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The Nature of Regret

These essays emerged from Engl216 as part of a course assignment. As the course revolves around the analytical interface of literature, philosophy, critical thinking, writing, and preliminary research techniques, the assignment required students to demonstrate how deftly they could accomplish this challenging, philosophically-driven task. For these first-semester freshmen students, this was their first experience of, and exposure to, the formal demands of a university-level, academic humanities essay.  And they met the challenge head-on: the essays are clever, insightful, and beautifully written. I am impressed.

--Lorraina Pinnell PhD--


The Nature of Regret
Blerton Mehmeti

 Engl216: Class of 2020

Regret is a fundamentally human emotion. It has, since our earliest history, shaped our collective existence. Regret and its variants – remorse, guilt, shame, and so on – have proven to be an endless source of creativity, inspiration, passion, and determination. In the simplest terms, regret can be explained as an emotional desire for things to be other than what they are, and a dissatisfaction with the situations that conspired for events to unfold as they did. Regret is intuitive. Nearly everyone has experienced a moment of dissatisfaction with past events. But on an intellectual level, the essence of regret is somewhat more difficult to pin down. What gives us cause to regret? Why do we regret some things and not others? What does it tell us about ourselves when we regret? “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway is a profound, sorrowful piece used to voice a sense of regret and discontent with life. Through the protagonist Harry, the narrative expresses very specific forms of regret, each layered inside the other: regret for what happened, regret for what did not happen, and regret for that which would never happen. By drawing analogies with his story, I will attempt to explain a small piece of the nature of regret.

The article “Puzzles of Regret” by Veronique Munoz-Darde provides a fairly precise notion of the concept of regret. Regret may be, in simple cases, “a preference that the world be otherwise, and the apprehension that the world is not that way” (Munoz-Darde 3). She also explains the rationale behind retrospective regret, or regret for the past, delineating a sort of “frustrated desire, a kind of pain which can motivate the continued activity of trying to get” (3). The author points out that this frustration, directed at the moment in time where earnest effort gave way to frustrated desire, combined with the realization that the past is beyond our control, forms the basis of regret. This is artfully illustrated in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”. The main character, Harry, is dying from a gangrenous, infected leg wound he received by failing to treat a scratch he acquired on a safari through the African plains. Vultures linger nearby knowing he rests in death’s shadow. His wife alternately reproaches and encourages him, clinging tenaciously to the hope that he might survive. We learn they have been stranded for several days due to an engine malfunction, and his wife continues to express her earnest hope that rescue will arrive “tomorrow.” The story itself occurs across the span of only a few hours while Harry comes to terms with his death. But his present is laced with a series of flashbacks, a harsh, frank recollection of many random events throughout his life. His mental attitude is skewed, blackened by the taint of death as he examines his memories, reflecting upon the many things he had yet to do. He becomes blunter with his questioning as the story progresses, eventually directly saying “He knew at least twenty good stories from out there and had never written one. Why?”(16).

The narrator in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” initially paints a picture of the simplest form of regret, a regret for things left undone. It is perhaps this form of regret we most acutely feel. “What if” and “if only” form the core of Harry’s introspection. Hemingway’s character examines the meaning of his life only upon the brink of death, a trend examined in “Puzzles of Regret”. “Regret… will distinctively arise at a point at which the effort of shaping one’s life is deemed to be over. One can feel the relevant affect only towards the end of the cycle” (Munoz-Darde 3). This is an important point. Poised between life and death, Harry recalls many moments he deemed unimportant during his life, now placing new value upon them and wondering in an abstract way why he never committed any of those stories to paper. Every flashback serves as a new beginning, a new seed for a story that he knows he could have written, but did not. He laments over each new tale untold and over the lifestyle that led him to such a degenerate state. As the story progresses and as he leans ever closer towards death, he plunges further into the depths of regret, pouring more heavily over his memories as he drinks. He attempts to rationalize his behavior, so great is his regret, which in turn only fuels his depression. “He had never written any of that because, at first, he never wanted to hurt anyone and then it seemed as though there was enough to write without it. But he had always thought that he would write it finally… There was so much to write. He had seen the world change… He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it; but now he never would” (12).

An interesting point in the examination of regret is that regret is, by the nature of the intense emotional reaction, intimately tied to understanding the concept of value. Typically, individuals will show no sense of regret over actions they deem irrelevant or insignificant. One would not likely feel regret over the life misfortunes of a passing stranger. But by comparison, an important decision such as marriage or education is the cause of regret for a great many people because they place incredible value on such societal norms and the impact those norms hold on their lives. And indeed, Harry’s initial, regretful memories involve stories about the dead of winter, the harsh times when the basic things in life—currency, shelter, and food—are at a premium. He remembers the suicide of Herr Lent who gambled his money away during the winter, every penny to his name. He remembers an escaped convict seeking asylum from a driving blizzard, bloody footsteps tramped through the snow. He recalls his time in the First World War, the scenes he had witnessed of butchery and massacre.

Having established these basic aspects of regret—regret for things left undone, and the concept of value being attached to regret—it then becomes more important to distinguish between regret for the past and regret for the future. Regret for the past is based upon regret for actions taken or, quite commonly, actions not taken, or perhaps even both. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, Harry, while he lies dying, experiences regret for many of the things he has done. He regrets his lavish, wealth-dependent lifestyle and his carelessness with women. He regrets his time in the war and the time he spent wasting his life away, he regrets all the degeneracy he has allowed himself to slip into. At the same time, he regrets many of the things he left undone. He regrets the lover he let slip away. He regrets having never written many of these stories. He regrets having allowed himself to “destroy his talent by not using it.” He explicitly states his regret for his inaction, saying that it was “never what he had done, but always what he could do.”

Harry’s regret for the future, however, is expressed only tangentially. He fails to concern himself directly with what may come of him, of what his legacy might hold, or what specific events he may miss out on in the future. He wallows in pity for his shortcomings and his failings, bemoaning what the future will never hold for him only briefly between mental interludes. He thinks only of his books unwritten and words unspoken, showing little in the way of the mental anguish one would expect to characterize regret over a specific action or inaction. Instead, we see that he thinks only with a mild, brash indifference that he won’t have the chance to correct these wrongs, to do the one thing he felt he should have done.

All in all, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” paints a bleak picture of regret. In Harry, we see the myriad facets of regret reflected clearly. We see his extreme dissatisfaction with his deeds, his misdeeds, and the deeds he never quite got around to. We see his morbid, depressed fascination with the past, and his irreverent, pointed denial of the future, for the simple reason that he will not be in it. In his story, Hemingway thoroughly explores what it means to be a human faced with the reality of inadequacy and failure, and the mindset that accompanies an individual concerned with such thoughts.


Works Cited

Munoz‐Dardé, Véronique. "Puzzles of Regret." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 92.3 (2016): 778-784.

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