When I was in high school, we read Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. As freshmen, we cringed and wrung our hands after learning the fate of Thomas Hardy’s Tess, the main character in his masterpiece tragic novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, who, frankly, never had much of a chance.
My sophomore year, we spent weeks discussing the suicide of Willy Loman, the sad sack protagonist of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. I’ll never be able to forget Melville’s unfortunate Billy Bud, hanged by his neck from the yardarm for a crime he didn’t commit, or the murder of Jay Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lovesick millionaire, shot to death in his own swimming pool.
These works of literature and others like them can be tough to read. They’re sad, and those who read them often find themselves feeling sad, too.
But as Aristotle wrote in Poetics, his famous essay on Greek drama, the purpose of tragedies is to “arouse sensations of pity and fear, and to purge [the audience] of these emotions so that they leave the theater feeling cleansed and uplifted, with a heightened understanding of the ways of gods and men.”
Anyone who’s ever listened to the blues knows how this works.
And yet, sometime over the last thirty or so years, tragedies fell out of fashion. Perhaps this is a result of the general backlash against anything even vaguely intellectual that’s run rampant in the U.S. for the past few decades, or maybe it happened as a consequence of the current trend of not making students read anything that might “trigger” their emotions.
Whatever the reason, in tragedy’s absence we have created a culture that worships at the altar of Hallmark, with all of its films’ hollow characters and contrived happy endings. As a society, we are perhaps more uncivil to one another than we have ever been. We kill one another in the streets; gun down schoolchildren in cold blood, and yet claim not to have the stomach to read Elie Wiesel’s Night.
It’s time we brought tragedies back.
We need to read and understand tragedies because they alone are capable of helping us understand the human condition in a way that evokes empathy. They can help us learn to forgive one another’s imperfections, and to recognize, even rail against, injustice, regardless of the sex or color of its victims. Tragedies teach us that life is unpredictable and unfair; time is precious; love and loyalty are often stronger than the forces that seek to undermine and destroy them, and that it’s possible to be resilient when confronted by forces beyond our control.
One of my favorite novels is Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I read it in my tenth grade English class and still think of it often. Set during the French Revolution, the book tells a dramatic story of true love, monstrous corruption, and unjust death in a way that only Dickens can. I cried when I made it to the end of the last page, not because the ending was sad, although it was, but because it felt all too real.