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ab aeterno

An Examination of Revenge and Vengeance in A Song of Ice and Fire

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House Martell is probably the most explicit example. Doran and the Sand Snakes seem to just want vengence for the sake of vengence at the minute. Its gone past a personal slight and bringing individuals like the Mountain and Tywin to count. All the people associated with Ellia's death are dead. Tywin, the Mountain, Kevin, that other guy (Loch?), even contributory characters like Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark are also dead along with most of the Usurpers. Whilst others just want to fight for the sake of fighting and irrational anger. Yet Doran has every intention of pursueing this course, even though it won't benefit Dorne and he missed his chance for real vengence. Even if you count Oberyn, the Mountain also died.

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I noticed that often times grievances in ASOIF are rarely ever defined in terms of justice. Those who are wronged aren't seeking justice, they are seeking revenge and that consumes the soul. Vengeance/revenge seems to be an outward expression for characters presumed failures, Robert blames himself for Lyanna, Arya for her father, The Hound for being weak, etc. It is more about the inner dwellings of the individual and the irony is that once achieved there is nowhere for them to go or turn, so they are left tormented and incomplete.

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This is an interesting theme, Dr. Pepper, Winter’s Knight and ab aeterno. Milady would like to contribute some thoughts on the neuropsychology of revenge and vengeance she hopes might add some food for thought so the debate continues:

From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, vengeance is learnt and has always depended on societal factors for support and validity, from before the time of the famous biblical principle a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth to this day; revenge, on the other hand is biologically ingrained in the mind. It’s not learnt, it’s an instinct we are born with, and we all possess it in varying degrees of intensity depending on personality and education.

Clinicians have studied and identified the cognitive and neurological process of revenge, and have discovered these interesting–and somewhat startling–facts: the dorsal striatum –striated body– In the brain, which is the part that processes rewarding stimuli and controls biological and behavioural reactions to rewards lights up to: a. food, b. drugs, c. sweets, and d. revenge. The idioms just desserts and sweet revenge make more sense now.

The brain processes revengeful thoughts as rewarding, when we punish those we perceive as having wronged us or when we think of avenging ourselves on them, the corpus striatum lights up to these thoughts and releases dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitter, thusly stirring emotions that lead to/reinforce revengeful behaviour. Furthermore, there’s another brain portion that is activated at the same time: the left prefrontal cortex, that is in charge of planning. Which means that having thoughts of revenge automatically leads you to think of a step by step plan toward the goal to be obtained. But, as mentioned before, there are personality traits that foster these vindictive impulses and others that do the opposite. Amongst the pros, two are the most important; first, empathy: the more empathetic the person is, the less likely he or she will act on revengeful thoughts. Second, control and the ability to restrain one’s emotions impact the possibility of seeking revenge, but not necessarily prevent the person from having the thoughts, only from acting on them by focusing on what’s really in his or her control. And of the negative factors, authoritarians and ambitious ones are more vengeful, as they are motivated by power and the desire for status, because they don't want to lose face (Some Lannisters are in this group). Also, people who show great respect for traditions, social expectations and a deference to authority have the most favourable opinions about vengeance and retribution, as are those who have witnessed/feel that the legal establishment is unstable, corrupt and/or practically chaotic, so they tend to be more approving of revenge. Collectivists are more likely than individualists to seek both revenge and vengeance, but their emotional triggers vary: for individualists get angry because they perceive a violation as personal; for collectivists it’s humiliating to perceive a wrong done to someone with a shared identity because it means an injury to oneself.

Why do people seek revenge? On a basic level, because of the cathartic effect it has. Or rather, the catharsis they think they will obtain. There used to be a widely held theory that built-up aggressive energy needs to be released at some point through an aggressive action, such as taking revenge, because it is cathartic and, by reducing subsequent aggressiveness, was beneficial as it served to restore inner balance. This belief still persists despite abundant anecdotal and clinical proof to the contrary: aggression is not inevitable but occurs through an interplay of situational and personality factors that do not necessarily lead to revenge. Aggression inevitably triggers subsequent aggression through increasing negative affect and activating thoughts related to aggression. An eye for an eye makes everyone blind, as the saying goes.

And what about feelings after exacting revenge? In short, revenge rather than providing closure or even catharsis, does the opposite, for it keeps the wound open and fresh. There was once an interesting experiment with two groups: one that had been given the opportunity to exact revenge on someone who’d damaged them and the other had been also damaged, but had not had an opportunity for revenge. The experimenters asked the first––who'd been allowed to punish––to predict how they'd feel if they hadn't been allowed to, and he asked the second, non-punishing, group how they believed they'd have felt if they had. The punishers said they would’ve felt worse if they hadn’t had revenge, and the non-punishers told they’d have felt better if they’d had revenge… and both groups were wrong!

Because an objective examination of both groups found out that the non-punishers were the happier and most satisfied lot in the end, and the punishers did in fact feel worse, thus demonstrating that people are awful at predicting the emotional outcome of revenge. The explanation for this curious result is ruminations: if there is no revenge, a woman can trivialise the experience by telling oneself that a woman didn't act on a woman’s vengeful impulses, and it's easier to forget it and move on; but when there is revenge, trivialisation and moving on are no longer possible, so a woman replays and re-enacts the experience again and again in her head, which takes a high emotional and physical toll. Sounds familiar?

But the failure to feel good after revenge does not mean there is no pleasant side of retribution . There are two theories for why revenge could be satisfying. The first is comparative suffering––seeing an offender suffer supposedly can restore emotional balance––and the second theory is called the understanding hypothesis— an offender’s suffering is not enough to achieve satisfactory revenge on its own, so the avenger must be assured that the offender has made a direct connection between the retaliation and his behaviour. Testing both theories in experiments with groups of punishers, both were given the chance to take revenge on a wrongdoer, but one group had the additional opportunity to send the punished a message that acknowledged that the retaliation had come as a result of their misbehavior, and the other group had to send messages without this explanation and full of indignation over the bad deed. The results lean toward validating the second theory that revenge can succeed only when an offender understands why the act of vengeance has occurred, because the group with a message of understanding were more satisfied and at peace than those who only delivered an indignant message. In fact, the only time punishers felt more satisfaction than participants who took no revenge was when they delivered the message with the explanation, that is: unacknowledged revenge felt no better than none at all. Successful revenge is therefore about more than retaliation, it is about delivering a message to the offender so he recognises his wrongdoing. If the message is not delivered, it cannot reestablish justice in the eyes of the punisher.

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Just wanted to bump this thread with its brilliant essay on revenge. Masterfully done, Milday (and thanks to Lykos for linking it).

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Redemption is in my opinion one of the main themes of the series.

Let those who wronged you live so that they may learn the error of their ways and make the world slightly better. (I´m particularily thinking about Theon and Jaime).

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I think that, in the end, it depends on a person's raison d'être. What gives meaning to his/her life.

Doran vs Oberyn is an interesting comparaison. In the surface, Oberyn is a lot more obsessed with revenge than Doran. But if we take a closer look at their lives, things are rather reversed. For Oberyn, revenge was a very high priority in his life that leaded to his death. Meanwhile, though, he had a full life: a woman he loved and who loved him, 8 daughters who worshiped him and that he was personally raising and educating, "academic" interests that he pursued and much more. Doran, on the other hand, sent his son to a dangerous mission that caused his death and alienated his daughter for the sake of his revenge plans. Who was more consumed by revenge, the dead one or the living? The "Dornishman's wife" is Oberyn's song. Doran, even if he finally succeeds, I don't know if in the end he 'll be able to say "it was worth it".

The Hound is an different examble. His brother took everything from him before he had even began his path in life. I think that the thought of revenge had been, up to a point, his sole life purpose and this could explain why he hadn't actually attempted it. To get his revenge would mean to have nothing to wait for, nothing to keep him going. Usually, to take revenge requires to sacrifice something, at the very least the emotional cost you invest in it, but in the Hound's case he had no "coin" to pay with.

Referencing sacrifice, I think it is interesting to examine the FM policy for the price of their "services". The price they ask (which includes to sacrifice something very personal) forces, I believe, this question to the "customer". What are your priorities in life? Is it really worth it? If a person is made to consider all these aspects before seeking revenge, he/she may change his/her mind about it and deem it preferable to just let go.

*edit: typo

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ShadowCat Rivers, I see it exactly the other way round regarding Doran and Oberyn.

Oberyn has a much more clear cut approach towards revenge he prefers immediate response and puts a great emphasis on the perpetrator admitting to the crimes and therefore knowing exactlywhat the punishment is for.

Doran on the other hand schemes in secret to the end of removing House Lannister from power and is willing to sacrifice his children for this cause. Wether he sees this as part of the punishment or he plans to put the people responsible for Elia and her children´s death on public trial is unclear.

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ShadowCat Rivers, I see it exactly the other way round regarding Doran and Oberyn.

Oberyn has a much more clear cut approach towards revenge he prefers immediate response and puts a great emphasis on the perpetrator admitting to the crimes and therefore knowing exactlywhat the punishment is for.

Doran on the other hand schemes in secret to the end of removing House Lannister from power and is willing to sacrifice his children for this cause. Wether he sees this as part of the punishment or he plans to put the people responsible for Elia and her children´s death on public trial is unclear.

I don't disagree, you're right about their different approach. What I was trying to address is the issue of the consuming nature of revenge. They both seek revenge but the one lives a normal (his way of 'normal') life while the other sacrifices everything he loves.

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They probably both didn´t lead so normal lives, hmm ...

There´s also the thing that Oberyn´s "immediate" revenge would have had dire consequences for Dorne, had Doran allowed him to carry it out.

So the best thing would have been to arrange for a TRC, but the Lannisters would of course never have agreed to that, as most other houses wouldn´t have either, that is the other problem - we are not dealing with individuals - perpetrators and victims are almost always connected to a House or organisation or religious faction.

This leads of course to eternal constant conflict, when people take the eye for an eye approach, until people are too exhausted and drained to fight and start from scratch. An impartial party with the authority to judge seems to be needed, but that is impossible. So a common law and a legal code as well as aprocedure for trials that is generally accepted is the best I can hope for in the coming books.

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Arya isn't only focused on vengeance. I think she's more concerned with getting power for herself which is where her FM arc comes in.

I think that signals that she won't kill her enemies except for maybe a few nobodies on her list. She will be sent to kill a major character that has nothing to do with vengeance and will get involved with other storylines.

GRRM sending her to Essos imo means that the Stark enemies will be killed off by other people while she is in training. Then she likely is going to get wrapped up with Dany sometime.

She will still be killing yes -sewing through winter but I don't think it will be for revenge.

There will only be Freys left and she did not add them to her list. Uncat is already killing Freys one by one. It's pointless to send Arya to do that. She has bigger things in her arc.

I also think that if she does die it's not going to be because of her revenge. That would be obvious imo. Everyone thinks that will destroy her or the FM will for her leaving to kill her enemies.

Regardless Arya's prayers are answered so the ones she hates will be killed. Ned was the one who told her to focus her hate on those who do her harm.

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Another great passage that suggests the destructive quality of revenge is Ellaria Sand talking to Doran and the Sand Snakes when the Mountain's head is delivered.

Ellaria’s cheeks were wet with tears, her dark eyes shining. Even weeping, she has a strength in her, the captain thought.

“Oberyn wanted vengeance for Elia. Now the three of you want vengeance for him. I have four daughters, I remind you. Your sisters. My Elia is fourteen, almost a woman. Obella is twelve, on the brink of maidenhood. They worship you, as Dorea and Loreza worship them. If you should die, must El and Obella seek vengeance for you, then Dorea and Loree for them? Is that how it goes, round and round forever? I ask again, where does it end?” Ellaria Sand laid her hand on the Mountain’s head. “I saw your father die. Here is his killer. Can I take a skull to bed with me, to give me comfort in the night? Will it make me laugh, write me songs, care for me when I am old and sick?

Some poster awhile back, in a discussion about pastimes or arts in Westeros, said "Revenge: The prominent hobby of Westerosi nobility." I thought it was rather well put.

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larrytheimp, yes I think Ellaria has the right of it just as Catelyn did, when she asked wether killing Jaime would bring her Ned back or Karstark´s sons

ARYa_Nym, I surely hope you´re wrong for Arya´s sake. I think Jon´s remark was foreshadowing that should Arya, as you put it, sew through winter, she will truely be found frozen Needle in hand. That will get her nowhere and I think she will realise this in time, she is very much like Cat after all - quick to anger and very apt at adapting to new social situations (without compromising her unique personality) - she will find the power for the same mercy in her.

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ARYa_Nym, I surely hope you´re wrong for Arya´s sake. I think Jon´s remark was foreshadowing that should Arya, as you put it, sew through winter, she will truely be found frozen Needle in hand. That will get her nowhere and I think she will realise this in time, she is very much like Cat after all - quick to anger and very apt at adapting to new social situations - she will find the power for the same mercy in her.

If she dies it was always the plan. Most of the foreshadowing for her death is early on.

I found some other reference that if she does die it may be similar to Lyanna (of a fever only a different kind) who Ned said being like her leads to an early grave.

Although Jon's comment may not have meant literal death but symbolic.

ETA: Catelyn and Arya have similarities but I've always said Arya is far more vicious. Catelyn wishes for peace while Arya is not typically merciful and is more ruthless.

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Yes I meant symbolically frozen, though fighting helped her survive, I think she will need to stop to develop a n emotionally full and rich life, if she doesn´t stop she´s either killed by her guilt or she kills her conscience and turns into a monster like the Mountain or Biter or such. Regarding Catelyn you´re probably right that she wasn´t quite as wild as Arya at that age. We only have that memory of her playing "Jenny of Oldstones" with Littlefinger when she was 13 -15? But I think Catelyn was just as vicious only not so physical maybe. Anyway that´s way off topic here.

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Yes I meant symbolically frozen, though fighting helped her survive, I think she will need to stop to develop a n emotionally full and rich life, if she doesn´t stop she´s either killed by her guilt or she kills her conscience and turns into a monster like the Mountain or Biter or such. Regarding Catelyn you´re probably right that she wasn´t quite as wild as Arya at that age. We only have that memory of her playing "Jenny of Oldstones" with Littlefinger when she was 13 -15? But I think Catelyn was just as vicious only not so physical maybe. Anyway that´s way off topic here.

Catelyn talked a lot about revenge but at the same time set Jamie free and prayed for Cersei. She told Robb to bend the knee. She killed only in self defense or because of insanity whereas Arya and her wolf have learned to like killing.

I don't think she needs to stop killing. No one says Jaqen, or members of the KG, soldiers, or mercenaries, etc need to stop killing or are worried about their life. Arya was offered a normal life and said no.

Like I said if she dies it's because GRRM had created this character but always knew he planned to kill her off based on how early the groundwork is set for it.

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Vengeance can destroy the weak. So what? Love destroys just as many fools. Anything you let own you can kill you.

Yes, I agree. I think this thread is not-so-subtley trying to paint vengeance as a bad thing, when I don't think this is really a fair analysis in ASOIAF where revenge is more often than not the closest thing to justice. Would you not rather have slightly disproportionate or unfair justice than no justice at all?

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Catelyn talked a lot about revenge but at the same time set Jamie free and prayed for Cersei. She told Robb to bend the knee. She killed only in self defense or because of insanity whereas Arya and her wolf have learned to like killing.

Yes, later when she saw no other way to see Arya and Sansa safely back.

I don't think she needs to stop killing. No one says Jaqen, or members of the KG, soldiers, or mercenaries, etc need to stop killing or are worried about their life.<snip>

Well I do and I´m worried.

Fetch me a block, you seriuosly need to read Milady of York´s post!

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You all speak as if revenge/vengeance whatever you want to call it is avoidable and the need for it is easy to get over. It isn't. You say revenge leads to nothing but pain. Well so does holding in anger. At least with revenge people feel like they can defend themselves. I wouldn't say all people who pursue vengeance die. So what if Arya feels a bit empty? Surely she prefers it to being filled with pain and hatred?

Tyrion has definitly felt better since his revenge.

And what's to say the just do well either? Dondarrion died, it may have taken him a while to die but he did, and he never managed to kill Gregor like he was meant to.

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Yes, later when she saw no other way to see Arya and Sansa safely back.

It's said by some that's the only reason she did not get vengeance but I don't think it's certain. I also think that Uncat will also fail and will not kill Jamie due to his plot armor.

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Yes, later when she saw no other way to see Arya and Sansa safely back.

Well I do and I´m worried.

Fetch me a block, you seriuosly need to read Milady of York´s post!

Just read it now. I am still convinced that, depending on the act, revenge is a good thing.

And why isn't Arya allowed to kill people? Because she's a child?

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