Fading Into Unknowing: Gothic Postmemory in Ian McEwan’s Atonement

  • Ashlee Joyce


This chapter articulates how the recognizability of Gothic conventions interrogates the ethics of writing and reading trauma fiction. Ian McEwan’s Atonement metafictionally registers the ethical issues present for writers seeking to produce an aestheticized representation of the trauma of another. Specifically, Atonement employs a “metagothic” strategy to question the validity of cultural memory of traumatic events and to cast doubt on Briony’s assertion that she has written the novel in order to atone for her false accusation of her neighbour, Robbie, of the rape of her cousin Lola. The rules of Gothic convention to which Briony’s narration of the events of part one self-consciously conforms become symptomatic of Briony’s anxious desire to circumscribe the event within the organizing (and ethically dubious) system of literary convention.


  1. Anastasiadis, Athanasios. 2012. Transgenerational Communication of Traumatic Experiences: Narrating the Past from a Postmemorial Position. Trauma and Literature. Journal of Literary Theory 6 (1, Spec. Issue): 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Austen, Jane. 1975. Northanger Abbey (1817). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Beville, Maria. 2009. Gothic-Postmodernism: Voicing the Terrors of Postmodernity. Amsterdam: Rodopi.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. ———. 2014. Gothic Memory and the Contested Past: Framing Terror. In The Gothic and the Everyday: Living Gothic, ed. Lorna Piatti-Farnell and Maria Beville, 52–68. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  5. Brien, Donna Lee. 2014. Morbid Dining: Writing the Haunted History of Last Meals. In The Gothic and the Everyday: Living Gothic, ed. Lorna Piatti-Farnell and Maria Beville, 195–214. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  6. Bruhm, Steven. 2002. Contemporary Gothic: Why We Need It. In The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, ed. Jerrold E. Hogle, 259–276. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Caruth, Cathy. 1996. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Crosthwaite, Paul. 2007. Speed, War, and Traumatic Affect: Reading Ian McEwan’s. Atonement. Cultural Politics 3 (1): 51–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. ———. 2009. Trauma, Postmodernism, and the Aftermath of World War II. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. 1992. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  11. Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  12. LaCapra, Dominick. 1998. History and Memory after Auschwitz. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Letissier, Georges. 2011. The Eternal Loop of Self-Torture: Ethics and Trauma in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. In Ethics and Trauma in Contemporary British Fiction, ed. Susana Onega and Jean-Michel Ganteau, 209–226. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  14. Long, J.J. 2006. Monika Maron’s Pawels Briefe: Photography, Narrative, and the Claims of Postmemory. In Germany Memory Contests. The Quest for Identity in Literature, Film, and Discourse since 1990, ed. Anne Fuchs, Mary Cosgrove, and Georg Grote, 147–165. Suffolk: Camden House.Google Scholar
  15. McEwan, Ian. 2001. Atonement. New York: Vintage.Google Scholar
  16. Miles, Robert. 2001. Abjection, Nationalism and the Gothic. In Essays and Studies 2001: The Gothic, ed. Fred Botting and D.S. Brewer, 47–69. London: D.S. Brewer.Google Scholar
  17. Miller, J.Hillis. 2013. Some Versions of Romance Trauma as Generated by Realist Detail in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. In Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Literature, ed. Jean-Michel Ganteau and Susana Onega. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  18. Modlinger, Martin, and Philipp Sonntag. 2011. Other People’s Pain: Narratives of Trauma and the Question of Ethics. Bern: Peter Lang.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. O’Heir, Andrew. 2015. Evil Dead Meets Jane Eyre in Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, a Lurid Meta-Gothic Ghost Story. Salon, October 14. Accessed 22 May 2019.
  20. Pritchard, William H. 1998. Publish and Perish. New York Times, December 27.Google Scholar
  21. Seal, Andrew. 2008. Rev. of Atonement, by Ian McEwan. Biographia-Literaria, April 6.Google Scholar
  22. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1986. The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. London: Methuen.Google Scholar
  23. Wardrop, Daneen. 2002. Emily Dickinson and the Gothic in Fascicle 16. In The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson, ed. Wendy Martin, 142–166. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Waugh, Patricia. 1984. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. London: Methuen.Google Scholar
  25. Žižek, Slavoj. 1993. Tarrying with the Negative. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ashlee Joyce
    • 1
  1. 1.University of New BrunswickFrederictonCanada

Personalised recommendations