Ends in Tragedy

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.


3 responses to “Ends in Tragedy

  1. Very interesting ideas Mr. Righthandofnixon. I find the last paragraph most interesting. For me the best tragedy or rather the one that sticks with me the longest is that which does not allow for the reader to identify where the blame should go. When we are able to associate blame with the actions that lead to the tragedy we can then ignore the tragedy itself and conclude that though the story itself is tragic, that would never be me. I feel that tends to be the case with examples such as Madam Bovary or even older Romeo and Juliet, where we can precisely identify the mistakes that lead to their downfall.

    However with tragedy that utilizes the ambiguous, that is tragedy that leaves the reader confused as how to avoid that fate himself, engages the reader that much more. But going off a comment I made on another post I do also believe that these varying interpretations concern much more the reader than the author’s intent. For with almost every example of tragedy out there I bet one can find a cause of pain in the text that would then allow the reader to write it off as implausible in his reality. All in all a good discussion.


  2. Dorian Gray may be an example of the more interesting tragedy, one who is tragic by circumstance and not by his own doing. But then again he chose to engage that environment and have the painting done, but also he had no idea of the effects it would have. Alas it is on the reader not, the author, to decide.

    Huysmans out

  3. That’s definitely true about the reader thinking it could happen to them. In order for a story of, for instance, an execution, to be tragic, it would have to show the condemned’s side of the story, and delve into their motivations. It’s not so much that what happens happens for no reason, but that it could not have been avoided in a simple way.

    I’m trying to come up with an example of a bona fide tragedy that ends with an explicit moral. There are certainly plenty of folk tales and ballads that try to impart a message by cautionary example, but I’m not sure they would really be considered tragedies. They may be sad but they don’t quite hit that point of sublimation that a true tragedy does at its climax.


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