Literary Corner Cafe

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

OpEd - Why We Prefer Tragedy in Literature


Highly literary fiction, i.e., fiction that is character driven rather than plot driven, is often tragic in nature rather than sunny or comedic. Highly literary fiction, which in my opinion represents the best that literature has to offer, is focused on opening the world to its readers. Often this world is a world the reader has not heretofore known, at least known firsthand. We get to know literary characters by walking a mile (or more) in their shoes. Of course, we could do this with non-fiction, but the life stories of most people, no matter how interesting to themselves or their loved ones, aren’t very compelling to others “as is.” To be good books, they need to be “tarted up” a bit, and that makes them, at least in part, fiction. (Even Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood “based on a true story” rather than simply writing the true story itself.) In fiction, we can do something we must scrupulously avoid in non-fiction – we can manipulate our characters and what happens to them as well as their reactions to highlight our theme, our message, our point of view.

If we take a look at the classics of literature, we’ll find that many of them focus on tragedy: Wuthering Heights, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the d’Ubervilles, Anna Karenina, The Good Soldier, Silas Marner, The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, Doctor Zhivago, The Great Gatsby, and The Sound and the Fury just to name a few. Of course there are exceptions, with the “novels of manners” of Jane Austen being in the forefront.

Presumably, most people would choose to be happy over being depressed or the victim of tragedy, so why, I asked myself many times, do we often choose to read tragic books over comic ones or ones with a happy ending? And why is it that tragic books are more often elevated to the status of “great literature” than their sunnier counterparts? I think the answer lies in our quest to understand, to make sense of life. It’s not too difficult to understand why we feel happy: the sun is shining, we have a nice home, our children are doing well, we’re healthy, we can pay our bills. It is much harder, however, to understand why bad things happen, and more specifically, why bad things happen to good people. Why bad things sometimes happen to us. Tragic fiction, I think, helps us make sense of the world. To take things one step further, tragic fiction helps us to see the part we, ourselves, play in shaping our own destiny, whether that destiny be sunny or dark, and it helps us to understand and forgive ourselves.

In his book, The Uses of Enchantment, psychologist Bruno Bettleheim writes:

There is a widespread refusal to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong in life is due to our very own natures—the propensity of all men for acting aggressively, asocially, selfishly, out of anger and anxiety. Instead, we want our children to believe that, inherently, all men are good. But children know that they are not always good; and often, even when they are, they would prefer not to be. This contradicts what they are told by their parents, and therefore makes the child a monster in his own eyes.

Bettleheim takes the view that man is not inherently good, at least not totally. Sometimes, Bettleheim says, due to our anger or our anxiety, we can be cruel. Most of us, however, were taught to deny this inherent cruelty, and also to deny empathy to ourselves as Bettleheim advocates. We were taught to deny our inherent sway toward anger and cruelty, especially when stressed, and to loathe and condemn it. What then, does that make us? Monsters? In the hope that we’re not, I think, many of us turn to tragic novels.

In Francis Fergusson’s introduction to Aristotle’s Poetics, Fergusson says: “The pleasure we find in the fine arts, but the special quality of our pleasure in tragedy...comes, says Aristotle, from the purgation of the passions of fear and pity.” For a tragedy to be truly pleasurable, Fergusson continues, an audience must respond with “pity and fear together.” We pity characters who are good people, but seem to suffer tragedy nonetheless. We fear them when, and only when, we can identify with them ourselves. When we fear the same terrible fate might – just might – become our own.

Why isn’t pity enough? Why is it necessary that we both pity the characters and also fear the tragedy that befalls a literary character might someday befall us? Fergusson again provides the explanation:

Pity alone is merely sentimental, like the shameless tears of soap opera. Fear alone, such as we get from a good thriller, merely makes us shift tensely to the edge of the seat and brace ourselves for the pistol shot. But the masters of tragedy, like good cooks, mingle pity and fear in the right proportions. Having given us fear enough, they melt us with pity, purging us of our emotions, and reconciling us to our fate, because we understand it is the universal human lot.

And it is the universally human that we identify with and seek to understand. Tess Derbyfield and Anna Karenina, to a large degree, brought about their own troubles. They at least had a hand in what went wrong. So did Jude Fawley and Jay Gatsby and even Yuri Zhivago, and Yuri Zhivago was, at heart, a very, very good man. Still, we get the sense that Yuri would have encountered problems even had the Russian Revolution not occurred. Though he loved his Tonya, he simply could not resist the irresistible Lara.

It’s hard – sometimes next-to-impossible – to look tragedy squarely in the eye when we’re dealing with our own life or the life of someone we love dearly. However, when that tragedy is played out on a movie screen, a stage, or in the pages of a book, we don’t usually shy away. In fact, our flawed humanity attracts us. We may chuckle with Evelyn Waugh or get a warm and fuzzy feeling while reading Jane Austen, but we know “life isn’t like that.” When we read Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Fitzgerald, or the more contemporary master of the understated tragic, William Trevor, we shake our head and whisper, “Yes, life is like that. When it comes right down to it, we’re all at the mercy of fate. I understand just how he felt.” And we finish the book with a little more understanding of the human condition, a little more insight into what makes us do the things we do, a less fear of being “the only one” to feel the way we do.

The best authors, of course, like Tolstoy and Trevor mix pity and fear in just the right proportions. Too much pity and we might actually laugh, instead. (Even death can be funny, and if you don’t think so, read Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One or watch the movie “Weekend At Bernie’s.”) Too little fear, and while we might admire the writing, we can’t identify with characters. But just the right amount and we say, “There, but for the grace of God,” and we heave a sigh of relief. And “just the right amount” is what every writer of tragedy should be striving for, because “just the right amount” is what separates a merely “good” book from an enduring masterpiece.

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