The Tragic Story of Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ and the Theory of the Grotesque

Jack Mitchell


Using Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ as a case study, this paper analyses the theory of the grotesque as a potential aid to answering the longstanding question ‘Why do we enjoy tragedies?’ Like the conflicting two-pronged emotional responses that tragic works can elicit, the grotesque describes a particular hybrid visual art style that emphasises conflicting motifs which are held in tension. McEwan’s writing contains a number of grotesque features, and provokes something in the reader that resembles those responses to grotesque works. An analysis of ‘Atonement’ through this framework provides a springboard for examining what both the tragic and grotesque forms (and McEwan’s novel) might communicate about one’s access to truth, whether that be in literature or in lived experience. This approach further suggests a way of understanding our reaction to the shocking conclusion to ‘Atonement – one of its most grotesque features – and offers perspectives upon the magnetism of tragic narratives.

Full Text: