Thirteen Reasons Why focuses on a few tricky questions about guilt and blame: how do our actions affect other people, and should we hold ourselves responsible for their decisions? Though Hannah deliberately chooses the 13 people who she considers most closely tied to her decision to end her life, sending them a package of tapes on which she tells each of them how they hurt and neglected her, she acknowledges throughout the tapes that these people and their actions are inextricably tangled—no single person is to blame for her despair. And, while she wants the listeners to understand the ways their actions hurt her, she’s also aware that she’s the only one who can make decisions for herself. While other people’s actions profoundly affect Hannah’s safety, happiness, and sense of self, she also has some agency in her story. Put simply, there’s no one thing or person to blame for Hannah’s death—not even herself.
But when many people on Hannah’s list hear Hannah telling them how they made her feel, their guilt turns to attitudes of anger and blame rather than productive, empathetic actions. In this way, the novel shows how, when characters decide to blame others without attempting to change their own behavior, they lock themselves into a cycle of anger and ignorance. When Clay arrives at Tyler’s house, one of the starred locations on Hannah’s map, he finds that Marcus, another member of Hannah’s list, is offering rocks to anyone who turns up, encouraging people to throw them at Tyler’s window. Clay refuses—he can see that Marcus is doing this because he wants to put the blame for Hannah’s death on Tyler and remove it from himself—but other people who received the tapes before him take Marcus up on his offer. It’s clear that many of the people on Hannah’s list would rather blame Tyler for the part he played in Hannah’s distress than think critically about how their own actions affected her. Blaming someone else allows them to behave as though they didn’t do anything wrong, which shows that blaming others rarely leads to constructive change. In contrast, Clay chooses not to interpret Hannah’s tape about him as her attempt to blame him for her death. Instead, he learns from the regret he feels for not trying harder to reach out to her, and he uses what he learns by watching out for Skye, a girl who he’s noticed has become less confident and present over the past few years. Clay’s actions demonstrate that when someone realizes the important role they play in others’ lives, they can process their guilt in productive and caring ways, rather than turning it against others in the form of blame.
Guilt and Blame ThemeTracker
Guilt and Blame Quotes in Thirteen Reasons Why
“So what’s going on, Clay?”
I repeat his words in my head. What’s going on? What’s going on? Oh, well, since you asked, I got a bunch of tapes in the mail today from a girl who killed herself. Apparently, I had something to do with it. I’m not sure what that is, so I was wondering if I could borrow your Walkman to find out.
“Not much,” I say.
A brass bell jingles when I open the door. The same bell Hannah listened to whenever she came in for a candy fix. Instead of letting it swing shut behind me, I hold the edge of the door and slowly push it shut, watching it ring the bell again.
I think I need to finish them, and finish them tonight.
But should I? In one night? Or should I find my story, listen to it, then just enough of the next tape to see who I’m supposed to pass them off to?
“And you?” I ask. “What did you do?”
For a moment, his eyes stare through me. Then he blinks.
“Nothing. It’s ridiculous,” he says. “I don’t belong on those tapes. Hannah just wanted an excuse to kill herself.”
I let the rock drop onto the sidewalk. It was either that or smash it in his face right there.
Right then, in that office, with the realization that no one knew the truth about my life, my thoughts about the world were shaken.
Like driving along a bumpy road and losing control of the steering wheel, tossing you—just a tad—off the road. The wheels kick up some dirt, but you’re able to pull it back. Yet no matter how tightly you grip the wheel, no matter how hard you try to drive straight, something keeps jerking you to the side. You have so little control over anything anymore. And at some point, the struggle becomes too much—too tiring—and you consider letting go. Allowing tragedy… or whatever… to happen.
“Did you order yet?”
I swivel around. Mom sits on the stool next to me and pulls out a menu. Beside her, on the counter, is Hannah’s shoebox.
“Are you staying?” I ask.
If she stays, we can talk. I don’t mind. It would be nice to free my thoughts for a while. To take a break.
Maybe it didn’t seem like a big deal to you, Zach. But now, I hope you understand. My world was collapsing. I needed those notes. I needed any hope those notes might have offered.
And you? You took that hope away. You decided I didn’t deserve to have it.
If you hear a song that makes you cry and you don’t want to cry anymore, you don’t listen to that song anymore.
But you can’t get away from yourself. You can’t decide not to see yourself anymore. You can’t decide to turn off the noise in your head.
Two people—me and him—one house. Yet he drove away with no idea of his link to me, the girl on the sidewalk. And for some reason, at that moment, the air felt heavy. Filled with loneliness. And that loneliness stayed with me through the rest of the night.
Even the best moments of the night were affected by that one incident—by that nonincident—in front of my old house. His lack of interest in me was a reminder. Even though I had a history in that house, it didn’t matter. You can’t go back to how things were.
The only thing that’s not fair are these tapes, Hannah, because I was there for you. We were talking. You could have said anything. I would have listened to absolutely anything.
How many times had I let myself connect with someone only to have it thrown back in my face?
Everything seemed good, but I knew it had the potential to be awful. Much, much more painful than the others.
“Honestly. Thank you,” I say. And when I say it, I mean it for more than just the ride. For everything. For how he reacted when I broke down and cried. For trying to make me laugh on the most horrible night of my life.
It feels good knowing someone understands what I’m listening to, what I’m going through. Somehow, it makes it not as scary to keep listening.
I want to look back. To look over my shoulder and see the Stop sign with huge reflective letters, pleading with Hannah. Stop!
But I keep facing forward, refusing to see it as more than it is. It’s a sign. A stop sign on a street corner. Nothing more.
I’m walking down the hall.
Her voice is clear. It’s louder.
His door is closed behind me. It’s staying closed.
He’s not coming.
I press my face hard against the bars. They feel like a vise tightening against my skull the further I push.
He’s letting me go.
A flood of emotion rushes into me. Pain and anger. Sadness and pity. But most surprising of all, hope.
I keep walking.
Skye’s footsteps are growing louder now. And the closer I get to her, the faster I walk, and the lighter I feel. My throat begins to relax.
Two steps behind her, I say her name.