“What Are Novelists For?” Atonement and the British Novel

  • Peter David Mathews Hanyang University Address: 222 Wangsimni-ro Seongdong-gu, Seoul 07463, South Korea Tel.: +82 10 7626 7506


This essay emerged from the intersection of two texts: a 2009 article by Alistair Cormack claiming that Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) was a rejection of postmodernism in favor of a return to F.R. Leavis’s “Great Tradition,” and the protagonist Briony’s closing question: “What are novelists for?” This essay criticizes the ongoing legacy of Leavis’s association of literature and moral improvement, an argument still being recycled today by critics like Harold Bloom and Martha Nussbaum, by tracing McEwan’s long history of interrogating this presumed ethical link in his fiction. Far from affirming Leavis’s position, McEwan’s work shows that some of humanity’s worst atrocities have coincided with its greatest periods of education and literacy. Rather than a moral phenomenon, the concluding section of the essay draws on the recent work of Nancy Armstrong, among others, to argue that the novel reflects the production of a peculiarly modern form of subjectivity that allows Atonement, by combining postmodern strategies with references to seminal texts from the British tradition (Richardson, Fielding, Burney, Austen, Woolf), to reveal the obscured roots of what gave birth to the novel in the first place.Keywords: Ian McEwan; Atonement; British novel; F.R. Lewis; postmodernism

Author Biography

Peter David Mathews, Hanyang University Address: 222 Wangsimni-ro Seongdong-gu, Seoul 07463, South Korea Tel.: +82 10 7626 7506
Peter David Mathews is Professor of English Literature at Hanyang University in Seoul, South Korea. His research lies primarily in the fields of modern and contemporary English and Australian fiction, with a particular emphasis on the connection between literature and ethics. He is currently working on a monograph reassessing the legacy of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.


Armstrong, Nancy. 2005. How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism from 1719-1900. New York: Columbia UP.

Auden, W.H. (1939) 1991. “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” In Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelsen, 247-248. New York: Vintage.

Austen, Jane. (1817) 2003a. Northanger Abbey. Edited by Marilyn Butler. London: Penguin.

—. (1817) 2003b. Persuasion. Edited by Gillian Beer. London: Penguin.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Translated by Michael Holquist and edited by Caryl Emerson. Austin, TX: U of Texas P.

Barth, John. 1997. “The Literature of Exhaustion.” In The Friday Book, 62-76. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.

Baudelaire, Charles. (1863) 1995. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Translated and edited by Jonathan Mayne. Oxford: Phaidon.

Bloom, Harold. 1994. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Riverhead.

—. 2001. How to Read and Why. New York: Scribner.

—. 2011. The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life. New Haven, CT: Yale UP.

Brooks, Peter. 1984. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Burney, Frances. (1778) 2002. Evelina. Edited by Susan L. Rattiner. Oxford: Oxford UP.

—. (1782) 2009. Cecilia. Edited by Edward A. Bloom. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Cormack, Alistair. 2009. “Postmodernism and the Ethics of Fiction in Atonement.” In Ian McEwan: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, edited by Sebastian Groes, 70-82. London: Continuum.

D’Angelo, Kathleen. 2009. “‘To Make a Novel’: The Construction of a Critical Readership in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Studies in the Novel 41 (1): 88-105.

Eagleton, Terry. 2005. The English Novel: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Farrell, Frank B. 2004. Why Does Literature Matter? Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP.

Fielding, Henry. (1742/1741) 1999. Joseph Andrews / Shamela. Edited by Judith Hawley. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

—. (1749) 2005. The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling. Edited by Thomas Keymer and Alice Wakely. London: Penguin.

Finney, Brian. 2004. “Briony’s Stand against Oblivion: The Making of Fiction in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Journal of Modern Literature 27 (3): 68-82.

Foucault, Michel. (1984) 1991. “What is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader. An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought, edited by Paul Rabinow, 32-50. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Giles, Jeff. 2002. “Luminous Novel From Dark Master.” Newsweek, March 18, 62-63.

Greenberg, Jonathan. 2007. “Why Can’t Biologists Read Poetry? Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.” Twentieth Century Literature 53 (2): 93-124.

Hartley, L.P. (1953) 2000. The Go-Between. Edited by Douglas Brooks-Davis. London: Penguin.

Haywood, Eliza. (1741) 2004. The Anti-Pamela / Shamela. Edited by Catherine Ingrassia. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview.

Heidegger, Martin. 1971. “What Are Poets For?” In Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Alfred Hofstadter, 91-142. New York: Perennial.

Ingersoll, Earl. 2004. “Intertextuality in L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between and Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 40 (3): 241-258.

James, Henry. (1880) 2003. The Portrait of a Lady. Edited by Philip Horne. London: Penguin.

Leavis, F.R. (1948) 2000. The Great Tradition: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. London: Pimlico.

Lukács, Georg. (1916) 1974. Theory of the Novel. Translated by Anna Bostock. Boston: The MIT Press.

McEwan, Ian. (1992) 1999a. Black Dogs. New York: Anchor.

—. (1997) 1999b. Enduring Love. New York: Anchor.

—. (1998) 1999c. Amsterdam. New York: Anchor.

—. (2001) 2003. Atonement. New York: Anchor.

—. 2005. Saturday. New York: Nan A. Talese.

—. 2010 Solar. New York: Nan A. Talese.

—. (2012) 2013. Sweet Tooth. New York: Anchor.

McKeon, Michael. (1987) 2002. The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP.

Nussbaum, Martha C. 2010. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.

Richardson, Samuel. (1740) 2001. Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. Edited by Thomas Keymer and Alice Wakeley. Oxford: Oxford UP.

—. (1748) 1986. Clarissa. Edited by Angus Ross. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

—. (1753) 1972. The History of Sir Charles Grandison. Edited by Jocelyn Harris. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Robinson, Richard. 2010. “The Modernism of Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Modern Fiction Studies 56 (3): 473-495.

Roche, Dean Mark William. 2004. Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century. New Haven, CT: Yale UP.

Shakespeare, William. (1602) 1998. Twelfth Night, or What You Will. Edited by Roger Warren and Stanley Wells. Oxford: Oxford UP.

—. (1602) 2008. Troilus and Cressida. Edited by Kenneth Muir. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Watt, Ian. (1957) 2000. The Rise of the Novel. London: Pimlico.

Wells, Juliette. 2008. “Shades of Austen in McEwan’s Atonement.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal 30 (1): 101-112.