Guilt is perhaps the most pervasive emotion in the novel. Almost immediately after leaving her brother behind, Sarah begins to worry that she is at fault, and ultimately she carries this feeling with her for the remainder of her life. The book suggests that her combined survivor’s guilt after losing her family in the camps and her guilt over leaving her brother in the cupboard directly contribute to her decision to end her own life. Although her case is far less extreme, Julia is also motivated by a powerful sense of guilt (as well as a desire to prove herself to her husband’s family) when pursuing her research on the Starzynski family. While deliberately refusing to cast judgment on Sarah and her death, de Rosnay argues that guilt is a destructive emotion, an outsized feeling of culpability which ultimately devastates rather than redeems.
The question of guilt exists on multiple levels within the novel. At the largest scale, the novel examines France’s role in the Holocaust. De Rosnay shows how fear of admission of guilt leads French society at large to avoid acknowledging their country’s past actions and their complicity in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust. This attempt at avoiding discomfort shows up most obviously in Bertrand’s reaction to Julia’s research. When Julia asks Bertrand if he knows the history of his family’s apartment (which formerly belonged to the Starzynskis) he replies with a laugh, “I didn’t know, [my family] never told me, but it still doesn’t bother me. I’m sure a lot of Parisians moved into empty apartments in July of ’42, after the roundup. Surely that doesn’t make my family collaborationists, does it?” De Rosnay depicts this abdication of responsibility as crass and disrespectful. Furthermore, she shows that Bertrand still feels (or at least comes across as) uncomfortable, regardless of his attempt to avoid this very feeling.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Julia, who shoulders an inordinate sense of responsibility for France’s role in the Holocaust, despite not even being French. When Sarah’s adoptive brother, Gaspard Dufaure, asks Julia why she is so committed to learning Sarah’s story, Julia replies that she wants Sarah to know she’s “sorry.” Gaspard prods her, saying that, as an American, Julia has nothing to feel sorry for, pointing out that the Americans liberated France in 1944. Julia responds by clarifying that she is “sorry for not knowing. Sorry for being forty-five years old and not knowing.” While researching Sarah, Julia has trouble sleeping, she almost loses her pregnancy, and she becomes depressed. By showing the extreme toll that this obsession with Sarah takes on Julia, de Rosnay shows that Julia is overcompensating, and that her sense of guilt has crossed a line into self-destructive behavior. It is clear that Julia’s noble desire to learn about and honor the Starzynskis’ story has mutated, taking on an unhealthy dimension. De Rosnay implies that a healthier path would be for French society to begin to collectively acknowledge the past and accept responsibility for their country’s role in the Holocaust. As an example, de Rosnay depicts in detail the public commemoration ceremony of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, which includes a moving speech by the prime minister. Julia, who is in attendance, notes that people loudly applaud the speech, and that they cry and hug one another afterwards. Without explicitly stating it, de Rosnay thus suggests that such events aid healing by allowing people to demonstrate accountability. The commemoration is a serious and humble acceptance of responsibility, but not an over-acceptance that might lead to excessive and destructive guilt.
Sarah’s guilt is more complicated than that of Julia’s story, and de Rosnay thus treats it with an appropriate amount of nuance. Although Sarah was the person to lock her brother into the cupboard, she was also, as de Rosnay shows, young and incredibly naïve and did not understand the dire stakes of the arrest that occurred that night. Sarah also twice risks her own life—to escape from Beaune-la-Rolande, and to return to occupied Paris—in an effort to save her brother. By establishing these facts, de Rosnay suggests that Sarah’s extreme sense of guilt over Michel’s death is perhaps excessive. However, despite her compassion for Sarah, de Rosnay shows that Sarah is unable to show compassion to herself. Thus, while de Rosnay uses Sarah’s story to underscore the way that guilt can acquire a life of its own and ultimately destroy the person who harbors it, she also clearly implies that, as a Holocaust survivor, Sarah’s guilt is her own and that non-survivors are not in a position to cast judgment on how Sarah processes the complicated emotions that come with surviving such horrific events.
The novel presents accountability as a more sustainable option than Julia’s extreme sense of guilt, on the one hand, and a more ethical option than Bertrand’s willful amnesia on the other. De Rosnay fills the novel with specific details that suggest a deeper sense of responsibility is needed in French society. These details include plaques that reference only “Hitlerian barbarity” without acknowledging the role of French people in that very barbarity, and the fact that neither of Julia’s former roommates, both of whom are French, know that the Vel’ d’Hiv’ was led by the French rather than the Germans. However, de Rosnay also shows that accepting too much responsibility, in the form of guilt, is more destructive than productive, demonstrating that claiming full responsibility and abjuring all responsibility are equally ineffective ways of confronting historical trauma and wrongdoing.
Guilt Quotes in Sarah’s Key
Through the bus’s dusty pane, she recognized one of them, the young red-haired one who had often helped her cross the street on her way home from school. She tapped on the glass to attract his attention. When his eyes locked onto hers, he quickly looked away. He seemed embarrassed, almost annoyed. She wondered why.
She couldn’t bear the idea of him waiting in the dark. He must be hungry, thirsty. His water had probably run out. And the battery on the flashlight. But anything was better than here, she thought. Anything was better than this hell, the stink, the heat, the dust, the people screaming, the people dying.
She held his gaze, not glancing down once. His eyes were a strange, yellowish color, like gold. His face was red with embarrassment, and she thought she felt him tremble. She said nothing, staring at him with all the contempt she could muster.
He could only look back at her, motionless. The girl smiled, a bitter smile for a child of ten, and brushed off his heavy hands.
All of a sudden, every ounce of hope she still harbored within her ran out. In the old lady’s eyes she read what she most dreaded. Michel was dead. Dead in the cupboard. She knew. It was too late. She had waited too long. He had not survived. He had not made it. He had died there, all alone, in the dark, with no food and no water, just the bear and the storybook, and he had trusted her, he had waited, he had probably called out to her, screamed her name again an again, “Sirka, Sirka, where are you! Where are you?” He was dead, Michel was dead. He was four years old, and he was dead, because of her.
“I know they are holding something back. I want to know what it is.”
“Be careful, Julia,” he repeated. He smiled, but his eyes remained serious. “You’re playing with Pandora’s box. Sometimes, it’s better not to open it. Sometimes, it’s better not to know.”
Number 26 appeared in front of them. Nothing had changed in the street, she noticed. It was still the same calm, narrow road she had always known. How was it possible that entire lives could change, could be destroyed, and that streets and buildings remained the same, she wondered.
I cannot bear the weight of my past.
Yet I cannot throw away the key to your cupboard.
It is the only concrete thing that links me to you, apart from your grave.