Christopher Dawson – Fiction and the Consciousness of Guilt

It must be written somewhere, among the most stringent rules of writing fiction, that every character’s actions should be justified by some logic, reason or motive. But in reality, the ever mysterious human mind, in all of its as-yet-unravelled complexity, does not necessarily work in such a way.

I would like to share a discovery of sorts in the field of psychology which may be applied to fiction, of the crime variety in particular, though not exclusively. Some time ago, I promised to offer some alternative explanations for strange, antisocial and criminal behavior; some less mainstream ideas as to why an otherwise well-rounded person might deviate suddenly from relative innocence, and commit unlawful acts in spite of their principles. This post will outline one such idea, which was first brought to light by the great Sigmund Freud.

In the latter pages of a volume of case histories entitled The ‘Wolfman’ and Other Cases, a short essay sees Freud draw on the work of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Nietzsche as he gives some insight into a few ‘Character Types Encountered in Psychoanalytic Work.’ Though the first two parts of the essay are thoroughly fascinating and well worth a read, we are concerned in this instance with only the third and final part, entitled ‘Criminals who Act Out of a Consciousness of Guilt.’

Marilyn Dillard, "Red Dawn"
Marilyn Dillard, “Red Dawn”

In the space of a mere two pages, the father of psychoanalysis details a particularly curious mental process which may go some way towards explaining why several of his highly respectable past patients had reported abandoning their moral inhibitions and committing illegal acts from theft to arson. Freud firstly admits to having often dismissed such confessions as far from meaningful, given that the crimes in question had almost exclusively been committed by his patients during their formative years – weak inhibitions are to be expected, he assures us, in the ‘first flush of youth.’ It is to misdemeanors carried out in adult life that he applies a new concept.

The theory is as such: the criminal deeds in question were carried out above all because they were forbidden and because “carrying them out brought with it some kind of inner relief for the perpetrator.” Each patient in question had long since suffered from an oppressive consciousness of guilt of unknown origin, and by committing criminal activities they had given themselves somewhere to locate their guilt. Thus, the “pressure” on them was reduced as their feelings were made rational by their actions.

So, the consciousness of guilt was present before the act for which it is supposedly felt – an idea which Freud recognizes as seemingly paradoxical, but which he assures us is the case, having already proven the pre-existence of a sense of guilt in previous analyses.

Unfortunately, Freud leaves us with two questions which, as far as I’m aware, are yet to be answered. They are:

1) Where does this obscure, pre-existent sense of guilt come from?

2) Is it likely that this causation has any larger part to play in human crime?

From our point of view as writers, perhaps we can be forgiven for adding a third question to this list; one which we must always ask in light of such a revelation:

3) How can this be applied to fiction?

As readers and writers of stories; creators and decipherers of complex characters and plots, we are well-accustomed to the search for reason. “Why did they do it?” we cry when an atrocity is committed. “Why shall they do it?” we ask ourselves as we plan a fictional event.

But perhaps we can learn to abolish those questions from our minds. Perhaps we can remove ourselves from the universally taught understanding that all human actions have their basis in conscious reasoning, and rid our work of cliches who act only out of greed, jealousy or love.

And perhaps we can create characters so real, and of such depth, that they may commit forbidden acts without any prior desires to do so, and without any way of later explaining their behavior.

Yes, the idea flies in the face of the traditional laws of literature, but aren’t rules made to be broken?

Christopher Dawson

First published on Christopher’s blog, Feb. 6, 2014. Christopher Dawson is a freelance writer and aspiring novelist who hails from the northeast region of England. His fascination with all things psychological is evident in much of his work.


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