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The Penance

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A trope in which a character does something to mark themself and/or inflicts pain upon themself in order to atone for a misdeed. It is usually physical in nature and can range from cutting and burning, to choking and bruising, along with many, many other methods. One form of this is Keeping the Handicap, when a character refuses treatment for some condition because he feels he deserved it.

There is also an involuntary version where the state or some other authority stigmatizes someone in this way. Compare with Embarrassing Tattoo, whose serious versions have some overlap with this.

Taken to the next level, it becomes Redemption Equals Death. Compare Self-Restraint. Sub-Trope of Self-Harm.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Darker than Black has an example of this with the Contractor Bertha - when a normal person, she was a chain smoker and her baby choked to death on some of her cigarettes she left lying around. In the series, Contractors are people with powers who have a Renumeration (something they need to do after using their powers). Hers is eating and regurgitating something, but as a constant reminder of her carelessness, she chooses to eat and regurgitate cigarettes.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds has criminals given an electronic tag that takes the form of a face marking.
  • In Samurai Champloo, Mugen has blue bands tattooed around his wrists and ankles, indicating that he had served time in a prison colony on Ryukyu. In Edo-era Japan, when the show is set, prisoners were often given such tattoos. Possibly averted in that the tattoos themselves aren't shown as stigmatizing in any way, or indeed worthy of any mention. The warrant for escaping an execution by faking his own death, numerous former opponents bent on revenge, and his own habit of entering lethal combat with anyone, anywhere, however, is another story entirely.
  • In Fruits Basket, Saki Hanajima starts wearing black all the time to remind herself of her "sins", mainly the time when she almost killed a boy who was bullying her. It has the unfortunate side effect of making her look even more like a "witch", which was what got her bullied in the first place.
  • Doraemon: Occurs in "Soap Bubbles". Big G hits himself with a frying pan after he feels guilty about blaming Noby for his graffiti. Later on, Tammy tries, but fails to shave her head for being a bad mother.
  • Shaman King: Chocolove gets himself killed by Seyram and Redseb as a revenge on their part for him having murdered their father in cold blood during his past life as a gang member. After being revived by the Gandhara, despite their powers being able to bring him back to life unharmed, he willingly chooses to go blind as a way to atone for his sins, holding no ill will towards the kids and instead trying to make them smile for his condition. The experience in the afterlife and his formidable sense of smell actually end up favoring him, as he comes back even stronger as a Handicapped Badass.

    Comic Books 
  • In Astro City, the original Confessor is a sort of Batman expy with clerical motifs who is a vampire and in life was a priest. He seeks to atone for his deeds by wearing a crucifix even though as a vampire it causes him pain.
  • Marvel Comics' post-Civil War (2006) member of the Thunderbolts, named Penance, wears a suit made of spikes that charges his pain-based superpowers. Originally, he was the Fun Personified hero Speedball, member of the New Warriors, who changed his identity after he thought he had caused an explosion that killed hundreds of people. Even after it was revealed that it wasn't his fault, he kept the suit, and seemed to fall into parody Darker and Edgier territory.
  • Occasionally done in The Beano and The Dandy in the 1950s-1980s with characters slippering (In these two comics it was common for an ending of a strip to involve the character being beaten on their behind with a slipper for their misdeeds) themselves instead of their parents or other authority figure doing it.
  • Played straight with a minor Spider-Man character named Sundown. After getting his powers (flight, energy projection, healing factor, etc.) under very traumatic circumstances, he went a little crazy and ending up battling half the heroes in New York City. The fight ended when a young girl he knew tried to calm him down by showing him a plant she'd been growing. She ended up injured and losing an arm, which snapped him back to sanity. Horrified by what he'd done, he surrendered to the authorities and pleaded guilty to all charges, being sentenced to decades in jail. Although he could have left the prison any time he wanted, he chose to stay and rejected all opportunities for parole, viewing the prison sentence as penance.

    Fan Works 
  • This Bites!: Cross feels like such a heel for lying to Vivi about the Rebel Army's location that while the crew is in Yuba, he joins Toto in digging up water and doesn't stop until he falls asleep on his feet. And when he wakes up, he would've kept on digging if Toto hadn't called him out.
  • The epilogue of the The Vow has an involuntary example. Following the defeat and apparent death of Lord Shen, he's taken in by his wife Lady Lianne. Knowing that he'd be executed or imprisoned for life by the higher authorities if he were ever found alive, Lianne plays on her right as the Lady of the Shēnghuó Province and Shen's former prisoner to punish him as she sees fit and forces Shen to vow that he remains confined in the Shan Palace for the rest of his life. This is her way to see that her husband and the father of her son pays for his crimes and doesn't leave her side again.

  • In the movie The Mission, Captain Mendoza kills his brother in a sword duel, and realizes what he has done to so many Guarani natives. He spends the next 10 minutes climbing up a waterfall with 50 kg of heavy armor tied to his back. Father Gabriel watches him, decides he has atoned for his sins, and makes him a Jesuit missionary.

  • The Scarlet Letter was borne by the book's female lead, Hester Prynne, for her adulterous dalliance with Arthur Dimmesdale, who self-flagellates for his own sins.
  • Older Than Print: Several stories about Sir Gawain, one of the Knights of the Round Table, involve a version of this in which he wears some clothing or marks his shield as a mark of shame, and as a nice gesture, the other knights adopt the same marker. One version has him doing this after accidentally killing a woman and in the romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight he does this to atone for cowardly behavior.
  • Another old example is in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where he wears the dead albatross around his neck and is compelled to tell his story in order to atone.
  • For a non-voluntary example, the Remade of Perdido Street Station and other books in that universe.
  • One L. M. Montgomery short story talks about a lighthearted young woman who believes that she has accidentally killed her responsible older sister by a drug overdose; the young woman spends fourteen years abstaining from all the things she loves (like music, parties, and the man she's in love with) and dedicates herself to as much hardship and work as she can, to do penance.
  • The book Atonement is this trope - Briony writes the book after she grows up to attempt to atone for her sins.
  • Silas in The Da Vinci Code repeatedly whips himself, wears a leg bracelet that's made of barbed wire that digs into his leg, and a whole bunch of other painful things to apparently atone for killing the people he kills over the course of the book. Subverted, as he's a bad guy.
  • Aes Sedai in The Wheel of Time series will assign themselves a Penance for transgressions of White Tower law or custom. This can range from performing menial tasks better suited to lower ranked Novices to corporal punishment a la spanking. Egwene manages to treat her capture by Elaida and subsequent attempts to break her spirit, thereby breaking the rebellion as a form of Penance.
  • In The Mountains of Mourning, Miles Vorkosigan sentences an infanticide to have her property rights stripped away and be considered legally dead as an alternative to hanging. The book seems to have some pity for her as she was caught offguard by changing times, but nonetheless she clearly deserved it and it was necessary to give a sharp reminder that disabled people were not to be killed out of hand anymore.
  • In Owen Archer series, the healer and wisewoman Magda Digby always refers to herself in the third person. In A Vigil of Spies, she reveals that it's a penance for her youthful arrogance when she refused to heal someone, believing them to be "unworthy". Even since then, she used "Magda" instead of "I" as a way to remind herself that she is only a vessel for her powers. Though Thoresby absolved her of guilt in the same book, she continued to speak like that because it had become an important part of her personality.
  • In the Chivalric Romance Gowther and Robert the Devil, the main character lives as a Court Jester and puts up with endless abuse as penance for his sins.
  • In The Secret of Platform 13, the three nurses accidentally got the infant Prince kidnapped after taking him through a Portal Door to the Muggle world, with no way to retrieve him for nine years. Since the King and Queen were too nice to punish them, they spend the time punishing themselves by living in a cove and refusing to eat anything but the stalest, moldiest food; whenever even slightly comfortable, they will excuse themselves to sit on painful rocks or dip their limbs in icy water. When nine years finally pass, they're stationed at the door with a huge crate of bananas, waiting to dig in as soon as the Prince arrives.
  • Renner Lightburn in Bequin is a Curst, a type of penitent which lives in poverty and carries out any task asked of them, symbolically taking on another’s burden to atone for their own sins. They write their crimes on their skin in ink as a visual representation of the burdens they carry: Lightburn’s crimes cover most of his body. His current burden is taking Beta to Mam Mordaunt. He reveals his original crime near the end of the book: as a temple guard, he gave shelter to a scared teenage girl being chased by a mob, unaware that she was an unsanctioned psyker.
  • The Pilgrim's Regress: Vertue, John's friend, becomes convinced for a while that flesh is inherently evil and so proclaims he's going to make himself miserable in as many ways as he can think of to mortify it. He's just recovered from a major illness, yet goes off into the mountains. When John tries to follow him, he angrily threatens him, saying that friendship is another form of pleasure.
  • Wise Blood: Hazel blinds himself at the end of the book after realizing he could never really escape God and his feelings of being a sinner.
  • In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Amaranta badly burns her own hands as self-punishment for driving Pietro Crespi to suicide with her rejection of him.

    Live Action TV 
  • Doctor Who has one example of the "authority stigmatizes someone" variety, however it was only touched upon briefly. Strax, at the start of the episode "A Good Man Goes to War" is a nurse which is the ultimate punishment for Sontarans.
    HARCOURT: Commander Strax. I just have to ask. A Sontaran nurse?
    STRAX: I serve a penance to restore the honour of my clone batch. It is the greatest punishment a Sontaran can endure, to help the weak and sick.
    HARCOURT: Who came up with that one?
    (The sound of the Tardis materialising.)
    STRAX: Tonight, though, perhaps my penance is over. Captain Harcourt, I hope some day to meet you in the glory of battle, when I shall crush the life from your worthless human form. Try and get some rest.
  • Torchwood. Twice in one episode. In the series 2 finale
    • 1). Jack Harkness lets his brother Gray bury him alive for nearly two thousand years because he feels guilt over letting him fall into enemy hands as a child. He even mentions this trope by name in dialogue.
    • 2). Jack's ex-partner John, who Gray made bury Jack, joins forces with Torchwood afterwards and subjugated himself to Gray's wrath again.
  • In Supernatural, after Kevin is killed, Dean allows himself to bear the Mark of Cain out of guilt for causing the death. Drastic consequences ensued.

  • The Alfred Lord Tennyson poem "St. Simeon Stylites" goes into the mind of a Christian saint, Simeon Stylites, who sat on a high pillar for thirty-seven years to atone for his sins. Subverted, however, in that the poem more than implies that Simeon's gesture is founded out of pride just as much as out of guilt.
    "Have mercy, mercy, wash away my sin."

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Warhammer 40,000, the Imperium's Ecclesiarchy has two notable instances that show up in models for the game:
    • The first are the Sisters Repentia, Sisters of Battle who have committed egregious sins and are outcasts from their Orders. They are ceremonially stripped of their armor and weapons, dressed in rags (if that much), have their hair shorn, and wade into battle wielding only huge chainswords to seek redemption, which usually only comes by dying in combat.
    • The second, and the more severe, is to be condemned to become the pilot of a Penitent Engine, a fate reserved for fallen priests and Battle Sisters who have committed crimes too grievous to merit becoming Sisters Repentia. They are essentially crucified on the front of a walking gun platform, hard-wired to the machine through invasive cybernetics that bombard their minds with sensations of guilt and sorrow, and are sent into battle to die for their crimes with no other chance for forgiveness.
    • Beside the Ecclesiarchy, many institutions turn offenders into a servitor as a common punishment for crimes deemed particularly egregious, but not heinous enough to warrant a death sentence or worse-than-death sentence. Getting servitored usually entails extensive and invasive cybernetics placed at least in the brain, sometimes with a lobotomy thrown into the deal for good measure. All servitors are little more than Empty Shells devoid of personality or sentiment, and used mostly as a robotic labor drone. Note that most servitors are vat grown rather than an legion of petty criminals (we think).
      • Then there are arco-flagellants, who undergo a process similar to servitoring, but much of their body is augmented with combat cybernetics. They have their hands replaced by shock whips and power scourges, get internal pumps full of combat drugs, and have a helmet fused onto their head which keeps them at peace and near comatose while at rest. Once their activation phrase is triggered and they go into combat mode, and... One particular case of this was an Imperial official who went rather...batty after a time and committed several atrocities. When he was apprehended, it was commented that death wouldn't suffice as a punishment; and he was sentenced to become an arco-flagellant and spend the rest of his days as a killing machine fighting the Emperor's enemies.
  • Princess: The Hopeful: A Princess of Storms who shows mercy to, or retreats from battle with, a creature of the Darkness or a member of the Court of Tears cannot access the Storms Invocation again until her entire health track is filled with at least bashing damage (that is, until she's injured to the point where she risks falling unconscious). It's mentioned in the books that a Princess of Storms engaging in self-flagellation to meet this condition is both common and encouraged by fellow Seraphim.


  • Oedipus the King blinds himself out of horror in realizing he killed his father and married (and even had children with) his mother.

    Video Games 
  • The Arbiter from Halo goes through this in Halo 2. After being held responsible for the destruction of the titular ringworld in the first game, he's branded with a mark of shame in the involuntary variety.
  • Glory from Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall replaced both her arms with cybernetics, ripping most of her soul out in the process, as penance for having killed her mother while under the influence of her mentor spirit.
  • Blasphemous: Everyone is Cvstodia is obsessed with inflicting pain and suffering upon themselves as penance for sin. The Grievous Miracle is only too happy to assist them in their endeavours. The Penitent One can cut themself to trade health for Fervor (mana), and their sword, Mea Culpa ("My Fault"), is covered in thorns for the express purpose of making it painful to wield.
  • The Flaggelant is a DLC-introduced character in Darkest Dungeon. In his attack animations, he flags himself and (somehow) inflicts heavy damage and bleed on the enemy. He can also heal himself and either inflict damage or heal his party when at low health but doing so gets less effective each time.
    • One of the ways in which a character can relieve stress in the Hamlet is to engage in self-flagellation in the Abbey. When a character is assigned to that activity, a loud whip-crack is heard.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • As mentioned in the description, one of the reasons people may inflict Self-Harm is feeling like they deserve it for some misdeed, or they suffer from self-loathing or cripplingly low self-esteem that causes them to think they deserve pain. Getting over this feeling is a big step on the path to recovery.
  • Many societies have inflicted punishments such as branding, tattooing, severing of limbs, etc., all for the purpose of stigmatizing criminals. Some still do.
  • Inverted by a former white supremacist who went through the very painful process of having his racist face tattoos removed.
  • Catholicism:
    • The church still recommends some sort of mild punishment as another way to observe Lent (let's say for one example, depriving oneself from their favorite dessert or TV show or wearing very modest clothing). It can also be spiritual preparation - basically, like being The Hermit, only toned down for everyday practicality. One of the oldest and most widespread Lent penances is avoiding red meat and poultry on Fridays.
    • After going to Confession, Catholics are also assigned a small penance as atonement for their sins. It's most usually prayer, but can also be an action, such as almsgiving or doing one's least favorite chore.
    • In the past, more extreme examples were fairly common. A penitent might be obliged to undertake an arduous task (usually involving hard labor) or take a pilgrimage. Self-flagellation (whipping yourself) occurred as well, along with milder things like wearing a hairshirt or sackcloth. They are more rare today, but some of the most traditional Catholics will engage in them. Fasting and abstinence are still common examples of penitence (by people who haven't taken of vows in to be celibate already in the latter case). Some people wear cilices, a modern version of the hairshirt, to do penance (Mother Teresa did for instance)
  • The traditional folk-punishment for suspected wifebeaters in the South was "the rough music" meaning to gather around his house and clang pots and pans or other noisy implements until he became so exasperated as to leave town.