Introduction to the Theme of Love and Forgiveness
To talk about “love and forgiveness” in literature is to enter into unstudied territory. Unlike former “Let’s Talk About It” topics, such as “Latino Literature in the U.S.” or “Jewish Literature,” this theme has not given rise to a body of critical writing or to papers at literary conferences. It is not a subject of literary studies. If you wanted to read about it, you would go to theological or psychological literature, not to literary criticism.
For love and forgiveness to be the windows through which we look at literature, we must move from a primary focus on seeing texts as created objects, with their ironies and unreliable narrators, to an old-fashioned emphasis on the stories themselves and on what characters do and say.
Stories are driven by conflict—the agon, or struggle, that is at the heart of so many plots. If forgiveness comes at all, it comes only at the end of the story. The biblical narrative of Joseph and his brothers, for example, begins with betrayal (Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers) and ends with forgiveness, which is made possible only by Joseph’s great love for at least some of his brothers. But love and forgiveness are not the central themes of the story as a whole.
If you functioned as a kind of “anthropologist of the text,” you might ask, “Where is the theme of love and forgiveness most likely to arise?” The answer to that question informs the three sub-themes of this project. Forgiveness arises in the presence of the wisdom of love; when there is love in the presence of the enemy; and when the nearness of death shines a light on what is important—love.
Justice calls for punishment or requital of a wrong. Forgiveness gives up the claim for requital—and even the resentment that accompanies that claim. What creates the capacity for forgiveness? Often, wisdom traditions and, occasionally, works of literature suggest that love is the only force or state of being that allows forgiveness to be experienced.
Love and Forgiveness in the Presence of the Enemy
Books 1, 18–19, 21–22, 24: Iliad – Homer
Translator: Stanley Lombardo
The first word of the Iliad is “Rage”—specifically, the rage of Achilles. The Trojan War is in its tenth year when Apollo suddenly strikes the Greeks with a plague. He is angry with the Greeks because Agamemnon, the commander, has insulted a priest of Apollo by refusing to ransom the priest’s captured daughter. To prevent further misfortune, Agamemnon is persuaded to give the girl back to her father but demands that the hero Achilles hand over his own captured woman, Briseis, to make up for the loss of the priest’s daughter. Achilles, angry at the slight to his honor, gives up his prize, Briseis, but vows to stop fighting and prays to his mother, the sea nymph Thetis, to persuade the gods to give the Trojans the advantage while he sulks in his tent until almost the end of the Iliad.
Here in one of the earliest works of Western literature we see the emotional landscape of injured pride, anger, the drive for revenge, violence and its tragic consequences, remorse, and grief. Achilles’ reactions are thoroughly familiar to us because they are so deeply human. They are much more common, both in Achilles’ world and in ours, than the rare quality of forgiveness.
At the base of Achilles’ rage is his sense that he is being treated unjustly. After all, he was the greatest warrior, and Briseis was his war prize. Even young children feel injustice keenly, at least when it applies to them. (“That isn’t fair! He got a bigger piece of cake than I did!” or “That’s not fair—she took away my toy!”) The anger that follows feels justified, and the feeling of justification, which arises from the repeated memory of the injury, keeps the anger fresh. Revenge is the action that attempts to balance the scales again by making the perpetrator pay. One foundation of organized society is the taking of revenge from the hands of individuals and putting it under the power of the community or the state. But the individual human drive for revenge remains.
In the case of Achilles, the “revenge” consists, initially, of withdrawal from the fight with the expectation that the Greeks will eventually realize how much they need him and will prevail upon Agamemnon to return Briseis in order to persuade Achilles to rejoin the fight. When the Trojans begin to triumph, Achilles’ beloved friend Patroclus fights in his stead, in Achilles’ armor, and is slain by the Trojan hero, Hector. In his terrible grief for Patroclus, Achilles moves from wrath to remorse, which calls for forgiveness of the self—or some sort of expiation, another kind of righting of the balance. In Achilles’ case, the death of Patroclus leads to another cycle of revenge, one that is so much more violent in its rage that Achilles becomes utterly indifferent to the initial insult to his honor that begins the Iliad.
Justice calls for punishment for or requital of a wrong. But punishment often inflicts another injury and another need for requital, in an endless downward spiral. Forgiveness gives up the claim for requital—and even the feeling of resentment that accompanies that claim. Without resentment and the resulting rage, nothing is left to fuel revenge, and the downward spiral is stopped.
For Achilles, forgiveness for the death of Patroclus is impossible, just as it is for Agamemnon’s affront to his honor. The heroic code makes forgiveness unthinkable—to forgo revenge is to lose the very nature of heroism. In this world, the only possible end to the predictable cycle is death—of Achilles, and eventually of Troy itself.
And yet, in the aftermath of Patroclus’ death, the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles does end—not through forgiveness but through the acceptance of a larger frame in which the need to punish the Trojans becomes more important than the desire to punish Agamemnon. When a larger injury occurs, a lesser injury loses so much importance that forgiveness for the smaller injury becomes unnecessary. In the larger scheme of things—the death of Patroclus—Achilles is willing to “let all that be” and to count the quarrel with Agamemnon as nothing. In the face of death, whether of our own or of someone we love, petty grievances connected with our pride or vanity tend to fall away.
Preparing to join the Greek army again, Achilles goes to Agamemnon not with rage but with reason: “ . . . are either of us better off / For this anger?” He then says, “We’ll let all that be, no matter how it hurts / And conquer our pride, because we must. I hereby end my anger.” Agamemnon follows Achilles’ act not with an apology but with an explanation—“I was not myself.” He also offers amends, bringing Achilles many fine gifts, including Briseis herself. But for Achilles, the prizes that formerly were important tokens of honor now mean very little. He has given up his rage against Agamemnon in the context of his larger rage against Hector and the Trojans.
At this point, Achilles becomes more bestial than human, slaughtering the Trojans without mercy and dishonoring the body of the slain Hector. When King Priam, in his terrible grief, comes to ransom the body of his beloved son Hector, he performs the unthinkable—he kisses the hand that has slain his son. In doing so, he releases Achilles’ compassion, for Achilles sees in this old, grief-stricken man his own father, who will soon be grieving for Achilles. Temporarily, in this moment of compassion, the drive for revenge is given up
But this suspension of hostility through the experience of compassion is tenuous, given the fragility of human compassion. Achilles wisely orders Hector’s body to be washed first so as not to arouse Priam’s anger which, in turn, would arouse the wrath of Achilles. And he warns Priam not to rouse him to anger. Priam, for his part, sneaks out of Achilles’ camp before the rage of Achilles can be ignited again.
In this poignant scene, the Iliad shows us how the effect of forgiveness—stopping the cycle of payback by letting be can be achieved by moving to a larger frame, either of a greater injury or of compassion for the common humanity even of our enemy.
Jane Eyre –Charlotte Brontë
Is it necessary for the evildoer to repent and to suffer punishment in order to be forgiven? This question is raised within Jane Eyre, whose main character confronts the moral dilemma and possible evil consequences of not holding her beloved accountable for his behavior; but the question is also one for the reader, for Charlotte Brontë’s narrative punishes the culprit before Jane is reunited with him.
Brontë’s book was sensational for its time, some critics calling it anti-Christian. Readers these days are not as likely to be shocked at the way the main character continues to love a man who not only has sinned repeatedly but also attempts to mislead her into a bigamous marriage—and, when she refuses, assumes she will accept the demeaning position of living as his mistress, which she is strongly tempted to do. she feels very strongly. What perhaps shocked Victorian readers is that Jane’s decision to flee this temptation owes as much to her sense of self as to obedience to moral norms. What is perhaps more startling to modern sensibilities is Jane’s readiness to forgive an “intimate enemy”—a lover who has betrayed her in the most fundamental way. Rochester asks, “Will you ever forgive me?” Jane does not respond to him but speaks directly to the reader: “Reader!—I forgave him at the moment, and on the spot. . . . I forgave him all: yet not in words, not outwardly; only at my heart’s core.”
This scene of forgiveness reverses a more common situation, in which the words of forgiveness are spoken while the heart remains unmoved. Later, when Jane turns down the proposal of marriage from the saintly but cold St. John, she asks his forgiveness, and he gives a “Christian” answer:
No happy reconciliation was to be had with him—no cheering smile or generous word: but still the Christian was patient and placid; and when I asked him if he forgave me, he answered that he was not in the habit of cherishing the remembrance of vexation; that he had nothing to forgive; not having been offended.
And with that answer, he left me. I would much rather he had knocked me down.
In this telling scene, Brontë shows us that forgiveness in words alone is not enough for the seeker of forgiveness to feel released from guilt. At least punishment—“I would much rather he had knocked me down”—would make amends and right the balance of the relationship. Punishment pays the debt; but forgiveness without feeling leaves the grievance to be remembered again and again. As Jane observes of St. John, “he had forgiven me for saying I scorned him and his love, but he had not forgotten the words; and as long as he and I lived he never would forget them.”
Later, Jane offends St. John yet again when she says that if she were to marry him, he would kill her: “His lips and cheeks turned white—quite white.” This physical expression of anger is a truer indication of St. John’s feelings than his dutiful words of forgiveness that follow. Although what Jane has said “would seem inexcusable . . . it is the duty of man to forgive his fellow, even until seventy-and-seven times.”
The effect of forgiving the “enemy” in words but not in the heart is displayed again when Jane and St. John meet later that day at dinner: “No doubt he had invoked the help of the Holy Spirit to subdue the anger I had roused in him, and now believed he had forgiven me once more.” But following supper, St. John reads aloud from the Bible a passage from Revelations describing the fire and brimstone of hell—“Henceforward, I knew what fate St. John feared for me.” In effect, while St. John has professed forgiveness, he points to a future of punishment.
Soon after, Jane hears the mystical summons that leads her to return to Rochester—who has been blinded and maimed as the result of a fire. The reader now observes a character who not only has repented but has suffered terribly, experiencing his suffering as a punishment from God. “His chastisements are mighty,” says Rochester to Jane, “and one smote me which has humbled me for ever.” While Jane had forgiven Rochester long before he repented, out of her love for him, Brontë has created narrative circumstances in which even those “Christian” readers who might resemble St. John can forgive Rochester, too, and accept with approval the familiar first sentence of the last chapter—“Reader, I married him.”
Embers – Sándor Márai
In Jane Eyre, the question of forgiveness occurs within a romantic love relationship; in Embers, within a friendship and a marriage. Embers raises the question of whether “forgetting” is a necessary part of forgiving—and if so, forgetting what?
The central character of Márai’s story organizes his interior life around remembering and thinking about the exact details of the day on which he discovered he was being betrayed by both his wife and his beloved friend Konrad, who was] like a brother to him. So ferocious is the General’s passion for putting the remembered pieces together and coming to some understanding of the truth that he claims that the reason he didn’t die in the war was that “I was waiting for my opportunity to take revenge.” Earlier, the narrator says, “One spends a lifetime preparing for something. First one suffers the wound. Then one plans revenge. And waits.” When Konrad meets the General again, after 41 years, he thinks, “He’s been waiting for me, and that’s what’s kept him strong.”
If this were a typical revenge novel, an early scene in which the General checks his revolver would inevitably have led to a violent confrontation. But Embers develops along a different trajectory, one that raises deeper questions about friendship and betrayal. Sitting with his friend, the General explores the nature of the love of a friend: “What is the value of a love that expects loyalty? Isn’t it our duty to accept the faithless friend as we do the faithful one who sacrifices himself?” Doesn’t “unconditional devotion” require the giving-up of vengeance? And if one does demand vengeance, “what does that say about the validity of his friendship in the first place?” If friendship requires this radical an acceptance of the faults of the friend, the issue of forgiveness doesn’t even arise. The connection to the friend is a larger truth than the base act. In the context of this connection, revenge, like war, is “pointless,” as the General says.
The General applies his “logic of love” to his wife’s infidelity as well: “Is the idea of fidelity not an appalling egoism and also as vain as most other human concerns? When we demand fidelity, are we wishing for the other person’s happiness? . . . And if we do not love that person in a way that makes her happy, do we have the right to expect fidelity or any other sacrifice?”
Márai makes clear that the indifference the General displays toward enacting his revenge is not simply an effect of old age. The General’s indifference is an achievement. In the presence of his friend, he sacrifices even his burning desire to know the truth about the particular day that he has gone over again and again in his mind. Like the two casks of wine that are the subject of the opening sentence of the novel, Konrad and the General have ripened to a wisdom in which there is only one question: Do you believe “that what gives our lives their meaning is the passion that suddenly invades us heart, soul, and body, and burns in us forever, no matter what else happens in our lives?”
Embers was first published in Hungarian in 1942, its original title meaning “The candles burn up to the stump.” Márai (1900–1989), an anti-fascist, escaped from Communist Hungary in 1948 and eventually settled in the United States, where he committed suicide before any of his books were published in English.
The Guardians – Ana Castillo
Regina, the central character of The Guardians and one of its four narrators, looks at the Franklin Mountains, which separate Mexico and the U.S., and muses:
That’s how I bought my casita, here on the mesa, where I can’t see los Franklins this morning. But I know they are out there, playing with me. Like giants, they take the sun and play with people’s eyes, changing colors. Like shape-shifters, they change the way they look, too. They let the devoted climb up along their spines to crown them with white crosses and flowers and mementos. They give themselves that way, those guardians between the two countries.
With the dividing mountains as backdrop, The Guardians explores many more “opposing others”: the “coyotes” and their immigrant victims, who are exploited as they attempt to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S.; the saintly Gabo and the murderous, drug-dealing gang members; the saint Padre Pío and the sinful priest; Juarez and El Paso (two cities in a “loveless marriage”); the Canadian border, like a park, and the Mexican border, described as “a Berlin Wall great divide”; and many others. These oppositions are the inevitable consequences of an overarching “enemy”—the border situation itself. In the course of The Guardians, we are confronted with lack of access to water, children tested for TB in schools without air-conditioning, floods, gang violence, drug wars, right-wing vigilantes, polluted air, corrupt government officials, lack of adequate health care, workers developing melanoma from exposure to the sun in the fields, spouse abuse, the murder of young women, and the possibility of dying in the border crossing: “You can get lost, you can freeze, you can get robbed or kidnapped, you can drown in el río. You can fall into a ravine, get bitten by a snake, a tarantula, a bat, or something else. . . . You can also dehydrate, burn. . . . Bandits could kill you. . . . You could die of suffocation.”
Early in the story, Regina is shown as a compassionate, forgiving widow who has overlooked the fact that her husband was “a drug addict,” as her mother puts it. (“If the coroner suggested he had needle tracks,” says Regina, “well, I don’t know about that.”) We see her holding her dog in her arms, “rocking her like a baby,” after the loss of the dog’s eye—“You couldn’t blame the dog for being upset, losing her eye and all.” And we see her in the last scene, caring for the child of the woman who has murdered what she loves most in the world and quoting St. Matthew: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” To which she adds, “Easier said than done.”
Between the first scene and the last, this compassionate woman expresses outrage against the injustice created by the border situation and outrage against the perpetrators of this injustice. But the narration itself is calm, describing the violent events after the fact or descriptively, as the effects of the border situation. The reader is led to identify with Regina and to share her outrage—but the calmness of the narration and Regina’s forgiving temperament elicits “cold” rather than “hot” anger. Anger that’s white-hot cannot be maintained. But a stream of “cold anger” can be, through a periodic reminder of injustices that need to be corrected. We may see Regina attempting to forgive, under the influence of her saintly nephew. But we also see Gabo singing “Salve, Regina,” reminding us that just as Gabo’s name comes from the angel Gabriel, Regina’s name refers to the Queen of Heaven, Mary. The implicit suggestion is that “to err is human, to forgive divine.” While offering us forgiving characters, The Guardians as a whole operates to defer forgiveness as it arouses and sustains anger.
This deferral of forgiveness in the context of “cold anger” is a methodology for social transformation. The Guardians suggests that to “forgive and forget” could lead to the passive acceptance of things as they are. Regina chooses to live within sight of the dividing mountains that “let the devoted climb up along their spines to crown them with white crosses and flowers and mementos.” Cold anger in the context of a compassionate spirit sustains the will needed for the long, hard work of social transformation. The value held highest in The Guardians is not forgiveness but a loving heart. As the epigraph from the poem “Gabriel” says: “I can love / But I need his heart . . . / My Angel Gabriel.”
Bel Canto –Ann Patchett
Only the first and last scenes of Bel Canto are free of enemies. Most of the story takes place in the confines of a large house in which kidnappers are holding a set of party guests who have gathered to hear the celebrated opera singer Roxane. Over the course of the novel, Patchett explores how these enemies come to feel a depth of affection for one another and an openness to love that many of them had never felt earlier in their lives.
Even if the novel is approached as an implausible fable, the characters in the novel can be explored as embodiments of how love develops and then expands the possibilities for joy. The extraordinary beauty of Roxane’s voice creates a momentary connection among the enemies that is larger than the politics that has created the situation in the first place. A game of chess, with its repeated rituals of respect for the other and its intense symbolization of conflict, helps to alleviate pain and provide a mode of relating that develops real respect over time. The instinct to teach young people engenders caring in the old and gratitude in the young. The nurturing of talent opens the doors of appreciation in all who observe the transformation of a young soldier into a brilliant singer. In the stalemate between the hostages and the kidnappers, everyone has time to observe. And observation itself eventually leads to appreciation. When challenges arise, the characters must work together—and when they do, they discover and appreciate specific talents in one another. When the enemies allow themselves to go into the garden, nature itself, like music, provides a common ground for appreciation and joy. Hierarchy breaks down, and when it does, varieties of love have room to grow. When the Vice President begins to take responsibility for cleaning the house, he comes to appreciate the work his servants have done for him, work that he never noticed before.
Bel Canto can also be approached as an extreme case of the Stockholm syndrome, a condition in which hostages begin to identify with their captors. But reading the novel in this light raises a question about whether this commonly observed syndrome is not so much an aberration as it is the natural condition of human beings left in close proximity to one another in a situation in which they have to depend on others and have the time to get to know and appreciate their enemies as individual human beings.
By Betty S. Flowers
A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell
This heart-wrenching account of Jewish refugees during World War II and an Italian mountain village willing to help no matter the cost, takes a unique perspective on history through the lives and stories of the people who listened to their conscience.
Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
During World War II, when the small Greek island of Cephalonia is occupied by an Italian military force, and later, a German one, the inhabitants of the community find that their way of life is altered forever, and relationships and allegiances are undermined and broken. Through his memorable and lovingly drawn characters, DeBernieres explores how human cruelty and the political strife of war can be challenged by the strength of love, reflecting on what it means to be an enemy or an ally, and how love can become a mechanism for forgiveness in the midst of great turmoil and human suffering.
Resistance by Owen Sheers
In this alternate WWII history novel, a small community of Welsh women, isolated from the rest of the world during a severe winter, must survive without their menfolk who have disappeared. A contingent of German soldiers come into the valley and the women must come to terms with their presence and depend upon their help to survive the winter. Each women (and girl) displays her character as she interacts with the soldiers during the winter and the approaching war.
The Maytrees by Annie Dillard
Toby Maytree returns to Provincetown years later, after leaving his wife Lou for their friend Deary, only to ask her the unthinkable; to care for the dying Deary, in Annie Dillard’s poetic novel of love, loyalty, friendship and forgiveness.
Revenge and Forgiveness: an anthology of poems, edited by Patrice Vecchione. (Teen)
Sixty poems, gathered from different eras and cultures, all of which address the timeless and uniquely human desires for revenge and for forgiveness, with suggested readings about each by contributing poets.
Undiscovered Country by Lin Enger
In this modern take on Hamlet, set in the cold northern Minnesota woods, seventeen-year-old Jesse Matson must decide whether to take matters into his own hands to avenge his father’s death. Atmospheric and emotionally intense, this is a portrait of small-town life as well as a young man tormented at a crossroad.