Metallica’s “The Unforgiven” Lyrics Meaning

“The Unforgiven” is a Metallica classic with some pretty-complex metaphors and wordplay. That’s another way of saying that there has been various explanations put forth as to what its lyrics actually mean. So what we will attempt to do here is put the most-viable theories into one comprehensive analysis.

You can view the lyrics, alternate interprations and sheet music for Metallica's The Unforgiven at

Metallica’s James Hetfield, who is recognized as the primary writer of this song, came from what most of us would classify as an extreme-Christian household. And as with all forms of religious fanaticism, he would have been obligated to follow some strict rules. So one of the aforementioned theories we were talking about states that the sentiments expressed on “The Unforgiven” originated in Hetfield’s childhood. FYI, this indeed one of the “most-personal tracks” he has ever written. 

Verse 1

And if such is so, then the boy who serves as “the child” he sings about in the first verse would actually be a reference to himself. And the conclusive characteristic of this boy is that after suffering abuse he makes a vow to himself that he will never let anyone else control his thoughts and actions. So the implication would be that said abuse had something to do with his free will being suppressed. And by what? By the above mentioned strict-religious lifestyle.

Verse 2

Then the second verse begins with the singer focusing on the type of abusers mentioned in the first verse. However, in the second verse who they are taking advantage of isn’t likely the same boy from before. And why? It’s possible he isn’t the one, considering he’s taken a vow not to be controlled and all. Rather this time around it is someone who has actually “tried to please” his controllers throughout his life, despite knowing that such may not have been the best idea. And this results in him not only being a “bitter man” but upon his deathbed realizing he wasted his life, so to speak.


Now in the chorus, James is not portraying the role of either of these characters per se. Rather he is speaking to the main ideas this song is founded on. First would be a notion akin to a person’s external disposition not necessarily being a true reflection of who they are. Or more specifically, individuals have a tendency to suppress feelings and understandings. And considering the song as a whole, the reason they would behave so is due to the way they’ve been socialized by the aforementioned oppressors.

Then at the conclusion of the chorus he ‘dubs’ the addressee ‘the Unforgiven’. Now we all know that this word means that said individual(s) has not been forgiven, specifically by the singer himself. And considering how the song plays out, he would logically be ‘dubbing’ this characteristic onto the people he is accusing of suppressing his will as well as that of others.

Who are the Oppressors?

So if anything, who he is talking about in that regard in particular is the main point of debate concerning the meaning of this song. Thus if we were to take the first verse as explained above, it would logically be individuals from the Church of Christ, Scientist, which his parents belonged to. However, whom exactly the oppressors of the old man in the second verse would be is a lot more open-ended. Thus it has been suggested that the general theme of “The Unforgiven” is centered on the struggles for individualism by a person whose will is being intentionally subjugated by others. And with that idea in mind, of course some fans have postulated that who the singer is actually talking to are the really-powerful, societal-level socializing institutions.


So with all that being said, if there’s one thing we can take away from this song it’s the below.

Metallica is totally not cool with the idea of letting others do their thinking for them. And this is specifically in terms of forcing them to think and act in a certain manner. In fact overall it can be said that they view giving in to the whims of others to be a path to ultimate unhappiness for any individual.

Lyrics of "The Unforgiven"

Facts about “The Unforgiven”

Metallica has dropped a couple of sequels to this song. The first one, entitled “The Unforigven II”, is featured on their 1997 album “Reload”. And the second, “The Unforgiven III”, made its debut on their 2008 project “Death Magnetic”.

“The Unforigven” itself came out 28 October 1991, via Elektra Records. It was the second single from Metallica’s eponymous album. That album is also known as “The Black Album”.

Metallic members Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich wrote this song.

Ulrich and Hetfield also produced “The Unforgiven”, alongside Bob Rock.

Hetfield is the vocalist on this track. And the singing style he utilized was uncharted territory for Metallica at the time. His inspiration in that regard was Chris Isaak and specifically Isaak’s 1989 hit “Wicked Game”.

“The Unforgiven” peaked at number one on the Finnish Singles Chart. It also appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 and UK Singles Chart. And in both cases, it broke the top 40. And overall, it charted in almost 15 countries.

5 Responses

  1. K says:

    Being a senior citizen and growing up in the Vietnam war era seems as though have always identified with this . A late bloomer never realized my full potential and was always trying so very hard to catch up.
    Screw that fast forward you have to find inner peace it’s-a long road but the only one! Peace to all!

  2. Anonymous says:

    One of my favorite songs. Thanks for explaining.

  3. TalonClaw2049 says:

    I have always identified with this song because for a time in my life I was raised by my Grandmother and Uncle who were cruel. If I defied them in any way I would stand in the corner for hours or be spanked with the bristles of a brush. Which was often. After I was free of them, never again would I be repressed in such a manor.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Interesting, I always thought the song was about the “elite’s” who run society.

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