A Long Way Gone

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Guilt and Responsibility Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Children in War Theme Icon
The Horror of War Theme Icon
Companionship, Hope, and the Self Theme Icon
Guilt and Responsibility Theme Icon
Nature  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Long Way Gone, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Guilt and Responsibility Theme Icon

War is fertile ground for feelings of regret and guilt. Although as a manipulated child soldier, Beah can never be said to be at fault, his actions as a child soldier are often at odds with the person he imagined himself to be. Beah experiences himself firing the gun or slitting the throat—because he did fire the gun and slit the throat—and therefore cannot help but feel he is responsible for the pain he causes.

In the first half of the memoir, regret is pervasive. He feels himself guilty for, at various times, not asking his troubled brother what he was feeling, stealing food from strangers and children, and hitting friends out of anger. Despite this guilt, Beah’s most essential condition is helplessness. He is always unsure of what will happen next.

When they are picked up by the army, it is the boys’ sense of their own helplessness that is key to coercing them. The language of the lieutenant at the time of conscription is not that of choice. He tells the boys that they are free to flee, but that the village is surrounded, and that anyone who flees will be given no rations. The other option is to fight. Fighting gives the boys a chance to change their futures, while to flee is to accept their dismal fate. But the choice is ultimately a false one. To fight is to probably die as well, as the boys are poorly trained, ill-equipped, and well, boys. Further, the lieutenant may very well be lying. At other times, after all, the army is shown to be able to ferry people to and from the front, as in the case of the boy’s rehabilitation.

As a child soldier and as a killer, Beah reclaims his agency and even his pride through revenge. Deep down, he is still very much conflicted about killing, evidenced by his migraines and constant escape through drugs. But even if he feels conflicted, he still thinks his actions are righteous. For that reason, the refrain of the staff at the rehabilitation house after the war, “it is not your fault,” only provokes further violence from the boys. They feel not only condescended to, but that forgiveness is an insult: they feel they were right to avenge their families.

Beah eventually comes to find agency in his future and to understand revenge as a circuit that only leads to endless violence. He understands he cannot change his past, but that he can change the fates of those who might otherwise suffer as he did. He goes to the UN as a model of rehabilitation, and later devotes himself to a life of advocacy.

Guilt and Responsibility ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Guilt and Responsibility appears in each chapter of A Long Way Gone. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Guilt and Responsibility Quotes in A Long Way Gone

Below you will find the important quotes in A Long Way Gone related to the theme of Guilt and Responsibility.
Chapter 2 Quotes

I was afraid to fall asleep, but staying awake also brought back painful memories.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker)
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

As we learn more about Ishmael's experiences during the war, we become more sympathetic for his behavior--behavior which his classmates in New York, with their limited experience and understanding, might just find "weird." Beah has been traumatized by his experiences during the war: he's been forced to do barbaric things. As a result, Beah is constantly frightened, even when he's alone in his room. He doesn't want to sleep, because in his dreams he relives his more horrible experiences from Sierra Leone. There is, in short, no way out for Beah--expect, perhaps, to write about his suffering, gaining a distance from his own past.


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Chapter 6 Quotes

Being in a group of six boys was not to our advantage… People were terrified of boys our age. Some had heard rumors about young boys being forced by rebels to kill their families and burn their villages.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker), Junior , Talloi , Khalilou , Gibrilla , Kaloko
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Beah and his companions are trying to find safety. They're not affiliated with any rebels--they just want to be somewhere out of danger. And yet because they're a fairly large group, villagers distrust them. The villagers have heard that the rebels train boys to shoot their own families, as well as strangers.

The passage foreshadows some of the actions that the soldiers of the civil war will force Beah and his peers to perform. For now, though, Beah regards it as bizarre that the villagers would think him capable of killing anybody--he's still just a kid, far removed from doing harm of any kind to other people. It's also worth noting that despite the risks, the boys still stay together--companionship and a sense of human connection is sometimes more important than erring on the side of safety.

This was one of the consequences of civil war. People stopped trusting each other, and every stranger became an enemy. Even people who knew you became extremely careful about how they related or spoke to you.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker), Junior , Talloi , Khalilou , Gibrilla , Kaloko
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Beah's book is about his own personal experiences in the war in Sierra Leone. And yet at times, Beah writes about the country as a whole, and how civil war tore it apart. One longterm consequence of the war was that people stopped trusting each other: once they saw how evil other human beings could act, they stopped being so faithful to their neighbors and friends. The people of Sierra Leone were desperate--they wanted to survive, and sometimes survival meant hurting or killing other people. After the war, it's suggested, the population of the country was deeply disillusioned with itself and with humanity in general: as a result, people became less generous, less friendly, and less trusting.

Chapter 8 Quotes

I felt as if somebody was after me. Often my shadow would scare me and cause me to run for miles. Everything felt awkwardly brutal. Even the air seemed to want to attack me and break my neck.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker)
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

As the situation in Sierra Leone deteriorates, Beah's situation becomes worse as well. Here, he's walking on his own, lonely and frightened. Beah moves through the forest, afraid to stop--it's as if he's being chased, though by whom Beah doesn't know. Beah is so frightened by what he's witnessed already that he's become perpetually paranoid. Even when there's no apparent danger around him, he assumes that he is in danger.

The passage reverses the spirit of the early chapters in that it shows nature as a place of danger, rather than a place of peace and rest. It's as if Sierra Leone itself has become an evil place, reflecting the vast political and social changes occurring within its borders.

Our innocence had been replaced by fear and we had become monsters. There was nothing we could do about it. Sometimes we ran after people shouting that we were not what they thought, but this made them more scared.

Related Characters: Saidu , Jumah , Moriba , Alhaji , Kanei , Musa
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Beah unites with some other homeless boys wandering through the forest. Beah knows that it's a bad idea to join up with other boys, because they can easily be mistaken for rebels of some kind, and therefore the villagers won't trust them. But because Beah is so starved for company, he joins with the other boys: his need for company wins out against his need for safety.

The passage underscores how much Sierra Leone has changed in just a short while. Beah's community is in ruins, and the country as a whole seems to have become justifiably paranoid and frightened. Beah and his friends are assumed to be dangerous, and nothing Beah says can convince the traumatized villagers of Sierra Leone otherwise.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Under those stars and sky I used to hear stories, but now it seemed as if it was the sky that was telling us a story as its stars fell, violently colliding with each other. The moon hid behind clouds to avoid seeing what was happening.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Moon
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Beah describes the moon again, but in a very different context than before. While before the moon was open and inviting, a symbol of the peacefulness of nature, the moon is now hidden away. It's as if the moon can't bear to see what's happening to Sierra Leone--the spectacle of war is too terrible to watch.

There aren't many lyrical passages of this kind in the novel--yet here, Beah uses personification and metaphor to convey the full extent of the crisis in his country. Nature itself has turned its back on Sierra Leone, to the point where the moon--an old symbol of peace and romance--has abandoned Beah when he needs it more than ever.

Chapter 12 Quotes

They have lost everything that makes them human. They do not deserve to live. That is why we must kill every single one of them. Think of it as destroying a great evil. It is the highest service you can perform for your country.

Related Characters: Lieutenant Jabati (speaker), Ishmael Beah, Jumah , Moriba , Alhaji , Kanei , Musa
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to Lieutenant Jabati, the military man who forces Beah and his peers to fight on his side in the war in Sierra Leone. Jabati makes a long, rambling speech in which he urges the boys to support his side--and, moreover, to kill anyone who tries to run away from the danger. Jabati characterizes his position as patriotic: it's an honor to fight for one's country (Jabati claims that he and his forces are the "true" representatives of Sierra Leone), and therefore to run away from the war or oppose Jabati is to be against Sierra Leone itself.

Jabati's words are clearly false and manipulative: he's just trying to get as many loyal soldiers as possible. But because Jabati is speaking to a group of children, and because he's threatening them with death should they try to escape, he gains some followers.

It's also worth noting the clear role that dehumanization plays in Jabati's brainwashing of his soldiers. He directly says that their enemies are "no longer human," and that thus they "do not deserve to live." Jabati knows that children would have a hard time killing other people if they truly accepted them as people--but if the whole thing is unreal, and their enemies are like animals or demons, then killing becomes more justified, more like a horrifying game.

Vizualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you.

Related Characters: Lieutenant Jabati (speaker), Ishmael Beah, Jumah , Moriba , Alhaji , Musa
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jabati again speaks to his captive children and tries to compel them to fight for him. Jabati wants the boys to be soldiers in his army: they're young, but they know how to fire guns, and therefore they can be useful to Jabati. Jabati tries to get the boys to fight on his side by manipulating them against the rebels. He suggests that it was the other side, not Jabati's own, that murdered the boys' families. Jabati could be telling the truth, or not: the point is that he wants the boys to take up arms against his opponents, without asking too many questions. Whether or not Jabati's forces killed the boys' parents, he's responsible for their misfortune: it's partly because of his military attacks that the country has fallen into civil war.

Once again note how direct Jabati is in his manipulation--he wants the boys to take part in their own brainwashing by "visualizing" their enemies as being the murderers of their families. It's as if it's inevitable that the boys will have to kill people--they just have the choice of whether or not to dehumanize and hate their enemies, or else risk going insane, crushed by guilt and responsibility.

Chapter 17 Quotes

None of what happened was your fault. You were just a little boy, and anytime you want to tell me anything, I am here to listen.

Related Characters: Esther (speaker), Ishmael Beah
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Esther, a nurse at the rehabilitation facility where Beah has been taken, tries to comfort Beah by telling him that his murders and other acts of violence weren't "his fault." Beah doesn't like to be told that his actions weren't his own fault--the statement just confuses him further. Beah knows perfectly well that he's responsible for the deaths of other human beings, and he hates himself for it. But he's not willing to lie to himself any further: he's not willing to accept, as Esther suggests, that his actions weren't his own. Beah was manipulated into enjoying fighting and killing--and that's why he feels so guilty, long after his days as a soldier are over. Beah will have to contend with his own sense of guilt for the rest of his life--and simplistic statements like Esther's "it's not your fault" don't make him feel any better.

Chapter 20 Quotes

At the end of these long discussions our faces and eyes glittered with hope and the promise of happiness. It seemed we were transforming our suffering as we talked about ways to solve their causes and let them be known to the world.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker), Laura Simms , Bah , Dr. Tamba
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final chapters of the book, Beah--rescued from his life as a child soldier in the army in Sierra Leone--is taken to be with a United Nations worker named Laura Simms. Laura is leading a workshop program designed to offer aid and comfort to the children who've been forced to fight as soldiers in Sierra Leone. Simms focuses her workshop on communication and expression; she believes that the best way to get past guilt and self-hatred is to express one's feelings clearly and openly (a thesis that lies at the center of Beah's book itself). Beah seems to respond to Laura's methods: he recognizes that he needs to talk to other people about what he went through, rather than trying to deal with his pain on his own.

I joined the army to avenge the deaths of my family and to survive, but I’ve come to learn that if I am going to take revenge, in that process I will kill another person whose family will want revenge, then revenge and revenge and revenge will never come to an end.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker), Laura Simms , Bah , Dr. Tamba
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Beah is sent to speak before the United Nations Council about his time as a soldier in the civil war. Beah's teachers give him a prepared speech, which they encourage him to read. And yet Beah prefers to speak for himself, showing that he's learned something from Laura Simms: speaking for oneself is the only way to feel better and accept oneself. In his speech, Beah talks about how the commanders in the army tried to manipulate the child soldiers to kill other people by telling them that they'd be getting revenge for their own families' deaths. In doing so, the military set off an endless cycle of revenge: each death invited another death in vengeance.

Beah's point, taken literally, is that Sierra Leone must break out of the cycle of violence and vengeance and instead use peace and understanding to solve its problems. His point can also be taken more generally, however: all countries (i.e., those represented at the United Nations) should use communication and openness instead of nuclear weapons and guns, and all individual people should learn to forgive and work together instead of rushing into an "eye-for-an-eye" mentality.