Hope and Tragedy in Life and Literature

June 01, 2012

Hope and Tragedy in Life and Literature

We normally use the word ‘tragedy’ to describe some serious setback that one experiences in life, of perhaps rather catastrophic proportions, that has within it an element of unfairness or injustice. When we think of the more specific dramatised tragedies that turn up on our theatrical stages, the examples that leap most readily to mind are those famous examples from William Shakespeare: Othello, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet. These are tragedies of a very specific and personal kind, and they are sustained before us over the length of the theatrical production. They involve various traits of character that are displayed and exposed over the course of the dramatisation, and people who make decisions—decisions which, because of their own strengths or weaknesses of character, draw them into patterns of disaster which overwhelm them, and seem disproportionate to the kind of persons and the lives they lived. 

Injustice and indifference 

The background to these tragedies, the very universe of which we are a part or the metaphysical order to which we belong, seems totally indifferent to this imbalance. This is at the very heart of our recognition and definition of the experience of tragedy, that it is disproportionate, and yet it has taken place. We ourselves seem to see this more adequately and more fairly, than the forces that are involved in the outcome of the tragedy.

 Or perhaps, worse, the background is not indifferent, but to some extent at least, malicious, contriving to bring things about. Those words appear in King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport’ (IV.i.32 37). Or again ‘This judgement of the heavens that makes us tremble, touches us not with pity’ (V.iii.244-5). One commentator, Clifford Leech, says this: 

The ‘justice’ of the gods, as seen in tragedy, is as terrible as their indifference: in fact we shall not see tragedy aright unless we recognize that the divine justice mirrored in it is an indifferent justice, a justice which cares no whit for the individual and is not concerned with a nice balance of deserts and rewards.

This feeling that the universe as a whole to which we belong is indifferent to justice and to fairness, is part of the constituent experience of tragedy.

shakespeare hamlet

Flawed and heroic

In our dramatic abstractions (and that of course is what these various literary productions are) we abstract from the whole surge and flow of life, and we lift out certain individuals and we study them close up for a sustained period of time. In doing this, we tend to portray our tragic victims in somewhat heroic proportions. This, of course, arises directly out of the feeling of the injustice involved, and therefore we look with sympathy at the figures involved. This is so even though they themselves may be contributing to the outcome of the event. They may be  complicit, as it were, whether innocently or indirectly, or through faults and failures of personal character. Either way they become involved in the catastrophic outcome of their actions, and contribute to the scale of the calamity that ends the story—but even so we recognise them as victims, to some extent. 

Leech, again, speaks in this regard of

an indifferent universe and certain characters who seem to demand our admiration. Whether the characters are comparatively blameless, like Hamlet… or deeply guilty, like Macbeth, we feel that they have a quality of mind that somehow atones for the nature of the world in which they and we live. They have in a greater or lesser degree, the power to endure and the power to comprehend: ultimately they are destroyed, but in all their sufferings they show an increasing readiness to endure, an even greater awareness. As the shadows gather around them, they stand up the more resolutely, they see the human situation with clearer eyes.3

So the portrayal of our victims in somewhat heroic proportions is larger or lesser as the figure is lesser or greater compromised in the way that they become involved in the outcome of the total tragedy.

Ordinary tragedy 

While these stage figures are large and somewhat heroic figures, the theme of tragedy does not demand this. Thomas Hardy in his novel writing, for instance, points us in the same direction. His Mayor of Casterbridge is a fairly ordinary man, for example, trapped in the weaknesses of his own character, aggravated by somewhat unhappy circumstances that bring him to the sadness and ruin of his own life. Nevertheless, he might appear somewhat more heroic than perhaps does Tess of the D’Urbervilles. She is a rather luckless innocent soul, whose decisions in life expose her to the follies and the villainies of others. Hardy’s scepticism takes us down the path of tragedy and makes us feel not just that tragedies happen, but that life itself is a theatre of tragedy. Not just in the contrived plots of his novels, but also and moreso in his poetry, he lets us feel that the progress of time, ending in death, diminishes joy and destroys hope, and to all of this, God is indifferent. Consider a little piece called ‘God’s Education’ by Hardy:

I saw him steal the light away
That haunted in her eye:
It went so gently none could say
More than that it was there one day
And missing by-and-by. 
I watched her longer, and he stole
Her lily tincts and rose; 
All her young sprightliness of soul
Next fell beneath his cold control,
And disappeared like those.
I asked: “Why do you serve her so? 
Do you, for some glad day, Hoard these her sweets—?” He said,
“O no, 
They charm not me; I bid Time throw
Them carelessly away.” 
Said I: “We call that cruelty -
We, your poor mortal kind.”
He mused. “The thought is new to me. Forsooth, though I men’s master be, Theirs is the teaching mind!"

This takes to the very heart of tragedy, that whereas the universe seems indifferent to the disproportion and injustice, we ourselves feel these things, and in a form of protest, as it were, we depict our tragic figures. 

In another poem Hardy notes the unfairness of the very aging process itself: 

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”
For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.
But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.5

The demise of my body, my skin, my appearance, runs ahead of me, shakes my ‘fragile frame at eve’, but inside remain the ‘throbbings of noontide’ and that discrepancy hurts and makes us feel that life itself, in the very pattern of its normalities, is never less than tragic.6

Life itself becomes the theatre of tragedy in writers of this kind. The direction of Hardy’s novels and poetry is to this tragic exposition of the normalities of life.

Journey to death

It is this journey to death, and death itself, that diminishes and finally breaks us. For all of life’s promise and prospects, its final pay-off is annihilated. It was Robert Frost who wrote a poem with that extraordinary title ‘Happiness must make up in height what it lacks in length’. In a very famous passage in the Antigone, Sophocles exposes the problem wonderfully:

Wonders are many on earth, and the greatest of these is man, who rides the ocean, and takes his way through the deeps, through the windswept valleys of perilous seas that surge and sway, he is master of ageless earth … he is lord of all things living—birds of the air, beasts of the field, all creatures of sea and land, he taketh, coming to capture them ensnare with sleight of hand … teaching the wild horse and the roaming ox his yoke to bear, the use of language, the windswift motion of brain, he learnt, found out the laws of living together in cities, building him shelter against the rain and wintery weather. There is nothing beyond his power, his subtlety meeteth all chance, all danger conquereth. For every ill he hath found its remedy, save only death.7

There is so much reminiscent in those lines of the 8th Psalm, one would almost have thought he’d had some access to it, but of course it’s the very data of life that brings the familiarity of those lines to mind. There is a particular prestige and significance that humans have, and a status we enjoy and privileges that are open to us, and horizons expand before us in our growing years. But we reach a time when those horizons start to contract, and we hear the toll of the bell that awaits us at the latter end. In part, of course, this lies behind the complaint of Qoheleth in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Given our pursuits after wisdom and learning, given our achievements in life, he expresses frustration that it should all end in death—‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ (Ecc 1:2, KJV). The broken dignity of man passes into the dust. There are many passages in prose and poetry and drama that illustrate this kind of theme, and apart from feeling disappointed and depressed by it, which is easy enough, there are times where we may feel angry about it and protest. In the words of Dylan Thomas: 

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day; 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.8

There is a felt unfairness, even an insult, in death, which demolishes so much that is good and full of promise. Death focuses at heart the very grief of a life that is so treated.

Responses to tragedy

Confronted with life and its many contradictions, and the final contradiction of death, I suggest there are three things that we may do.

We may expose the tragic character of life in some artistic production, and seek some catharsis or consolation from looking at it in a dramatised form. There, of course, the specific individual or groups that are isolated and the action is slowed down perhaps, and we’re able to watch and analyse the elements that are involved, and the contribution of the characters, to the fate that finally overwhelms them. Why do we take such interest and delight in these pastimes? Oxford English professor A.D. Nuttall argues with considerable strength that our enjoyment of tragedy and its artistic and aesthetic productions is itself a preparation for our own death.9

Or, of course, we might turn its subject matter—that is, the tragic aspect of life—into comedy, as we turn our anxieties into light-hearted pity for another, and we enjoy these of course. At the very looser end they are simply our cartoons, but even in their more comic forms, where the very thematic material of tragedy is treated comically.

Or perhaps, thirdly, we may escape into some novel or theatrical production of some kind or other which reaches a happy climax and stops there. We have a great fondness for happy endings. We like to come out of the movie theatre or turn off the television screen and feel that there is hope in life, and that there is promise, and that you can rest comfortably tonight; that Prince Charming has met Cinderella, and that they have fallen in love and will live happily ever after. I don’t want to be told that just after Cinderella and the Prince have left together she fell down a flight of stairs and finished up quadriplegic, and it proved too much of a strain for him so he left her, and that the whole thing ended in some tormenting finale that breaks your heart. We don’t want a sequel thank you very much; leave me where I was, clutching perhaps, some shred of hope from the end of the narrative.

In each of these ways, whether it is the pure observance of tragedy, or turning it into comedy, or escaping through some story which ends happily, in each of these ways I suspect we seek to warm ourselves at the fire that ultimately threatens to burn us, perhaps least of all the last of the options, but they are all ways, I think, in which we keep our self respect intact and keep despair at bay.

tragedy mask

Tragedy and hope

Within the literature of the Bible, all the above contradictions and severities are taken seriously.

This is not, from the bible’s point of view, the best of all possible worlds. It is the outside-Eden world where we live, and where we live out the consequences of our estrangement from God for our disobedience before God. We are dislocated creatures. As such, we are not at ease with God, or indeed with our neighbours, or indeed with our environment. We cannot do without all three, but we deny, or we dispute, or we mismanage, the relationships at each level. We are disengaged from God; we are strangers to one another, and to ourselves; and we are fragile and dangerous in a world that supports us but also threatens to destroy us. These are the raw ingredients that will provide us with sufficient material to compose and constitute the tragic dimensions of life.

The bible declares that God has come amongst us into this outside-Eden world with its contradictions and pending menaces; he has come amongst us in the person of his son, and he has done so as a man. He has placed himself at our side, sharing our environment and opening himself to its vulnerabilities. He has done for us, we are told in the message of the New Testament, what we could not do for ourselves. He has exhibited a love for his heavenly Father, and fulfilled that word which we never fulfilled—he has loved the Lord God with all his heart, soul, strength and mind and he also loved his neighbour as himself. And the portrait of both those dispositions of love is sufficient in the pages of the gospels—the reality of it and the eye witness character of the narratives themselves persuades us that we are looking at the real thing. As such, Jesus is the most discrepant individual of whom we can read anywhere, in any literature, in any time; here is the man after God’s own heart, whose fellowship with God is unflawed, and whose love for us is totally unqualified and undiminished, and he is the master of the environment in which he stands. For the first time, you might say, creation seems malleable in the hands of such a man, whereas it is stubborn and resistant in our own. And he exhibits and expresses all these things, in some deep sense, for our sakes, and yet we killed him. We killed him, and thereby we made him the very centre and heart, and you might say, the very definition and expression of tragedy itself: here is the man who knew no sin, done to death by sinful men. Here is the greatest miscarriage of justice. The pathetic performance of the trial before Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate doesn’t even touch the tragic proportions of the event itself: by the hands of lawless and wicked men he was crucified. It was the criminal on the cross who perceived this in the most extraordinary and unexpected circumstances, when Jesus’ life was ebbing away and there was nothing to commend him. It was that criminal who said ‘we suffer for our own deserts, but he, he has done nothing amiss’. Nothing deserving of death, there is no point in which he is complicit or compromised, there is nothing appropriate for that ending. He is discordant in his outside-Eden location. It is the Tree of Life to which he should have access, not the verdict of death to which he should submit. But he has done this willingly for our sakes.

byzantine painting

In Jesus, the ultimate contradiction of an heroic figure perishing in death is resolved. In him, the tragedy turns to triumph. The obedience that took Jesus to Calvary issues in a triumph over death wherefore God has highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name, and every knee shall bow and every tongue shall swear that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. In his own way, the criminal on the cross also affirmed this. He saw not only the contrast between himself and Jesus, but he said ‘Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom’. Already, as it were, he bowed the knee and stretched out his arms in faith to Jesus, Lord of all.

So Jesus passes through tragedy to triumph. It’s the peal of bells that rings right across the New Testament, not in the end some dreadful deep dark requiem, not mourning for the dead but the triumph for the living, where death has been taken captive. We may have, in the meantime, to bear the full weight of tragic experience, we may feel the discrepancies and incongruities and improprieties of life, but nothing, says the apostle Paul, can separate us from the love of God. Nothing in this world, or in the world to come, can do that, and it is his spirit that bears testimony with our spirit that we are the children of God, and that if we suffer with him then we shall also be glorified with him (Rom 8).

Finally, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection not only confirm the reality of tragedy, they affirm the escapist eschatology of the happy ending. And I must say that I am consciously aware as I watch Cinderella skip off stage that it is an eschatological moment. It is, of course, the reason why some people don’t like it, feeling this is not true to life. What is true to life is death: let the curtain fall on man’s contradiction and on the calamity of his ending, because that is life. But the biblical picture says no, that is not life; that’s the penultimate. There is an ending which is altogether to do with life and not death.

G. A. Studdart Kennedy left behind him these lines, and I share them with you as I close, in a poem called ‘If Jesus never lived’.10

SUPPOSE it is not true,
And Jesus never lived,
But only grew,
Like Aphrodite, from the foam
Of fancy—
From the sea
Of pure imagining, that frets
Within the soul eternally.
Suppose the Word was not made flesh,
But just another dream,
Which dwelt amongst us, only
As a gleam
Of glory from the land,
Where sand
Is gold, and golden sand
Shines bright beside the sapphire sea.

Suppose He never trod
This earth nor saw the sun,
Nor looked up to the skies,
That sinless one,
All spotless clean,
Untainted by man’s curse,
The might have been,
The ghost of good undone.
Suppose the gospel story lies,
What then? Why, then
There are no fairies
Any more For men,
The shore
Of fairyland is dry,
Unlapped by any sea.
All fancies die,
If Jesus never lived,
For living fancies need to be
The symbols of a Truth.
He is the door
By which we enter in
To wonderland.
By Christ’s strong sooth
Set free from sin,
Poor Cinderella weds her Prince,
As we long since
Were taught and may believe,
For God is found of those who seek,
Exalts the humble and the meek,
And puts the mighty from their seats,
In Christ.
Her tryst,
If Jesus never lived,
Is still unkept;
By those dead ashes where she wept
For Paradise,
She weeps on still,
And moans upon her fate;
The pumpkins still are pumpkins,
And the mice still mice;
Still by the cold and empty grate
She sits in rags and tears;
Through all the years—the empty years,
No fairy comes—nor ever will
If Jesus never lived.
In Christ’s pure light,
Fair Snowy-White
Can lift the coffin-lid,
And leave her tomb,
And vanquish all the gloom
Of death.
Because He lives
And gives
To Sleeping Beauty
One long kiss,
She opens her blue eyes and wakes,
Her sleep and shines for ever,
Beautiful in bliss.
There is no chance of childhood,
But for this
One Child of God, who knew
That childhood’s sweetest dreams
come true,
And was their Truth.

O live for me, Thou sinless one,
Cleanse Thou for me
The earth and sea,
Sweep all the clouds from off
The sky,
For fancies never, never die
If only Jesus lives. ©


1 This is an abridged version of a talk addressed to the Society for the Integration of Faith and Thought (SIFT), July 31st, 1997. Used with the kind permission of SIFT and the Smith family.
2 Clifford Leech, ‘The Implications of Tragedy,’ English Vol 6(34), 1947, p181.
3 Ibid. pp181f.
4 http://www.all-poetry.com/thomas-hardy/godseducation-17358
5 http://www.all-poetry.com/thomas-hardy/i-lookinto-my-glass-17422
6 In a very famous piece, ‘The Darkling Thrush’, Hardy exposes the same tension. The bird seems to sing of hope in the midst of so much that depresses, but Hardy himself does not feel the echo within himself. (http://www.all-poetry.com/thomashardy/darkling-thrush-17756)
7 http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/antigone.html
8 From The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (New York: New Directions, 2010).
9 A.D. Nuttall, Why does tragedy give pleasure? (Oxford: OUP, 2001).
10 From The Unutterable Beauty: The Collected Poetry of G. A. Studdert Kennedy. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1927).

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