Recently, I finally finished reading the book ‘The Kite Runner’, which has been recommended by several friends. The novel, written by the famous Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini, is set in war stricken Afghanistan between the late 1960s and 2000 and follows the lives of two boys, Amir and Hassan.

For those who have not read the book, the following part provides a synopsis. Amir is the only son of a wealthy Afghan businessman and Hassan is his servant as well as his closest friend. One of their favorite games is kite-fighting and Hassan is particularly good at catching the kites, as he always seems to know where they will drop. With the help of Hassan, Amir won the first place in a traditional kite-fighting tournament, gaining his father’s approval. However, when a neighborhood bully hurts Hassan, Amir fails to step forward for him. For twenty years, Amir is riddled with guilt until he finds Hassan’s only son, Sohrab, left in an orphanage. Amir decides to rescue and adopt the boy. The book ends on a bittersweet note: Amir plays the old ‘kite catcher’ game with Sohrab, saying the same words Hassan said to him, years ago, “for you, a thousand times over”.

Throughout the book, the story reveals complicated and conflicting psychological states at different stages, from Amir’s perspective. However, the two emotions guilt and shame persist throughout the story. Interacting with each other, the two emotions dominate the relationships between Amir and his father as well as between Amir and Hassan. Though the two emotions seem similar, one of the key differences between them is that one feels guilty for what one has done while one feels shame for who one is (Schmader and Lickel, 2006). Since Amir’s mother died when giving birth to him, he has inborn feelings of guilt towards his father. He believes that his birth is a curse to his mother and to the family. This belief imposed a sense of shame on his identity and is strengthened by the fact that Amir does not live up to his father’s expectations of being a brave, strong and assertive man. During his childhood and adolescence, he strives to alleviate the guilt towards his father and shame to himself by behaving well and gaining his father’s acceptance. Furthermore, the uneasy relationship between Amir and his father triggers his jealousy of Hassan, as he thinks his father shows more love to the latter. At the same time, Amir feels guilty, because Hassan is his most loyal friend. After the terrible thing happened to Hassan, the guilt held by Amir increased but all he did was run away as far as he could.

Readers may wonder why Amir chose to avoid rather than repair the friendship with Hassan. Psychological research suggests that guilt activates the attention bias, which leads people to pay more attention to means of reparation and to form more positive views on reparation-related information (Graton and Ric, 2017). This would imply that the person who experiences guilt is more likely to repair their misdeeds, rather than avoid them. However, some evidence shows that in self-inflicted wrongdoings, guilt and shame are closely connected. Experimental results support the notion that shame usually summons avoidance tendencies within the individual, as people tend to dislike receiving negative evaluations on themselves. Guilt, on the other hand, predicts the approach tendencies within individuals, which aim to reduce harm (Schmader and Lickel, 2006). In Amir’s case, he felt ashamed of himself for being a coward; nonetheless, he simply could not face the truth that he betrayed his friend and failed to maintain justice in the way his father expected him to. For Amir, his shame set him back, yet ultimately protected him from being hurt further (Hooge, Zeelenberg and Breugelmans, 2010). As a grown man, towards the end of the book, he could finally embrace his identity and realize his father’s deep love for him, allowing his guilt to overcome all the shame, pushing him towards redemption.

Instead of just telling a story, the author explored the characters’ thoughts and feelings, evoking the reader’s empathy, making us feel somewhat more familiar to the emotions, relationships, love and struggles depicted in the book. I believe we can all be moved by the novel and even learn some lessons from it, so I recommend it to you!

This review was written by Xueqi Bao and edited by Clara Meyer-Horn. Both of them are members of the Bugle team.

References:

De Hooge, I. E., Zeelenberg, M., & Breugelmans, S. M. (2010). Restore and Protect Motivations Following Shame. Cognition and Emotion, 24(1), 111-127.

Graton, A., & Ric, F. (2017). How Guilt Leads to Reparation? Exploring the Processes Underlying the Effects of Guilt. Motivation and Emotion, 41(3), 343-352.

Schmader, T., & Lickel, B. (2006). The Approach and Avoidance Function of Guilt and Shame Emotions: Comparing Reactions to Self-Caused and Other-Caused Wrongdoing. Motivation and Emotion, 30(1), 42-55.

 

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