Themes in Literature

Literary Responsibility


The word responsibility has two connotations in modern English. We can be responsible for something, which means we are accountable and we will take the blame or reward should there be any. This connotation can apply to a person, as in the way that parents are responsible for their children or coaches are responsible for their players, or it can apply to a thing, as in the way someone might take responsibility for a car accident or an accounting mistake. We can also be responsible to people or organizations. This connotation implies that we “report” to someone, or more accurately that we must “respond” (the root of responsibility) to them. The parent who is responsible for her children, in that she will take responsibility should they break a neighbor’s window or skip school, is at the same time responsible to her children in that she must account for the decisions she makes that affect their lives, such as distinguishing right from wrong and providing a stable home life. These two connotations work well together in that they both derive from the same idea. As noted above, the root of responsibility is “reponse.” To “respond” is an action. In life, being “responsible for” or being “responsible to” both require responding to situations—in other words, acting in the best interests of those in our sphere, including ourselves.

However, there are no clear-cut answers to questions regarding just what those best interests are and just how far we are required to widen that sphere. It is only in the 20th century and beyond that these questions about responsibility have become so difficult. Prior to this period, the emphasis was always soundly on being responsible to, and responsibility was not thought of as being particularly virtuous (Moran 35). Being responsible to people, or things, or God, simply meant that these were the entities to whom you would be held accountable. This simpler interpretation of the word may have made it easier for a society to know how to be accountable and what the implications of that were. But as the shift occurred in the 20th century toward responsibility for, and its accompanying blame and punishment, these questions became more complicated. For example, in Gilead, the dystopian society Margaret Atwood depicts in The Handmaid’s Tale, the concept of responsibility has become grossly distorted. First, the ruling powers hold humanity (women in particular) responsible for the decline in fertility that has led to the population collapse. They then take all responsibility away from the Maids, making them of the men but having no relationships with them. No one is actually responsible to or for anyone, other than the state, which apparently takes no responsibility for its people, as evidenced by the killings in the stadium and the presence of the forbidden “clubs” to which the Commander takes Offred. It is an experiment that is doomed to fail because humans have no accountability to each other, they are only forced to take accountability for things that may or may not be their fault.

As in Gilead, the characters in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor focus on blame, rather than on being responsible to one another, and Billy dies because of it. Captain Vere and the others should take responsibility for Billy both before and after the incident with Claggart, instead of simply forcing all the responsibility on him, as they do by revering the law over what they know to be the truth. The idea of being responsible to someone is analogous to having an obligation. Originally, obligation meant “something owed,” and a similar word, duty, meant a “debt.” Richard Swinburne, in Responsibility and Atonement, describes our responsibilities in life as obligations: “By our words and actions we undertake to do certain things” (20). If we become parents, we undertake the obligation of taking care of our children and teaching them right from wrong. We make other such obligations in our roles as members of communities and in our jobs. For instance, in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, Alexandra believes she is obligated to care for the family, especially Emil, as well as for the land on which the farm sits. It is her sense of responsibility that causes her father to choose her, rather than her brothers, to carry on his legacy. In William Shakespeare’s Henry V, King Henry is obligated to carry on the cause of his father, King Henry IV, and improve England’s fortunes on the world stage. He also feels a heavy sense of responsibility to the crown itself and, by extension, to the people of England. Thus, he turns his back on Falstaff, the mentor of his reckless (and irresponsible) youth, and has Bardolph hung for stealing. He also feels a responsibility for the men who are killed by the French, as they were there in England’s—and thus his—service.

King Henry feels responsible for his men in the same way a parent feels about his children. But unlike Henry, nonroyal parents are expected to take as much responsibility when their children err as when they do well. It is here and in other situations where there is blame to be assigned that the more common modern usage of responsibility looms large. Peter French, in Responsibility Matters, notes that we “spend a lot of time trying to avoid responsibility.” He also notes that this is as true for positives as it is for negatives, leading to the conclusion that responsibility is a burden in any situation (18). Perhaps, French argues, this is because we do not want the worry that comes along with membership in a morally responsible community. French says that we seek to obscure accountability, even when the consequence would be praise, not blame, because it signifies a loss of innocence merely to acknowledge that someone—anyone—is responsible. He says, “The practice of holding people responsible for things that happen, hence the concept of responsibility itself, depends for its sense on the purposes or ends to which we put it” (19). In other words, if there are no consequences, there is no point in assigning responsibility. And to be truly responsible, we must also be consistent, a burden in and of itself. Albert Jonsen, in Responsibility in Modern Religious Ethics, says “The responsible man is not merely the one who is able to perform good actions; he is, in fact, the good man. His goodness consists precisely in his responsibility” (5). In Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa is heavily burdened by the responsibility placed on him by his family. He accepts that responsibility, however, and goes to work every day to a job that he loathes. Gregor, unlike the rest of his family, who sit home, irresponsibly allowing Gregor to support them, cannot pretend innocence of the world and its workings. However, when one day he wakes up as a giant cockroach, he is gradually freed of this burden.

He cannot work in this condition, so the responsibility is lifted from him. As his family slowly takes on the burdens of taking care of Gregor and supporting themselves, they grow more and more resentful, with Gregor’s father even resorting to violence. Gregor’s death sets them all free, and the family ends the story with thoughts of finding sister Grete a husband, who presumably will take responsibility for them all. Unlike Gregor, Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has lived a life of bliss and privilege. Sadly, he uses this privilege irresponsibly and becomes obsessed with creating life. The creature he creates kills everyone whom Victor loves, and when he comes to the realization that it is he, not the creature, who is truly responsible for their deaths, the pain is almost too much for him to bear. It is only at this point in the novel that Victor actually takes on the mantle of responsibility and hunts the creature until his death. Additionally, in his faithful telling of the story to Walton, Victor passes on his cautionary tale, another act that demonstrates his newfound accountability. Although Frankenstein was written in the 19th century, its themes regarding the responsible use of science and technology echo loudly here in the 21st century. Some philosophers have argued that in the contemporary era, everything has become our responsibility—nature, war, death, global poverty. As the range of human action is much broader than it ever was before—that is, what we can do is greater and more fantastic than what could have been imagined in the past—our responsibilities have widened to an almost limitless point. While the need to do the right thing by those to whom we are responsible has not changed, what that right thing might be has grown more confusing, and the number of those to whom we might be held responsible has increased exponentially.

See also Davies, Robertson: Fifth Business; Dinesen, Isak: Out of Africa; James, Henry: Daisy Miller; Machiavelli, Niccolò: Prince, The; Shakespeare, William: King Lear; Virgil: Aeneid, The; Vonnegut, Kurt: Cat’s Cradle; Thoreau, Henry David: “Resistance to Civil Government”; Wilder, Thornton: Our Town; Williams, Tennessee: Glass Menagerie, The.

One thought on “Literary Responsibility

  1. Chris Pine was at the Shakespeare Globe with us watching Richard III and then saw pink down the street…London is surreal

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