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

Peter David Mathews


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

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