UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Consciousness of guilt in tragic experience Quickenden, Robert Henry


The thesis is an attempt to understand tragic guilt. My starting point is a comparison of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus with Shakespeare's Macbeth. The question of "guilt" is treated very differently in these two plays. Oedipus' guilt is a result of an action which is discovered, not chosen. He is the victim of a curse which lies upon his family and thus his own guilt is an ambiguous thing. He suffers against a background of a Law which demands punishment and a promise from a god that he shall be "saved". Oedipus at Colonus begins, as does Oedipus Rex, after the decisive act of murder and incest has been committed. But Macbeth begins before anything has been done; Macbeth is presented with a possibility and he chooses to believe that he can make it a reality. We are allowed to see the moment at which guilt appears in the individual. Macbeth becomes guilty before the very image of himself murdering Duncan. In Greek tragedy the guilt is often blood-guilt, a curse which descends from one member of a family to another and may devastate an entire house. But in Macbeth the guilt begins in the desires of one man. Macbeth is left with a personal despair which is different from the suffering that Oedipus undergoes. In the novels of Thomas Hardy, the perspective on guilt has shifted from the privacy that surrounds Macbeth at his death to the social world of nineteenth century England. Michael Henchard is perhaps closest to Macbeth in that he is destroyed more by the forces in his own personality than by the pressures of external society. But with Tess we have a heroine who is "pure", a woman who is defeated more as a result of the failings in a society than by any personal faults. There is little feeling of her having any particular "guilt". Jude Fawley's particular "tragedy" also must be seen in terms of the society that moves around him, its laws and conventions. The guilt is never entirely his own, nor is he simply an innocent victim. The presence of a definite society is hardly felt at all in the two novels of Conrad. Jim is a "romantic", a young man barely past adolescence who is obsessed with a concept of honour which he feels he has betrayed in a moment of cowardice. But he seems to become guilty in a deeper sense because of this obsession; he betrays others by choosing to live in an imaginary world of romantic achievement. Nostromo is also obsessed with a dream: to be a Man of the People. If Conrad's characters become guilty, it is because of their intense egoism, their inability to escape their passion for an idea. In Arthur Miller's The Crucible the guilt of an individual seems less important than the guilt present in a society. That guilt is an illusion based on a fear of not conforming to a rigorous law. We are left with the tragedy of a society which must find a victim to appease its own feeling of guilt. John Proctor is one of the chosen victims; a man who must die to save his integrity. But his death is the result of a web of guilt spread through an entire society.

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