Themes in Literature

Literary Guilt


When we hurt someone, we usually feel guilty. If the hurt was committed deliberately, this is understandable. However, many of us can feel guilt even when the hurt is inadvertent. Human beings are also capable of feeling guilt merely for existing when others have died, or for being born wealthy when others live in poverty. Guilt, at its heart, reflects a transgression, a crossing of boundaries. Societies have rules, written and unwritten, and when we break those rules, we often feel guilty unless and until we can effect restitution or restore harmony.

Guilt is so fundamental to human existence that it makes an appearance as early as the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. God tells Adam and Eve that they are free to do what they wish, as long as they keep his only rule: that they will not eat from the fruit of the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden. Yet they do, thanks to the serpent’s temptations, and they are banished from the garden forever. Their lasting punishment, though, is that the “eyes of them both were opened” (Gen. 3:7). Further, they have generated what would come to be known as original sin. The notion of original sin is that because of Adam’s and Eve’s transgression, we are all born as sinners, guilty from the start. Adam and Eve had only one rule to follow, and they broke it. For the rest of us, the rules we must follow in life are legion, as well as far more difficult to know and discern at all times throughout our lives. Because we cannot control when and if we might be transgressing, guilt pervades human existence. We can be under the thrall of collective guilt, as is the society depicted in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Guilt over the Holocaust is so pervasive in Grass’s post–World War II Danzig that his protagonist, Oskar, refuses to grow up and enter the world of complicitous and duplicitous adults. We can also be following the “rules” of our society and still find ourselves feeling guilty. For instance, soldiers who kill in battle have, on the surface, done nothing for which to feel guilty; they are merely doing their jobs, following their orders. However, many of them can and do feel guilty about the killing they do, as exemplified by Paul Berlin in Tim O’Brien’s Going after Cacciato. Berlin is following the rules, and yet he feels guilty; Cacciato has broken the rules by going AWOL, and yet he is depicted as happy and free. We may also, like Dunstan Ramsey in Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business, feel guilty about events that we were involved in but were not our fault. Dunny feels guilt his whole life for ducking the snowball that hit Mrs. Dempster. That he is never able to fully make restitution to her is most likely a result of it not having been his fault in the first place.

That guilt is a complicated concept, often felt irrationally, is clear. That it pervades Western culture is no less so. As recounted above, the concept of original sin makes us all “born guilty.” Christianity certainly bears a good deal of responsibility for making guilt so important in our lives. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argues that guilt has its origins in a creditor and debtor concept of human relationships. He argues that it is in these types of relationships that we break the rules for which we must make restitution. He further argues that Christianity is based on such a relationship, with Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross serving to put all humanity in “debt.” If Nietzsche is correct, then the guilt we feel due to original sin is compounded by our need to repay Jesus for his sacrifice. Indeed, religion has historically played an important role in the development of the concept of guilt. Arthur Dimmesdale, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, is a good example of guilt driven by religious beliefs. The Puritan code under which Dimmesdale lives confines him so that he cannot admit his affair with Hester (who cannot hide the evidence that she has sinned). Although engaging in adultery would certainly break the rules of his society, he is so stifled that he further compounds his guilt by refusing to admit the truth and claim Pearl as his child. Hester, on the other hand, is not consumed with guilt, adhering to her own moral code, which appears more natural in comparison. For some, Christianity puts too much emphasis on the sinful (and thus guilty) nature of human beings. This is arguably a distortion of the message of Jesus Christ, which emphasizes love and goodwill toward other humans. One explanation for this distorted emphasis is that for Christian leaders, keeping their flocks “in line” is one of their most arduous tasks. Convincing the faithful that they must constantly atone in order to be admitted to the kingdom of Heaven keeps them from complacency. In “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Jonathan Edwards elucidates the horrors of hell, invoking the wrathful Old Testament God rather than the New Testament Christ. This has the effect of scaring the listeners into prayer, which will help to balance their inherently guilty natures. This balance, which can also be described as a kind of repayment, is what differentiates guilt from its close counterpart, shame. The American philosopher John Rawls believed that in order to experience guilt, another must have been harmed in some way. Guilt, said Rawls, is also localized—that is, it is about our transgressions—whereas shame is about who we think we are as people. Thus, repayment and punishment are appropriate only to guilt, not shame. Hamlet, in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, feels guilty that he cannot immediately avenge his father’s death. He says, Yet I, A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak, Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause, And can say nothing; no, not for a king, Upon whose property and most dear life A damn’d defeat was made. (2.2.566–571) He resolves to reveal Claudius’s guilt and kill him, thus ending his own guilt, repaying his father as it were. In Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Ethan spends his entire life unable to escape his loveless marriage. He feels guilty, first because he does not love Zeena and then because he has fallen in love with Mattie. He then spends his life punishing himself by staying married to Zeena. Ironically, when he tries to end his life (and Mattie’s) things go horribly wrong and he is further doomed, trapped as an invalid being taken care of by Zeena, consumed by guilt over what has happened both to her and to Mattie. Ethan ends his life unable to restore the balance created by his transgressions in love. Sethe, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, is also unable to restore the balance. She murdered her child to keep her from slavery, and her guilt haunts her, literally, in the form of Beloved. Sethe tries to assuage this guilt by showering Beloved with attention, but her growing obsession with this manifestation of her dead daughter threatens to kill her. The horrors of slavery have wrought crimes so great no balance can be restored. The community comes together to exorcise the ghost and help Sethe to move on. The destructive behavior that Sethe exhibits is common for those suffering from guilt feelings. According to the psychologist E. Mark Stern, guilt that is long-lasting and preoccupying can interfere with our cognition and promote additional self-destructive behaviors.

Stern demonstrates that this behavior contributes to a vicious cycle, stating that “the more a person blames himself or herself for unacceptable behavior, the more unacceptable behavior the person will perform” (260). The Scarlet Letter’s Dimmesdale is an example of this kind of self-destructive cycle. He tortures himself, carving his own scarlet letter into his breast and wasting away from the torments through which he puts himself. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester, too, hides himself away in lonely despair after he is blinded by the fire at Thornfeld Hall. His guilt stems from his locking away Bertha, as well as from his deception of Jane, and he compounds his guilt by hiding in his damaged mansion, doing nothing to restore the balance upset by his transgressions. While some literary characters are undone by guilt, others seem impervious to it, acting as if they are conscience-free. In fact, the sense of guilt is so fundamental to the human condition that one must assume something is wrong at the core of those who can commit evil and feel nothing. For instance, Iago in Shakespeare’s Othell o and Chillingsworth in The Scarlet Letter wreak havoc on all those around them, bent only on achieving their own goals, which in Iago’s case is power and in Chillingsworth’s is revenge. Given Sigmund Freud’s theory of the id, the ego, and the superego, in which the id is our primitive impulses, the superego is morality tempering those impulses, and the ego is the mechanism that mediates between the two, these characters would seem to be missing an important part of their psyches.

Characters such as these, as well as characters whose lives are spent controlled by guilt, can function as cautionary tales for the reader. Guilt is an important part of human personality, but when it takes over a life, that life may not be worth living.

See also Bunyan, John: Pilgrim’s Progress, The; Davis, Rebecca Harding: Life in the Iron Mills; Dostoyevsky, Fyodor: Crime and Punishment; Hardy, Thomas: Tess of the d’Urbervill es; Irving, John: World According to Garp, The; Kingsolver, Barbara: Poisonwood Bible, The; Knowles, John: Separate Peace, A; O’Brien, Tim: Things They Carried, The; O’Neill, Eugene: Long Day’s Journey into Night; Poe, Edgar Allan: “Tell-Tale Heart, The”; Shakespeare, William: Julius Caesar; Macbeth; Turgenev, Ivan: Fathers and Sons.

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