What literature tells us about forgiving, forgetting and vengeance.
Forgiveness is a concept most of us are familiar with. When someone has wronged you, whether its to break your heart or your phone, the virtuous way to deal with it is to forgive and forget. Right?
Forgiveness is a psychological concept, enshrined in religion and foisted upon us as a positive characteristic by society. From the Bible to Pride and Prejudice, betrayal and forgiveness are common literary themes that demonstrate the character’s natures or act as a lesson for readers.
Literature teaches us that in order to heal, those who have suffered should forgive and those looking for absolution should be forgiven. As Miguel de Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote de la Mancha, “Let us forget and forgive injuries.”
The human race has long learned moral conduct through oral and written history and learning to forgive is no different. Psychologist Robert Enright defines forgiveness as a combination of cognition, affect, and behaviour, in which negative thoughts, feelings, and actions are replaced with more positive ones.
Through texts like the Bible, we have been taught that forgiveness is a liberator, from our shortcomings and the actions of others. The opposite of forgiveness: being vengeful, petty or small minded. The word itself can be traced from Latin origins; to give up desire or power to punish.
There’s a societal element at play here too. In collectivistic societies, it is common a for a family or group to offer forgiveness to the offender. Forgiveness serves to restore closeness and group harmony rather than confer personal benefits*.
The literary world is rife with characters who show moral fortitude through the act of forgiveness. Is the act of being wronged so universal that it straddles the binary of good and evil?
Atticus Finch, Harry Potter, Cinderella, Lolita and Elizabeth Bennet — all characters who are wronged and forgive as an act of kindness, showing their moral true nature. But more common are those who are transformed by forgiveness or the lack of it.
Shakespeare’s King Lear is a perfect example; a wrong-doer who realises and regrets his past transgressions and asks us to “Pray you now, forget and forgive.” In this instance, one must wonder if acknowledging and asking for forgiveness is the journey his character must take or if he is just a mad old man trying to make amends before he dies.
The Bible intertwines divine justice with holding an eternal grudge when God throws Adam and Eve out of Paradise. While poor Job must endure numerous disasters (his family killed, being covered in painful boils and lively-hood ruined) just to prove that man must forgive God for misfortunes inflicted upon humanity. Confusing messages to say the least.
Literature’s greatest villains also have a common penchant for holding a grudge. Think of Dickens’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, darkening rooms in her dilapidated mansion, wearing her rotting wedding dress, and using her grand daughter in revenge, all because she was left at the altar.
Or who can forget the great-grand-daddy of all evil and lover of revenge, Satan? Miller’s Paradise Lost depicts the fallen angel’s vendetta against God as true maleficence. Shakespeare’s Othello gives rise to another kind of villain, incapable of forgiveness or being forgiven, one bent on revenge through manipulation. The cunning Iago may not have committed murder, but his hands are definitely not clean.
Perhaps it’s not the act of forgiveness, but the concept of forgetting that makes a grudge a reason or full-blown vengeance. Villains are notoriously bad at moving on. Not only do they refuse to forgive transgressions but they stubbornly refuse to let them go, spending entire novels reaping their revenge.
And then there’s just plain pettiness — Homer’s The Iliad gives new meaning to letting shit go, where everyone, including the Gods, can be accused of infighting.
There is the expectation that anything but forgiveness will leave us grasping for meaning, or a sense of finality, in any number of vile situations. Literature perpetuates the expectation that forgiveness is the right way to deal with a situation. The “negative” emotions: grief, pain, and anger all have a place but by choosing to forgive and forget them, we allow ourselves (and our community) to move forward.
That being said, you could always choose to live like a villain or a wrathful god and drag out your vengeance indefinitely. Sure, people might call you petty, but who hasn’t held on to a grudge for longer than necessary?
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“Tolerance and patience should not be read as signs of weakness. They are signs of strength.” — Dalai Lama
- Sandage & Williamson, 2005
- Thanks to Kari A. Terzino from Iowa State University, for their thesis on Culture and forgiveness: a prototype perspective.