letter thrusted me into my heart to the bottom” (Lomax 264). In this, not only does Nagase achieve his atonement for his actions, but Lomax himself achieves a personal atonement, counteracting the resentment and anger he had felt.

Sledge, too, attempts to reconcile his resentment and anger within himself. However, in quite the opposite vein, he uses his anger to do so, and in so doing becomes numb to the brutality of his situation. In the same mutilation episode aforementioned, he claims that “from that moment on I never felt the least pity or compassion for them no matter what the circumstances” (Sledge 148). At many points in the narrative, Sledge maintains a certain morality about the conflict, but his growing resentment towards the Japanese leads to a gradual breakdown of these barriers to the point of barbarism. At one point, he even attempts to extricate gold teeth from a Japanese corpse, but is stopped by a doctor. He later ponders: “He was a…fine, genuine person whose sensitivity hadn’t been crushed out by the war. He was merely trying to help me retain some of mine and not become completely callous and harsh” (Sledge 124). So, in comparing the two, one can see that, while Lomax achieves atonement by letting go of anger, Sledge achieves atonement by embracing it.

Atonement is, first and foremost, fiction. Anthony McEwan is not a soldier. He did not fight and likewise cannot relate firsthand war experiences, and neither can his narrator, Briony. Not only is this the case, but the first half of the book takes place five years before the war began, with much of the main character’s inner conflict having to do with an unrelated incident. McEwan’s work, inasmuch as it is a work of fiction, lacks the operative sense of empathy so critically important in a war memoir. However, only a shallow reading will interpret the war as being an event within the story. A deeper analysis reveals a primacy to World War II, as it almost becomes a character in and of itself. The themes present in both war narratives are also present in the novel, though they are applied differently. The fact that the war is more blatant in both war memoirs should not inhibit its importance to the war novel.

A great deal of the stigma about Atonement as a war novel stems from the fact that its pivotal moment really has nothing to do with World War II. Briony Tallis is a thirteen-year-old girl who witnesses her adult sister Cecilia and the housekeeper’s son, Robbie, in multiple scenarios, some more personal than others, which leads her to believe that Robbie is a sex-crazed maniac. Misjudgments abound, Briony sees somebody assaulting her cousin and, believing the perpetrator to be Robbie, accuses him of rape. Before the end of the night, Robbie is arrested for a crime that he did not commit, thus setting up the novel’s conflict. However, looking at the big picture, the result of Briony’s action is not Robbie’s jailing, at least not ultimately. Robbie negotiates to get out of prison, provided that he join the military on the advent of World War II. Briony does not merely send Robbie to jail, terrible though such a result is. She sends him to war, which does engender its fair share of both anger and resentment on Robbie’s part. When wandering through the north of France, tired, wounded, dehydrated, and attempting to find Dunkirk, he thinks a great deal on his feelings about Briony, concluding that “he did not think his resentment of her could ever be erased…and he did not forgive her. He would never forgive her. That was the lasting damage” (McEwan 220). Later, he synthesizes this directly with his war experience when he exclaims to Briony: “Goddamnit! You’re eighteen…There are soldiers dying in the field at eighteen. Old enough to be left to die on the roads. Did you know that?” (McEwan 323). Robbie does not forgive Briony because of the terrible experiences he has had, both in prison and in the war, rather similarly to Lomax’s resentment of Nagase. So too was Sledge’s predicament a direct result of the actions of the Imperial Army of Japan.

Even so, in those two works, much of the resolution of this resentment falls on the shoulders of the victims. In McEwan’s novel, this phenomenon is flipped. Briony feels the weight of her actions like a lead boot. During the imagined confrontation in Cecilia’s apartment, she makes the complaint: “did everything have to be her fault...  Couldn’t it also be the war’s?” (McEwan 321). Her struggle with this desire to rectify the resentment felt by those she has hurt becomes the main focus of the book. However, in the end, she is unsuccessful, and the agent of her failure is none other than the war itself. Robbie, in the war that Briony put him in, dies of septicemia on the shores of Dunkirk, which history relates did indeed happen to many men in just those circumstances. Cecilia, too, is killed by the war when a bomb destroys the water main above Balham railway station, where she has taken refuge. This event, as real as Dunkirk, killed many people in a similar situation to Cecilia. Thus, Briony’s fictional atonement is in many ways more tragic than the real world atonements of Lomax or Sledge. However, the one point of connection between the works is World War II. This is the basis of their synchronicity.

The fact that Atonement is a fictional work as well should not be a deterrent to its status as a war novel, for fiction is a mere interpretation of events. It may be true that an individual named Robbie Turner did not actually die at Dunkirk, hopelessly trying to get across the English Channel, but many men did. It may also be true that Briony Tallis was never a nurse in a trauma ward, tending to the most gruesome war injuries imaginable, but many women were. Cecilia Tallis did not die in the Blitz, but many others did. Atonement may be a fictional depiction of World War II, but it is realistic fiction in every sense of the word. The work may not be able to boast the blatant respect commanded by eyewitness accounts, but this should not diminish its value as a study into World War II.

In the same vein, any recollection made after the fact cannot be truly factual, as countless factors play into memory, such as one’s degrees of separation, the nature of the events experienced, and the constant flow of time itself. Sledge himself states that “the shelling lifted in half an hour, although it seemed to me to have crashed on for hours. Time had no meaning to me” (Sledge 63). Under such hellish circumstances, it is wishful thinking at best to assume that anybody can make an accurate recounting of events, especially when one factors in the reality that most of these memoirs are written many years after the fact, in Lomax’s case as many as forty or more. This is not to belittle the validity of the war memoir, but merely to assert another, more structural level of synchronicity between the works in question. They are all three essentially interpretations of the experiences of war. The only major difference is that Atonement has an extra degree of separation. Thus, while the works of Lomax and Sledge bear the weight of a lack of empathy, with the reader merely able to elicit a response through sympathy, McEwan’s work achieves its goal through the elicitation of that very empathy which the memoirs cannot convey. By removing the reader from the war memoir and moving them into the realm of war literature, McEwan is able to have his characters be relatable. The reader is able to develop a deeper understanding of Briony and Robbie because so much of the book focuses on their development as characters and as individuals trapped in World War II, rather than explain the events of World War II in a way that the reader can sympathize with, but can never truly understand.

The Railway Man, Atonement, and With the Old Breed approach World War II in different ways. Lomax and Sledge approach the war in the classical context of soldiers in a battle, as they are so inclined. However, while war is “fundamentally about life and death,” Atonement interprets the war in a much broader context than the impulse to kill or be killed present in Sledge’s writing or the plight of POWs in Lomax’s (Harling 3). McEwan takes the idea that “survival…involves the dramatic alteration of one’s circumstances and one’s self” to heart in tracking the effect of surviving the war on Briony (Harling 3). In acknowledging that each work is simply an alternative interpretation of World War II, this idea of the war as a point of synchronicity becomes evident. Each work is very different in structure, but in exploring the themes of empathy, resentment, and atonement, one can see many more points of synchronicity developing out of this initial element of war. Thus, while Atonement may be a fictional novel, its status as a war narrative should not be in doubt. It is easy to see why a war memoir is an appropriate war narrative. The art of fiction makes the issue more complicated, but in analyzing synchronous connections, one can see that McEwan’s work is just as much a war narrative as the other two because they are all three bound, shaped, and defined by the most deadly conflict in human history.

Close