Guilt and Redemption in Fiction
In Therese Raquin by Emile Zola, a slim, late 19th century French novel about the corrosive affect of guilt, a star-crossed couple murder the one person in their way and live with the results. For Zola, there is no redemption possible for this act.
I talk a lot about my philosophy that it is the responsibility of writers, to meet difficult and even taboo emotions and topics head on so that our readers can expiate their own demons as they read. You can argue over whether a writer owes anything to anybody or whether this intention should be or even is conscious. Let’s set that argument aside for now and talk about GUILT as one of the most interesting driving forces in life and in drama.
Who here does not feel guilty about things, large and small? In the Tell Tale Heart, the main character is driven insane from his guilt. Guilt can range from having done something mildly rude like be late to doing something unforgivable. But - is it true that one cannot or should not be forgiven?
What actions might a guilt-ridden character take? Would those actions be conscious or unconscious. Lady Macbeth comes to mind, with her tortured guilt that drives her crazy. Would a character hide the guilty act? Can they? Lady Macbeth couldn’t. Should a character engage in a life long journey of repentance? Can a character be redeemed?
Remember that our stories are written with a beginning, a middle and an end. It is in the conclusion that you, the writer, get to finally make your case for how you feel about the issue you have presented. But not until then. Why? Because if you write what you feel from page one – that guilt or sin is unforgivable – or only some sins are – etc. – then the story has no journey to offer the reader.
Roughly speaking, in the beginning of your story, you posit something - a question. What would happen if…..? What would you do if…..? Why would this happen….?
That something you posit is something I call the "entertaining question" of your story?
The entertaining question is quite fun to think about because readers (and viewers) enjoy the experience of being entertained largely for the cathartic feeling of it. They might not lie or cheat or steal or otherwise do something bad –but the character did and through watching the story unfold, a reader gets to vicariously live through the various options and implications.
Your writing is, in other words, a kind of therapy, a way for the reader to experience "what if" situations from the safety of their comfy chair.
So when we write, we can explore WHAT IF questions for our readers (not to mention ourselves):
What would YOU do if:
-you found a million dollars lying in the gutter?
-you cheated on your husband/boyfriend?
-caused the death of someone else - by accident?!
What. Would. You. Do.
This entertaining question is posited, by you, at the beginning of the story – in the set up. Yes, you can build on the what-would-you-do as the story deepens, but remember, you are focusing on setting something up and resolving it.
In this case – the topic of this discussion – what if that set up, that entertaining question is about guilt or shame?
Would the guilt and the silence eat you up? Or would you be able to rationalize and move past it? How do we externalize and internalize such a difficult and complex feeling as guilt?
Watching, in other words, the impact of stress, guilt, passion, fear - all of those primal emotions that humanity grapples with within the confines of societal norms and expectations.
But - what happens in the end?
How is your character and their world changed?
This is what gives away how YOU the WRITER actually FEEL about the topic at hand.
Now many writers - and this is quite all right - like to leave that up to the reader to interpret - and that is also part of the joy of reading and what makes literature so deeply compelling - that we can interpret it widely.
In Therese Racquin it is evident how Zola felt about the murder and its impact. This couple can NEVER experience happiness again. Their sin is too big. But that is not evident until the end of the story. The reader keeps hoping – the characters keep trying – to find happiness and resolution. But Zola will not allow it to come to pass. He could have – he very easily could have – but it is evident in the ending of his story, either how he felt personally about betrayal and sin, or at least how he felt that society does.
In Revelation, my favorite Flannery O'Connor short story, our main character really cannot be redeemed. She's just too thick. O'Connor seems to indicate that some people truly cannot change or be redeemed.
What constitutes a forgivable sin? An unforgivable sin? Can a character redeem him or herself? Is guilt redemptive or corrosive?