At seventeen years old, Catherine takes a vacation to Bath, which "offers a variety of human types . . . that a girl from a village rectory could never have encountered at home" (Lauber 18). She is often uncertain of herself, not liking to spend time at gatherings in which no one present is an acquaintance of hers (Austen 12). Because Catherine is fairly new to being social, she experiences "trials and errors in 'reading'" people (Kelly) and sets a few traps for herself, unable to express herself freely or clearly. Catherine comes to discover that she is a singular type of person who prefers to read novels instead of books that could teach her something (Austen 38), and it may be due to her excessive reading of fiction that she misunderstands social interaction. With the time she spends poring over novels, she has an active imagination that causes her to daydream and fear "horrid scenes" (Austen 156). As a result of Catherine's social ignorance, overactive imagination, and love for drama, she finds herself the subject of multiple misunderstandings and the perpetrator of her own mental blunders.
The heroine from Atonement, Briony Tallis, was also naive and inexperienced, making her mistakes because she was not mature enough to stop them. At the time when Briony made her fatal mistakes, she was thirteen years old and a dreamer. Somewhat like Catherine, Briony had not yet been well integrated into society and was certainly too immature to understand the conduct of adults. Although immature, Briony formed within her mind solid, profound ideas which she took, after lengthy ruminations, to be entirely true, such as her thoughts about being alive (McEwan 34). In particular, when she believed that her sister Cecilia was under some form of manipulation or attack from Robbie, Briony's strongest feeling was to protect her sister from harm. As for the Tallis' home life, it seems to be a bit disjointed, and it is arguable that "the young people's behavior in Atonement is affected by the absence of the father" (Wells) and also because both of Briony's older siblings are not often at home. It is possible that because of this she strove to strengthen her attachment with her family when they were home, and so tried to help Cecilia as best as she could. Briony was also fond of literature and stories, but instead of soaking them up, she produced them in the form of her own writing. Briony could "describe well enough, and she had the hang of dialogue," but she was unable to capture feelings, apparently in a realm unreachable for her (McEwan 109). Her inability to express feelings on paper suggests that she was also unable to read people's feelings in reality, which could allow for her false judgments. Similar to Catherine, Briony had a love for drama, a weakness in social interaction and understanding, and an immaturity that led her down the path to destruction.
Analysis of Mistakes
What makes Atonement such a gripping tale is the difference in the gravity of the mistakes made when compared with those in Northanger Abbey. In the latter, Catherine Morland makes one of her biggest mistakes by misleading John Thorpe into thinking that she is interested in him (Austen 133). Because of this mix-up, he sets various stumbling blocks in her way to becoming more familiar with her true interest, Mr. Henry Tilney. Not only does Thorpe cause Catherine to rudely ignore plans for a walk with Mr. Tilney and his sister (Austen 76), but he also causes her to ignore them on the street (Austen 77). The worst of all his arrogant blunders is his discussions with General Tilney about Catherine's finances. If Catherine had been able to realize in an instant that Thorpe was interested in her and convince him that she was completely uninterested, she may have been able to avoid the singular mistake that postponed her marriage to Mr. Tilney. Catherine made some active mistakes of her own, however, when overpowered by the "effect of Udolpho, then by Henry's parody of Gothic conventions" (Lauber 23) she explores an old dark chest in her room in an unavailing attempt to unlock a mystery, and when she mistakenly "considers [General Tilney] to be the actual murderer of his wife" (Lauber 23). Catherine Morland's fondness for literature turns it into the only reality she knows, and it is this flawed...
. . are far grimmer than those that result from Catherine Morland's erroneous conclusions' (Wells). Briony's first mistake is in her interpretation of the scene that occurs by the fountain between Cecilia and Robbie. When Cecilia defiantly removes her clothing to jump into the pool, Briony misinterprets it as a command from Robbie that "Cecilia dared not disobey" (McEwan 36). Now believing that Robbie had some control over Cecilia, she mischievously opened his vulgar letter, assumed that he had disgusting designs on Cecilia (McEwan 107), and "cast herself as her sister's protector" (McEwan 115). When she found them making love in the library, she believed that she had "interrupted an attack" upon her sister (McEwan 116), and from then on, it was war. The final and most disruptive mistake Briony makes is her assumption that Robbie was the man who raped Lola in the woods, and from the moment she voices this opinion, all is lost for Robbie, innocent or not. All it took was for Briony to dramatize the scene at the fountain, and as a result, she dramatized the rest of their lives.
Analysis of Consequences
It is the eventual consequences of these blunders that most greatly distinguish Northanger Abbey from Atonement. Most of the mistakes Catherine incurs are not particularly serious in their nature and are also very quickly put right. She had to explain to the Tilneys time and time again that she never did try to avoid their company, and in only a short period is the mistake about her financial status better understood. Her concerns about the General's hand in his wife's death, while more serious in nature, are brushed off, almost laughably, by Mr. Tilney with the epigraph that opens McEwan's novel. Briony's misjudgments are far more serious in nature, implicating a man's involvement in the rape of a child, and indeed, when she names him, he is sent to prison under her testimony and the silence of her cousin, Lola. This crime that Briony committed becomes the greatest disruption her family has ever seen. Her father, who once supported Robbie's education, casts him aside as though disinterested, and Cecilia, enraged by the small part each of her family members played in sending Robbie to jail, abandons them to live a life apart from them. Robbie soon chooses to serve in the army rather than sit in a cell, and both he and Cecilia pass away before they ever have the chance to spend their lives together. Briony's crime is the basis for the novel through which she hopes to make atonement for ruining the lives of so many.
The warning which McEwan's contrast of these two novels presents is that imagination, when unleashed into the social world, can do serious harms. Austen's novel "satirizes the naive reader of popular Gothic 'romances'" (Kelly), but McEwan's displays the disastrous consequences of a reality built on lies. The impressionable mind that he introduces does not handle conflict well, though she does so with confidence and stubbornness. Briony's imagination became dangerous because of her defiance and certainty, and when she chose to present her imaginings to the public at large, she separated her family, forever changed the lives of two people she loved very dearly, and assigned for herself a process of atonement which would last her whole life long.
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