The Presentation of Innocence in Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

By Kaden Pradhan

London, United Kingdom

The covers of Blood Meridian and Atonement. (Photo Credit: The Cormac McCarthy Society, Jonathan Cape)

A common, recurring dichotomy within literature from all cultures and periods is the contrast between concepts of ‘innocence’ and ‘experience.’ From as early as William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794), the foundational differences between the two ideas have been expounded. Innocence is almost always attributed to the youth, and further, is often heavily romanticized: carrying a purity and honesty that conflicts with its counterpart, experience. The development of a human being from innocence to experience is analogous to their growth from childhood to adulthood, and this transition causes the loss of guiltlessness, but the gain of a certain wisdom and percipience.


However, Atonement by Ian McEwan and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy both present a very different interpretation. Amongst their many other strengths, the two texts powerfully show that ‘innocence’ in youth is actually far from universal. Young people are very often not as angelic as is depicted in literature; as a product of either personal or societal factors, innocence can be lost or stifled.


I would argue that Atonement fundamentally depicts a loss of innocence over time, whilst Blood Meridian portrays a lack of innocence in the first instance. The misinterpretations of Briony, the narrator and protagonist of Atonement, lead to her unstable psychological state, which in turn causes the rapid deterioration of her situation, and her abhorrent behavior at the end of Part One. Conversely, the impact of the sheer scale of violence in the world of the nameless ‘kid,’ the principal character of Blood Meridian, suppresses any burgeoning morality, and inevitably leads to a self-propagating cycle of further harm until he faces the satanic antagonist, the judge Holden.


It is worth first establishing that the worlds of Atonement and Blood Meridian are profoundly dissimilar environments for the youth. Part One of McEwan’s novel, the section relevant to youth, follows the early years of Briony, the narrator and protagonist, and takes place within a traditional English country-house setting in the 1930s. In the canon of British literature, the country-house is used to represent the idyllic, pastoral elements of life. McEwan even uses a passage from Austen’s Northanger Abbey as an epigraph, where the country-house features prominently—suggesting that he aims to place emphasis on this association. Briony’s family, the Tallises, seem relatively wealthy, and she and her siblings are raised in an affluent and tranquil environment.


In contrast, the world of Blood Meridian is radically different. McCarthy constructs an astonishingly violent depiction of the Old American West in the late 1840s. A crucial reason for this is that cruelty is intricately linked with ferocity, and in that hyper-competitive period, people had to show spirit in order to survive, and savagery to thrive. No distinction is made between majors and minors; all are treated with equal brutality, with no regard to age. The vast majority of the novel follows the kid from when he left home at fourteen to roughly nineteen or twenty. The kid witnesses immense bloodshed as he rides with filibusters under Captain White and then the Glanton gang. He partakes in several massacres, with dozens or even hundreds dying in each one, mostly Native Americans or Mexicans. Gunfights and altercations take place in bars, inns, seemingly everywhere. One of the most arresting aspects to the novel is that people seem to be shot dead or mutilated constantly, written with stark laconism by McCarthy.


This points to a striking contrast between the two novels. Simply, Atonement is fundamentally static whilst Blood Meridian is dynamic. Both novels are set in a time of immense social upheaval—the pre-WWII political reforms in England, the visceral formation of stable country in the US. However, Briony seems inert, locked in her own torpor, seeking, and failing, to understand basic events in the world around her; whereas the kid belongs to a whirlwind of immaculately presented ferity.


The late Prof. V. M. Bell has written much on McCarthy’s works, and he states that: “To enter [McCarthy’s] worlds and move around in them effectively we are required to surrender all Cartesian predispositions and rediscover some primal state of consciousness prior to its becoming identified with thinking only. There is a powerful pressure of meaning in McCarthy’s novels, but the experience of significance does not translate into communicable abstractions of significance. In McCarthy’s world, existence seems both to precede and preclude essence, and it paradoxically derives its importance from this fact alone.” [1] Prof. Bell is chiefly proposing that McCarthy doesn’t ground his characters or world in reality, and this is plausible; the almost transcendent West of Blood Meridian is perhaps too hellish to be true. Other scholars hold that it is in fact more historically and contextually accurate than the traditional, romantic depictions of the Old West.


One can track Briony’s fall from innocence throughout the novel, and it begins fairly early, when she witnesses her sister Cecilia and Robbie at the lake. In order to retrieve a vase from the freezing water, Cecilia “kicked off her sandals, unbuttoned her blouse and removed it, unfastened her skirt and stepped out of it and went to the basin wall. He stood with hands on his hips and stared as she climbed into the water in her underwear.” It is not evident initially, since it is an older version of Briony narrating the tale, but she misconstrues what she sees as evidence of Robbie’s controlling and coercive nature, forcing Cecilia to perform what she can only understand as lewd behavior. This point is the start of the instability in her psyche and is cemented later by her use as a messenger to carry an accidentally vulgar letter from Robbie to Cecilia, which she reads. She misunderstands it as “something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal … some principle of darkness … she did not doubt that her sister was in some way threatened and would need her help.” On the contrary, the contents of the letter actually excite Cecilia and cause her to have a passionate and amorous moment with Robbie later, which Briony inadvertently witnesses, strengthening her conviction that Robbie in some way attacked her. Finally, this downwards spiral leads to her to cause heinously unjustified harm to Robbie by incriminating him in the rape of Lola, Briony’s cousin, when he actually had nothing to do with it, which radically affects the course of his life.


Briony’s actions seem almost delirious, but the root cause is more to do with her observing things she does not understand, augmented over time by her childish worldview. This array of key moments is what leads her to lose her innocence and become a malicious actor in the novel. Crucially, the loss was of her own making, not a product of the world around her. McEwan strongly draws from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, using the idea of a younger carrier of obscene letters, but in Hartley’s novel, the young Leo lost his innocence unwittingly over time. Briony, on the other hand, possesses the agency to drive her own downfall.


In Blood Meridian, there is a dearth of innocence in the kid, and this is substantiated by both his own actions and the world he exists in. From the very outset, he is shown to have a poor childhood. His father “lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost.” By the fourth page, he has run away to New Orleans, but further down that very page, he is shot for the first time, written with potent concision by McCarthy: “On a certain night a Maltese boatswain shoots him in the back with a small pistol. Swinging to deal with the man he is shot again just below the heart. The man flees and he leans against the bar with the blood running out of his shirt. The others look away. After a while he sits in the floor.”


This incident, which in literature would ordinarily be classed as one of great magnitude, is fairly par for the course. In the harsh world he lives in, the kid cannot allow himself to be innocent, because it is a vulnerability. In McCarthy’s West, the innocent are exploited, violated, and preyed upon. One crucial instance of this can be found in the ‘idiot’, another character in the novel. This person is living with a serious mental illness as well as a plethora of physical and medical issues. However, at the time, people with these conditions were not seen as normal or even human. When his mother passes away, the authorities “put him in a box and shipped him” to his brother, who caged him and put him on display for money. McCarthy often writes about inhumanity, from the psychopathic behavior of No Country for Old Men’s Chigurh to the corrupt officers of All the Pretty Horses [2]. Here, however, the awful treatment of the ‘idiot’ has a discernible cause: his innocence, in this case a byword for naivety about the functioning of the world. And so, the kid must always be strong, never objecting to the violence, integrating himself into the filibusters and then the hunters; even participating in the slaughters himself; a constant exiguity, absence even, of innocence.


I would also argue that Briony actively seeks to atone for the sins that resulted from her loss of innocence, and this manifests itself in fascinating ways, including her invention of a different destiny for Robbie and Cecilia, where they live on happily. Near the end, it becomes clear that she is the proxy author of the text. Briony’s writing of the novel, then, was her attempt at atonement, hence the title. Nonetheless, it is clear that this was only partial. She herself states: “No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.” She feels, then, she can forgive herself.


Conversely, redemption comes passively to the kid—he meets the judge randomly on his wanderings, and he continues to flout his intellect and authority, where a lesser being would have crumbled. The personality of the kid has always been, and remains, something of an enigma. Constrained of innocence by his environment, forced into bloodshed and destruction, his true self seems almost suppressed, at least at the start, until at last it becomes him, and even when finished with the hunters, he continues his destination-less wanderings; a resident of nowhere, belonging to no-one and nothing. He is changed by what he witnesses and how he has behaved. Eventually, he meets Holden by chance in a dancing-hall in a town unfamiliar to him. There, they engage in a final discussion.


Its lack of balance is its prevailing strength. The judge essentially makes a speech about the nature of war and violence, and why they are man’s greatest virtue. The words the judge speaks have been subject to much scholarly discourse, primarily because they’re irritatingly convincing. Yet, the kid replies laconically. He understands what the judge is saying but chooses not to engage. While the judge waxes lyrical, the kid undercuts him with: “I don't like craziness”, and the supremely powerful “You ain't nothin.” He defies the judge, not engaging in any fantasy—neither the fantasy of Holden’s arguments nor the fantasy of Holden himself. In some elusive way, this vindicates him.


Innocence: is it nothing more than an illusion? A façade worn by the young to hide true intentions, malevolent or otherwise? It’s plausible. However, I would argue that, whilst our two young protagonists gained power, they lost something too. Indeed, both meet the final fate of death; Briony from dementia, the kid from murder. Yet, they’ve both made a forcible stand against oblivion. She has immortalized herself, and he has outfaced the devil.


For Briony and the kid, an absence of innocence was either the cause of, or was caused by, the hardships they endured. Is innocence, then, something that should be preserved? The two novels show in depth its fragility, but is that inherently objectionable or is it permissible? It’s an endlessly nuanced question. Perhaps innocence is the prime virtue, or perhaps it’s a barrier to achieving great things.


McEwan once stated in an interview that he was not a fan of happy endings [3]. An argument could be made that the novels both leave the reader half-satisfied, locked in a limbo of uncertainty. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Given the edifice of their lives, their deaths are fitting, and the lives they led were, given their situation, the best they could have been.


The judge Holden says to the kid: “There's a flawed place in the fabric of your heart. Do you think I could not know? You alone were mutinous. You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen.” For even in the direst of circumstances, there must be, however small, a spark of hope.

Bibliography

[1] Bell, Vereen M. “The Ambiguous Nihilism of Cormac McCarthy.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol.15, no.2, University of North Carolina Press, 1983, pp. 31–41, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20077701.


[2] see: Buckley, S., 2014. Cormac McCarthy: An American Philosophy. The Artifice, [online] Available at: <https://the-artifice.com/cormac-mccarthy-american-philosophy/> [Accessed 7 February 2022].


[3] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4725704/I-thought-I-was-going-to-screw-it-up.html, paywalled.