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Bewildering Punishment

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Enlightenment didn't tell them that.

"All right guv! All right! Whatever I did, I'm sorry! And if you tell me what it was I won't do it again!"
One of the player's hoodlums (after some "Bloody-knuckled discipline"), Fallen London

Alice is about to be punished — anything from being dumped by her Love Interest to a Fate Worse than Death. She'd really like to know one thing: What did she do?

Unless the character is showing It's All About Me or Moral Myopia or even worse But for Me, It Was Tuesday — which are possible — this is a sympathetic characterization. An innocent character taken for a crime that no-one will identify is common, especially in Revenge by Proxy, Sins of Our Fathers, and Criminal Doppelgänger, but not the only possibility.

Disproportionate Retribution will often inspire it. Even if the crime was real, and the punishment not disproportionate, punishing an amnesiac character tends to come off as wrong. Those with ignorance of the law, stemming from child-like innocence or unfamiliarity with the location, generally come off almost as well. Especially if You Know What You Did follows. Karmic Misfire and Guilt by Association Gag are related but generally involve the target genuinely not being involved at all.


This almost always occurs when a character tries to Set Right What Once Went Wrong by killing someone before he commits his crimes (particularly in regards to Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act). In a (often) less nasty style, this can also happen in cases of being Mad at a Dream.


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  • Briefly comes up in a commercial for Lunchables, where we see a youngster getting day after day of bad lunches. At one point he asks "was I bad?"

    Anime & Manga 
  • Casshern of Casshern Sins has no idea why he's woken up in a world that despises him, full of half-crazed robots who believe they'll be saved from destruction if they eat his flesh and become immortal. Of course, it's no secret that this is ultimately because he made the world that way, but he has no memory of his actions, and there are precious few willing to elaborate on what exactly Casshern did and why before trying to kill him. Making things worse is the fact that he goes into a mindless berserk rage if his life is in genuine danger, exacerbating his reputation as a harbinger of death and destruction.
  • Shinji Ikari in Rebuild of Evangelion 3.0: after he wakes up from being extracted from Unit-01, everyone treats him with intense dislike and barely acknowledges his existence, leading to him wondering just what is going on that's making everyone act that way. It isn't until halfway through the movie that he gets an answer: his actions at the end of the last movie inadvertently caused Third Impact, and although Kaworu stopped the Impact before its completion, the world still pretty much died. The survivors have been living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland for the past 14 years because of what he did, and they've lost all sympathy they once had for him.
  • In A Certain Magical Index, Othinus briefly traps Touma Kamijou in an alternate universe where he's Public Enemy #1. Everybody in the entire world hates him and tries to kill him on sight, even his own parents. Until he's pulled out of it, nobody will explain to him why they're trying to kill him.
  • The Boy Who Swore Revenge On The World starts with Hardt going to a church, as is required by law, and getting an [Oracle] that explains his god-given [Occupation]. The moment his is revealed, the priest in charge explodes with rage for no given reason, orders him arrested, the knights torture him for sport, with the priest healing him up again so he doesn't die, and when he's taken back to his home village, the residents are all forced to stab him with a dagger to prove their "innocence", and lastly, his mother is killed for the "crime" of giving birth to him. Say hello to the birth of an OMBWTFBBQ necromancer who wants revenge on the world!

  • Ed Byrne joked in Pedantic And Whimsical that women in general have an annoying habit of instead of telling their boyfriend/husband what they did wrong, they'll just "acted pissed off" and let the man guess what he's done. So after the man has asked what he's done wrong, the woman will hit him with the line:
    "'If you don't know what you've done, there's no point in me telling you.' What? You know it doesn't make any sense. Where's the logic in that statement? [...] It's like saying 'If you haven't eaten, there's no point in us making any dinner'."
  • Adam Ferrara has an equally pointed comeback to the old "If you don't know, I'm not telling you" card:
    "Well then, don't be surprised when the shit happens again!!"

    Comic Books 
  • At the end of Arkham Asylum: Living Hell, Batman suggests the entire experience was another incident with the Scarecrow's fear gas. Finding this entirely logical rather than the possibility that demons from Hell literally took over the Asylum, Dr. Arkham has Scarecrow tossed into solitary.

    Fan Works 
  • In Robb Returns, where Robb's mind returns to his past body from the point of his death in the series, Theon is genuinely confused by Robb's newfound hostility towards him since they're still friends at this time in the timeline. It takes Ned pointing out how Robb's behaviour is unfair for the youth to act more civilly.
  • In Multiversal Constants, when Talia goes and greets the teenaged counterpart of her son Damian, she's taken aback by the sheer hostility he shows her, coupled with a stubborn refusal to trust her. She doesn't get why he acts this way until a telepath lets her see exactly how bad her counterpart was.
    • The same teenage boy also straight-out assaulted David Cain right after laying eyes on his daughter Cassandra. The girl was very much befuddled to see a total stranger hurting her father out of love for her.
  • In The Fifth Act, Peggy Sue Cloud comes back in time and decides to kill Sephiroth to prevent his fall to insanity, killing spree at Nibelheim, and ultimate Omnicidal Mania. Sephiroth, for his part, has no idea what he did to provoke Cloud's murderous grudge, and can only speculate that he may have killed a loved one in the line of duty.
  • The Rigel Black Chronicles: Harry has largely kept her head down at school and been polite to everyone, so she doesn't know why someone would make her fall down the stairs and break her wrist, hit her with stinging hexes from behind, and then try to poison her. Even when she finds out, she's still confused.
    Harry: That's what this is about? The Marauders' joke line at Zonkos?

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the heroes track down the guy who'll invent the chip which leads to the Robot War in the future, and Sarah immediately tries to kill him in front of his family, even though he hasn't finished his research (much less known what would come of it). He calls her out on this after the situation's explained, but agrees to help destroy his work.
  • In A Christmas Story, after Ralphie's punishment for swearing, he must tell his mother where he heard the word. Not wanting to tell the truth that it was his dad, he blames his friend. Ralphie's mom informs the kid's mother and we hear that kid being smacked and asking "What did I do?" coming from the other end of the phone.
  • In The Empire Strikes Back, Han and Chewbacca are being tortured by Vader (Han by electricity and Chewie by sound), and think it's just petty revenge since they weren't asked any questions. Vader is counting on Luke psychically sensing their torture and coming to rescue them.
  • In Oldboy the protagonist is kidnapped and held in a private prison. When released, he spends the rest of the movie trying to track down who did this to him and why.
  • In The Trial, the accused never does learn what the charges are against him or why he's executed (see also Literature below).
  • An Eastern European film taking place in an unnamed state had a communist functionary being reassigned. She thinks she's been promoted, but instead ends up in a frozen rat-infested hovel with an old man who says only, "They sent you here, so you could think about why they sent you here."
  • In The Man in the Iron Mask, Philippe had no clue why he was taken from the farm he grew up on, forced into the iron mask, and locked away. He recalls how when he was first imprisoned, all he did was shout for someone to say what he did. He eventually realized it must have something to do with his face. It isn't until the Musketeers rescue him that he learns it was because he's the identical twin of the king.

  • In John C. Wright's The Golden Oecumene, Ungannis tries to invoke this trope by splitting herself into many personalities, some of whom would try erasing memories of her crimes, and still be executed for them. This is not greeted with horror by the Transcedence mass mind — legally, you can not evade punishment unless you rework your personality into a new person, and none of the split personalities had tried to redact the beliefs that had led Ungannis to commit the crime.
  • One of the most important points of Franz Kafka's The Trial is that the reader is never let in on the charge against the protagonist. It's also ambiguous as to whether the protagonist himself knows.
  • In Jane Austen's Love and Freindship, Laura is outraged at accusations of theft — which she and Sophia have committed, and Sophia was caught doing.
    At this period of their Quarrel I entered the Library and was, as you may imagine, equally offended as Sophia at the ill-grounded Accusations of the malevolent and contemptible Macdonald.
  • In The Moonstone, Franklin, who's doing his best to find out what happened to Rachel's stolen Moonstone, has no idea why Rachel is suddenly so angry and cold towards him, and only seems to think less of him the more he tries to help. Not until she tells him that she "saw him take the Moonstone with her own eyes."
  • One Sherlock Holmes story featured a young man, arrested for the murder of his father, showing no surprise and saying he deserved it. Watson thinks it proves guilt — an innocent man would have had this trope. Holmes counter-argues that the man had to know the strength of the evidence against him, and since he raised his hand against his father he may have regarded his arrest as just.
  • In the first Harry Potter book, the Dursleys punish Harry for causing magical things to happen. Since they never told him he was a wizard, Harry just thinks that weird things inexplicably happen around him and doesn't understand why they're considered his fault.
  • In King Rat, the main character denies the king his throne back, for reasons that any human would agree with but a rat could likely never understand.
  • Pretty much any incarnation of The Count of Monte Cristo features this. Edmond has no idea why he's imprisoned until many years have passed in Chateau D'if. Then he's out for some serious revenge.
  • Aviendha is subject to this type of punishment by the Wise Ones for much of book twelve of The Wheel of Time. She is ordered to do useless labour, which is the ultimate insult in the Aiel culture where even prisoners from enemy clans (gai'shain) are put to useful work. It turns out that she is meant to complain rather than stoically bearing it. This shows the strength of character necessary to become a Wise One.
  • In The Dark Half, the killer George Stark has the same fingerprints as novelist Thad Beaumont. Sheriff Pangborn arrives at Thad's house to arrest him, and his first clue that Thad isn't the killer is that Thad is utterly confused by the arrest. Pangborn has been a cop long enough to know that criminals who know they're guilty just don't act like that.
  • Specifically averted in Jack Vance's The Demon Princes quintet. Although it's been years since the Mount Pleasant raid and some of them (with still worse atrocities committed in the meantime) have put it out of their heads, Kirth Gersen goes out of his way to ensure the Demon Princes know who's bringing them undone and why.
  • In the third Wayside School book, the school principal, Mr. Kidswatter, decides to declare the word "Door" a bad word, and anyone who uses it to be punished. Todd happens to be late for school that day and misses that announcement. When he tries to explain why he was late, he uses the word "door" and is immediately punished.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The protagonist of the Black Mirror episode “White Bear” wakes up in a room with no memory of how she got there, and a masked figure stalking her and attempting to kill her. Worse, everyone else around her appears to be brainwashed into recording her suffering on their phones instead of helping her or even telling her what is going on. It turns out this is her punishment for being an accessory to the murder of a young girl - she gets her memory wiped, then she is terrorised by actors to the point of breakdown and her crimes exposed to her before her memory gets wiped to repeat it all again the next day, while visitors get to watch and record it.
  • Poor Gale has no idea what hit him in the Breaking Bad third season finale, although someone as smart as him who's helping to build an industrial level meth lab should be smart enough to know that there might be unseen dangers in working for rich criminals.
  • The Invisible Man: After the Official is badly beaten, Darien is bewildered when Hobbes attacks him, points a gun at him, and starts ranting at him. Hobbes has assumed Darien did it while suffering from Quicksilver madness; in reality, the gland contained the RNA of the previous subject, CIA assassin Simon Cole, with the RNA temporarily taking over Darien's mind and making him act as Simon until he's cured.
  • Once Upon a Time:
    • Due to Identity Amnesia preventing her from knowing that she's really Snow White, Mary Margaret has no idea why Regina has such a strong grudge against her that she'd frame her for murder.
    • Snow White herself has no idea as to why Regina hates her and tries to kill her. When Snow was a child, she was tricked by Cora into telling her about Regina's secret affair with the stable boy, Daniel. Given that Cora murdered Daniel, Regina's hostility is sympathetic. Sort of.
  • El Chavo del ocho: Doña Florinda usually slaps Don Ramón for things that weren't his fault. There were occasions he doesn't even know what she's faulting him for.
  • Averted in Babylon 5, where a Mind Wiped serial killer turned mild-mannered monk has his memories forcibly returned to him because the people hunting him down want to make damn sure he knows why they're after him.
  • An episode of Friends has Phoebe giving Ross the cold shoulder because she's mad at him. He doesn't know why she's mad at him, though, and after some prodding, Phoebe admits that she doesn't know either. She's actually forgotten whatever it was Ross did to upset her, she just remembers being mad about it. And then it turns out it's because she had a dream where Ross called her boring.
  • In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Conscience of the King", Kevin Riley sees his transfer to Engineering as this. In fact, Kirk is trying to protect him by keeping him as isolated as possible because he's one of the remaining witnesses who could identify Kodos the Executioner.
  • Played with for (black) humor in the Pirahna Brothers sketch of Monty Python's Flying Circus. There is an interview with one of their subordinates who said that Dinsdale would nail his head to the floor on a regular basis. Part of the joke was that Dinsdale never said why the minion needed to be punished, and the minion never asked, taking it as a given that he must have done something to deserve such treatment, even though he kept trying to apologize.
  • One episode of Stargate SG-1 has a member of a planet the team gates to put Teal'c on trial. All they know at first is that it's for a crime he committed when he was First Prime of Apophis. Unfortunately, Teal'c was part of a number of atrocities while First Prime, and it takes a while for him to remember the event in question, and even longer to recall the specifics.
  • Played with in the The Twilight Zone (1959) episode "A Nice Place to Visit". An unrepentant criminal is sent to a 5-star hotel paradise with a casino where he wins every bet and women who lavish him with attention. He's completely confused for weeks, wondering what he did that re-balanced his karma, until his jailer reveals that the eternal catering to every whim (to the point where it bores him and gives him no pleasure) is what makes it Hell.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Warhammer dwarfs can cause this effect. Dwarfs tend to treat everything as a deadly serious matter, and also tend to assume that anything people do that displeases them is a deliberate insult. In one notable case, the people of a fortress found themselves besieged by an army because they employed dwarfs to build it and accidentally underpaid them by a few pennies. As far as the dwarfs are concerned this was a deliberate attempt to rob them of their labor (again, by shortchanging them something like 0.001% of the total cost), so the appropriate response is to never tell them the payment was short, raise an army, then burn the place to the ground.

    Video Games 
  • In the Half-Quake series of Mods for Half-Life, the strange people(?) behind the scenes of the bizarre, punishing world the player character finds himself in claim that he deserves their torture simply for the "crime" of being human. But as a number of areas seem to be designed to showcase or even glorify sadism, the protagonist- and others- are given weapons so that they can survive longer (and therefore prolong their own suffering), and the grisly deaths of the victims are apparently televised for the entertainment of others, the possibility exists that they're simply rationalizing their own sick enjoyment.
  • Portal 2: On the Turret production line, Turrets are made to repeat after a template Turret. Defective Turrets that fail to do this are catapulted into an incinerator. Chell sabotages the production line by replacing the template Turret with a defective one, sending perfectly functional Turrets into the incinerator, screaming in protest.

    Visual Novels 
  • Franziska von Karma of Ace Attorney fame likes to whip people for reasons which may or may not be valid. At least once, she whipped Phoenix instead of the actual target.

    Web Animation 
  • Many a Go Animate "Grounded" video will have the target of the groundings punished for no reason or for reasons outside of their control.
  • In the Zero Punctuation episode reviewing Oblivion, Yahtzee notes that you, the player, is never told what your character did to end up in jail. He promptly comes up with the most badass crime he can think of, namely, a threesome with the Emperor's wife and hottest daughter on top of the desecrated corpse of a god.


    Western Animation 
  • The premise behind the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command episode "Large Target" centers around XR using a makeshift disguise of his teammate Booster to cheat his way to riches at a casino while Team Lightyear is on vacation. As a result, Booster, who was unaware of what XR did, has every assassin in the galaxy hunting him down for a hefty bounty issued by the Space Mafia's Don for breaking the bank, while XR was the culprit.
  • South Park;
    • The episode "Proper Condom Use" has some of this, wherein Cartman shows the other boys how to "milk a dog". Stan shows this off to his parents in front of company without knowing what he's doing, which results in this.
    Sharon Marsh: Stanley, do you know why you're being grounded for 10 months?!
    Stan Marsh: No!
    • "Sexual Harassment Panda" played Stan's trial for sexually harassing Cartman in this fashion (it was probably meant as a commentary on a real-life case of a grade-schooler being charged with sexual harassment for kissing a girl in his class).
      Judge: What do you have to say in your defense?
      Stan: I'm eight?
    • And this trope is pretty much par for the course with Butters and his parents.
  • An episode of The Powerpuff Girls has them accidentally discovering a new swear word, which they proceed to use constantly. Ms. Keane hears them say it in class and punishes them, but of course the girls don't know it's a bad word, and when they ask her what they did, she answers, "You know perfectly well what you did!"
  • One episode of The Simpsons has Homer strangling Bart when he learns he needs to go attend to other matters. He orders Bart to think about what he's done since he can't carry out the full punishment. Bart has no idea why Homer was strangling him, and it turns out that Homer doesn't know what Bart did wrong either.
  • This happened to poor Fred twice on The Flintstones:
    • One time had Fred unintentionally switching places with a business tycoon and while Fred was doing the tycoon's job, the tycoon was going around town being an asshole to everyone, and in the end, Fred goes home and gets beaten up by Barney and chewed out by Wilma, Barney, and Betty all the while Fred looks confused.
    • Another time, aliens had been making clones of Fred, and they were acting like assholes and ruining his reputation. It had a happier ending though, because when Fred told them how it happened, Wilma, Barney, and Betty simply thought he was under stress from his diet, and said he could go off it. Fred was upset, until he realized he was off his diet.
  • An episode of Rugrats has Angelica overhear a Depraved Kids' Show Host using a curse word to describe the children she works with and, thinking it's the show's new special phrase, repeats it to her parents. She gets in trouble for it repeatedly, including when she tries to get her dad to tell her exactly which word in the sentence is the "bad" one. By the end of the episode, she's still not entirely sure why the word's bad. Her dad just says that it "makes people feel bad".
  • Courage the Cowardly Dog: Almost every episode has Eustace complain "What did I do?" when Muriel chews him out on his bad behavior or hits him with a rolling pin, but this is because Eustace is self-centered to the point it borders on sociopathy.
  • In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "The Camping Episode", Squidward gets repeatedly mauled by a sea bear for intentionally trying to provoke it by doing things such as wearing a sombrero in a goofy fashion, then trying to run away, trying to limp away, and trying to crawl away. The fifth time, it attacks him for no reason.
    Squidward: What did I do that time?!
    SpongeBob: I don't know, maybe he just doesn't like you!
    Patrick: Try pretending to be someone else.

    Real Life 
  • Tacitus' Annals contains an anecdote where after their father's downfall, Sejanus' children were led off to be executed as sympathizers, his daughter Junilla having no idea what she'd done wrong and in tears pleading to be beaten like other children who'd been naughty. The children were strangled (and in Junilla's case sexually assaulted, as there was no precedent for the execution of a virgin) and their bodies thrown down the Gemonian Stairs.
  • Attempts to teach small children and animals how to behave are at risk of falling foul of this trope if the time between the misdeed and the scolding is too long. Instead of correcting the misbehavior, this can actually make it worse by creating stress and confusion.
    • Punishing an older animal for behaviors that were allowed when it was younger because it was "cute" at the time can also cause this, regardless of how fast the punishment is delivered.
  • Some schools have a practice of outright punishing children for saying a swear word, even if the child was simply repeating a word that they heard and had no idea that it was a swear word.
  • Autistic people will sometimes wonder why a friend blows up or ghosts them seemingly out of the blue. They may not have seen the hints the friend was dropping and will end up thinking this friend was doing this deliberately.
    • The reverse is also possible. A lot of autistic people become incapable of speech (sometimes called 'going non-verbal') when severely stressed- even incapable of explaining why they're stressed. Since socializing is often overwhelming or exhausting even if the other person is being perfectly friendly, this has led to a lot of hurtful misunderstandings.
  • A study of the process used to turn men into torturers for the Greek military junta showed the recruits were subjected to this. The random punishment not only brutalized them, it made them pay constant attention to their superiors in the hope of avoiding future punishment, and not question any order they were given.
  • Defied by the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which states that all Americans have a right "to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation" when facing criminal charges.


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