In his nineteen fifty study of the sea and the romantic imagination, The Enchafèd flood, or, The Romantic Iconography of the Sea, W.H. Auden notes that :
The degree of visibility = the degree of conscious knowledge
I.e., fog and most mean doubt and self-delusion, a clear day knowing where one is going or exactly what one has done. (Auden 74)
Although the quote may initially seem almost simplistic, it appears to be strikingly relevant to Atonement. First, because of the connection with Auden, for the poet is one of the few intertexual references which are explicitly mentioned in the novel : an autographed Dance of Death lies on Robbie’s desk in the first section of the novel (McEwan 93) and ‘In Memory W.B. Yeats’ is quoted in the second (203). Critics such as Anna Gremlova or Peter Matthews have indeed studied the multiple references to Auden’s poetry in Atonement, emphasizing the fact that it constitutes a crucial intertext to the novel.
Then, one should pay attention to the relationship Auden establishes between vision and knowledge, for it accurately pinpoints the meaning of the gradual blurring vision experienced by many characters throughout the novel, whether one considers Robbie being taken away by the police at the end of part one (Robbie ‘vanished into the whiteness’ 187), Briony ‘gliding down [ing] through the soupy brown light’ (349) in the third section, or the coda describing the elderly Briony ‘watching the first gray light bring into view the park and the bridges over the vanished lake. And the long narrow driveway down which they drove Robbie away, into the whiteness’ (371). One could indeed imitate Auden’s phrase and say that Briony does not know ‘exactly what she has done’ for the characters that she tries to delineate, including her younger self, keep escaping the limits of her vision and, ultimately, her understanding.
The final echo of Auden’s quote raises the issue of the relationship that the novel entertains with the romantic imagination. While Atonement has often been connected to the great tradition of nineteenth century realist novels (see Alistair Cormack for instance), the influence of the romantic imagination has largely been overlooked by the critics. Yet, envisioning Briony’s final refutation of realism (‘displace, transmute, dissemble. Bring down the fogs of the imagination !’ 370) as a return to the romantic imagination might help the reader go beyond the much-discussed ethical conundrum surrounding her rewriting of the ‘facts’.
In this paper, we will consider the notions of sight, vision and imagination in Atonement in order to try and offer a new definition of McEwan’s visual poetics. We will first focus on the frameworks moulding Briony’s vision, as a child and a fledgling writer. Watching events from the nursery, Briony’s gaze is explicitly defined as both childish and literary,  reluctant and fascinated, a paradox which is materialized in the problematic blind spots of her obsessive vision. We will finally explain how the exploration of ‘vision’, as a theme and a poetics, connects McEwan to the literary tradition, as an heir to Conrad but also creates an original and hybrid aesthetics of montage, which may ultimately have bearing on the ethical reading of Atonement.
A View from the Nursery
In the first part of the novel, Briony’s gaze is explicitly informed by the world of childhood, a narrative feature that might at first strike the reader as puzzling. As Alistair Cormack notices :
Most of the chapters in the first section are given to 13-year-old Briony Tallis. To begin with, it appears strange that her perception of events should be the most significant. However, as the story progresses we realize that she has a role, in both the plot and its telling, that brings to mind L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953), a novel also narrated by a figure who as a child had been involved as intermediary in a tragic class-traversing love affair in a country house. (Cormack 74)
Briony’s role as an intermediary, a ‘go-between’ who carries but also reveals secrets, is exposed very early on, in the oft-quoted description of her bedroom (4-5),  a ‘shrine to her controlling demon’ (McEwan 5), in which the ostentatious exhibition of orderliness is counterbalanced by the compulsive need to hide things, although, she has, at first, nothing to hide (‘But hidden drawers, lockable diaries and cryptographic systems could not conceal from Briony the simple truth : she had no secrets’ 5). Despite the wealth of spy-like contraptions, it is only in her imagination that the young girl senses the potential for the exhilarating thrill of secret (‘But this first clumsy attempt showed her that the imagination itself was a source of secrets : once she had begun a story, no one could be told’ 6). Still, Briony’s bedroom almost seems to represent the domestic equivalent to the Romantic pathetic fallacy : not only does the familiar setting give away the fact that the young girl is obsessed with secrets, it also offers a glimpse of her future as a novelist (‘writing stories not only involved secrecy, it also gave her all the pleasures of miniaturization.’ 6).
As she literally moves from the bedroom to the nursery, Briony’s imagination is anchored in the parallel worlds of childhood and drama, for the nursery is the place where the rehearsals of her play, The Trials of Arabella, are supposed to take place. It is therefore only a short step to considering that Briony’s perception of the scene she is going to watch from the nursery window is informed by the one that has repeatedly taken place in the nursery (i.e. the rehearsals of the play) : Arabella becomes Cecilia while Robbie is, interestingly enough, first ‘the prince’ disguised as ‘impoverished doctor’ (3) before turning into the ‘wicked foreign count’ (3), as if both male protagonists were fused into one in her vision. 
Is it then no wonder that what follows, Briony’s observation of Robbie and Cecilia’s meeting at the Triton fountain, is concurrently perceived as a tableau (‘It was a temptation for her to be magical and dramatic, and to regard what she had witnessed as a tableau mounted for her alone’ 39), the setting of a play, and a scene taken from a film (the word ‘scene’ is indeed repeatedly used and emphasizes the artificiality of Briony’s vision, 38-39). The description indeed seems to borrow from cinematographic techniques ; it starts with an extreme wide shot on the surrounding countryside and the Surrey hills, before zooming in on the Tallis estate (‘then, nearer, the estate’s open parkland’ 38), the garden (‘closer […] were the rose gardens’ 38), and eventually, the fountain (‘nearer still, the Triton fountain’ 38). That first shot is then followed by a still shot of Robbie, standing as the archetypal hero, his hands on his hips before silently, or so it seems to Briony, raising a hand to stop Cecilia. The scene thus simultaneously seems to belong to a dumb show of the pantomime sort,  a melodramatic theatre play inspired from The Trials of Arabella (Briony imagines stage directions such as ‘a proposal of marriage’) and a nineteen thirties mock-medieval film (such as Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn, for instance). But the rub comes when Briony tries to make sense of the plot, for what she sees, and the literary framework through which she considers it, do not seem to fit. Initially envisioned as a fairytale (‘It was a scene that could easily have accommodated […] a medieval castle’ 38) it soon becomes obvious that the scene cannot be what she expected it to be. Thus, Briony’s first judgement ‘it made perfect sense’ is quickly replaced by an acknowledgement of failure ‘the sequence was illogical’ (39). The window thus serves as both a framework, limiting the scope of Briony’s vision, in a literal  and metaphorical way (her comprehension of events is restricted by her limited knowledge of sexuality and the world of adults) and a transitional space, that allows the child-writer to transform events into fiction. Briony’s position in the nursery, watching events ‘two stories up’ then offers a nice metafictional pun on her place (and status) in the narrative. She is literarily and metaphorically two stories up : watching things happen from the window of the second storey of the house, but also acting as the hidden narrator of the secret story she had always wanted to write. As a result, the young girl is, so to speak, surrounded by stories : the ones she writes of course, but also the ones she reads, as the epigraph of the novel, a Northanger Abbey quote ironically commenting on the dangers of reading too much Gothic, reminds us.
Briony’s Quixotic Mind’s Eye
Just before she arrives ‘at one of the nursery’s wide-open windows’ and contemplates the fountain dumb show, Briony muses on the telepathic power of stories, a ‘magical process’ through which ‘you [see] the word castle, and it [is] there, seen from some distance, with woods in high summer spread before it’ (37). Nurtured on romances and author of melodramatic tales, the teenager believes that life, just like texts, is made of signs and symbols to be deciphered, interpreted and translated.  Confident in her judgement, Briony is convinced that she masters the secret language of courting and love affairs. In what she sees, just like in melodramas, ‘[t]hings cease to be merely themselves, gestures cease to be merely tokens of social intercourse whose meaning is assigned by a social code ; they become the vehicles of metaphors whose tenor suggests another kind of reality’ (Brooks 9).  According to Briony, what is presented to her when Robbie stands in front of her sister ‘fitted very well. It made perfect sense’. Or rather, it makes perfect sense according to her interpretative framework. According to her, ‘[s]uch leaps across boundaries were the stuff of daily romance’ (38).
Earlier, on her return home from Cambridge, Cecilia had noticed that ‘Briony was lost to her writing fantasies – what had seemed a passing fad was now an enveloping obsession’ (20-1). Later, when writing to Robbie, Cecilia asserts ‘she’s such a fantasist, as we know to our cost’. ‘Remember what a dreamer she is’ (212). According to her big sister, Briony is a ‘Madame Quixote’ (Doody xxii), she is a slave to imagination who turns her life into a fiction of her own and projects her private whimsical visions onto the outside world. Indeed, the young girl appears as the contemporary avatar of Charlotte Lennox’s female Quixote, Arabella. As Kathleen d’Angelo suggests, ‘Briony is the Arabella figure who views the world as an extension of her literary imagination’ (d’Angelo 92). Indeed, as Briony herself remarks, ‘what she knew was not literally, or not only, based on the visible’ (McEwan 169). What she sees with her own eyes is twisted by her mind’s eye. She reasons and makes sense of the world around her with her imagination.
When the young girl went back to the window and looked down, the damp patch on the gravel had evaporated. Now there was nothing left of the dumb show by the fountain beyond what survived in memory, in three separate and overlapping memories. The truth had become as ghostly as invention. (41)
Between vision and revision, the actual view is turned into a memory-image, which is then interpreted and blended into her fabular version of events. And because she shares her reading of romances with Lennox’s Arabella, her imaginings too turn upon rape and sexual assault.
As far as she was concerned, everything fitted ; the terrible present fulfilled the recent past. Events she herself witnessed foretold her cousin’s calamity. […] He was a maniac after all. Anyone would do. […] That his victim could easily have been her increased Briony’s outrage and fervour. If her poor cousin was not able to command the truth, then she would do it for her. I can. And I will. (168)
Briony’s ‘frenetic vision’ (21) fuses actual images (what she actually saw) and virtual ones (what she remembers, interprets and refashions) to create a different order of reality, a vision of her own which, hobbyhorsically, she includes in the stories she fantasies and eventually she imposes on everyone around her.
Pleasure in Looking : On Briony’s Voyeurism
‘Unseen, from two storeys up’ (39), Briony improves her visual powers by acting the part of the ‘hidden observer’ (40). She is indeed an obsessional watcher who imposes herself as the sole eye witness in the family (as well as in the narrative) and remains, until old age, a voyeuse. In the coda, she keeps hidden to ‘manag[e] a good look’ (357) at Paul and Lola Marshall whom, remaining true to her melodramatic frame of mind, she compares to a ‘stage villain’ (358). Through visual pleasure, or scoptophilia, Briony associates compulsive vision and desire to know.  In Part 1, watching through the window means that she is moving out of the confined world of childhood, out of her nursery, and that she is starting to ‘look outside in the real world’ (Pellion 270. Translation ours). As the demiurgic girl rules over, controls and manipulates her childish realm,  her move towards the open window means that she aspires to embrace and comprehend the world, to seize it at a glance. In Joe Wright’s adaptation, this is convincingly illustrated by the use of extreme close-ups and pieces to camera of Briony in the fountain, library and rape scenes. Under the young girl’s darting eye, we feel her active, devouring gaze. 
Wright’s emphasis on the act of looking, and the scoptophilic tension it entails, also underlines the erotic pleasure that is derived from it. In the third part of the movie, when Briony visits her sister in Belham, Wright films the young woman’s strange fascination for her sister’s sexuality. He exposes Briony’s voyeuristic interest for Cecilia’s messy bed with a brief shot reverse shot, and a discreet pan further underlines the intensity of her indiscreet look. Joe Wright associates it with sexual frustration : ‘This moment of her studying their bed, of imagining the sex that happened, or imagining the smells. I don’t think Briony never has much sex. She never gets married’ (Wright) – which is false, in the novel Briony does get married to Thierry.  And when Cecilia kisses Robbie to tame his violence, Wright catches the sudden surge  of the sexual drive in Briony’s absorbed and ogling look.
In part one, the teenage girl is obsessed by marriage and love affairs, a screen fixation which hardly conceals her interest in sexuality.  Chapter after chapter, she is confronted to sex acts she identifies as ‘mysteries’ (McEwan 160) and which arouse turmoils of emotions. Briony is both fascinated, attracted (she wants to see and she actually sees) and shocked, confused (on screen, she symptomatically gasps, trembles and cries). Wright clearly plays on this hesitation between attraction and repulsion, desire and terror by resorting to the montage of attraction.  In the rape scene, for instance, the round halo of Briony’s torch blatantly stands out in the blinding darkness and turns the image into a voyeuristic device, some sort of peep show, as if we were peeping through a keyhole or through the peephole viewer of a kinetoscope. The alternating extreme close-ups on Briony and the emphasis on her facecam searching gaze exhibit the young girls’s desire to see and her will to know. For the third time, Briony is confronted to a primal scene : she unexpectedly discovers a naked backside and the crude vision makes her gasp of surprise and horror. Suddenly petrified, as if turned into stone, she drops her torch and is left in the dark. As Otto Fenichel points out, ‘to be turned into stone is, like losing [one’s] sigh, a very frequent punishment for the scoptophiliac’ (Fenichel 389). Briony is literally blinded by what she has just seen. Just like the fountain and library scenes, the rape is beyond her understanding but she nevertheless senses its morally occult dimension. 
Throughout the first seminal part, Briony witnesses what she perceives as violent enigmatic sexual acts that she has difficulties to decipher and comprehend. This brutal confrontation with the adult world provides her with a new, yet incomplete, understanding. As the adult Briony reflexively remarks,
[t]he fairy stories were behind her, and in the space of a few hours she had witnessed mysteries, seen an unspeakable word, interrupted brutal behaviour, and by incurring the hatred of an adult whom everyone had trusted, she had become a participant in the drama of life beyond the nursery. (McEwan 160)
Gazing from behind her childhood window, the teenage Briony inhabits a ‘transitional space between the nursery and adult worlds’ (141), which breeds a hybrid vision that retains blind spots.
Blind spots : the failure of vision
What is depicted the novel (very prominently in the first part but also in the rest of Atonement), is the gradual failure of Briony’s vision, and how her imagination is gradually let loose to fill the void. As Laurent Mellet has it, ‘from the first to the last pages, Briony’s vision becomes more and more impaired and ineffective’ (Mellet 46). The problematic connection between seeing and understanding or, if we use Kantian concepts, perception and understanding is at stake here. Between perception and understanding, lies, according to Kant, Imagination. But what Kant calls ‘productive’ imagination, that is to say a ‘synthetic act in which we combine the detached elements of perception’ in order to ‘connect concept to Image’ (Hume 487) is clearly lacking in Briony’s ‘understanding’ of the events that unfold in the first part of the novel. Without the rational anchoring to sound concepts, those very concepts that Briony does not and cannot master because she is not an adult yet, ‘understanding can[not] complete the cognitive synthesis’ (Hume 487) and the comprehension of the events remains outside of Briony’s scope.
Again and again, it becomes obvious to the reader that despite Briony’s intense desire to watch and see things, vision fails her. The failure of vision is indeed obvious as early as the nursery episode in Part One. When Robbie and Cecilia have left the ‘scene’, Briony finds herself ‘staring unseeingly down the nursery’s length’ (McEwan 39) and the oxymoronic phrase draws attention to the fact that although the scoptophilic drive lingers, it clearly fails to create a vision, or to translate vision into comprehension (or Kantian ‘understanding’). Despite the fact that the following paragraph teems with verbs denoting vision (‘stared’, ‘unseeing’, ‘regard’, ‘witness’, ‘tableau’ 39-40), it becomes increasingly clear that Briony obsessively watches things but cannot ‘see’. At that point, vision and imagination seems to be conflated, for the notion both designates the material sense of vision, or sight, and the metaphorical meaning of the term. Yet, during the nursery scene, the young girl’s failure to make sense of what she sees is paradoxically counterbalanced by her awareness of that very failure : ‘she accepted that she did not understand, and that she must simply watch’ (40). Just like the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave, Briony is epistemologically closer to the truth when she suspects that her vision of the world is lacking.
As the first part of the novel unfolds, it becomes obvious that Briony’s entire reasoning process, supposedly consisting in the passage from perception to imagination and then understanding, is flawed : the seeds of hermeneutic blindness which were apparently planted in the nursery scene come to fruition in the library scene, where the text is saturated with terms that draw attention to Briony’s inability to see, in both senses of the term : ‘dark’, ‘gloom’, ‘at first, … she saw nothing at all’ (123).  Briony cannot materially see because of the darkness and she cannot properly imagine, in the Kantian sense of connecting perception to concept, what she sees. Later, as Briony enters the park in order to search for the twins, obscurity has taken over and the girl seems to be threatened by the engulfing darkness : ‘But there was nothing, nothing but the tumbling dark mass of the woods just discernible against the grayish-blue of the western sky’ (160). At that point, Kant’s triad connecting perception to Understanding seems to be turned upside down, and ‘truth’ precedes vision : ‘what she knew was not literally, or not only, based on the visible’ (169). Visual perception has disappeared, and Briony’s ‘truth’ is now what shapes her vision : ‘The truth was in the symmetry, which was to say, it was founded in common sense. The truth instructed her eyes’ (169). Briony justifying her actions because of the symmetry of events might of course remind us of Blake’s ‘fearful symmetry’,  and of the fact that Briony, transitioning from innocence to experience, has become as dangerous as the poem’s tiger.
Still, what had until then remained virtual and unstable, that is to say the mounting threat of Briony’s confusion between vision and truth, only becomes real when it is put into words, during her interview with the inspector :
‘You saw him then.’
‘I know it was him.’
‘Let’s forget what you know. You’re saying you saw him.’
‘Yes, I saw him.’
‘Just as you see me.’
‘You saw him with your own eyes.’
‘Yes. I saw him. I saw him.’ (181. Emphasis ours)
In that dialogue, once can actually witness the battle between vision and understanding being transferred from Briony’s mind to the public realm that an interview with the police constitutes. As the text progressively becomes saturated with the word ‘see’, the verb paradoxically loses its literal meaning, connected to ‘sight’, to denote its metaphorical one, connected to ‘vision’. The strikingly paratactic form of the exchange (there is only one two-syllable word : ‘saying’) underlines the fact that language has become a trap for Briony. The verb ‘see’/’saw’ seems to be chanted like an incantation, displacing Briony’s testimony from the realm of reason to that of almost religious belief and it might seem that, as Daniel Zalewski puts it, McEwan once again wants to fight ‘the unexamined Romantic assumption that still lingers in the contemporary novel, which is that intuition is good and reason bad’ (Zalewski). Going against the Romantics, Atonement thus appears to uphold the primacy of reason over imagination, or perhaps, for McEwan has long been an advocate of the Third Culture,  to deconstruct the Romantic opposition between reason and imagination in order to define a new form of literary imagination, whose originality might lie in juxtaposition rather than opposition.
‘It Dissolves, Diffuses, Dissipates…’ : Briony’s Visions and Re(-)visions
Briony has difficulties in defining the verb ‘to see’. Opposing her interrogators’ ‘austere view of the visual’, she ‘would have preferred to qualify, or complicate, her use of the word “saw”’. ‘Either she saw, or she did not see [says the Police]. There lay nothing in between […]’ (McEwan 170). She is trapped by language, by her own words, or rather by her listeners’ inability to perceive the potential polysemy of the word and their urge to have her articulate truths and certainties. But, ‘[w]hen the matter was closed, when the sentence was passed and the congregation dispersed, a ruthless youthful forgetting, a wilful erasing, protected her well into her teens’ (171).
Rewriting her childhood story, the adult Briony plays on the ‘in between’ quoted above. She reckons on the figurative sense of the verb – ‘to form a mental picture of, to visualize’ – and allows for potential misrepresentations. Acknowledging the imaginative dimension of vision, she endorses its creative power, its power to ‘dissolve, diffuse, dissipate’  the factual truth of events. What she gazes at in the dark and assumes she has seen is in fact the sheer projection of her own interpretations. Breaking down the world of everyday perception, she creates a new reality.
Yet what she sees is further twisted by what she remembers to have seen.
Her memories of the interrogation and signed statements and testimony, or her awe outside the courtroom from which her youth excluded her, would not trouble her so much in the years to come as her fragmented recollection of that late night and summer dawn. (173. We underline)
Not only does vision fail as Briony does not actually see anything, but it seems that memory fails too and that the girl-turned-narrator only retains piecemeal recollections of what she thinks has happened. As she acknowledges in the novel’s coda, to shape her narrative she has had to ‘displace, transmute, dissemble. Bring down the fogs of the imagination !’ (370). She had to remodel experience into ‘some kind of whole made of shivering fragments’, to borrow Virginia Woolf’s words (Woolf xxv).
So, to overcome the double failure of vision and memory and manage to write her novel, Briony revisions her past, that is she both sees it again through incomplete memory-images and revises it, even alters it to make her ‘truth’ triumph.  And to re-collect and compose her novelistic version of events, she fashions a virtual vision through montage.  Montage, Eisenstein writes, is ‘an idea born out of the shock between two distinct elements’ (Eisenstein 49). Briony replaces what she failed to see in the fountain, the library and the rape scenes but also what she never saw (notably Robbie’s war experience in France in Part 2, composed out of notes and letters, and her conversation with Cecilia at the end of Part 3, which is a figment of her imagination) by a disjunctive form which juxtaposes details, scenes and events, makes them collide and confront each other so that, from their collision, readers might make sense of what really happened and finally understand her ‘truth’. To quote from Eisenstein again : ‘an emotion, an image and its dynamic development appear when static elements, that is given and imagined factors, are juxtaposed next to each other’ (234. Translation ours). Taking her cue from Conrad, Briony wants to make us see what happened to her and her relatives through a dynamic narrative process which builds itself up on the visual imaginary power of words.
Conclusion : "...in order to recreate" : hybridity and the aesthetics of montage
Much has been said about McEwan’s neo-humanist stance and how Atonement may belong to the early twenty first century ‘ethical turn’ famously mapped by Davis and Womack. Still, and against the general trend in the recent literary criticism on Atonement, we would like to consider that what could be described as Briony’s ethically questionable use of history and real lives, her manipulation of fictional ones,  is actually also part and parcel of McEwan’s poetics. Indeed, what has here been depicted as Briony’s ‘mentir-vrai’,  that is to say manipulating images in order to create a fictional connection between sight and vision that reveals an otherwise ungraspable truth, but also explores the artistic potentialities of visual montage is precisely what McEwan does thanks to a hybrid form that borrows from historical accounts and romance, or melodrama. Those hybrid forms are indeed often connected to the performance of trauma, as Jean Michel Ganteau and Susana Onega explain it :
Such a move can be seen at work in the hybrid liminal texts and genres used as instruments for the literary performance of trauma : the hybrid autobiographies in which the dialogue between referentiality and fiction is acutely at work ; the liminal historical narratives, in which once again the referential and the poetic are made to collaborate without the ironic stance of historiographic metafiction. (Ganteau & Onega 13)
Briony’s hermeneutically flawed hybridization of fact and fiction, trauma and romance, is echoed by McEwan’s superposition of two imaginations, a Kantian one connecting perception to concept through rational thought, and a Romantic one breaking the limits imposed by ‘facts’ (one remembers the coda’s famous conclusion ‘No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel.’ McEwan 371) in order to fully realize the aesthetic potentialities of visual montage.
Interestingly enough, McEwan’s use of the aesthetics of montage is not limited to Atonement, but also very much central to the famous opening of Enduring Love, describing a balloon crash, or the striking, to say the least, wedding night in On Chesil Beach. Such a use of the visual power of words in order to provoke (at least initially) an emotional rather than a rational response in the reader, ultimately ties back to the dominant issue that has occupied Atonement’s critics for the last fifteen years : that of the ethical reading of the book. We are not implying here that there is no ethical responsibility in McEwan’s writing, but that eventually his poetics of montage, of juxtaposing striking images in order to appeal to the reader’s very own hybrid imagination transfers the ethical responsibility to the reader. Our final question could then be : is that transfer of ethical responsibility McEwan’s very own ‘dereliction of duty’24 (to use his words against him), or a neo-humanist trust in the reader ?