“Performing Atonement: Regret, Responsibility, and Redemption in Gail Godwin’s ‘Flora,'” by Kerstin W. Shands

Kerstin Shands

Essay by Kerstin W. Shands

There is no person so severely punished, as those who subject themselves to the whip of their own remorse.


There are things we can’t undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.

 (Godwin 1)


Wistfully beautiful in its enigmatic crepuscular blue luminescence, the fading photo of a woman’s face in partial profile on the cover of Gail Godwin’s Flora (2013) evokes a sense of a slowly dissolving yet haunting past. It is indeed a vanishing and intriguing past that unfolds in Godwin’s delicate and unflinching narrative. In Godwin’s previous novels, time and memory have been central. In Flora, an older female protagonist is looking back several decades in time and pondering how the consequences of her actions have affected her life as well as the lives of others. Issues of regret, responsibility, repentance and redemption are central concerns in Flora. Departing from legal and theological perspectives, this essay will suggest that in Flora, regret and remorse in particular can be understood as linked to certain conceptions of fate that are essential for an understanding of some of the moral and epistemic issues at the heart of this multi-layered novel.

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Godwin has a masterly way of drawing her readers into what at first glance seems like an innocently uneventful and transparent narrative seen through the double lens of a precocious, almost 11-year-old girl, on the one hand, and through the eyes of her older self, a woman of 70 or more, on the other. Centered on the story of a young girl, Helen Anstruther, Godwin’s novel takes place during the summer of 1945 in North Carolina. Helen has been motherless since the age of three, and her grandmother has recently died. When Helen’s father leaves for Tennessee to “do secret work for World War II,” Helen’s 22-year-old second cousin, Flora, arrives from Alabama to look after Helen over the summer (Godwin 1). After a couple of cases of polio in the area, Helen and Flora become more or less isolated at home, an isolation that is pleasantly interrupted by the visits of Devlin Patrick Finn, a young man who delivers groceries and becomes friends with both girls, although more so with Flora, a fact that evokes a largely unconscious jealousy in Helen that leads to the fatal developments that will haunt her for the rest of her life.

The narrative in Flora revolves around a house that is like a character in itself and around the fates drawn into and issuing forth from this charged site with a menace that recalls that of The Turn of the Screw. The decaying house at 1000 Sunset Drive, Old One Thousand, is almost like a living and breathing being. It “pulses” with Grandmother Nonie’s stories, it has “rhythms,” and there is a room that can feel “resentment.” At one point Helen “[decides] to walk completely around the house and force it to acknowledge [her]” (43). Old One Thousand sits at the center of a family saga subtly related to and immersed in the society and culture of its time. In a larger perspective, the end of World War II infuses the framework with references to the atom bomb and the fate of soldiers. On a local level, assumptions about race, class, and ethnicity are part and parcel of the social context within which the story develops.

As Valerie Miner suggests, the narrative in Flora is “both a traditional examination of conscience and an idiosyncratic künstlerroman.” But Flora is much more than that. Gradually, and in exceedingly subtle ways, Flora deepens into an existential and theological reflection on the meaning of personal responsibility, remorse, regret, and repentance in our lives as related to the results of our actions, willed or not. This deeper theme is signaled from the outset. In the first lines of the novel, the narrator protagonist, Helen Anstruther, thinks: “There are things we can’t undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life” (Godwin 1). Around sixty years after the events transpired, Helen is still thinking about “things we can’t undo” and wondering if the remorse one feels can be transmuted through some kind of repentance or atonement. From the outset, a mystery to be unraveled is dangled in front of the reader: What sort of things is the older Helen wishing she could undo? And what is her part in the unfortunate events that ensue? If something has haunted her for so many decades, it must be momentous.

In Flora, then, personal responsibility, regret, remorse, and the possibility for redemption are central concerns; the word remorse occurs in the first paragraph of the novel. As an adult, Helen observes: “Remorse went out of fashion around the same time that ‘Stop feeling guilty,’ and ‘You’re too hard on yourself,’ and ‘You need to love yourself more’ came into fashion” (152).  She continues: “Remorse derives from the Latin remordere: to vex, disturb, bite, sting again (the ‘again’ is important). It began as a transitive verb, as in ‘my sinful lyfe dost me remord’” (153). Helen reflects, “alongside Thomas à Kempis: ‘I would far rather feel remorse than know how to define it’” (154).

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In What Literature Teaches us About Emotion, Patrick Colm Hogan writes: “The eliciting conditions for guilt, shame, and regret first involve a past action that is aversive and a spontaneous attribution of causality to oneself,” and in this way, one can see all three emotions (guilt, shame, and regret) as “self-blame emotions” (216) that “may orient one’s attentional focus toward memories of the act itself” (217).

Remorse is a valuable emotion that makes a person human. It is important to be able to feel remorse. The reverse, remorselessness, has been associated with psychopathy and an incapacity to empathize with those who suffer. As Jeffrie G. Murphy states in “Remorse, Apology, and Mercy,” remorse could be “understood as the painful combination of guilt and shame that arises in a person when that person accepts that he has been responsible for seriously wronging another human being—guilt over the wrong itself, and shame over being forced to see himself as a flawed and defective human being who, through his wrongdoing, has fallen far below his own ego ideal” (438). Murphy, whose essay explores the role “remorse or apology on the part of the wrongdoer [should] play in the administration of legal punishment and legal mercy” (433), points to the importance of remorse while reminding us that, vice versa, “the absence of remorse may be cited as an aggravating factor” (424) in criminal processes since there is a “common view that the remorseless wrongdoer is worse in the sense of deserving more punishment than the wrongdoer who feels remorse or with the related view that the remorseful wrongdoer should to some degree gain our sympathy as a ground for mercy” (425).

The legal perspective echoes biblical perspectives. Most importantly, the first transgression of eating the fruit in Genesis is punished, both immediately in the eviction of Adam and Eve from Paradise and in the long term in the consciousness of original sin that has come to pervade Western culture. In the Bible, repentance leads to life (Acts 11:18). In Chronicles, God is swayed by remorse and says: “Because thine heart was tender, and thou didst humble thyself before God, when thou heardest his words against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, and humbledst thyself before me, and didst rend thy clothes, and weep before me; I have even heard thee also” (2 Chronicles 27). In Christian faith, wrongdoing or sin can be overcome by repenting and confessing one’s sins and thereby clearing one’s conscience. But as Jeffrie Murphy points out, “[t]he wrongdoer can be self-deceptive or just honestly mistaken about the sincerity of his own repentance” (439), and there is a “perpetual possibility of self-serving fakery on the part of wrongdoers” (440). From a legal perspective, remorse should be regarded with skepticism. As Murphy argues:

Even then, however, even if one tried to impose on oneself some “eye for an eye” suffering as intense as the suffering one has caused, could one ever put the wrong fully behind one and honestly say “now I have made it up, can forget about it, and simply get on with my own life”? Probably not. This may be in part because whatever suffering one imposes on oneself is a result of one’s own choices—something that victims cannot say of themselves with respect to the suffering imposed on them. Even in extreme self-imposed penance, penance of great suffering, one still retains an autonomy that one has denied to one’s victims. (431)

If remorse stems from wrongdoing, fault, error, or sin, there must be a wrongdoer and a ‘wrong deed.’ If wrongdoing there is in Flora, wherein, and with whom, does it lie? As a girl, firstly, Helen feels remorse about the fate of a friend of hers, Brian, who is struck with polio. She imagines that if she had chosen to stay with Brian instead of with another friend on one occasion, he would not have been bored and would not have gone to the municipal lake, which is where he contracts polio. Helen’s remorse pervades the first weeks of the summer. There might be some remorse also for the condescending manner in which Helen treats Flora, although young Helen seems unaware both of her own arrogant attitude and of the fact that her treatment of Flora at least in part stems from a frustration with being cooped up with Flora all summer in isolation because of the polio scare. Helen’s frustration is also due to the fact that the unsophisticated Flora, “prosaic, unimaginative, lacking in cunning,” is unable to pick up on layers of sarcasm or irony in Helen’s speech (46-47).

But the worst, life-long remorse comes from an unpremeditated act of jealousy and desperation that occurs at the end of the summer with Flora. Most likely, it is this act the narrator thinks of when she wishes that certain things could be undone. But is it an act that should be regarded as wrongdoing deserving of life-long remorse rather than simply regret? Perhaps the threads of wrongdoing extend much further back, all the way to Helen’s first prejudiced and exclusionary thoughts about Flora (as when Flora greets visitors at the funeral reception for grandmother Nonie and passes around platters “like she was part of the family,” which Helen only grudgingly admits that she is). The condescending, snobbish, impatient, and manipulative attitude Helen takes toward Flora also contributes to the way things develop.

More immediately, Finn and Flora have key functions in the unfolding drama, since it is Helen’s shocked discovery of their passionate kissing that triggers Helen’s jealousy and her desperate and destructive running away from the house. But if wrongdoing there is in Helen’s jealous and dramatic exit from the house at the end of the story, one may ask from what source her strong reaction stems. A closer look reveals that the wrongdoing cannot be said to be Helen’s alone. Indeed, Helen’s reaction is related to her sense of having been abandoned by her father, who thus inevitably shares a responsibility for the psychological vulnerability of his daughter. The deaths of Helen’s mother of pneumonia when Helen was three and of her grandmother when Helen is ten have aggravated the sense of abandonment that contributes to Helen’s strong attachment to Devlin Patrick Finn. Helen’s actions and all the threads that go back in time indirectly cause the final tragedy, but her father is in fact the direct cause of it.

There is an economic dimension to guilt, as indicated by the expression “to pay for one’s sins.” Etymologically, “guilt” comes from the Old English word “gylt,” meaning crime, sin, fault, fine, debt, and from the verb “gieldan,” paying a debt. Sin thus creates a cost that must be paid. In the Bible, sins have to be expiated through sacrifice, and the cost is often specified in detail. In our own epoch marked by psychologization, privatization, and interiorization, the price to be paid may instead consist of self-punishment and a renunciation of what is essential to one’s happiness. In a passage in Flora that conveys how views on remorse have undergone changes, theologically and culturally, the older Helen ponders our “softer,” narcissistic self-love culture:

When did remorse fall into disfavor? It was sometime during the second half of my life. As a child, I knelt next to Nonie in church and said alongside her sedate contralto: the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable. Then, for a long time I didn’t go to church, and when I next said the General Confession it had been watered down to we are truly sorry and we humbly repent. If someone had really done you an ill turn and later came to you and said, “I am truly sorry,” would that mean as much to you as “the burden of it has been intolerable to me”? (152).

For Helen, becoming a writer has perhaps been an act of repentance or atonement subconsciously intended to pay for her guilt. If her story is a guilt-driven performance aimed towards atonement, it is important to remember also that guilt feelings seldom lead to change but often lead to lies and concealment. Guilt often makes us tell partial truths, or variations of the truth. Helen’s version of the events, then, is merely one aspect of a greater picture.

Wrongdoings may range from trivial events to heinous crimes leading to serious harm. Where, exactly, does the wrongdoing in Flora lie, and to whom is the apology addressed, if apology there is? Who is the real victim in the end? If Helen’s actions stem from unmet needs such as the need for the presence of a caring, accepting, and loving parent, needs that young Helen may not be consciously aware of or understand, then she cannot be said to have full responsibility for the fatal events that have changed the course of her life and certainly not to the extent of being marked by guilt for the rest of her life. The one who has suffered the most has been Helen herself, and for her, remorse has become a constant companion.

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While guilt and shame are different, there is usually a measure of shame in guilt. Since guilty feelings are caused by the thought of something we have done and ought not to have done or of things we have neglected to do that we should have done, such thoughts may make us feel that we are bad persons, which leads to shame. Shame, in turn, in Helen’s case, leads to feelings of worthlessness and unlovability, which may have contributed to her passive turning away from love and marriage. While a sense of guilt tends to evoke fears of punishment, feelings of shame tend to lead to expectations of being excluded from significant relationships. Sadly, Helen has been unable to perceive and address the fundamental needs underlying the burden of guilt and shame as well as perhaps her anger at not having her needs met in childhood. Thus, her ability to resolve and move beyond these long-lasting issues has been paralyzed, and perhaps only writing offers her some relief and a measure of recognition. In a greater perspective, apart from performing atonement, the self-reflection of writing may also bring more awareness and acceptance of her own fundamental needs.

In our contemporary narcissistic culture, there is almost a tyranny of confession, as Peter Brooks argues in Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature (2000): “[c]onfession of wrongdoing is considered fundamental to morality because it constitutes a verbal act of self-recognition as wrong-doer and hence provides the basis of rehabilitation” (2). Until 1215, annual confession was obligatory in the Catholic Church, something that still influences Western society: “It offers articulation of hidden acts and thoughts in a form that reveals—perhaps in a sense creates—the inwardness of the person confessing, and allows the person’s punishment, absolution, rehabilitation, reintegration” (Brooks 2).  Today, in Brooks’s view, we seem to “live in a generalized demand for transparency that entails a kind of tyranny of the requirement to confess” at the same time as “our social and cultural attitudes toward confession suffer from uncertainties and ambivalences” (4, 3). While confession in Western culture has become a “prime mark of authenticity,” confessions may “activate inextricable layers of shame, guilt, contempt, self-loathing, attempted propitiation, and expiation” (Brooks 4, 6). In the West, confession has come to be seen as therapeutic, and the “talking cure” of psychoanalysis “has evolved into a generalized belief in the catharsis of confession,” according to Brooks, who concludes:

It is as if the definition of modern selfhood which began to emerge hand-in-hand with the early modern practices of confession defined by the Church in Lateran IV, and reached their full modern expression in Rousseau’s Confessions, [have] now come to the point where many feel their very definition as persons, as selves, depends on their having matter to confess. Without confessional talk, one might say, you simply don’t exist. (140)

From a wider perspective, in The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, Pascal Bruckner argues that Europeans have been particularly burdened by remorse (in his view far too much so because European guilt, he argues, has become pathological). As for the emancipatory discourse of the West:

What it injects into us in the guise of atheism is nothing other than the old notion of original sin, the ancient poison of damnation. In Judeo-Christian lands, there is no fuel so potent as the feeling of guilt, and the more our philosophers and sociologists proclaim themselves to be agnostics, atheists, and free-thinkers, the more they take us back to the religious belief they are challenging. As Nietzsche put it, in the name of humanity secular ideologies have out-Christianized Christianity and taken its message still further. (2)

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Philosophies ranging from existentialism to deconstruction are “a mechanical denunciation of the West, emphasizing the latter’s hypocrisy, violence, and abomination” whereby “athletes of contrition” call for a “duty of repentance” as the West is perceived as “eternally guilty” (Bruckner 2, 3).

Helen’s narrative in Flora could be seen as both a confession and apology in expressing feelings of guilt, regret, and perhaps self-condemnation. As such, her story in its entirety could be regarded as a performative utterance, a performance of atonement, sought through becoming an author. Nothing much is revealed about the aging Helen’s life except that she is a writer. Helen’s sense of guilt has brought a sense of isolation. Halfway through the book, a cameo of a short story written by Helen conveys a reflection on how things may have turned out on emotional if not actual levels. In this cameo story, the heroine (who seems to be a version of Helen herself) has developed into a loveless, cynical, and hardened woman closed off to romantic love who sadly (or self-destructively) passes up her last chance to connect with the man she always loved. Failed love is the theme of that story, as it seems to be in Helen’s own life. Without giving the reader any further clues as to why or how such an outcome should have been the result of the events of the long, sultry summer of 1945, this cameo scene points in the direction of romantic failure and sadness.

Hogan suggests that shame “involves a sense that one has failed relative to prior expectations. One’s sense of failure is likely to vary in intensity with the degree to which the expectation is bound up with one’s sense of identity,” in particular “insofar as that identity is connected with communal perceptions and expectations in addition to one’s own self-expectation” (217). He adds: “One way of overcoming shame is by addressing the failure, thus achieving some parallel excellence, some compensatory success” (218).

Perhaps for Helen, compensatory success has been sought through becoming an author. Nothing much is revealed about the aging Helen’s life except that she is a writer. Helen’s sense of guilt has brought a sense of isolation. Halfway through the book, a cameo of a short story written by Helen conveys a reflection on how things may have turned out on emotional if not actual levels. In this cameo story, the heroine (who seems to be a version of Helen herself) has developed into a loveless, cynical, and hardened woman closed off to romantic love who sadly (or self-destructively) passes up her last chance to connect with the man she always loved. Failed love is the theme of that story, as it seems to be in Helen’s own life. Without giving the reader any further clues as to why or how such an outcome should have been the result of the events of the long, sultry summer of 1945, this cameo scene points in the direction of romantic failure and sadness.

If the female protagonist in the cameo story in the middle of the narrative is a self-portrait, Helen has become not only a lonely and loveless woman but a cynical and hardened one, perhaps in part because of a kind of remorse that resembles self-condemnation.

Shame, Hogan writes, “is closely related to social contempt and humiliation.” This means that “[s]hame leads us to desire concealment. Humiliation results from the exposure of one’s shame, leading to a combination of shame with social contempt. In some cases, that contempt may not be real, but only imagined. This is not necessarily any less likely to provoke a feeling of humiliation. When one blames oneself for the exposure of one’s shame, then the result is a redoubled sense of shame” (218-19).

Emotions or conditions like guilt, shame, and anger are often signals indicating that significant needs have not been met. In Helen’s case, important needs for acceptance, understanding, emotional security and continuity, trust, and warmth have not been met in her childhood. But understandings of individual guilt should also be related to the framework of a culture that divides people into “sinners” or “righteous” and where norms as to what is right or wrong bring a perceived need for control so that “good” people will not be hurt by “bad” people.

It would seem that Helen’s assumption of an exaggerated sense of guilt has prevented her from feeling that she has a right to be happy. Flora resonates with the words of Seneca: “There is no person so severely punished, as those who subject themselves to the whip of their own remorse.” The lines from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, too, a present from Mrs. Jones that is still in Helen’s possession, say something important about time and fate. Significantly, Helen’s copy of the book seems to fall open naturally to the following lines from the Rubáiyát (265):

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

Once the moving finger has written, it moves on. The moment with all its possibilities is forever lost, and nothing can bring it back. Neither words nor tears can erase or cancel what the moving finger has written. Whatever has happened has happened; it cannot be changed. Since so many threads of fate combine to produce the final, fatal accident, the conclusion drawn from the complex web of responsibilities in Flora would seem to be that it is futile to try to identify where exactly the fault or wrongdoing lies. In the final analysis, the responsibility does not lie with one person alone. Finn sums it up the most succinctly: “Fate is far more complicated than that, and thinking that you’re in charge of it is egotistical and will only make you sick and waste your life” (270).


Works Cited

Godwin, Gail. Flora. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Hogan, Patrick Colm.  What Literature Teaches us About Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Miner, Valerie. ‘Flora’ by Gail Godwin. The Boston Globe, 05, May, 2013.

https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2013/05/04/book-review-flora-gail-godwin/7aMXFUQF1CvbZHxjYnFdzL/story.html. Accessed 18 August 2017.

Murphy, Jeffrie G. “Remorse, Apology, and Mercy.” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law Vol 4:423. 423-53.

Brooks, Peter. Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 2000.

Bruckner, Pascal. The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010.


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