50 pages 1 hour read

Tana French

The Witch Elm

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2018

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.


How Luck and Privilege Limit Empathy

Content Warning: This section of the guide discusses death by suicide, sexual assault, and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Although Toby is a seemingly grateful person, he often fails to extend empathy to colleagues, friends, and family who experience trauma. His lack of empathy stems from his lucky, privileged life. At the end of his story, he acknowledges how his luck “was the gem glittering at the fount of me, coloring everything I did and every word I said” (509). Toby realizes how dismissive and insensitive his words and actions can be after experiencing several traumatic events. After losing almost every important part of his identity to two crimes (his appearance, career, relationships, etc.), he still acknowledges feeling lucky—though he comes to view his luck as a fatal flaw.

Toby first recognizes his inability to empathize when his friends Sean and Dec criticize his involvement in fraud. Sean reveals to Toby, “You’ve done stuff like this ever since I knew you. Got caught sometimes. Sorted it out every time. This is the same old same old” (21). He disapproves of not only Toby’s crime but also the fact that he suffers no consequences for his actions. Sean and Dec believe his privilege (as an attractive, healthy, heterosexual white man from a wealthy family) translates into confidence, enhancing his ability to avoid punishment and enjoy advantages.