Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Tragedy, like "romance" or "comedy," has both a broad popular use and a related but more complex academic or critical use.

In common speech, as in "What a tragedy!", the term usually describes an unfortunate event or end to a life story, especially when the event is undeserved; e.g. "a tragic accident."

Oxford English Dictionary. tragic 1.a. Of or relating to an event, situation, etc., that causes great suffering, destruction, or distress, esp. one that involves death on a large scale or premature death; catastrophic, disastrous, devastating.

Examples of popular use of "tragedy": a devastating accident, a good person going wrong, a young person with their life ahead of them dying suddenly or mistakenly.

In literary criticism, the concept is more complicated but, like the popular definition, it raises questions about justice and morality for individuals and the world.

Instead of seeing tragedy as an "accident" or a simple act of misfortune, literary or classical tragedy depicts human decisions and their effects—in other words, not accidents but causes and consequences. Ironically, some of our leading human qualities generate tragedies. The greatness of humanity is revealed by human failure.

As a result, tragedy may be considered the most challenging genre in western literature but also the greatest or most profound.

Tragedy genre as subject / audience; formal genre; narrative genre. (Introduction to Genres)

Tragedy as Subject / Audience Identification: Movies with tragic elements or tone are often casually referred to as "dramas." Since tragedy isn't an especially popular genre, the term itself—as in, "Let's go see a tragedy tonight!"—hardly exists in popular culture. After seeing one, people might say the film was "heavy," "dark," or "intense." (But the narratives of many "dramatic films" are really only serious or tragic romances featuring virtuous heroes enduring undeserved suffering and transcending at the end.)

Audiences for tragedy may correspond somewhat to its subject: If Aristotle claims that the characters in tragedy must be noble, great, and/or tortured leaders and their families,

Tragedy as Formal genre or types and number of voices + relation to audience: dramas or films generally conform to 2b. Drama or Dialogue, in which two or more characters speak directly with each other, which the audience overhears. The chorus, however, may serve functions of a narrator in providing background information or asking the questions the audience might ask. (In this Nietzschean sense, the audience relates powerfully to the chorus.) These narrator-functions may also be provided by a "host" or "narrator" as in Our Town, with "voice-overs" in film or video, or when television or film actors "break the fourth wall" by speaking directly to the audience. But drama or dialogue prevails.

Only dramatic tragedies are read in LITR 4370 Tragedy, but tragic narratives also appear in fiction or novels. Examples: The Great Gatsby, Middlemarch, Jude the Obscure, Light in August, Things Fall Apart, many more. (Great tragic novelists include Thomas Hardy, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, William Faulkner, Thomas Mann, Chinua Achebe, many more.

Tragedy as Narrative Genre: (compare romance, comedy, satire as four major narrative genres)

The story begins with a problem or conflict that is significant to society, its leaders, or its representatives.

The problem may rise from a temptation or error that human beings recognize, such as greed, pride, or self-righteousness. The problem is intimate and integral to human identity; it is not "objectified" or displaced to a villain or outside force, as in romance. Good and evil are not split among "good guys and bad guys"; characters are mixed, in imitation of real life.

Action or plot consists of an attempt to discover the truth about the problem, to follow or trace or absorb its consequences, to restore justice (even at cost to oneself), or to regain moral control of the situation.

The tragic narrative concludes with resolution of the problem and restoration of justice, often accompanied by the death, banishment, or quieting of the tragic hero.

Purposes of Tragedy—i.e., why do we read or see it, especially during powerful periods of history?

Literature entertains and informs / teaches / models: pain is the strongest teacher (impresses our imagination and memory more strongly than pleasant situations or outcomes)

Tragedy narrates essential conflicts that define human identity, the consequences of such conflicts, and potential resolutions.

Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy: tragedy combines our creative, formal impulses—the Apolline—with our wild, ecstatic impulses—the Dionysiac—to achieve a unified aesthetic experience that is both beautiful and terrifying (i.e., the sublime)

Medicinal or therapeutic purposes: Aristotle's catharsis or purgation (Poetics 13a, 14a & b): in tragedy a serious problem affects or poisons the world or community represented by the theater, creating a need for cleansing and healing (or catharsis)

Mimesis: Tragedy imitates real life more than other genres, especially by representing characters as mixtures of good and evil—like you or me.

  • Romance represents characters as either heroes (all good / innocent) or villains (all bad / guilty).

  • Comedy represents characters as well-meaning fools.

  • Tragedy shows individuals as both good and bad—in fact, an individual's best characteristic may be what brings his or her downfall. (tragic flaw)

Other lessons of tragedy:

You must do the best you can, but you never have it all or win at everything. Some people have it easier than others, some are more talented than others, but everyone operates within painful yet defining limits.

The world may be beautiful—trees, sky, the people who loved and helped you—-but someday each of us must say goodbye to it all.

Even though each of us loses everything, the world remains beautiful (and terrible).

These may sound like downers, but in fact tragedies are strangely energizing and stimulating to an audience.

If you want to experience the beauty and order of existence, you must face its terror and chaos. (catharsis)

Tragedies appear most during periods when a people or nation are confident, not when they're depressed. (When they're depressed, they prefer "escape" through comedy and romance.)

Most comedies and romances simply pass the time. Tragedy makes you learn, which, Aristotle says, is "the liveliest pleasure."

"The tragedy of life is what makes it worthwhile.  I think that any life which merits living lies in the effort to realize some dream, and the higher that dream is the harder it is to realize.  Most decidedly we must all have our dreams.  If one hasn't them, one might as well be dead.  The only success is in failure.  Any man who has a big enough dream must be a failure and must accept this as one of the conditions of being alive.  If he ever thinks for a moment that he is a success, then he is finished."

Eugene O'Neillqt in Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (NY: Dell, 1965), p. 180.

Is Tragedy the Greatest Literary Genre?: Only rarely is Tragedy a popular genre of literature. In most periods of history, masses of people prefer to "escape" their problems or feel assured that everything always turns out for the best. As a result, comedy, romance, and romantic comedy are the most predictably popular genres.

Using varying narrative patterns, both comedy and romance allow audiences to feel superior to other people, thereby escaping or transcending problems. Tragedy, in contrast, confronts problems, depicts our struggles to solve problems, and explores the consequences of both our problems and our attempts to solve them.

Occasionally, during great periods of history, tragedy becomes more popular, as in Athens during the Athenian Empire, London during the British Empire, and the USA during the "greatest generation" of the mid-20th century.

At other times tragedy remains more of an elite or educated taste for select audiences. Tragic dramas or films are more likely to gain an audience in a big, sophisticated city, in a college town, or in art theaters featuring "Independent Films."

Appealing to educated or elite audiences helps tragedies become "timeless," as such audiences preserve and teach tragedies to new generations of students.

However, tragedy also approaches timelessness because it deals with timeless subjects, such as the mixed nature of humanity, the love-hate relations of families, and consequences of our environment and actions.

Also, compared to comedy, tragedy tends not to be as concerned with the passing events or popular culture of a given moment in history. Since such everyday phenomena age rapidly and become old-fashioned or obsolete, comedy's attention to such realistic details makes most comedies age rapidly. In contrast, tragedy, while it is concerned with essential human problems, sometimes seems isolated from everyday events (in classical tragedy, by being associated with noble families).


How cultivate taste for an art form that depicts pain and suffering rather than pleasure and escape?

commonsense principle that humans (or any conscious

Aristotle, Rhetoric: "We may lay it down that Pleasure is a movement, a movement by which the soul as a whole is consciously brought into its normal state of being; and that Pain is the opposite."

But in Poetics Aristotle states that "learning gives the liveliest pleasure" and implies that Tragedy promotes learning.

Learning = Pleasure is gratifying to educators, but universality is doubtful.

Most people instinctively find pleasure in confirmation rather than learning, sensory excitement rather than intellectual puzzles, and escape from problems instead of engagement with problems.

Other possibilities?

Catharsis as therapeutic

The Sublime as most powerful and memorable aesthetic emotion

Snobbishness: more popular forms of art are transient, "trash" to be disposed; more demanding forms of art (tragedy, classical music, stage-theater instead of movies, opera) last longer and satisfy desires for immortality, return on investment of attention.

mimesis: world, nature, or reality is complicated, full of beauty and suffering, which tragedy more accurately imitates.

Ultimately teaching tragedy may be a critical thinking exercise rather than a sales job to a gratified customer. Audience may not enjoy but they will learn, which can become a habit?

Students do remember tragedy, even in frustration.