Some Novels Are Built on Characters Feeling Guilt

Guilt. It’s a five-letter word that feels like a four-letter word.

Many fictional protagonists suffer from guilt, which can make their lives difficult and give a novel plenty of drama. Those characters often evoke our sympathy, mainly because someone who feels guilt has a conscience. Of course, the action or actions that cause people to feel guilt range from deliberate to accidental, which can affect what we think of those erring folk.

I just read William Kennedy’s mesmerizing/melancholy Ironweed, whose main character’s entire life changes because of guilt. Once a very good turn-of-the-20th-century Major League baseball player, Francis Phelan has become a homeless alcoholic wandering the streets of Albany, New York, in 1938. Things went downhill after a perhaps-drunk-that-day Francis accidentally dropped and killed his infant son. The young father, who also killed a strikebreaker around that time, never forgave himself and proceeded to leave his wife Annie and two other kids and allow his life to go to hell. One feels a mix of pity and “why didn’t you try to deal with things better?” for Francis — who was forgiven by Annie, their son, and (to an extent) their daughter.

Phelan’s companion in homelessness, former singer Helen Archer, began her downward spiral after an awful betrayal by her mother. But that mom feels no guilt, even on her deathbed.

(Above are Meryl Streep as Helen and Jack Nicholson as Francis in the 1987 Ironweed movie.)

Moving to other novels and characters, Raskolnikov experiences a huge amount of guilt after committing murder in Crime and Punishment — even as he had delusional hopes he wouldn’t feel that way. Few authors have ever depicted guilt as feverishly as Fyodor Dostoyevsky did via his classic novel’s nerve-wracked protagonist.

Like Francis, a haunted Eve Gardiner becomes a guilt-ridden alcoholic in Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network. Eve was an adept English spy during World War I who thought — upon regaining consciousness after being tortured — that she had betrayed a fellow spy. She believes this for decades, until…

In Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, the title character felt guilt about the bus accident that left his late wife Sonja paralyzed from the waist down. Ove didn’t cause the accident (revealed in the novel’s back story); he had noticed that the bus driver had alcohol on his breath when he and Sonja first boarded but didn’t say anything. Unlike Francis (whose guilt was of course more direct), Ove stuck loyally and lovingly with his wife until Sonja died years after making the best of her radically changed life by becoming a beloved teacher.

Sophie of Sophie’s Choice lives for years with almost unbearable guilt over a choice she made while in Nazi captivity. There is also plenty of survivor’s guilt in William Styron’s novel, or virtually any Holocaust/post-Holocaust novel.

Obviously, there can be guilt over adultery or other kinds of problematic romantic affairs — as felt, for instance, by Christabel LaMotte in A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

And what about parental guilt when a mom or dad (more often the mom) feels they are not spending enough time with their kids because of career-related responsibilities? One example is Claire in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series going through long days of intensive medical training while her daughter Brianna is young.

There can also be guilt over shabbily treating a friend. That’s the case for the young Amir, in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, who does not do right by faithful childhood pal Hassan. There is some measure of atonement, though hardly enough, for Amir later in the novel.

Finally, there’s of course guilt over acting cowardly — as in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. In some cases, the protagonists might at least partly make up for that by behaving bravely later on.

Novels you’ve read with characters feeling guilt?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — about the effect of Covid on my town — is here.

74 thoughts on “Some Novels Are Built on Characters Feeling Guilt

    • Thank you, Esther! I read “Rebecca” so long ago that I just don’t remember enough to respond to your first question.

      And I think the answer is “no” to your second question, which I realize might have been rhetorical. Such a sad situation when someone close commits suicide. Usually, friends and family should NOT feel guilty, but that doesn’t stop them from feeling that way.


  1. My long-term retirement plan is guilt-edged insecurities. No way I ever run out before arriving at my own expiration date!

    “Ethan Frome” belongs on your list. Also, “Under the Volcano”. Also also “Hamlet”.

    We ate turkey, Mandy and I, outdoors under an awning in the waning sunshine of the late afternoon at a French bistro up Broadway a few blocks from home. Masks off once seated. Warm enough the nearby space heater stayed off. First Thanksgiving the stuffing came in brioche form. A strange day in a strange season– but strangely enjoyable too.

    Hope all readers on site had a good Thanksgiving!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY, for the mentions of those three works with lots of guilt! I haven’t read “Under the Volcano” (yet), but “Ethan Frome” and “Hamlet” indeed drip with the “g” word.

      Sounds like you had a memorable Thanksgiving in this Covid time! The weather was definitely/fortunately above-average warm yesterday. We did takeout vegetarian “turkey” from a local restaurant, and it was quite good. 🙂


  2. Good to see, Dave, how many people you have been instigating to think about guilt! Sophie’s choice has certainly been one of the decisions that held me in its grip (if I can say so) for a long time. In this period, however, I often think of all the people, who feel guilty, because they have been unable to save a beloved one from the consequences of Covid-19. All the best Martina

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Martina! I guess I plead guilty to making people think more about guilt this week. 🙂

      The choice in “Sophie’s Choice” is indeed beyond devastating — and many readers might have been (skillfully) misdirected into expecting a romantic choice.

      Last but by no means least, you’re so right that there’s all kinds of guilt connected with Covid — not being able to save loved ones, unknowingly infecting loved ones, etc. Unfortunately, people who aren’t wearing masks when near other people in public places aren’t feeling enough guilt before and after making that decision. 😦


  3. Nice write up. See that you’ve read Ironweed. As to your list you reminded me of William Styron. I haven’t read Sophie’s Choice, but I’ve ordered it. I have read his book Darkness Visible. It pertains to his battle with depression. Another book I’m getting as well. A little bit more on John Fante. He wrote from an alter ego. He has a quartet of books that have bandini as his protagonist. The influence on Bukowski is that it was borrowed. Bukowski’s alter ego name is Chinaski.
    A Little bit more on Celine is that he influenced Bukowski as well. So Death On The installment plan is that his protagonist relates to his life in the slums of France. So basically it’s the same style as Bukowski’s Hollywood novel. Our library here has changed its operation to just curbside now as we are experiencing a high level of covid cases. I’m assuming you’re experiencing the same thing. If so, has it changed your library method of operation at the moment? I’ve also ordered your book. I’m sure it will be a good read. I’ve ordered a good number of books recently so that with all I’ve ordered it will give me a lot to read through the winter months. I can’t say that it will last, but I’m hoping with all the reading I’ll be reading is that it will spur some writing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Don, for recommending “Ironweed”! (You’re one of the people I credited in a Sunday comment near the bottom of the comments area.)

      I’ve heard about “Darkness Visible.” I can imagine how intense a book it is.

      I appreciate the additional thoughts and info on Charles Bukowski, and the authors he influenced and was influenced by.

      Sorry your library has returned to just curbside, but it’s understandable. My local library is still allowing limited inside browsing; that could of course also change as Covid gets worse again.

      Thanks so much for ordering my book! 🙂 I hope you like it. Nice that you’ve gotten yourself some books for late fall and winter reading. And I hope the reading does indeed inspire some writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Dave,

    There was a lot of guilt flying around in Zola’s Germinal which I recently finished. Unfortunately, the guilt only seemed to come from the people who didn’t have a lot to feel guilty for, rather than from those who were hoarding wealth or food, or those who were raping or murdering people.

    I was going to mention We Need to Talk About Kevin but Sarah beat me to it. A VERY memorable book. I really look forward to hearing what you think when you finally get to it.

    I recently read The Bridge which was written by a friend of a friend of a friend. Not the best written book ever, but maybe more moving than I’d originally given it credit for. It kind of tells two parallel stories, one about the collapse of the bridge, and the survivor’s guilt that followed after one of the workman lost a few mates. The other story was about a young woman who was drink driving, had a crash and killed her best friend (the grand daughter of the survivor of the bridge collapse). It was a novel that actually brought up lots of questions and tackled a few different types of guilt. It was also set where I grew up, so it had an added nostalgic bonus for me 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susan! An EXCELLENT point that guilt can be felt by by people who don’t have a lot of reason to feel that way, and that people who in fact should feel guilt (often the rich and and corrupt and entitled) often don’t feel guilt. “Germinal” is indeed an example of that.

      I MUST read “We Need to Talk About Kevin” to add to the novels by Lionel Shriver I’ve already enjoyed!

      “The Bridge” sounds really downbeat but good — certainly a combination many compelling novels have.


  5. What an excellent topic and wonderful thread as usual, Dave! The only book that comes to mind on theme of guilt is LaRose by Louise Erdrich. I really do believe it’s her finest novel to date and very highly recommend it. The story involves the accidental hunting death of the young son of best friends and neighbors but focuses on the unique Ojibwe tradition of dealing with this tragedy. Guilt and forgiveness work themselves out in unexpected ways.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Mary Jo! I appreciate the recommendation of “LaRose” as a novel and as an example of guilt in a novel. I’ve read just one Louise Erdrich book (“The Painted Drum”) and should read another!

      “Guilt and forgiveness work themselves out in unexpected ways” — that’s an intriguing line that makes one want to read “LaRose.” Now on my list… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Okay and glad I came back too. I love this post because it is all the aspects of guilt or no guilt a la Rhett Butler’s quote from that very controversial book ‘You’re like the thief who isn’t the least bit sorry he stole, but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail, ‘ because some people are wracked with guilt over all kinds of things, big or small and some people just barge on the hell, gaily adding to the bonfire.Atonement is about guilt at the end but I always feel Briony is sort of undeservedly granting herself that, having wholeheartedly wrecked two lives. Then you’ve the complications of characters like Lenny in of Mice and men, who doesn’t understand enough of his actions to feel guilt but I guess George is well gonna spend the bit after the book ends feeling plenty guilty. All in all what a subject for a post.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Shehanne! Well said!

      So true that some people feel guilt and some don’t — with the latter only bothered when there are consequences, as you note. A very astute Rhett Butler quote.

      I totally agree that Briony undeservedly granted herself some atonement in “Atonement.” What she did was indeed unforgivable, but she could have expressed regret in a much more meaningful, self-sacrificing way.

      And you’re absolutely right that some characters with mental challenges get sort of a pass because they don’t grasp the concept of guilt as much as the average person.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Great post! As you have pointed out, guilt plays an important part in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment; and in many of Dostoevsky’s works. Dostoevsky was always interested in what drove people to do certain things and what the consequences of their actions were. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina would be a good example of feeling guilty about adultery and abandoning a child.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Elisabeth! “Dostoevsky was always interested in what drove people to do certain things and what the consequences of their actions were” — excellent line! You’re so right that guilt is all over Dostoevsky’s works. Fortunately, he was such a great writer that even as readers periodically cringe they are also mesmerized.

      And, yes, Anna Karenina definitely felt some guilt. Dostoevsky might win a contest over Tolstoy for the amount of guilt in their novels, but the latter author was also expert in depicting that emotion. “The Kreutzer Sonata” is certainly one example of that.

      Liked by 4 people

  8. Another great post, Dave, with a profound and meaningful follow-up discussion. I am going to digress, and note that is seems that fiction is able to enliven our imagination on the meaning of guilt. I would also go a step further and suggest that narratives may give guidance on ways in which to embrace the terrifying darkness that comes with guilt. We all have guilt stored away in recesses of our memories. For me, some date back to my early childhood when I said unkind things to my parents. I remember reading Carl Jung several years ago (back to my non-fiction YIKES), which gives insight into how fiction writers help us to face our guilt directly by allowing us to become involved in a story. “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” Carl Jung. Looking forward to your next post!

    Liked by 5 people

  9. Allah

    On Mon, Nov 23, 2020, 01:09 Dave Astor on Literature wrote:

    > Dave Astor posted: ” Guilt. It’s a five-letter word that feels like a > four-letter word. Many fictional protagonists suffer from guilt, which can > make their lives difficult and give a novel plenty of drama. Those > characters often evoke our sympathy, mainly becaus” >

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Hi! Certainly some food for thought here that has had me pondering. ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ by Lionel shriver sprung to mind (apologies if I’m repeating a comment already made). ‘Gone Girl’ was another that popped to mind, but not sure if the male character is driven by guilt or not. Perhaps to an extent? My recall of stories is always very hazy! I tried to find examples rooted in the classics. A short story maybe? The rather disturbed gentleman in ‘The Tell-tale heart’ by Edgar Allen Poe seems like a good candidate. Guilt is a good driving force for a character’s story!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Sarah! Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a great mention! The amount of guilt packed into that short tale is off the charts.

      I haven’t read “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” but have read four other Lionel Shriver novels and she’s an expert at depicting guilt and various other kinds of emotions. One of my favorite living authors.

      “Guilt is a good driving force for a character’s story” — so true!

      Liked by 2 people

      • ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ is harrowing but compulsive reading. It’s the only one I’ve read of hers. I do have another – ’The Birthday Party’ maybe – but think I tried reading it too soon after the first.

        Poe’s prolific writing in his brief and chaotic life was nothing short of amazing all things considered. To create a character as meticulous and obsessed in a few short pages of ‘the tell-take heart’ is quite something. I should read more of his work.

        Liked by 3 people

        • Sarah, I definitely want to read “We Need To Talk About Kevin”; I’ve heard it’s the best Lionel Shriver novel, and I’ve had it on my list for a while.

          The books of hers I’ve read are “So Much for That” (fabulous takedown of the U.S. medical system, with a breathtaking conclusion); “Big Brother” (about obesity, with a shocking plot twist); “The Mandibles” (very good novel set in the future); and “The New Republic” (not a bad take on the journalism world).

          I totally agree with you about Poe — an incredible writer who churned out so much memorable work in a life that was indeed “brief and chaotic.”

          Liked by 1 person

          • Shriver doesn’t shy away from sensitive subject matter by the sound of it. Looks like I’m adding one or two books there to my TBR!

            So, of course, I’ve been thinking about characters…Macbeth needs a mention (although I’m going slightly off piste here and he’s a character from a play). Mr Scrooge is driven by guilt after his first ghostly visitation (Christmas past, not Marley). And another is Francis, the main character from Robert Cormier’s novel ‘Heroes’. Could we mention George from ‘Of Mice And Men’? He’s incredibly fond of Lenny, but there’s a sense that the friendship is driven by guilt.

            Liked by 2 people

            • Sarah, you’re absolutely right about Lionel Shriver; she’s fearless in her novels.

              And those are great additional examples of characters who feel guilt! Macbeth is just drenched in guilt — and mentioning plays is fine. 🙂 As for Scrooge, nice when a rich guy feels guilt; so rare in real life. And that’s an insightful “Of Mice and Men” mention; you have something there! I think preacher Jim Casy in Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” feels some guilt, too.

              Liked by 1 person

              • ahem…yes, you had to bring up my guilty secret there….I haven’t quite finished ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ yet despite starting it quite some time ago…. Steinbeck is such a good author. I was in Salinas a couple of years ago (passing through to Monterey) and made time to visit the library and the exhibit dedicated to Steinbeck. It was fascinating and I got the opportunity to speak to a lady who was acquainted with the Steinbeck family.
                And I saw the earlier comments about Trump in this post. So yes, your comment about the rich feeling guilt must feel all a little too poignant right now…

                Liked by 2 people

                • Oops — didn’t know about your “Grapes of Wrath” status. 🙂 But wonderful that you visited Steinbeck’s neck of the woods, saw that library and exhibit, and got to speak with a family acquaintance!

                  As for Trump, he’s a lot more into gilt than guilt. 😦

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • I have seen the error of my ways so shall crack on with finishing ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ over the next couple of months!
                    Do hope the rather precarious situation on your side of the pond is resolved shortly. I’m sure there is much uncertainty at the moment which must be very concerning. We read with incredulity about the terrible, ongoing injustices (only because it probably detracts from our own shocking politics).

                    Liked by 2 people

                    • “The Grapes of Wrath” is an incredible novel, but of course it’s impossible to read and finish as many books as we’d like in our busy lives. 🙂

                      Even if/when Trump voluntarily leaves the White House, he’ll be spewing his hate in the U.S. for as long as he’s alive. Tweeting his nasty tweets, possibly starting his own far-right media network, possibly trying to run again for president in 2024… Ugh. And you’re right that there are plenty of awful politicians everywhere. All that power and all those potential money-making opportunities attract a lot of bad people. 😦

                      Liked by 1 person

  11. What a great post, Dave, thank you. Several books here to add to my TBR. I think I may have started A Man Called Ove when it first came out but don’t remember finishing it so will have to go back to it some time. Meanwhile, let me offer Ian McEwan’s brilliant Atonement to add to your Guilt collection. A fabulous book and an excellent film.

    Liked by 7 people

  12. Yes,I just finished “A Man Called Ove.” It’s a special book,makes one think of how many people’s lives we can touch. The wife’s accident happened on a bus in Spain. He tried for years writing letters, dealing with foreign country,bureaucracy on her behalf,but she forgave,she enabled him to,as well,despite his sadness and anger.

    She was still able to teach even though wheel chair bound. She found students in severe need who,like her,like Ove,really like all of us who have been misunderstood, that we have a voice and can determine our own fate. All we need is kindness, someone who sees us. That was Sonja. She never gave up on herself or anyone else who was fortunate to know her.

    Due to her disability,she connected to them as she would not have before, perhaps, as she was more vulnerable. Yet she showed kindness and love, and with kindness and love, one can forgive,one can release, not feel guilt, perhaps.

    It’s all in the way we live our lives, and both Sonja and Ove were able to teach us all by actions which speak louder than words. A beautiful book.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Michele! So glad you read “A Man Called Ove.” It is indeed a special book, and I thoroughly enjoyed your eloquent/heartfelt description of Sonja and what she did with her life after the accident. Very moving. Sonja was such a vivid character despite existing only in the novel’s back story. She clearly influenced her husband Ove, while she was alive and after she died.

      Liked by 4 people

  13. Dave, Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, what a book and later a movie came out of it. A best seller in a paperback was gifted to me by a Librarian.
    Guilt ?
    The President of the US of A has no guilt, and Dave this country is the laughing stock even in the so called third World Countries.
    What is happening is unbelievable. crime after crime without any remorse.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, bebe! “A Man Called Ove” is indeed a fantastic novel. I hope the movie did it justice.

      Yes, Trump is a prime example of a multiple-times criminal who feels absolutely no guilt — and he has indeed made the U.S. a laughingstock. (Fortunately, much of the world knows Trump is despised by more than half of Americans, even though he should be despised by 99.9% of Americans.)

      Will now watch the video…

      Liked by 3 people

      • Excellent clip from the always-great Robert Reich! One can definitely see that there are various depressing reasons why Trump is contesting an election he clearly lost — a way to pocket more money from supporters, an opening salvo for a possible 2024 run for the presidency, etc. Thanks for posting the clip, bebe!

        Liked by 2 people

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