Themes in Literature

Literary Regret


“I have no regrets.” Surely we have all heard this announcement made at one time or another, however implausible it might be. We may have even made it ourselves. Living a life with no regrets, however, seems impossible. Since regret is a feeling generated by looking back on our mistakes, omissions, lost opportunities, and bad behavior, and since one may feel regret over something as trivial as the purchase of a sweater, the person with no regrets is either flawless in every regard or has no conscience. Regret is a complicated emotion capable of leading to various consequences, both good and bad. Sometimes it can make us grow by helping us learn from our mistakes. For instance, in John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, Gene’s lifelong regret at having hurt his friend plagues him, keeping him from living his life freely.

When the truth finally comes to the surface, Gene takes responsibility. Thus, when Finny tragically dies in surgery, Gene is at peace, knowing he did the right thing by being honest. On the other hand, regret can lead us to paralysis, when we are consumed by it, but can do nothing to rectify the past. In William Shakespeare’s King Lear, Lear regrets his ill-treatment of Cordelia, his only truly loyal child. However, he cannot reverse the events his bad decisions set in motion, and madness destroys him in the end. While there is some disagreement over the nature of “true regret,” most psychologists and philosophers agree that, first and foremost, it is cognitive. That is, to feel regret requires that we think about what we have done (or failed to do). Regret, by its very nature, requires us to assess the past and our role in it. It is associated with what psychologists call “counterfactual” thought, or thinking about “what might have been” (Landman 37). This counterfactual thinking connects regret with the intellectual process of decision making, setting it apart from other emotions such as sadness, happiness, and love: These may all be safely rooted in the present and require only that we “feel” what is right in front of us. Pure emotions generally stem from a less cognitive impulse. Whether or not regret is an emotion at all is a source of disagreement among scholars. However, the psychologist Janet Landman argues persuasively that because regret is well known to have physiological effects (some refer to feelings of regret as a sharp “pang”) and because it entails making judgments about oneself, it undoubtedly qualifies as an emotion (37). Thomas Gilovich and Victoria Husted Medved echo Landman by calling regret a “cognitively determined emotion” (379). Regret is easily confused with other emotions and patterns of thinking, such as remorse and guilt. In general, scholars agree that these terms are related but different. Remorse is typically used when referring only to one’s own past acts or failures to act, and only when these acts were within one’s control. Regret is broader and refers to those types of situations, but also to situations over which we have no control, such as the passing of summer (Landman 52). In addition, we may feel regret for events or policies in which we personally were not involved, such as the segregationist Jim Crow laws that lasted in the United States from 1876 to 1965. Guilt, too, is closely associated with, although not identical to, regret. Guilt, like remorse, comes from thoughts and feelings resulting from one’s own actions. While there is a popular notion of “collective guilt” over tragic events such as the Holocaust or slavery, the philosopher Hannah Arendt has argued that collective guilt simply justifies the evil done: if everyone is guilty, then no one is (Landman 55). In addition, it is difficult to imagine guilt without regret. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth feels horrible guilt over his murder of Duncan; that he feels regret as well seems obvious. The opposite, regret without guilt, is not so difficult to imagine. One may regret having turned down an opportunity to lunch with friends, but such a regret seems unlikely to produce guilt. Regret, then, is complicated. It has the qualities both of a cognitive process and an emotion. It can be felt for actions and events both within one’s control and beyond it, as well as over decisions ranging from quite serious to hopelessly trivial.

The characters in Jane Austen’s novels and their varying degrees of regret help to illustrate this complicated theme. Emma Woodhouse, for instance, the title character of Emma, is a creature full of regrets. She regrets that her dear governess, Mrs. Weston, has married and so no longer lives with Emma, although she is very happy for Mrs. Weston. She regrets her friend Harriet Smith’s poor station in life, a station that has destined her to depend on the kindness of others and to marry someone no more important than a farmer, a state of affairs over which she has no control. She most deeply regrets her unkind treatment of Miss Bates, and for this she feels true remorse. Regret, for Emma, helps her to become a better person. It helps her understand her own actions and her role in society (of course, Mr. Knightley helps her come to that understanding) and thus to mature and grow. Emma’s case shows us that while regret is painful and often forces us to admit failure, it can be a constructive force in our lives. It requires us to reflect, to imagine how things might have gone differently, so that we do not repeat our mistakes in the future—or at least we hope so. As it can come both from wishing we had acted and wishing we had not, it helps us make life changes and identify silver linings, a process that can be a very positive force (Gilovich and Medved 379). Regret also helps others see us as moral people, capable of contributing positively to society. When F. W. de Klerk, president of South Africa from 1989 to 1994, issued an official apology from the National Party for the system of apartheid that had held sway in his country for decades, he said, “Apartheid caused misery and deprived people of their rights” (quoted in Lazare 105). He did not attempt to justify the policy or to mitigate the pain it caused. This regret, publicly acknowledged, along with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, helped to partially heal the country’s deep wounds and allow citizens to move forward together. In Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Pip regrets much. He regrets that which is beyond his control: his parents’ death, his difficult upbringing, his meeting Magwitch in the cemetery.

This type of regret does nothing good for him; it makes him bitter, greedy, and distrustful of others. But more important, he feels regret for things that were of his own doing. He regrets abandoning Joe and Biddy; he regrets the way he acted after receiving the money from his mysterious benefactor; and most of all, he regrets the way he treated Magwitch upon the convict’s return from Australia. Pip learns from this regret, however; he reforms his ways and ends the novel treating Magwitch as only a son would. Even more important, the novel ends with hope, as Pip has developed a stronger moral compass than before and will undoubtedly make better decisions in the future. In general, Pip’s sense of regret helps him to grow. For many, however, regret is a destructive, paralyzing force to be avoided at all costs. Harry Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, said, “Never, never waste a minute on regret. It’s a waste of time” (quoted in Landman 9). Regret can keep us from looking forward and experiencing life to the fullest extent. It can also play a destructive role in decision making.

As we are apt to worry about what effect the decisions we make now will have on us later, fear of future regret may keep us from acting as we know we should. Such is the case for both Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. As a girl, Clarissa loved both Peter and her free, wild friend Sally. Fear of bucking convention made her seek stability over lasting attachments with them. She regrets those decisions now but attempts to live her life as though she has no regrets. The result is that she is a person who moves through life without feeling much of anything. Avoiding the pain of regret is so paramount that she must block out all other feelings as well. Peter, on the other hand, feels the pain too much. After many years, his regrets over his failed relationship with Clarissa still sting as though it happened yesterday. This pain prevents Peter from truly moving on in life; his obsession with what might have been has paralyzed him. Despite our admonitions to the contrary, few of us could truly live a life without regret. Indeed, since regret can function as a catalyst toward change, redemption, and reform, it would be unwise for human beings to avoid this emotion entirely. Healthy regret—that is, regret that does not consume us but allows us to move forward—is undoubtedly an integral part of life’s journey.

See also Alexie, Sherman: Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, The; Eliot, T. S.: “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The”; Ishiguro, Kazuo: Remains of the Day, The; Morrison, Toni: Song of Solomon; Tan, Amy: Joy Luck Club, The; Tolstoy, Leo: War and Peace; Williams, Tennessee: Streetcar Named Desire, A.

4 thoughts on “Literary Regret

  1. “The aphorism: the pragmatic literary form par excellence. Wanderer’s thought – contrary to paid thought.” (Ekelund, Plus Salis, p. 115, #4)

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