Tragedy has been a key part of literature since Cain killed Abel. Whether the work has just one theme or several story lines and sub-plots, the common element is some series of events that are unpleasant, dangerous or sorrowful. The main characters work to overcome these events
Novelists have often used tragedy to get rid of characters they’ve tired of or just don’t know what to do with. But rather than just using tragedy for convenience, creating some conflict or raising the stakes for a protagonist, are there other uses for tragedy in a story
I’ve come up with three.
First, tragedy points to our sense that life has a purpose.
The reason we consider an untimely death a tragedy is because we sense that person hasn’t fulfilled their purpose, that reason we were put here that is bigger than our own wants or whims.
This is one reason murder mysteries have been so enduringly popular. Lives are cut short, but the murderer does come to justice. We feel he must be caught, as the murder was also theft of the time the victim was deprived of. Who knows what that person might have done in life had they not been struck down?
Then there is the pain brought by the tragedy, pain that leads us to wonder why we suffer. Did we bring this on ourselves, or are we pawns in some cosmic game?
Just asking the questions brings more pain—and more questions. Is there a purpose in all this suffering? And if there is, what is it? And Who gave it to us?
Second, tragedy can explore the decisions made in trying circumstances.
Many of the great tragedies depict people caught in complicated moral dilemmas. Any choice they make will lead to heartache or trouble for someone.
Third, tragedy can show us our own fatal flaws.
Often in literature we can see the protagonist headed for trouble. His own fatal flaw prevents him from avoiding the disaster that brings great suffering. His own errors bring on the suffering.
Fiction can do a wonderful job showing us the mistakes of others, that maybe we can avoid. Maybe our mistakes wouldn’t lead to the downfall of an entire civilization or lead to the destruction of a planet. But through the example of others, we can learn how refusing to take advice or over-estimating our own abilities can lead to calamity.
One great example of tragedy that does all three is the death of Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Harry and his friends are in a battle for their lives, and Sirius and some others have come to rescue them.
At one point, Harry is intrigued by an arch in the middle of the room. It doesn’t seem to lead anywhere, but when he stands on one side of it, he hears voices calling to him. His friends pull him away, sensing nothing good will happen if Harry walks through the arch.
Later, in the heat of the battle, Sirius is wounded and falls through the arch and disappears. Only later does Harry learn that Sirius had died.
Here we see the tragedy of Sirius’ death: he didn’t fulfill his purpose as Harry’s godfather, to guide him through increasingly dark times. Sirius, however, was there to rescue Harry from danger, knowing full well it could mean his own demise. Love and loyalty triumphed over self-preservation.
And Harry later had to face up to the fact that none of them would have been there in mortal danger had he listened to advice and thought before he acted.
But Sirius’s death wasn’t completely without meaning, Harry learns. Sirius did what he knew he had to do, to fulfill his role as Harry’s guardian, even to the death.
And the voices Harry heard were those who’d died and gone on before, waiting for the living to join them. Death, Harry was told, was nothing to fear, that it is like passing through a door.
Tragedy, then can be used to explore questions of the meaning of suffering and life itself, to explore the consequences of choices made when faced with moral dilemmas, or to show us our own flaws and how they can lead us into failure.
How have you seen tragedy used in fiction? Or used it yourself in your writing?