I. What is Tragedy?
In any tragedy, we start with the tragic hero, usually in his prime. The hero is successful, respected, and happy. But he has some tragic flaw that will ultimately cause his downfall. Usually, the plot of the story follows a gradual descent from greatness to destruction. It’s especially important that the hero end up isolated from all of his friends and companions. In the end, we feel deep sadness and pity (also called pathos) for the hero. But we also feel a sense of understanding – the story warns us to guard against the ordinary flaws that brought down the hero.
Sometimes, people use the word “tragedy” for any sad event. For example, we might say that an airplane crash or tsunami was “tragic.” But in literature, the word has a much more specific meaning than that.[GENERAL SPOILER ALERT: Since tragedies are largely defined by their endings, many of the examples in this article contain spoilers]
II. Examples of Tragedy
Thorin Oakenshield from The Hobbit is a great tragic hero. Though he’s living in exile, he’s still the king of the Dwarves and a great warrior. His quest is to restore the Dwarves to their kingdom under the mountain, and he is utterly committed to that quest – so committed, in fact, that he gradually isolates himself from his supporters and friends, believing he can trust no one. Take note, though! Thorin might be a tragic hero, but The Hobbit is no tragedy! It has a happy ending, after all.
Citizen Kane, arguably the greatest movie ever made, is definitely a modern tragedy, but oddly told in flashbacks. The tragic hero dies at the very beginning of the story, rather than the end, and the rest of the movie is all about trying to piece together the complex life that led to his tragic downfall. In the movie, we see Charles Foster Kane grow from a carefree young boy into an ambitious young newspaper man, and from there to a bitter old miser. Over the course of the film, Kane is brought down by his own greed and ambition.
III. The Importance of Tragedy
Tragedies might be the oldest form of storytelling in the Western tradition. The earliest known Greek plays are all tragedies, and many Greek philosophers believed that tragedy was the highest form of literary art.
No one is really sure why people have historically loved tragedies so much. If you think about it, it’s a little odd: why would we want to experience all the emotions of sadness and pity that tragedies bring up? Shouldn’t we prefer happy and light-hearted films? Of course, some people do. But tragedy has an enduring power in literature that shows deep and lasting popularity. What accounts for it?
The most well-known theory is Aristotle’s idea of catharsis. Aristotle argued that tragedies give us a feeling of catharsis, or the release of pent-up emotions. As we go through life, we store up negative emotions, “bottling them up” as we might say now. Aristotle believed that a good tragedy was a productive, safe way to release those negative emotions.
Unfortunately, tragedies are extremely rare these days. Modern film and television audiences prefer happy endings, so it’s unusual to see a genuine tragedy in modern popular culture. There are a few, though, as we’ll see in Examples of Tragedy in Popular Culture.
IV. Examples of Tragedy in Literature
Shakespeare was a huge fan of a good tragedy, and some of his best plays are his tragedies. Macbeth, for example, tells the story of a noble Scottish warrior whose wife convinces him to betray and murder the King. Over the course of the play, Macbeth gradually isolates himself from all of his friends and supporters, growing more and more dependent on his own (and his wife’s) ambition. In the end, he is destroyed by the very people he once fought side-by-side with.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a classic tragedy set in Africa, with themes taken from Shakespeare and the Bible. In the story, Okonkwo is a prosperous and well-loved man in his village. But he is guilty of hubris, and his rash actions accidentally cause the death of another man in the village. After being accused of manslaughter, Okonkwo is abandoned by his friends and ultimately dies alone.
V. Examples of Tragedy in Popular Culture
Michael Collins, starring Liam Neeson, is a historical tragedy about a famous leader of the Irish War of Independence. The real-life Collins fought for independence from Britain, and then went to London to negotiate a peace treaty that split the island in two, with only the southern part gaining independence. In the ensuing conflict over the treaty, Collins was killed by men who had once fought beside him. The film takes a pro-treaty stance, and so Collins is portrayed as a tragic hero with his death serving as the sad ending, and idealism as his tragic flaw.
American History X, starring Edward Norton, is a particularly tragic story because the tragic hero actually fixes his flaw before being killed. The hero is Danny Vinyard, a young high school student who is influenced by his brother’s racist attitudes. Over the course of the film, Danny and his brother significantly grow up and abandon their hatefulness. However, it’s too late to save Danny, who is killed by one of the victims of his former racism, another young man who isn’t aware of Danny’s transformation, or can’t forgive him for his actions.
VI. Related Terms
In Greek drama, tragedy and comedy were the two opposed genres. Nearly every Greek play fell into one or the other of these categories, and the rules separating them were pretty clear. Whereas tragedies made people feel sad and let people release their negative emotions, comedies made people laugh so that they forgot their emotions (at least for a little while). Today, comedy has clearly won the popularity contest – Hollywood gives us dozens of comedies each year, but very rarely comes out with a genuine tragedy.
A tragic hero can have all kinds of flaws. But the most common is hubris, a Greek term meaning an excess of confidence, ambition, or defiance toward the gods. Once you learn to recognize hubris, you’ll see it everywhere in both literature and real life. For example, Hitler is often depicted as being guilty of hubris (among other flaws, of course). The thing that brought him down in the end was that he thought he was indestructible – he thought he could fight a war against the Allies and then, right in the middle of it, turn around and pull a surprise attack on the Soviets. This turned out to be a fatal mistake, and Hitler lost the war because of it. (Note: because of his many other nasty attributes, Hitler does not make a good tragic hero! He is, however, a good example of hubris.)