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Self-Punishment Over Failure

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Smithers: Ohhh, I can't even grovel properly! I'm a buffoon! I don't deserve to live on your planet anymore!
The Simpsons, "Homer the Smithers"

A person who commits an act of Self-Punishment Over Failure is somebody who, in the face of defeat, decides to discipline themselves, either to make a point or to make amends to somebody... generally themselves.

Now, why would somebody do something like that? They all share one thing in common; they all screwed up, and decided to take it upon themselves to punish themselves for their mistakes, as opposed to letting others deliver a sentence. However, why they'd do it can vary.

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  • For starters, you have your ultra-loyal Mook to whom this trope may evoke the most common examples. While most of them live in fear of displeasing their superiors, these people are so loyal to their bosses that, if they fail, they aren't going to wait for them to have to figure out an apropos punishment. They'll do it themselves, because to them, failure is the ultimate sin.
  • However, other Mooks who do live in fear of their evil overlords may decide it upon themselves to seek personal retribution, but not because they feel its justified. They'd rather jump off a cliff than head back to Evil HQ and have to endure whatever torturous session the Big Bad has in mind for screw-ups. In a choice between two deaths, they'll take the easier way out. See also The Mob Boss Is Scarier.
  • A sidekick or supporter of a heroic character or team may have accidentally done something wrong. They could've accidentally injured the hero before the fight, leaked vital information to enemy forces, or invoked an allergic reaction by bringing the wrong sandwich. Feeling dejected and despondent, they seek an adequate remedy that, in their minds, will say to them "I'm sorry, so I'm going to teach myself a lesson".
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  • Somebody really, really screwed up. Their error in judgment or bad timing allowed an unfortunate circumstance to happen, which may bring forth ruin. If there's not a whole lot they can do to undo their mistake, the only way they can feel that they did something about it is by doing something to themselves.

The reaction to what they did can vary from person to person, but rarely does the self-inflicted punishment involve attempting suicide. Usually, the most common examples simply involve the person sentencing themselves to an apropos penalty, such as going into a "prison" of sorts or working extra-hard from then on out.

In serious cases, where failure brings forth dire consequences, this can be justified as an understandable response, but there are times where the mistake and the response to making it are very disproportionate. However, do note that these tropes involve a character's response to hindering another... if they decide to punish themselves after failing to achieve their own goal or dream, then it doesn't necessarily count because their mistake only hindered themselves.

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Compare You Have Failed Me (when the boss does the punishing for his subordinates), The Atoner (when it's done over a long term), Martyr Without a Cause (when they would like to sacrifice themselves for petty reasons) and Self-Restraint (which may not be because of failure). Contrast Self-Disposing Villain (when a villain doesn't mean to "punish" themselves for getting defeated) and My Greatest Failure.

Supertrope of Yubitsume, Seppuku, and has overlap with Self-Harm.


Examples

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    Anime and Manga 
  • One Piece: After Luffy and Zoro defeats the corrupt and megalomaniac Marine Captain Morgan, his subordinate Lt. Ripper decides not to capture them, but tells them to go away from the island. While they're grateful to our protagonists for doing what they did, because they're still pirates and Ripper intentionally let them go, he then punished himself, along with his subordinates, with no lunch for a week.
  • Hunter × Hunter: Deciding to play with his prey as usual, Chimera Ant King threatens the board game champion blind girl Komugi to cut off her arm should she fail to continue winning a match after match against his quickly learning self. She says that the board game is all there is to her, so she'd rather they take her life in such a case. The King concludes his resolve so far was insulting in comparison. As an offer of apology, he punishes himself immediately, by tearing off his own arm with his other hand.
  • In Episode 21 of Sonic X, a robot launches itself into the distance after failing to stop Sonic. It ends up crashing into Egg Fort II.
  • Farnese from Berserk practiced self-flagellation whenever she was in a self-loathing mood, which often happened when she did something she felt was a sin. Part of it was also her repressed sexuality and sadomasochism. Thankfully, she gets better about things.

    Comic Books 
  • The Redeemer: Malakev, having failed his master Klovis the Redeemer during a Duel to the Death on cranes (he messed up the controls, nearly killing Klovis), immediately asks to look up his appropriate punishment in the Liber Excruciatus once Klovis returns. Klovis denies him this, but promises that it is only a reprieve, and even spares Malakev when an artifact causes Klovis' men to attack him.

    Fanfiction 
  • RWBY: Scars: After failing to kill Qrow and Ruby for Salem, Tyrian punishes herself by repeatedly smashing her head against the floor to the point where she bleeds.
  • In The Apprentice, the Student, and the Charlatan, Nova Shine is prone to this whenever he feels he's made a mistake. At one point, he loses his cool and screams at Twilight for attempting to pry into his private life, but then spends the rest of the afternoon confined to his room rather than sight-seeing. In another moment, he and his father fail to make amends and he ends the night by losing his cool with them as well, but then spends the next week in a self-imposed exile in Twilight's basement.

    Films— Animated 
  • In The Black Cauldron, the Horned King often chokes his toadie Creeper when things go wrong. When Creeper has to tell him that Taran escaped, he chokes himself to save his master the trouble.
  • In the Disney Animated Canon short cartoon "Plutopia," Pluto dreams that he's being served by a cat butler. When the cat makes a mistake, he demands that Pluto punish him, and when he doesn't, he beats himself up and even tries to shoot himself.

    Films— Live-Action 
  • Avengers: Endgame: Thor becomes a recluse, spending his days playing Fortnite and drinking himself into obesity, after failing to prevent Thanos from wiping out half of all life in the universe.
  • In The Internship, intern Yo-Yo Santos plucks his eyebrows when he fails at something, as his Tiger Mom taught him to do.
  • In Saving Mr. Banks, Walt Disney points out to PL Travers that life is a long sentence for her to give herself for failing to stop her dad from drinking himself to death.
  • Starship Troopers: After getting a fellow trainee killed, Rico quits the academy... but quickly joins back up when the Bugs drop a asteroid on his home town.
  • Yellowbeard: When El Segundo makes a mistake when talking to his Bad Boss El Nebuloso, he begins hitting his head against an object in the hope that El Nebuloso won't kill him. El Nebuloso then asks him what he's doing.

    Literature 
  • This is John's fate at the end of Brave New World, punishing himself in isolation (and with whips) for falling into the temptation of sex before eventually hanging himself.
  • Vorkosigan Saga: In Winterfair Gifts, Armsman Pym puts himself on extended night duty after he failed to detect the poisoned necklace among Ekaterin's wedding gifts.
  • Harry Potter: Dobby, the house elf under the Malfoy family, actually intentionally tells Harry about important things that the latter should know, against the family's orders. He still bashes his head on hard things over doing this, though.
  • In Explorers of Gor we see a trial conducted by jungle emperor Bila Huruma.
    Two murderers were next brought to him for sentencing...The second, an askari, had killed another askari...The askari was ordered to be speared to death by one of his own kin. In this fashion his honor would be protected and there would be no beginning of a possible blood feud between families. The askari petitioned, however, to be permitted to die instead fighting the enemies of the ubarate. This petition was denied on the grounds that he had, by slaying his comrade, not permitted this same privilege to him. This judgment was accepted unquestioningly by the askari. "But am I not of my own kin, my [Lord]?" he asked. "Yes," had said Bila Huruma. He was taken outside. He would be given a short-handled stabbing spear and would be permitted to throw himself upon it.
  • In James Clavell's Shogun, there is an early exchange when Toranaga is a "guest" in the castle of his sworn enemy, Ishido. Ishido deliberately provokes Toranaga with incivility and rudeness, hoping to goad his enemy into a reaction that will provoke a fight and justify wiping out his rival. A young Toranaga samurai falls for the ploy and draws his sword. Toranaga is forced to order the youth to die for his impetuosity. Knowing he has failed his master and belatedly realising why his death has been ordered - to save everyone else's lives - he submits, surrenders his swords, accepts he is no longer samurai, and crawls to the place where common criminals are executed. (For in raising a sword to the great Lord Ishido, he has made himself a common criminal).
  • In Alex Rider, Snakehead, Yu's henchman, killed themselves to avoid punishment for failing him.
  • Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter whips himself with a Cat of Nine Tails to punish himself for sinning.
  • In The Secret of Platform 13, the three nurses Lily, Rose and Violet defy orders by taking the infant Prince through the gump; he winds up getting kidnapped, and he can't be recovered until the gump opens again in nine years. The King and Queen are too nice to punish the nurses, so they move into a cove and punish themselves by eating nothing but rotting food, sleeping on hard rocks and constantly dipping their body parts in freezing water. When the rescue part finally goes to retrieve the Prince they wait right by the gump with a big box of bananas, desperately waiting for when their punishment can end.
  • In Dragon Bones, Oreg, who is magically enslaved to the head of the Hurog family (which, at the moment, is the protagonist, Ward) punishes himself for failing to protect Ciarra, after Ward ordered him to do so. To some extent, he seems to be in pain that comes as a part of the Fate Worse than Death he was given when he was Made a Slave, but he also beats his head against a rock. He stops it after Ward tells him that it's not his fault, and the order was only to try to protect Ciarra. (Actually, it was more of a "Great that you're protecting my little sister, keep doing it", which makes the consequences all the more tragic.)
  • The zealous monk Silas from The Da Vinci Code routinely flogs himself and wears a painful cilice each time he pursues a lead to the Holy Grail only to encounter a dead end. Guided by his Teacher (Rector), Silas has killed Jacques Sauniere at the Louvre and the Mother Superior at Saint Sulpice, yet came away with no further clue.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: In the episode "The Ship", a contingent of Jem'Hadar commit suicide for allowing a Founder to die.
  • My Name Is Earl: The episode "Sweet Johnny" revolved around Earl trying to make amends with an amatuer daredevil named Sweet Johnny. Because Sweet Johnny suffered a series of head injuries achieved so Earl could have sex with his girlfriend, he had developed a Groundhog Day-type mental condition. When Earl realized that, by being aware of this condition, Sweet Johnny would rather kill himself, Earl decided to not complete this item and instead circled it as a permanent reminder for what he did to Sweet Johnny.
  • Played with in the Red Dwarf episode "The Beginning" when one of the Simulants fails in his task and the lead bad guy hands him his sword and tells him he knows what to do. The lieutenant who failed then stabs himself with it, only to be told that he was only expected to clean it and to stop jumping to conclusions.
  • The Flemish sketch series Buiten De Zone had a weird sketch where an executioner kept apologizing for having to hurt his torture victims. One of them managed to rule this in their favor by saying that the executioner "hit them too hard", while he actually didn't at all. Out of shame and remorse the executioner started torturing himself, while yelling: "Oh, I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! It'll never happen again! Please forgive me!"
  • On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a group of vampires called the Three attack Buffy and Angel, who defeat them. Their code of honor insists that they then offer their lives to the Master in penance. He comments that their deaths will give him little pleasure...then kills them anyway, because hey, a little is better than nothing.
  • One sketch of Monty Python's Flying Circus inverts Unsatisfiable Customer and goes Up to Eleven with it with the personnel of a restaurant that all go despairingly berserk and eventually commit suicide because they deem a slightly badly washed fork a colossal failure to their professionalism.
  • In The Wire when one of Omar's robberies from the Barksdale Organization goes wrong and gets a member of his gang killed, he is deeply remorseful for having insisted on doing the robbery despite signs that the Barksdales were beefing up security due to his prior attacks, and does a bit of atonement by putting out a lit cigar in his palm.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Peak Performance" Data loses at a game, surprising everyone including himself. He relieves himself of duty and hides in his quarters doing one self-diagnostic after another. As he tells Picard, "I have not been able to isolate the problem. I might make a mistake." Picard has to tell him that it's possible to lose without making a mistake, and that this is a part of life.
  • Samurai Sentai Shinkenger: Whenever Ryunosuke would feel that he had failed his lord, he would do something over the top to punish himself as he begged for forgiveness (banging his head on the ground in apology, jumping into a waterfall-styled fountain, etc.)
  • In the Doctor Who story "Death to the Daleks", a Dalek self-destructs in guilt because it let a prisoner escape.
  • House of Anubis: In the third season, Alfie lies to Amber about her receiving a call from a New York fashion school because he doesn't want her to leave. After breaking down from the guilt, he tells her the truth and she's upset at him for a while. When they meet up in the hallway, she's holding a glass of milk, and he dumps the milk on his head as a self-punishment.
  • Castle: In one episode, Alexis Castle grounds herself for a week after she jumps a subway turnstile without paying.

    Video Games 
  • In the Back Story of Divinity: Original Sin, the heroic Guardians of the Source stripped themselves of their powers and erased all memories of themselves from the world as penance for their failure to contain the Source corruption. They were then reborn in Rivellon as the future Source Hunters.
  • Arcanum: The Dwarf King Loghaire Thunderstone was once faced with a Sadistic Choice by a delegation of elves; the elves felt they had been wronged by the Black Mountain Clan and, fearing a war between elves and dwarves, Loghaire allowed the elves to punish the Black Mountain as they saw fit. However, letting elves interfere in dwarven justice was a betrayal of both Black Mountain and the dwarven philosophy of Shape and Stone, and Loghaire immediately abdicated his throne and exiled himself to an abandoned monster-filled mineshaft called the Dredge to ponder his own shame. If your character learns about Shape and Stone philosophy before they meet him, they can convince him that reclaiming his throne and actively trying to right this wrong would be a more productive course of action, allowing him to forgive himself and turning him into The Atoner.
  • Pokémon Ranger Shadows of Almia: During the final fight against Team Dim Sun on their cargo ship, the player has to fight off waves of grunts while their leader takes on the admin. Each time the player defeats the grunts, they all unanimously decide to jump into the ocean and swim home as punishment.

    Webcomics 
  • The robots Qwerty and Dvorak as well as Helix from Freefall beat themselves with mop handles on page 338 because they tried to delay fulfilling the First Law of Robotics, getting Mr. Kornada to safety, in an attempt to save Florence (an Uplifted Animal, thus not registering as "human" to their hardwired safeguards) from drowning in frigid water. Qwerty even remarks that he'll need his guilt chip overclocked.

    Web Video 
  • Diamanda Hagan: This is a Running Gag on this show. Diamanda always orders her minions to obey her. When she disagrees she tortures or shoots them, or lets them provoke agony on themselves as a matter of punishment.

    Western Animation 
  • In The Simpsons episode "Homer The Smithers", Waylon Smithers (who had already showcased himself to be absurdly loyal to Mr. Burns) takes his failure to protect Burns from a drunk (but very friendly) Lenny and accidentally not letting Mr. Burns be able to do a Junior Jumble (because he laminated the newspaper) so badly that he tries to drown himself in a water cooler. Mr. Burns then demands Smithers take a vacation, which makes things worse for both of them.
  • In the Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog episode, "So Long Sucker", when Scratch and Grounder return to Robotnik's fortress after a failed attempt to catch Sonic, Grounder brings back the pieces of their planes and accidentally drops them on Robotnik's foot. Just to save Robotnik the trouble of doing so, Grounder kicks himself in the butt. When he and Scratch try to explain the situation to Robotnik note , Robotnik doesn't believe it and demands that Grounder keep kicking himself.
  • Futurama: In "The Duh-Vinci Code" Animatronio, a wooden robot built by Leonardo da Vinci, flays himself to death after telling the Planet Express crew about a fountain where da Vinci's secrets may be found.
  • In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Princess Luna was corrupted by jealousy and tried to plunge the world into eternal night; the opening episodes of the show involve the main cast restoring Luna to her right mind. The season 5 episode "Do Princesses Dream of Magic Sheep?" reveals that Luna felt so much guilt over her villainous past, she created the Tantabus—a monster that inhabits Dream Land and turns all of her dreams into nightmares—solely to punish herself.
  • Bruno Bozzetto animated Help, centering on Jof the cat, who visits a hospital for a sore finger. Jof tries to open the front door by pressing the button with his elbow, his toe, his nose; nothing works. At last, Jof tries pressing the button with his sore finger, which activates the door. Jof beats the top of his head with his tail, as if admonishing himself that only the funniest solution would work.

    Real Life 
  • The art of bushido practiced in medieval Japan explained that, if a samurai committed a great indignity or brought shame to his house, that he may cleanse himself of his misdeeds by committing an act of seppuku. By doing so, he will show to the gods that he has atoned for his mistakes, and they in turn will forgive him.
  • Suicide over dishonor was not unheard of in Ancient Greece and Rome. The saying "to fall on one's sword" stems from the soldier's preferred method by holding their sword out at a 45 degree angle to their chest and falling forward into the point.
  • In some religions, the practice of flagellation (whipping yourself) is seen as punishment for your sins.
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