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Discussion Guide

This discussion guide to the books featured in this series was written by Betty Sue Flowers, Director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum and a Professor of English at the University of Texas .

Introduction to the Theme of Love and Forgiveness

To talk about “love and forgiveness” in literature is to enter into unstudied territory. Unlike former “Let’s Talk About It” topics, such as “Latino Literature in the U.S.” or “Jewish Literature,” this theme has not given rise to a body of critical writing or to papers at literary conferences. It is not a subject of literary studies. If you wanted to read about it, you would go to theological or psychological literature, not to literary criticism. 

For love and forgiveness to be the windows through which we look at literature, we must move from a primary focus on seeing texts as created objects, with their ironies and unreliable narrators, to an old-fashioned emphasis on the stories themselves and on what characters do and say.

Stories are driven by conflict—the agon, or struggle, that is at the heart of so many plots. If forgiveness comes at all, it comes only at the end of the story. The biblical narrative of Joseph and his brothers, for example, begins with betrayal (Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers) and ends with forgiveness, which is made possible only by Joseph’s great love for at least some of his brothers. But love and forgiveness are not the central themes of the story as a whole.

If you functioned as a kind of “anthropologist of the text,” you might ask, “Where is the theme of love and forgiveness most likely to arise?” The answer to that question informs the three sub-themes of this project. Forgiveness arises in the presence of the wisdom of love; when there is love in the presence of the enemy; and when the nearness of death shines a light on what is important—love.

Justice calls for punishment or requital of a wrong. Forgiveness gives up the claim for requital—and even the resentment that accompanies that claim. What creates the capacity for forgiveness? Often, wisdom traditions and, occasionally, works of literature suggest that love is the only force or state of being that allows forgiveness to be experienced. 

 Love, Forgiveness, and Wisdom

     Sometimes time and experience lead to transformation and forgiveness (Bel Canto); and sometimes redemption comes in the form of atonement (Atonement). Sometimes, when injustice seems to happen as a pattern of an individual’s life, a kind of transcendent grace or sudden movement of the universe seems to occur to knit the world together in a meaningful, loving whole (The History of Love).   In time, what appear to be unforgivable personal wrongs, suffered at the hands of a loved one, can seem to work to a greater good (Sense and Sensibility). 

 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

Novels often display the way wisdom disappears in the presence of romantic love. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, the two sisters whose fortunes are chronicled in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, are portrayed as embodiments of these paired opposites: Elinor, the oldest, displays good, sound sense; Marianne, in contrast, is full of sensibility, a quality much prized by the Romantics. 

            In Austen’s world, sense is not simply rationality or objectivity, although it partakes of both. It also includes a proper regard for propriety, a skepticism regarding first impressions, and a cautionary self-awareness of the human tendency to read a situation from the perspective of our own self-interest. Sensibility, in contrast, is a heightened sensitivity to sense impressions and feelings. Marianne judges Elinor’s suitor, Edward, to be deficient, saying that his eyes lack “all that spirit, that fire, which at once announce virtue and intelligence.” Her own suitor, the more responsive Willoughby, reads poetry with feeling, delights in music, and romanticizes the landscape and the humble cottage in which the sisters live.

            The danger in acting from sensibility is that it is inherently subjective. When Elinor confronts Marianne about breaking propriety by going alone with Willoughby to explore a house, Marianne responds that “if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong . . . .” The rules of propriety may be confining and arbitrary, but they are externalized and not as susceptible to wishful thinking.

While the narrative is told from a third-person point of view, the narrator speaks from Elinor’s sensible perspective. Elinor’s implicit criticisms of the excesses of sensibility are underscored when Marianne’s romantic illusions lead to disaster. The novel does not let Marianne sink to a state of utter ruin, however, for after suffering emotionally and physically, she marries a man much superior to Willoughby in character as well as wealth. And Elinor herself, while not outwardly expressive of romantic qualities, has been shown to be inwardly full of sensibility.

Through suffering and an objective review of her past actions, Marianne grows in wisdom to the point that she can both forgive the lover who has wronged her and open her heart to a man of superior character she had earlier scorned. Sense may be “the elder” to sensibility, as Elinor is the elder to Marianne; but sensibility has led Marianne through experiences that change her—the “road of excess” has indeed led to “the palace of wisdom.” Marianne is the character most significantly transformed. It is by observing her through the commentary of her sister that the reader can see what allows love and forgiveness to flourish: the capacity to see the world objectively; the humility that leads to gratitude; and the willingness to open the heart rather than to close it in self-absorption or bitterness.

The History of Love – Nicole Kraus

            Like a Dickens novel, The History of Love moves through so many revelations of identity and coincidences of plot that we never lose the sense that we are in a fiction. And yet, the depiction of feeling in the characters seems very realistic indeed.

            The old man Leo and the young girl Alma undertake a journey toward each other that begins, on Leo’s part, with his first love (also named “Alma”—Spanish for “soul”), and on Alma’s part, with her love for her parents, whose courtship centered on a book called, like Kraus’s novel itself, “The History of Love.” Each complication of the plot throws more light on what it means to be loyal not just to the memory of a person but also to the love for that person. 

Alma’s mother, yearning for her dead husband, fails in her love when she is sad and distant from Alma and her younger brother. But when she translates the fictional “History,” or plants her garden, she moves into the realm of creation, where love is kept alive and even renewed.      

Leo suffers misfortune and betrayal, but the novel he writes in order to survive is written not out of despair but out of love. And it is the love expressed within his novel that leads to a sequence of deeds of love that bring him both a connection to his lost son and also a relationship with another young woman named Alma at the end of his life. 

            Overcoming many obstacles, Leo and the young Alma, each driven by love, persist in their individual quests for the original Alma, the one who inspired the fictional “History.” Over a long period, a quest undertaken for the sake of love may not remove the sorrows of life—but it does create the possibility of blessings that dignify what would otherwise be, for Leo, a sad, undignified, and pitiable existence, and for Alma, an unbearable loneliness. Their actions create a new world, one that leads them to seem as angels to each other.

            While The History of Love does not belong to the genre of magical realism, it does evoke a sense of magic in showing how love leads to creative action outside the realm of the ordinary. These actions, in turn, foster the synchronicities that form the architecture of the novel. As if to emphasize the connection between love and its creative, powerful consequences, the novel we are reading—The History of Love—often refers to the fictional novel of the same name that functions as the “grail” or impetus for the quest for both Leo and Alma. For example, when Alma comes to the park bench where Leo is lying, she is there at that place and time because before she was born, her father had given her mother the fictional “History” and had later named her after its main character. She is also there because her brother yearns to become a “lamed vovnik”—one of the thirty-six righteous ones in Jewish mysticism who are often hidden. In his desire to perform a hidden good deed, he has written a letter to her that he has signed “Leo”—and sent the same message to Leo, signed “Alma”: “Please meet me at 4:00 on Saturday on the benches in front of the entrance to the Central Park zoo. I think you know who I am.” 

In the context of The History of Love, these ordinary words resonate with significance, just as, in the context of the “history of love” in each person’s life—that sequence of acts of love given or received—ordinary life is charged with significance. Seen from this perspective, The History of Love serves as a complex parable about the power of creative love. 

Bel Canto –Ann Patchett

Only the first and last scenes of Bel Canto are free of enemies. Most of the story takes place in the confines of a large house in which kidnappers are holding a set of party guests who have gathered to hear the celebrated opera singer Roxane. Over the course of the novel, Patchett explores how these enemies come to feel a depth of affection for one another and an openness to love that many of them had never felt earlier in their lives.

            Even if the novel is approached as an implausible fable, the characters in the novel can be explored as embodiments of how love develops and then expands the possibilities for joy. The extraordinary beauty of Roxane’s voice creates a momentary connection among the enemies that is larger than the politics that has created the situation in the first place. A game of chess, with its repeated rituals of respect for the other and its intense symbolization of conflict, helps to alleviate pain and provide a mode of relating that develops real respect over time. The instinct to teach young people engenders caring in the old and gratitude in the young. The nurturing of talent opens the doors of appreciation in all who observe the transformation of a young soldier into a brilliant singer. In the stalemate between the hostages and the kidnappers, everyone has time to observe. And observation itself eventually leads to appreciation. When challenges arise, the characters must work together—and when they do, they discover and appreciate specific talents in one another. When the enemies allow themselves to go into the garden, nature itself, like music, provides a common ground for appreciation and joy. Hierarchy breaks down, and when it does, varieties of love have room to grow. When the Vice President begins to take responsibility for cleaning the house, he comes to appreciate the work his servants have done for him, work that he never noticed before.

            Bel Canto can also be approached as an extreme case of the Stockholm syndrome, a condition in which hostages begin to identify with their captors. But reading the novel in this light raises a question about whether this commonly observed syndrome is not so much an aberration as it is the natural condition of human beings left in close proximity to one another in a situation in which they have to depend on others and have the time to get to know and appreciate their enemies as individual human beings.

The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

Section 8: Being a Lover

            Coleman Barks’ introduction tells the story of the 13th-century Afghan poet Rumi and Rumi’s deep love for his friend, Shams. After Shams dies, other friends become the focus for the practice of the ecstatic love that informs almost all of Rumi’s poetry.

            Like the verses in the biblical Song of Songs, Rumi’s poems appear on the surface to be deeply romantic expressions of love directed toward a Beloved who can be seen and touched. But on another level, these poems are addressed to the unseen “Source” or “Sun” that the Lover is led to see through the experience of loving.

            Almost any of the poems can be explored in terms of the way they function as windows into these unseen and larger dimensions of life. A glimpse of the poems in Section 8, for example, gives us a sense of what these windows reveal. The fact that any of the 27 sections would have offered a similar glimpse is an indication of the richness that The Essential Rumi offers.


The Sunrise Ruby

            When the Beloved asks the Lover, “Do you love me or yourself more?” the Lover answers that there is no “me” anymore. The Lover is like a ruby held up to the sunrise through which the sun shines so that the sun and the ruby are one. Developing the capacity to allow the sun to shine through the self requires “a daily practice,” which operates like a knock on a door. “Keep knocking, and the joy inside / will eventually open a window / and look out to see who’s there.”

            Getting rid of the “me” or the selfish ego is a goal that many religions put forward. Even though the paths to that goal may vary from religion to religion, the wisdom traditions within each usually present the achievement of that goal as a form of ecstasy, or bliss.

Water from Your Spring

            “The form of our love / is not a created form.” The deep spiritual love of the wisdom traditions is often compared to water—living water—that the Beloved offers the Lover. Like water from a spring, the spiritual water of love is renewed and flows freely.

You Sweep the Floor

            Like someone sweeping a floor, “the lord of beauty enters the soul” and sweeps away obstructions to our seeing what something truly is. In that clarity, the strength of the heart can take us to the point of wisdom, even when the Beloved is no longer with us. “You live where Shams lives, / because your heart-donkey was strong enough / to take you there.”

Each Note

            Paradoxically, the practice of love results in a kind of radical freedom that leads to both unpredictability and originality. As Rumi puts it, “Don’t try to figure / what those lost inside love / will do next!” And later, with emphasis: “Be your note. / I’ll show you how it’s enough.”

Granite and Wineglass

            The Lover coming into contact with the Beloved is like a wineglass coming into contact with the reality of granite. “You know what happens when we touch!” Presumably, the wineglass shatters, and “Love opens my chest.” Love is the contact that opens or breaks the self-centered ego. “Love / is the reality, and poetry is the drum / that calls us to that.” 


            “The sky is blue. The world is a blind man / squatting on the road.” When the self is broken or emptied of the ego, there is room for the possibility of a larger, more beautiful existence. We develop the capacity to see with different eyes. “To praise the sun is to praise your own eyes.” 

Music Master

            “We rarely hear the inward music, / but we’re all dancing to it nevertheless, / directed by the one who teaches us, / the pure joy of the sun, / our music master.”

            The poetry of wisdom and love is threaded with the image of the sun as the source of life and joy. One of the masterpieces of Western literature, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, ends with the line, “The Love that move the sun and the other stars.” Like Rumi, Dante is inspired to go on a spiritual journey by falling in love. Even though, like Shams, the Beloved dies, the heart that has been broken open by love moves from dependence on the physical presence of the Beloved to a spiritual understanding of the larger source of life (the sun) and the Love that the sun represents.            

Someone Digging in the Ground

            “An eye is meant to see things. / The soul is here for its own joy.”

The Phrasing Must Change

            When Zuleikha lets “everything be the name of Joseph,” her Beloved, then the whole world is transformed, and miracles occur. “The miracle Jesus did by being the name of God / Zuleikha felt in the name of Joseph.” Love is the principle of transformation through which the daily water of life can become the ecstatic wine of a wedding. 

The Guest House

            “This being human is a guest house. / Every morning a new arrival.” Through love, we “welcome and entertain them all!”—even depression or shame or meanness. When the eyes through which we see the world have been transformed, we can “Be grateful for whoever comes, / because each has been sent / as a guide from beyond.”

In Rumi and in other wisdom literature, the principle of love is not something that lies outside us. “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. / They’re in each other all along.” That is why, when we look at forgiveness through the wisdom of love, we understand that “We are pain / and what cures pain, both.” We have the capacity within us to move beyond pain, through love, to joy.

Atonement – Ian McEwan

Between the plea for forgiveness and the granting of forgiveness, there is atonement, defined as “reconciliation” or “propitiation of an offended or injured person, by reparation of wrong or injury; amends, satisfaction, expiation” (Oxford English Dictionary).

            On one level, atonement is a kind of payment for a wrong committed. We make amends by trying to repair the damage we have done. But sometimes, like the broken vase in Atonement, lives are too shattered to be put back together again. In the novel, as in life, when amends cannot be made, another route to forgiveness must be found. 

In South Africa, for example, there was no way to make amends for the years of injustice suffered by blacks under apartheid. But neither could the past be ignored when apartheid was abolished. Some path toward forgiveness had to be found in order for the people of South Africa to move forward into a shared future. That path was created through the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which allowed anyone—victim or perpetrator—to tell his or her story. People who bore witness to their own roles in the injustices committed were given amnesty after their public confession.

Like the public confessions before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Atonement is the attempt to make amends through the telling of a story. Briony, the thirteen-year-old protagonist of Part One of the novel, commits an injustice that arises from her overactive imagination and lack of experience. She sees her sister Cecilia embracing the charlady’s son Robbie and assumes her sister is being attacked. Shortly after witnessing the embrace, Briony discovers the victim of a real attack and puts together pieces of circumstantial evidence into a plausible but incorrect story that condemns Robbie to prison and separates the lovers. Lives are shattered, and Briony spends the rest of her life trying to atone for the story she has told, first by being a nurse under difficult circumstances (a kind of penance) and then by telling what readers believe to be the true story.

Atonement raises a number of themes related to love, forgiveness, and the stories we tell to make sense of our lives. Because we are the authors of the stories of reality we tell, we are like Briony in that we interpret the incidents of our lives in our own, limited way. We are capable of condemning the innocent. We are also capable of bearing witness to horrors we have never seen. Part Two is a vividly imagined story of the chaotic retreat toward Dunkirk in the First World War—witnessed neither by Briony, nor, in real life, by Briony’s creator, Ian McEwan. Bearing witness to unbearable truth is a step toward reconciliation. 

In the story she tells, Briony is not forgiven. But as she stands alone, confessing and begging forgiveness, we forgive her, even if the characters within the story do not. Later, we discover that the scene of confession has never actually occurred except in the story Briony is telling. Her own lack of courage has prevented her—and circumstances thwart a happy ending. So what difference has her story made? 

By the end of Atonement, McEwan has applied this question to fiction itself: What difference does a story make in relation to injustice, atonement, forgiveness, and love? As Briony asks herself at the end of her life: “How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. . . .No atonement for God, or novelists . . . .

By Betty S. Flowers

Additional Reading:

Dive from Clausons Pier by Ann Packer

With exquisite pacing and beautiful character development, Packer ponders the choices that make up a life and the consequences of those choices on others. Exploring themes of friendship, love, and forgiveness, the novel unfolds with great grace, leaving readers spellbound.

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines

A young black man accused of murder in 1940s Louisiana can count on the death penalty, but before Jefferson dies, college-educated Grant Wiggin befriends him in prison and tries to help the doomed man mature quickly. The question is, who learns more

Ain't She Sweet by Susan Elizabeth Phillip

Sugar Beth Carey had it all: beauty, brains, family status and a tendency to make consistently awful decisions about men.  Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again, but when Sugar Beth finds she has no choice, she must come to terms with the consequences of all her bad behavior.  Phillips has written a novel that explores the nature of love and redemption through the eyes of a group of small town characters her readers meet as high school teenagers, and revisit as middle-aged adults becoming wise in the ways of forgiveness and the value of love of family, friends and community

Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

Stephen goes to his family’s summer home in Japan to recover from tuberculosis.  In the year, he spends at the home he gets to know the home’s housekeeper whom he’d overlooked in his youth and discovers some life lessons that change his life forever.

Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

Ghosh’s lushly written, atmospheric story is set in the ecologically fragile Sundarbuns, an Indian archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. Piya, an American-Indian dolphin researcher; Fokir, the illiterate fisherman she befriends; and Kanai, a translator who has come to read his uncle Nirmal’s journal, are drawn together by history, mythology, and language in a poignant and suspenseful tale of love and betrayal.

Hope's Boy by Andrew Bridge

The memoir of a foster child who receives 'adequate care' through the system.  The memoir is revealing on the one hand of Bridge's anger & on the other of his childhood spent working towards forgiveness by his actions which refuse to submit to negative feelings and thus achieve ultimate success. 


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