Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

(& Shame)

In popular culture, honor may be identified with reputation, status, integrity. For literary studies, honor is an essential value for the romance narrative and its characters, in which good people maintain each other's honor, which is threatened by bad people or villains.

Modern romances often feature anti-heroes. One way to tell the hero / anti-hero from the villain is whether they treat women and their associates honorably; the villain threatens or abuses women, and also scorns his associates.

Oxford English Dictionary

honor [<ME < OF]
1. High respect, esteem, or reverence, accorded to exalted worth or rank; deferential admiration or approbation.

c. . . . Glory, renown, fame; credit, reputation, good name. The opposite of dishonour, disgrace.

2a. Personal title to high respect or esteem; honourableness; elevation of character; ‘nobleness of mind, scorn of meanness, magnanimity’ (Johnson); a fine sense of and strict allegiance to what is due or right (also, to what is due according to some conventional or fashionable standard of conduct).

3a. (Of a woman) Chastity, purity, as a virtue of the highest consideration; reputation for this virtue, good name

shame [<OE]

1.I.a. The painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonouring, ridiculous, or indecorous in one's own conduct or circumstances (or in those of others whose honour or disgrace one regards as one's own), or of being in a situation which offends one's sense of modesty or decency.

2. Fear of offence against propriety or decency, operating as a restraint on behaviour; modesty, shamefastness.

3a. Disgrace, ignominy, loss of esteem or reputation

 b. An instance or piece of disgrace.

c. spec. Violation of a woman's honour, loss of chastity.

For World / Multicultural Literature, these terms are useful for applying a long-standing distinction between modern and traditional cultures, according to which

modern cultures = guilt / pride (esp. as an individual or private matter, or as legal punishment)

traditional cultures = shame / honor (which, according to descriptions below, is more public, inter-personal, or community-oriented)

"Shame-culture and Guilt-culture"

A useful distinction for articulating these different assumptions and rules [concerning private and public lives] is that between "shame" culture and "guilt" culture.

It was articulated by Dodds (1951). Discussing ancient Greek epics and drama, he traced an increasing sophistication in their development, from a conception of the world and the moral order as arbitrary and subject to the whim of the gods, through to a later understanding of the limits of moral responsibility. Even among the great tragedians, for example, Aeschylus' Oresteian Trilogy is about individuals simply caught up in the workings out of the curse of Atreus; Sophocles makes the issue of responsibility more problematic, and for Euripides it resides more fully in the individual. Aristotle eventually identified "hamartia" or "tragic fault" as an attribute of the individual. Dodds typifies the distinction as that between "shame" and personal "guilt".  

Benedict (1946; rpr 1967) spells out the distinction in more detail in her discussion of Japanese culture, prepared during WW2 to help Americans to understand their enemies. She distinguishes between the "guilt culture" with which the West is familiar from its criminal justice system, and the "shame culture" of more collectivist Japan.  

We are familiar with the rules of a guilt-culture: it is after all the staple of crime stories in literature, film and TV. The wrongly-accused person, even someone who is "framed", struggles to demonstrate innocence and be vindicated—or wrestles with his (usually "his") conscience over an undetected crime. . . .

Helen Epstein, “America’s Prisons: Is There Hope?” The New York Review of Books (11 June 2009)

Review of Sunny Schwartz with David Boodell, Dreams from the Monster Factory: A Tale of Prison, Redemption and One Woman’s Fight to Restore Justice to All (Scribner, 2009)

As an undergraduate in the 1950s, [James] Gilligan [NYU Psychiatry] was fascinated by the work of anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict who classified cultures as being preoccupied predominantly with, on the one hand, notions of honor and shame or, on the other, notions of pride and guilt. While guilt and shame have much in common, Benedict argued that they have different implications for culture and behavior. Guilt, the sense that you have done something wrong and should feel bad about it whether others know it or not, tends to lead to private turmoil. But shame implies awareness of the contempt of others, and therefore has potentially greater implications for relationships. Pride, like guilt, is an internal feeling of accomplishment, whereas a sense of honor, like shame, depends on the attitudes of others toward oneself.

When Gilligan began working as a prison psychiatrist years later, he recalled Benedict’s ideas. “When I first walked into a prison,” he told me recently, “I realized I was in the midst of an honor culture.” Since the 1960s, other prominent experts on behavior, including Thomas Scheff, John Braithwaite, and Helen Lewis, have also characterized shame as a “master regulator” of the emotions, and a key to understanding violent behavior. When Scheff looked back at ten years of taped therapy sessions with his patients, he claims he never saw an explosion of anger that was not preceded by an incident that evoked a fleeting expression of shame.

A scene in the 2008 French film The Class (Entre les Murs), a fictionalized but highly realistic account of a year in a multiracial Paris secondary school, convincingly illustrates how the experience of shame can set off violent behavior and ruin a young person’s life. In what might be seen as the movie’s turning point, fifteen-year-old Sulieman, the son of poor West African immigrants and an amiable troublemaker, learns, along with the rest of the class, that the teacher thinks he is of “limited” intelligence. As classroom banter continues in the background, all expression drains from Sulieman’s face. Sometime later he storms out of the class, accidentally hitting a classmate in the face and nearly slugging the teacher as well, an act for which he will be expelled. A grim future for the boy, now considered by adults to be “violent” as well as “limited,” seems inevitable.

Emotions have their own logic, Gilligan reminds us, of which their possessors are often unaware, and therapeutic techniques like Manalive may work by helping violent men untangle their feelings of pain and anger, and develop more positive aspects of their character.

Unni Wikan (U. of Oslo), "Shame and Honour: A Contestable Pair" Man n.s. 19.4 (1984): 635-652.

Honour is a word with a very special quality. Unlike most of the words used in anthropology, it holds an alluring, even seductive appeal. I think its spell derives from its archaic and poetic overtones: it harks back to more glorious times when men were brave, honest and principled. . . . This unacknowledged evocative quality has diverted the anthropological treament of honour away from a concern with meaning in everyday life towards normative moral discourse, among men. In the process, questions about the other half of humanity—if, how, and in what respect they might think and act in terms of, and indeed possess honour—-have been virtually unexplored.

With shame it is different. "Shame is neither archaic nor poetic, but simply the reverse side of the coin--or so the literature would have one believe. Indicative of acts that are disgraceful, vulgar or simply bad, it holds no fascination except in so far as it directs the listener's attention to its contrast, honour. Could this be why those who study honour and shame always insist that they are binary terms, and always focus their discussion on honour, as if it were dominant? . . .