Comparison of Tone in Catch-22 (Joseph Heller) and The Atonement (Ian McEwan)

Essay by tyrenexCollege, UndergraduateB, May 2004

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In Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" and Ian McEwan's "The Atonement," there are several common tones between both works, which add to the emotional weight of the books, and help to create a compelling story. While not the only tones within each piece, three of the common tones are: a sombre mood, an ominous foreboding, and detached horror. The ways these tones are established and maintained differ, due in part to the author's style, and the form of prose fiction that they are.

Ian McEwan's "The Atonement," a confession-styled book revolving around a young girl, Briony, whose false accusations lead to the eventual death of her sister, Cecilia, and her sister's lover, Robbie Turner, is steeped in sorrow for much of the work. She feels great guilt for her actions:

Her memories of the interrogation and signed statements and testimony, or of 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.

How guilt refined the methods of self-torture, threading the beads of detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingers for a lifetime.

(McEwan 173)

This sort of past-tense regret is common to confessional works, as she is returning in memory to the point where her crime was greatest. She bears this weight throughout the book, from part way through Part One, until the very end of the book. Her actions echo through the rest of the work, and create all the plot points that follow. It is revealed at the end of the book that "The Atonement" is actually a work "written" by Briony Tallis, wherein she creates a fantasy that Cecilia and Robbie live happily ever after, when in fact they are killed as...