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Water imagery is used by McEwan throughout the novel. Many scenes that are vital to the plot involve water, like at the fountain and Lola's rape, which happens next to a lake. Robbie and the rest of the soldiers are traveling to get to the seaside at Dunkirk. Often, images of water represent cleansing; a character washing himself or herself to attain cleanliness. Robbie and Briony, vital characters to the novel, are most often associated with images of water. Additionally, these are the two characters that might have the most for which to atone; Robbie deals with having to leave Cecilia and being the reason for her cutting ties with her family, while Briony seeks forgiveness and retribution for her false accusation of Robbie in Lola's rape. Consequently, images of water as cleansing or the act of cleansing with water are often associated with Briony and Robbie. In part three, for example, Briony becomes a nurse. She washes her hands extensively, sanitizes the hospital, and cleans the wounds of injured patients. Robbie also desires water, but in other ways. When he and his team are heading towards Dunkirk in the retreat, he is not only constantly thirsty with very limited access to water, but also uses water as a cleansing device. After he takes shelter from a bomb in a dirt field, he attempts to wash the grime out of his mouth with water. He also attempts to sanitize and clean his wound. Water is a constant and important presence through the entire plot of Atonement.
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Water is used in Atonement to symbolize atonement or obtaining forgiveness for one's actions. It connotes freshness, purity, and clean newness, much like forgiveness does. The OED defines atonement as "The condition of beingÂ at oneÂ with others; unity of feeling, harmony, concord, agreement" (OED, "atonement", n). This also supports the idea of atonement being like water. We as humans are at one with water; it is within us, around us, in the air, and vital to our life. Atonement is also vital because most seek forgiveness for wrong that they've done. From this we can draw the conclusion that it is associated with atonement. Briony and Robbie are the two main characters that have sins they must atone for, and McEwan uses water imagery involved with them throughout the novel. Clearly, water is something that is vital to life, and it is seen as desirable in Atonement: in part two, Robbie is perpetually thirsty and seeking out water, and Briony in part three uses it to wash her hands very often. The importance of atonement is also seen in the title - if the novel is called Atonement, it is an important theme. Atonement, like water, is generally seen as desirable because people always want to be forgiven for their sins and to repent for their actions.
Cleansing images involving water often follow a situation during which a character does something sinful, supporting the idea of water being cleansing substance in Atonement. Water can be seen as cleansing both in a moral sense and a more tangible sense. Cleansing in the sense of morality is connected to atonement. Briony has perhaps the biggest guilt to atone for, having accused Robbie of rape when she knew he was innocent. Therefore, when she washes her "cracked and bleeding chilblained hands under freezing water," she may be trying to wash herself of the guilt she holds because of her sin. Her attempts at cleansing aren't working - her constant handwashing, "a dozen times a day", only leaves her hands chapped and bloody. The healing she desires from the cleansing is impossible and her hands remain cracked. Similarly, the cracked foundation she caused in her sister and Robbie's life and relationship together remain as well. At the hospital, Briony attempts to cleanse and heal others as a nurse. She cleans and dresses the wounds of soldiers and brings them water to drink. Because Robbie is a soldier himself, it begs the question as to whether Briony is serving the wounded soldiers water and cleaning their wounds in an attempt to atone for her sins. Her shame brings her to this career as a nurse where she takes care of soldiers, perhaps representing her wish to help Robbie. Additionally, Briony and her fellow nurses are often shown cleaning the hospital equipment in a nearly obsessive manner: "The everyday practice of boiling, scrubbing, buffing, and wiping became the badge of the students' professional pride." This constant washing, a source of pride, perhaps will distract herself from her guilt; she is attempting to wash away her guilt with water. Furthermore, her chosen career could be interpreted as self-given punishment. Life on the ward is a strict and difficult one - now she is the one taking orders and serving others, which is a stark contrast to her previous life. Part of the reason younger Briony was so dislikeable was due to her controlling and selfish attitude. The stories she created were all about her and she used and directed others to play into those stories. The way she uses water to clean both herself and others represents that she is seeking atonement and wants desperately for her sins to be forgiven.
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