In August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, Citizen and Caesar are both responsible for a man’s death. Who bears more guilt for that?

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In addressing the relative blame for Solly’s death, it may be useful to distinguish between “responsibility” and “guilt.” Citizen’s initial action of stealing the nails results in an unjust accusation against Garret Brown, who must decide if he will enter the legal system—a choice between incarceration and death. Faced with this choice, Brown decides that prison and a ruined reputation would both be unbearable; instead, he chooses death. Citizen accepts his responsibility in contributing to this outcome; his sense of guilt leads him to trust Aunt Ester and seek to cleanse himself.

Citizen did not anticipate, however, that Brown’s death would result in his martyrdom and, in turn, stir up unrest at the mill. A further complication is the accusation against Solly for burning the mill. As Caesar is the one who pursues Solly and shoots him, he is responsible for his death. Citizen sees his path as continuing Solly’s work, which constitutes a form of penance for his role in Brown’s death. Caesar is the one who actually killed a man, so he is responsible for that action. However, Caesar seems to lack a conscience so he does not suffer from guilt as Citizen does.

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