Study Guide

Where Angels Fear to Tread Compassion and Forgiveness

By E. M. Forster

Compassion and Forgiveness

Suddenly she broke down over what might seem a small point. "How dare she not tell me direct! How dare she write first to Yorkshire! Pray, am I to hear through Mrs. Theobald—a patronizing, insolent letter like this? Have I no claim at all? Bear witness, dear"—she choked with passion—"bear witness that for this I'll never forgive her!" (1.73)

Mrs. Herriton is furious with Lilia, not only for getting involved with a foreigner but also for not having the decency to inform her directly. Instead, Mrs. Herriton has to find out the news through Mrs. Theobald. But to be honest, we don't really see what's so insulting about this since Mrs. Theobald is Lilia's biological mother. Mrs. Herriton isn't exactly on the list of Top Ten Most Compassionate People.

"The person who understands us at first sight, who never irritates us, who never bores, to whom we can pour forth every thought and wish, not only in speech but in silence—that is what I mean by simpatico." (3.82)

Tesi explains to Gino what he means by "simpatico," which we roughly translate as compassionate or empathetic. We admit feeling all warm and fuzzy inside by Tesi's description of kindred spirits, but we're also wondering why we don't see any simpatico characters depicted in the novel itself. We mostly just see a whole lot of bickering, nagging and unnecessary drama.

"She, if any one, has suffered and been penitent. She burst into tears when I told her a little, only a little, of that terrible letter. I never saw such genuine remorse. We must forgive her and forget." (5.29)

Philip tries to convince his mother that Miss Abbott is devastated by the news of Lilia's death. But of course Mrs. Herriton holds grudges and never really forgave Caroline for not telling them sooner about Lilia's engagement to Gino. Has Philip forgiven Caroline for her involvement in Lilia's marriage? Is Mrs. Herriton someone who is even capable of forgetting and forgiving? We'd guess a) yes and b) no, not until hell freezes over.

She remembered, though, that she was not here to sympathize with Gino--at all events, not to show that she sympathized. She also reminded herself that he was not worthy of sympathy. (7.44)

Miss Abbott is on a mission to rescue the baby from his terrible father. But when she comes face to face with Gino, she's in for a surprise. Gino isn't the brutish father she was expecting—in fact, he's quite the opposite. He's caring and affectionate, and clearly adores his son. So now Caroline has to decide where her sympathies lie: with the Herritons or with Gino. Has she made a mistake in thinking that Gino wasn't deserving of compassion and understanding?

"Remember," she continued, "there is to be no revenge. I will have no more intentional evil. We are not to fight with each other any more." "I shall never forgive him," sighed Philip. (9.50)

After Gino hears of his son's death, he reacts violently by assaulting Philip and nearly killing him. We don't really blame Philip for not wanting to forgive Gino for the attack, but Caroline reminds the men that this isn't a time for revenge. She tries to draw out the compassion in both men, encouraging them to forgive each other and make amends before more harm is committed. Ok, we do like Miss Abbott.

Her eyes were open, full of infinite pity and full of majesty, as if they discerned the boundaries of sorrow, and saw unimaginable tracts beyond. Such eyes he had seen in great pictures but never in a mortal. Her hands were folded round the sufferer, stroking him lightly, for even a goddess can do no more than that. And it seemed fitting, too, that she should bend her head and touch his forehead with her lips. (9.54)

This moment is one of the few scenes in the novel where we come close to what Tesi calls simpatico, or sympathy. Miss Abbott seems to be transformed into a goddess by her compassion for Gino and his grief. Has Caroline has undergone a spiritual growth since the beginning of the novel?

"I don't know how much he minds—not as much as we suppose, I think. At all events there's not a word of blame in the letter. I don't believe he even feels angry. I never was so completely forgiven." (10.1)

Philip is astonished (and also grateful) to learn that Gino doesn't blame him for the death of his son, and has completely forgiven him. Is it even possible to be forgiving in a situation that involves the death of your child? Or is that the very nature and meaning of true forgiveness—to stop blaming those who are the most to blame?

"I saw why you had come, and why you changed sides, and afterwards I saw your wonderful courage and pity." (10.47)

Philip praises Miss Abbott for her "courage and pity," for her ability to find compassion for Gino's plight. Caroline's decision to "change sides," to fight for Gino and against Mrs. Herriton, can be seen as a sign of her spiritual transformation. Miss Abbott abandons her original mission to rescue the baby (a mission which she began in part to ease her own sense of guilt) and chooses to risk Mrs. Herriton's anger by siding with Gino. In this case, compassion wins out over duty. Caroline refuses to use the hypocritical notion of duty as a way to justify taking a son away from his loving father.

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