The ending of Return of the Jedi is one of the greatest feel good moments of any movie saga. The Empire has been toppled, the teddy bears are dancing (I kid!), and our heroes are all awkwardly positioned for a great family photo they did not even know they were taking.
All of this was made possible by one man: Anakin Skywalker.
We often give credit to Luke, and rightfully so, for his bravery in choosing love over the advice of his mentors. He walked into the belly of the beast and came out victorious, but it would not have been so if not for Anakin.
I say Anakin very purposefully. Vader did not throw the Emperor over the balcony while simultaneously being torn to bits by Force lightning. Anakin Skywalker did that.
And it doing that Anakin Skywalker destroyed the Empire he helped create. In doing that, Anakin Skywalker was redeemed… or was he?
Anakin’s redemption has been the commonly accepted rhetoric for generations. This only expanded when the prequel trilogy was released and we saw Anakin as the pure young boy, the troubled teen with no support, and finally the evil Sith Lord we had come to know in the original trilogy. Logically it makes sense, and is easier to digest, to think that when he goes from dark to light he would be going back to the lightest of lights.
What it comes down to, however, is how we define redemption.
With the way we commonly speak about it, redemption means complete and utter forgiveness. Luke certainly forgives his father. He tries not only save him with regards turning him from Vader to Anakin, but literally to save him from the Death Star’s explosion.
[A redeemed Anakin Skywalker is dying in Luke’s arms]
Anakin Skywalker: Luke, help me take this mask off.
Luke: But you’ll die!
Anakin: Nothing can stop that now. Just for once, let me look on you with my own eyes. [Luke carefully removes Vader’s mask to reveal Anakin’s disfigured face underneath.] Now…go, my son. Leave me.
Luke: No, you’re coming with me. I won’t leave you here. I’ve got to save you!
Anakin: [smiles] You already have, Luke. You were right. You were right about me… Tell your sister… you were right… [dies]
Luke: Father… I won’t leave you.
Moreover, Luke gives Anakin a proper Jedi funeral, affirming that Anakin was indeed completely back to the light after his turn from the dark side.
Still, what his son thinks of him is only one point of view. What about the rest of the galaxy?
From Bloodline, the wonderful novel by Claudia Grey, we learn that the galaxy at large does not know about the redemption of Vader. Simmer on that for a moment. The most notable bad guy in galactic history returns to being a good guy moments before his death and helps topple an evil even greater than he. And. No. One.Knows.
This has to mean that the three people who do know (Luke, Han, Leia) have to believe that the citizens of the galaxy would not believe that what Anakin did in his last moments warrants forgiveness. That the atrocities he perpetrated for decades outweighs the good he did in a moment.
Which raises the final question: Is there a difference between redemption and forgiveness?
Webster’s defines redemption as, “serving to offset or compensate for a defect.” Whereas forgiveness is defined as, “ to cease to feel resentment against (an offender).”
Offset for a defect vs. ceasing to feel resentment. Clearly a difference, but where does it fit into the story of Anakin Skywalker? It comes down to the personal vs. the social.
Personally, Anakin was redeemed. He offset for his defect by offsetting the Emperor over the balcony. In his heart, he was a conduit of the light once again. Further, his son forgives him, thereby validating that redemption by showing that what was done matters.
But redemption is personal. Offsetting for a defect implies overcoming something internal that is problematic. Crudely, we can think of this in terms of an appliance. When you fix a defect in your dishwasher for example, you are working internally. You are not concerned with how the dishwasher is perceived by yourself or the public. You want it to work the way it should.
Forgiveness, though, is more about perception or how one feels. Your dishwasher may be fixed, but do you forgive it for not doing its proper job when it was broken? This is the same question we have to consider with Anakin/Vader:
Could the galaxy forgive him for all he had done?
Killing children. Destroying planets. Perpetuating a government based on fear and power.
Luke, Han, and Leia, in keeping the truth about what happened on the Second Death Star a secret, obviously believe that the feelings of resentment far are too big to overcome for the citizens of the galaxy. And therefore he could not be forgiven. And therefore he could not be redeemed.
In Luke, we see why this holds true: redemption and forgiveness, in some indefinable way, work hand in hand. It is a chicken and egg scenario, but there cannot be one without the other when it comes to people because, frankly, we are not dishwashers. We have emotions, and those impact everything. So without forgiveness there can be no redemption, and without redemption there cannot be complete forgiveness.
So if the galaxy could not forgive Anakin, was he redeemed? Or had he broken too many dishes.