Although Our Country’s Good largely deals with the topic of guilt in the context of criminal punishment, Wertenbaker also scrutinizes the kind of guilt that arises from personal regret. In keeping with this, certain characters struggle with their own consciences, finding themselves distraught by the idea that they’re unable to right their past wrongs. In particular, Harry Brewer is haunted by his involvement with the hanging of Handy Baker, who was Duckling’s other lover. Unable to forgive himself for participating in this execution, Harry feels as if he killed Baker for personal reasons, which is why he can’t quiet his conscience. As a result, he is haunted by Baker’s ghost, a fact that illustrates how difficult it is for a person to escape a guilty conscience. Furthermore, Wertenbaker compares and contrasts Harry’s guilt with the remorse Ketch Freeman feels after he’s forced to become the colony’s hangman. Whereas Harry is unable to forgive himself for what he’s done, Ketch eventually manages to move on with his life after hanging his fellow prisoners. This is likely because he was forced into his role as a hangman, whereas Harry can’t ignore the personal stake he had in killing Henry Baker. By charting Harry Brewer’s decline and contrasting it with Ketch’s ability to move on, Wertenbaker portrays the destructive effects of guilt on people who can’t find ways to forgive themselves.
Although he clearly feels remorseful for having participated in the hanging of Henry Baker, Harry Brewer tries to avoid moral responsibility. To do this, he insists that he didn’t “want” to go through with the execution, refuting the idea that he wanted Baker to die because he was Duckling’s other lover. In fact, Harry goes out of his way to express this sentiment whenever possible, even visiting Lieutenant Ralph Clark late at night and insisting not once but twice that he wasn’t motivated to hang Baker for personal reasons. “I didn’t want to hang him, Ralph, I didn’t,” he asserts, and then he reiterates this point only moments later, saying, “[Duckling] thinks I hanged him to get rid of him, but I didn’t, Ralph.” The fact that Harry is so desperate to prove that he didn’t hang Baker to “get rid of him” suggests that this is exactly what he did. After all, Ralph isn’t accusing him of any such thing, yet Harry continues to belabor the point, making it rather obvious that he’s trying to convince himself that his intentions weren’t malicious.
Unfortunately for Harry, his attempt to forgive himself for playing a part in Baker’s death is rather unsuccessful. This is made evident by the fact that he is literally haunted by Baker’s ghost, who refuses to leave him alone. When Harry tells him to “go away,” Baker’s ghost suggests that this will never happen, saying, “The dead never go away.” He also accuses Harry of wanting him to be hanged, and Harry finally breaks, saying, “All right, I wanted you hanged, Go away!” It is precisely because Harry wanted Baker to be hanged that the ghost will never leave him alone, since it is his own guilt that is really haunting him. Unable to justify his actions, Harry is forced to grapple with the fact that he facilitated Baker’s execution for personal reasons, and the ghost is a manifestation of this internal struggle. When it becomes clear that Baker’s ghost will never leave him alone, the audience understands that Harry is dealing with a toxic kind of guilt, one that will last for the rest of his life because he’s unable to forgive himself for what he’s done.
Ketch Freeman experiences a similar kind of guilt as Harry Brewer, since he too has hanged people in the penal colony. This has turned him into an outcast amongst his fellow prisoners, which is why he wants to join the play, hoping this will show everyone that he isn’t so bad. The difference between Ketch and Harry, though, is that Ketch was forced to become the colony’s hangman after having been caught stealing. He feels bad for accepting this role, but the alternative was death. “When they say to you, hang or be hanged, what do you do?” he asks Ralph. “Someone has to do it. I try to do it well.” Despite this acceptance of his role as the hangman, Ketch is plagued by guilt, afraid that he’ll never find true forgiveness. “When I say my prayers I have a terrible doubt,” he says. “How can I be sure God is forgiving me?” This regret and obsession with forgiveness resembles Harry’s embattled remorse, but it has less to do with self-forgiveness. Rather than struggling—like Harry—to find a way to excuse himself for his past misdeeds, Ketch is primarily worried about broader forms of forgiveness, wanting first and foremost to be absolved by his peers and his God. This, it seems, takes a less significant emotional toll, since he isn’t constantly at odds with himself. Harry, on the other hand, tries desperately to forgive himself, and because he can’t, his mental health deteriorates rapidly. He even falls ill and dies, and since there’s no mention of him having contracted a specific disease, it’s possible to assume that his decline is the direct result of his internal turmoil. As such, Wertenbaker shows the audience just how difficult it is for people to cope with guilt when they’re incapable of forgiving themselves, ultimately illustrating how desperately human beings yearn to be at peace with themselves.
Guilt, Regret, and Forgiveness ThemeTracker
Guilt, Regret, and Forgiveness Quotes in Our Country’s Good
Duckling’s gone silent on me again. I know it’s because of Handy Baker. I saw him as well as I see you. Duckling wants me, he said, even if you’ve hanged me. At least your poker’s danced its last shindy, I said. At least it’s young and straight, he said, she likes that. I went for him but he was gone. But he’s going to come back, I know it. I didn’t want to hang him, Ralph, I didn’t.
Do you know I saved her life? She was sentenced to be hanged at Newgate for stealing two candlesticks but I got her name put on the transport lists. But when I remind her of that she says she wouldn’t have cared.
HARRY. […] I’m sorry, Duckling, please. Why can’t you? —can’t you just be with me? Don’t be angry. I’ll do anything for you, you know that. What do you want, Duckling?
DUCKLING. I don’t want to be watched all the time. I wake up in the middle of the night and you’re watching me. What do you think I’m going to do in my sleep, Harry? Watching, watching, watching. JUST STOP WATCHING ME.
HARRY. You want to leave me. All right, go and live in the women’s camp, sell yourself to a convict for a biscuit. Leave if you want to. You’re filthy, filthy, opening your legs to the first marine —
DUCKLING. Why are you so angry with your Duckling, Harry? Don’t you like it when I open my legs wide to you?
DABBY. You’re wasting time, girl, he’s ripe for the plucking. You can always tell with men, they begin to walk sideways. And if you don’t—
MARY. Don’t start. I listened to you once before.
DABBY. What would you have done without that lanky sailor drooling over you?
MARY. I would have been less of a whore.
DABBY. Listen, my darling, you’re only a virgin once. You can’t go to a man and say, I’m a virgin except for this one lover I had. After that, it doesn’t matter how many men go through you.
MARY. I’ll never wash the sin away.
DABBY. If God didn’t want women to be whores he shouldn’t have created men who pay for their bodies.
When I say my prayers I have a terrible doubt. How can I be sure God is forgiving me? What if he will forgive me, but hasn’t forgiven me yet? That’s why I don’t want to die, Sir. That’s why I can’t die. Not until I am sure. Are you sure?
When I say Kite’s lines I forget everything else. I forget the judge said I’m going to have to spend the rest of my natural life in this place getting beaten and working like a slave. I can forget that out there it’s trees and burnt grass, spiders that kill you in four hours and snakes. I don’t have to think about what happened to Kable, I don’t have to remember the things I’ve done, when I speak Kite’s lines I don’t hate anymore.