The Port of Dunkirk in Ian McEwan’s Atonement

PHOTO CREDIT: Frank Capra. This photo is in the public domain.

“He saw thousands of men, ten, twenty thousand, perhaps more, spread across the vastness of the beach. In the distance they were like grains of black sand. But there were no boats, apart from one upturned whaler rolling in the distant surf. It was low tide and almost a mile to the water’s edge.”1

After plowing through the death and destruction of World War II, Robbie Turner, along with the rest of the British Expeditionary Force, finally arrives at the proposed sanctuary of the port of Dunkirk in 1940. Having been falsely accused of a crime by his lover’s younger sister, Robbie dedicates his life to returning home a free man. The promise of being evacuated at Dunkirk drives him relentlessly until he is exposed to the crowding and circles of suffering that are taking place there. There are no boats on the horizon to return him to his Cecilia; there is no food or nourishment. Dunkirk quickly becomes a waiting room for Robbie, in which there is no entertainment that can save him from his long-wrought perception of injustice and prejudice.

Dunkirk, a commune in northern France, was the location from which thousands of Allied soldiers were evacuated at Winston Churchill’s order in World War II. The British Expeditionary Force was cut off from the French army and was forced to retreat to the port of Dunkirk in order to escape the German Army. Though frequently referred to as the miracle of Dunkirk, many Allied soldiers missed the evacuation and had to either find their own route back home or be captured. In Atonement, Ian McEwan provides a realistic and harsh depiction of life and heartbreak at the port of Dunkirk.

Read more about the port of Dunkirk on Wikipedia.  Read more about Atonement: A Novel and Ian McEwan on Amazon, or find the novel at a local library.

1McEwan, Ian. Atonement: A Novel. New York: N.A. Talese/Doubleday, 2002. 233. Print.

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