Revenge Is Sweet, But Two Wrongs Do Not Make a Right

I struggled with what to post today, especially following the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.  I settled on this post about revenge that has been languishing in my files for some time.  I’m not sure how to connect the two—my musings on revenge and the mass killing of innocent children—but I do know that forgiveness is the only way to get through some of life’s toughest situations with other people.  I know that because it’s something I’m constantly working on.  I’m no good at it, but I’m trying.   I also know that if somebody hurt my two little girls, I would be the first to want to exact revenge.

So, here is what Dorothy Whipple (1893-1966) had to say about revenge and forgiveness.  I focused on Whipple’s work for my master’s thesis, but I wanted to share with you another of my favorite books by Whipple.  It is her 1949 novel Because of the Lockwoods, a book from which we might learn a profound lesson about revenge—two wrongs do not make a right.

Thea Hunter, a seventeen-year-old British girl, learns this lesson profoundly after taking revenge on the Lockwoods.  Thea Hunter’s family has been wronged for years by the more fashionable and wealthy Lockwoods, who commit many wrongs under the pretense of charity to the Hunters, whose father had died years earlier.  Thea recognizes the injustices, and her resentment leads her to uncover Mr. Lockwood’s having cheated her mother out of money and land.  Thea exposes Mr. Lockwood, and the situation becomes dire, with the town’s citizens lining up to accuse him of other crimes during his tenure as their lawyer.  Thea feels guilty for the uproar, causing her to realize that two wrongs do not make a right.

lockwoods cover

The most dramatic episode of turning the other cheek occurs when Thea stops Mr. Lockwood from killing himself.  He sits in his office holding a pistol to his head.  When Thea arrives, driven by her guilt at having hurt him, Mr. Lockwood is startled and says: “I’ll shoot myself while you’re here and then you’ll be involved in this nice little scandal.  How’s that?  Eh?” (304).  He thinks he can make things right for himself by getting Thea into trouble.  However, at this moment Thea finds the guilt that drove her there to apologize overwhelming.  Although she has hated Mr. Lockwood since her youth, she decides that she cannot hurt him again.  She thinks of how his daughters have always been cruel to her, but she knows that losing their father will ruin their lives the way that losing her father has ruined hers.  Instead of completing her revenge by letting Mr. Lockwood kill himself, she begins to think about how the children will feel.  She empathizes.  Consequently, Thea stops Mr. Lockwood from pulling the trigger because she has learned that another wrong will not make her happy.

Whipple’s fantastic conclusion reminds us that revenge is not the right answer when one has been wronged.  We sympathize with Thea.  When she exposes Mr. Lockwood, we cheer her on, thinking, “It is about time he got what he deserves!”  However, the resolution undermines this thinking.  This moral statement on revenge becomes didactic because we learn the lesson along with Thea.  We feel sheepish and realize that we should not have championed revenge because it did not make Thea happier nor vindicate her family.

Have you ever wanted to take revenge on somebody?  Have you ever exacted that revenge?  Sadly or happily, I guess (since this is a lesson I supposedly learned from Whipple’s novel), I have not acted on my acute desires to seek revenge.  I have ideas of it and fantastic plans, but I can never get up the nerve (or the hate) to act on such emotions.  Of course, I’ve done mean things and certainly thought mean things, but I’ve never driven anybody to suicide, like Thea does.

My dad has.  Well, not driven anybody to suicide that we know of, but he has exacted revenge.  He does not remember the incident I’m about to share with you, so he has plausible deniability.  Once, in a mall parking lot, a mean person “stole” his parking spot.  It was a crowded day and he had his young children in tow.  So, when he finally did find another space, he went back to the car that had stolen the other space and let all of the air out of the tires.  This happened over twenty-five years ago, so I think it’s safe to say that the statute of limitations has run out.

Now, our dear protagonist Thea is not perfect.  In a previous episode, she tries to vindicate herself by yelling at Mrs. Lockwood.  Thea is fed up with Mrs. Lockwood’s superiority over her mother and family.  Thea had gone to France, with the Lockwood girls, for a semester abroad.  She fell in love with Jacques, a boy whom she tutors, and is caught seeing him secretly.  Thea is consequently sent home in shame, although in England such actions would not be considered scandalous.  Once home, Mrs. Lockwood visits the Hunters to chastise Thea for ruining the Lockwood girls’ reputations through association.  Thea refuses to humble herself before Mrs. Lockwood and, in a moment of seeming triumph, berates the woman:  “I’ve done nothing wrong and I’m not answerable to anyone, certainly not to you, Mrs. Lockwood” (186).  She continues, “I can’t think of one good, kind thing you’ve ever done . . . . You’ve done nothing but patronize us and humiliate us” (186-87).  Mrs. Lockwood, outraged, leaves their home and refuses to speak to Thea’s mother.

Although this scene tends to satisfy (Mrs. Lockwood certainly deserved a good tongue-lashing), Thea’s wrong breaks up her mother’s only friendship.  Thea’s righteous anger does not result in happiness at home.  The consequence is that her family becomes gloomier.  Mrs. Hunter grows forlorn and depressed because of Thea’s actions.  Thea has deliberately caused her mother and family more grief.  She finds herself “at one of those dread stages . . . when the secret spring that sustains the human spirit goes quite dry” (195).  Thea’s treatment of Mrs. Lockwood is not justified simply because Mrs. Lockwood has treated her badly.  When Thea self- righteously berates Mrs. Lockwood, Thea becomes just as bad as Mrs. Lockwood.  She brings herself down to the level of the Lockwoods, instead of rising above their snobbery and rudeness.

The plot twists and turns and revolves around characters other than Thea, but she is the underdog, the one whom we want to see succeed.  I dare say she does succeed by learning her lesson and learning it the hard way.  In contrast to Thea is Oliver Reade, a boy who tries to court her but has no father, no education, and no connections.  When he first meets Thea, she ignores him, thinking him crude and low class.  He understands this judgment and determines to do something about it.  Instead of getting revenge by ignoring Thea or by causing her family harm, he turns inward and improves himself.  He takes diction and history classes while Thea is teaching in France.  His attitude contrasts with Thea’s defeatist and vengeful one.  We have all heard the old adage, “The best revenge is to live well.”  The way Oliver conducts himself certainly supports this truth.

Between Thea’s guilt and Oliver’s good works, we learn the age-old lesson that two wrongs do not make a right.  The problems that revenge cause are more damaging than the vindication one may feel momentarily after punishing an enemy.  Whipple, described by well-known British novelist and dramatist J. B. Priestley “as the 20th century’s Jane Austen,” has given us a lesson worth learning.

How did you learn this lesson?

Whipple, Dorothy.  Because of the Lockwoods. Chicago: Peoples Book Club, 1949.

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