In commenting upon my interpretation of Lolita as an act of repentance, R. J. Keefe is “heartened by [my] students’ insistence upon apology as a principle that perhaps clouded their literary perceptiveness. In a thousand cases out of a thousand-and-one, saying ‘I’m sorry’ is a moral act that’s both difficult and necessary.” I believe that it is neither, but rather that saying “I’m sorry” now serves as a substitute for genuine repentance.
More and more I have been struck by the rise of the conditional apology. “I am sorry if you are upset,” a person says—leaving the clear implication that you should not be upset, and that he is apologizing merely to placate you. The onus shifts onto you. A particularly sorry example of such a conditional apology was delivered to a friend. After twenty years of working for a company, he suffered misfortune—his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Neither the president of the company nor even the vice president of his division contacted him, offered any help or condolence, sent a card or flowers, visited his wife in the hospital. A few months later, a coworker’s wife was diagnosed with lung cancer. Knowing that this coworker was in better favor with the president and vice president, my friend wrote to them, urging them not to do to his coworker what they had done to him. The president wrote back: “I am sorry if you felt ignored by me.” The vice president wrote to protest. He knew for a fact that the president was concerned about my friend’s wife. Why, the president had said as much to the vice president!
Jane Austen was not impressed by the power of saying “I’m sorry.” Here are three passages from Emma in which the phrase is insufficient to effect repentance, and in fact stands in its way.
After quarreling with Knightley over whether Harriet ought to have turned down Mr. Martin’s marriage proposal, Emma reflects to open Chapter 9:
Two chapters later, as the novel begins its slow descent toward a conclusion, Emma seeks at last to repair her relationship with Jane Fairfax, a beautiful and accomplished young woman—a natural candidate for friendship—whom she dislikes for no reason that she can say. Jane, however, rebuffs Emma’s attempts at reconciliation. For her part, Emma is filled with remorse:
It is not. It never is.