Books, movies, and even video games often find their ends made of tragedies — and all the more loved for it. Lit fic classics — from Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath to the works of Edgar Allan Poe thrive off murders and things going downhill.
So let’s talk — why have these tragedies (many carrying slightly outdated themes) stood the test of time while still continuing to hit readers just as hard?
Unfair, Hopeless, and Your Fucking Fault
I’ve also seen particularly Greek tragedies romanticized recently, mostly in Madeline Miller’s retellings and the more recent, Ariadne. With Greek tragedies, there’s often this deep sense of unfairness — he was so young, she did nothing wrong. There’s also a sense of hopelessness because often it is the gods that cause it and the gods that are the only ones who could have stopped it. As said best in a JUVEN post on Hadestown, we all go in thinking “Maybe it will end differently this time.”
It won’t — Orpheus will always look back, and while the show is about hope, tragedy is paved in mistakes.
Aristotle said hubris must be a downfall in a true tragedy, and I agree because mistakes are what make a tragedy undoing.
Titanic is tragic in a loose sense of the world, but mistakes — where there was this way that a character — perhaps a self-destructive tragedy in a video game — builds their own undoing, are the foundation of tragedy.
It is the sheer unfairness of it all that creates a deep sense of hopelessness or mistakes where, no, nothing will ever be okay, yes, it is the characters’ fault.
More modern tragedies — think Bridge to Terabithia -- still provide the sense of hopelessness because it was Leslie’s youth that was her undoing (Achilles vibes, anyone?), this: I’m young, just you watch, nothing can hurt me -- and then it does. There’s also the fact that it was her own fault, as much as an unsupervised child can be blamed.
Something Honest For Once
Everyone's going to go through something terrible at some point. That death, that break-up, that job not working out. Life can be hard sometimes, and I've found it's actually the people in those rougher patches that pick up tragedies the most. Most of it has to do with relatability — when you’re in that rough patch, a story about a spiraling life feels more honest than an against-the-odds happy ever after the show.
Shakespeare’s tragedies often offer this out-of-control feeling, where events just spiral and spiral and characters consistently make the worst possible decisions (looking at you, Hamlet buddies) — and there’s something so satisfying about that. A sad person probably won’t make the best choice, won’t get to returning that phone call, get to helping that other person — and tragedies offer that at its worst. There’s horror at what they are and sometimes sick understanding, and honestly, I think self-created tragedies are so important to reflect on with a mirror. A stretch perhaps, but maybe they even provide this sense of satisfaction that at least the reader isn’t in that mess.
The needless deaths in modern tragedy and those unavoidable in classics are also important because sometimes bad things happen, and it’s deeply wrong and unfair, but it is as it is.
As someone who makes efforts to be an avid reader of classics (mostly European, so if you have any tragic classics from other cultures, please drop a comment!), I find that many begin or end in tragedy — just as much tragic backstory as terrible ends.
Greek tragedies would give you extraordinary, but relatable men molded into terrible circumstances and actions, and Greek mythology would give you martyrs of boys that are weapons or girls that just want to be free, and this embodies tragedy because we have all been there.
We have all, or will, look in the mirror after something terrible and be afraid of what we see, or we will grieve in a helpless and cold world, and that’s when we remember, not only that we are not alone, but that we are better.
We can find new meanings and make active efforts to not become our worst selves, and that’s where tragedy — the place where characters don’t — becomes soothing.
is a high school student in New Jersey. She likes (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and is always up to learn something new! Find her on Instagram at @writing_stoot.