A little help from the masters whose works we have read often offers some ideas for our own writing. Regarding the theme of guilt, then, there are three works of classic literature that come to mind: Fyodor Dostovesky's Crime and Punishment, Guy de Maupassant's short story "The Piece of String," and James Joyce's short story from The Dubliners, "Eveline."
1. As a novel, this theme is much more complex in Crime and Punishment than it is in the two stories cited. But, the main character, Raskolnikov, is a student who has a theory about a superman and comes to believe that he is such a creature who is above weak emotions. To prove his theory, he kills an old pawnbroker, whom he considers worthless. However, he does not figure into his plan his own human emotions; consequently, although he has successfully committed a perfect crime in which there is no motive to connect him, Raskolnikov's conscience tortures him and he acts erratically, behavior that eventually draws the attention of the police.
2. In Maupassant's story, a man who is financially secure is obsessively frugal and stoops one day to pick up a mere piece of string, thinking he will have use for it; yet, he is embarrassed that he has done so, and shoves the string quickly into his pocket. Then, as fate would have it, a wallet is lost that same day in the location where Maitre Hauchecorne has bent down. So, when the police question a harness maker, who is one of Hauchecorne's foes, the man tells the police that he observed Hauchecorne putting something into his pocket. Despite Hauchecorne's protests that he has not taken the billfold, no one believes him because he is too emotional and verbose about it [as in Shakespeare's line, "The lady doth protest too much"]. When the wallet is found and Hauchecorne is vindicated, he is so tortured by public disdain and "heartsick over the injustice of being suspected" that he
embroidered his recitals with each retelling adding new reasons, more vigorous protestation, more solem vows...
until he goes mad from his guilt and the refusal of people to believe him because he felt that he must exaggerate.
3. In James Joyce's story "Eveline," a young woman seeks flight from an abusive home by running off with a sailor. But, as she contemplates what will happen to her little brother when she leaves, she is overcome with guilt, worrying that the abusive father will turn upon the boy in her absence. Consequently, when she stands at the dock and her lover calls to her to get on the ship, Eveline becomes spiritually paralyzed and cannot join him:
She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal.
In each of these stories, the assertion of psychological freedom becomes impossible because of the characters' feelings of guilt.
So, using one of these characters as a model and altering the circumstances of what causes the guilt will assist your writing. Utilizing internal dialogue--a sort of stream of consciousness--can be used to depict the thoughts of the main character. Like the three characters mentioned above, your character can have some psychological problem to start with, then he/she commits an act or makes a decision that attempts to solve this issue; however, the main character feels guilt about this act. [Hamlet says "conscience doth make cowards of us all."]
For your convenience, the links below will provide you with a summary of the three works mentioned that have guilt as a theme.
Other strong negative emotions such as guilt are: fear, anxiety, suspicion, and feeling like you have no choice. Situations where these might apply in classical conflicts are:
- Person against society (you against your corporate employer)
- Person against self (you against the consequences of a decision gone wrong)
- Person against nature (you against overwhelming forces of nature)
- Person against person (you against someone with opposing intentions)
Examples of scenarios where these might apply and where solutions to problems might be found follow. 1. You are suspicious that your employer is engaging in illegal environmental toxification through counterfeiting Carbon Credits and must find evidence to prove this.
2. You feel tremendous guilt over a well intended decision that went terribly wrong in its affect upon another person, and you must find a way to redeem or remedy the consequences affecting that person.
3. You feel deep fear because a tsunami is coming while you are visiting Fiji and must help yourself and another person to escape and find safety.
4. You feel like you have no choice because you are being held hostage for secret scientific military information you possess and your new spouse, also held hostage, will be harmed if you do not give up the information; you must decide what to sacrifice.