Sunday, 25 March 2012

Is guilt your source of sorrow?

Atonement, Ian McEwan
As Nicholas Rowe said, “Guilt is the source of sorrow, 'tis the fiend, Th' avenging fiend, that follows us behind, With whips and stings.”  Yet it can have a healthy place  in the psyche.  If it’s the little voice that cautions you to follow your heart, rather than your will, it can be beneficial.  If it prods you to make amends, where you can, the outcome can be successful.  But if there really is nothing to be done, and the past is long gone, guilt can be toxic. 
When the act that causes guilt is over and done with, what to do?  Do you spend your whole life attempting to make amends?  In McEwans’s Atonement, a child misinterprets her adult sister’s sexuality and  tells a lie that devastates the sister and fiancé.  Although the child is coerced into telling the lie by determined and powerful adults, she never recovers from what she had done.  The story tracks  “How guilt refined the methods of self-torture, threading the beads of detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime.” 

This novel set in England is along the lines of Upstairs, Downstairs, and Downton Abbey, with the wealthy trodding on the backs of the poor.  The people who should be remorseful aren’t.  Their lives seem richly rewarding.  We aren’t told.  But our compassion goes to the imaginative little girl, who was easily manipulated by the powerful adults who should have known better.  As far as bibliotherapy, or literature therapy, is concerned, this could be a helpful read for the person who can’t stop the lashings of mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  What the innocent little girl did was horrendous, and the lives she smashed with her naive lie could never be repaired.  But we can forgive the girl who can’t forgive herself.  Hopefully you can also find some forgiveness if you tackle this excellent read.


  1. Kathleen Page PhD28 March 2012 at 07:40

    As a therapist, this book intrigues me. I find that guilt often drives us to lead an unfulfilling life as means of balancing out (or atoning) for real or perceived wrongs (or sins). The source of our guilt receives no benefit; nor do we. Good choice for "literature therapy". Also, beautiful-looking website.

  2. Thank you for visiting! Please let me know about other novels that can help heal. I'm always looking for ideas.

  3. I belong to a bookclub and this book would be an interesting choice to present as "literature therapy". I think we would read it differently.

    1. If you discuss this one at your book club, please let me know how it goes.