Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Prick of Conscience

guilt--a state of awareness in a character occurring when that individual believes he has violated some moral boundary; an internal sense of remorse at having caused harm intentionally or deliberately to another; anguish for a particular behavior or for a specific lack of performance.

The Holy Trinity of the storyteller's art consists of guilt, jealousy, and grief, any one of which, by virtue of an extended examination, will provide at the very least a short story and quite probably a novel-length narrative. 

 Taken in tandem, The Trinity becomes a richly entwined tapestry of emotional power, well able to maneuver the flintiest characters, say Llewellyn Moss from Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, through an engaging investigation of human experience.

A character feeling guilt is likely to do something energetic to ease the pangs, creating a causal equation, a domino effect of action. For his iconic character Leopold Bloom, James Joyce borrowed a concept from a thirteenth-century religious story, transmuted it into "the agenbyte of inwit," by which he meant the self-inflicted wound of remorse of conscience. The other major player in Ulysses, Stephen Deadalus, was also riddled with guilt for, among other things, refusing to pray for his dying mother at her request.

The reader may come to realize, as readers so often do, that the guilt felt by a particular character is inappropriate, an awareness that may cause the reader to identify more closely with the character, feel superior to that character, or consider the character an unnecessary martyr.

Guilt may be viewed clinically as a religious or social tool for imparting values. It may also be seen as a lever to motivate a character to act or, when appropriate, not to act.

All three arms of The Trinity, Guilt, Grief, and Jealousy, may be regarded by writers with some profit as the numerator of a fraction, the denominator of which is Remorse. A character infused with any one of the Trinity feels remorse for his behavior, then sets forth to square the emotional account, producing story. 

 See Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm, in which Francis Majcinek, aka Frankie Machine, driving while drunk, caused an accident that crippled his wife, Sophie. While considering this excellent, noirish novel as an example, consider also the manipulative power of guilt. Sophie may not, in fact, be crippled. There is no questioning the crippling power of Frankie Machine's guilt.

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