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 Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about the effect of Covid on my town — is here.