In “The Frames of Comic ‘Freedom,'” Umberto Eco discusses three broad genres of literature: tragedy, comedy, and humor. The distinction he makes between comedy and humor is a topic for another post, but I want to comment on what he says about tragedy: that because it embodies society’s standards, it always supports those standards. I think that, rather, tragedies tend to be equivocal about society.
In a tragedy, as Eco describes it, a character meets with misfortune because he or she breaks the rules of society. Such a story is conservative, he claims, because its resolution is reached when the rules reassert themselves in the character’s punishment, which would imply that there is something wrong with the character’s transgression. The story, simply put, warns the reader against doing something similar to what the character has done.
I don’t see this warning as inherent to the form. Eco uses the example of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which, he writes, “Madame Bovary is first of all a long and passionate argument against adultery, or, at least, about the impossibility of adultery in nineteenth-century bourgeois society.” If it is the latter, then why couldn’t the novel be read as criticizing a society that created a woman who is unable to conform to the rules it imposes on her? That is not the only reading, but I think a reading like it is possible for almost any tragedy.
It is rather, I think, stories with happy endings that unilaterally uphold laws. The (fairly bad but extremely successful) Victorian novel Lady Audley’s Secret, which has an eminently happy ending for every single character except the transgressor, Lady Audley, whose sad fate no one regrets, serves as a good example – in that novel, it is clear that we are meant to be happy at the end, and we cannot sympathize with Lady Audley if we want to do that. The normative claim is clear: the return to order that occurs when Lady Audley is punished for her misdeeds is a good thing, and thus that order is good.
At the end of tragedy, on the other hand, we are left wondering who is to blame. It is not often obvious; the ending of a tragedy usually has a sense of inevitability to it which precludes simple judgments. Is the tragedy of Madame Bovary Emma’s fault for her moral weakness? Her husband’s for his failure to recognize her unhappiness? Society’s for failing to create a place for her? Society’s for creating her? Or is it merely an accident of circumstances that leads to her fall? Ambiguities like this lie at the end of every tragedy. It is only the story with the happy ending, which requires a specific reaction from the reader in order to be appreciated, that makes unilateral decrees.