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"To err is human, to forgive, divine."
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

Forgiveness is perhaps the hardest thing anyone can do, because the things that truly need forgiving are usually those that hurt the deepest. Then again, has the offender really earned forgiveness? Do they have to? Or is forgiveness for such a sin even possible? Is there such a thing as an unforgivable sin? And just to complicate things further, who's to say forgiveness is a good thing in this situation, or at all?

So it is that this cornerstone Aesop causes a lot of problems to all involved. Storyteller included.

The necessity of Forgiveness and its effects are all over the Sliding Scale of Cynicism Versus Idealism, while it commonly appears as the best choice, it's not anywhere near universal.

The typical aesop is as follows:

  1. Any character with a legitimate grievance who wants Revenge shouldn't exact it. It just perpetuates the Cycle of Revenge and makes them into monsters as bad as their targets. To get true emotional closure, they should forgive the offender.
  2. They shouldn't take revenge... but if they do, it doesn't make them monsters, and is in fact perfectly fine and justified method of gaining Justice. Usually, this story has Anti Heroes or a Complete Monster of a bad guy.
  3. They not only can, but should take revenge. It will not only give them emotional closure, but will be a long overdue public service since the offender is seriously messed up. Besides, the set up for this isn't one of an "escalating" cycle a la The Punisher, but a single, one off deal that may even end it.

The effects of (not) taking revenge:

  • Not taking revenge will spiritually cleanse the character, allowing such things as Redemption Equals Life and a Heel Face Turn on the one spared and (if they weren't exactly a hero) the protagonist.
  • Not taking revenge will emotionally destroy the character... at least in the short run. In the long run they might be better off, unless the overarching aesop is The Farmer and the Viper.
  • Taking revenge does no lasting mental or emotional damage, perhaps even healing emotional scars, but it does morally bankrupt the character.
  • Taking revenge does lasting emotional damage and morally bankrupts the character.
  • Not taking revenge empowers the offending party (the proposed target of said revenge), and the offender will come back again and again, knowing they won't suffer any repercussions for their actions.

Of course, a story pushing the most idealist of these by having the hero forgive and pardon the trespasser commonly has said trespasser indignantly refuse the forgiveness and outstretched hand with treachery. This being fiction, the Laser-Guided Karma from spurning their generosity results in them getting eaten by a bigger fish, shot/stabbed by the hero or a less forgiving companion who was on their guard, or simply choosing to die rather than live with the wounded Pride of having accepted their help. Which, perhaps ironically, makes their death morally justifiable self defense and makes the aesop more like "if you forgive, expect betrayal, so don't bother."

Then again, it's not uncommon for sadistic heroes to "forgive" the bad guy with a Cruel Mercy that makes it impossible to harm anyone ever again.

See also: Easily Forgiven, Forgiveness Requires Death, Cuteness Equals Forgiveness, and This Is Unforgivable!.

Examples of Forgiveness include:


Anime and Manga

  • In one arc of the Rurouni Kenshin manga and anime, a little boy's big brother dies protecting him from some bad guys. The little boy gets the chance to take revenge by killing one of the bad guys (who is unconscious), but is convinced not to: it wouldn't give him his brother back, and it would destroy him emotionally (basically bullet point 4 above). Instead, he should live a life that would make his brother proud of him, protecting those weaker than himself and not giving in to evil.
    • That's Kenshin's view, anyway. The boy was first stopped from attacking by Saitou, because revenge killing is illegal and would saddle Saitou with paperwork. Also, the man, as an underling of the Big Bad, can be tortured for information, which would be more satisfying as revenge in Saitou's view. Saitou is endorsing forgiveness in a practical sense, but emotional closure or spiritual well-being apparently don't factor in.
  • In Gundam Seed, after Athrun joins the good guys, someone approaches Miriallia and tells her that it was him who killed her boyfriend Tolle. Miriallia just walks away, saying that revenge won't change anything, thus becoming the first character in the show to actually forgive a misguided enemy.
    • However, in Mobile Suit Gundam 00, Saji Crossroad follows Aesop 1 and tried his damnedest to get Louise Halevy to follow his footsteps. Unfortunately, Louise ignores him and goes on to exact righteous vengeance on her parents' murderer Nena Trinity. She ends up in effects 4, for a short while until her mentality and moral gets restored by Setsuna's GN Particles, and Saji's persistence
  • In Naruto taking revenge makes Team Ten and especially Shikamaru grow up and get over their grief (although it's largely motivated by finishing the mission that Asuma died trying to complete). It's Aesop three.
  • Monster - the most important lesson.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist had these as recurring lesson. Again and again. Then again, some lessons needs to be always reminded.
  • A certain GermanRoman soldier in Sora no Woto, talking to the Unwitting Pawn who created a Synthetic Plague that was unleashed on her home:

 Du hast genug gelitten, deshalb vergebe ich dir, auch wenn dir sonst niemand vergeben sollte. You have suffered enough, so I forgive you, even when nobody else will.

  • In the final episode of Gundam Wing, Lady Une (having since resolved her Split Personality) offers Relena a gun, saying that she's like a body without a soul and letting the girl take revenge for Une murdering her father. Relena pushes the gun aside, saying they need to break the Vicious Cycle.
    • Earlier in the series, after Heero is duped into killing well-intentioned Alliance leaders, he goes around to their families and likewise offers them a gun. Field Marshall Noventa's widow writes Heero a letter, asking him to stop beating himself up over an honest mistake and encouraging him to think about the future rather than fixating on the past.
  • In Code Geass, Shirley, having regained her memories that Lelouch is Zero, the man responsible for the death of her father, is once again conflicted about her feelings, until she realizes Lelouch has been fighting by himself "in a world of lies", and forgives him. She tries to get Suzaku to do the same for Lelouch. Tragically, she is fatally wounded by Rolo a short while later, and after declaring her love and forgiveness in an Anguished Declaration of Love, she dies. Tragically ironic in that it has the effect of making Suzaku even more suspicious of Lelouch, who he suspects of doing the deed.

Comic Books

  • Luke Skywalker, in the comic Star Wars Union, had his wedding to Mara Jade interrupted by a rogue Imperial who didn't like the Empire-New Republic peace set up in the Hand of Thrawn duology. Luke coaxed the Imperial into explaining his fears, gently debunked them - and then, once the Imperial was just sad and unhappy rather than violently driven, invited him to the celebration. Luke's like that.
  • Unsurprisingly, Superman is all about this, from cheerily recommending Metropolis's reform program to various petty criminals he catches to trying to convince supervillains that if they stop being evil, he'll be more than happy to help them out.
    • His long time science assistant Emil Hamilton started out as a villain and attacked Superman. It helps though that he was basically a nutty scientist pushed over the edge by corporate double-dealing ala Luthor. He was clearly from the beginning the sort of criminal that could be rehabilitated.
      • Sadly, Hamilton fell into villainy again due to a combination of feeling sidelined as Superman sought aid from other science-minded heroes like Steel and forming a crazy theory that Superman was draining the Sun of energy and bring about the end of life on Earth...4.5 billion years later.
  • Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four still doesn't really hate Doom (who has tried to kill him a hundred or so times and is constantly making his life hell), mostly feeling miserable and guilty about being the reason for Doom's turn to villainy, even though it wasn't his fault at all. On more than one occasion, a fight between the two has degenerated into Reed begging Doom to reform, and Sue once baldly told Doom that Reed is incapable of holding a grudge, in contrast to Doom, whose entire existence is based around his seething jealous grudge against Reed.

Film

  • In Pirates of the Caribbean, Tia Dalma and Davy Jones continually tear each other up not so much for their past sins as because they can't forgive each other. (Will is deeply moved watching them, and quite possibly inspired to avoid that, despite the wrongs he and Elizabeth had done each in the film, by asking Elizabeth to marry him during the battle; since They Do, they know they can forgive each other.)
  • In X2: X-Men United, Nightcrawler tells Storm that he didn't hate people who were scared by him when he was working at the circus; he pitied (and this probably implies that he also forgave) them instead.
  • One of the major themes on the movie, Super 8 such as From the captured alien stopping his Roaring Rampage of Revenge to Alice's father forgiven for the (indirect) death of Joe's mother.
  • In Spider-Man 3, Spider-man goes on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge on Sandman when he discovered he was the one who shot Ben Parker. But by the end of the film, Sandman explained that Ben talked him out of taking his car at gunpoint, but his partner caused him to shoot Ben by accident, and deeply regrets it every night. After hearing all that Spidy forgives him.

Literature

  • From Temple of the Winds, you get the fourth Wizard's Rule: "There is magic in sincere forgiveness; in the forgiveness you give, but more so in the forgiveness you receive."
    • This valuable lesson is promptly forgotten in subsequent books; or more precisely, the protagonists never attempt to apply it to anyone besides one another.
  • In The Bible, a woman who had committed adultery, which Jewish law of the time demanded being stoned to death, was brought before Jesus, who was asked what should be done to the woman. Jesus replied, "Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone." Slowly the mob left. Finally, Jesus, who canonically was without sin, didn't throw a stone, and instead sent the woman on her way with the advice, "Go now, and sin no more."
    • To be honest, most of the New Testament was all about this, really.
  • In the Irish medieval epic Voyage of Maeldun, the hero hears of his father's death and set out to avenge it. He gets lost at sea, and at the end is directed home by a wise hermit, who forbids him to take his revenge because God has preserved him in his perils at sea.
    • Alfred Lord Tennyson did a poem "The Voyage of Maeldune" on it. The hermit cites the Cycle of Revenge for why he should give it up.
  • In Rick Cook's Limbo System, when humans are held prisoner by aliens, the priest among them discusses philosophy with prisoner aliens. At one point, he says that people must especially love those who have wronged them, and an alien is delighted with the concept: by loving them, you have freed yourself from bondage to them.
  • In Memory Sorrow And Thorn, forgiveness is literally the Spanner in the Works that unravels the Storm King's plan to unmake the world of Osten Ard. Specifically, his power is drawn in large part from the endless reservoir of hate and fear that he's inspired among mortals. When two of those mortals who are the most critical to his plan suddenly choose to give up their hatred and resentment, it critically weakens him just long enough for his mortal host to be slain.
  • In John C. Wright's Titans of Chaos, Amelia is told to speak the word and the universe will be destroyed in Revenge for her killing. It is, it turns out, a Secret Test of Character; when she does not speak, they proclaim she forgives her killers and shows that a human can make correct moral judgments. Later, Quentin manages to nullify a Curse against him for killing Lamia by forgiving her for the injuries she did him.
  • Harry Potter: this is Dumbledore's specialty. Other characters even accuse him of being too willing to forgive. Justified by his backstory revealed in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows.
    • The Harry Potter series in general has a strong Power of Love and forgiveness Aesop. There's Snape spying for Dumbledore because he was in love with Lily Evans, Narcissa Malfoy lying to Voldemort to protect Draco, Regulus Black trying to destroy a horcrux, Kreacher changing his allegiance when he found out what Regulus did, Percy Weasley realizing the Ministry was corrupt and reuiniting with his family ... just about every antagonist that was more than just a Mook did some form of Heel Face Turn, aside from the Complete Monsters.
  • Someone Elses War: A Muslim boy living in a landlocked country where Christian extremists reign supreme. He loses his entire family and most of his friends to the war. And still he learns how to forgive the people who took them away.

Live Action TV

  • The recurring theme in Battlestar Galactica Reimagined is that the cycle of revenge between man and machine is perpetuated because neither is capable of forgiveness, season 4 seems to be building up to an alliance between humans and rebel Cylons that may be capable of breaking the cycle. As of the end of the series Roslin forgives Baltar and lets him live (and keeps his terrible secret, no less). Not only does it help her heal emotionally, it also helped cement the rebel Cylon/Colonial alliance and ensure their mutual survival. So all in all, aesop 1 and bullet point 1. Which is surprising considering the tone of the series.
  • This is shown fully in the end of series 3 of the new Doctor Who. After being imprisoned, humiliated and tormented for a year, not to mention seeing the Earth decimated (literally), the Doctor disarms the Master, corners him and says that the Master knows what happens now. He says "I forgive you".
  • In Babylon 5 A Late Delivery From Avalon Very heartwarmingly shown between David Mc Cantyre "King Arthur" and Delenn. That is the soldier who had fired the shot that killed Dukhat and the Satai who had ordered the Minbari declaration of war.

Music

  • "The Heart of the Matter" by Don Henley.

Theater

  • In Dorothy L. Sayers' The Emperor Constantine, Constantine discusses with his mother how he had pardoned but not forgiven his enemies before. He realizes that he may not pardon his wife's treachery, but he must forgive her.

Video Games

  • Castlevania has this pop up occasionally, starting with Symphony of the Night.
  • Bioshock 2 lets the player practice this with a few characters, notably Grace Holloway (who Sinclair tells you is merely a misguided old lady who loves Eleanor as much as you do) and Stanley Poole (who Eleanor tells you is responsible for you two becoming what you are). Your actions will ultimately influence whether or not Eleanor chooses to save her mother or kill her.
  • Aribeth can be looking for it by the end of Neverwinter Nights. Of course, events revealed in Hordes of the Underdark indicate that she didn't get it on the material plane, and her quest through the Hells has been a continuation.
  • Another one from BioWare: This is the end of Carth's arc in Knights of the Old Republic. He gets to have the violent kind of revenge and realizes it brought him no peace at all. Even though he's got a laundry list of reasons to want revenege against the Player Character for his / her actions as Revan, he decides the path of forgiveness is the only way either of them will have peace.
  • Forgiveness tends to be the Paragon option in Mass Effect 2. A specific example is pushing Garrus towards forgiving Sidonis in his loyalty mission.
  • Chrono Trigger presents a particularly mixed example when Janus aka Magus offers to join your party. By this point, Janus is responsible for killing Glenn's mentor, permanently shapeshifting Glenn into a frog monster, leading a war against humanity to further his own (noble but misguided) ends, and trying to kill the party. Glenn then steps forward indignantly, Janus says that they must move on, and the player must choose whether he decides to go one-on-one with his hated rival once and for all or let it drop forever.
  • Forgiveness is a theme that is relevant for Presea in Tales of Symphonia. She finds out that Regal was the one who killed her sister Alicia around the same time that she learns that Alicia turned into a monster and begged Regal to kill her. She decides to continue to fight alongside him in spite of that fact, and her personal trial in Welgaia involves her finally letting go of her resentment toward Regal and Altessa, the latter of whom had experimented on her.

Web Comics

Western Animation

  • A common premise for entire stories in children's animation is that a character will commit some accidental offense, such as breaking another character's toy, etc. The other character knows that it was an accident, but is still hurt and can't bring himself/herself to forgive. The character that had the accident may do chores or favors to try to get the character that feels wronged to forgive them. The story ends with the character eventually finding it in their heart to forgive the other character. The original problem may or may not be resolved.
    • Franklin had a story called "Franklin Forgives" in which Franklin's sister Harriet accidentally knocks the bowl of Franklin's goldfish, Goldie, into the water. Franklin is devastated and angry with Harriet. She tries various ways to make it up to him, but he eventually realizes how he would feel if he lost her when she tries to go search for the fish on her own.
    • In the story "Forgive Me Not" of PB and J Otter, Pinch accidentally rips Jelly's favorite cape. She keeps doing Jelly's chores, but Jelly won't forgive her. When Jelly accidentally breaks Aunt Nanner's sunglasses, Aunt Nanner forgives her and she realizes that she needs to do the same for Pinch.
    • In "The Grudge Won't Budge" story of Dragon Tales, Zak is mad at Wheezie for breaking his snoot flute. His anger and unwillingness to forgive is represented by a furry Grudge that actually clings on to him and won't go away until he can bring himself to forgive Wheezie. The Grudge talks to him in a wheedling voice, encouraging him to hold on to his anger and feelings of having been wronged.
    • In "Playtime at Tolee's" on Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, Rintoo accidentally rips Tolee's painting. Even though he fixes it so that it's as good as new, Tolee won't forgive him. Then, Tolee learns that "When someone says they're sorry / Tell them that's okay so that they won't feel bad."
    • Adventures from the Book of Virtues has an episode called "Responsibility", in which Zach accidentally challenges Annie to race with him while bicycling. This causes Annie's new bike to crash into a rock in the ground during their race, so she falls off, along with two cakes that Annie's mom has baked for her at a bakery to deliver, and slides down a cliff. But then Socrates the bobcat swoops in and saves Annie from getting killed, although Annie's new bike gets wrecked, and the cakes fall on both her and Sock. Realizing that her bike and cakes were destroyed, Annie gets mad at Zach for prompting her to race with him, but Zach keeps telling her that he didn't ask her to race, which leads to an argument between both of them. Later on, at the end, Annie forgives Zach, and goes back to the bakery with him to bake a new cake, while her bike is being repaired.
  • Obligatory Avatar: The Last Airbender example: Katara was the last of the Gaang to forgive Zuko because he had personally hurt her with his betrayal in Ba Sing Se, but after he helped her find her mother's killer, she forgave him. In regards to Katara finding her mother's killer: when she does, she's a heartbeat away from skewering him with rain-bent-into-icicles; when she sees the cowardly shell of a man he (still) is she spares him, but does not forgive him.
  • Meet the Robinsons deserves a mention from the Arc Words of "Keep moving forward." Considered an inversion because after Goob woke up late thanks to Lewis and causes him to lose the game, his teammates (after beating him up for losing) eventually forgot and forgave him for it. But not Goob, his grudge prevented him from being adopted, and grew up to become The Bowler Hat Guy.
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