What is Wrath?

The personification of the different sins in Passus 5 of Piers Plowman had me thinking about how word connotation evolves. I was probably influenced by reading Kat’s post about Gluttony, but I was most interested in the description of Wrath. Wrath’s actions seemed to mostly consist of insulting people and inciting anger in petty squabbles until line 159, where he says:

“I, Wrath, made her vegetables out of wicked words,

Until ‘You lie!’ and ‘You lie!’ leapt out at once,

And each slapped the other across the cheek;

If they had knives, by Christ, each of them would have killed the other. ”

This may have just been the writer’s personal approach to the word, but I tend to think of “wrath” as something far more violent and savage. While this passage itself seems pretty heated, the rest of the description sounded tame to me. I wonder what sermons tended to focus on- the conflicts between neighbors and things like that, or actual violence between people such as physical abuse or purposeful sabotage. Envy seemed to be the one always plotting the demise of other people, and Wrath seemed a little robbed of a vengeful attitude. I don’t care about judging the writer’s quality, but it did make me think about what “Wrath” meant to the original readers vs. what it means to me. A somewhat current interpretation of these same sins can be seen in the anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, one of my favorite series of all time (and, I would argue, one of the most relevant to literary studies). Wrath takes a human form in this series as well, a cold and calculating man who reaps brutal vengeance on his enemies. He does not seem to be bothered by mere conversation, however, and never resorts to insults. His actions are usually decided far in advance and carried out as planned- no one messes with Wrath and lives.

My personal understanding of “wrath” is different than both of these characterizations. I understand it to mean a quick temper, something where offenses are dealt with too harshly. For example, if someone made called me stupid and I punched them in the face I would consider that “wrath” because I returned an offense with far more force than I received. Like “unnecessary roughness” in sports. My point here is not to argue about the meaning of words, it’s just that when we experience these texts we may not be experiencing them in the way that the original readers did. In fact, we definitely aren’t. But I always wonder just how different our experiences are. Without similar life pressures and experiences, how can we possibly connect with the author’s intent? We probably can’t. But does that mean it isn’t worth trying? Nah. Does it mean we can’t gain valuable understanding from these texts? Nope. It just means that our understanding doesn’t dominate.

2 thoughts on “What is Wrath?

  1. I agree that there seems to be an inherent and insurmountable gap in understanding or perceiving of these texts/manuscripts as they were originally intended by the author, and as they were originally perceived by audiences of that author’s time. I believe the same principles apply to a contemporary text. Even the very moment a work is published there seem to be infinite convolutions and nuances in a reader’s parsing of a text and the relationship between author, individual reader, general audience/culture, and text.

    It seems the pleasure and fascination with these manuscripts, though, are allowed (at least partly) for this very reason. The act of deconstructing, deducing, cross-examining and all the myriad ways scholars study manuscripts (and even the development of further methods for examining them) is the pleasure derived. The fact that it may be insurmountable makes it, like an Everest, all the more thrilling for scholars to climb.

    Your analysis of wrath also intrigues me. I’ll offer my own characterization to further your point about the variations of viewpoint and connotation. I agree with your characterization of wrath, that there is a more extreme nature to it than appears in its usage in these lines. I think there’s an element to wrath though that–when someone is said to have wrath, it suggests that their anger, their reaction to a slight, is siphoning off an internal reservoir of pent up aggression. Or from an existing, preconceived mechanism in a character’s makeup, perhaps due to the mishandling of an earlier traumatic experience–it points to something in the character’s history that is related to the offense to which they overreact and exhibit wrath. Wrath is not caused by a slight, but allowed by one. Like you said, the offense is returned with far more force than received–because it is an opportunity to unveil a darker aspect.

  2. I’ve read this response several times now and I still can’t believe how much there is packed into it, definitely some valuable feedback. My mind especially stuck on the line “Wrath is not caused by a slight, but allowed by one.” I can’t say I’ve come to any conclusions by reading this, just that it really got me thinking. This concept of varying understandings, even from a single word, seems to add so much to what we’re doing with this class. Sometimes I have a hard time with the in class writings or with the questions that come up in class because they’ll be about something I didn’t even think was important while I read, but focused on other things so much more closely. It’s always disconcerting but also interesting to me when that happens.

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