I saw the movie "Atonement" on Friday. It was really intense: depressing, because it shows not only the obvious evils of war, death, rape, and excruciating strife within a family (between two sisters, no less), but the subtler pain of self-delusion. You tell yourself a certain story about the way things are or the way they are going to be, you believe it, jealously guarding that hope in your cupped hands, breathing on it, feeding it gently. You make it grow, keep it alive, and in keeping it alive you keep yourself alive. For without a hope and a story, we have nothing. There is no reason to live if there is no place to go toward.
And then, you find that your hope was a lie. This creature you have kept and cherished does not grow up to take care of you in your old age, but sprouts angular wings and flaps away as you run after it. You implore it to return, stretch your hands skyward as though you might be able to reach it if you just reach, reach-- but it rises and rises, and doesn't even look back.
You are left alone with reality, to face the consequences of your choices, the fact that your hopes were unfulfilled, the heart-wrenching truth that wanting something cannot make it so.
We all do this, to a greater or lesser extent, and for better or worse purposes. In "Atonement," Cecilia's dream of Robbie keeps her going, gives her strength when she is alone and alienated from her family. In feeling she has a calling, a mission, a love that will survive against all odds, she finds the sustenance that nothing but a sense of purpose can provide. Robbie, of course, relies on his bond with Cecilia to get him through the horrors and terrors of prison and war. Without that hope, despair would have destroyed him.
Most profoundly, though, Briony herself makes herself believe that she can atone for what she did... For her, as for Cecilia and Robbie, the end is that her hope was a tattered and torn thing, stained and threadbare and false. Unable to cover her guilt or keep her warm. She cannot atone, in reality, for her awful mistake.
The question the ending raises, however, is to what degree atonement in writing and penance can take the place of changes in actual events... Like The Things They Carried, "Atonement" dwells in the border region between truth and lies, reality and fiction, dreams and events. What does it mean to be "real" or "true"? What does it mean to truly atone for wrongs done? When is guilt effaced?
["Atonement" does not answer these questions in a way that satisfies me, and neither does O'Brien's book. When I get the time, I'll try to write up the answers Atonement gives and the answers I would give...]